More on Sales Explorers, Settlers & Prospectors
Wrapping up our series on scaling startups and how sales teams evolve
One of the topics in sales that always got under my skin was the discussion of hunters versus farmers. The reason it rankled me was it seemed too simplistic, that there were only these two types of sales people. Looking at my own experience and what I had experienced with sales team large and small, it was never that cut and dry.
What we are told is that hunters get new customers and farmers grow these customers bigger. I would meet “hunters” that essentially babysat enterprise accounts and “farmers” that had to go on the hunt to grow the business across different divisions of a global organization. The best sales professionals were the ones versatile enough to aggressive prospect new business and build long-term relationships.
Some years later, another model became popular in describing sales profiles. This was the challenger sale that classified sales professionals as challengers, lone wolves, hard workers, relationship builders, and problem solvers. This was research based on work from CEB (now Gartner) that had investigated what makes for a successful sales rep.
Again, while it created nice orderly buckets by which to categorize sales reps, it did not represent what I was seeing in the field. These personas certainly exist, but as characteristics. The best sales reps I have ever worked with were a combination of these characteristics which they turned on or off as warranted by the situation.
The past few weeks I have talked about how sales teams evolve as a startup grows and scales. As the team evolves through each stage, it requires calibrating the skills and types of sales reps that can best succeed in each stage. In the early days, the team is scrappy and entrepreneurial. When product-market fit is stronger, the team needs to be more systematic and start refining the sales process. Then in the hyperscale phase, you need a team that is focused on executing the playbook.
I categorize the types of sales professionals in this framing as Sales Explorers, Sales Settlers, and Sales Prospectors. As you might guess, I am also painting sales with an overly broad brush. Just like the hunter / farmer or challenger sales model of sellers, these are generalities based on observation from being in the startup world for over a decade both as an individual contributor and leader.
My views on such frameworks have shifted over the years. I have come to accept that the challenger framing is valid in so much that it provides a language for leaders to help hire, train, and coach the reps on their team. In a similar way, the Explorer, Settler, Prospector (ESP) framework is a helpful language for leaders as they are thinking through how to prioritize hiring, training, coaching, and operations across stages of startup scale.
With any framework, there will be exceptions, some of which were made in comments and posts referring to this series. One such example is time I was at Stack Overflow. I described my work as being that of a Sales Explorer since we were launching an entirely new Enterprise SaaS product. However, in our startup within a startup we have three other sales teams. One was focused on ad product sales, a team for sales of our talent product, and a strategic accounts team that worked with the highest revenue generating accounts or highest potential prospects (so both hunter and farmer).
You could say we have Explorers, Settlers, and Prospectors in one company! It certainly seemed that way given that we had three different products (Enterprise SaaS, advertising, and hiring solutions) and different personas we were reaching out to (CTO / engineering teams, marketing teams, and talent management teams). Yes, it was wildly complex and our Salesforce setup was a horror show.
Not many startups have such a complex multi-product setup. Most however will eventually create separate teams to more effectively sell to specific segments of the market. The most common setup is a small business team focused on more transactional, lower ACV (account contract value) sales, a mid-market team where deals sizes and cycles get more complex, and then an enterprise team working on the most strategic and high margin business. You can also have industry specialist teams that are like SWAT teams that help companies to secure business leveraging credibility and relationships.
When you are segmenting teams, the ESP framework still applies. The framing is not based on segmented markets, but on phase of startup maturity and sophistication of sales processes and operations. In fact, the framework can influence a decision to create segmented teams because as you learn more about the sales motion and start capturing account data more consistently, you start to see patterns emerge may indicate the need for segmented teams or hiring specialists.
A more reasonable argument against my ESP framing though is how I described the skills needed. Doesn’t an enterprise sales person no matter the phase of startup need to be entrepreneurial and creative? The mistake in this thinking however is assuming enterprise reps are all “Explorers”. This is a common mistake many founders make when hiring their first sales rep. They bring on the rep that has pedigree working at known companies over the actual skills needed, and the result is almost always a disaster a few months into the sales rep joining.
The typical Enterprise Sales professional is quite process driven and focused on executing the playbook rather than building the playbook. Like Explorers, they do need to be creativity, scrappy, and work around the processes on occasion to get these larger deals secured. The framing I created was not at the exclusion of other skills that might be needed or may be valued culturally in an organization. Rather ESP is for getting a sense of what sales professionals on the team most prioritize.
Another group of comments to my ESP series is that sales reps have often grown with their startups from the early Explorer days to the hyperscale Prospector stage. I have indeed seen that myself and it does happen. I have two observations though. First, not many sales reps survive in a company that long, so what we are seeing is an example of survivor’s bias where we only hear of those that successfully ramped up with the company. Second, most of those early Explorer and Settler reps that started as individual contributors are usually in leadership ore management roles.
The last point I want to cover is startups that focus on high transaction, high volume, low ticket sales motions. The sales cycle is shorter, you have one or a couple of decision makers, and the process can be broken down into simple templates. The assumption is that it is easier to figure out the process.
I often see founders skipping from founder selling to hyperscale selling assuming they got the sales process all figured out. This however would be scaling sales prematurely. There is a lot of nuance in high transaction sales that you might gloss over if you do not take the time to learn, refine, and reiterate the process. Even if the learning is condensed into a few months before hitting the accelerator, this will give you enough data to analyze how best to scale and ensure your process really is scale ready.
Of course, there are always particular circumstances that are unique to your startup or company. I would love to hear what you think and what I might not have fully covered over the course of this series on startup sales. This is our opportunity to learn together as a community and raise the level of our sales acumen.
Speaking of community, it has been an awesome year of sharing with you and this global Enterprise Sales Forum community. Thanks for making this newsletter a part of your sales learning journey and that these posts have given you plenty to ponder and put ideas into action.
If you want to get involved, whether hosting a chapter, contributing to this newsletter, or participating in some other way, please reach out and let me know!
Mark Birch, Founder of Enterprise Sales Forum
The Enterprise Sales Forum is a professional community championing the practice of sales through monthly sales talks at chapters globally. Our chapters provide an open, collaborative and diverse environment to share new ideas, network and learn actionable insights for professional sales development.