Scaling Lead Gen: Growing NetSuite’s BDR Team to 170 People in 3.5 Years

I just returned from Dublin where I spoke at SaaStock 2017 (what an amazing group of founders and investors!) to share some of the lessons I learned while building out NetSuite’s BDR team.

NetSuite is the world’s leading cloud ERP provider. Founded in 1998, they IPO’d in 2007 and were ultimately acquired by Oracle for $9.3B in 2016. What’s amazing about NetSuite is that their software can literally be used by any company. Every business issues invoices, collects cash and runs a GL – a true horizontal play.

During my time at NetSuite, hiring to keep pace with our growth was a constant challenge and a topic the CEO, Zach Nelson, was passionate about.

By mid 2011 three things happened – first, someone above my pay grade did an analysis and figured out we were not even close to meeting hiring goals to keep pace with growth targets. Second, Oracle had doubled down on college hiring and third, we had two senior sales leaders who were begging for the outbound model.

Note: NetSuite has an inbound marketing engine and grew to an almost $200M/year company with no outbound prospecting.

By February 2012, we decided to spin up our own college hiring program. But there’s one really important thing you need to understand in all of this – lead gen was not our our goal. We started the BDR team to “build” ERP sales reps. We went into year one with the mindset of delivering sales reps, where leads just happened to be the baseline of work.

To start, we hired 18 BDRs (the self proclaimed Original 18 or O18) and had people graduating to Account Executive roles within 9 months. During that first year, we hired 48 more BDRs, increased the average value of inbound leads by 30% and made significant contributions to recurring revenue via outbound prospecting.

To say things moved fast from this point would be a massive understatement. We were flying. We doubled, tripled, quadrupled and just kept opening new teams. I couldn’t hire managers or reps fast enough. When I did, I couldn’t keep them. They were promoted ahead of schedule and pulled into all areas of the sales and marketing orgs. When I left the company in 2016, we’d hired well over 300 people and the team was operating in 6 countries, across 11 offices.

That all sounds great, but I don’t want to paint the picture that things were easy. We made mistakes and learned a lot during this journey.

Lesson 1: Learn from Your Peers

I talked to TONS of leaders in the lead gen space when I was first starting out and heard 3 consistent things: segment your inbound and outbound reps, align them to a rep or sales team, don’t worry about product knowledge. I agree with 2 out of 3:

  • Specialize inbound and outbound. Everyone thinks this is about different skill sets and letting people get good at one thing. Sure, it helps, but my real argument is around the value of inbound. You spend a lot of money to acquire those leads and should have someone whose only job is to pick up the phone and call the second someone hits the website. It’s all about focus.
  • Product knowledge matters. Not the nitty gritty, how-to of each feature, but the WHY behind the WHAT. How are your customers actually using your product?
  • Trust comes with strong working relationships and those take time to build. You are only doing your BDRs a disservice by rotating them.

Lesson 2: Never Stop Hiring

You need a deeper bench than you think and  if you’re playing the volume game, you need to be really good at it. The 3 things we did that really moved the needle:

  • Aligned on a hiring profile and consistent interview process. They key is to know what you want to get out of each and every interaction with a candidate.
  • Coached our management team on how to interview. BDR managers are often first time managers, promoted internally, figuring out how to hire without a lot of help or support. Our leadership team bought HireVue. We watched game film. We sent feedback. Everyone had visibility into every interview and learned from each other.
  • This one took time, but we got comfortable acknowledging when there wasn’t a mutual fit. Sometimes you make a mistake and as the hiring manager you need to take responsibility. Be polite, be caring, but do what is right for the business – your team will thank you.

Lesson 3: Retention is King

It’s expensive to bring on a team like this and you can increase retention rates by focusing on a few key areas:

  • Certify everything: Invest in training up front, don’t expect the “just shadow this person” approach to work. You need to find ways to assess, make the learning hands on and ensure that each individual is internalizing the training and can put it to work.
  • Train the trainer: Create an army of Subject Matter Experts who can be your go-tos for new hire training and support. Whether it’s competitive intelligence, product modules, processes or partners, there is a lot to learn.
  • Coach and develop separately: Coach the skills you need in the job today, but take the time to develop the person for the job they want in the future. If you are having conversations about the job 2 or 3 steps in the future, you will be better able to guide that person and have his or her best interests in mind
  • Enable through and beyond promotion: Failure rate in the first 6 months in the next job is going to be WAY higher than in the BDR job. Acknowledge it, plan for it and build a support system.

Lesson 4: Align at All Levels

If you are struggling with alignment, start here to build trust:

  • Compensation: Make sure the comp plans of the two teams are in sync. You don’t want to be in a situation where the BDR team is massively overperforming while sales isn’t hitting their number. You have to find the right balance between quantity and quality and ensure everyone is bought in.
  • Structure Communication: Establish a clear set of metrics that will be used to measure success, then schedule regular syncs with a structured agenda to review what’s working and what needs to change. This is an exercise in reflecting on the overall business and agreeing on next steps.

Lesson 5: Plan for Big

It’s so easy to get hung up in the day to day. To live in the moment and just get through the work that’s on your desk to get to inbox zero. This is a great way to stop improving. So instead, make sure you’re focused on the following:

  • People: If you hire the wrong leader/manager, they will hire the wrong team. I was lucky enough to hire an insanely smart, motivated group of people to lead the team. They were relentless in pushing us to be better.
  • Process: The same process (or lack thereof) that works for five people, doesn’t work for 100, or 50 or even 25. You will save so much time and energy if you build something that scales from the get go.
  • Technology: We drank our own kool aid, which means we used NetSuite CRM. The Salesforce ecosystem has some really cool applications for sales productivity and we’ve come a long way in the world of automation, but it’s really easy to lose touch with the personal nature of the job. My recommendation is to get your process nailed first and then layer in technology.

Ultimately, NetSuite built an impressive company with over 40,000 organizations using the product. It makes for a pretty good story. But when I look back, what I am most proud of are the relationships built along the way. Since I left NetSuite and joined OpenView, a week hasn’t gone by where I haven’t heard from someone from my old team – to serve as a reference, to show me what they are working on now, to ask my advice, to say thank you. What’s even cooler though is when I hear from the NetSuite leadership team about how well those alumni are doing – the BDR team has had a lasting impact on the NetSuite business as a whole.

While I learned so much during my tenure at NetSuite, the one piece of advice I really hope you take away from all of this is to think of your BDRs as your bench. They’re worth more than the leads they generate today so invest in them and you’ll be surprised by what you get in return.

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