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Cloud Native Ecosystem / Tech Careers / Tech Culture

Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Level up Your Sales Game

If a startup gains traction, it can hire a sales team. In the meantime, it's up to its founder to build sales skills and close the deals.
Dec 8th, 2023 5:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback and ideas for future columns.

“If you’ve started a company, if you’re a founder, you are in sales,” says Matt Barker, co-founder of Jetstack and global head of cloud native at Venafi since Jetstack’s acquisition. Yet many founders aren’t comfortable doing sales, either because they think of sales as slimy and gross or they simply lack experience as a salesperson — or both.

This month, The New Stack talked to several sales experts about how founders can both feel more comfortable doing sales and also improve their skills. Because while there will ideally come a moment when an entrepreneur will start to hire a sales team, doing some sales is a core, non-optional part of building a business.

Can You Help Solve the Customer’s Problem?

“My advice to a founder is, when you think about sales, think about it as a mission to help your customers solve problems,” said Robert Limbrey, head of sales at Panoramic Data.

This is a point that professional salespeople repeat. But the reputation of salespeople as slimy, greedy tricksters is a sticky one. It’s important to get that out of your head, as a founder. Because not only will you not be excited about sales if you think of it as fundamentally unsavory, but if your sales technique is pushy, it won’t be successful.

Lastly — and this can be hard for many founders to wrap their heads around — you do not want everyone to buy. A huge part of sales is qualification: You want to figure out whether or not you will be able to help the potential customer. When you have a customer who isn’t a fit for what you’re selling, you want to send them on their way.

“That idea of qualification, together with empathy and an understanding of your customers’ business, that’s all you need to be successful in sales,” Limbrey said.

“The biggest overall mistake that people make is the mindset that sales is something that I need to do to someone else,” said Carole Mahoney, author of “Buyer First: Grow Your Business with Collaborative Selling.”

She added, “The true nature of sales is actually a collaboration. The definition of sales is an exchange of value.”

Tips for Better Sales Results

If the first step is accepting that you’re in a sales role, as a founder, and adjusting your mindset to see sales as a collaboration, what other practical steps can improve your sales process? Here’s what the sales leader said.

Sell to a friendly audience. If you’ve just launched your company, it really helps to sell to people you know. “Going in cold to a company where you don’t know people is hugely hit and miss,” Limbrey said.

You can also build a friendly audience if you don’t have one already. When Barker started Jetstack, he invested loads of time in going to events, talking to people and building relationships — and that is where his first sales came from.

Listen actively. Studies consistently show that buyers want to feel like they are being listened to, like the seller understands them and knows them, Mahoney said.

“We also ask better questions, because we’re not seeking to get what we want from it,” she added. “We’re actually seeking to understand where the other person is at.”

The trap founders often fall into is that they are really excited to talk about their product … and so they stop listening. Keep the focus on the customer and their problem, not on your product.

Understand your ideal customer profile (ICP).  First of all, the process of selling to a startup of 15 people is going to be different from the process of selling to Barclays Bank. “In the early days, you’re more likely to be able to sell to companies that are a bit smaller,” Barker said.

Selling to big organizations is tough, and he recommended seeking out advice from someone who’s done it before if you’re trying to crack the enterprise market.

But in addition to understanding the different sales processes at different types and sizes of companies, it’s important to understand what kind of return on investment a customer will be looking for, what pain points they are looking to solve and how they will evaluate success.

Accept that you will make mistakes. And not all mistakes look like lost deals. In fact, in founder-led sales, the bigger risk is making a sale that ends up costing more to deliver than it brings in — like in the case of a fixed-price services contract that you dramatically underestimate the engineering effort on.

“How much services are involved in those early sales?”  Limbrey asked. “How much engineering effort do you have to put in?”

But you’ll also make mistakes that lead to lost deals that you thought would close, and that’s OK, too. In the early days, you are validating your ICP, validating your product hypothesis, validating your sales motion. You want to build toward a repeatable process, but you can’t expect to have a repeatable process from Day 1.

There’s really no clear line between marketing and sales. “Marketing is really the forefront of the buyers’ journey,” Mahoney said — and the two business functions should ideally work together very smoothly.

During sales conversations, for example, good salespeople are having really active conversations and uncovering customers’ needs and desires, and that information should feed back into the marketing flywheel, creating a feedback loop that connects marketing and sales.

One last bit of advice —or really, a warning. “Sales is a scaling function,” Limbrey said. “Don’t go hiring salespeople too early, thinking that they’re going to solve my sales problem.”

At least one founder in a company has to devote a fairly large amount of their time to sales. As a founder, the better you are at it, the quicker your company will grow and you’ll be able to hire salespeople to help you.

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