The Startup Guide to Building a Killer Sales Team

A lot of startups are launched by engineers, designers, and product managers. That’s why they have such great products, right? But have you noticed that they typically lack on the sales front? Well it’s because they usually don’t understand sales and how a startup should use salespeople.

That’s a big problem since they’ll need to interview, hire, evaluate, and assign regions to salespeople. And sometimes, even fire them.

If that’s you, then it’s helpful to have a framework when it comes to building a killer sales team. The following advice should help you do just that.


The first thing you should do before you interview or hire any salespeople is to make sure you understand what a sale is. So, what are sales?

Basically a sale is when you close the deal. Marketing finds those leads and nurtures them, sales closes them. How you close them is very important. In fact, if you get this wrong you won’t be closing very many deals.

Bad salespeople do nothing but talk. They call them “crocodile salespeople” because their mouth is always open, but they’re never listening. A good salesperson realizes that sales are really a discussion between the company and the customer where a relationship is built first.

Once that relationship is established, then the salesperson can start asking the customer about their needs. If you short circuit this process the customer will see that you are really not interested in them.

But sales aren’t just about customers. In fact, it’s really something you do when you talk to partners or even investors. Because at the end of the day, you’re still selling yourself.

And finally you need to understand sales because you will need to create a long-term sales process that can actually scale out. See, your early success isn’t any indicator that you will be able to scale out because once you remove yourself from the process, things change. It will be harder for a salesperson to close on a deal if you are not involved, and eventually you will have to pull away.


If you are thinking of not getting involved in the sales process and hiring somebody to do that for you I recommend you don’t. You need to sell your product yourself, and not just to investors. You need to sell it to customers as well.

This is important because it will help you understand what roadblocks your salespeople will run into. This way when you hire salespeople you can help them succeed. It may not sound like fun, but trust me it gets easier the more you do it. Sell yourself until you get comfortable doing it.

You can get some early practice by selling before your product or service is launched with a PowerPoint presentation. All you have to do is visually show what your company has to offer. In other words, learn to sell what you are going to have and not just what you currently have.

Each time you finish talking with a potential customer make sure you incorporate their concerns into your product as it will help make it better. Give them the product and watch what they do, then run back to your office to put their ideas into product development. Do this fifty times and not only will you become a pretty good salesperson, but you’ll also move your product to product market fit faster.


With salespeople you need to hire slowly and fire fast. Good salespeople are expensive and you don’t want to waste money. And remember, just because someone is good in sales in their past job, it won’t mean they are a good fit for your company. Even if they have a history of selling products or services in your industry.

Furthermore, when interviewing salespeople, don’t let them sell you on how great they are. You need to see the passion from them, and look for people who want to compete on a higher level than they are used to. They should be eager to reach higher and higher levels of experience.

These salespeople also need to be comfortable on the front lines, watching the customer use the product, listening to their comments and asking for constructive criticism. They need to be eager to hear what the customer is saying so that way you product manager can create something your customers will love. And they should be excited about doing this over and over again!


Never think just because you hired a sales team that you can wash your hands of that responsibility. You really need to keep selling yourself, until you have a VP of Sales who is able to keep on growing your company’s revenue.

Meet with your team often and ideally daily. You want to keep watching them present and sell so you can give feedback and ask for it as well. It’s really a learning experience for all of you and if you’ve hired a killer sales team then you all will start feeding off of this positive energy that you are creating from a culture of constant improvement.


You want salespeople who can qualify. Qualifying a sales lead really comes down to three questions:

  • Do they have the authority to buy?
  • Do they have the budget to buy?
  • When do they plan on buying?

The leads you want your salespeople to avoid are called NINAs… these are leads that have No Influence and No Authority. These leads will waste your time and money! Let marketing nurture them.

A good question to ask during an interview with a salesperson is “Do you know the difference between an A, B and C lead?” Their answer should tell you a lot about whether they know how to qualify or not.

An A lead is one that will close in three months. The B lead will close in 3 to 12 months. If closing that lead will take longer than 12 months, then it’s a C lead.

If they answered that question correctly, then ask them how much time a salesperson should spend on each lead. They should answer like this:

  • A lead gets about 70% of a salesperson’s time.
  • B lead gets about 30% of a salesperson’s time.
  • C lead gets zero percent of a salesperson’s time because C leads are for marketing to nurture.

What it really comes down to is a good salesperson will know how to “align a company’s sales cycle with a prospects buying cycle.”

By the way, always find out if the salesperson you are hiring is a hunter or not. If they aren’t, you will have to provide them leads to follow up with and close. Keep that in mind when hiring.


A good marketing team will generate leads for the salespeople, but like I said above, some of those leads will not be of interest to a salesperson upfront.

How does marketing nurture these leads so they hopefully go from C leads to B leads and eventually A leads? There are few things a marketing department does:

  • Newsletters – a weekly or monthly newsletter is sent out to C leads to keep them close to the company and product so they won’t forget about them after the initial contact. Newsletters to C leads must be different than from what customers get.
  • Public Relations – the second thing that marketing does is constantly talk to journalists and the media about their company, offering news about product updates and special launches.
  • Customer Events – events allow you an opportunity to interact with customers. It’s even a good idea to get some of your satisfied customers to talk during these events, as there’s nothing better than a third-party endorsement!

When it comes time to hire, you need to look for Mavericks. What’s a Maverick? This type of salesperson is great at evangelical sales, meaning they love to educate customers on something new and different.

Mavericks are also very comfortable in places where there aren’t well-defined processes, products or structures, which is pretty typical for the early stage of a startup. You need to understand that this does mean that Mavericks like independence and despise control, even if that control is some kind of process.

They’ll tend to neglect rules and process, but that’s okay because they are really great at persuading customers to take a leap of faith. You also should remember that promoting Mavericks to a VP or sales manager position is not a good idea.

As your startup begins to see some success and grow because you’ve gotten really close to your product market fit, then you can start setting up well-defined processes. At this point you can start hiring Journeymen who lack that sales spark you see in Mavericks, but they are relentless when in an established sales structure and have a well-defined product to work with.

Finally, start looking for those Superstars, salespeople who are a combination of the Maverick and Journeyman. These people have that spark and can follow rules well.

Keep in mind that these salespeople usually come from academy-type corporations where the sales organization is a well-oiled machine and pays their salespeople a lot of money. That means you probably won’t be able to afford these people in your early days, but you may want to look to bring them in once you’ve grown.

Superstars commonly can lead a team and do sales themselves. They bring to the table a great mind for sales, a good head for processes and leadership. Hire once you’ve got the product market fit, though.


Sure, at some point you’ll reach a place with your company that you will need a VP of sales. That will not happen in the early stages of your growth and it shouldn’t. Let me explain why.

Seasoned or senior salesperson typically come from companies that documented procedures, defined processes precisely and didn’t tolerate the by-the-seat-of-your-pants way a young startup operates. So when these salespeople enter a startup, you are inviting criticism and frustration that you can easily avoid by simply hiring a Maverick instead.

Besides, seasoned or senior people may not have the passion someone younger and less experienced has, plus, they can be very expensive.

If your startup has raised millions of dollars you can start with a VP and have them figure things out, but in most cases you won’t have millions of dollars at your fingertips. And if you do hire a VP of Sales, make sure you are helping them out when they get started.


If you make the wrong hire at the wrong time you can set your startup back months, if not years. However, if you build a killer sales team by hiring the right people at the right time, then you will raise the chances you’ll grow it into a successful company.

Can you think of any other ways to build a killer sales team for your startup?

This article was originally written by Neil Patel and posted on Quicksprout, which can be found here.

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