Some roles at a startup attract a lot of attention.
It goes without saying that everyone wants to be a ‘Founder’ and, whether a Founder or not, other jobs high on the hip list include CEO, Lead Engineer, Head of Product, and any job title that includes the term ‘Growth Hacker.’
However, a role that is consistently underappreciated is that of sales. Too often the ‘Head of Sales’ is given a lowly status that carries a slight whiff of pariah.
This is a huge mistake
Speaking as an entrepreneur: selling is the single most important thing that a Founder must be able to do.
Speaking as a VC: I couldn’t consider backing a team where there wasn’t at least one natural-born-killer salesperson on the founding team. In fact, on many of the best teams, there’s more than one.
What Selling Actually Means
In my mind, there are three key components to sales in the broadest sense of the word:
-First, is the creation of a narrative that enables an audience to instantly connect with and understand the values and journey of a company, while providing a basic introduction to the product (or to whatever is being sold).
-Second, there’s the actual delivery of this narrative in a variety of contexts to a variety of people – from during an elevator ride to a crucial new hire or during your three week IPO roadshow to detail-oriented investors.
-And, last but not least, there’s the closing – asking for and getting engagement as a result of your delivery of your company’s narrative.
And by engagement I mean anything like making an actual sale to a client, securing investment from a VC, persuading a top-level hire deciding to join your company, or something completely different. Just anything where you’ve had to sweat to persuade a valuable party to choose you ahead of the competition.
How Selling Fits into the Job of a CEO
One of the things that makes selling so important (and therefore so useful) is that it is critically important to multiple stages of a company’s growth.
1) Early days – hiring
In the early days of most companies, one of the hardest things that any Founder faces is hiring. Chances are that you can’t afford to pay big bucks – or even average bucks. And you don’t yet have a successful company, brand or product that people want to be part of. All you have is your ability to sell the vision.
I have met many aspiring Founders who have a great idea, and ask us for initial funding so they can hire a technology person to implement it. To me, anyone who has to have money first doesn’t get it. A great founder convinces someone great who already has a well-paid job to give it up, and start a new madcap adventure. I want to see that a founder has already convinced someone to make an irrational decision – as behind every irrational decision, there tends to be a great salesperson.
2) As you grow – raising capital
This is the point of the story when you come to see me, or one of my peers. Most successful technology companies take at least one round of funding during their growth. Even if a company could be bootstrapped throughout, the competitive nature of their market often means that extra resource allows them to grow more quickly, and to win the race.
Selling is key in raising capital both because you have to sell the investor you are trying to land (obviously!), but also because any good investor is going to be closely watching your ability to sell. The fact is, most investors know that you will have further rounds of investment in the future, and/or an exit of some sort. They will also know that Founders with great selling skills will be better at doing those things, and will get a premium on the company when it sells (no, that isn’t fair, but such is life…)
3) As you grow – actual selling
Whatever the model, if you run a for-profit business, someone somewhere pays you money.
In the long run, you will employ a large, well-trained sales force to run this process, presided over by Sales VPs and Chief Revenue Officers. Alternately, if you offer an entirely self-service product, you will develop a complex system that allows people to manage their spending on your platform. But, before any of that, someone (read: you) needs to figure out exactly who is going to buy, what they are going to buy, how much they can be charged and, most importantly how they will be sold.
To hone in on this, ask yourself this question:
What is the core driver that gets a sale done in your business? Without understanding that, you have nothing. The task of identifying and crafting this core proposition is a key responsibility of the CEO and other commercial founders.
The best way to begin to understand your core driver is to get out there. Knock on doors and pick up phones, and try to sell a bunch of different things in different ways. Warning: most of your methods will fail. There will be embarrassing meetings where people say no (or, more likely, they just avoid following up). There will be hours wasted in Starbucks and corporate reception areas, waiting for someone to turn up, only to get an email an hour late saying they can’t make it after all. Suck it up – you wanted to be a Founder, right?
4) At scale – keeping it all together
When your company grows, it increases in complexity. Hundreds of people, tens of offices, a thousand different drivers and intentions and agendas. Over time you will have drift. Even the best system for corporate goal management will fail. Even the best designed leadership mechanisms can be undermined by a particularly negative member of the team. At this point it falls again on the Founder to be equal parts ambassador and leader. Move between all the groups equally, listen to the views, take everything on board, juggle competing visions and, ultimately, bring it all together with a clear narrative on where the company goes next and close everyone sufficiently that they put aside previous differences and follow your lead.
Sound tough? It’s tougher. Personally, I think this is the hardest type of ‘selling’ that a successful Founder will have to master as they build an organization. Unfortunately, it is also the most unavoidable and most important.
5) The end game
And then, at the end of it all, you will likely take your company public on the stock market or sell it, or both. Again, you are looking a long and super critical sales process.
You will run into all manner of rules and regulations, you will work with lawyers who will fact-check every word you want to use to sell the business (I remember three six hour legal sessions as we put together the prospectus for the IPO at blinkx!).
Of course, the substantial business that you have grown will speak for itself to a certain extent, but the premium you attract, and the smoothness with which the deal goes off, will both be depend on your ability to sell.
There have been many successful companies who started out with only technical founders. There have also been some that started with no technical founders at all. Other great companies never had a founding marketer, and many more didn’t start life with a lawyer or an accountant on the team.
But what every great company starts with is someone who can sell. If your team has been downplaying this skill, start focusing on it. If you don’t think you’re very good at it, start learning. If you’re leading, you’re probably selling.