CEO at Leverage, making PreSales the heroes of the Enterprise through the industry’s first AI-powered platform.
Presales is probably the most important business-to-business department you’ve never heard of. But don’t feel bad — you’re not alone. Presales professionals have been around for decades, and they can be found in hundreds of thousands of companies in a variety of industries. They typically go by a collection of titles such as sales engineer, solution consultant or solution architect. Yet I’ve noticed that for many B2B startups, presales remains an afterthought, for both founders and the people who advise them. In a world where B2B customers are demanding new, hands-on and collaborative buying experiences, I think overlooking the need for presales at an early stage can be a startup’s biggest missed opportunity.
A Better Startup Playbook
It is common for venture capitalists and other mentors to supply playbooks, coaching and guidance to founders. This expert wisdom is often thoughtful, well-crafted and positioned as competitive differentiation against other venture firms. But I think there’s something missing.
In the startup playbook, you will find the must-have hires and normal cast of characters you may expect. You’re advised to get a vice president of engineering to build the technical team, find a scrappy account executive to help close the first few deals before securing a vice president of sales to build out the initial go-to-market team, and even nab a customer success executive to take care of the first few clients you’ll land. But you typically won’t find anyone talking about presales.
There is also surprisingly little benchmark data on presales job titles, job responsibilities, equity recommendations and compensation bands. What makes this lack of data and perspective shocking is that one of the biggest keys to a startup’s success is scaling the abilities of the initial founders. In my experience, there is no role better suited to helping founders scale than solid presales.
Presales At The Center Of Influence
Done right, presales team members are not sales assistants or demo warriors. They operate at the center of the entire company — presales is an organization’s sphere of influence. Often highly technical with traditional engineering-focused backgrounds, presales professionals are as comfortable debating product capabilities with engineering as they are weighing in on the sales forecast based on the conviction they have that their solutions can solve real-world business problems for their prospective buyers. Given their exposure at the tip of the spear of every sales engagement, they are normally hearing market needs well before their product-engineering counterparts, while having the opportunity to test messaging and positioning in live conversations.
Startup founders wear a lot of hats; they’re often driving product direction, closing deals, tuning messaging and solving customer problems. What most don’t realize is that managing those disparate challenges is the job description for a competent presales leader and team. This is why many founders, myself included, have started their careers in presales.
The Importance Of Hiring A Presales Leader Early
At my company, I worked hard to recruit a vice president of presales immediately after closing our Series A funding round — at about the same time we hired our vice president of sales, and before we filled more traditional roles like vice president of engineering or product. For B2B startups, particularly those selling to the enterprise, all deals run through presales. Today’s buyers want a sure thing, and startups pose an inherent risk. Effective presales can make or break a startup’s ability to land its first marquee customers and unlock the recipe for scalable growth.
The presales impact can be felt across two critical dimensions in particular. Early on in a company’s lifecycle, when sales representatives are potentially new to your industry and product, your sales forecast is your presales forecast. And you need to be incredibly diligent in selecting the deals you chase. But that’s not all. When early-stage companies are working to ruthlessly prioritize engineering effort, your product road map is your presales road map — based heavily on the needs of the market and what customers are ready to buy now. A tight product road map can make or break a young startup, and presales is the key to getting it right.
What To Look For In A Candidate
For a startup, look for a presales leader who can build teams but is comfortable rolling up their sleeves to offload work from the founders. This means someone who is comfortable leading pilots and proof of values while doing the heavy lifting of setting up demonstration assets that will clearly articulate the value of your solutions. The presales leader will need to quickly scale their efforts and should be at home recruiting team members while providing onboarding, coaching and enablement programs for new hires.
At an early stage, look for a presales leader who already has subject matter expertise within your product area or industry. This will allow them to establish credibility with buyers while reducing their time to ramp and give the founders scale. Tying their success to overall company bookings goals will create the right compensation plan incentives.
While presales is an umbrella for many disparate roles which are technical and influence revenue, hunt for presales leaders who have spent time in sales engineering or solution consulting positions throughout their careers. To make the most of this hire, give them a lot of freedom and a sphere of influence. Strong leadership skills in collaboration and creating cross-functional buy-in are paramount as you look to this role to drive alignment between sales, product, marketing and post-sales teams.
Many B2B startups will fail to achieve their first sales and revenue goals. You can tilt the odds back into your favor by realizing that a vice president of presales can help you scale your efforts. Instead of waiting for a sales leader to hire a few account executives, and an individual contributing presales engineer to deliver demonstrations, you will likely be much better off by finding and bringing in a presales leader, as a peer to your sales leader, to help you succeed in today’s world of experience-driven B2B buying.