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Why It’s Hard to Find Good Sales People

More and more, the pressure startups face is not the ability to identify an opportunity, make a good product, or climb some technological mountain — most startups don’t build that much technology. The biggest pressure startups face is the ability to bring their product to market. If you are B2C – this means marketing. If you are B2B, this means sales.

A lot has been written about how the sales guy is the unsung hero of Silicon Valley. Personally, I have no idea if that is true or not — I’ve only been to Silicon Valley once!

What I do know is that finding the right sales person is both really hard and really important. Here are some of our key learnings, from growing our first sales team, on why it’s so hard to find good sales people:

1. They Already Have Jobs

The first piece of advice we got from almost all of our advisors was “Only hire people who already have jobs.” I think this is especially true with sales people. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but if you are really a great sales person and you haven’t had a job for the last six months, that is a red flag. Getting someone who already has a job to switch to your job is inherently more difficult than hiring someone who has no job.

2. The Good Ones Have Good Jobs

Effective sales people are probably making good money at their current job. If there is inherent friction getting people to switch from a normal job, getting them to leave a good job is even harder — between all of the stock options, bonuses, and perks of being a top sales person, employers do their best to keep top performers from leaving their company. You need to think about their switching cost and be able to compensate them for this in some way.

3. They Play Percentages

Good salespeople take time to qualify leads so that they don’t invest time in leads that will never become customers; in other words, good sales people play percentages. In the same way, sales people will qualify the opportunity at your startup and measure that against a move to another big corporate job. The stark reality is that while leaving your corporate job to join a startup is very much in vogue these days, the percentages are not with startups, and so if you are going to get them to jump out of that corporate box, you are going to need to sell the dream, while promising only reality.

4. They Apply for the Job They Want — Not the One They Are Qualified for

You know that Inside Sales guy you have been sniffing out on LinkedIn? Two years of experience, beat his quota… on paper he might be the perfect candidate for your open position. There is just one problem: he doesn’t want to do Inside Sales forever. In fact, he’s probably ready for his next challenge, and wants to take on larger accounts. And the Sr. Sales guy? Well he might want to start managing a team. And the Sr. Manager? Well he wants to be a VP.

In general, if you are going to get someone to make a switch, it’s probably not for a lateral move. People want to move up, and so when trying to find people to fill your role, looking for a resume that is an exact match to your job description may be wishful thinking. Instead, look for someone that has enough experience to take a chance on, and bank on the character of the person to grow into that role.

There will be some mix of experience and taking a bet on them — you might as well be open about this with yourself.

5. They Can All Sell Themselves (at least)

With a lifetime of personal stories and anecdotes, the one thing that every sales person knows extremely well and should have no problem selling is themselves. Sales people are generally charismatic and positive; the kind of people you want to be around.

However, there is a difference between being likable and being effective. On this topic, the best advice I received when hiring a sales person is to ask their old boss, “Would you hire ______ again?” and then listen very closely to how they answer. A quick, enthusiastic “yes” is good. If they hesitate for too long, it means they probably really like the candidate, but might not hire them again.

Not surprisingly, the guy who gave me this advice has recently launched BOUNTER, a virtual matchmaker for top sales people and new opportunities.

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