Building a Startup Sales Team

Marketo Retrospective Part 7
As part of a series, I am doing retrospective lessons from my 9 years at Marketo. Today, I focus on Building a Startup Sales Team. I think this is an area that Marketo really shined and set the benchmark for thousands of other companies in the past 10 years.

In the beginning of Marketo there was one sales executive (VP) and two sales reps (Scott and Nick). The product was this new UI for Google Adwords that did NOT do well at all. The sales guys were unhappy and not making their numbers. The executive stayed in their office and did not venture out very often. The mold of the VP was more of an executive, someone higher up than lowly me.  One day, the CEO announced that the sales exec was no longer with the company, and meet the new sales exec, Bill Binch. (That was a confusing day.)

Bill took his laptop, closed the door to the executive office (with no one inside) and sat next to the sales team. He was saying, “This is a team sport and we are going to win it together.”  This one move set a brand new tone. We were very impressed right away. This wasn’t going to be some high falutin position that is above the fray. Bill was a field general. He was in the battle working with sales on every deal. It changed the tone immediately.

I had never seen a functioning sales department before this. The only sales teams I experienced were 1-2 man operations where they would answer the phone if it happen to ring. This was something else, much more energetic and engaged. The energy level was infectious, but he brought another factor as well, process and execution.

During the 9 years, I learned how teams can be formed with territories and spiffs. (Spiff is an internal promotion – If you make X goal, then you get Y bonus) I learned how sales execution and process makes selling repeatable. It was tremendously impressive and will stay with me forever. Keep in mind, I had not experienced this before. For those of you who always had that kind of sales, consider yourself lucky.

This is not meant to whitewash the sales team. During the later years, sales suffered from numerous cultural problems including charges of sexism and cronyism. My main lesson here was how sales can be bootstrapped from the ground up.

Over time, sales walled themselves off from the rest of the team. I lost touch with the ebb and flow of their lives. Ideally, sales should be much more integrated with the overall team. One suggestion is to not have a sales only “club”. (Club is an annual outing to a resort for top sales people) The rest of the company thought club was unfair and that it created discord. I won’t dwell on this too much because it is contentious. The key lesson for me is to integrate sales into the lives of the rest of the company. Silos in a company create red tape and limit growth. It takes a strong culture to bridge the gaps, but Sales, Marketing, Engineering and other departments need to be aligned with more than just empty words.

One area of interesting discussion relates to the SDR/BDR group. These are young employees who qualify accounts to make sure they are ready for sales. They are the junior grunt workers of the sales process. The question is whether they should report to Sales or Marketing or even be their own department reporting to the CEO or Head of Revenue. For more information on this, check out my blog post on Engagio about SDRs. I think the answer is the have the SDR group in Marketing, but the battle continues.

Sales is hard and it takes alot of different skills. You have to inspire the prospect, identify the right people in the organization, control the message, communicate enough but not too much, negotiate the price, manage expectations and many other details. I am good at “inspiring”, but I struggle with every other part of sales. I respect their abilities and don’t envy the hard work they do. In some companies, they make very little money because of a crap product. However, at Marketo, sales people did very well. I wish the sales team had shown more appreciation (over the years) to the engineering and product teams.

So in the end, the lesson regarding sales is mostly positive, especially in the beginning, due in large part to excellent leaders and salespeople. There are some flaws, but I tried to be balanced.

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