“How do we find a good sales person?” is a question I get asked almost every day here at MaRS. The assumption being that hiring someone experienced, someone with lots of contacts in the segment, who thrives on carrying a quota, who isn’t terrified but rather excited to make a cold call or a pitch, someone in short whose job is revenue will get the company to break-even more quickly. In many cases, this assumption is wrong.

I’ve led sales in two start-up situations. In the first, we quickly found a value proposition that resonated with our chosen customers and a sales process that worked.  It was a fast-growing market and success was about scaling the team and managing activity so that we’d capture an “unfair” share of that growth.  We did.

In the second, we had a great product and some early-adopter customers but we hadn’t found a value proposition that worked for the market segment as a whole. I hired great experienced sales people from the sector; armed them with good tools and sent them out to grow the business. They failed. I failed. All the professional sales methodologies and sales management skills I’d learned since the first time were useless or even counterproductive.  They were skills for optimizing a working process in a company that had found what Marc Andreessen calls “product/market fit“. We hadn’t.  We were trying to execute and refine a process for selling a value proposition that the market didn’t want.

Eventually, we learned. The hard way.

What we learned were the broad strokes of what has been distilled, developed and clarified by Steven Blank, a serial entrepreneur and now professor at Stanford and Haas/Berkley, in his “Customer Development” process. The process has four steps:

Customer Development

  1. Customer Discovery, where a start-up tests its hypothesis about a customer’s problem and their proposed solution.
  2. Customer Validation, where a start-up develops, tests and iterates until it finds a repeatable and scalable sales process.
  3. Customer Creation, where a company’s focus turns from finding demand to creating it in order to scale revenue.
  4. Company Building, where a company transitions from an organization designed for learning and flexibility into a one engineered for execution.

If your start-up has demonstrated product/market fit and has a tested and repeatable sales model, by all means hire an experienced sales pro from an established organization in your target market. They are likely to be just what you need in steps three and four.

But if, like many start-ups, you are still searching for that repeatable sales model then you need someone to focus on steps one and two. Often this will be your job as the founder/CEO. Get out of your office and meet with potential customers: pitch, listen, learn, repeat.  If you aren’t comfortable absolutely can’t do this you need to look for someone who is excited about finding a winning model rather than executing it.  It’s a tough search,  that will often take you out of the ranks of sales professionals into adjacent spaces like business development, product marketing or product management, but it will greatly increase your chances of success.

For more on hiring and keeping your sales folks productive, join us this Friday, September 24th at noon for the free Best Practices session, “Strategies for Managing Sales Teams: How to find, select and compensate these critical hires.”

Mark Zimmerman

Mark Zimmerman has been working in the information and communication technology industry for more than 15 years. He’s worked with some of the biggest companies in the industry, but he’s also worked with very early stage start-ups—so he knows what it’s like to be in an entrepreneur’s shoes. See more…