How To Start & Grow Your Business

Sales For Startups: Guiding Principles in Hiring Salespeople

Mark Birch
Jan 5th, 2015
  • Estimated reading time: 4 min read
  • Hummy's

    1Hiring sales talent is incredibly challenging. 2Relationship-driven salespeople are lowest performers. 3The educated informed sales rep is today's preference.
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Customer Service: Happy Co-workers Wearing Headsets Working In Call Center Photo credit: Andrey Popov Shutterstock

How should you go about the process when hiring sales reps?

When it comes to hiring salespeople in startups, there is a lot of built up common knowledge:

  • Do not hire salespeople till you are ready
  • Do not hire a VP of Sales as your first sales hire
  • Do not hire salespeople straight out of big corporations
  • Do not hire MBA’s as salespeople
  • Do not hire commission only salespeople

The list goes on and on about what not to do and how not to hire. While this advice is useful, is it always the right advice, and more importantly, how is a startup founder supposed to hire salespeople?

Recruiting and hiring is incredibly hard for any field, but especially hard for sales talent. You want to find the right people with the right skills and experience that fit your culture, but you also face competition, you have a limited budget, and the pool of candidates may be tight. Then there is your own internal process to vet candidates, figure out the right fit, and creating a compelling story that gets salespeople excited to come on board.

Then to further confound things, most people have not the slightest clue as to how to evaluate sales talent which in many ways is much harder to evaluate than programming skills or design talent.

Why are salespeople tough to evaluate? Because there is a vast gap between the ideal of what makes a great salesperson and what actually comprises the qualities of a top salesperson.

Furthermore, we have a very poor understanding as to what even comprises the right skills for sales and to recognize that those skills can differ widely based on the type of thing being sold as well as the purpose of the role, the company culture, and the overall industry. To put it another way, we tend to hire sales for looks, not skills.

You will protest, but more often than not, we fall into obvious sales tropes. We often hire the outwardly personable and pleasant, generally more attractive person over the more introverted, augmentative and less attractive person, even when past results dictate otherwise. Sure, this happens in other fields, but not to the extent that it influences sales hires. It is easy to evaluate outward appearances and much harder to get to innate skills and motivations.

One of the biggest and most pervasive of fallacies is to believe you need a relationship driven salesperson. If you have read the Challenger Sale however, you will understand that such sales reps are the poorest of performers. Large rolodexes (yes, I know the term is an anachronism), whale accounts, high priced lifestyles, inability to go deep into sales process or methodology, reliance on network over process, all are signs of the “relationship” rep.

The problem is no one buys these days because they like the sales rep. Buyers are much more educated about products, negotiation tactics, and purchasing strategies. They do not need golf outings or free meals, they need people that can bring value and add substance to the conversation.

As damaging as these hiring fallacies may be in coloring our thinking, more troubling is our fixation on weaknesses. You often get the advice to not hire job hoppers or people that have had long gaps in employment history or who are not proven closers. But when you analyze each of these reasons, they are not based upon any research or data or even common sense. They are simply reflecting people’s own biases.

For example, where do “closers” generally come from? Do they go to college for “sales”? Are certain people naturally gifted at selling? It is simply nonsense, and like any skill requires training and practice to become effective.

Some people will obviously excel over others, but that is a very small percentage of talent within a particular environment. The real reason for poor sales performance is usually not that the salesperson was not skilled enough, but that the processes to support the rep were shoddy. The exceptional rep might be able to overcome a weak organization and poor process, but the average rep will have no chance in hell to succeed.

At some point I will get more into specifics in terms of actionable advice on recruiting, hiring, and onboarding of salespeople. As I am going through the process myself with Enhatch, it is a timely topic.

What I want to get across now though is to hopefully dispel some of the general myths around hiring salespeople in startups and give you some food for thought when you read much of the generic “sales advice” that is floating about the Internet. So when someone says “do not do that”, challenge that advice and sure enough you will find that there is little substance to support those assumptions.

This article was written by NYC tech investor & entrepreneur Mark Birch and published on his blog, Strong Opinions.