The CEO is Responsible for the First 30 Sales

I’m going to be blunt with this one. Sales is the difference between being the CEO of a company and having a hobby. So if you’re the founding CEO, or want to be a founding CEO, and you don’t want to make the first 30 sales, don’t be the fucking founding CEO. Full. Stop.

To be honest, 30 is a pretty arbitrary number. But it’s useful to get the point across that, as the CEO, you have to go through customer discovery and sell your product enough times that your sales process is predictable and reliable. Before you ever even think about hiring a salesperson, you must be able to recognize a good prospect, then be able to perfectly describe their problem, your solution and its value so that they buy it, every time. I seriously doubt you can get to that point after 10 sales, but whether it’s 20, 50 or even 100, as the CEO you’re responsible for selling until you can essentially predict what every potential customer is going to say next. 

Why is it so important for CEOs to do this, you ask? Well, for one, because the CEO has three responsibilities — one of them being not to run out of money. The best way to not run out of money is sales. That should be the end of the story.

But it’s also because salespeople need a playbook. Before they can make a sale, they need to know what a good prospect looks like, as well as the problem the product is solving and why it’s better than everything else out there. They need a script, from start to finish. While good salespeople will modify that script to fit the prospect in front of them, their job is editing, not creating. If it were, they’d be the CEO of their own companies.

The best salespeople I know don’t want to do customer discovery, because it’s slow, it’s unpredictable and it’s fundamentally not about selling; it’s about understanding. Generally speaking, salespeople want to make money, not friends. Time and again, though, I hear from founders, usually product and software people, who tell me the first thing they want to do is hire someone to take over sales. 

In a lot of ways, it makes sense. Product people like creating things. Developers like coding things. If they loved selling things they’d be salespeople. Even I often find myself telling potential clients things like “I’m not trying to sell you here.” 

I am obviously trying to sell them. I want my clients to pay me to work with them, and I sure as hell won’t do it for free. But for some reason, even after years of successfully getting people to pay me for quality coaching, I still have an aversion to be considered actively engaging in the ugly, disgusting, ham-fisted activity of sales. (Which is total BS. It’s a story we all make up in our heads because we’re frightened little children. Sales is a glorious trade.)

If you hire a salesperson too early, I can almost guarantee they won’t sell a single thing. Until you know all the details of the who, what and why of your sales process, even the best salespeople in the world probably won’t last long. Your job as founding CEO is to have hundreds of conversations with prospective customers, until you understand their business as well as they do, and then define a product or service that solves a problem with real financial impact. Then sell it a couple of dozen times. Then you can hand it off.

When I think of the companies that I’ve started that failed, in every case I either tried to offload sales to someone else before we had product / market fit, or I simply failed to include sales in the process at all — I would just try to sell using Facebook ads and fail miserably (watch for a post about this in a few weeks). 

That lack of customer outreach and discovery ensured that the product wasn’t growing toward solving a market problem. As Steve Blank says, the answer isn’t found inside the office — you have to go outside and talk to your potential customers in order to design a solution that matters. Unless you plan on offloading product ownership to your salesperson, you, the CEO, have to bring that knowledge back to the team. 

And even that’s not enough. Not all sales are the same. You can successfully sell early clients and still not have a repeatable and predictable process. 

Recently I was talking to the head of sales for a well-funded advertising startup. The CEO was responsible for closing the first 15 or so customers, who are all paying six and seven figures, and then he brought on the head of salesto take over and build a sales team. Fifteen isn’t 30, but it’s not nothin’ either. But there’s a rub.

The CEO raised capital as a software company, because software companies are considered to be way more valuable (linear vs exponential growth opportunities, better margins, etc). But he didn’t sell software to his customers, he sold them a services business, an agency, that happened to use software. So every time a prospect wanted something different to close a deal, the CEO thought “jeez, they’re paying a million dollars this year, so yeah, I’ll hire a couple of people to do that work.” And, next thing you know, the startup has clients.

You know who’s not fucking allowed to sell that way? The sales team. And now the CEO is giving the head of sales grief because “the company is a software company and not a services business.” They won’t maintain their healthy valuation as an agency. Just sell the software, guy.

All those clients that the CEO landed don’t mean shit from a playbook perspective, because the CEO doesn’t want the sales team following that strategy. The sales guy will continue to feel more and more pressure until he realizes one day that he’s being asked to sell something that the CEO never built, let alone successfully sold. And that’s when he probably quits. 

The CEO needs to come in and take the slings and arrows. The CEO has to walk through the fire and do the discovery of what the product is and how it can be sold. Not just because sales people can’t do it (nor should they have to), but because the CEO is the only person who gets to make choices and accept tradeoffs.

If you really just don’t want to sell, then don’t be the CEO. Be the Chief Product Officer. Be the CTO. Be the fucking chairperson of the board of directors. Just don’t be the CEO. It’s not in your DNA.

— Eric Marcoullier


(Photo by Tim Toomey on Unsplash)

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