As a startup founder in a new market, you confront perhaps the most daunting hurdle of all: figuring out how to turn your product into sales. Sometimes, a product draws the market with such power that the organisation is inundated with inbound enquiries, but this is extremely rare and comes with the mistaken assumption that bottom-up adoption means there is no requirement for sales. When a product is released in an emerging market, it usually lands with a dull thud, and the corporation has to figure out how to sell it.
For companies in pre-chasm markets, how do they transition from “searching” for product-market fit to really establishing a sales organisation around a repeatable sales process? How can founders frame, navigate, and avoid the frequent mistakes of designing the sales process in their companies?
Rethink what you mean when you say "sales"
You may or may not be persuading someone to buy something by using the phrase “selling,” which has a negative connotation. As a result, early-stage company owners prefer to recruit salespeople who are overly “salesy,” because no one can resist their charm?
But selling isn’t about persuading people to buy. It’s not even about selling to clients who will pay for it. Early market sales should focus on finding a few key customers with the internal fortitude to collaborate with a startup, launch an unproven product, and weather the inevitable setbacks. This means customers who share the company’s and product’s vision. Founders or early executives are the only ones who can properly articulate the company’s ethos, the technical landscape the product will enter, the product’s technical underpinnings, and the industry’s strategic position and vision.
In the early stages of a market, this approach to sales is critical for new businesses. Product-market fit can only be achieved by close collaboration between sales and all the other stages of product development, from concept to launch to post-launch feedback. No one can sell your product if you are not the product visionary or CEO of the company, and that’s because you’re selling it to the wrong people for the wrong reasons and causing difficulties later on.
The first salesperson does not actually sell
This is a no-brainer. The product, market, and client could all be examined in detail if they aren’t convinced by the sales pitch, even if the salesperson doesn’t know how to negotiate a price or how to handle the procurement process.
There is a longstanding debate on who should be the first salesperson hired. In order to bring you in front of the correct person, a skilled “first sales rep” will reverse engineer the org chart, uncover strategic projects that are aligned with the product, and sniff out budget and champions within the company. If you need assistance with procurement or negotiating a price, you can count on them. Their role is not to “sell,” though; that is the responsibility of the company’s founder.
Tips for Entrepreneurs in Early Markets
However, sales representatives do not need to be technical; rather, early market sales representatives should be capable of the following:
- Qualifying customers and deals (determining whether there is a genuine opportunity).
- Securing budget (remember, in early markets, there may be no established budget line).
- Mapping the target organisation (identifying key decision-makers and stakeholders).
- Bringing in reinforcements (startup founders, product managers, etc.) at the right time.
- Navigating procurement and pricing.
When it comes to salespeople, there are two types: newcomers and veterans. Existing ties can be leveraged by an experienced market salesperson to close deals. With limited resources, you don’t want to sell to a consumer who doesn’t appreciate what you have to offer. If you’re still holding on to them, you’ve given yourself the wrong market signal. As a pre-chasm startup, “buying” your way into a client base is risky because you don’t know who your first customers will be.
Sales enablement is just as crucial as the actual sales process
Hire a strong product marketer after you’ve employed your first few sales representatives and engineers. Why? When it comes to sales enablement—arming the sales force with materials to help them sell—product marketers have a lot of responsibility.
They will develop the sales “pitch” over hundreds of sessions, explaining why their product is the best and why now is the best moment to buy it (with the account reps and SEs). But tacit knowledge isn’t beneficial in growing a sales process. That’s where product marketing comes in: It’s the function tasked with distilling complex issues into simple, repeated messages. A product marketer will have more context to create positioning — and sales collateral — that will be used to regulate sales team discussions and ensure everyone is selling the same thing to the right people.
So when to engage a VP of sales?
Before closing a single deal, many startups recruit a senior sales executive who spends most of their time setting up and implementing a process that anticipates scale. When that too-early recruit leaves (and they nearly always do), the organisation loses time, opportunity, and culture. Because a sales staff lacking oxygen will market things the company isn’t developing, pressuring the product manager and developers to fast-track or implement that “one feature that will close the deal”, or sell to individuals who don’t need your product.
A strong VP of sales builds teams and implements processes. They’re also good at optimising contract value, managing a pipeline, and determining when to expand into new territories. There are sales executives that can simultaneously generate sales and scale a team, but they are rare. You shouldn’t recruit a good sales leader until you have a few generating reps. The opposite is usual and rarely works.
In the end, sales begin with the company’s founders. There is no guarantee that anybody else will succeed in selling the product if the company’s founders can’t do it (or at least convince a client to do so).
A lack of sales is rarely a problem that can be solved by recruiting more salespeople or relying on others to do the selling for you. If your product isn’t a good fit for the market, don’t believe that more sales or a new sales lead would fix it. To be successful in the early stages of a market, it’s critical to strike the correct balance between using incremental sales as a means of entering the market and as a measure of how well the product and customer are aligned.