A lot of startups are launched by engineers, designers, and product managers. That’s why they have such great products, right? But have you noticed that they typically lack on the sales front? Well, it’s because they usually don’t understand sales or the way a startup should use salespeople.

That’s a big problem since they’ll need to interview, hire, evaluate and assign regions to salespeople. And, sometimes, even fire them.

If that’s you, then it’s helpful to have a framework when it comes to building a killer sales team. The following advice should help you do just that.

Understand the concept of sales

The first thing you should do before you interview or hire any salesperson is to make sure you understand what a sale is. So, what is a sale?

Basically a sale is when you close the deal. Marketing finds those leads and nurtures them, and sales closes them. How you close them is very important. In fact, if you get this wrong, you won’t be closing very many deals.

Bad salespeople do nothing but talk. They are called “crocodile salespeople” because their mouths are always open, but they’re never listening. A good salesperson realizes that sales is really a discussion between the company and the customer, where a relationship is built first.

Once that relationship is established, then the salesperson can start asking the customer about his or her needs. If you shortcircuit this process, the customer will see that you are really not interested in him or her.

But sales isn’t just about the customers. In fact, it’s really something you do when you talk to partners or even investors because even then you’re selling yourself.

And finally you need to understand sales because you will need to create a long-term sales process that can actually scale. See, your early success isn’t any indicator that you will be able to scale it because once you remove yourself from the process, things change. It will be harder for a salesperson to close a deal if you are not involved. But the fact is eventually you will have to pull away.

Learn to sell before you hire

If you are thinking of not getting involved in the sales process and instead hiring somebody to do that for you, I recommend you don’t. You need to sell your product yourself first, and not just to investors. You need to sell it to customers as well.

This is important because it will help you understand what roadblocks your salespeople will run into. This way when you hire salespeople, you can help them succeed. It may not sound like fun, but trust me, the more you do it, the easer it gets. Do the selling yourself until you get comfortable doing it.

You can get some early practice by selling before your product or service is launched with a PowerPoint presentation. All you have to do is visually show what your company has to offer. In other words, learn to sell what you are going to have and not just what you currently have.

Each time you finish talking with potential customers, make sure you incorporate their concerns into your product as it will help make it better. Give them the product and watch what they do. Then run back to your office to put their ideas into product development. Do this fifty times, and not only will you become a pretty good salesperson, but you’ll also move your product to product market fit faster.

Hire people who want to grow

With salespeople, you need to hire slowly and fire fast. Good salespeople are expensive, and you don’t want to waste money. And remember, just because someone is good in sales in his or her past job, it won’t mean that person is a good fit for your company even if he or she has a history of selling products or services in your industry.

Furthermore, when interviewing salespeople, don’t let them sell you on how great they are. You need to see the passion in them. Look for people who want to compete on a higher level than they are used to. They should be eager to reach higher and higher levels of experience.

These salespeople also need to be comfortable on the front lines, watching the customer use the product, listening to the customer’s comments and asking for constructive criticism. They need to be eager to hear what the customer is saying, so that way your product manager can create something your customers will love. And they should be excited about doing this over and over again!

Work with those who you hire

Never think just because you hired a sales team that you can wash your hands of that responsibility. You really need to keep doing the selling yourself until you have a VP of Sales who is able to keep growing your company’s revenue.

Meet with your team often, ideally daily. You want to keep watching them present and sell so you can give feedback and ask for it as well. It’s really a learning experience for all of you, and if you’ve hired a killer sales team, then you all will start feeding off of this positive energy that you are creating from a culture of constant improvement.

Hire people who know how to qualify sales leads

You want salespeople who can qualify. Qualifying a sales lead really comes down to three questions:

  • Do they have the authority to buy?
  • Do they have the budget to buy?
  • When do they plan on buying?

The leads you want your salespeople to avoid are called NINAs. These are the leads that have No Influence Nor Authority. These leads will waste your time and money! Let marketing nurture them.

A good question to ask during an interview with a prospective salesperson is “Do you know the difference between an A, B and C lead?” His or her answer should tell you a lot about whether your potential hire knows or not how to qualify a lead.

An A lead is one that will close in three months. A B lead will close in 3 to 12 months. If closing that lead will take longer than 12 months, then it’s a C lead.

If they answered that question correctly, then ask them how much time a salesperson should spend on each lead. They should answer like this:

  • A lead gets about 70% of a salesperson’s time.
  • B lead gets about 30% of a salesperson’s time.
  • C lead gets zero percent of a salesperson’s time because C leads are for marketing to nurture.

What it really comes down to is this: a good salesperson will know how to “align a company’s sales cycle with a prospect’s buying cycle.”

By the way, always find out if the salesperson you are hiring is a hunter or not. If he/she isn’t, you will have to provide your sales rep with leads to follow up with and close. Keep that in mind when hiring.

Give marketing the C leads

A good marketing team will generate leads for the salespeople, but like I said above, some of those leads will not be of interest to a salesperson upfront.

How does marketing nurture these leads to have them go from C leads to B leads and eventually A leads? There are a few things a marketing department does:

  • Newsletters – a weekly or monthly newsletter is sent out to C leads to keep them close to the company and the product so they don’t forget about them after the initial contact. Newsletters to C leads must be different from the newsletters actual customers get.
  • Public Relations – the second thing that marketing people do is constantly talk to journalists and the media about their company, offering news about product updates and special launches.
  • Customer Events – events allow you an opportunity to interact with your customers. It’s even a good idea to get some of your satisfied customers to talk during these events as there’s nothing better than a third-party endorsement!

Hire Mavericks early, Journeymen and Superstars next

When it comes to the hiring time, you need to look for Mavericks. What’s a Maverick? This type of salesperson is great at evangelical sales, meaning they love to educate customers on something new and different.

Mavericks are also very comfortable in places where there aren’t well-defined processes, products or structures, which is pretty typical for the early stage of a startup. You need to understand that this does mean that Mavericks like independence and despise control, even if that control is some kind of a process.

They’ll tend to neglect rules and processes, but that’s okay because they are really great at persuading customers to take a leap of faith. You also should remember that promoting Mavericks to a VP or sales manager position is not a good idea.

As your startup begins to see some success and growth because you’ve gotten really close to your product market fit, you can start setting up well-defined processes. At this point, you can start hiring Journeymen who lack that sales spark you see in Mavericks but are relentless within an established sales structure with a well-defined product.

Finally, start looking for those Superstars, salespeople who are a combination of the Maverick and the Journeyman. These people have that spark and can follow rules as well.

Keep in mind that these salespeople usually come from academy-type corporations, where the sales organization is a well-oiled machine and pays its salespeople a lot of money. That means you probably won’t be able to afford these people in your early days, but you may want to bring them in once you’ve grown.

Superstars commonly can lead a team and do sales themselves. They bring to the table a great mind for sales and a good head for processes and leadership. Hire them after you’ve got the product market fit though.

Don’t hire seasoned or senior salespeople

Sure, eventually, you’ll reach a point of needing a VP of sales. That will not happen in the early stages of your growth, and it shouldn’t. Let me explain why.

Seasoned or senior salespeople typically come from companies that documented procedures, defined processes precisely and didn’t tolerate the by-the-seat-of-your-pants way of a young startup. So, when you hire these salespeople for your startup, you are inviting criticism and frustration that you can easily avoid by hiring a Maverick instead.

Besides, seasoned or senior people may not have the passion of someone who is younger and less experienced. Plus, they can be very expensive.

If your startup has raised millions of dollars, you can start with a VP of Sales and have that person figure things out, but in most cases you won’t have millions of dollars at your fingertips. And if you do hire a VP of Sales, make sure you are helping your VP out when he or she gets started.


If you make the wrong hire at the wrong time, you can set your startup back months, if not years. However, if you build a killer sales team by hiring the right people at the right time, you will raise your chances of growing your startup into a successful company.