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The Steve Jobs poster won’t get you sales, a ‘sales strategy’ will!

The B2B Sales Playbook for Startups

This series is authored by Himanshu Goel who has 30+ years of experience in creating & executing business and sales strategy for Motorola, IBM, Microsoft & Cisco. Himanshu is also an active angel investor on the LetsVenture platform and a mentor to startups. His latest adventure was a self-driving expedition to the Mt. Everest Base camp!

Let’s dive right into Part 1 where we are addressing how you can arrive at your sales strategy & build your very first sales team! 

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A few years back I got a call from a friend who was an investor and board member of a startup, he was concerned about the venture’s revenue stream steadily drying up. He requested me to speak to the CEO and help come up with a recovery plan. On speaking with the CEO, I found that this was a B2B company and there was no salesperson in the organization and no sales strategy either. In the first 2-3 years, the senior leaders had tapped into their family and friend’s network to get business but as you can imagine, that stream was bound to eventually dry up. And in the absence of an active sales strategy, the pipeline was dry.

A B2B startup founder has many things to take care of, strategy, funding, product development, pricing, implementation, support, customer success, competition, procurement, taxation, HR, marketing, finance, legal and sales. Yes, it’s a long list and therefore virtually impossible for him or her to own sales; which is in my belief one of the two most important functions in a startup. The other is product.

While it is cool to say that an entrepreneur is actually just a salesperson and his primary ‘role’ is to sell his startup to customers, employees, and investors, as the business grows – developing a sound sales culture and organization is central to the success of any startup, especially a B2B one.

I strongly advise all B2B startups and young organizations to ensure early investment in sales as a function and developing a robust and stable sales strategy. A good salesperson also acts as the conductor of an orchestra – bringing together marketing, product, finance, legal, pricing, operations to ensure a great customer experience. A salesperson also manages the customer life cycle leading to contract renewals and up-sell.

Arriving at your sales strategy

An impactful full-blown B2B sales strategy includes Revenue Plan, Accounts, Buyers, Prospecting, Opportunity Management, Account Management, Coverage Plan, Partner Strategy, Organisational Design & Talent, Territory Design, Compensation Design & Quota Setting, Sales Operations, Revenue Enablement, Sales Tech Stack, Go to Market, Marketing, Pricing, Segmentation, Customer Success Strategy.

Before your eyes glaze over, let me say that for startups I recommend limiting yourself to just three things:

  • Step 1: Estimate the TAM i.e. Total Addressable Market
  • Step 2: Segment customers basis industry verticals, size, territory and engagement timeline, quick wins
  • Step 3: Now arrive at a “practical yet ambitious target” which can be achieved in a minimum of 6 months or a year. This target could be a mix of:
    a) try and buy agreements or
    b) proof of concept or
    c) actual sales

Your “ambitious target” can also include softer elements like generating leads, a validated pipeline or collections but these cannot in themselves be your target!

Building a crack B2B sales team

The overall B2B sales cycle for each opportunity can be quite long, anywhere from four to eight months. So especially in a startup, the longevity of the sales team is very important. Here are my suggestions:

  • Get a sales veteran on your board or as an advisor to build a sales strategy
  • Hire young energetic sales talent and mentor them
  • Incentivize: You might not pay a great salary upfront but offer attractive incentives to the sales team
  • Investing in an online CRM tool early will be of immense value over the years as it will act as a repository of all customer engagements
  • Periodic training of the sales team is also very helpful

(PS: A good book on how to build a sales culture is The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon & Brent Adamson) 

Now a good salesman is driven by dollars and developing a sales incentive scheme will go a long way in driving sales as well as retention of talent. It also helps in steering the sales team’s focus in line with the organization’s goals. But what is an appropriate sales incentive scheme in a startup? Here are my thoughts:

  • Should be at least 25 to 40% of the CTC (the cost to the company)
  • Could be divided into 2-3 portions targeted towards either of these – booking, revenue, collection, quarterly MBO (Management by Objectives)
  • An “accelerator” for achievements beyond the targets is another key element of sales policy which motivates the team to achieve more than the target
  • The scheme should be published early in the year and should remain valid for at least a year
  • Should be payable on a monthly basis to provide good cash flow to the salesperson
  • All of this could be done for an individual or a team, but I would recommend team-based sales incentives to foster teamwork in the initial years instead of individual “rockstar” culture!
  • Annual reviews could also result in equity incentives or ESOP/RSU as the case may be

Now, the few things that I would like to caution all founders to:

  • Since start-ups are evolutionary in nature and sales incentives are part of a salesperson’s CTC due care should be taken to ensure that targets are realistic and achievable and do not change midway. Shifting goalposts can be very disconcerting for a sales team in the B2B space.
  • I strongly recommend building a culture of candid spot feedback, frequent 1:1s, quarterly reviews, predictable self-appraisal as opposed to “annual appraisal”. This practice doubles up as coaching, feedback & mid-way course correction, to avoid “surprises” at the end of the year.
  • Sales training is also very helpful and thus following a methodology like “Challenger Sale” is a great way to guide the sales team.

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That’s it in Part 1 – if you have any questions, our comments section is open. Also, watch out for our webinar with Himanshu, that’s coming soon!

In Part 2 of this B2B Sales Playbook for Startups we will be focusing on ‘Marketing in a B2B World’.

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