Tag Archives: Sales

The top 5 things you need to do after you are hired as the first #salesperson at a #startup

This is a follow up to the post top 5 things a founder should do after hiring the first sales person at their startup. Congratulations. You have been hired as the first salesperson at a hot startup. Here are the top 5 things you need to do before, during and after coming on board.

1. Speak to as many customers as possible to understand “Why did they buy”? Ask the founders to help connect you to existing customers before you join so you can clearly understand why customers are buying. Is it because of the relationship the founder has (most likely at early stage startups), or are they solving a real pain point? Is it obvious there is a pain? Will there be budget allocated for this pain? Help the founders document the set of steps in the sales process during this phase as well.

2. Find out what your disciplined schedule will be for the first 30 to 90 days. Besides building your pipeline of business, there should be nothing else you should be working on. Whether it is researching 20 prospects, cold-emailing 20 potential targets or engaging with 20 candidate customers on LinkedIn, figure out the basic unit of activity and the way to measure it consistently.

E.g. Your basic unit of activity might be to spend 5 min researching a prospect on LinkedIn and understanding what your subject line should be to them and 5 min to craft an email that will help you send a response, followed by reviewing all the people in your suspect list from the previous day. Follow the disciple consistently.

3. Write down 10-20 A/B test headings, subject lines and messages that you will test during your pipeline development phase. You will need to test your Subject lines, the time you email prospects, the call to action, the collateral you will use to incent prospects to engage with you. The founders may already have a message they use, but dont take that at its face value. You will need to find the top 3-5 things your prospects will care about and the top 3-5 things they are willing to do as a next step or the 3-5 things they need to be educated about during the sales process. You job is to try and have enough permutations and combinations of these pain points, calls to actions and collateral till you hit the top 3 combinations.

E.g. Try the 3 top industry news items as headlines rotating and also your top 3 benefits, then the top 3 pain points or the top 3 questions on their mind as your subject lines.

4. Align on a system (Excel works just as well, if you dont like CRM systems) you will use to track your activity with your founders. Initially you will not have an immediate term wins, so in the absence of sales, activity will have to be measured as a proxy for outcomes. Whether it is # of sales calls per day or the # of demos per week or the # of responses to emails and phone calls that you will have to track, find a way to measure it, and track it diligently.

E.g. Put a simple spreadsheet with names of companies, target people, status (1st email sent, No response, Not interested, Call back in 3 months, No budget, etc.) and use a color-coded system for follow ups.

5. Network religiously to find a way to help potential partners who will help you after you help them. Many of the folks in your existing network may be able to help, and they may have an inclination to do so since you are now at a “startup”. Use the fact that you are at one to your advantage. Most people I know love helping and engaging with entrepreneurial-minded people and want to help early stage risk-takers. Even if you dont have a prospect in your network, it does not hurt to ask.

E.g. Last week, many of the participants at our customer day, at the accelerator were not prime targets for one of our companies in the Health care segment, but many had “friends” or “ex colleagues” who were now in hospitals and they were willing to help.

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How to get channel sales or indirect sales going for your startup?

When I talk to entrepreneurs who are developers and they don’t have a hustler (sales person) on board, they ask me if they should outsource their sales function. I usually advice them never to outsource startup sales efforts. They then look to find partners who they can work with. The main reason they want to do this is because they find the entire process of hiring, managing and growing their sales team revolting.

Some of them talk about possible “channel” sales efforts via partners or larger companies in their domain who can help, who they would like to approach.

When I tell them about the potential costs, commissions and the customer relationship efforts that are involved, they take a second look at their direct sales efforts. I thought I’d document that for many of the other entrepreneurs who have the same question.

There are 5 models of partnerships I have encountered so far in my career. I will outline these models and list their pros and cons. While I cant say which model will work for you, and there may be other models as well, I think understanding the landscape will help you figure out which one makes sense in your situation.

First off, most channel or indirect sales models assume that the partner has an existing relationship with the startup’s customer. After all you are trying to shorten your sales cycle by using the partner’s strength.

Lets now look at these different models.

1. Co selling partnerships: These agreements tend to have a low to medium level of commitment from both the partner and the startup. If a sales person from the partner is going to meet the client, and are in active discussions on a deal and they feel like bringing your solution will help them win the opportunity, they will look at trying to position your product as well. In this case, you will have to go on the sales call with the sales person at the partner. The advantage of this partnership is that you typically dont have to do the initial “opening of the doors”. The “paper” or contract is typically separate as well. This means there will be 2 separate agreements for the customer to sign.

Pros: Since there is no commitment (most times) from both parties towards a quota or target, the discount you offer to the partner is low (typically starts at 20% and can go up to 30%). Also, since you can have a direct relationship with the customer, you can control the relationship going forward. Be sure to ensure that there are lower levels of “pass through” revenue you have to pay to the partner after year one.

Cons: There is no commitment to sell by the partner so you cant quite depend on this channel to deliver consistently. The customer also tends to get confused about the single person who will responsible for their success (the bad term usually used is one throat to choke).

2. Reseller agreements (sometimes called VAR or Value Added Resellers) : This partnership is medium to higher level of commitment. The partner will either resell your product on their paper or include your “quote” in their contract. You will hence have to train and manage their sales professionals.

Pros: There is a quota commitment in most cases, so you can be sure that sales people are motivated to sell, but you want to be sure that there are some downsides if they dont hit the commitments, else all this is a co selling agreement structured on the partner’s paper.

Cons: Since there are commitments, you will pay a much higher commission % – typically 40 – 60% are standard. Some partners may ask you for more. You will still have to train and do the lead generation to bring their sales folks into deals. Typically when you sign an agreement, even if you bring the partner into a new customer, they might ask you for the commission that they technically dont deserve.

3. OEM associations: When your product (or module) becomes part of another product and is integrated in such a way as to cause sales of your product each time the other product is sold, have an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) association. These are typically for run time modules of developer products or a contact management product within a CRM system as an example.

Pros: Since your product is part of another product, you will typically be sold each time the other product is sold. In most cases this guarantees revenues and commits the partner to certain revenue goals.

Cons: Since your product is part of a module, you dont have the end customer relationship. Most OEM products also tend to generate smaller % of sales. Don’t be surprised if the final product is sold by the partner for a significantly more cost that what they pay you. Typically I have seen 10% of the final cost of the product paid out to the module.

There are 2 other models that I dont have much experience with, so I will let you give you an overview and try and address them in a future post.

4. Certified agent alliances: These are loose agency models (typical in affiliate sales) where the solo sales person who maybe has a few clients will try and sell for you. Since you have to recruit and manage each sales person yourself, these will be hard to scale. The only advantage is that the sales person is not an employees, so their base salary costs dont hit your books. This also means they are less committed to your product.

5. Distributor agreements: When your product is sold in a different geography where you need a local partner to stock (for hardware) or help educate local re-sellers, then distributors can help you with education, local tax and integration and identifying resellers. They can help you navigate a local market, but since they stock and manage multiple products for that region, getting their attention to focus on your product tends to be rather hard.

Startup Channel Sales
Channel partnership Framework

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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.