Hiring Sales Talent for Your Start Up? Look for More than Just Great Selling Skills

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Kyler is considering leaving his cushy sales job at an established company to sell for a startup. Will he be successful?

There’s reason for asking. Kyler’s skills are in hot demand. According to a recent article in Forbes Magazine, The Four Skills that Will Get You Hired by a Start Up, sales experience tops the list. “Most startups, whether they’re consumer-facing or B2B, are selling something and as such need effective salespeople. . . There just aren’t enough enthusiastic salesmen to go around, making this a qualified candidate’s market.” Go Kyler!

Can he make the leap? In his current job, Kyler prospects for new leads, qualifies opportunities, manages the sales process, and closes deals. Startups need people who can do the same things. This is a tad misleading though, like comparing freshwater fish to saltwater fish by saying both swim, lay eggs, and live in water. Plunk a creature from a freshwater habitat into the ocean, and you’ll observe that it doesn’t flourish. So if you’re a fish, simply being in water doesn’t count for much unless the chemistry matches your DNA.

Same for salespeople. The wrong environment can be suffocating, to say the least. And when it comes to selling products and services, it’s hard to find two environments more different than established companies and startups.

1. Startup salespeople wear multiple hats. Marketing department? What marketing department? Unlike larger companies, startups don’t partition job functions with crisp boundaries. A salesperson needs to be as adept at creating marketing collateral and writing blogs as meeting face-to-face with prospective customers and developing tactical account plans.

2. Startup customer references are scarce. Customer word-of-mouth marketing can be a powerful sales tool—when you have it. Established companies build strategies on it. “Our satisfied customers are our greatest sales asset.” But at startups, salespeople engage with prospects every day minus a trove of non-fiction customer success stories.

3. Prospects can be risk-averse about buying from startups. For some prospects, substitute terrified for risk-averse and you’ll have a better concept of the intensity. And while not every prospect shares his or her anxiety, it’s often manifest in other ways, like uncontrollable quivering. As a result, startup salespeople are practiced at saying “as a customer of our company, you’re not ‘just another account’ like you are with MegaCorp.” And they are absolutely correct.

4. Startup sales processes and pricing are often created on the fly—a great advantage for those comfortable with improvisation. When you’re not constrained by it’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it myopia, you can run circles around your sales process-bound competitors. On the other hand . . . in the heat of the decision moment, a sales rep who is accustomed to conforming to how things have been done in the past will resemble a deer in headlights.

5. Startups deal with copious amounts of sales trial and error. No biggie, but at startups, that approaches a 1:1 ratio. One company I worked for had developed a custom software solution for A lumber distributor (emphasis on the A!), and they wanted to sell that project as packaged software to a broad market which I’ll call—drum roll, please—lumber distributors! At first, we viewed that market as a single, undifferentiated group. I could create a massive PowerPoint detailing the nuances of lumber distribution, but mercifully, I have ditched the idea. For brevity, I’ll only say that while lumber wholesalers and lumber retailers both sell wood, they bear little in common operationally. Believe it or not, it took us quite a while, and a lot of selling expense, to figure that out.

6. Startup sales-cycles and projected sales rep OTE (on-target earnings) are SWAG’s—if that. Ah, yes! You knew it would be on the list, especially after all that trialing-and-erroring (see #5). To paraphrase from another context, “when you’re selling for a startup, the best way to make a small fortune is to begin with a large one.” It might take several quarters before realizing a payoff—when the first prospects become customers, and a salesperson deposits her first commission checks. No point for any party to get started if they can’t sustain the sales effort over the long haul.

Will Kyler be able to swim with the sharks as a sales rep for a startup company? Can he give up the resources his current employer provides, including his sales-qualified marketing-generated leads, ample customer references, and shiny promotional collateral? Can he go it alone without his annual three-day selling skills workshop and the trainer-provided Sales Process Roadmap on compact disc, still hermetically sealed in its original vinyl sleeve? What about trips to Aruba for making Club, and his more-or-less dependable commission checks? Probably gone, until his startup employer has the enviable problem of tripping over its own success, just like the large monolithic competitors it intends to upend.

Equally important, what should employers look for in startup sales talent? If we believe the Forbes article, we’d look for a “heavy hitter,” a strong “hunter” who can “close the deal.” It’s all good. But I’d be most comfortable with a candidate who also has startup success in his sales DNA.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

1 COMMENT

  1. It’s also imperative for managers to realize that experience isn’t everything. Sure, it helps to show whether they’ve been successful in the past. But selling structures vary from company to company, so it’s not necessarily a testament to their likelihood for success with your company. It’s also important to remember that it takes time for a candidate to become successful. According to Hireology’s CEO Adam Robinson, it takes six months for a B2B salesperson to become effective in a new role. http://resources.hireology.com/how-to-hire-salespeople

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