Do you work in a start-up? Do you look around every once in a while and say, "You know what we need? We need to hire a salesperson to really get this company off the ground?" Well, you're probably wrong.
It's strange for me, a lifelong salesman who started a company to help salespeople, to advocate not hiring one of my own. But that's exactly what I'm suggesting, at least until you and your company are ready. Here's why:
1. Salespeople need something to sell.
Some thing—not a concept or a prototype. In general, salespeople stink at product development. They excel at revenue development. If you are envisioning a great salesperson rounding up customers for your idea, your beta trial, or your brand new service, then you are dreaming. Good morning sunshine!
2. Salespeople are expensive.
The better a salesperson is, the more expensive he is. If a salesperson feels your product isn't ready to bring to his contacts, she will hold back. Experienced salespeople are more protective of their contacts than the memory of their high school sweetheart. So for every day that your new sales gun thinks your product isn't awesome, she is paying a big opportunity cost by working at your start-up. And she is going to charge you for it either in money or in frustration.
And if you find a salesperson who offers to work for equity, ask her how many times she's blown away her quota. Chances are she never has. Don't make the hire. If you do find the exception to the rule, that person isn't in sales—she is a co-founder. Give her equity (that vests).
3. Salespeople are hopelessly optimistic.
If you hire a salesperson, he is going to run at the job like a pole-vaulter. He knows he'll clear the pole. But it's a rare salesperson who can keep the energy up if he doesn't get quick, positive feedback from potential customers. After a couple of weeks of failing, most good salespeople are going to start thinking about other poles they could be clearing. And the ones that just want to hang on to the job? Well, there's no quicker way to murder your company vibe than listening to your new salesman get dinged on 60 cold calls a day.
4. Salespeople are mostly risk-adverse.
Call it the curse of the fat bonus. A salesperson who has made $200,000 or $300,000 for a few years in a row is going to be counting the days until she can make that again. There just aren't that many money-really-doesn't-mean much-to-me-it's-the-work-that's-important kind of salespeople.
So please, don't hire a salesperson to figure out what your customers need or whether they will buy some future product that might have some certain set of features. That's the job of the founding CEO. Yes, it's your job, even if you are an engineer.
How do you know that you are ready to hire a salesperson? Consider these three things:
1. There's enough opportunity.
It will vary by company, but $1 million is the number I use. There has to be another $1 million in revenue that you can identify but that you cannot pull into your company because you are too busy selling to other people. If you can identify $1 million worth of prospects, it's a great time to hire a salesperson.
2. Your product is awesome.
What does that mean to a salesperson? It means you have reference clients—paying customers who the salesperson can leverage. When she sees your customer list, you want her to think, "Oh man, if the founder can get these customers, I am going to KILL IT here."
3. Your culture can handle an influx of sales energy.
If you have a tight, technical team, bringing in salespeople is going to change the atmosphere like a high-pressure system moving into the tropics. Batten down the hatches.
Hiring a salesperson too early is a great way to distract the team, waste your money, and bury a company. Hiring one too late means you won't grow as fast as you otherwise could. It's best to be on time, of course, but given the risks and rewards, it's much better to wait until you, your product, and your company have reached some of the milestones I've mentioned. Then make that first sales hire.