Hiring Your First Sales Team in Early-Stage SaaS Startups
You ran with an idea, created a product, launched your company, and found product-market fit. Now, you’ve been grinding away at sales. You (and your co-founders) lead the sales process, doing everything from lead generation to qualifying to closing. Slowly, you’re realizing that you are overextended and need a sales team to continue growing.
If you find yourself in this position, then this article is for you. We’re talking about one of the most important inflection points in the evolution of every tech company: your first sales hires.
Drawing on our experience helping early-stage tech companies hire, develop sales processes, and build a strong sales team, we’re breaking down the best practices for hiring your first sales team members. From when you should consider hiring to defining the profile of the candidate to how to make sure your new team members hit the ground running. Let’s walk through it step by step.
When you should consider hiring sales team members
Let’s get it straight, tech companies get off the ground because of founders. But there always comes a point in the development of growing companies where the workload is greater than you can handle alone. Though there’s no exact equation for when this occurs, we often see it around the point of 10+ paying B2B customers and well-established product-market fit. That’s officially “woah, we’re really doing it … and we’re getting too busy” territory for founders.
Beyond the loose indicator of number of paying customers and heavy workload though, there are a few other, more concrete signs that you should consider hiring sales team members. Those include:
- You see patterns in what sells well
You’re encountering less friction in the sales process and overall feeling more confident about your sales acumen. That’s because you’ve figured out what pitches work, maybe even changing the pitches slightly depending on the industry of the lead or the role of the point of contact. These patterns are immensely valuable, even if they are not yet set in stone.
At this point, hiring your first sales team member makes a lot of sense. Primarily because these patterns give new hires a lot to hold onto as they get used to selling your product. We’ll get more into what else will help first sales hires hit the ground running below when we discuss onboarding.
- You see patterns in how potential customers object
Though it might seem counterintuitive, there’s a lot of value in objections to your product. Some friction in the sales process provides great feedback to force you to think about how you communicate your product well to customers, i.e. the product is framed correctly for their needs. Overall, the more patterned the objections are, the easier it is for you to engineer solutions to better communicate the value of the product. Especially once you’ve begun finding ways to successfully address common objections, a sales team member can step in and make a big difference.
- Your lead generation strategy is creating consistent results
When you think you have a pretty good grasp on what type of company needs and wants your product, this is another opportune time to consider hiring a sales team member. Here, a dedicated lead generation specialist can help lighten your workload. This division of labor is essential to long-term, sustainable growth. You simply can’t be running full-stack sales as a founder forever and expect to see growth beyond your own capacity.
Each of these three items are good indicators that you have your finger on the pulse of what works for sales. And knowing what works is key in successfully building your first sales team. If you find yourself in any one or all of these three positions, then you’re not far from needing additional support on the sales end of your company.
Defining the right profile of the candidate
Now that you have a sense of when to consider hiring sales team members, next comes understanding what type of person would make a great first hire. Unlike hiring your 10th sales team member or a senior sales leader, these first hires can be exceptionally difficult. That’s because the candidate for the job needs to be able to thrive in an environment that is still development. By comparison, your average sales professional will often work well within the margins of an already defined and unchanging sales process.
For this reason, we tend to push back against the low-hanging fruit ideas of what makes a great candidate for your first sales hire. Namely, the best candidates are not veteran sales professionals with large contact books. This profile of a sales professional might help you get some easy, early hits, but you need more than a nice rolodex to see long-term success with freshly established sales teams. That’s why we recommend scanning more broadly for these two “non-negotiable” traits for your early, dedicated sales teammates:
- The candidate needs to be coachable
As we mentioned previously, it’s unlikely that you will have your sales process down to a science before you hire your first sales team member. That means you will continue to learn and improve on the fly, and your sales team will have to do the same. That’s why general coachability is so important. The candidate has to be able to receive feedback, integrate it into their day-to-day, and then repeat. This occurs both with feedback coming from you as the founder and your customers.
A good proxy to see if a candidate is generally coachable is to see how much they emphasize their “own way” of handling sales situations. Particularly, you should role-play in interviews, provide feedback on the fly, and see how quickly the candidate can adjust. Those that have the self-awareness to incorporate feedback very quickly are much better suited for a first sales role in any early-stage tech company.
- The candidate needs to be flexible and versatile
Being the first sales team member in an early-stage company is not easy. It’s not as simple as doing lead generation or qualifying. This job requires you to A/B test and run email campaigns, create sales decks, communicate customer feedback to executives, as well as a myriad of other ad hoc jobs along the way.
Some people are much better at this juggling act than others. You can get a sense of how candidates will (or will not) thrive in such an environment by digging into their background and previous work experiences. Do they have any previous experience with an earlier stage (at or before Series B) tech company? How narrow or wide were their responsibilities at previous companies?
Unless you’re hiring for a very specific role and expect the scope of work to stay narrow, you will generally want to avoid potential hires who are overly focused on one single thing. A salesperson with broad general skills and experiences is the path forward.
How to ensure your sales team hits the ground running
It’s theory to have found the perfect person for the job and practice to see that person succeed in the role. Bridging that gap between theory and practice is done by creating the right foundation for new hires. Otherwise, you simply cannot expect a first sales teammate to hop aboard without any structure, process, or goals and hit the ground running smoothly. So what does that preparation look like? It’s less complicated than you might think.
- Design an onboarding process
With many early-stage tech companies, onboarding is usually just a casual conversation or two or sometimes an unstructured AMA with the founders. We highly encourage you to take a more intentional approach by designing an onboarding process for new sales hires. Not only does this help give new hires the whole picture, it also productively forces you to map out and transfer what you know about selling effectively.
We simply can’t overstate how important it is for this knowledge transfer to occur. As a founder, especially if you’ve singlehandedly led sales efforts thus far, there’s a wealth of knowledge about pitching, positioning, handling common objections, and identifying the right opportunities that you have to share. Based on our experience, the more detailed your sales knowledge transfer is, the more likely your first sales hire will make a positive impact quickly on your company’s sale’s numbers.
- Set sales goals
Beyond the sales knowledge transfer, setting sales goals is also key to ensuring things get underway smoothly. Every good salesperson is going to ask, “what’s the sales quota?” For salespeople, this is the northern star, guiding all efforts and actions through their day-to-day work. Though a fundamentally basic component of a healthy sales organization, most early-stage tech companies don’t often define these goals until the first hire (many not even then!).
Since sales efforts have been led by you, the founder, it’s common for the sales goal to simply be, “as many paying customers as possible.” Though great as an idea, effective salespeople need more concrete goals. So make sure to define what you expect from your first sales hire in terms of prospecting, lead generation, and conversions.
- Set a sales process
Where goals are a guiding light for salespeople, the sales process acts as the rails to success. Now, you might not have a fully standardized, lock-tight sales process as an early-stage tech company. That’s completely understandable. On the flip side of the coin, you shouldn’t have a blank canvas either.
Even if it’s subject to change over time, make sure that you map the existing sales process for new hires. This will provide critical structure in the early days, helping your new sales teammate gather their bearings.
If you need some inspiration to do so, there are plenty of great resources online. You can check out Hubspot’s in-depth guide to creating a sales process.
Finding the right balance after you hire
The three sections above all revolve around your new sales hire – what will help them the most and how to make sure they succeed. This final section comes back around to you, the founder. Throughout the entire process of hiring, onboarding, and coaching new sales teammates, you will have to strike a balance between being involved in everything sales and being totally removed. You neither want to be a micro-manager of your first sales team member, nor do you want to fully outsource such a critical aspect of your company to an early hire. Finding that equilibrium takes some time and will require self-awareness throughout.
We generally recommend that you stay a part of the sales process, even after you have hired and onboarded a dedicated sales team member. For many of our early-stage tech company partners, this means having your sales team member run point on prospecting, lead generation, demos, etc. After a prospect is through the doors and close to making a purchasing decision, many founders then enter the picture to close. There are other ways to go about keeping one foot in sales, as well. We encourage you to experiment with that balance and find what works best with your sales team.
You should feel excited about hiring your first dedicated sales person. It’s an excellent time in the development of every tech company. And it often shows that you are on the right track, turning the corner on product-market fit and headed toward bigger growth