The Sales Explorer
For early stage startups, sales is all about experimenting
It has been a few weeks since the last newsletter mostly because I have been on the road evangelizing. What am I talking about? Well, I was traveling around to various events to do what I do best, share the good word of AWS to the uninitiated and covert the unconverted to our cloud platform.
Some folks over the past year have reached out to ask what it is I do at AWS. In the past, we used to call ourselves Evangelists. There were Developer Evangelists that were highly accomplished developers that would reach out to other developers. As a Startup Evangelist, I do the same thing, but I mostly engage with startup founders to provide guidance from both a technical and business perspective.
Over the past year, we switched the verbiage to use the less loaded word Advocate. Nothing about the role however has changed. We are meant to be out among the people to tell the story of how AWS helps startups and builders to grow, build, and scale faster.
The job of advocacy is to influence at scale. Branding and marketing outreach have scale, but rarely has the impact to influence decision making. Sales does involve influence, but is limited by the ability to scale other than through adding salespeople. Advocacy on the other hand is able to build influence by earning trust across various channels using mechanisms to engage audiences more broadly.
Last time I talked about the different type of sales reps that are needed based on the maturity and growth stage of your startup. I introduced three specific sales profiles:
Explorers – early stage startup sales
Settlers – post product-market fit sales
Prospectors – scaleup phase sales
These are general characterizations, but it’s a useful framework for the type of team you may need. In the early days when the product-market fit is fluid, you need more entrepreneurial salespeople. As product-market fit is more certain, you need a team that can experiment, but also implement process to identify the right sales motion. Then once the sales motion is established and the company needs to scale quickly, you need a sales team that is focused on executing the playbook.
One of the biggest missteps I see startups make early on is bringing on the wrong type of sales talent for their stage. I had this exact conversation with a founder the week before at Web Summit. Our discussion went something like this:
“Have you narrowed down who you targeting for your initial sales efforts?” I asked the founder.
He looks me straight in the eye and replied, “Well I really think any business can benefit. I just a sales rep to sell our product.”
“What type of sale person did you have in mind?” I responded with a raised eyebrow.
“Does that matter, aren’t all salespeople the same? I just need a closer!”
This is just one of many similar conversations that are happening every day in the startup world. Early stage founders are trying to figure out their market. They are digging into the problems to solve and building solutions that have the potential to be game changers. What is missing is the bridge to connect the solution to customers that have the problem.
Hopefully the founder has done some of the leg work through initial customer discovery. This is the lean startup approach to identifying an impactful problem with future customers and honing in on potential solutions. The more capable of startup founders would have sold the initial handful of deals and have some notion of the value proposition, objections, personas, and target market. It helps if the founder has followed the 12 core B2B founder sales steps to gain at least a base level understanding of sales.
Unfortunately, some founders want to skip ahead and go straight to handing off sales to a “closer”. They hire on the sales rep with the impeccable track record, consistent quota overperformance, and large network. Unfortunately, those are reps that only succeed when the playbook is already baked. They have zero patience to wait and figure out the playbook.
The type of sales rep early stage startups need do not look like the typical rock star sales professional. In the book A Hard Thing about Hard Things, Ben Horowitz describes his attempt to convince the board to hire his chosen sales head, Mark Cranney, to lead his startup Opsware. Mark was awkward, nerdy, and did not go to the right school. However, he was the exact type of person to hire, someone who would have the patience, willingness, and intellectual firepower to figure out how to sell a product that was flailing in the market.
For an early stage startup that has only a handful of customers and no process to speak of, the right type of sales person looks a lot like an evangelist. They can inspire, tell stories, and reach audiences at scale across multiple channels. In addition to being a strong advocate however, sales explorer tend to be curious, adaptable, and experimental in their approach just like entrepreneurs.
The ability to try things out is critical because a lot of sales strategies and tactics in the early stage will fail miserably. At Stack Overflow, I had launched a scaled cold outbound email campaign for potential enterprise customers in Denver. The whole campaign was not just a bust, I yielded exactly zero leads, zero meetings, and zero revenue. All I managed to do was destroy trust with executive level prospects and waste a whole lot of my time.
A failed experiment however is not a failure. It is merely the starting point for eventually building the ladder of success. Basketball legend Michael Jordan said it best:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The explorer sales rep embraces the failure and the struggle as the path to success. Just as the product rapidly evolves through an iterative process, sales in a pre product-market fit startup also needs to iterate quickly in order to identify the key elements that lead to a repeatable sales process.
Getting to that repeatable sales process also means finding creative ways to jumpstart the top of the funnel. I often refer to early stage sales as a mix of sales and marketing, because there are simply not enough resources to dedicate to each. Therefore startups need to be resourceful in terms of lead generation and building pipeline, much like an explorer must live off what they find along the way.
This type of full-stack sales where reps are managing lead gen to close is often seen in industries like financial advisory and insurance sales. The producer is responsible for building up their book of business. While the branding and product marketing are taken care of by the employer, the sales rep responsible for lead generation through events, digital marketing, paid promotions, and other tactics that are most often the purview of marketers.
The last important trait of sales explorers is the ability to build and foster diverse relationships. These connections often seem far-flung and tangential to what is most needed for the startup in its current state. Explorers are building connections because they understand the importance of building alliances and partnerships for the long-term. Explorers are excellent at collaboration and while not every relationship will be worthwhile, all it takes is a few timely connections to accelerate growth or close a critical deal. In some ways, an explorer looks similar to business development in larger companies.
If you are a sales rep looking for opportunities to join an early stage startup, understand what you are potentially stepping into. Make sure you are aligned to what the startup needs according to their stage. Also ensure that your approach to sales can be an asset for the startup most needs. It is exceedingly hard to become an explorer if all you ever experienced was sales in a more established company. The reverse is also true, explorers are not comfortable just doing sales by the playbook because they want to write the playbook.
Speaking of job opportunities, I have two roles open to join my team as a Principal Startup Advocate at AWS. One role is based in the US and the other in EMEA. The role is a unique mix of both technical and business skills, and requires extensive experience in startups as a founder or executive. While there is a lot of customer facing activities such as speaking at events, creating content, and participating in various startup communities, there is also an important strategic aspect to the role in building programs that can scale the reach of AWS to startup audiences. You can read more about the role here and let me know if you or someone you know is interested in applying.
And if you want to understand more about the culture at AWS, I am co-hosting the AWS Cultureathon, a 25-hour global event on Clubhouse starting tonight at 6 PM PST (Tuesday, November 16) featuring folks at AWS sharing about what we do, how we work, and why our culture matters for innovation and serving our customers.
Thanks a lot of your patience in getting the newsletter out. Next week, I will talk about how best to wrap up the year strong and prepare for 2022. Then I will get back to the other two critical roles for startups sales to round out the year for the Enterprise Sales Forum.
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.