Why Rambl’s Mitch Coopet believes sales and product teams are actually two sides of the same coin

Collin Stewart, CEO

15 August 2018

Professional salespeople, both the experienced and the novice, are, ultimately, hardwired to do one thing: close deals.

Sure, good salespeople have a deep bag of tactics and tricks to get them to a close, but regardless of the route they take (and a deal can go in any number of surprising directions), the end goal of every sales cycle remains fixed.

Because salespeople are trained, driven professionals, they are amongst the first hires at any early-stage company. But while revenue growth is a critical component to the success of a startup (okay, okay…the critical component), it isn’t always a dedicated salesperson that brings on the first few customers.

In fact, according to Mitch Coopet, Co-Founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based Rambl, it shouldn’t be. The first customers should be closed by the founders, and those directly responsible for shaping the initial versions of the product.

“There is so much unknown, and so much variance early on. Your first few sales are really your product market thesis. You don’t know everything yet, but you have a guess. A salesperson, though, is driven by numbers, and numbers only. So, if you set them loose, without any guard rails, they will come back with all sorts of things,” says Coopet, on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast.

“It is important, as founders and product people, not to outsource that part of the company to early. You have to have the latitude to adjust roadmaps and adjust your thinking. It takes a few customers to have any kind of product market fit. You don’t have that right away. You have to know who is a good customer for you.”

And, for technical founders, adding and refining sales skills is a valuable addition to one’s toolbox. Going through a few sales cycles, for instance, will teach what you can and cannot promise – a tricky negotiation sales reps face each day.

“At Code42 [the previous company Coopet co-founded, and led through two significant founding rounds], we signed a customer early on, and we did a ton of things to keep that customer happy. And, none of the things we did for that particular customer benefited our other customers down the road,” says Coopet.

“Years later, when we had well over 400 employees, there were only a couple people in the company that knew everything about that particular customer. But, they would still call in and ask for this and that, and it kept getting harder to support their requirements. So, the moral of the story is that chasing deals and forcing things to work doesn’t always help.”

Listen to the market

As you set out to understand what the market thinks about your new product, it’s imperative to build in a feedback loop so any critical information learned during a sales call can be analyzed and, ultimately, implemented by the product team.

(Editor’s note: we recently chatted with Sean Higgins, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Techstars, about growing how to grow a company from 10 to 100 customers. Read about our chat with Higgins here, or listen to the podcast here)

Of course, at very early stage companies, as we’ve been discussing, the information gleaned from sales calls is often being analyzed and implemented by a very small team, if not one person. That sounds like a lot to juggle, but that’s the job of a founder, stresses Coopet.

You have to listen, find pain points, and know how your product can, or will, solve that pain.

“That feedback will help get you to product market fit,” says Coopet.

“If you don’t have it out of the gate.”

Tips for salespeople joining a startup

With a handful of happy (paying!) customers and a steadily improving product, it’s time to bring on someone to lead, and shape, the sales department. By any measure, this is a significant development in any early-stage company.

How to hire a top-producing sales rep is a well-worn topic, discussed in-depth by sales leaders, HR executives, and successful entrepreneurs. But, just as a company interviews and evaluates its potential sales hires, so should a sales rep evaluate the company they are interviewing with.   

And there are a few tell tale signs every sales rep should be on the lookout for when interviewing.

“I really do think it is important that the CEO or Founder should be able to sell the company to a sales person, and that they have sold to a handful of customers. They need to be able to do that,” says Coopet.

“They also need to be able to discuss what worked and what didn’t in those early sales scenarios. If they can’t, and they don’t know why the product has value, that’s a problem. They could be leaning on you to go figure out the value of their product, and that is a terrible thing.”

In a situation like that, adds Coopet, it is imperative to have an upfront discussion about what you’re going to need to achieve success.

“If they [the founding team] are depending on you for product validation and fit, have a hard conversation with them about the latitude needed to do that. You will need it,” says Coopet.

“The last thing you want to do is set yourself up to fail.”

Another thing to understand about the startup you are considering joining is whether the team is embarking on either a disruptive project, or a transformative one. If the company is looking to disrupt an existing market, for example, the value of their product is easier to understand. The company is, likely, utilizing its technology to 10x an existing market problem.

But, if it is a transformative goal, it’s critical to get a sense of who the company is targeting, and why that target would be buying the product in question. Remember, there’s no existing template for what the company is trying to do.

“If they can’t do provide you with some initial target information, that’s a red flag. And if they can, test what they are saying,” says Coopet.

“If it feels like a pretty hard story to tell – that’s another warning sign. You should be able to get that story down to one sentence.”

The importance of customer support

Finally, says Coopet, sales reps should try and get a sense of the role customer support plays in the company. Sales, ultimately, is all about building as many great relationships as possible – and customer support is huge part of that. It’s customer support that onboards a new customer and helps them navigate a product.

But if a support team isn’t busy keeping customers happy, that could mean the product isn’t getting to market.

“Paying customers need your product to work,” says Coopet.

“Nothing can go wrong.”

Admittedly, it feels counterintuitive to want customer support to be busy. No one wants their product to have problems. But, if your founding team has done its due diligence, engaged with the market during sales calls, and implemented the feedback they gathered, problems are going to come. Because people are using your product.

And that’s what it’s all about. Without that, growing a company, regardless of the exceptional salespeople that come onboard, is going to be even more difficult.

For more on Coopet’s thoughts on the interdependence of product and sales, check out his interview on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast.