Sales for Startups: Guiding Principles in Hiring Salespeople



How should you go about the process when hiring sales reps?

When it comes to hiring salespeople in startups, there is a lot of built up common knowledge:

Do not hire salespeople until you are ready.
Do not hire a VP of sales as your first sales hire.
Do not hire salespeople straight out of big corporations.
Do not hire MBAs as salespeople.
Do not hire commission-only salespeople.

The list goes on and on about what not to do and how not to hire. While this advice is useful, is it always the right advice? And, more importantly, how is a startup founder supposed to hire salespeople?

Recruiting and hiring is incredibly hard for any field but especially hard for sales talent. You want to find the right people with the right skills and experience that fit your culture. But you also face competition; you have a limited budge, and the pool of candidates may be tight.

Then there is your own internal process to vet candidates: figure out the right fit and create a compelling story that gets salespeople excited to come on board. And to further confound things, most people have not the slightest clue as to how to evaluate sales talent, which in many ways is much harder to evaluate than programming skills or design talent.

Why are salespeople tough to evaluate? Because there is a vast gap between the ideal of what makes a great salesperson and what actually comprises the qualities of a top salesperson. Furthermore, we have a very poor understanding as to what even comprises the right skills for sales and often do not recognize those skills can differ widely based on the type of product being sold as well as the purpose of the role, the company culture and the overall industry.

To put it another way, we tend to hire sales for looks, not skills.

You will protest, but, more often than not, we fall into obvious sales tropes. We often hire the outwardly personable and pleasant, generally more attractive person over the more introverted, augmentative and less attractive person, even when past results dictate otherwise. Sure, this happens in other fields, but not to the extent it influences sales hires. It is easy to evaluate outward appearances and much harder to assess innate skills and motivations.

One of the biggest and most pervasive of fallacies is to believe you need a relationship-driven salesperson. If you have read “The Challenger Sale,” however, you will understand such sales reps are the poorest of performers. Large rolodexes (yes, I know the term is an anachronism), whale accounts, high-priced lifestyles, inability to go deep into sales process or methodology, reliance on network over process—all are signs of the “relationship” rep.

The problem is, these days, no one buys because they like the sales rep. Buyers are much more educated about products, negotiation tactics and purchasing strategies. They do not need golf outings or free meals; they need people that can bring value and add substance to the conversation.

As damaging as these hiring fallacies may be in coloring our thinking, more troubling is our fixation on weaknesses. You often get the advice to not hire job hoppers or people that have had long gaps in employment history or who are not proven closers. But when you analyze each of these reasons, they are not based upon any research or data or even common sense. They simply reflect people’s own biases.

For example, where do “closers” generally come from? Do they go to college for “sales”? Are certain people naturally gifted at selling? It is simply nonsense, and, like any skill, requires training and practice to become effective. Some people will obviously excel over others, but that is a very small percentage of talent within a particular environment.

The real reason for poor sales performance is usually not that the salesperson was not skilled enough, but that the processes to support the rep were shoddy. The exceptional rep might be able to overcome a weak organization and poor process, but the average rep will have no chance in hell to succeed.

At some point I will get more into specifics, in terms of actionable advice on recruiting, hiring and onboarding of salespeople. As I am going through the process myself with Enhatch, it is a timely topic.

My goal now, though, is to hopefully dispel some of the general myths regarding hiring salespeople in startups and give you some food for thought when you read much of the generic “sales advice” that is floating about the Internet. So when someone says, “Do not do that,” challenge that advice, and sure enough you will find there is little substance to support those assumptions.

This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.

Image credit: CC by Hartwig HKD

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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