Lessons in Sales for Startups


Salespeople are an anomaly.  Under the right conditions (right compensation structure, right management team, right product portfolio, right customer or territory, etc.), they are confident enough to put more than half of their expected annual compensation on the line.  There are few other places in the corporate world where compensation is so closely aligned with performance.  No sales equals no commissions, big sales equates to big commissions.  Getting to those big sales; however, is no easy task.



Successful salespeople are trusted advisors.  Salespeople have to be able to challenge the norm and find creative ways to solve problems, create new opportunities, help drive their customer’s business or change the customer’s behavior with the products and services they sell.  In this capacity, they are seen as trusted advisors and consultants instead of walking, talking product brochures.  Anyone can create a spreadsheet to compare features and prices, but few can negotiate and sell billions worth of products or services.

Trust is the only silver bullet in salesFrom a global point of view, sales methodologies and strategies will be very different based on social structures, customs, philosophies, educational systems, cultural influences, familial influences, etc.  Provided that salespeople understand and accommodate these differences, the one thing that breaks down barriers, creates lasting relationships and provides for future opportunities is trust.  Hard to obtain, easy to lose, this is a salesperson’s currency.

Salespeople can spend their entire career focused on a single customer, or group of customersCareers that span decades and include working for multiple companies can be entirely focused on a single customer.  This is especially true when those customers have long histories and spend billions of dollars in capital every year.  In these cases, salespeople can bring in hundreds of millions of high margin dollars year after year.

Selling to executives is different than selling to engineers.  Executives are strategic and concerned about why or in what way your product or service helps to increase market share, increase revenue, increase margin profiles, gain new customers, etc.  Executive sales typically revolve around solving business challenges and lead to business interdependencies.  Engineers are tactical and tend to focus on how your product or service relates to reliability, scalability, performance, management, etc.  Engineering sales typically revolve around technological challenges and lead to problem resolution.

Bridging the gap between the executives and engineers is invaluable.  In many cases, “helping” the executives and engineers to speak the same language is a daunting task, but once mastered, can make the salesperson or sales engineer invaluable.  You have to glue the what, why and how together.  Examples could include explaining how your product’s scalability relates to increasing market share, how your product’s price points will increase margin on new services delivered, etc.  Now, when the two sit down for a meeting, hopefully it will be easier for them to find common ground.

Align your product or service with your customer’s priorities and goals.  This seems like common sense, but sometimes it’s harder to do than expected.  If it clearly states in your target customer’s annual report that executive compensation will be dependent upon increasing market share by 5%, clearly you should be selling ways to accomplish this goal with your product or service.  On the other hand, it may have been more difficult to find out that the network operations team bonus was dependent upon achieving 99.999% network availability.  Salespeople that can help customers achieve business objectives and achieve personal objectives, especially those tied to compensation, are usually welcomed with open arms.

Salespeople are hired guns.  This isn’t meant to be negative or imply a lack of loyalty or commitment.  Salespeople, especially salespeople who have worked on a single account or group of accounts for their entire career, would rather leave your company than lose their customer’s trust trying to sell a mediocre product or service.  As long as the salesperson believes in your product or service and is compensated for their effort, their loyalty is yours.  The moment your product or service declines to a point that they can no longer maintain trust selling it or the moment you cut off their compensation, they’ll leverage their trust and contacts to get new jobs, with stellar customer references in hand.

Whether or not you have a salesperson’s contact list, meeting notes, etc., is irrelevant.  Just because you have a customer’s contact information doesn’t mean they’ll pick up the phone or respond to your email.  People do business with people they trust.  Business-to-business relationships are fragile and, in most environments, there will always be competitors “waiting in the wings” to take over the business you lost.  This is especially true in environments where there is little differentiation across the competitive landscape and products or services can be replaced with little effort.

Salespeople that create value become invaluable.  This is applicable within your organization and within the customer’s organization.  A salesperson that knows the customer inside and out, knows how your product drives their business and delivers high margin revenues year after year, is invaluable to your company.  A salesperson that becomes a strategic resource and trusted advisor, solving business and technical problems, becomes an invaluable resource for the customer.

As a startup, one of the most important, and expensive, hires you’ll have to make is going to be your vice president of sales.  If you have no sales experience, or have limited exposure to salespeople, this is really going to confuse you.  One of the big reasons why this will confuse you is universities rarely touch upon sales as a subject, or as a profession, and the image you probably conjure up is the “used car salesman.”  If you know better, that image couldn’t be further from the truth.

As a startup, you want a salesperson that has great relationships, can set appropriate expectations and can articulate value in the face of adversity.  It’s likely that the early versions of your product will be less than perfect and your salesperson will have to keep customers engaged, interested, and ready to buy when the time is right.

In our opinion, the coupling of rock star engineers with rock star salespeople is a recipe for success.  One without the other becomes problematic.  You may have the greatest product in the world, but if you can’t sell it . . .  Or you may have the greatest salesperson in the world, but you have no product . . .  Hopefully you get the picture.

Reprinted by permission.

About the author: Dr. Jim Brinksma

Prior to founding Visible Arbitrage, Dr. Jim Brinksma launched Business Information Technology Solutions, Shellback Research, and Shellback Labs. He also held positions as Vice President at Goldman Sachs & Co., Sr. Director of Systems Engineering at Ciena Corporation, Sr. Systems Engineer at Cyras Systems, Network Engineer at Enkido, and served in the United States Navy during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Jim’s doctoral dissertation at University of Maryland covered “Public Market Signals as a Guide for Entrepreneurs Seeking Venture Capital Investment”. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in Information Systems Management from University of Maryland, completed the Strategy and Innovation Program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and completed the Non-Profit Board Leadership Program at Harvard Business School.

Jim has global experience and has provided a range of services to entrepreneurs, venture capital firms, hedge funds, institutional banks, service providers, equipment manufacturers, and non-profits.

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