Your first sales hire at a startup

Your first sales hire at a startup

Your sales team is the engine of your startup: they keep revenue streams coming in, have a pulse on the pain points and pivots needed to close customers, and can often see where the product needs improvement through direct feedback from prospects.

Get this hire right and you can start to build a consistent, scalable revenue stream and grow quickly. Get it wrong and you’ll burn a ton of time and money. Your first hire is often even more difficult and critical, as they’ll set the pace and tone for the team moving forward, and provide them with the necessary tools/training to understand your customer and their pain points.

This guide aims to help you answer the who, what, where, when, and why about bringing a salesperson onto your team — we’ve also backed it up with Dover’s internal data and insights from our work with 200+ startups.

Types of sales roles and typical career ladders

The journey from Junior Marketer to Director to VP is typically the same across all departments:

  1. Sales Development Rep (BDR)
  2. Account Executive
  3. Senior Account Executive
  4. Director of Sales
  5. VP of Sales

At startups, the early marketing team will probably wear a wide variety of hats. Additionally, you’ll be hiring more senior folks who will build out your junior team once you have a foundation in place. As your company grows, your senior folks will take on fewer projects and focus primarily on people management.

Here, we’ll describe the functions of each department in more detail:

Sales/Business Development Representatives

SDRs (also commonly called business development reps, or BDRs) are responsible for researching, prospecting, and qualifying leads.

If you’re an early-stage company, you probably won’t hire SDRs until you’re scaling your sales arm. They’re typically managed by an account executive, and their day-to-day involves:

  • identifying and reaching out to potential good fits,
  • answering requests for more information,
  • following up with prospects who downloaded content,
  • prospecting on LinkedIn and other social networks, and more.

Once an SDR has determined the lead is qualified, they pass the opportunity to a sales rep, who is responsible for presenting or demoing the product, resolving the buyer’s objections, and creating a proposal.

Account Executives

Most SDRs move into an AE position after about 6 to 18 months. As an AE, they’ve got a lot more autonomy and responsibility including:

  • running demos or giving presentations,
  • identifying, surfacing, and addressing potential buying obstacles,
  • crafting personalized pitches for different buyer personas,
  • getting the commitment to purchase,
  • and negotiating contract terms

AEs are typically held to quotas — more on that later.

Senior Account Executives or Sales Managers

If you’re building a sales arm at a startup, your Account Executives will naturally move into senior or managerial positions as you hire more folks. Senior AEs lead teams of SDRs, and AEs. They’ll also:

  • set individual quotas and team goals,
  • analyze revenue data and make sure targets are met,
  • coordinate sales trainings and call reviews,
  • and manage sales territories (whether by location, industry or company size).

Director of Sales

A director of sales works with sales managers to determine sales objectives, forecast and develop sales quotas, maintain sales volume, and remain a crucial part of the hiring process.

They’ll maintain a more strategic role than that of a sales manager, and will likely report to the VP of Sales when you’re ready to hire one.

They’ll be held responsible for the performance of the department, and their bonus will be awarded when the sales organization meets or exceeds goals.

VP of Sales

A VP of Sales acts as part team leader, part thought partner. They are typically some of the most highly compensated folks in an organization since they are in charge of driving revenue targets.

Many startups bring in a VP of Sales too early. A true VP of Sales is NOT someone you hire to get sales going at your startup. They’re someone you hire to accelerate pre-existing sales into the upper tier of success. They should help bring structure and efficient processes to the table whereas the day-to-day sales grind is better left to your AEs and SDRs. They shouldn’t have to dive in and do IC work, or your sales will actually stall instead of getting better.

Core responsibilities include:

  • Working with Marketing to understand the best GTM (go to market) strategy
  • Understanding the post-sales buyer journey to understand which types of buyers are at the highest risk for churn
  • Understanding why revenue targets are missed and devising a plan to address them
  • Creating a repeatable, measurable, scalable process to engage the buyer where they are versus where you want to force them to be
  • Recruiting and hiring the best salespeople
  • Helping the team scout, engage, and close better deals
  • Reinforcing, and strengthening your culture

Pro tip: On progression.fyi, or levels.fyi, you can compare your career ladder to those at similar or larger companies than yours to gather insights and inspiration.

4 signs you’re ready to make your first sales hire

The first salesperson you hire plays a pivotal role in setting the course of the sales team as you scale. They’ll be in charge of hiring, creating workflows, and pitching your company without the support of a larger team. Here are five signs you're ready to make the leap:

1: You aren’t able to meet your revenue number -- but the pipeline or opportunities are plentiful.

Most entrepreneurs start out as the first and only salespeople for their companies, but eventually, your pipeline will outpace your bandwidth. If you’re an entrepreneur who’s spending more than two hours a day on interacting with prospects -- or generating new business -- it’s probably time to hire a salesperson who can take over for you.

2. You know where your target customers hang out.

This ties in a bit with question one, as your channel might also be the best path for distribution because it’s where your target customers typically network or go to learn more about their job (like LinkedIn, for example). However, the answer might not be so cut and dry, or a channel might work for some time and then suddenly stop driving results. Part of your first sales hire’s job will be to experiment and research new channels for growth.

One way to decide which department they should live in is to consider how your target customers are currently finding competitive products or services. For example, if you know from competitive research that clients are finding out about data migration solutions through recommendations from friends, you may want to hire a brand marketer who can work on driving top-of-funnel awareness. If they’re finding out about them through Instagram ads, you’ll want to hire a growth marketer to build campaigns.

3. You have lots of competitors in your category.

Additionally, ask yourself this: are your competitors dominant players with strong brands? Do they have endless marketing budgets? Are CACs in this space huge because everyone is outbidding each other?

If so, you might want to put money into building an exceptional brand or product/customer experience. That means solidifying your pitch and figuring out how to position yourselves against your competitors.

4. You have product-market fit.

Even an excellent salesperson won’t be able to make an impact if you haven’t proven that people are willing to pay for your product.

This means that you’ll likely have at least 5-10 customers. With a core group of adopters, you’ll be able to start to identify trends in the sales cycle that will help you understand how to build a process around sales.

If two or more of these statements resonate, you’re likely ready and in a good financial position to make your first sales hire.

For a more in-depth guide including compensation/equity benchmarks, tips for optimizing recruiting outreach to sales candidates, and step-by-step advice for setting up an interview loop, download our Hiring Guide for Sales.