Category Archives: Sales

Should I pay my sales commission on bookings, revenue or margin?

Yesterday I was at Chicago running a workshop for TechStars alumni (about 12 companies) on SaaS sales. The companies were largely B2B, selling to mid-sized or larger organizations. Most were trying to go beyond the founder being the primary sales person and were getting ready to build out their sales team. One or two of them even had a couple of sales people on board.

The section of sales compensation generated the most questions. Obviously most of the entrepreneurs were founders who did not have a background in sales, so they were curious as to why it was so complicated. Most were used to paying out salary + bonus or more likely salary + stock options for their engineering staff.

Sales compensation does not have to be complicated, but it can be made to appear so. Obviously it starts out fairly simple – most sales people like cash and are motivated by cash more than anything else. Entrepreneurs should like sales people that are motivated by making as much short term money as possible.

On Target Earnings (OTE) is the term we use for total compensation for sales people. OTE comprises of Base salary (fixed, paid monthly or every other week), which is typically between 40-60% of the OTE and Commission, which is variable making up the remaining amount. Sometimes a bonus is added to the mix to achieve certain objectives the company has – for example, an objective that is important, but does not generate revenue – getting reference customers or supporting a marketing program.

OTE = Base Salary + Commission (+) Optional Bonus

The question, specifically was about when and at what conditions is the commission paid?

1. Early in enterprise software, most companies paid commissions on bookings. When the purchase order has been signed by the customer, the sales person gets paid. That’s usually good for perpetual license deals, where the customer pays an upfront fee for the software and amortizes it over the life of the usage. Since most customers who could afford this were large, the possibility of them defaulting the payment was rare, so it made sense. Most large enterprise software companies did this.

2. Thanks to monthly recurring revenue (sometimes billed and recognized monthly and other times billed annually and still other times billed for 2/3 years), most SaaS companies started to pay commissions on recognized revenue. This aligned the interests of the company with the sales person.

3. Still other companies actually only paid out commissions on income. That is when the money hit the bank. This ensured that the sales person would ensure the customer would actually pay the money, but then puts the sales person in a position to be responsible for some non-revenue generating tasks.

4. Some companies pay out commissions on contribution margin achievement. So, software (high margin) would get X% margins, but services (lower margin) would get less than software margins. VSOE regulations prohibit vendors for arbitrarily charging different customers, different prices (or inconsistent price discrimination as it was known) so this practice is rarely followed.

5. Finally some startups pay their commissions on implementation. This is typical in companies where there is a lot of services to get a customer up and running. Typically, if a customer takes 3-4 (or longer) months to get the software working thanks to customization, then most companies would prefer to pay their sales people after the customer has successfully implemented.

Regardless of when you choose to pay your commissions to your sales reps, the method cant change as often as you’d wish, since it confuses sales people and creates a lot of angst.

I would stick to one method and keep it consistent. Realize though, that the later you choose to pay the commission (closer to implementation) the more time the sales person spends on non new sales opportunity related tasks. The earlier you choose to pay the commission the less the incentive for the sales person to see the customer be successful.

How to B2B is morphing into B2A, B2D, B2M

From the broadly 2 types of companies, those that focus on consumers (B2C) and those that focus on businesses / enterprises (B2B) there is an explosion of new types. While most of the new types are still a subset of B2B or B2C, the increasing sub segmentation of B2B is creating multiple niches among those trying to sell to the “enterprise”.

The problems with B2B are fairly well documented – Long & slow sales cycles, multiple decision makers with largely different agendas (procurement wants it cheap, CIO wants it to fit into their technology stack and end users want it to be usable).

There are a 2 very interesting articles over the weekend from Dave McClure and Christina Cordova  which document the changed landscape in B2C. What I am seeing among our startups in the Accelerator is consistent with what Christina mentions in addition to the initial problem with most mobile consumer startups – which is getting users.

Essentially the marketing mechanisms (ads, PR, email) create a lot more friction to getting users to try / download the mobile app versus the web app.

So you have to primarily use a combination of reviews, recommendations or in-app ads to get users.

What’s happening on the B2B front is even more interesting.

B2B is morphing into B2D (developers), B2A (Architects, as an example) or B2M (Marketers).

Thanks to SaaS and Cloud pay-as-you-go services, the products are inexpensive enough to get enterprise segments without the hassles of going through the entire Purchase order process for many products.

So most B2B companies are targeting a specific user who is also the person to approve, buy and select the product / service that works for them.

The implications are obviously dramatic and ones that change the landscape completely.

In a follow on post I’ll document the ways this changes the marketing and sales techniques.

Why you should not outsource your initial sales efforts

Most technical founders are not comfortable with the sales process or the disciple of selling. They tend to treat it as beneath themselves and “sleazy”. Given that most entrepreneurs I interact with are engineers, I usually walk them through an engineer’s approach towards selling, which tends to mirror the agile development process they are familiar with (more about this in a later post).

Many entrepreneurs do try to sell, and not seeing quick success, come to a conclusion that they should outsource their sales efforts to an “expert”. Usually this is after they have exhausted their initial contacts and get frustrated with the constant rejection that comes with sales, or after they have finished tapping into their entire list of first level contacts who could possibly be a customer. They tend to be more comfortable “convincing” people they know well rather than “selling” to people they dont know at all. Which is why I ask them to “dig their well before they are thirsty“.

Without sales there is no business.

Without sales there are no customers. No customers means what you are building is a side project.

Without sales there is no revenue. No revenue means what you are working on is an unsustainable venture.

I have heard of enough companies who have died because they could not sell, but rarely heard of companies that died because they could not develop or build a solution that was sold.

To me, sales is the headlights to your business. I would never recommend outsourcing your sales function in your startup.

Even large companies I know in other areas besides technology, outsource manufacturing, engineering, finance or customer service, but rarely outsource sales or marketing.

I dont consider selling via channel partners as outsourcing your sales. That usually means you have to “sell” and convince your channel partners.

There are 3 reasons why I dont like sales outsourcing.

1. You dont “own” the customer and dont get direct customer feedback. In the initial days of your startup, its absolutely important to have direct customer connections, feedback and input. Even after you grow larger, customer connections are the biggest source of innovative ideas. Without direct customer access you will get a warped view of the real problems and pain points they have, which results in a sub optimal solution.

2. It is very hard to predict predict consistent closure of deals and commit to financial milestones. When you outsource sales, the outsourced company has the eyes and ears on the ground to understand what moves deals, whose budgets are cut and when deals might happen. That information is critical for you to plan your quarterly projections. Without that information you will also find it hard to understand how to allocate resource towards projects and features the engineering team should be working on.

3. Even if sales is “outsourced” most outsourcing vendors will require your help to constantly tweak your positioning, handle customer objections, change pricing, etc. Even after 5+ years at a large software company with over 500+ in a direct sales function, I found us to be constantly changing messaging and positioning each quarter to keep up with customer trends.

Can some parts of the sales process (like the initial lead generation) be outsourced instead of the entire sale process? Possibly. If you feel that the biggest challenge for you is to get the initial meetings and you get a sense that after your get those appointments you are able to move the sales process forward, then I would suggest you look to getting help from a firm that sets up appointments, or does targeted lead generation.

Why do companies buy anything from B2B startups?

Yesterday I had a chance to talk with a software entrepreneur who has built a security product that’s primarily sold to mid-sized and larger companies. Over 8 months have gone into the development and he has been able to get fewer than 5 customers for the product. Surprisingly he’s been able to get enough interest from investors who have provided early funding to the tune of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has been able to also generate lots of interest from partners but that has not translated into customer sales. Given his developer  background, he was keen to talk about sales and how to generate some initial traction in the market.

Here is what I have learned from all my initial startup selling in the B2B space (i.e. startups selling anything – software, hardware, services, juice bars, etc. to other companies, not consumers).

There are only 2 reasons why companies buy from startups – The person buying has a very good relationship with the entrepreneur, or the person buying has a dying pain that she feels can be solved by the startup’s solution.

That’s it.

This is dramatically different from why they buy from Cisco, Office Depot or any other large company – where politics, budgets, executive management preferences or any other of over 100 factors also come into play.

Lets drill down into both those reasons.

I have personally only been able to sell the first 10 or so first customers for all my software companies through relationships that I built earlier. Which is why I always advocate digging you well before you are thirsty. Most of the software that I have built (B2B) did solve a problem, but I found that it was never an “immensely-horrible, I’ll-die-if-I-dont-fix-it” kinda pain. I avoided those because I did not have as much confidence in my ability to solve that type of problem since the scrutiny & pressure of “must-work-or-you’re-dead or this-better-work-or-you’re-out” causes buggy software.

So I focused on building relationships with key people (that usually took a few months), without me talking much about my product or service. It was purely to help the other person who I wanted to be friends with.

When you build a strong relationship, you will find people are more willing to forgive bugs, try unproven software or even give a no-name startup a chance.

Given my engineering background, I have a “formula” that I believe that will help you understand relationship building.

Relationships = Time + Trust + Mutual interest.

In this case, + is not addition, but an operator. More about this formula in a later post, but the summary is building a relationship takes time (quality not quantity) spent together, building trust by small commitments you deliver on and mutual interests you share with the other person.

The only other reason larger companies buy from small startups is that they are in a huge pain and they believe startup has a unique solution, offering or product to solve that pain in the fastest possible time. I emphasize “they believe” because they are really not sure yet since they have not built a relationship with that individual.

Relationships trump everything in sales. Everything. She who has the relationship wins.

Which is why you are better off getting a referral from one of your customers (who you have a good relationship with presumably) to another potential prospect (who they have a good relationship with).

So before you start you own B2B entrepreneurial venture, build relationships.

Should I outsource the sales function at my technology startup?

I am thinking of writing a series on technology sales, given that selling is my first functional love and I enjoy it more than anything else. (There, I admit it, and yes, more than development even though I am an “engineer” by education). So the next few posts will be focused exclusively on selling for entrepreneurs.

Yesterday I had a friend who came over to get some advice on his startup. 6 years into the business he’d built a $200K+ annual consulting company and had over 30 customers for whom he’d implemented various projects. The average sale was about $20K and since the company was fairly small, (15 people) the CEO and founder was the primary sales person.

Most of their lead generation was relegated to speaking at important conferences and events, after which they’d get a few interested people who were keen to leverage their expertise for implementing a project.

His question was around a proposal he got from another company, which was founded by a big-company sales person who’d built a good network of customers and prospects. The company was offering to help my friend outsource his sales and generate customers. In exchange they were asking for 30% (starting point) of the sale as their commission.

To my friend this seemed on the high side. He’d heard numbers like 10% or even 15%, but 30% seemed large.

So his question was “Is this the right number? Or should I negotiate a lower commission”?

We had an hour to chat about it. I was most surprised he never asked me the question “Should I outsource my sales”? Since I have been running the Microsoft accelerator for the last few months, I have refrained from answering questions I think entrepreneurs should ask, instead narrowly focusing on their specific question and giving them options they should consider or a framework they should look, at to evaluate their options.

Lets do some simple math, I told him. If you are looking to make $200K a year from a sales person, given that your ASP (Average selling price) is about $20K, you will need 10 (roughly) deals for them to make their quota. Since the projects they were selling were fairly complex in nature, the sales person they needed to hire would have to be someone who understood both the customer’s industry, the value of technology to that industry and build good relationships within that industry. So, a fresh out of school grad going for $10K – $15K (in India thats what they make annually) wont cut it.

He needed to hire someone who was a consultative sales person who could not only do the lead generation and selling but also some amount of initial “scoping” of the project. In India most of these people make about $40K annually. These folks would have about 8-10 years of experience (or more) and would have implemented several projects or performed the role of “solution architect”, at their previous role. About 60% of the annual pay of the sales person would be paid as base salary and 40% of it as commission on sale.

Since most of my friend’s customers were in India and primarily in the south, customer travel was going to be fairly minimal, which would cost about $2.5K annually at the high end. Assuming that 50% of his customers were outside the city he lived in and the average customer took 2 trips to close and some trips required 2 people (including my friend who would also help with the sales), the cost of travel was about $2.5K we determined.

To generate leads in a consistent manner, the sales person would have to supplement the speaking engagements my friend was using for lead generation with some events, and a few other techniques, which we estimated would cost another $2.5K.

So in total to generate $200K in business, my friend would have to spend about $45K in hiring, managing and helping his sales person.

Now these numbers are unique to India, but the model holds for the US as well. You might have to multiply each number by 5 to get to the US equivalent, but that’s the norm. Approximately 22.5% of his target or sales was going towards the sales person.

Realistically, the outsourced sales person asking for 30% seemed fairly reasonable.

Of course, I warned that my friend would still have to be deeply involved in the process so the “transparent costs” of the sale would increase the paid commission.

There are a few numbers that can change this equation dramatically. One is the average selling price, second the annual salary the sales person makes and third the target (quota), but by and large this is in the ballpark.

Always be an individual contributor as well

Most of the entrepreneurs I meet and share thoughts with, tend not to be engineers. Or at least not practicing developers, marketers, sales people or business development individuals. This is consistent with the anatomy of the Indian technology entrepreneur, who is typically male, between the ages of 29 and 40, has about 2-10+ years of experience and had been an individual contributor “several years ago”.

I read the quotes by multiple folks in the piece shelf life of an engineer in technology . They consistent theme is one of constant learning, which most of us are probably aware of. Ignore the age bias that’s blatantly obvious in the piece for a few minutes, which is what most of the 250+ comments are focused on.

Two things stand out: (1) Ferose’s quote on “I can’t be just a manager, I have to be technically hands-on.” and

Ravi ” In the first five years, the employee is a technical contributor. In the next five, he or she moves on to become a team leader or an architect , understanding the P&L (profit & loss) requirements of the company. Subsequently , the employee takes on much stronger leadership responsibilities”.

From what I have learned, there’ no choice but for every level of individual to be “hands-on” and play the role of an individual contributor as well at a startup.

If you are an engineer, you cant just be focused on hiring and managing your engineering team (however small or large it is). You have to pick up a few pieces of the puzzle and solve them yourself. Which might mean deploying, developing and shipping parts of your software.

If you are a marketer, then not copy writing or doing your own SEO, or running your ad campaigns is a disaster in the making.

If you are a sales person, and if you are not doing cold calls or opening new doors to customers each week, you will find it extremely hard to direct and motivate the team.

Most founders who come from larger companies have not been been doing any individual contributor roles for several years. So the reorientation is very hard on them. They find it hard to do things they did a few years ago and since in most every area the specifics have changed so dramatically over the last few years, the adjustments are hard.

The best way to do this is to keep 30% of your time each week to have a personal accomplishment.

What I have found is the the FIRST thing I do each Monday on my weekly to-do list is to identify one deliverable that I will work on to complete without anyone else’s help.

Over the last few weeks  it was working on website copy and mockups for the new design. Over the next few weeks it is cold calling multiple prospects for making some inroads for a few of our startups. The weeks of Dec 15-30 is mostly going to be spent on writing new pieces of our Borg’s UI using Twitter bootstrap (which is surprisingly easy to pickup).

So on your quest to be a leader and entrepreneur dont forget to be a doer as well.

In India, a customer does not buy a product, they buy a phone number

There are over 800 products listed in the database (out of 2149) that cater to the SMB market in India. Many of them sell only to the Indian market, and a few also try to target International markets.

The amazing part of selling in India is the ease of access to founders (promoters, they are called here) and Managing directors (CEO). Most have their cell phones listed on their website and many may have it listed on their ads.

Throughout the last few years when I ran relatively small (<20) person sales team, targeting companies with less than $2 Million revenue we found that getting appointments with CEO’s at small companies was extremely easy. A conversion rate of 50% from cold call to face-to-face appointment was not unheard of.

At a price-point which was less than a full-time resource to manage marketing, they found our solution relatively easy to adopt, but they were focused on quick ROI – meaning if they put $1 now, they expected $5 within the first month and an increase every month.

During the first few months, we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to simplify our product. We realized most decision makers & users at these companies were the CEO’s so we wanted to make sure they found our product easy to use. We did 4 sets of focus groups and removed a lot of features from the product, making it so that just one of two options were provided on each page. Navigation was made simple as well, with large buttons and primary colors.

After 2 months, we had an interesting problem. None of the CEO’s actually used the product. Every time they wanted data from our system, they’d just call the sales rep and ask him for information. We showed them how easy it was for them to look up the information on their cell phone, but they’d still call and “chat up” the rep, share more information about their business, their issues, etc.

We then provided a customer service team who would answer these questions so our sales person would be more productive. The sales person still got calls. One sales person left to join an MBA program. Even a year after he’d left, the CEO’s he sold to would call him to ask him for information.

That’s when we realized that Indian customers dont buy a product or a service. They just buy a phone number – a person’s mobile phone which is their user interface to the product.

Then I got to know about a central number system. Basically its a number that you can give and you can change it to any set of numbers by “routing” the call based on the number. We did not implement it fully, but the first few weeks of using it were a lifesaver for our sales productivity.

A new trend in pricing pages at SaaS applications

<Wordpress has eaten up 4 versions of this post, so I am removing all images and only providing links, apologies>.

The pricing and signup page of any SaaS application is the most critical part, which is the main reason companies spend weeks and months, A/B testing and validating pricing, options and packages.

A new trend I have noticed in 2 particular websites – Highrise and GetBallPark is something very different from most websites.

If you did not go to the links above and notice the change – they have put their highest priced offering on the left and the least priced offering on the right.

This was counterintuitive to me at first, since “everyone else” does the exact opposite. Progressively expensive options should go from left to right.

Most website heatmap track research suggests users read from top to bottom and left to right. So, I guess there are higher chances of getting someone to sign up for your highest priced offering if you put it on the left.

Any other reason others might think of designing the price offerings the “opposite” way?

The “two speed” state of Indian market adoption

I have been watching / following 7 startups (3 in eCommerce, 2 in SaaS and 2 in consumer Internet) that target the Indian market over the last 14-18 months. All the entrepreneurs approached me with an intent to get seed funding so I had a chance to go over their traction, progress and future projections.

I have formulated a theory of market adoption of products / high technology products in India which I have tested with these and other companies and also with several venture investors.

For background please read “Diffusion of innovations” by Everett Rogers and Crossing the chasm by Geoffrey Moore. Don’t worry, I have only linked to their Wikipedia page, so it wont cost you anything.

Diffusion of innovations

At the top of the consumption (and monthly income) pyramid in India are what economists and marketing people call the SEC A and B class who have enough disposable income to spend on innovative new products. For the purposes of this blog post I am going to use 10 Mill (SEC A) + 20 Million (SEC B) households as the target.

The Innovators (less than 1 % of the population or 12 Million individuals) in India (entrepreneurs mostly) who conceive and develop these products for the Indian market and the early adopters (less than 5% of population or approx 60 Million individuals) together make up the entire “early adopter” category. Unfortunately less than 30% of them have both the interest, and the desire to be early adopters of technology.

Indian markets do not follow traditional diffusion characteristics when first innovators buy, then early adopters, then the early majority, and then the late majority and finally the laggards.

My theory on how diffusion of innovations works in the Indian context is as follows.

In India there are only 2 market adopters – those that are early and those that are not.

Abhijeet calls it the “low hanging fruit” and then everyone else.

So lets look at the implications of this observation / theory.

So what does that mean for entrepreneurs?

You will see a “headfake” of adoption and then a taper off.

E.g. The B2B SaaS company will quickly (within 3-6 months) get 10+ customers and over 30 in the pipeline, only to find the next 50 and the next 100 or the next 1000 are either non-existent or will come in 3-6 years.

E.g. The eCommerce company will see 1 -3 Million “registered” users and 1000’s of transactions within 12 months and find that the next 1000, 5000 and 10,000 transactions take 4-5 times as long.

E.g. You will see an initial 20,000 users for your mobile application for social TV extremely quick (within 3-6 months) and the next 50,000 or 100,000 take you the next 3-6 years.

I have seen these numbers play out again and again to know there are exceptions but those are rare.

These numbers are also dramatically different than those of companies targeting US or other markets.

When should you (as the entrepreneur) raise money?

You should raise it at the peak of inflated expectations. I.e. After you have some traction, which the investors think will be long lasting, steady and rapid. You will get the best valuation for the company at that time. Once your investor has some “skin in the game”, they are in to get their money back and then some, so they will do all it takes to make you successful.


Trough of disillusionment

What does this mean for investors?

The best time to invest is either very early (starting to build a company, idea and team stage) OR at the trough of disillusionment stage.

If they are early, you will get the bump from the initial adoption, so the value of the company increases many fold before the next round (which you should help the company raise at the peak of inflated expectations.

If you are post the trough, then you benefit from a growth stage.

What makes you go over the trough to the slope of enlightenment?

In my experience:


Nothing else.

You may think I am being facetious, but I am serious.

This may be a cultural thing, but in India, over time if you have the ability, patience and willingness to survive, you will reach the plateau of productivity.

Anecdotal evidence over several sales transactions also suggests to me that once people in India see you around for 2-3 years, they think “Okay, this company / person is for real. We should give her / the product a shot”.

Big thanks to Abhijeet and Shekhar for helping me with their data points to reinforce my theory.

Dig your well before you are thirsty

I was introduced to this book by Mark Tonneson, my first manager at Cisco. Fresh out of college, I was an eager whip-snapper who would soak up any piece of advice on “getting ahead”. I didn’t read the book, although  Mark bought it for me. It still is in my ‘library”. But the phrase “Dig your well before you are thirsty” has been with me since that day.

Most of us tend to ask for help when needed. Its the “on Demand” way of doing work. I’ll learn something when I need it, until that point of time, learning it is useless. I agree with that principle for knowledge.

For relationships, though, I have always tried to build them way before I’d ever need them. In fact building relationships without the intent of ever using them is a sport of mine. It comes from being interested in people and wanting to know as many people as possible.

As an entrepreneur that principle has helped me more than anything else I have done.

This however, is a story of how I acquired my first customer at my first company. It began 3 years before the customer signed up though. So effectively my sales cycle was “3 years”.

Circa 1995, Rational was hosting an event on Object oriented modelling. It was a free event, sufficient enough excuse for me to show up. The event was to start at 830 am and was scheduled for 2 hours. The venue was the Double Tree hotel in San Jose. I showed up at 815, and was negotiating with the automatic gate (which I felt was unreasonably placed in a position which required you to get down from the car to reach for the button that would give you a printed ticket), which would trigger the proximity sensor to open the gate.

I had to get down. Damm, I hate these poorly designed machines, which don’t really help serve the purpose that they were intended for.

It took me a few minutes to park and make my way back to the entrance. In the meanwhile a few other cars were backed up at the gate, facing the same problem. I was not  “smartly dressed”,  and had on a t-shirt and slacks. I noticed a few more folks struggling with the sensor gate, so I made my way across to that gate, and helped push the button and get the ticket for the first car. The gentleman in the car was in a beige suit and seemed preoccupied with something on his dashboard. He did though, look at me and murmured “thanks”. I was just about to make my way to the entrance when I stopped and realized every one of the cars in the queue would have the same problem.

For the next 3 minutes I pushed the button for 5 or 6 cars and diligently gave them the ticket so the drivers did not have to get down from the car. Noticing it was 825, I decided to make my way to the registration.

The “beige suit” was just behind me at the registration desk. He did a quick double take and asked me if this was the Rational rose event.

I replied in the affirmative and said it was and I was registered for the same event. He introduced himself as Steve and said “I really have to say thanks again, since I did not realize you were helping me even though it was not really your job”. I realized then that he thought I was an attendant whose job it was to “push the button and give the ticket”.

I laughed pretty hard for the next few minutes and we both got talking about my job at Cisco and his. We agreed to keep in touch after the event and “catch up over lunch sometime”. Over the next few months, I would email Steve off and on, sharing some articles and such, and we’d have some email “debates”, that but never really met him for lunch.

3 years later, I left Cisco to start my first company. Steve emailed me a few months earlier saying he had joined Netscape (Actra).

I sent an email to my contact list 2 months after my beta product release, letting them know our product was available for companies to install and try.

The first email response I got back was from Steve. He asked me to come by and give his team a demo.

A month later we started working with the Actra team (Netscape) as part of BuyerXpert product.

You can call it luck. I also call it luck.

I am actually known to be the luckiest guy on this planet.

The only thing I do to get lucky is dig my well before I am thirsty.