How to hire your first salesperson: Guide for startups

The sales trajectory in the initial stage of a startup is the key determinant of a startup’s survival. Experts say that the first three years are crucial for a startup, and therefore the salesperson you hire also becomes an important part of this journey.

After the pre-series funding, it becomes even more critical for a startup to build a strong sales team to achieve revenue growth targets. In this 4-part series, “Playbook for Startup Founders,” we talk about strengthening the sale strategies after receiving the first round of funding.

Hiring a salesperson is a tricky task. You need someone who understands the product and can sell the product. The constant iterative processes involved in the initial stage of the startup require people who are proactive learners, and that applies to your salespeople as well.

An intuitive learner, a good communicator, and a believer of your product – the list of role requirements seem crisp yet complex. If you, too, are wondering how to find such a dynamic fit for your sales department, then read on to learn the fundamentals of hiring your first salesperson.

What to look for in your first sales hire  

Can replicate the founder-driven sales

Founder-driven sales are often the few first sales led by the founders themselves. It is usually the first sale/client after the inception. The founder learns if and how the products appeal to the customers, which pain point it addresses for the customer, and so on.

In this stage, founders often experiment with different sales strategies. They test and try what works for them and are still gaining ground when it comes to market acquisition.

The first sales hire should replicate these sales tactics and should be eager to go into the uncharted market. Hence, it’s always a good idea to hire someone young, someone who is willing to not only learn from the founders but also their own mistakes and trials.

Someone who can endure healthy competition and collaboration

The first rule of building a new sales team in a startup is to hire more than one person. Even if you think that hiring one sales personnel is good enough to drive the sales, you must still consider hiring a second salesperson. It will not only reduce the dependency on individual performance but also foster healthy competition.

Moreover, it will help you assess different sales strategies accurately as you will have two market-facing people to measure the outcomes against each other. Hire someone who enjoys healthy competition and doesn’t hesitate to team up and work collaboratively in times of crisis.  

 Hire intrapreneurs

An intrapreneur is someone who brings their ideas to the table. They are self-starters who are always ready to take responsibility as a leader. In the initial startup phase, your sales department will do better with intrapreneurs. Your salesperson will not be hell-bent on just selling the product but will also help invent and revamp the strategy itself.

An intrapreneurial salesperson will bring innovative ideas to the table that may help your revenue growth and shape your startup in the long run. They would be able to deal with ambiguity and the lack of firm structures and heavily documented processes. Your first salesperson is your startup’s building block, and an intrapreneur will have much more in common with you, making them the best pillar for your startup’s sturdy foundation.

Must be a good learner and an observer 

In a startup environment, fast learners perform the best. They quickly learn from their mistakes and implement the learnings in the next task. It is, therefore, no doubt that you will require a good learner. However, in addition to learning, your salesperson needs to be someone who is also a good observer.

Sale is a topsy-turvy ride during the initial phase of a startup. While you need go-getters, you also need someone who knows when to pause and sit back to learn. A salesperson who learns both from hustling and observing will be able to not only bring the insights but also assess if they are the right fit for fine-tuning the selling strategies and building a strong sales funnel.

Hiring tactics to select the best salesperson

Screen resumes and engage with interesting topics

A typical hiring process starts with scanning resumes for adequate experience and qualifications. Resumes rarely tell us anything beyond a person’s professional life. To ensure that you have not skipped a suitable candidate, add one more layer of scrutiny. Look for topics or things that draw you to the person. Something that will not be counted as a professional credential otherwise.

The best way to do this is to quickly scan for something that can make a great conversation starter. Ask them how that college festival experience changed them? Or about a hobby that sounds boring yet unconventional. You never know what you might discover with just a few offbeat questions.

However, don’t index too much on the resume while selecting the candidate. Treat it as just a window into observing and learning who that person is. But the selection process should be truly based on the interactions that you have.

You could also ask them to send a video resume of 60 sec or 90 sec. This can help you gauge the comfort level of your sales hire for asynchronous communication. In the post-covid era, these skills have become essential to engage and convert clients better.

Ask the entrepreneurship question

We talked about finding intrapreneurs early in this article. Asking questions about entrepreneurship will help you to find such intrapreneurs. Ask your potential hire what would they do as an entrepreneur? Where would they invest their money and time if they were to dive into the world of startups?

Asking these questions will help you gauge the candidate’s thought process. It will nudge you to see their real passion. Asking about entrepreneurship helps to understand how a person would deconstruct their interests and build a business out of them. If you are impressed with the answers, then you know you have a good salesperson sitting in front of you.

Notice the general communications skills 

 Notice the way they address emails to you or how they greet you in your first call or during the interview. How they sign off their emails and the way they say goodbye. These small meet & greets make a lasting impression on people and are skills your sales personnel must have. That would also give you some indications on the interpersonal skills that person brings to the company. In the early stage of the startups communications and collaboration between people from various functions would be crucial for the initial success.

You could also ask them to write a cold email that includes your product’s value prop. This will provide you with valuable insights into their through-process and communication.

The answers on the resumes and interviews can be orchestrated or learned, but the ones you get beyond the traditional hiring process will tell you a lot more about your prospective hires.

Source candidates through your network

To fasten your hiring process, leverage the power of referral from your network. It helps you save cost-of-hire and attract talent with lower attrition issues as you are getting these vetted candidates from a network you can trust.

But if you are recruiting from outside your network, always check references and run a background check before rolling out the offer letter. This vital hiring protocol helps you reveal critical information and feedback about the prospective employee.

These are just some tactics that startup founders or talent hunters can use in addition to your usual hiring process to filter out the best sales candidates for your startup.

At Cusp, we help you hire salespeople that are aligned with your organizational goals. We learn your vision and design KRAs to drive your startup’s revenue and enrich your sales team with a clear career roadmap.

If you want to build a startup with a strong business model and an even stronger sales team, then get in touch with us today.

Stay tuned to read the next article in our “Playbook for Startup Founders after Raising Pre-Series Funding.” You can also learn about the mistakes you should avoid when hiring a sales team in our very first article in this series here.

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