How top early-stage startups lean into founder-led sales

May 31, 2023

Ever hired a nanny or a cleaner and then criticized their work? You're not an expert in what they do so... They should do it better than you, right? Yes true, that's the logic behind specialization.

Maybe you've taken on a summer intern who knows they can't grow immediately at your company so their performance was lackluster, or outsourced sales leadership training to a marketing lead... The truth is, they don't care about your family, your home, your team, or your outcome as much as you do.

Nobody is going to work harder for your company than you. Once you realize that, scaling becomes easier. You can document and automate as much as possible, so that the people you do hire are following the best practices you laid out. You can lean harder into product-led growth.

As you scale, involve those people in decisions more and more, the idea is to get further away from the execution each day until they have to tell you what to do! But if you're early-stage, get your hands dirty with founder-led sales.

Why does founder-led sales work?

Founder-led sales is a business strategy that I recommend to early-stage startup founders. It involves you getting directly engaged in the sales process. This direct involvement leverages your deep understanding of the product and passion, which is transmitted to the prospect as well as any salespeople watching.

Yes, you might get to product-led growth (PLG) one day, but you won't unless you know exactly what product they need. Founder-led sales is a great way to stay on top of changing trends. As well as lay the ground for the team that comes behind you, instead of them guessing what needs to be done.

How can you do founder-led sales well?

To get real SaaS MQLs, you need to establish a foundational strategy for founder-led sales.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you need to:

  • Get real understanding of the target market
  • Create detailed buyer personas
  • Craft a compelling and clear value proposition
  • Map out the sales process
  • Set SMART goals
  • Weave all the above into robust sales leadership training.

Let me go back to those first two, they're worth doubling down on! To truly excel in founder-led sales, you've got to know your ideal customer like the back of your hand. Imagine trying to hit a bullseye with a blindfold on – that's what selling without knowing your target audience is like. That's step one, next you need to hone your own SaaS sales abilities.

What sales skills does a founder need to learn?

Now, if you're a technical founder or someone who's never dialed a cold-call number, deep-dive on this section. These are the skills you'll need in order to unleash the power of your founder passion:

  1. Building relationships is the first power you can leverage in a founder-led sales strategy: People want to talk to others who care about them, as well as their own interests. That's you!
  2. Active listening is a key skill, so you can genuinely understand your prospects’ needs, goals, and pain points. This might actually help you tailor both your SaaS product and your sales process to build stronger connections.

    Remember that people buy from people they like. Authenticity, empathy, and genuine curiosity go a long way
  3. Persuasion and negotiation skills are vital for closing deals. You need to be ready to handle objections, negotiate terms, and ask for the sale confidently.

    An online course in sales leadership training is a good starting point. But to get really good at this: practice. There's no substitute. That's why I recommend practising on family and friends before you get in front of a lead.
  4. Client success is part of the sales process: it doesn’t end once a deal is closed. Post-sale follow-up, ensuring customer satisfaction, and asking for referrals is what will help you nurture relationships and maybe upsell customers when you're ready for them.
  5. Embrace setbacks as learning opportunities. This sounds like a cliché because everyone says it. You know why? Because it's true. Every failure can offer valuable lessons to improve future PLG sales strategies and tactics.

Any founder-led sales strategy should flex and stretch to the market, with regular progress tracking, and adjustments based on customer feedback and data. Take advantage of your being the decision-maker as well as boots on the ground: be agile and responsible.

Enjoyed this so far? You might like my in-depth guide, which is living over at Decklinks.

Should a founder always be involved in sales?

It can be tricky to extract yourself from founder-led sales later on. When senior execs get heavily involved in any area, there's both an emotional and an administrative barrier to letting it go, so it can grow.

Some founders do get stuck here. The number one roadblock for them is they never take the time to document their SaaS' sales process and keep it simple. You being the one source of knowledge is going to make you the trainer, hiring manager, team, coach, and sales team at some point. Offload some of that onto a knowledge-sharing tool.

Honestly, you can start with your cell phone and a spreadsheet. Start documenting:

  1. What a good customer is. 

  2. What an opportunity looks like.

  3. Your outreach script, both on the phone and in the email.  

  4. Questions you ask prospects to learn what their problems are.

  5. The features you always demo.

  6. Questions you always ask to test how the prospect sees your product working for them.

  7. Objections that are usually raised.

  8. How you make sure they have a great experience getting into and using the product. 

Check in regularly, to see how these 8 points have evolved and update your documentation and PLG strategy.

When you hand off sales to a new sales rep, review these 8 points with them too. This will help you tap into your boots on the ground to see how Product might need to respond, or Marketing might need to evolve.

Taking on sales yourself? Subscribe to the Selling SaaS Newsletter for bite-size reads every week.

Let us slide in your DMs...

Drop your email and we'll send you the SellingSaas Newsletter, a weekly digest of  industry leading updates, insights and tactics for B2B tech companies.

We HATE spam. We will never sell your information, for any reason.