Thursday, June 12, 2008

Don't Hire A Salesperson, Hire Another Developer Instead

Sounds nuts, doesn't it? Note that I'm a firm believer that in a technology company, you either make "it" or you sell "it".
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?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
I carried a sales quota for years and there are times when selling can be a tough, unpleasant job. But since I also believe that a company's most senior people are its best sales people, that means if you're a founder, you need to know how to sell if you want to build a business.
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.

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