Understanding how to hire a salesperson for a startup is critical — it’s one of the first and most significant investments you’ll make. When I first dipped my toes into the startup scene, I was tasked with assembling a sales team from scratch. With no playbook in hand, I quickly learned that the usual hiring protocols don’t always apply in the fast-paced startup environment.
Your first salesperson is more than just a team member — they’re a pioneer who will shape the future of your company’s revenue stream. They must be nimble, ready to dive into deep waters without a second thought. It’s about more than their resume. It’s about their innate understanding that a startup is a different beast altogether — and their eagerness to tame it. It’s this blend of audacity and insight that you’ll need in your corner.
You’re not just hiring a salesperson — you’re enlisting a strategic partner who will help carry your vision forward and turn it into a profitable reality. Let’s dive in on how to get started.
When to Hire Your First Salesperson
The right time to bring a salesperson on board sometimes feels like a riddle. It’s less about looking for a sign and more about recognizing a pattern. That pattern emerges when you, the founder, find your days brimming with product tweaks and customer feedback loops. If there’s a steady stream of interest and your product has proven its place in the market, it’s time to consider passing the sales baton.
A good rule of thumb is to hire when the cost of missed opportunities exceeds the cost of hiring a salesperson. When you’re juggling too many hats and feel the growth potential slipping through your fingers, it’s a clear indicator: your startup is ready for a dedicated sales dynamo.
How soon is too soon?
A new company needs to start drumming up interest for its product before it’s ready to ship. With that in mind, I think a company should hire its first rep in advance of the product launch date.
How far in advance? That’s determined by the complexity of your product or service. If it will require a significant amount of product training, it’s probably wiser to hire your inaugural rep early — maybe six months out.
Hiring sooner rather than later also gives your new rep the chance to familiarize themselves with the market, gauge interest, and build relationships with potential customers. That way, when the product is ready, they have some prospects already lined up. With a few months of prep time under their belts, it’ll be much easier to hit the ground running.
The Skills Salespeople Need at Startups
Every startup needs that first sales hire to be something of a Swiss Army knife — versatile, reliable, and unexpectedly powerful in a compact form.
A resourceful salesperson is worth their weight in signed contracts. They’re the ones who turn a “no” into a “not yet” and find clever ways to introduce your product to new markets. Data backs this up, too — a Harvard Business Review piece celebrated resourceful sales reps for their knack for innovation within the lean environment of a startup.
There’s no sugarcoating it — sales is tough, and in startups, the word “no” is a frequent flier. But resilience turns these “nos” into fuel for the next pitch. It’s resilience that can make or break a business, especially when half a million small businesses fail every year.
Salespeople don’t need to be tech wizards, but a grasp of the nuts and bolts of your product goes a long way. Technical expertise can play a significant role in the sales and account development process, helping remove barriers throughout the buying journey.
A startup’s first sales hire should be as customer-centric as a tailor-fitting bespoke suit. They need to intuit customer needs and tailor solutions accordingly. PwC has highlighted how this approach not only wins sales but can weave loyalty and trust into the fabric of your customer relationships.
Startups are like quicksilver, and your sales approach should be just as fluid. McKinsey & Co has pinpointed agility as a key success factor, enabling salespeople to navigate the twists and turns of a startup’s growth with finesse and confidence.
Passionate for the Product
A salesperson who’s passionate about what they’re selling can make even the most skeptical prospect sit up and listen. Deloitte has tied workplace passion to performance. Creating a passionate salesperson is not just an asset but a catalyst for growth and energy within your team.
Finding the Right Sales Team for Your Startup
Building a stellar sales team from the ground up requires a clear blueprint and an understanding of your startup’s unique needs. Each step below guides you towards hiring a sales force championing your products with as much passion as you do.
Step 1: Assess your startup’s sales needs.
Before the first job posting goes live, reflect on your startup’s landscape. Ask yourself hard-hitting questions about your business goals, product offerings, and target audience.
Dan Morris, a seasoned sales strategist and fractional executive, shares these sentiments.
“Many startups unknowingly set their sales teams up for a tough ride. It’s not just about the visible support — like maintaining staff or honoring commissions — it’s deeper. They onboard stellar sales reps, expecting stellar results, but the cash burn without clear gains tells a different story. The problem often surfaces when I ask founders to define their ideal customer, describe the buyer’s journey, and articulate why customers choose their product. Uncertainty here signals a foundational flaw. Like constructing a building, a strong company requires a solid base — get the sales foundations right, and you’ve paved the way for enduring success.”
Once these elements are crystal clear, draft a candidate profile that lists the desired skills and experiences. Remember, a precise understanding leads to finding the perfect fit.
Step 2: Scout for cultural and personality fit.
Once you initiate the hiring process, focus on candidates whose personalities gel with your startup’s ethos.
Michael Bertoni, Founder and CEO of SaaS Talent, emphasized how important it is to hire people with the same attitude towards your business.
“To drive hyper-growth in the SaaS or tech sector, embody professional relentlessness and seek that same fire in your team. Picture this: A bootstrapped or seed-funded startup grappling with funding, talent acquisition, lead generation, and closing deals. Amidst the noise, your startup needs to stand out. Being professionally relentless isn’t just a catchphrase — it’s about consistent, aggressive pursuit of your goals while maintaining integrity and professionalism. That’s the kind of attitude you need on your team — a squad that pushes boundaries, turns heads, and knows that obscurity isn’t an option.”
Interrogate their sales history and probe for any tech product experience they might possess. Mix it up with seasoned pros and greenhorns — all united by a passion for your mission. Remember, a blend of coachability, positivity, and cultural alignment trumps a resume brimming with experience.
Step 3: Invest in comprehensive training.
The onboarding process can make or break your new sales team. Equip them with deep product knowledge, effective sales tools, and clear goals. Continuous feedback is the cornerstone of improvement, so integrate it from the get-go. In the tech arena, this step is not just beneficial but necessary for survival and success.
Once you find the person who fits all of these criteria, hire them and get them in the trenches — even if your product isn’t ready yet. Are there trade shows you can send them to to start making contacts? Perhaps you can nudge them to join a choice number of LinkedIn or other social media groups and start participating. If you’ve hired the right person, they’ll be hungry to get in the game.
Recruiting for Your Startup
Recruiting top-notch talent is pivotal for the growth and sustainability of any startup. Here are some actionable strategies to attract the crème de la crème of the workforce.
- Interview Top Performers and Create Personas: Engage with high achievers in your team to sculpt a persona that embodies your ideal candidate. These conversations can shine a light on pivotal qualifications and the magnetic aspects of your startup that attract top-tier talent.
- Write Effective, SEO-Friendly Job Posts: Craft your job listings to cut through the noise. Use clear, search-friendly titles and descriptions. It only takes 14 seconds for people to decide whether to keep reading your job post. So avoid jargon and ensure your posts resonate with all potential applicants, devoid of any unintentional bias.
- Simplify the Application Process: Analytics are your ally in streamlining the application process. A user-friendly, frictionless submission experience speaks volumes of your startup’s respect for candidates’ time.
- Foster a Positive Candidate Journey: Every interaction with potential hires should spark excitement and convey value. An enthusiastic and transparent communication cadence is crucial to keep candidates engaged and inclined toward your offer.
- Offer Flexible Work Arrangements: Flexibility is no longer a perk — it’s a standard. Highlight your startup’s adaptability in job descriptions to meet modern expectations of work–life integration.
- Prioritize Cultural Contribution Over Fit: Seek out individuals who can enrich your company’s culture, not just fit in. Performance-based job descriptions and an eye for soft skills are your allies here.
- Be Transparent About Compensation and Benefits: Transparency in financial and additional benefits sets the stage for trust and filters in candidates who resonate with your offering. Unique perks can set you apart in a sea of vacancies.
- Make Your Company’s Mission and Vision Visible: Highlight your startup’s narrative on platforms like LinkedIn. A compelling story can significantly up the ante for job applications.
- Invest in Employee Well-being and Development: Nurturing your team’s well-being and providing avenues for growth can amplify retention and turn your workforce into brand ambassadors.
Making the Most of Interviews
Navigating the interview process as a manager is like being a talent scout for your favorite sports team. Your mission is to discover candidates who not only shine on paper but will also resonate with the heart and soul of your organization. Here’s how to tailor your interview technique to identify these star players.
Ask insightful questions to unveil true potential.
Kick off the conversation with questions that probe into their past work experiences, focusing on situations where they’ve demonstrated resilience and ingenuity.
“Tell me about a time when you faced an unexpected challenge at work. How did you handle it?”
This not only sheds light on their problem-solving skills but also gives them the stage to showcase their learning agility.
Craft scenarios that mirror real-life job challenges.
Bring in scenarios that mirror real-life challenges they’d encounter in the role. If you’re hiring for a sales management position, present a situation where deadlines are tight and resources are limited. “What’s your game plan?” Their response will be a powerful indicator of their strategic thinking and resourcefulness.
Dig into the culture fit.
Culture fit is the secret sauce to a harmonious workplace. Pose questions that help you peek into how they adapt to new environments and work with diverse teams. “Can you share an experience where you had to adapt to a work style that was different from your own?” It’s these behavioral nuances that can signal whether a candidate will thrive or just survive in your organizational ecosystem.
Spotlight aspiration and growth.
Ambition fuels progress. Encourage the candidate to speak about their career aspirations with questions like, “What’s the next peak you want to conquer in your career?” This not only reveals if their trajectory aligns with what your organization offers but also their zeal for growth and learning.
Encourage detailed narratives with the STAR method.
The STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) method is a window into the candidate’s storytelling ability, an invaluable skill in any role. When they describe their professional experiences, look for this narrative clarity; it’s often a sign of a thoughtful and self-aware candidate.
Put team dynamics in the spotlight.
Since teamwork makes the dream work, find out how they play with others. “Describe a team project that you feel proud of.” This can help you understand their collaborative style and their potential role within your existing team.
Test skills with a practical task.
If feasible, incorporate a practical task. For a sales role, this might be coming up with a pitch for your product or responding to a customer objection on the spot. It’s a peek into their creative process and ability to perform under pressure.
Value diverse perspectives.
Involving different team members in the interview process can give you a 360-view of the candidate’s fit. After all, each team member will have to interact with the new hire and may pick up on nuances you might miss.
Sealing the Deal With the Right Hire
Remember that every interview is an opportunity not just to evaluate but also to engage and inspire potential sales team members. The right questions reveal how candidates have turned challenges into triumphs and learning into leadership. It’s these individual journeys that, when aligned with your company’s mission, can spell a future rich with collective achievements and innovation.
The goal isn’t just to fill a seat but to welcome a game-changer who can elevate your sales narrative. A well-rounded interview process, punctuated by authentic conversations, will ensure you uncover not just a candidate’s capability but also their character and compatibility with your sales culture. Here’s to finding those who are not only skilled in the art of selling but are also genuine ambassadors of your brand’s story and values.