Ask the Expert: How can startups drive sales?


I can’t count how many times colleagues of mine from prior companies who ran multimillion dollar technology sales organizations took a long sigh after a hard week and said, “Boy, in my next role, I just want to go work in a startup and run sales.”

The interesting point in many of those situations is that they are usually very successful individuals who have zero experience building, running or living in a startup environment. The idea that running sales in a startup provides a reprieve to the grind they face at a large enterprise is completely false.

The reason is simple: Building a sales funnel with a company that has zero market share and brand recognition within an often crowded market of companies targeting the same organizations can be an uphill battle.

We are seeing a surge of new ideas, innovation and startups here in New Hampshire, which has propelled the issue of how to drive new sales within an early-stage startup.

First, many technology founders often deal with the reality they must look up from their coding desk, step on a train to New York or hop on a call at 3 a.m. with Asia Pacific to pitch their product to prospects — yes, they become a founder and head of sales in one package. Nobody understands the product better than a founder since they built and researched the market opportunity. The challenge they face is that their skillset does not always align with how to obtain market share and build a brand. They’ve simply never had the sales development experience.

This isn’t necessarily a negative, it can be an opportunity to solidify a partnership with someone who does have the experience to drive customer acquisition. As part of growing a prosperous company, you must ensure you have a successful partnership with an outside business development leader.

A head of sales in a new startup does not require 25 years of experience in the Fortune 1000 space. Some of the best leaders are individuals singularly focused on driving market acquisition; they understand the technology, possess tenacity and can drive the vision and focus in organizations.

These hard-working individuals must hustle and serve in the beginning as the only sales professional in the company. This provides them the opportunity to really fine tune the acquisition model no differently than a tech founder refining the actual product. The partnership must be met with similar drive, passion and unwavering focus just like the founder believing every call or meeting could result in a win. This is especially important in the early stage seed funding where every dollar counts and there is little room for error.

A couple of initial points to help propel customer acquisition:

Partnerships: Often, there are integrators who hold master service agreements (MSAs) with larger corporations. Putting in a residual commission structure for partner or a re-sell component works nicely in these arrangements. Integrators who see value in a startup technology they do not have in their portfolio allows them to gain an edge over their competition. It also provides additional feet on the street for a startup without having to hire a salesforce as those partners begin to evangelize the technology. The caution here is that this takes time to nurture, so it is only one component.

Adaptive focus: Trying to be everything to all companies is a mistake startups make in their sales cycles. Everyone wants to land General Electric. However, you can’t realistically sell into every business unit and make blind promises that can’t be supported.

Customer focus: Once a customer has agreed to partner with a company, the number one focus post-sale is driving success for them. Procedures, operations and overall support will be modified around your customer so be prepared to throw away the 30-page manual you documented for them. Organic upsell and longterm partnerships can define early stage success in the market, protecting your new client base. Your customers are also your best salespeople, providing referenceable voices to your prospects.

New Hampshire is becoming a leader in the technology ecosystem space with more organizations starting regularly. Several startup companies percolating in the New Hampshire tech ecosystem are adding jobs and growing market share, because they recognize the value of these sales concepts. So be on the lookout for their success.

Gary Sloper Jr. of Oracle + Dyn is the head of sales engineering and customer success for the company’s Cloud Edge Services Globally. He is a board member with Alpha Loft, and the New Hampshire High Tech Council, which both assist early-stage technology companies to become successful through various programs.