There are many places and resources on the web to learn more about Presales and how it works.
Most of them are looking at the more mature corporations or the big ones to prepare the novice for a job there.
Preales for tech startups in the B2B software space is different though. There are overlaps of course and the sales basics are the same but there are also significant differences which make the SE role in early stage startups a very fun but challenging place to be. Let’s look at them.
Enter at your own risk – not for the faint of heart
The first round of sales engineers in a startup can not be novices to the trade. The work is tough and you sometimes need to take out your machete and cut yourself a path through the jungle. You are creating the processes and workflows that match your product and your market. That takes experience, guts and self confidence.
Testing, probing and adjusting are your daily business.
The first SE can only be someone who has already done it and can take a stand. And NO, it can not be one of the developers you knows the product in and out or the sales rep who knows a little about technology. Unless both have a history of sales engineering and know the trade – though I doubt very much that anyone who’d done presales for a living chooses any other role. It is the best IT job there is in the world.
But also the next hires need to be experienced one way or another.
You need passion
GTM – Go To Market means you are on a mission – you are a missionary. To convince prospects that your product is really valuable it is essential that you are passionate about it. And passion grows with understanding and knowledge of the product and what it can do. Ideally you have been in a position in the market or industry where this new product would have saved your day if you’d had it back then. You can relate to the issues and therefore talk confidently about the solution.
Wether you are breaking new ground or you are the new kid on the block and take on the big ones in an established market. In both cases you need to educate your audience – the buyers – about a new way of doing things. In greenfield technology they may haven’t heard about that area at all and the verdict of the techies is essential for the outcome of the deal, hence you need to be honest, convincing, and have a resilience to objections. This is a lot of fun though if you have a good product.
In an established market the main question you’ll be asked is:
„Why would I change a working tool or solution for an unknown player?“— Any buyer in an established market
There are incumbent competitors which you would need to replace. If price is the only factor, don’t count on it – your competition has deeper pockets than you. You need to have a technical advantage and that needs to be connected with the techies to get their thumbs up for a purchase – Win the hearts of the developers to get to the wallet of the buyers. The rough part is to get them to unlearn something they are familiar with – and probably like a lot – and get them to look at the world with a new set of eyes.
Either way passion helps a lot – as long as it does not turn into arrogance. You product is not perfect (yet) and it definitely has some flaws or bugs. But you know the potential and what it can do when used correctly. This is your mission, what you burn for. And if you can radiate this you at least won some hearts if not the deal which can also prove useful in the future.
I always hired people who excelled in at least one field that is needed for Presales for my startups; that could have been it presentation skills, technical excellency, domain knowledge, etc. as long as I could feel it and could sense the will to learn all the other things.
Time is of the essence
In B2B the sales cycle can be pretty long – for larger customers it is on average 16 months ?. This will break your neck in the early days. You need customers and references and fast. As a startup you can not allow yourself to waste time in big accounts with a very small chance to get the big carrot. You need a runrate business with a predictable revenue stream. Educate, qualify, discover, close – rinse and repeat. You want a high POC conversionrate. There are no named accounts yet but you know there are customers out there waiting for your solution who will close in 10-16 weeks rather than months. As the SE you need to constantly communicate with the rest of the – still small – company to improve the quality of the leads, to outqualify tire kickers and time wasters, to close fast what is closable and to improve the product as well as the processes.
Change is your daily business
In a startup the product evolves. Based on the customer’s feedback and the ideas of PM new features and functions are added at a fast pace. Sometimes – rarely but I have seen it happen – the foundation of the solution is completely changed technically as it turned out that the initial way didn’t scale or was too hard to maintain.
That means you need to change your wording, your demo, your POC documentation, basically everything. Be prepared – Things evolve. Driven by you as well. Additionally processes, workflows, and tools are created, adjusted or dumped regularly.
Don’t be afraid of dirty hands
Rolling your sleeves up and getting your hands dirty is part of your daily routine. Whether you enhance the product via scripts or some actual coding in a POC or you create some training material for the first customers or you adjust the sales presentation to match your style, etc. Many things to do and someone’s gotta do them – Most likely you. Where big corporations have a fleet of consultants, a training branch, a vast customer success team you have – a good product and your hands.
Customers are demanding and rewarding
You have a very close relationship with your early customers. They help you refine the product and are sometimes demanding lots of attention. They like you – a lot – but the more they like you and your product, it feels sometimes as if there is nothing you can do right. Because they care a lot they complain about tiny things or about stuff in general. Your biggest fans are also your biggest critics.
What you get in return are fans and a rock solid product which makes selling to other customers much easier. You get references who will talk to new customers and say only good stuff about your product. You’ll make friends.
That will happen in big corporations as well but less frequently and it is not essential for your business. For startup early successes and early fans are a big lever for fast growth. Product led growth, to use one of the current hypes, is fueled by people who shape the product – and active users are the best “shapers”.
A place for Do’ers
Even when you are not the first member of the presales team you are no getting anything on a silver plater. If things that you need to work don’t exist you need to create them. You get inspiration from the group that is already there but is your job to create what is missing – and let the others know about it. You are developing the game while you play it. The reward you get is a company that you really like to work for, a good salary and the priceless feeling of a customer smiling when the see you. The entryticket is a can-do mindset on your end and an open culture on the company side that gives you enough freedom to get stuff done.
Be ready to do stuff and you’ll have the best job in the world.
We at the School of Presales are ready to support you in your SE journey with individual coaching, mentoring and sparring, with workshops and masterclasses for teams or individuals. Let’s talk.