3 Fatal Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring a VP Sales

As SaaS expert and Storm Ventures Managing Director Jason Lemkin put it in his 2013 Sales Hacker Conference presentation, “70% of Saas First VP Sales don’t make it to 12 Months. It’s one of the most common, and also most devastating mishires in startups.”
What can companies do to avoid sinking their time and resources into a bad hire? That’s one of the topics Lemkin and Aaron Ross, co-authors of The Predictable Revenue Guide to Tripling Your Sales, tackled in our recent webinar Ask Me Anything: Aaron Ross & Jason Lemkin on How to Build a Winning Sales Team.
Watch a recording of the webinar now, then come back for more of Ross and Lemkin’s tips below.

Hiring a VP Sales: 3 Fatal Mistakes to Avoid

1) Not Understanding What a VP of Sales Actually Does

“I think 50% of the problem is founders/CEOs are looking for the wrong things out of their VP Sales.”

— Jason Lemkin, Managing Director at Storm Ventures

In the post, “What a Great VP Sales Actually Does. Where the Magic Is. And When to Hire One.” on his popular blog SaaStr, Lemkin lists the top things they should really be responsible for, in priority order:

  1. Recruiting
  2. Backfilling and helping the team close deals
  3. Setting strategy
  4. Establishing and executing core tactics

“Up until you make this hire you, the founder, have likely been the acting VP Sales yourself,” Lemkin says. “And you want to accelerate, do better, so you want to hire a VP Sales to…sell better than you.”
You don’t hire a VP Sales to sell. That’s not their job.
You hire a VP Sales to maximize your revenue per lead — by building and managing a killer team and developing and executing against a solid strategy.

2) Getting Blinded by the Resume

When it comes to selecting the right VP Sales, Aaron Ross has one piece of advice he routinely comes back to:

“Don’t let a big company name on a resume trick you into hiring the wrong person.”

— Aaron Ross, best-selling author of Predictable Revenue

Often, salespeople at large companies have much different skill sets, motivations, and comfort zones than their counterparts at smaller companies and startups, Ross says. Before you get starry eyed over a big brand name, ask yourself, do you need a builder or a grower?
Builders are good at:

  • Developing processes and getting things going
  • Creating things
  • Running lean and getting results with limited resources

Growers, meanwhile, are good at:

  • Scaling an existing process that works
  • Optimizing workflows
  • Leveraging large teams, budgets, and resources

Is the candidate you’re interested in the type of person who has a proven track record of building teams and programs from scratch? Or is he or she the type of person who helps departments grow and scale effectively?
Keep in mind being the right fit for the role matters just as much to the candidate as finding the right fit matters to you, Ross says. A builder won’t be interested or ultimately successful in a role that’s all about growth. Likewise, a grower won’t be fully comfortable or capable in a role if what you really need is to build.

3) Hiring the Wrong Person for the Wrong Stage

Once you develop the right expectations for what you need a VP Sales to actually do (not just at any company, at your company), the next step is to make sure the person you hire has real experience executing in your particular stage.
In his post, “The 48 Types of VP Sales. Make Deadly Sure You Hire the Right One.” Lemkin argues hiring someone with the wrong stage experience is the #1 mistake founders/CEOs make. Here is a condensed breakdown of his stages and types below.
Stages and types of VP Sales:

  • The Evangelist – < $1M: A great, passionate, customer-centric salesperson, the problem with the Evangelist is that they’ve never actually built or scaled a team, Lemkin argues. Look for these qualities in your first reps, but realize you’re likely better off spending the time and resources hiring a VP with more “building it out” experience.
  • Mr. Make it Repeatable – $1M – $10M: For many SaaS companies, this is your dream candidate, Lemkin explains — someone who knows how to hire, manage, close, build basic processes, and make them repeatable. This person is a doer to the nth degree. Unfortunately, they can also be incredibly hard to find and recruit.
  • Ms. Go Big – $10M – $40M: This skill set is all about making processes scale and pouring on the gas. The best way to find these people is by hiring them away from companies who just went through this stage, Lemkin suggests. Like Ross, he also cautions against trying to fill the needs of this stage with someone from a big company. The processes and approaches are just too different.
  • Mr. Dashboards – $40M+: This is what you typically get from big companies, Lemkin says — someone who knows how to run/present dashboards, get more budget, and impress the managers and the board. At some point, you may need them, but they have no idea how to get you to $5M, $10M, or $20M.

Bottom Line

In summary, don’t just look for a smart, talented, experienced person to become your VP Sales. Look for someone who is a good fit for the specific job that needs to be done in your company. Both Ross and Lemkin agree that while being super selective will naturally draw out your search, the likelihood and consequences of failure are simply too great to be anything other than extremely targeted and patient.

Additional Resources

On-Demand Webinar

Aaron Ross Jason Lemkin promo image final

  • Who: Jason Lemkin and Aaron Ross
  • What: Ask Me Anything on How to Build A Winning Sales Team
  • When: On-Demand, watch it now!

In this interactive 45 minute session for executive leaders, Jason and Aaron share their best practices and answer all your questions on how to build and scale a sales organization — and more importantly, how to get it right.
Looking for more?

Photo by: colink

Jonathan Crowe
Jonathan Crowe
Senior Content Manager

Jonathan Crowe is Senior Content Manager at Barkly. He was previously the Managing Editor of OpenView Labs.
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