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2 Posts authored by: Subinder Khurana

Your startup will need solid sales management expertise to scale. Very rarely do founders have prior experience of scaling and managing a large sales operation. You will probably need to hire a VP of sales to scale -- the question is, when?  Any mistake is very expensive. Too late and you miss out on the all the growth, with resultant opportunities to raise capital (at a higher valuation), and you might even concede market lead to a faster competitor. Hire too early, and not only do you have an expensive resource draining precious early-stage capital, but we have seen numerous stories of rock star sales professionals failing in a startup (more on this later), especially when hired too early. Stakes are high. So how do you decide the right time to bring in a VP of Sales?

 


Well, to start, definitely not in the beginning. When your product or service is in a nascent stage, founders need to sell. The best definition of sales I have come across is: “transference of feeling from the salesperson to the prospect”. To transfer the right feeling (confidence in your product), you need to first have the feeling. Who except the founders has the feeling in the beginning?  By definition, nobody except the founders can sell in the beginning. Only you understand the intricacies of the product enough to adapt your pitch on the fly. Only you can make a promise which the product might not deliver today, but can with a quick adaptation.

 

Most importantly, in the beginning, before you have a credible, validated product with referenceable clients, you have to sell yourself, your own credibility -- which no hired professional can do for you. If as a founder you are unable or unwilling to sell -- you are not ready to be an entrepreneur.

 

So have to sell the first few customers. Reach out to your personal network and start from there. Tell a story. Create a pitch and keep refining it (often on the fly as you are listening to your customer), till it works reliably and repeatably. When you find a story that works repeatedly across customers, develop it to a level where others in your team can deliver it and add reference points (such as customer validation, and ideally, customer success stories) that create credibility.  This becomes your sales proposition.

 

Until you create a sales proposition, you can’t think of hiring a VP of sales. The sales proposition ought to have been proven at least at a small scale. This proven pitch should have already gotten you your first few customers. You need to have figured out how you handle the objections. Understand (to some degree) what profile of customer will buy your product. Know why and how you’re winning or losing.

 

Once you do all that, a VP of sales knows better than you how to scale up. He or she will create and professionalize the sales management and process. They will refine the pitch, build a pipeline, organization and process, and scale up a rate you were unlikely to achieve on your own. But he or she cannot get you your first few customers. That’s something only you can do.

 

When it comes to hiring, don’t just fall for the shiny resume. In my experience, the best indicator of success for a VP of sales (or for any hire, for that matter), is their attitude towards the company and the job. They have to respect the company and the opportunity, and look forward to the challenge. Remember that sales is a transference of feeling. If the candidate does not respect the company, they cannot sell effectively and will fail, and even their prior contacts will not convert. Always hire character and attitude, superior attitude will always trump superior skills.

 

While you are waiting for the right person, you can start with hiring a sales manager and sales support team. A founder should manage sales till a good candidate can be found. Develop the team, take help from advisors on sales management, and continue to scale. This reduces your risk of hiring the wrong person at a huge salary and regretting it later.

 

Lastly, seek help. Seek referrals, a referred candidate is far more likely to succeed than a headhunted candidate. If this is your first time hiring someone for an executive position, get help from advisors and mentors. Salesmen are supposed to be good at selling and that includes selling themselves. So, be wary. Take your time. Do not compromise on character and attitude and you will generally build a strong company.

Fundraising is one of the hardest jobs a founder will have. An average VC invests in one out of a thousand proposals they receive. You could spend months of time and effort and still have a very low probability of success.

 

I always advise founders to not chase capital unless it is essential to their success. In the early stages, capital is rarely the critical success factor. Time spent on customers and product is usually far more productive. Revenues is a much cheaper and faster source of capital, and more importantly, provides real validation and momentum. You should defer fundraising till you are ready to scale a validated proposition. Very few business models are critically dependent upon capital. Unless your model is (one of the rare ones) critically dependent on capital, your time is much better spent building the venture.

 

For fundraising success, credibility is more important than the idea. An investor will not hand over a large sum of money for just the promise of a possible return in the future, unless they trust you. They have to trust your integrity, competence and commitment. Demonstrate these qualities before and during the cycle.

 

Whenever you are ready to raise funds, avoid these common mistakes founders make in fundraising and pitching:

 

  1. Underestimating time & effort
    The cycle of fundraising demands your time and a lot of effort. It is is very tempting to start if you get a mail from a fund or see a event which promises to connect you to investors. Realize that to take the process to completion will require months of near full-time effort. Many times, the founders underestimate this and get stuck in the whole process. The venture suffers as a result. You should plan upfront for the time fundraising will require, and it’s better for one of the founders to be dedicated to fundraising and out of daily operations for the cycle.

  2. Drawing out the fundraising cycle
    A long drawn fundraising cycle is very taxing on the entrepreneur and the venture. Further, a long fundraising cycle creates a negative impression in the market, as investors assume that the company is unable to raise funding and is therefore flawed. Whenever to choose to engage with investors, run a well-planned and finite campaign. Identify all potential investors you want to reach, find a reference, connect and follow-up, and give yourself a defined timeline to close the process (either way), else you risk getting stuck in perpetual fundraising. Get advice on the process.

  3. Cold-calling investors
    Usually, founders are not linked with investors which is why they resort to cold-calling. This is a bad idea because you’re very unlikely to get anywhere this way. Investors rarely look at a proposal that has not come via a trusted reference. Fundraising is all about credibility. You have to build your credibility and network to reach out to them.

  4. Overcomplicating your pitch
    If you have not captured the investor’s interest within the first few minutes, they are likely to lose interest. What sells is a succinct story. An investor makes up their mind in the first few minutes of your pitch. The rest is just validation. So, keep it simple and compelling.

  5. Not being able to tell your story
    If you follow the templates and try to put in everything that you might think should be there in the pitch, you will probably end up losing the investors. They invest in future potential, a big idea, which can only be communicated by a story. Be a storyteller. Be engaging.

  6. No bottom-up sales projection
    A bottom-up sales projection puts your targets into context. This is something that every investor looks forward to, in a pitch. Saying things like “if we capture even 1% of this market” is the sign of an amateur.

  7. No customer validation
    If you’re launching a product or a service, you must have a clear understanding of the people who would want to use it. Customer validation verifies that the problem your product or service plans to solve actually exists and customers are willing to pay for it. The most successful entrepreneurs have talked to a lot of customers and tried to understand their unmet needs.

  8. Chasing competitors and awards
    Your startup is attempting to solve a problem for customers. . You will win or lose on the opinion of the customer, not on the opinion of competition judges. No serious investors gives much credence to most startup awards. Competitions are fun, you can even learn by participating occasionally, but remember that any time spent on chasing an award is spent away from your customer and product. Choose wisely..

  9. Obsessing over valuation
    The three most important factors in fundraising are: timing, quality of the investor, and the terms (other than valuation). Valuation is a distinct fourth. These other three factors will make much more of a difference to your journey and outcome than valuation. While valuation has to be reasonable, don’t obsess over valuation. In fact, raising money at too high a valuation is often harmful later as it increases your chances of a down round..

  10. Asking the investor to commit First
    Several entrepreneurs believe they have a wonderful plan, a team ready to quit their jobs and start, everything ready, just waiting for an investor to commit funds for them to start. They will be waiting a long time. An investor will back a committed team, ideally with momentum on their side. . Only when you start, get customer validation and start building a business would an investor be interested in you.

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