• September 6, 2016

Started From the Bottom Now We’re Here – Advice on Building a Sales Team

Start-ups. I’ve lived through the process from start to finish twice, and I am here to tell my tale. (Of course, I’m at it again with Spiro, building our amazing AI-Powered CRM.)

One of the questions I’m asked frequently is how to scale and build a sales team from the bottom up. More specifically – what roles do you need at each stage and who should be in charge?

Let’s focus on the two earliest stages because they’re probably the most challenging. As an old professor of mine said, “it’s a big difference between zero and one.”

Stage 0: Who Are We Anyways?

You’re starting from zero – it’s just you and maybe one or two other people on board. It may seem daunting and virtually impossible to go from there to the stage where you have a product you can actually sell. You may be mulling over the idea of hiring sales engineers. Well, DON’T.

That experience of being part of the development process is crucial.  This is the time that you are defining what your company is and what exactly you can offer.

Years ago, when I created my CRM marketing company, Inoveer, I was thrown into the mix with no ground to stand on when it came to competing against the big boys. The first thing we had to do was get some stellar clients to vouch for us, and we had to do it fast.

For those first three months I called everyone I knew, doing hit or miss pitches until it morphed into a few good ideas. We trimmed a lot of fat and ultimately came up with a streamlined angle that won us our first big customer: Reynolds, makers of tin foil.

We were on, what felt like, the millionth version of our pitch when we finally broke through. We won it by selling them on the fact that our company was a specialized firm that could deliver projects much more quickly than the firm they were working with at that time, Accenture.

We had a highly functional team doing projects at a fraction of the cost in half the time.

Our pitch worked because it was simple, yet effective – we had an angle that defined us and a customer who appreciated our value.

It doesn’t have to be earth shattering, but finding that right message is key – and this was the one that resonated the most.

Stage 1: Grow Your Reference Base

After you’ve solved the integral market fit question, most startups then turn their attention to scale: working on a marketing campaign, hiring more staff, etc.

Pump the brakes! Now is the time to be focusing on building a reference base.  

You’re nobody until you’re somebody. It sounds like circular reasoning, but there is truth to it. Without a good group of clients vouching for you, you’re just another nobody.

It’s important to not only have references, but to have the RIGHT references. You need to find ones that help mold you and lead you to prospects who are the correct fit. So how do you figure out just who to target?

Begin by describing your ideal client.

Make this a brainstorming exercise and whiteboard a list of your dream buyer.  A sort of “want ad” description of all the qualities you desire.  Then think back to your experiences in defining your angle during Stage Zero. What worked? What didn’t? Any key metrics that came out of that process in perfecting your pitch?

What you decide to focus your attention on depends on your market. For example, at Inoveer, we mainly looked at the size of a company, their CRM platform, and how big the things were that they were selling.

It can seem like an uphill battle to convince people to buy your product when you’re a new startup. In our case, we had to convince companies to buy our mission-critical, middleware software.  We were looking for that one great reference to keep us going. And then we started to work with Freddie Mac –  an organization that transacted billions of dollars worth of mortgages over our platform – and everything changed.

We now had our dream buyer to overcome our number one challenge in the sales process.

We became name-dropping pros, pointing out that Freddie Mac was our customer to anyone who wanted to listen. To deepen our relationship with them even more, we put one of their key employees on our customer advisory board and made sure the technical support they received was our finest work.

They were a key reason for our success.

Let the Hiring Process Begin!

You now have a clear picture of your target buyer and a focused vision of what you are selling.

The next stage is scaling – take this time to hire more BDRs and boost your marketing efforts. And once you have a solid reference base, you’ll know you’re ready to move to the next stage.

As a former salesman, and three time start-up entrepreneur, I consider myself very goal-focused. Take the time to set the proper goals by asking yourself some important questions: What do you envision your sales team looking like? What specific roles do you need? Who will be doing the selling? The answers all depend on what you’re trying to achieve.

You can’t build a solid structure without a solid foundation. Keep that in mind when starting a team from the ground up  – give it the best foundation possible. Fit your market by testing out a variety of pitches until you see what clicks and then go after your ideal buyer to build a good reference base.

Start with your feet on solid ground and you’ll go far!

A version of this post originally appeared on The InsightSquared Blog.