Startups Need a VP of Customer Development and NOT A VP of Sales and are recent call!

Many of us in the Startup and VC world are familiar with the legendary Steven Blank and they should be for many reasons!  I am particularly fond of this article, Job Titles that can sink our startup he wrote in Fast Company where he nails exactly the problems in mistaken hiring many Startups make by looking for a VP of Sales (while often successful in in more mature business models) is usually the wrong choice for developing and validating the where the Customers are and IF there is a sustainable business model in the early chaotic and confusing stages of most Startups life cycle.

I have based my sales and business development consultancy (or rather it grew organically) out of solving these challenges for Startups before they need to hire the VP, (if they should hire) of Sales and Business Development and to see if the whole enterprise is sustainable for the long haul (at least in terms of VC backed/funded long haul definition).  Enough about me ( and onto a recent call I had yesterday after having been referred to the CEO of a promising Startup company that came out of the Dreamit venture accelerator series.

It’s not a good sign when (in my opinion) when a VC board member answers the main number of the company in question.  I like the getting ones hands dirty/hands on etc. approach but the tone and attitude told me this individual wasn’t that happy pitching in if you get my drift.  When I asked to speak to the CEO of this promising SAS Startup that recently had run into some sales challenges (for the early VP of sales was removed) and my source thought I would be a good solution in the interim and hence my query. Mr. VC board member was not very helpful in connecting me to the CEO and our exchange was brief and ultimately confirmed in my mind to precisely the theme of the Fast Company article.

Let’s just say that this VC had participated and perhaps had recommended in the hiring at the outset, the now departed VP of Sales to operate into exactly an environment that most are ill suited for (lacking something solid and defined in which to execute off of) and what Steve Blank refers to as the Chaos in early stage companies still looking for repeatable and sustainable business models. They (Startup) had not even found based on Steve’s Customer Development Manifesto, the Customer Discovery and Customer Validation which is what most traditional VP of Sales need to work from in order to successfully scale a business model.  I for the record, may be wrong in my diagnosis and reserve all rights to be called on (perhaps) said mis-diagnosis, but based on my experience in working with company management, boards, VC, etc., it just reeked like and that kind of myopic belief systemic approach that tried and true management structures will lead to success and they what we need is to find the “Right” VP of Sales. It’s the whiff of arrogance I first got back in 2000  while working for my first Startup and why there is absolutely no digital or material trace of that enterprise…GONE!

“No, we are not interested in looking for outside help and do not consider looking for someone (like me as a consultant, who can find the first big customers quickly (cost) and help with the cash burn process) else or considering other options.  We are searching for a new candidate and have our list….” Basically Piss Off!  Fine thanks.  So they go back down the road to further cash burn and delay, investing time, resources and what’s worse, the refusal to look creatively at business development and sales as they found in this brash young company (potentially), developing and deploying a new business model (perhaps) that uniquely found a way to compete with the 800lb gorillas of more established players in their markets.

Let me for the record list the four attributes that are in my opinion (of course for they validate my business model) exactly what is needed in lieu of a traditional VP of Sales for Startups in the early stage.  From Steve’s Fast Company article:

  1.       Comfortable with learning and discovery.
  2.       Trying to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.
  3.       Agile enough to deal with daily change, operating without a map.
  4.      (My Favorite!) With Self-Confidence to celebrate failure when it leads to iteration and Pivots.

So in a way, for me the phone call while (to put it bluntly I was rebuffed) not what I wanted to hear was exactly what I, and (using step four) needed to Hear!  Confident to know that the next referral for my services will be met with someone not only familiar with Steven Blank but with (perhaps) the current pain of cash burn-ing and other pains that cry out for help!