How to build a go-to-market team for your startup
Which roles to hire, what they do and when to hire them
Hi! In this week’s post I walk through a framework for building a go-to-market team for your startup—from scratch—covering which roles to hire, when to hire them and what their key responsibilities are.
Having gone through this journey at multiple startups, I’ve developed the following guiding principles, upon which the framework is based:
Sales is a distribution channel—for a product that solves a customer problem. If you don’t have a couple dozen initial customers with the same use case and pain points, don’t hire a sales team.
Marketing amplifies sales—don’t hire a marketing team before your sales team is predictably closing deals at a small scale or you’ll just piss a load of money down the drain.
Minimize role specialization—early stage business don’t require a lot of specialized roles because most of the gains come from doing the broad strokes things that do not require deep expertise. Each new role also adds cost and complexity and limits your ability to adapt to changing needs.
Manage new functions directly—you need to understand how a new function works in the context of your company in order to figure out what type of person to run it. This is why your first 3 salespeople and first 3 marketers should report to the CEO.
There are 3 stages to building out a go-to-market team:
Founder-led sales—the founding team relies on personal networks and word-of-mouth to acquire and onboard the first couple dozen customers, and identify the core use cases and pain points that its customers share.
Sales-as-distribution—the company adds a sales team to prospect for more customers that have the core use case and pain points, to retain the existing customers and to create a basic sales process.
Marketing-amplifies-sales—the company adds a marketing team to generate a predictable flow of leads for sales, remove friction for buyers and improve overall revenue predictability.
In the Founder-led sales phase, the team typically looks like this:
The founding CEO usually brings in the initial customers directly and doubles up as head of product. The rest of the product team helps out with onboarding and support.
The head of engineering runs the team that builds the product and gets involved with more complex troubleshooting.
The finance and HR functions are outsourced to an accounting firm or back-office provider.
The first hires in the Sales-as-distribution phase are:
Account executives—responsible for prospecting and acquiring customers.
Account managers—responsible for onboarding, retaining and growing customers.
It’s important to hire all three of these positions at same time and have them report to the CEO, rather than hiring a head of sales first. Here’s why:
You want your account executives focused full-time on prospecting and closing new business, not switching between prospecting and onboarding, as it ensures a steady stream of opportunities and learnings.
Hiring two account execs creates friendly competition / camaraderie and gives you perspective on individual sales skills vs product/market fit and process.
Your account manager can take over managing your existing customers and free up your product and engineering teams to focus on improving the product, while also creating a check-in cadence to identify expansion opportunities.
You want to manage these new functions directly to understand how they work and to inform the type of leader to bring in to run the team.
When your first two account executives are closing deals consistently, hire a head of sales to grow the team:
The key in hiring a head of sales is to look for someone who is metrics and process oriented and a coach at heart, rather than a superstar seller who wants to be a manager. The head of sales’ key responsibilities are:
Create processes for pre-sales (prospecting, closing) and post-sales (onboarding, expansion), and train the team on following them.
Define and monitor the KPIs and goals for the sales team, in partnership with the CEO.
Coach the team to perform—you do not want the head of sales to carry a quota, or directly involved in closing too many deals, as its not scalable.
Recruit and ramp additional account executives and account managers.
As the sales team reaches 5-6 account executives and 2-3 account managers, hire a head of sales ops to improve productivity:
Sales ops is for sales what product management is for engineering—a massive productivity enhancer. I’m a big fan of bringing it earlier rather than later, to lay a solid foundation for growth.
The head of sales ops’ key responsibilities are:
Process—refine the existing sales process and build out additional processes for account assignments, forecasting, pricing, contract review, product launches.
Tools—implement the sales processes into the CRM and other systems to ensure the sales team members are all following the same process and collecting the same data, enabling you to get accurate insights.
Planning & Analytics—partner with the head of finance to create and run processes for planning, forecasting, setting goals and measuring performance vs goal.
Enablement—standardize the sales collateral that the team uses at each stage of the sales process, formalize the ideal customer profile and translate it into a target account list.
Round out the sales team with a head of account executives and a head of account management:
The head of account executives (usually called a director of sales) focuses on improving the pre-sale process and team.
The head of account management (sometimes called head of customer success) focuses on the post-sale process and team.
Hiring these two leaders frees up the head of sales from the day-to-day of managing a large number of direct reports, to focus on longer-term strategy and be a more effective contributor on the company’s exec team.
The Marketing-amplifies-sales phase starts with hiring a head of product marketing to remove friction from the buying process:
Product marketing is another productivity-enhancing role. The head of product marketing’s key responsibilities are:
Messaging—evolving the external messaging from seller-centric (here is our product, our features, our technology) to buyer-centric (here are solutions to your problems).
Customer Profile—taking ownership of the ideal customer profile and building out more detailed personas and discovery questions through doing win/loss analyses with the sales team.
Product Feedback—gathering and prioritizing feedback from the account management team and directly from customers via interviews, turning it into problem statements and partnering with the head of product to develop solutions.
Product Launches—training the sales team on new products, setting goals for new product adoption, creating proof points and case studies.
The next key marketing hire is a head of comms to elevate awareness of the company with its stakeholders:
I’ve been lucky to work with two outstanding comms leaders in my career and have seen up close how much of an impact a well-executed comms strategy makes on the outcome of a company. The head of comms’ key responsibilities are:
Messaging—creating clear, concise and standardized messaging for each stakeholder group in the company i.e. prospects, customers, employees, candidates, investors.
Media strategy—identifying which media outlets and reporters best reach the ideal customer profile, which trends and topics they are writing about and packaging the company’s progress and unique insights into relevant stories to pitch.
Internal communication—organizing all-hands, announcing new hires (and departures), communicating milestones and generally facilitating the flow of information as the company grows.
The next marketing hire is a head of demand gen(eration) to accelerate inbound lead volume
Demand gen is all about picking the right strategy, as the head of demand gen’s key responsibility is to generate leads for the sales team:
If your ideal customer profile is SMBs, you’ll want your head of demand gen to be strong at SEO, content marketing, paid marketing and lead nurturing.
If your ideal customer profile is larger enterprises, you’ll want your head of demand gen to be strong at account-based marketing, orchestrating prospecting across marketing and sales, and content marketing.
The quality of leads is infinitely more important than the quantity—if they aren’t converting into customers you need to dial back the spend quickly and adjust the targeting strategy.
The next key hire is a head of marketing to lead the team
By this point you should have a good idea of the type of marketing leader you need to run the team. They will likely take over enablement from sales ops to ensure the messaging is aligned and create additional functions like retention (or database) marketing to nurture leads. The key is to stick to the guiding principles and remember that the goal of marketing is to amplify sales.