Crafting Sales Compensation Plans with Graham Collins

This time, we’re diving into the nuanced world of startup sales compensation with Graham Collins, Head of Partnerships at QuotaPath. Their journey through startup sales landscapes reveals the delicate balance between incentivizing sales professionals and aligning with the company’s growth trajectory.

The Perils of 100% Commission Roles

One of the most debated topics in startup sales is the structure of compensation plans, particularly the contentious 100% commission roles. While these roles might seem financially prudent from a business perspective, they often signal a lack of investment in the sales team. 

Graham points out that such a compensation model places undue risk on employees, potentially attracting candidates unsuited for early-stage startup growth. The expectation for employees to bear all risk without guaranteed support undermines the foundational trust necessary for a thriving sales culture.

Navigating Sales Compensation Structures

Building a balanced compensation plan requires addressing three critical questions: how much, for what, and how. The “how much” involves determining on-target earnings and dividing base salary and variable compensation. 

A common approach is the 50/50 split, offering a blend of security and incentive. 

However, Graham suggests that a startup’s initial stages might necessitate more flexible structures, such as a 70/30 split, to account for the unpredictable nature of early sales targets.

Aligning Compensation with Company Stage

The structure of sales compensation plans should evolve with the startup’s lifecycle. Setting realistic targets can be challenging for the first sales hires, and a balanced compensation plan becomes crucial for attracting the right talent without undue risk. 

Graham emphasizes creating a compensation strategy that motivates sales professionals and aligns with the company’s growth and risk profile.

The Importance of the Right Fit

Finding the ideal sales professional for a startup is about more than just skill; it requires a match of motivation, risk tolerance, and alignment with the company’s stage and sales motion. While high compensation might attract seasoned professionals, startups must weigh the risks of hefty salaries against the need for sales hires who are adaptable, committed, and in sync with the startup’s evolving landscape.

As we navigate the complexities of startup sales compensation, it’s clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. 

The journey toward building effective sales teams is punctuated by strategic decisions, tailored approaches, and a constant balancing act between incentivizing sales professionals and fostering a culture of mutual investment and growth.

Transactional vs. Enterprise Sales

Regarding sales compensation, the spectrum from transactional to enterprise sales presents unique challenges. Graham points out an intriguing scenario where both extremes might surprisingly align more closely than one would expect regarding compensation structures. 

High-velocity transactional and relationship-driven enterprise sales often see a more significant portion of on-target earnings tied to variable compensation, sometimes as high as 80%. 

The nature of the sales motion drives this structure – whether closing deals rapidly in a high-velocity environment or cultivating long-term relationships for substantial enterprise deals.

The Complexity of Enterprise Sales Compensation

The allure of high-reward enterprise sales roles might seem straightforward, but Graham cautions against simplistic views. High-earning enterprise sales professionals, particularly those capable of managing six-figure deals, usually expect substantial annual compensation, often in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. 

These roles demand a deep industry network, years of experience, and the ability to navigate complex sales cycles and internal politics, making them unsuitable as initial hires for startups without substantial investment.

Adapting Compensation to Sales Cycle Length

Sales compensation plans should adapt to the sales cycle length and the average sale value. Graham and Collin suggest that the quota period is crucial, ideally allowing for at least five closed deals. This approach ensures that sales professionals set realistic targets, whether closing deals weekly or managing longer, more complex sales cycles.

Setting the First Quota

Transitioning from founder-led sales to hiring the first AE poses significant compensation and quota-setting questions. Graham emphasizes viewing the initial compensation plan as a starting point rather than a perfect solution. 

By understanding that adjustments will likely be necessary as the company evolves and sales support structures solidify, startups can navigate this transition more effectively. Grahame recommends a systematic approach to setting quotas, considering the company’s size, past performance, and realistic expectations for new sales hires.

Setting Realistic Quotas

When setting quotas, especially for a new sales role, it’s crucial to aim for achievable targets. A good rule of thumb is ensuring the sales rep can realistically close at least five deals within the quota period. This balances the need for ambition with attainability, preventing discouragement and promoting motivation.

Aligning Sales Compensation with Motivation

Sales compensation is more than just numbers; it’s about motivation. It’s critical to understand that salespeople are motivated by various factors, from pride to financial rewards. 

This insight helps tailor compensation plans that resonate with different personalities within your team, from those who thrive on public acknowledgment to those who prefer quiet satisfaction from their achievements.

Simplifying the First Sales Hire Compensation

For your first sales hire, simplicity in the compensation plan is paramount. Overly complex plans can divert a sales rep’s focus from selling to figuring out their pay. A straightforward plan with clear objectives allows reps to concentrate on what they do best: selling. 

Remember, the initial comp plan is a starting point and should evolve with the company’s growth as you understand realistic sales targets.

The Value of Curiosity in Sales

Curiosity is a significant trait in sales, especially in the early stages of a startup. Sales hires who are naturally curious are more likely to succeed in an environment where processes and best practices are still being defined. Their innate desire to learn and adapt makes them invaluable as you refine your sales strategy.

Coaching Over Complicating

Relying solely on the comp plan to drive desired behaviors can lead to unnecessary complexity. Other managerial tools, such as coaching and setting clear guidelines, can be more effective in guiding sales rep behaviors. This approach ensures the comp plan remains focused on rewarding sales achievements without becoming a manual on company policy adherence.

By focusing on these key insights, sales leaders can craft compensation strategies that motivate their teams effectively while laying a solid foundation for sales success in the startup environment.

Compensation as a Tool

In startup sales, the temptation to manage through compensation plans alone, seeing it as a lever to influence sales behaviors directly, can backfire. Such strategies can lead to an impersonal culture where sales reps feel like mere cogs in a machine, devoid of personal growth and coaching opportunities. 

This approach strips away the essence of team management, replacing it with a transactional relationship that may yield short-term gains but can harm long-term team cohesion and effectiveness.

Adapting Compensation to the Sales Cycle’s Nature

The intricacies of sales cycles, ranging from high-velocity transactional sales to complex, relationship-driven enterprise deals, necessitate nuanced approaches to compensation. Interestingly, the extremes of the sales cycle spectrum may justify a higher reliance on variable compensation, yet for different reasons. 

Transactional sales’ direct correlation between effort and outcome lends itself to a variable-heavy compensation structure. Conversely, in enterprise sales, the long gestation period of deals and the reliance on deep industry relationships mean that higher variable compensation can align the interests of seasoned sales professionals with the company’s long-term goals.

The Merits of Simplicity

For startups at the cusp of building their sales operations, the emphasis on simplicity in compensation cannot be overstated. 

A simple, transparent compensation model, such as a flat commission rate, is a solid foundation upon which complexity can be judiciously added. This approach allows startups to adapt their compensation structures as they grow, based on real-world data and evolving sales dynamics, without overwhelming new hires or miring them in complexity.

Introducing Complexity with Caution

As sales organizations mature, introducing accelerators or decelerators can incentivize overperformance and address underperformance. However, the decision to add complexity to compensation plans should be deliberate and based on clear evidence of its necessity. 

These mechanisms can powerfully motivate sales professionals but require careful communication to ensure they are perceived as fair and encouraging rather than punitive or overly complex.

From Individual Contributor to Sales Leadership

The evolution of a sales team often leads to the creation of specialized roles, including the transition of high-performing salespeople into leadership positions. This transition introduces a new set of challenges and opportunities for compensation design. 

It’s essential to balance the dual responsibilities of sales leadership, driving team performance while potentially maintaining some degree of direct sales involvement. The compensation structure for these roles must reflect the added value and complexity of their contributions to the team and the overall sales strategy.

Elevating Compensation Beyond an Afterthought

Compensation in sales isn’t merely about the paycheck; it’s foundational to how sales teams operate and thrive. Graham emphasizes not treating compensation as an afterthought but as a pivotal aspect of team motivation and satisfaction. 

The relationship between motivation and compensation is nuanced, extending beyond monetary rewards to pride, public recognition, and personal satisfaction. Through thoughtful compensation planning, recognizing and catering to these diverse motivational drivers can significantly impact a sales team’s cohesion and performance.

The Evolution of Commission Automation Platforms

QuotaPath’s journey exemplifies the growing acknowledgment of commission automation’s value in the sales ecosystem, highlighted by Salesforce‘s acquisition of Spiff. This development serves as a strong market validation, emphasizing the significance of such platforms in streamlining the compensation process. 

QuotaPath, through its emphasis on integration with the Hubspot ecosystem and transparent, accessible pricing, positions itself as a leader in facilitating a more efficient, product-led approach to commission management. Their focus on enabling companies to self-manage and adjust compensation plans reflects a commitment to adaptability and customer empowerment.


Our discussions with Graham Collins from QuotaPath shed light on crafting effective sales compensation strategies within startups. QuotaPath’s focus on simplifying compensation through technology reflects an industry-wide shift towards more adaptive, transparent, and efficient compensation practices.

As we navigate the complexities of motivating sales teams, it becomes clear that the essence of effective compensation lies in simplicity, alignment with business goals, and understanding sales professionals’ diverse motivations. The future of sales compensation demands strategies that incentivize financial success and foster a culture of achievement, collaboration, and growth.

Streamline your sales commission process with QuotaPath. Discover how their commission automation platform can simplify calculations, inspire your sales team, and drive growth. 

Boost your sales strategy with Predictable Revenue. Our expert consulting services are designed to refine your sales process, enhance team performance, and increase revenue predictability.


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