Startups - Taking a New Idea to Market

You’re a startup with a great, new idea.  An idea that when someone asks “Whom do you compete against?” The answer is “No one really…”

It’s a great opportunity that poses an equal challenge: what kind of people do I hire to actually sell this and make sure our clients succeed?

Hiring from the competition isn’t an option – they don’t exist.  So where do you start? Whether it’s a sales executive, sales engineer or client success manager, there are some common traits that will help ensure a successful hire.

Here are some ideas:


Startup experience: It’s possible to hire someone without startup experience and have them succeed, but why take the risk? Startups are tough, not only on the employee but their families. Long hours, changing priorities, and the need to do more than in a “traditional” company requires a special person.

Look for successful people at other startups – ideally in a related industry.  They’ll be able to make the complex simple and help prospects see the vision. This is a unique, “must have” skill for anyone that’s taking a new idea to market.

Large companies can take a gamble on a person knowing that if they fail, there are more on the team to make up for it. Startups don’t have this luxury – hiring someone who knows what they’re getting into helps limit this risk.

Domain Expertise:  Financial Executives have a shared set of challenges, regardless of industry – so do Marketing, HR, and Operations. Within your target market, determine the people you’ll be selling to and look for sales execs who’ve sold to the same people.  Not for the Rolodex, which is often overvalued, but for the ability to understand their business needs and quickly begin having quality conversations. For example, if you’re selling an AI Solution that helps Marketers solve a unique problem, hiring someone who’s sold another solution to them will help them ramp much more quickly.  They’ll also be able to gauge product fit and provide feedback to help pivot when necessary (this always happens).

Where to find them:  As mentioned above, other startups are a great place to start, especially if they’re selling to the same executives. Recently acquired startups are another ideal target. Typically, companies don’t make many changes to the acquired sales and client success teams during the first year and often pay retention bonuses to the top performers. After that, things can change. Top reps have received their bonuses and often tire of the large company bureaucracy. Recruit them as they often want to get back to a small company.

Be careful though, someone who’s been through an acquisition and is still there 4-5 years later has made a choice to stay. They likely have become comfortable in a big company structure and could struggle moving back to a startup.  Remember, it’s not just the employee who becomes used to the trappings of a big company, family members also have a say in these decisions.

Evaluating talent?  Performance first and foremost.  The beauty of sales is that it’s the most easily measured function in business. The flip side is that you can put the most talented sales representative in a no-win situation and they’ll fail. Case in point, during the ERP heyday I knew a very successful salesperson at PeopleSoft. We were comparing notes and when I asked him about his year, he said it was awful. They reorganized the sales team and he was responsible for selling only Financial Software to New Clients.  His mission was to convince SAP and Oracle clients to rip out their financial software and hand it over to PeopleSoft. Great rep, wrong model.

Numbers speak volumes but even the best reps will experience tough times. They didn’t become great by not taking chances. Maybe their startup ran out of cash, perhaps the product wasn’t as far along as advertised, maybe they joined a company with a toxic environment. These things happen, but if they happen job, after job, after job – that’s a different story. The right references with former managers and other execs who worked with them will help round out the big picture.

Presentations: A big part of what makes a successful startup sales or client success exec is effectively sharing new ideas. Having a candidate do a short presentation on their current solution, or yours, is a great way to get a feel for how they adapt and present ideas. If they’re presenting your solution, be sure to set them up with enough information to succeed, and give them enough time to prepare. The goal isn’t to trap or trick them into making mistakes but to understand how they grasp a new idea and value prop and share it with the team.  Be sure to coach any other participants from your company about the goals of the presentation so they’re fair to the candidate. Keep in mind, the presentation won’t be perfect, but it will provide an idea of their ability to jump in, understand things, and hit the ground running.

Finding people who can truly take a new concept to market is tough, but with some consideration of these factors, you’ll hire the right people more quickly, with less risk.