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Very Early Stage Technology Investing

Posts Tagged ‘Software Sales

What makes a great sales culture…

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Continuing on the topic of great sales leadership from my last post, I reflected on some of the best sales leaders I’ve been around and what set them apart.

First, they were confident, organized, professional and direct.  They were not screamers, did not motivate or try to motivate through intimidation.  I’ve seen that style of leader as well and the result is not good.  You can be sure that great sales leaders are not fire-breathers.  Sales cultures built on raw revenue wins and show-boating – the Ochocinco Sales Culture, let’s call it – rarely create sustainable growth. Rather, they reward short-term, bloated deals that are rarely in the customer’s economic interest.  In the end, the scheme will unravel, often destroying enterprise value for all stakeholders.

In the software industry, the best sales leaders I’ve known were first accomplished closers in their own right.  They rose from the ranks by setting and hitting realistic targets on a consistent basis.  They understood the mechanics of the sales process, knew their materials, asked for and utilized technical resources appropriately, and knew how to work a prospect list and turn it into a consistently achievable forecast.  They were not desperate or manic but methodical and persistent.  These traits led to consistent performance, which led to increasing responsibility.

Another trait of great sales leadership is comfort with numbers, the tedious economic details of deals, compensation structures, and channel costs.  This is, I think, an underrated talent in sales management.  Understanding the customer’s economic context is imperative to shaping a consistent winning value proposition.  It is also required to design a balanced compensation model to attract, motivate, and retain a great team.  And understanding how to optimize spending across the sales process builds enterprise value and attracts investment.  Most important of all, financial numeracy makes the sales leader a full financial partner, along with the CEO and CFO, in the design of the business.  This is especially true in the early-stage venture, when predictability and rapid learning are required to build a viable enterprise.

A good friend and great sales leader I know had all the requisite qualities when I first met him back in the mid-’90s.  At the time he was the Federal Sales Manager at a venture-backed start-up.  He was very different than many of the sales reps and regional managers I’d met before, more polished, open about his belief in building an excellent team, and committed to building long-term customer relationships.  It seemed corny at the time, because I was naive about what was important in building a great sales organization.  By the late ’90s, with the dot.com Kool-Aid flowing freely, it seemed even more out of synch with the world.  But as much of the world soared and then sank, he and his parent company thrived.

Over the years he progressed to run both commercial and public sector sales in the region, then the Eastern U.S., then the entire U.S., then all of North America.  He did this while many other sales reps and sales managers I knew in the industry job-hopped, back-tracked, or flamed out entirely.  Eventually he was given responsibility for all North American operations, not just sales, in what had become a multibillion-dollar company.  He did it by building a culture that matched his principles, the same principles that made him a solid individual sales rep.  This culture delivered consistent results for shareholders as the company continued to grow.  He attracted like-minded people with similar professional habits.  It wasn’t for everyone, and some very successful, flashy sales people bristled, but many stayed and learned to appreciate the style and consistency he brought to the task.

He’s not looking for a job right now but taking a well-earned sabbatical, unfortunately.  And he learned his basic selling skills at Unisys, of all places.  Not flashy, not load, just perfect for the job, it turns out.

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Why the first 3 customers don’t matter…

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Most of the software companies we encounter are able to produce a first product and close one or two customers on little or no paid-in capital.  This is a positive trend.  With venture investors looking for lower net burn rates and a clear path to sustainability, seed-stage investors are typically paying for the first 12-24 months of customer acquisition.

Unfortunately, the first one or two customers prove little about how the product is perceived and sold to the next 10.  First customers typically have some connection with the founders that will not exist as the company scales.  Early customers are buying into a vision or a relationship or even a curiosity.  They will have great influence on the first product, often driving features that will be irrelevant to the broader market.

Early customers also have little interest in competitors, bake-offs, RFI’s and RFP’s, much less internal purchasing controls.  First customers will cheat to get a product in and not expose it to normal scrutiny.  If they did, it likely wouldn’t make the cut.  First customers rarely agree to standard pricing and terms.  That’s not to say that you don’t get value from these first customers.  But they do little to prove how the business can scale at a pace venture investors desire.

Consequently seed investors must attract sales leadership to pre-venture companies, which is no easy task.  Proven sales leaders are in great demand, and those suited to an early-stage company role are rare.  They must have solid market knowledge, be willing to spend signficant time in the field, and be able to readily attract a team of similarly minded subordinates.

Attracting such a leader is a test for the early-stage CEO.  The right sales executive is probably more experienced than the CEO and will consume more total cash compensation than anyone else.  The sales leader should be ready to set targets and become increasingly accurate in hitting those numbers as the company matures.  Predictibility and consistent quarterly growth are required to attract venture investment.  The early-stage CEO must relinquish the leadership of the sales function to someone who can focus on it and be held accountable.

None of this is easy.  In all the companies with which I work, there are challenges in transitioning from pioneer customers to sustained and consistent top-line growth.  Flame-outs of sales VPs in early-stage companies are more common than successes.

Of course, flame-outs of early stage companies are also more common than successes.  Choose carefully.