There’s nothing like selling for a startup. It takes a determined, scrappy, go-getter kind of mentality to succeed as a sales person in a brand new company.
In a lot of ways, the world is your oyster: when you’re starting from scratch, there’s not a whole lot to clean up or clean out; you’re not constrained by the status quo because — well, there isn’t one.
That can be exciting, rewarding...and completely overwhelming, even for the most seasoned sales manager or leader. If you’ve been there, you know: startups often are moving fast and working out kinks; funding and resources may be limited; and everyone is wearing a whole lot of hats.
So when it comes to your sales processes and workflows, it may be tempting to take a figure-it-out-as-we-go-along approach. But it’s worth taking the time to map out a formal plan and get everyone on board, even if it’s apt to change along the way. In fact, it should change along the way, scaling alongside your team and your company.
Why every startup needs a sales plan
Alignment: Even if your sales team only has a few members, it’s critical that everyone is singing from the same song sheet. When you’re all working off a single, cohesive plan, you’ll quickly learn from each other what’s working and what’s not, so you can stay nimble and iterate as a team.
Focus: You can’t be all things to all people. A plan helps you maintain focus on everything from your audience to your messaging, and it allows you to set guidelines for internal performance and progress.
Hiring: It can be hard to right-size a start-up; there are risks in growing your team too fast or too slow. Having a solid sales plan in place can help you build a roadmap so your hiring is aligned with your company’s growth.
Repeatable success: Ultimately, this is the goal. It doesn’t mean your strategy won’t change over time, but a plan eliminates guesswork — so once you hit your stride, you’ll know exactly how to maintain it.
How to build a startup sales strategy
No two startups are exactly alike, which means no two startup sales strategies are exactly alike. However: the basic method of getting there are the same. Here are 6 steps to building a solid startup sales plan.
1. Research your target market
There’s a reason this is step #1: it’s absolutely critical to know your buyer like you know your best friend. Take your product or service out of the equation, at least when you’re starting, and really dig into the people and roles who you’re going to be pursuing. What are their responsibilities? What do they care about? What do they want to achieve? What keeps them up at night? If possible, gather other kinds of data and trends about people in their roles — like demographics, socioeconomic status, etc.
More than likely, you’ll have multiple “types” of buyers. For example, at Ambition, our buyers may be sales managers, VPs of Sales, sales enablement leaders — they all have different needs, pain points, and goals that we need to be intimately familiar with.
Consider, too, the verticals and end markets you’re selling into. Keep tabs on what’s happening in their sectors. Is technology changing the game? Is consolidation happening? Are they being impacted by macroeconomic events?
Make it actionable: After you’ve done your research, build out your ICP (ideal customer profile), accompanied by specific buyer personas for each type of buyer. Also compile overviews of your target verticals. Present this to your team, train them on it, and make it easily accessible.
2. Get to know your competition
Put on your detective cap and start digging into the brands you’re competing with, directly or indirectly.
Know their brand, know their features, know their pitch. It may require some actual sleuthing: if possible, getting a first-hand demo from your competitors is invaluable.
Keep in mind: for some startups, especially those with brand-new or “disruptive” technology, one of your key “competitors” might just be the status quo.
Make it actionable: Build out “battlecards” for each of your competitors that show how your features and benefits stack up. Keep it real: acknowledge where your product or service wins and loses. (Remember, this is for internal use only!)
3. Hone your messaging
With your market, buyer and competitive research front-and-center, build out key sales messaging and applications. While everything doesn’t need to be perfectly scripted, it helps to have guidelines, especially for a startup. This may include:
Cold calling scripts
Be sure you’re working directly with other departments — like marketing, enablement, product — to ensure overall alignment with brand and product messaging and positioning. Bonus: because they often have backgrounds in communications, marketing folks can be especially helpful crafting a message that resonates with your audience on every level.
Make it actionable: Decide what types of messaging applications your team will require. Once you’ve created them, share them with your team and have them practice during coaching sessions or role-play exercises.
4. Enable your team
Give your team quality sales collateral and content that they can leverage through every stage of the funnel. Here again, you may partner with other departments, like marketing or enablement, to create usable content like blog posts, playbooks or case studies that deliver value to buyers, position you as thought leaders and provide social proof.
You’ll likely want other assets too — like a demo environment, if you’re a SaaS company, or a modular/customizable pitch deck that your reps can use as a starting point.
Make it actionable: Start creating content (or enlist someone to do it for you), and make sure you’ve got a good mix of top-of-funnel, middle-of-funnel, and bottom-of-funnel. Tap your marketing team or pull in a freelance designer to lay out templates for decks, playbooks, and other collateral, so that your content looks polished and on-brand.
5. Track and measure performance
A metric-driven sales strategy is the best sales strategy, especially for startups. Work backward from your big revenue goal to determine team and individual quotas. Then continue reverse engineering from there, so you have a very clear understanding of every conversion point in the sales funnel and what drives those conversions. This will ultimately help you identify which daily activities are required to get deals done, and the volume of activities required to get you to The Big Number.
Make it actionable: Use the right tools and technology to set the right daily, weekly and monthly KPI targets and benchmarks for your reps. Provide real-time performance visibility for your whole team, so everyone knows exactly where they stand and what they need to focus on to hit quota.
6. Launch a coaching program
No matter the size of your team, coaching should be a big part of your sales strategy. Coaching your reps on a regular basis gives you time to develop skills, problem solve with your reps, and foster relationships — that’s especially important in a startup, where the environment can feel a little chaotic. It’s also an opportunity to get feedback from your reps as to what’s working from a strategic and process standpoint, and what they need more of from you — e.g., training, collateral, etc.
Make it actionable: Set up a formal coaching program that includes weekly 1:1s. Tie those sessions directly to your performance data (see #5), so both you and your reps come to each meeting knowing exactly how your rep is progressing against goals. Make sure your conversations are tracked, and build out an action plan at the end of each session for the upcoming week. (And automate what you can!)
And then: run with it!
Building out a startup sales strategy may seem daunting, but it’s also an exciting challenge. You’ve got the power and the potential to set up your team — and really, your whole company — for success. Use these best practices to help you break it down, and then run with it. There’s no perfect strategy: just test, iterate, and improve along the way!