From a one-man startup to a large established company with international sales teams, to big successful exits, I’ve lived through the startup process twice and am now starting it again here at Spiro Technologies.

One of the questions I’m most often asked is how to scale and grow a sales team from the bottom up. At an early stage start-up, who should be in charge and what roles do I need as the company grows?

I’m going to focus on the two earliest stages here because they’re probably the most difficult. As an old professor of mine said, “it’s a big difference between zero and one.”

Adam Honig is the Co-Founder & CEO of Spiro, a personal sales assistant app for salespeople who like to make more money.

Stage 0: Defining Yourself

If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.

You’re starting from nothing – it’s just you and maybe one or two other people in your company. You’ve created a product and you think you’re ready to sell it. (If you’re worried you’re bringing it to market too quickly, listen to the words of Reid Hoffman: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” )

How do you go about selling your somewhat embarrassing product? At this point, you might be tempted to hire sales professionals. DON’T.

This early engagement with prospects is the kind of experience you don’t want to miss out on. It’s critical that you’re a part of defining who your company is and what your company can offer. 

When I began my CRM consulting company, Innoveer, I was thrown into the mix with no ground to stand on when it came to competing against the big boys. We had to get some solid customers to vouch for us and we had to do it fast.

For the next three months I called everyone I knew, doing trial and error pitches until it coalesced into a few good ideas. We trimmed a lot of fat and eventually came up with a streamlined angle that won us our first big customer: Reynolds Metals, makers of aluminum foil.

We were on the 20th iteration of our pitch at the point when we finally broke through. We told them that our company was a specialized firm that could deliver projects much more quickly than Accenture, whom Reynolds was working with at the time.

Our latest pitch boiled down to “we had a highly specialized team doing projects at a fraction of the cost and half the time of Accenture.”

Our pitch was simple, but effective, because we had an angle that defined us and a customer who understood our value.

Reading our value proposition today you might be tempted to say “gee, that sounds simple; what took you 20 iterations to get it right?” When you’re at a zero stage startup, it’s tricky to know exactly the right message because all the possibilities in the world are in front of you. You will know you found the right message when it seems so obvious.

Stage 1: Growing a Reference Base

After answering the all-important product-market-fit question, most startup folks then focus on scale: starting marketing campaigns, adding new employees, etc.

But what about having the right references to make it all work?

You’re nobody until you’re somebody. It sounds like circular reasoning, but it’s true. Without a solid bunch of customers vouching for you, you’re just another Joe Shmoe wan-trepeneur.

It’s important to not only have references, but to choose the RIGHT references. The good ones will help shape and guide your company to other future customers who are the right fit. So how do you determine who you should be targeting?

Start by defining your ideal buyer.

Don’t hold back. Make a list of all the qualities in your dream customer. Use data you’ve collected from Stage Zero’s trial and error experience defining your angle: keep track of what works, what doesn’t work, and key metrics.

What you should be paying attention to depends on your market. At my first company, Open Environment, for example, we were primarily looking at the size of a company, what their technical infrastructure was like and the maturity of their business processes.

It can seem like an uphill battle to convince people to buy your product when you’re a new startup. In our case, we had to convince companies to buy mission-critical, middleware software from a startup with a limited track record.

Once Open Environment started working with Freddie Mac (also known as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), an organization that transacted billions of dollars worth of mortgages over our platform, everything changed.

We now had an ideal customer to overcome our number one objection in the sales process.

We name-dropped Freddie Mac as our customer everywhere we went – at trade shows and in all of our presentations. We put one of their key employees on our customer advisory board and made sure the technical support they received was second to none.

They were a key reason for our success which lead to an IPO and eventual sale of the company.

Stage 2: Scaling

Because you now have a model of what your target costumer should be, you should start building your sales team with Business Development Reps. BDRs, as they’re called, are going to be focused on setting up appointments for you as a founder to talk with prospects to grow your company even bigger.

This stage is all about scaling and you’ll need to hire more BDRs and enhance your marketing programs. You’ll know you’re ready to move to this stage once you’ve built the right references.

Before I became an entrepreneur, I was a salesman, and like many successful salespeople, I’m very goal-focused. To set goals, you must ask yourself some questions:

  • What do you envision your sales team looking like?
  • Who’s going to do the selling, what roles do you need?
  • Of course, it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

The most important thing in starting a team from the ground up is making sure you give it a good foundation. Use you head, and think strategically. Make sure you fit your market by testing out a bunch of pitches until you see what works, then target your ideal buyer to build a reference base.

Start with your feet on solid ground and you’ll go far!

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