Startups: The all important first sales hire. Rock stars need not apply.

Hiring the best talent is difficult. That’s why there is a whole industry dedicated to getting someone else to do it for you.

Hiring the right salespeople is harder still.

The process is fraught with potential stumbling blocks. Even if you do end up working with a recruiter, you will still have to make some decisions along the way.

The following few points will help you avoid some of the pitfalls and put you on the right track to hiring the ideal candidate for your next phase of growth.

 

When is the right time?

I’m a firm believer the founders of a business make the best salespeople in the first instance.

Founders need to take the feedback from early sales discussions and translate these into the development of their product or service. They need to stress test the value proposition and start thinking about what their ideal customer looks like.

Their enthusiasm, passion and knowledge are all invaluable (and impossible to emulate fully). These points alone are incredibly powerful and can close early sales. Asking someone to sell your product before you have successfully sold it yourself is a recipe for disaster. Particularly when you take into account the extra sales power you have simply being the founder of a business.

How long a founder needs to sell for depends on a multitude of factors. Funding plays a big part. Sales in bootstrapped startups will inevitably sit with the founders for longer than a business with any kind of investment in place.  That said, simply because you have the money to do so, doesn't mean you should immediately rush out and hire a salesperson. Similarly, some products are easier than others to sell. The more complex, the longer a founder will need to be involved in frontline selling.

There is also a danger of waiting too long to recruit your first hire. As companies progress, the founders will get pulled in a number of directions. When this happens, things will start slipping through the cracks. Sales tends to be the thing that falls off first. Immediate problems and urgent product issues will trump sales. Bear in mind that recruitment can take some time so it’s crucial to start the process in good time to avoid a dip in activity.

 

What to look for

You may have never hired a salesperson or perhaps you have hired someone for a more established company. The rules change when you are hiring for a startup. There is less of a formula and spotting latent potential is often the key to success.

 

Experience

Without prying, I’m always equally interested in the candidate's personal journey as his or her professional path. How someone overcomes adversity tells you a lot about their ability to deal with pressure and successfully turnaround problems. If you have visions of the SAS selection process you're taking it too far but getting a sense of gumption is crucial. By nature, life in an early stage startup can be unpredictable and things happen at pace. You need someone that is prepared for this and can keep up.

I’ve never been too concerned about directly relevant industry experience. I’d go as far to say that it can be an inhibitor in some cases. You want a record of success and achievement but it could be in unrelated areas (within reason). Selling a disruptive technology often requires a fresh approach. The tried and tested can be misleading.

Previous sales experience should be a prerequisite. You need someone that can establish a sales process and develop the go to market strategy without support. This will tend to rule out very junior people but be wary of someone too experienced. I’ll come onto this in more detail in the personality section.

Hiring someone with a black book of connections that can be converted immediately may seem tempting but it’s putting an unhealthy amount of power with one individual. Expecting one person to change the fortunes of your business is unrealistic and won’t lead to sustainable growth. What’s healthier is to recruit someone with the right skills, attitude and business acumen to build a sales engine that will work for the company now and into the future.

 

Personality

This is incredibly important. You need someone that can think for themselves and has an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s likely that you will only have the beginnings of a scalable sales process in place. You’ll need the individual to help develop this part of the business and the ability to do this only comes with experience.

Conversely, you don’t want to hire someone that is unprepared to get in the trenches with you. A senior salesperson from a larger company will be used to having a team around them to develop leads, do research etc. This won't be the case so you need to find someone with the right balance of experience. Ego can play a part in this too – if someone thinks they are above picking up the phone etc. then they won't be right.

 

Cultural fit

In an increasingly competitive recruitment market, an organisation’s culture is becoming an important differentiator. If you're investing time and money in building the right culture, it’s crucial any new hire is bought into and fits with this vision. Recruitment is expensive and when you find the right person, you want them to stick around.

If you’re building a culture that is centered around a flat organisational structure and promotes collaboration, someone that is looking for order, rules and a more rigid hierarchy might not be the best fit. It’s also worth thinking ‘will I get on with this person?’. You’re going to be spending lots of time with them so it’s important you like them.

 

Rock stars need not apply

There is clearly a lot to consider and the task of finding the right person will feel daunting. However, with the right combination of business instinct and the correct processes, some of the risk can be mitigated.

I have one final plea.

Please, can we put an end to using the term ‘Rock Star’ in job adverts – that is, unless you are looking for an egotistical prima donna with bad hair.

 

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