The Renaissance Rep and the Sales Learning Curve

September 24, 2012


I recently had breakfast with a couple of super entrepreneurs who are getting ready to transition their software company from the startup stage to the expansion. They had managed to bootstrap the business, getting it close to a $3 million run rate with a highly capital efficient distribution model (primarily online and inside sales). We spoke at length about the balance between accelerating revenue growth and maintaining more organic/capital efficient growth. We also discussed the possible path to expanding the sales model to pursue larger sales to larger enterprise customers.

Accelerating growth or selling larger deals invariably requires more capital. So how to drive for either (or both) without becoming capital inefficient any longer than necessary?

The conversation reminded me of “The Sales Learning Curve,” a classic paper by Mark Leslie and Charles Holloway. It is a must-read for any founder/CEO looking to build or ramp up a sales team. Mark and Charles primarily focus on the launch of new products and the organizational learning curve required to support their success. I would say the learning curve also applies to pushing an existing product through a new distribution model or channel.

The key ingredients for successfully navigating the sales learning curve:

  • It requires the attention of the entire senior executive team, as the effort will impact each function in one way or another.
  • It should be tackled by a “tiger” cross-functional team that can adequately pursue the initiative with an open and learning mind frame.
  • Dive deep into the success requirements from the standpoint of the prospect/channel partner to understand the true pain points of each, the company’s value proposition for each, and how each wants to engage the company.
  • Adapt as learning is accumulated — adapt again, and again…
  • Once the learning is near complete (it never truly ends), drive to a clearly mapped out engagement model and the specific associated touch points through the whole distribution channel (company to partner to prospect to customer).
  • Once the core model is baked, only then hire the “steady state” team that will carry it forward.
  • And this is where the renaissance sales rep comes in… As Mark and Charles point out, in a new market or channel, the learning curve of the organization is different from that of the sales rep. The sales executive on the tiger team is very different from the executive who would carry the process forward once it is baked.

Hence the concept of the renaissance rep referenced in the learning curve paper. The renaissance rep must have the following characteristics:

  • Entrepreneurial (as much as a sales executive can be)
  • Has experience at an early-stage company and wants to do it again
  • Willing to learn and adapt, learn and adapt
  • Willing to roll with the punches without pointing fingers at marketing or development or finance
  • Has the instinct to walk away from deals that will never close
  • Has the strength to push back on prospects that try to get something for nothing from an emerging company
  • Willing to forgo some compensation in return for company success and equity
  • Has faith that the money will come eventually, and the company will do well by him if it doesn’t

I have worked with and mentored several renaissance sales executives and reps over the years. Typically, I find them right after we invest in a new company. Successful founding-team sales executives are almost always renaissance sales people. One has to be in the start-up phase.

After we invest (we only invest in companies that have grown past the start-up phase) and the company enters the expansion-stage, I find that the renaissance sales executive invariably begins to struggle with his or her evolving role. I see this especially with VPs of Sales, but just as often in rank and file sales reps. The first challenge is in their ability to adapt to a more prescribed and structured sales process (they miss the days when they used to make fast decisions and “wing it.”) The second is expectations. Founding renaissance sales people feel a sense of entitlement, and have a hard time recognizing that they can be easily replaced with sales people who have lower expectations, and are possibly better at selling in the execution phase.

I am very sensitive to this transition and have mentored more than one person through it. My advice to the CEO is to try as hard as he or she can to retain the renaissance rep. They are invaluable to the company as it looks to enter new markets or release new products. My advice to the renaissance rep is to go with the flow and happily take on a new role. There is nothing more fulfilling than going from challenge to challenge. Career advancement and wealth will eventually find their way to the renaissance rep, and in big ways.

The Chief Executive Officer

Firas was previously a venture capitalist at Openview. He has returned to his operational roots and now works as The Chief Executive Officer of Everteam and is also the Founder of <a href="">nsquared advisory</a>. Previously, he helped launch a VC fund, start and grow a successful software company and also served time as an obscenely expensive consultant, where he helped multi-billion-dollar companies get their operations back on track.