In January 1848, a discovery was made that would transform a backwater territory of the US into the economic powerhouse state of California. At the site of a new lumber mill called Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, James Marshall found shiny deposits that were confirmed to be gold.
It only took a few months until the discovery of gold reached across the US. In the ensuing years after the discovery, people from all over the world converged on the settlement of San Francisco to seek their fortunes. In six years time, the San Francisco population ballooned from 200 to over 36,000, California attained statehood, and led to an economic boom.
On the front line of the California Gold Rush were people that would become to be known as forty-niners (“49er’s”). Over 90,000 alone arrived in California in 1849, reaching over 300,000 by 1855 at the end of the first gold rush. By then, it was gold mining companies rather than individual prospectors that were retrieving most of the gold.
Over the past few posts, I have been talking about the different stages of how sales teams evolve in startups. In the initial stages, sales are mostly founder led, then a few maverick and entrepreneurial sales reps are added. These are your “Sales Explorers”. Then as the sales motion is further developed, the sales team evolves to becoming one of “Sales Settlers”, that more process driven and further develop standardized sales plays to enable the startup to scale faster in addressing aggressive growth needs.
There is a last phase of evolution however that startups experience as they emerge as a public entity or hyperscale private business. This is where a startup goes from plucky upstart to market category leader and seeks to further their market lead. The rapid growth rates become more modest and smoothed out, as financial gains come more from optimization and growing existing relationships than net new acquisition (note there is a key exception to this addressed in the next post).
This means the needs of the sales team must change. What was once valued early on from teams in terms of creativity and flexibility are no longer as important. At this stage, the sales process is a religious formula. What is required is a sales team and sales leadership that can execute the playbook with maximum efficiency and maniacal focus.
I sometimes call this the “don’t think, do” phase of selling. The sales process is much like a manufacturing assembly line. From demand generation to close, each step is orchestrated to a high level of precision, from lead scoring, to qualification, to deal stages. While each deal will have its own nuances, over many deals it is much easier to predict outcomes based on data.
The startups at this stage needs “Sales Prospectors” that can execute at scale and with precision. There is no need to deviate from the script at this point or to put one’s own spin on things. The winning formula is to stick to the process. For sales managers, this means reinforcing training and compliance with the sales process. For sales operations, it means rigorously reviewing sales data to spot and uncover any deviance from the script. And for the sales reps, they need to shut up and sell.
Now that sounds horribly dismissive. Sales after all is a profession where execution is critical, regardless of the type of selling one is doing. The reality though is that sales people possess different skills and talents. Some will be more strategic, others are more entrepreneurial, and then some will be insanely effective tactical executors. We are all on a spectrum where some skills we excel at and others we struggle with. There are some environments where we will thrive and others where we will flame out fast.
I had some conversations last week at AWS re:Invent with several B2B enterprise sellers talking about this very topic. One of the reps liked the puzzle of figuring out the sales process as the first seller. Once they brought in management over him, he was done. Another felt much more comfortable when all the ambiguity was removed from the process and she could simply hone in on the job at hand. Both were top performers year after year, but working in phases of a startup where they could best excel with their skills and experiences.
For our Sales Prospectors, there are five traits that enable them to thrive in this capacity of pure execution driven sales:
Process-driven - Whereas sales settlers also follow process, the prospectors see process as more than steps to possibly follow. They see it as the clear path to winning and will use process as a competitive advantage in capturing business. They will use the CRM and other sales tools religiously to capture data and monitor their progress. By following the process, they maintain control of their destiny and ensure they hit and smash their numbers.
Efficiency - Because of their intense focus on the process, they are also looking to continuously iterate and improve their execution. CRM and tools are just one method of driving efficiencies, there are also templates, methods, and “hacks” that reps use to achieve more volume of activity. At this stage of the business, effort and outcomes are proportional, so the more that effort can be reduced, the higher the revenue potential because a rep can get more done.
Speed - It is not just about efficient at this stage. Sales reps are focused on speed of results. They will make faster decisions such as faster qualification, faster to move deals on or off pipeline, and faster to close on deals. Working at a faster pace brings some disadvantages, but is more ideal at this stage because the sales process has little ambiguity. The result is fewer decisions and less think time needed by the rep.
Tenacity - While persistence is required for any sales role at any stage, I highlight it here since prospecting is where most of the success and failure comes down to at this stage. The easy sales are over, and now it is often a ground and pound, brute force game to continue the sales momentum. Of any sales activity, prospecting is the most challenging and taxing of any effort, and thus requires a ton of resilience to push through. The most successful sellers however do not complain, they dive in deeper to get the job done in building pipeline and maintaining a high level of activity.
Competitive - Lastly, sales prospectors are highly competitive with themselves and their peers. Again, a competitive spirit is part of what makes up any sales professional. With a much larger team at this stage however, motivating and engaging reps becomes harder at scale. Providing more sales incentives, contests, and awards helps to keep the energy and excitement high. This only works however if the sales reps themselves are highly competitive and motivated to compete for the awards and incentives.
Sales prospectors in this way are not all that different from our 49er’s during the California Gold Rush. They are mostly attracted to the opportunity and quick wins of instant wealth. There has been a thread in conversations about sales that being mostly motivated by money is a negative signal in hiring. I disagree with this notion. In fact, you want sellers that are motivated by the ability to generate wealth for themselves.
The gold rush prospectors simply came with their supplies and tools like shovels, pans, and picks, to the region and set up shop along one of the river banks. Then it was a process of panning all day long to extract the gold flakes from the river and streams. Their job was simply to execute, and if they persevered, then they would strike gold and achieve life changing wealth.
This is not all that different for sales prospectors. They come with their tools and skills and setup shop to focus on the job at hand. The explorers and settlers already created and refined the sales process for the prospectors to sell at scale. This is because many of the questions about how to win have already been answered.
For this to operate however requires a much larger and more sophisticated sales back end to support sales at scale. The 49er’s had a robust economy and supply chains that supported their prospecting efforts. Likewise sales enablement and sales operations teams are established and fully staffed to support sellers. They not only build out the backend processes, and are using a variety of tools to manage lead scoring, deal tracking, territory management, account planning, data enrichment, contracts management, sales compensation, reporting, and more. They are the lifeblood of sales teams at scale.
Are there exceptions to this model of sales explorers, settlers, and prospectors? Of course there are! This is simply one framework that may differ based on industry, market, and solution. From what I have seen of most B2B technology companies from inception to public entity however, this model generally holds. Next week, I will talk about some of the typical exceptions and where you are more likely to see hybrid models employed.
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.