There’s one thing that a lot of entrepreneurs and startup founders don’t like to hear (but need to): your product won’t sell itself. No matter how great it is, it simply won’t take off unless someone is doing the hard work of convincing investors and customers that it solves a pressing problem and does that so well its worth parting with their money, changing a process or investing the time required.
Knowing you need a sales team is the easy part. Figuring out who you should hire first is where it starts to get complicated.
There are different types of salespeople, each with a different skills profile. Hire the right ones and you’ll give your company the growth it deserves. Hire the wrong kind of salespeople and you’ll set yourself back months, years or potentially kill your company.
This is especially critical with your first hires. When your company is still small, you can’t expect your sales team to compensate for a few underperformers – those underperformers are your sales team.
In this post, we’ll go over who you should hire first if you want to build a solid foundation to your sales department.
Your First Salesperson Should Be… You
I know what you’re probably thinking – “Hey, I just build the products and solve the problems. Selling is someone else’s job.”
It’s true, selling will be someone else’s department, but your involvement is important at first. Startups have a better chance of success when the founders have a clear understanding of how investors and customers react to their product and what their biggest concerns are.
Selling the product yourself also puts you in a good position for understanding what your salespeople experience. When you understand their challenges, you’ll be able to provide them better support and have a better sense of who you should be hiring.
Hire Two Account Executives
Once you’ve closed your first few sales, you can start building your sales team. The best way to do that is by hiring two Account Executives (AEs).
A Sales Development Representative (SDR) might seem like the most obvious choice for a first hire. It’s true that they will eventually play a big role in your sales process, but for the time being they’re simply too limited to head a department of just one or two.
An SDR’s role is to generate and nurture leads. They’re great for getting meetings and moving things along, but they usually are not ready to start closing deals. If your sales team only consists of SDRs, you’ll be great at lining up sales opportunities, but you won’t have anyone who can really knock them out of the park. Down the road you will need these first hires to be selling while you are focused on product, investors or other parts of the business.
AEs are more well-rounded. They can see a sale through from the lead generation process, to closing, and even to customer care. When your sales team is this small, you’ll need salespeople who can skillfully handle every step of the process by themselves. A new AE will spend their first few months prospecting, just like an SDR would. However, they should have more experience at it, be better at figuring what does and doesn’t work and later can help to close the deal. Given that you don’t have a playbook worked out yet, having a more experienced person in this role helps makes sense.
Hiring two Account Executives up front might sound like a big investment, but it’s actually more prudent than just hiring one. For one thing, you have a failsafe: if one of your hires performs abysmally and needs to be fired, you can rely on your second AE to keep things going. If you just had the one, you could spend a couple of months spinning your wheels and being left without a robust pipeline.
Having two salespeople also gives you a point of comparison. It’s difficult to assess how a new hire is performing if they’re the only one doing the selling. It’s also harder to troubleshoot problems with your sales performance. Are you struggling to sell because your product is missing an appealing feature? Are you going after the wrong type of customer? Or is your new salesperson simply not cut out for your company? It’s hard to tell unless you have someone else to compare them to.
Best of all, if you hire two AEs and both work out, then you’re even further ahead than you would be if you had just hired one.
Your Third Outside Hire
Once your AEs get things running and your product is selling, it’s time to grow your sales team. Now, you’ve got a choice: you can hire a third AE or one or two SDRs. Which you choose will depend on what your current pipeline looks like.
Talk to your two AEs and have a look at their calendars. How full are their pipelines? If they have plenty of leads and can barely keep up with them, then hiring a third AE makes sense. They can help you pursue more leads while generating additional ones.
If, however, your AEs are struggling to fill their calendars with enough meetings or leads to follow up with, hiring a third AE isn’t going to help. You’ll just be taking too few sales opportunities and spreading them even thinner. What you need instead are SDRs. As we mentioned above, SDRs are great at generating leads and keeping AEs busy.