I had lunch with a friend the other day - he's a young guy, he's sharp, and he's launched a Semantic Web venture. He's in that uneasy period where he's got some great technology and a great development team, but he's looking for those first few key customers to start establishing some real traction and also reduce his cash burn.
Let's say you're a founder of a Semantic Web company. If you're resourceful, chances are that identifying leads and starting conversations isn't really the problem. The fact that there are only 24 hours in a day is a much bigger problem. So the question becomes whether or not a salesperson should be brought in to work full time on bringing in customers. For a moment, let's forget that in North America, there might be two to four people who are really qualified to fill this role. What are the options?
- Go ahead and hire a full time salesperson, complete with base salary, commission plan, options, benefits, and all the usual stuff. Oh, I forgot, this is an early stage startup and while time is the most critical asset, cash comes in a hairs-breadth later for a close second. That's going to rule out this option pretty quickly unless you're funded by some very deep pockets.
- Hire a commission-only, contract salesperson. Be prepared to pay out at a much higher than normal commission rate and don't expect nearly as much control. But those aren't the risks - these are: a) getting this person up to speed on SW technology (good luck); b) risk having that person leave after six months without making a sale (a pro will be ready to move at this point); c) you'll lose six months of precious time and with it... d) the knowledge and relationships that person accrued.
- Hire an engineer and learn the sales job yourself. My friend told me he knew for a fact that he's now much better at selling than he was six months ago. I mentioned that someone I really respect once told me that "good managers gravitate to the most difficult (and important) problems" and I really believe that.
If you're a founder, you can't hire a salesperson and expect they'll know the company story anywhere near as well as you do. If you're a founder, it's your job to discover your market and you can't expect to hire anyone to take this responsibility.
Here's the win: Let's say you learn how to sell and find your market. Once you get traction, momentum, whatever you want to call it, there's certain pattern that sets in - you know the questions and answers, the issues and the responses, the competitors, their weaknesses and their strengths.
You can teach someone else that knowledge, and that's when you hire a salesperson.