6 Things Every Startup CEO Should Know About the Sales Process

I’ve been working with startups and CEOs for the better part of 5 years now. Some of the CEOs I work with have strong backgrounds in sales, but recently I’m seeing more and more startup CEOs and founders coming from the technical side of the house.

Through no fault of their own, these technical founders and CEOs often don’t have a good understanding of the sales world and how certain sales processes work. So, with this in mind I’ve put together a few tips for startup CEOs and founders to help get their arms around the sales process and pipeline.

1. Customers are buying the CEO as much as the product or service.

A big point of frustration for non-sales CEOs is around the length of the sales cycle. Often times, when CEOs get involved with a prospect call, they’re able to quickly answer that prospect’s questions and move them through the pipeline. But, that’s not always the case for sales reps. CEOs fail to understand why it takes a rep longer to move a prospect through the process.

CEOs think “I can do this, why can’t the sales team?” So it’s important to remember the following:

  • The product is your baby. Nobody knows your baby better than you. And no one can speak more passionately or convincingly about your product.
  • The prospects trust you more than any other person at the company. Where a customer might think a sales rep only has incentive to win a commission, you’ve put years of work into your product and really believe in its ability to solve a customer’s pain points.
  • You control the ultimate roadmap. You probably have versions 3 through 10 already lined up in your head. When you say something about the future of the product people trust your word over that of a sales rep because at the end of the day, you control the product vision.
  • Your title provides you immediate clout and credibility. Let me ask you this. When you see an email signature with any type of reference to sales, what is your immediate reaction? Not your rational reaction, your immediate one…

Being present on sales calls is so vital, especially in the earliest days of your company. As the founder or CEO you are the bookend on the bookshelf, the final chapter in the novel. The buck stops with you.

2. Commit to learning about salespeople and the buyer journey.

Salespeople are wired differently. We’re competitive, urgent, self-reliant, love risk and we’re impatient for success. We know you don’t understand us, but you need to make an effort.

Read about the psychology of sales. Learn about the buyer journey. When I work with CEOs with a tech background who have read just one or two sales books the difference is amazing, not just for me, but for them too. They tell me they feel like they’ve just been given a key to unlock these superhero powers they thought they could never have.

I cannot stress this enough. And yes, I know your plate is already full. But you must keep learning. Read a book, listen to a podcast, call up that uncle in sales and ask him to explain the buyer journey. Just do something!

3. Never declare yourself the Uber of anything!

Understand the difference between what you do and the pains you solve. Describing your company as the “Uber of X” tells prospects what your product does, but it doesn’t tell them about the pains you can solve for them.

4. Understand the importance of networking logos.

Logos matter a lot. They prove initial viability, they prove you “may be onto something.” Early stage startups need logos, and quick. Do a deal, make a trade, and get people using your service.

These are your networking logos. You will use these logos to get more. They will go on you website, collateral and serve as the ones you talk about socially. These logos are going to help you craft your story and actually get you into the next tier of customers you want. Oh, and be prepared to offer  crazy pricing deals just to get these logos.

To sum it up more simply, you will not going to be going public on the backs of your first 10 logos, even if one of them is a Unicorn, but they are important nonetheless.

5. Define the sales hypothesis, not the sales process.

Do not over engineer your sales process early on, it will be a colossal waste of time that frankly won’t matter much. Understand the difference between a sales hypothesis and the sales process.

A Sales Hypothesis: Any sales process you design is really a hypothesis. Your first 5 to 10 customers will be friends and family anyway. Define your sales hypothesis quickly, prove or disprove it and iterate often.

Sales Hypothesis MVP (Minimum Viable Process): Treat your first sales process like the MVP of your product or service. What are the must-have data points you need to capture (Pains, Titles & Roles, Vertical/Industry, Objections, Requests)?

Remember the opportunity cost of building out a detailed sales process early on. Doing so can take you away from important time spent with prospects, early important customers or on developing the product and roadmap. Use your time in those early days wisely. Don’t build out anything too detailed before you’ve had months to gather enough information.

6. Prioritize your sales conversations.

Your goal early on shouldn’t be to do business with everyone. Your goal is to define the pain you solve and understand what it means to a prospect to have that pain solved. Participate in as many sales calls as you can. Doing so will help you learn how to sell the product and will ultimately enable you to define your value proposition.

Running a company, building a product and worrying about developing your sales process is incredibly hard. Any CEO or founder, with a sales background or not, will find themselves stretched thin. But, those who can understand early on the pains they’re solving will win big. Take one of the above topics and focus on that topic for even just one hour each week and watch the benefits unfold.

  • Roque Versace

    good post Richard. one thing i’d add to #4 is to follow-up with those early logos and figure out what the value/quantifiable value the buyer receives when using your product.

    • Richard Harris

      Spot on Roque! One must be able to paint the picture of the economics of your solution through the use of story telling and real resutls. Often times people over engineer this thought by trying to prove ROI.

  • Chris Beall

    Great advice, Richard. Those first logos are buying the CEO’s vision and commitment much more than finished product. Sales’s job is to tee up CEO meetings with potential buyers at the logos you really want. A reasonable KPI is 2 CEO sales meetings per day, with the expectation of closing 25% of them. Technical CEOs benefit hugely from learning how to conduct an effective CEO sales meeting – especially how to patiently listen for all the pain. Coaching from an experienced outsider like Richard can make all the difference in a CEO learning to sell without having to become a salesman.

    • Richard Harris

      @chris_beall:disqus thank you so much for those kind words. I love your proposed hypothesis. Will recommend that as a good starting point to help develop a baseline. Equally important is for the sales team to learn and understand how to position the product as strongly and confidently as the technical CEO. When that happens, that’s when you can really start building for scale.