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I was recently speaking with the head of sales at a hyper growth startup in robotics. He left Google’s top sales leadership position to put this startup on a sales growth trajectory. Six months back when he joined, they had 3 sales reps, no defined sales process, $200K in revenue and a growth mandate of 200% ARR increase. As he got on the phone, he complained – “I should have never joined a startup. Things never get simpler!”

That’s right.

The school of corporate sales teaches its leaders many lessons but nothing prepares you enough for the chaotic world of startup sales. What does it take to write a sales playbook for 200% growth plan without empirical data to support targeting & selling strategies that work ?

What does it take to succeed as a CSO in a startup?

We decided to summarize the best practices we’ve discovered over the years working with startups and share our insights on what does it take to be a CSO superstar in a startup.

1. Keep It Simple

cso of startup keep-it-simple1

Startups are agile. And it’s a double edged sword. As a newly anointed revenue leader of the clan, you might be tempted to tackle growth objectives in multiple directions. Trying to handle too many things creates complexity. Lack of historical data on what strategy works and what does not is like sailing without a compass.

As the chief scientist of sales world at a startup, how would you proceed?

First, limit all the moving parts and variables to the absolute minimum. Focus on 1-2 sales (scientific) objectives per quarter. For example: If its testing outbound messaging, get focused on testing subject lines with emails for 1 month to see open rate results rather than replies. Next month focus on driving greater replies with tested subject lines.

2. Hire Slow & Fire Fast


There is one thing you cannot change as easily as you go along is your sales culture. You and your first hire will set the sales culture. And defining your core values before ‘handpicking’ your first sales hire is the key.

We love how SalesLoft (poster boy of startup world) hires its sales executives based on core values of “self starting, supportive and positive“. While hiring topic commands a separate post, I can only do justice to this sub-section by saying take any guesses out of hiring the right candidate. Use as simple profile tests as DISC to identify candidates most likely to succeed (or atlas weed out unwanted ones early on).

I wrote a short DISC article on selecting Sales Development Reps.

3. Engage In Every Part of  Your Business


While laser focus is key to success experimentation in your role as a CSO, it should be exactly the opposite when it comes to knowing your business. Get involved with operations, product development, digital marketing and close cousin – business development. As CSO, you are looked upon as the chief evangelist of your company. The power to convince and convert will only come from knowing your product, business and industry better.

4. Cashflow is The King


This means that a small department of 1000 people company using your product for free is worth less than 50 people startup buying your product at a value. No matter where your experimentation focus lies, if getting that cash-cow home is not your singular focus with every sales pitch, you better take a notice before things turn sour.

“A Deal is Not Closed Till The Money is in.”

5. Assign Clear Roles & Responsibilities


Handling multiple responsibilities as a CSO takes “Accountability” as the first victim. To put more specifically, accountability to sales forecast. A CSO must do two things – for himself as well as for his team members (including his CEO if engaged in sales activities).

First, a clear division of responsibility across a full spectrum of sales process. As Aaron Ross’ Predictable Revenue model recommends, differentiating between an inbound sales function, versus an outbound prospecting, versus active selling (from detailed discovery to closure), versus a farmer (responsible for driving greater penetration in existing account).

Second, define clear metrics for those responsibility areas (and highly recommended to tie revenue numbers as goals against those metrics). This way, none of your team members should get away by giving ‘sales activity’ as an excuse for driving non-revenue generating activities (especially your CEO 😉 )

6. Drive Crystal Clear Visibility


Your investors and board members have trusted you. They have put their money in your hands and hence it is your responsibility to provide visibility and transparency. On the other side, your weekly leadership calls require any subjectivity to be left behind in dealing with sales numbers.

So have you heard about sweet little thing called CRM. And which is NOT an excel sheet? Focus on driving visibility for all members of the startup game through CRM. You should be the care-tacker, facilitator, policeman of this must-have tool. If you don’t understand reporting on your CRM of choice, you will never command respect of your players.

find out more about crm

7. Short Term Goals


Have short term measurable goals, move one step at a time. Keep an eye on your ARR of 1 million but celebrate success of securing ARR of $5000 with same joy and pride. Take corrective actions quick and fast and never follow a strict path, be ready for a change in plan and pivot accordingly.

8. Get Moved By Data


A CSO (as we like to call you, the Chief Sales Scientist) is driven by data, even though there are no data points to begin with for a startup. Create plans and set directions for sales that will enable data based decisions, if not now, 6 months in the future. Data points can be applied to decisions on types of industries you target, quality of people you hire and retain, buyers who are likely to buy, or even prospects who are likely to reply to your cold email.

Mark Roberge, an engineer by qualification, found himself setting up sales for (once a startup) Hubspot. Befitting of an analytical engineer’s mind, he details the data driven formula for hiring, training & sales management in his book – Sales Acceleration Formula.

9. Stay a Happy Team


Reward excellence and performance. Challenge comfort zones and celebrate success together with meaningful experiences (because money only moves us once a month, whereas experiences – every day!) Make sure the employees are recognized. Have regular team meetings; outings and come together to celebrate. Spice up things with unconventional team motivation mindset. Take a look at how BlueBoard puts unique incentives as forefront of team motivation.

10. Engage. Engage. Engage! Especially with Your Customers.


There is nothing better that can happen to sales lifeline than engaging in mindful, deepest and vulnerable conversations with customers. The worst thing will happen is ‘much needed’ feedback to be better as a salesperson and the best, a referral.

We believe these 10 rules will help you navigate through the mess in the chaotic sales roadmap at your startup. What are you specifically struggling with as the Chief Sales Scientist? Give us a SHOUT  OUT, and we can figure it out together.

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by Pradeep Agarwal

Pradeep is a sales leader with management experience of over 18 years in stellar companies like Google, Salesforce, Oracle and IBM. While building teams from scratch, he has helped US based companies to evangelize their technologies in India, setup local operations and expand their sales teams.


by Deepanker Dua

Deep is the chief sales scientist at SalesChakra. As he experiments with sales acceleration at tech startups, he documents his learnings through this blog. An avid traveller, he has lived selling disruptive technologies in 4 continents, and speaks 5 international languages. Connect with him on Twitter @askdeepr and LinkedIn.