The big transition from player to coach: building out your sales team

In the early days of launching your startup, you fill the roles of marketing, bookkeeping, customer success and tech support, HR, and sales in addition to your founder duties. You wear many hats, if not all the hats. It’s fun and challenging, but doesn’t scale at all. 

As many of you know, “founder” and “CEO” are two distinct positions. The early stages of building are emblematic of the exciting, and daunting shift from owning everything to being responsible for everything.

It sounds the same, but the distinction between owning and being responsible for everything is significant. Some say the main difference is about delegation — I don’t. It is about building systems, hiring and empowering, and then observing and measuring the performance of individuals and teams.

For a passionate founder, this transition is most felt and most challenging around the selling function. The software startup founder is likely the “salesperson” who opens the door, does the pitch and demo, follows up, sends the contract, gets the credit card or PO number, and is often the first line of support. There is something powerful about learning from the wins-losses and the critical lessons of generating demand and early customer relationships.

As you evolve your team and build the sales capacity, you will need to carefully engineer your role as a founder into the process — keeping in mind that you can’t do it all but will probably be the coach and one of the players. Look, I would NEVER suggest removing yourself completely because early customer relationships need to be anti-fragile and bought in. Founder passion is critical here. 

If you have one or two salespeople and are looking to find your way, these notes — from a real conversation with a powerful technical founder in Growth Warrior Capital’s portfolio — will help you build a sales function that gets deals done. Don’t confuse this with an org chart, instead read these as possible positions you can play in the sales process:

  1. Door Opener: In this role, the person quite literally opens the door. The door opener brings in potential customers, sets the meeting, and communicates the organization’s value prop.
  2. Qualifier: We’re all familiar with qualifying leads, but it’s more than it seems. The qualifier “maps” the customers’ requirements and the technical ability of the team to see if it’s the right fit.
  3. Industry Luminary: Now, the industry luminary is the subject matter expert. They know all the ins and outs of the industry, as well as your product. The Industry Luminary is your customer’s go-to knowledge bank.
  4. Closer: The Closer presents the deal to the buyer and handles any negotiations. They win over the stakeholders and in a sense heard them to sign the deal
  5. Champion: A lot of credit goes to the closer, but the champion is how the deal really gets done. They take time to understand the buyer’s motivation and create the “perfect, customized” solution that ultimately convinces the buyer.

Why does this matter?

As a founder, you need to figure out which of these five identities you occupy as you start offloading sales responsibilities to a bigger team. I’ve seen founders mistakenly try to out-sell their salespeople or keep the status quo when a new salesperson, sales lead, or team is established. As elegantly as you can, pick a specific enough position and observe the early performance indicators of your fledgling team. Be mindful to give them enough time to demonstrate the early indicators of success or not — it’s very tempting to jump in and save the day. Don’t!

If you have a great product and operations, sales will flow your way. It’s up to you as the founder to evolve into CEO, while also contributing to the growth of your team’s ability to perform.

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