đź’°Sales Done Right, Best Advice for Startups


Phil Solk is a managing partner at Opero Partners. He provides strategic advice and hands-on implementation services to companies seeking to significantly enhance their growth trajectories.

He is a seasoned executive (former C-level, VP, and director) with functional expertise in marketing, sales management, operations, product and technology development, finance strategy, funding and M&A.

Shawn Flynn 0:00

This week on Silicon Valley successes we have Phil sock who is a business to business sales consultant here in Silicon Valley many years experience and he's got a lot of great information that's going to help startups around the world. So stay tuned.

Show Announcer 0:21

Welcome to Silicon Valley successes. We interview experts and entrepreneurs to get the world access to the knowledge and experience that is here in Silicon Valley. Our mission is to create opportunities for those who seek them and help you to become the next Silicon Valley success.

Shawn Flynn 0:42

Welcome back to Silicon Valley successes so filled Could you please introduce yourself?

phil 0:47

Yes, thank you, Sean. So I've been working in high tech in Silicon Valley, and a couple other parts of the country for large companies and a lot of startups. And over time I saw the pattern and what makes top line revenue grow. And so a couple folks and got together and more recently started a consulting firm to help companies grow their top line revenue

Shawn Flynn 1:11

interested. So Phil, I just want to go right into the questions. So I've heard of b2b sales. I've heard a b2c but what's the difference?

phil 1:20

I think the easiest way to get at that is, is talked about the longer version B to B to C. Okay, tell me about that

Shawn Flynn 1:28

business to business to consumer. Sorry, I should have been a little clear at the beginning. Yeah, all works.

phil 1:33

So let's say you sell software to a restaurant to help them run their business better. Okay, that part is b2b, but your software might also affect consumers, like making reservations, or giving feedback. So even though you're selling to a business part of your functions, go to the consumer. So that's B to B to C, when you get involved with their

Shawn Flynn 1:55

customers interested. So is there any difference though, between b2b sales Peter, see, sales are b2b to see sales,

phil 2:03

there are more alike than different, because in b2b, b2c, or b2b to see your primary customer and concern is still the business you're selling to. Okay, regardless of whether you get involved downstream with their customers

Shawn Flynn 2:15

interested. Now, if I was a salesperson, though, if you're saying it's pretty similar, the sales I mean, how, how do I actually go about it? Can you walk me through the steps of meeting that client?

Yeah, just walk me through it.

phil 2:32

Yes, what tends to work is not come across as pushy, that's rule number one, okay. Because you're having trying to have a dialogue and develop a customer might be a better term than selling. And so if you want to develop a relationship with someone,

it's really helpful to understand what problems are trying to solve, okay, because it's something that's easy to talk to. And obviously, if you don't have a really firm understanding of the problems, it's going to hurt to continue to build credibility with that prospective client.

After you've got a thorough understanding what problems are trying to solve. You don't want to jump into what's in it for yourself, keep the conversation going, and stay on their side of the table. So you can ask them questions like, what have you tried, I didn't want to recommend something that they're already convinced doesn't work, even though it may work. Okay. So it's a good transition to continue the conversation going. And then the next step is still the stay away from your company and my customers, and how wonderful we are, okay, talk to them about what capabilities they see

that would help them solve their problems. Okay, the longer you can stay on the same side of the table, the better the trust will develop, and the more likely you'll be able to connect with that particular customer. So when you go into this meeting with this customer, and you'd mentioned the very beginning you're trying to, to find learn about them, how much research Have you done about them prior? Have you looked at their website? Have you asked some of their customers? How much research Have you done before that meeting as much as you possibly can, but it does gauge on how many customers you have to work with per day. Okay, so if you're like setting up for someone, and you meet a customer, a prospective customer, once every two weeks, just do a lot of research. Okay. But sometimes you have to try to reach out to 10 prospective customers in a day. Oh, wow. So you got it's all over the board, depending on the nature of your business. So matter is proportionally to sound competent, and to start with the impression that you're knowledgeable, and you've done your homework so that they do trust you. Because contrary to the illusion that people buy from people they like in the b2b world is people really buy from people they trust.

Shawn Flynn 4:50

Interesting. So then, let's go to the second part you'd mentioned. So the first was to find out information about the company. And then the second part you'd mentioned was to ask them questions? Is there like a list of questions you normally go through? Like, these are the five questions? Is that a 10? Or how do you go about talking to the person without semen, I guess intrusive or making him uneasy, that you're just kind of trying to steal secrets or something,

phil 5:20

also, you have the concern that even if they tolerate questions, if you keep asking them, eventually, they'll get disengaged.

And it varies a lot by the product. But the idea is, or the service because you need to be pretty knowledgeable about those and know the typical problems that people are going to mention. So you might ask some swift called situational questions about the size of their company, or some things you couldn't find out that are really critical, okay, in your research, but then you need to jump in and and talk about, hey, what types of problems are you working on? And what Where did your interest in talking to us come from, so I can kind of help out and provide useful information. So it is different if you're the one reaching out to them versus them reaching out to you, there's all kinds of nuances. And the key is to be proficient enough in the area to be able to have a flexible conversation where you can get their point of view out. And the reason that the CEO is so critical to top line revenue growth is it starts at the top, okay. And they need that feedback, not only to know how to connect with prospective clients better, but if they're going to guide the how the offering or the product or the service goes, they have to have a first hand feedback. And so they're the most important people to get this process started as they bring on sales, people will feel people will have that domain knowledge provided to you.

Shawn Flynn 6:39

Okay, so let's go back to second. So the CEOs, most important, so if this is an early stage company, early stage startup, say there's four people on their team. Mm hmm. So the CEO how much the sales process say they have a b2b product. Mm hmm. And how important is sales skills for him, and when he talking noise trying to grow the company. Talk a little bit about that, please?

phil 7:03

Well, it's very rare that a CEO and lesser than multiple companies would have that skill,

Unknown 7:10


phil 7:11

And it's totally fine for them to hire someone with that expertise and employee or consultant because they can't create the process while they're trying to create the company.

The key is not for them to become the most effective sales people, okay, but to understand what their customers really want, and that sales professional or consultant can help them with their knowledge of how these things work, and how to give them feedback in these meetings. But fundamentally, they need to learn to a certain level in order to really understand and refine what market problem they're trying to solve.

Shawn Flynn 7:46

So if later or in these means that they're getting a lot of feedback, and the feedback might be negative, how important is it that the CEO is able to listen to that feedback and possibly pivot the company for the company's success? Or should he just kind of brush it off and go to the next potential client?

phil 8:08

It's kind of funny, because

there's someone who's been in 13 startups, and now we teach you Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia. Oh, and Stanford MBAs are pretty talented people,


there are certain of it, and I'm going to go with their judgment, okay. And he went to the administration resigned in the middle of the sense semester, why the students were supposed to talk to 10, people didn't even have to be prospective clients with their business idea. And he found they were just frightened to do it, even these really talented people. And the only solution he had is he went to the next class and announced anyone who doesn't see 10 people, I will flunk them in the class. So that solved the problem. But it was more a competing fair thing, as opposed to getting the CEO comfortable with getting that feedback which you need, even in a big company on the way in order to lead the company.

Shawn Flynn 9:06

So how important is confidence then, as a CEO,

phil 9:11

well, conference, it's kind of an elusive thing, okay. But they're really persistent. People

aren't afraid to make fools of them cells frequently. So it's just more of a persistence thing, then I'm feeling comfortable. Because again, for most CEOs that are doing startups, they have no experience space to feel comfortable from.

Shawn Flynn 9:30

Okay, for people at home that don't really have too much for sales background, we pulled some questions from from some startups. And one of the questions that came up was, you know, any misconceptions in the industry, for example, the importance of being able to close a sale, how important is that?

phil 9:50

Well, it's still a wide misconception in the industry today, that somehow closing

Shawn Flynn 9:57

someone for people that don't know Queen, little bit closer means Okay,

phil 10:02

that's a good thing. So

in the b2c environment, it's easy to talk about is like, you kind of want to buy some shoes now. And if you get pressured a little bit, you'll make an impulse buy. Okay, so it's like, would you like those in brown or black, right, and you're creating pressure on the prospective client. And impulsively they might say, brown and they buy it and you're in great shape their most people don't bet their jobs in the b2b environment on being pressured. And the number one complaint is that the vast majority of sales people or pushy Oh, and so it breaks the relationship very early on. And so studies including one of 38,000 sales call showed trying to pressure and using closing statements to get that by is really correlated to losing the sale. Oh, but it's still a popular misconception.

Shawn Flynn 10:54

Yeah, do you have any stories of aggressive sales people?

phil 10:58

Um, I think the one that confuses people the most is there are certain companies that are well known in the valley. We won't name names that hired super, ultra aggressive sales people, okay. And even after they stopped growing, it's so ingrained in their culture, that they're alienating people left and right, okay. And what's happening is in the beginning, there's so much pull for their product, and you're trying to capture market share. And you can hire pretty much anybody and just aggressively fire anybody who doesn't meet their number because it's less important that you about alienating prospective clients than capturing market share. Because your product speaks for itself. Oh, and so that's a little of how this closer mentality gets continues on

Shawn Flynn 11:45

to try and say the the product was in such high demand, anyone could have sold it. And they basically hired aggressive people thought they were doing a great job because of how much they were expanding. But in reality, it was the product and that's situation.

phil 12:00

Yeah, and there's a lot of, particularly in Silicon Valley, more than any place in the world. There's a lot of disruptive technologies, which are a fraction of the price all new function much more accessible. So that situation happens much more frequently here.

Shawn Flynn 12:17

interested. So back to a startup founder, so startup founder, he was the one doing the sales b2b or b2c. But now they've grown a little bit they, they've gotten some funding, and they're ready to hire their first salesperson. What should that see, you'll be looking for in that salesperson. And let's go back to that CEO really doesn't have sales experience. I mean, he tried it, they've tried it,

phil 12:42

but they still haven't, they haven't got a long track record.

Shawn Flynn 12:44

But now they have the budget to hire that one guy, what kind of questions should they ask, what should they look for? How can they get the best person,

phil 12:55

the people that close the most business, whether they're starting in sales, or very advanced,

always are able to get them their prospective clients or customers side of the table,

they've learned through trial and error, that pushing people isn't something people like. So one of the big characteristics are folks who have really good communication skills to kind of figure out what's going on when things don't work and actually are empathetic and they're not just faking, being interested in the prospective customers problems, because customers, customers, and people in general, genuine in general are very, very, very savvy about when somebody's being genuine or not, okay, if you're not genuinely empathetic, you're not going to, it's not going to come across. Additionally, it's helpful that they've had how to college one real world job, because that's kind of an eye opener, okay. And even better still, if they've been under quarter pressure, some personality types in just very, very distracting to them. And if they have those qualities I mentioned earlier, and they've had those two experiences, you've got good odds of having success.

Shawn Flynn 14:08

Okay, how difficult would it be for a small startup, though, to recruit that person reverse? I'm guessing most of them would go to a corporation or someone that has, you know, bigger expense account?

phil 14:22

Yeah, well, the people who have really pro proven track records are typically not going to go into a startup unless the customer traction is overwhelming.

Unknown 14:32

Okay. Can you talk about customer traction? Yeah, that is,

phil 14:36

you'd be just the CEOs, ideas so powerful that even with their limited experience, and selling just like the example those Silicon Valley disruptive companies, yeah, people just want to buy it because they're already know what the problem is, they're already looking for capabilities. And, and they already can't find them. So in the attic stream, just going out and talking to people without sales skills, you'll make sales, okay. And then there's a big spectrum all the way to something that people don't even understand. And so the more traction the more people are wanting to buy the product without all the skills, but just because it's so needed in the market, that's what sales people are looking for. Because then they can apply their skills and boost the company's revenue and earnings dramatically.

Shawn Flynn 15:22

Okay, one of these sales people say, you hire one, you found him super talented, not sure how you got him. But you got him?

How much leeway how much autonomy should the CEO give him?

phil 15:37

Well, really good people like that are really many CEOs, or CEO and development type people. And so they're very creative. And they if you have a product that's got good customer traction, and they're not selling things that your company can't deliver what you discover,

you want to be able to, to give them leeway. But you need to make sure that their incentive incentive plan is very aligned with the company's so the typical problems that they're measured by revenue, and you're measured by profitability, yeah, their incentive 10 times more than you are to discount. And so they're going to do that to maximize learning, just like the CEOs trying to maximize their earnings. Okay, so aligning the compensation so then everybody's when, when we eliminate a lot of headaches,

Shawn Flynn 16:29

interested, and back to the questions that that we pulled, someone's brought up sales hostage, do you do you know what that is? Can you go into detail, I have never heard that that term before.

phil 16:42

If you talk to CEOs who've had on successful experiences, even startups, they know exactly what it means. And the most extreme example I know is a founder was very, very technical and passionate, he had a way that hospitals could quickly tell

there are people was going downhill, even though people were noticing. In fact, the poor fella lost his wife to the situation.

And he came up with a method that hospitals could use to do this. But he really was so uncomfortable with trying to sell that he hired somebody, and that person actually was executive and they hired a few people could sell. And the problem is, is that person kept selling. And every time he would sell more, he would ask for a greater piece of the pie. And then they the founder, got in an increasingly awkward situation where as a revenue grew, he was more dependent on this person, to the point where almost none of the Prophet was coming to the company. And he couldn't fire this fellow. And so basically, the company was bound to collapse after the Commission's and unpaid and so he basically was in a position to lose his company, because he didn't get involved. And this sales executive had complete power.

Shawn Flynn 17:58

Wow. So for more information on that, please visit Silicon Valley successes, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media channels. But let's get back to the interview. So Phil, that was an amazing example there. So how much

control could a CEO take back in a situation? Or how does he put boundaries there, so something like that that hostage sale situation doesn't happen?

phil 18:26

Well, the only one I know about is what we talked about earlier, which is you can't be afraid to go out there not to deliver the bunch of the revenue, but to stay enough in contact with your prospective buyers to know when the head of sales is really doing it properly. And to be in a position to take it over. If need be, as long as the person working for you knows they don't have a monopoly on growing the company, you're in a much stronger position. And of course, aligning the plans to make sure that it's a win win when we talked about is also really important.

Shawn Flynn 19:04

So for a salesperson, what type of compensation should a startup give that person should be equity? Should it be base plus commission? Should it be 100%? commission? What What can the CEO gift specially of an early stage company that doesn't have much money?

phil 19:24

Yeah, well, the more customer traction you've got, when you're hiring the person, the more the equity will be attractive without customer traction, you know, a good sales representative is going to be looking more for commissions and dollars.

Unknown 19:40


phil 19:41

The other thing too, is, the more convinced the candidate is that they want to be part of your company, the more they'll display an interest for commissions over base, and they'll take more commissions more leverage, because that's their way of telling you, I think I can get a lot of customers and I'm willing to bet my compensation on it interested.

Shawn Flynn 20:04

So with that, what advice would you give for for an early stage founder about sales in general, or anyone at home that really doesn't know anything about sales were kind of just start

phil 20:18

again, I would just learn by get comfortable going out and talking to your target market and understanding thoroughly about what their problems are very thoroughly looking at objectively of, of what you can deliver, and what you might be able to deliver. And then make sure there's a very clear definition for success with those early customers and get that feedback and keep improving the value provide interesting. So,

Shawn Flynn 20:44

so far today, we've talked about b2b to see sales. We've talked about the CEO and some of their sales skills. We've also talked about hostage situation with sales. We've talked about compensation for your sales rep, and recruiting sales rep, we've talked about about many areas, what questions do you normally get that we've missed today?

phil 21:09

I think all of those, we've covered the vast majority of them, but the one is how to put it, I put together enough materials and content

to get the sales people I do hire up to where they're profitable, because once a salesman is breakeven, you can hire another one. So you want to get that learning curve to be as small as possible,

Shawn Flynn 21:34

what are ways to shorten that learning curve?

phil 21:37

Like we've I don't want to harp on it. But I like being out there to understand what works

spending the time to figure out how someone who doesn't have your background can be not as proficient as you but more proficient and what works and doesn't work as you watch them come up to speed?

Shawn Flynn 21:56

And then what sales advice would you give someone that has five or 10 years experience in sales,

phil 22:05

there's this effect where after you've been successful for a while, and you're making a living in sales versus a lot of people who can't and that you've learned all there is to know

so you can ask your prospective clients and the people who didn't buy from you, you know, did you feel I was genuine? Did you feel I understood your problems? Did you understand? Did I make it clear where we might provide value? And overall, did you build trust with me? And they'll tell you, if you really want to know

Shawn Flynn 22:40

how important is it, I'm just going to go back to that question of hiring the salesperson to have that person already have an established network in that area that you're selling.

phil 22:53

Yeah, the challenges and let's see, there's all kinds of different markets. But let's talk about someone with a start in a lot of the tone. The challenge for someone started with a startup, assuming there's not huge traction, in which case you can attract anybody there is someone who really does have that network can everybody will claim to has too many options. And they will go to the place where the customer traction is most established. And they don't have to create the sales process and do all the things we've talked about. So that's the key is don't rely too heavily on the network. Because you really won't know how strong it is. And a lot of people who have a network, what that means is they've sold to them in the past. But that doesn't mean that they've built a lot enough trust coming with something new, it might mean that the company was really desperate and needed the product. And they actually alienated the customer interest. So it's very hard to assess networks ahead of time. People who really have them have lots of options. So just be careful with that becomes too dominant, you're hiring.

Shawn Flynn 24:02

And another question about the CEO and the first sales hire, what type of KPIs key performance indicators should they set for that salesperson, how to go about thinking those up making that those dates in that that quota.

phil 24:19

So the first person you hire is the one who's going to be kind of like your guide in the wilderness they've been to selling so they know what our fees are, and they know how to read signals better than someone just a request for request for prize for press for quote, this is where they mail out all these big documents, and let everybody beat themselves up to win the business, right. So they know all the link of as just demonstrated. So that's that first person, that first person is working with you, and you'll be involved with them very intimately. When you get to the next person who's going to try to learn the map, that the KPI is really how many sales they close and building them a ramp that's realistic. So month by month and month, the level of business they need to develop is accelerating, okay, because you're trying to get them within whatever you know, your training time to be, or what you can afford that if they can't get up to being profitable, and whether that's 6090, you know, four months that they know that it's not going to work out.

Shawn Flynn 25:26

And then for a CEO or a startup founder, what's the one piece of advice, most most powerful advice you could give them?

phil 25:36

Don't be afraid to go out and talk to your prospective clients. It's the only way

Shawn Flynn 25:40

right and Phil, we got a minute left. Could you tell the audience once again, how they can reach you

what type of consulting you do your ideal client, all that all that jazz?

phil 25:51

Yes, certainly,

my clients are. Typically b2b clients are almost exclusively actually. And they took basically, occasionally it'll be an individual CEO who's got something working really well. And they're ready to hire two or three people because they not only know what they're doing, but they're ready to externalize it so they can bring people on but typically it's three or four sales people up to about 40 above that it's very complicated to change fundamentally how they're approaching things

if they want to reach me my email address because I love to have coffees with people you can tell I'm kind of enthusiastic about the topic and they can just email me at Phil at Oprah partners. com. Could you spell that out, please? Certainly. That's o p. r EU partners, all one word.com.

Shawn Flynn 26:42

That's great. And Phil, I want to thank you for for coming on Silicon Valley successes. This is an amazing episode and there's a ton of great information so everyone at home. Our next guest is Ralph Lauren, who is former investment banker who founded 88 ships. So we look forward to for Next Episode. Thank you guys.

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