Fresh out of college, I joined an early-stage software startup as the first purely sales role within the company. The company had plans for expanding in North America, and entrusted me as its head of sales.
After a lot of experimentation and learning, I closed my first enterprise deal at age 24. My early career as a sales executive taught me a great deal about what it really takes to run a company.
In my current role as CEO and co-founder of a startup, I find myself coming back to the same two principles I learned back then: Your company is only as good as its talent, and your customers should be at the heart of everything you do.
Your People Are Everything
The startup I worked for out of college dealt with challenges that most early-stage startups encounter: a lack of funding and brand awareness, tight budget, and the inevitable roadblocks that pop up while engineering a product.
Despite this, the company was still able to achieve considerable success because it was comprised of an all-star team. Your people are the single most important piece to creating a great company, culture, and product.
After experiencing this dynamic, I knew that I wanted our startup to be a place that attracted and retained world-class talent. If you hire smart people and empower them with the tools and the autonomy to do what they want to do, you have the best shot at meeting your goals as a company.
The startup I worked for afforded me a massive amount of trust by letting me be responsible for its entire sales strategy. My age and level of experience didn’t matter so much. As long as I could accomplish what I needed to do, I could be successful and move forward in my career.
Now, we aim to give employees that same amount of trust and opportunity. Great talent is great talent – and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that someone’s education, background or skill set doesn’t necessarily dictate how successful they will be in their role.
Roughly half the people at our startup joined us as their first time in an entirely new role. We have sales engineers who came on as salespeople, salespeople who are now director of alliances, pre-sale folks who became head of product, and even a semi-truck driver who joined us as a software engineer.
The common thread? They’re all amazing talent, and we can trust them to accomplish anything. Even though their roles may be somewhat new to them, we believe they’ll be successful based on who they are and their capabilities as individuals.
The key is finding great talent, trusting them, and then giving them the autonomy to do what they’re most passionate about. Oftentimes, we’ll ask candidates, “What role would you be most excited about working in?” versus hiring for a specific position. As Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do.”
As an added bonus, I’ve found that people feel revitalized when given the chance to step into a new role. Giving people fresh opportunities – even if they’re “underqualified” or from an untraditional background – is what creates a strong company culture.
Your Customers Are Also Everything
During my time as a sales executive, I spent plenty of hours getting to know our customers. Interacting with them day in and day out, and hearing about the same problems over and over was a large part of what inspired me to build a startup.
My time in sales taught me to always be curious when it comes to the customer. It’s an important principle that I apply to our startup today: we’re constantly trying to learn more about our customers, the challenges they’re dealing with, and then taking those pain points and building solutions that solve them. Essentially, we want to be the best possible trusted advisors for our customers.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s not uncommon for companies to lose track of this focus and get distracted – I’ve certainly done it myself. It can be easy to get preoccupied with what’s happening in the market, what competitors are doing, and any shiny new features your competition has released.
The problem is that this outside noise doesn’t necessarily align with what your customers need. It’s only when you laser-focus on your customers, understand their challenges, and apply that knowledge to engineering, that you’ll find the ability to create joy for users and differentiate your offering.
Putting the customer first not only leads to a great product, it also creates a culture where sales and engineering teams are focused on the right things. For example, our engineering team knows that everything they’re building is something that will actually be used and valued by the customer. We’re not focused on designing some arbitrary feature just because a competitor has it – everything we make is intentional and informed by the customer.
Throughout my career, I’ve come to realize that sales translates into nearly everything a company does, from how it fundraises, to how it partners with technology partners or resellers, all the way to how it operates with customers and evolves based on their feedback.
Although the technical aspects of a startup are critical, I feel fortunate that my past as a sales executive taught me about the importance of people – your team and your customers will always be number one.