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Headset lying on a computer keyboard (Gajus/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Headset lying on a computer keyboard (Gajus/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Five tips for building a startup sales team Add to ...

“Founders are the best salespeople.” You’ve heard it a million times. In theory, they have the most product knowledge, enthusiasm and motivation to close deals. Unfortunately, you can’t scale an business based on a couple of co-founders’ cold calling.

What happens in practice? At my last startup, Field ID, we realized early on that selling our product ourselves put a major strain on our resources. Here’s the story of how we built a sales and marketing machine that eventually led to a successful acquisition in 2012. (While I’d like to say we pulled this off effortlessly, we made a few rookie mistakes in the process and learned a lot). I hope you find value in our story and use these lessons to grow your own business:

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Tip 1: Make sure there’s demand for your product. First, you need to ask yourself one simple question: Are people actually buying your product? In the early days you may not have many sales. For two years my co-founder, Shaun Ricci, and I were the only two people selling our software. We started off selling, in person, with PowerPoint presentations. From there we ‘evolved’ to marketing at trade shows, collecting leads and visiting prospects in real life (too many nights in cheap motels). From there, we started building lists, cold calling and closing deals over the phone using screen sharing software (GoToMeeting in our case). It was only after this long learning experience that we realized people actually really wanted to buy our software. At this point, we were only limited by marketing dollars and a lack of salespeople.

Tip 2: Hire salespeople in pairs. The first mistake we made was hiring one salesperson. The problem with hiring one salesperson is that you have no basis of comparison. It’s not exactly fair to compare their performance with the founders. By hiring at least two people at a time you can start figuring out the type of profile that defines success at your company. This is important: If you can afford to hire one salesperson, you can afford to hire two. Your bottom line will thank you in the end. In the beginning, building a sales team is an iterative process with a lot of trial and error. Don’t give up here. It’s still early.

Tip 3: Don’t hire based on recommendations alone. The second mistake we made was using a recommendation as the basis of a hire. Now, this may seem counterintuitive. You always hear how referrals are the best way to bring in new employees. Unfortunately, research has shown that finding the right salespeople for your company is much more complex. Even if someone was a rockstar at a huge company, they may struggle at a startup. The skill set and personality traits of someone who can sell with a big brand behind them versus sell something from a scrappy startup are completely different. If you have no other benchmark, focus on people who are a good cultural fit in the beginning.

Tip 4: Have the right tools and process in place. To start scaling your sales team you have to have a CRM (customer relationship management) system. You need to have a way to structure your sales activity, otherwise you’re just flying blind. We started using a CRM from the start. As founders, we logged our calls, e-mails, and built our pipeline. NetSuite and Salesforce.com are classics, but there are many others there. Note: it’s not enough to simply have a CRM. You must ensure your sales reps are actually using it. You’ll want to start figuring out key metrics: ramp up time per sales rep, appropriate quotas per rep, pipeline growth, etc. Save yourself the future frustration and start collecting metrics from day one.

Tip 5: Use psychometric assessments, not gut feeling. We started using psychometric assessments (think eHarmony) very early in our sales hiring process. It was a tip that another tech company gave us. Think you can gut feel your way to picking a good performer? Yup, so did we. The reality is that it’s very difficult to predict future performance based on resumes and interviews alone. By using data-backed psychometric assessments to provide you insights into someone’s personality and cultural fit you can begin to understand what works for you, at your company. Over time, the data you gain from psychometric assessments, combined with your sales team’s performance data from your CRM, can bring some valuable insights into what is working for your company.

Building a sales team isn’t an easy or an overnight process, but it’s a necessary step for most companies to get to the next level. Ultimately, building a sales team is all about understanding the economics of each salesperson. David Skok has some great resources on his blog about the economics of a salesperson. Good luck and keep selling.

Somen Mondal is a Canadian entrepreneur and the co-Founder & CEO of Ideal Candidate. Ideal Candidate matches talented salespeople with their perfect sales job, maximizing the earning potential of both candidates and employers.

Prior to Ideal Candidate, Somen served as co-Founder & CEO of Field ID until it was successfully acquired by Master Lock LLC (a subsidiary of NYSE:FBHS) in December 2012. Somen’s leadership helped earn Field ID a spot on the Profit Hot 50 and Deloitte Fast 50 Companies-to-Watch lists.

In 2012, Somen was named winner of the Ontario Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the “Emerging Entrepreneur” category.

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