In January 2017, I got on an interview call with UK’s GM for a PreSales role in a multi-product startup – Freshworks. Although the company was fairly well-sized at its base location, the UK office was being newly set up.
The role required the candidate to be the first PreSales in the UK and to build and scale a team. When I asked which product I would start with, the GM replied, “All Products!” That was my first introduction to a PreSales role in a startup. Sensing that it would be foolish to miss this opportunity, I said "Yes," and joined the company.
It had a perfect startup feel to it. We were five in total – four Sales guys and me. We sat in a 25 sq. meter room next to a tiny kitchenette, with shelves always stocked with rye bread, peanut butter, and Huel. With no space for whiteboards, we had our walls painted in whiteboard paint instead, and we used them to lay out our Sales process.
When the only meeting room wasn’t available, the stairs became the obvious location for me to deliver the demos. These were the first lessons of frugality that I experienced after working in an established company with a plush office. I would soon discover how different PreSales is in a startup.
How PreSales is Different in a Startup
Your products are still maturing: As your products are fairly new in the market and have limited brand value, there are hardly any best practices or proven methods to rely upon. Every day, you learn a new Sales strategy, competitive advantage, or a demo tactic – mostly through the trial-and-error process. (Perhaps, this is what makes it most exciting!)
Most processes are broken or missing: Process is a luxury in a startup, so be prepared to work without it or more importantly, build one as you go. You will often get pulled into all sorts of non-PreSales activities, like onboarding customers or handling support issues. This is fun as you get to try new things, but it also distracts you from your core PreSales activities. So be cautious and tread carefully.
Absence of an independent PreSales org: In a startup, the PreSales function is an orphaned child that often gets rolled up into regional Sales leaders. All PreSales efforts usually get driven by Sales priorities. You also don’t get any dedicated budget for your team (although you might get tagged under the Sales cost center for your expenses, which is beneficial in its own way).
Key Areas to Focus On from the Start
1. Act short-term, think long-term
In a startup, the primary KPI is to close deals and achieve revenue growth. Hence, you will often be working on things that an established PreSales function might never. However, always stick to the long-term goal of how you want your PreSales function to scale up.
Discovery: It’s a PreSales crime to perform a demo without a discovery; however, in a startup, you are forced to commit it often.
Start building a discovery template for your Sales team. Try it out with a smart and trusted AE first, to prove its worth. And then work your charm on the Sales leader to gradually roll it out across the Sales team.
RFPs: Entertain all (sensible) RFPs but keep on collecting data for RFP wins/losses that later allow you to present a business case for RFP qualification in the Sales process. Build an RFP qualification template that can be used to disqualify bad RFPs.
POCs: You might need to indulge in all sorts of POCs, but from the start, you must clearly communicate the importance of identifying the key success metrics. Create a POC framework document for internal and external stakeholders that helps achieve measurable outcomes and aids decision-making.
Iron out processes: Work with your Implementation and Customer Success functions to create handover documents and processes and define clear rules of engagement. Your PreSales function won’t scale and is likely to break if you continue to get pulled into Post-Sales activities.
2. Invest in people and culture
People and culture matter the most, so start investing in them as early as possible.
Hire go-getters: Depending on your VC funding, you might or might not be able to afford expensive talent, but there is never a shortage of great talent. When in doubt, go for attitude over aptitude. Early on, you will be better off with people who like to roll up their sleeves and get things done.
Drive the right culture in your team: From the start, you should set the right culture for performance and collaboration, and define what world class looks like. If you don’t have a career progression matrix in your startup, then enable career growth for your team by helping them acquire new skills, in alignment with their long-term career goals.
You must also strangle favoritism at its birth, a situation where Sales reps always pick their favorite PreSales member for deals. You don’t just want Michael Jordan in your team. You want to build the entire Chicago Bulls!
Build strong allies early on: Sales will always be your strongest allies and advocates, so work with them closely as one team. There might be differences of opinion, but ultimately, it’s a common goal. Celebrate your first wins together! Additionally, build a two-way relationship with your product team.
Don’t just ask them to build roadmap items but get them to talk to customers. Nothing will delight them more, and they will always remember (and payback). PreSales is at the epicenter of everything, so never alienate any function (including your legal team).
3. Replicate your startup's DNA
The following attributes are in your Startup’s DNA, so replicate these into yours. Established firms do not have this luxury, so cash in on the opportunity:
Agility: Your speed matters and defines your startup! Be quick to respond to your customer queries to delight and surprise them. That’s how you will differentiate against the established competition. Care for your customers and treat your deals like your babies.
Experimentation: If a demo or a POC approach does not work, experiment with another approach without wasting time. If something really works, you have an opportunity to create a best practice!
Flexibility: Although I emphasize the importance of a process, you should be selective and discard the process when it slows things down. Use your common sense and adapt to situations unique to a startup.
Is this something for you?
In an established company, the PreSales function is very different. You have a greater voice in the organization. Your function could also be an independent org that takes its own decisions for its growth and enablement.
Your focus is not on fixing basic problems (like RFPs, Discovery) but on broader topics such as PreSales enablement, compensation, performance KPIs, cross-regional collaboration, career progression matrix, etc. These are all great and big problems to solve, but nothing beats the fun of laying the first building blocks with your bare hands.
The life of PreSales in a startup is challenging but rewarding in an unmatched way. Through the journey of successes and failures, your learning will prepare you for future challenges that come your way. Looking back, I never regret getting on that interview call in 2017!
Akshay is a PreSales leader, experienced in building and leading successful teams in fast-paced and high-growth organizations. With more than 12 years of experience in B2B technology sales, he has worked closely with sales leadership to drive high revenue growth. A technophile by heart, he has a penchant for progressive thinking. He has driven several initiatives for process excellence leading to efficient sales cycle, improved discovery and demos, and better-trained PreSales and sales teams.
Outside Work, Akshay is a proud father of two, an avid runner, and loves to read books on leadership and technology.