What Entrepreneur Mark Organ repeated and revisited from his success at Eloqua as he builds his sales team at his new venture Influitive
Successful entrepreneur Mark Organ may have just landed his first Sales VP at his second company, but his story started more than ten years ago, when he and his two partners founded their first start-up, Eloqua. The journey from start-up—three guys sharing the weight of getting their new company off the ground—to being bought by Oracle for $871 million taught Mark a lot about what works for him when building a sales team—and what doesn’t.
So, when he started Influitive he was able to bring forward a lot of the things that had made the sales team at Eloqua great, but also identify the things he would do differently.
Sales Rep number one—the CEO
In Eloqua’s early days the three founders had to do everything themselves. That meant, although Mark was President and CEO, he was also sales rep number one. A position he wasn’t entirely suited for or comfortable with at first. But he persevered.
As Mark says, “Those early door-to-door sales and cold-calling experiences were extremely valuable. They made me really tough and willing to accept rejection.” But when he hit a rough patch at Eloqua and struggled with sales, he was lucky enough to have an investor who was also a mentor and professional sales trainer. Mark says he got the sales problems solved only when his mentor said, “‘Mark, you need to go back to school.’” He enrolled in the trainer’s sales course and got a real taste for the skills involved. From there he devoured every book and article on sales he could find. He made sales a strength rather than a liability. For that, Mark says, “I owe him a real debt of gratitude for forcing me to learn how to sell professionally.”
In fact, being forced to, not just sell, but become good at it, had pay-offs for Mark and the company even when Eloqua had grown to over 150 employees. And it continues to be a strength at Influitive. What started as a necessity borne out of desperation has become a key to Influitive’s sales team and culture.
Mark says, “At Influitive I make quite a lot of sales calls, just like in the early days at Eloqua. And it’s not to generate revenue, but I think that it’s really important to listen to exactly what the customer wants.”
He has found that selling is the best way to get to know what kinds of sales reps he will need to hire. And having ongoing sales experience makes him a better sales manager and coach. If his reps get stuck with a certain client, Mark can usually call on experiences he had when he was selling to similar clients, and say, “Hey, here’s what worked for me.”
A CEO who makes sales—makes better
sales team hires
In fact, Mark has found that not picking up the phone or getting in front of customers can create problems for owners and managers. CEOs who don’t have enough understanding of the sales function and their customers run the risk of not making good sales executive hires. He’s seen CEOs go through three heads of sales in a year, thinking all the time that the problem is that they hired bad candidates. The real problem is that too often, the CEO does not understand how, and why, their customers buy.
Mark’s sales transformation led him to see sales as a core skill set every CEO needs to master. “You don’t just sell products to people or to companies,” he says. “You’re also selling people a vision on why they should join your company, and investors on why they should buy your stock, and partners on why they should lend you their reputation and their sales force. You have to sell your wife on why you’re not going to be home for two weeks.”
Good sales reps in the early days are
Eventually, Eloqua grew to a point where they were ready to hire their first sales people, but, as Mark says, “Sales rep number one is very, very difficult.”
There can be a huge cost to getting it wrong. If you make a hire who doesn’t work out you’ve invested time and resources you really couldn’t afford to waste—but even worse, you’ve lost out on months of potential sales growth at a crucial time in the development of your company.
Plus the chaotic nature of a young, growing company makes finding the right kind of rep even harder.
At Eloqua Mark saw that it takes a different and special kind of person to thrive as a sales rep in a business’ hectic early days—when everything in your company is in flux and poorly defined, and products are half-built or don’t have features the client you’re sitting across from is looking for. Reps that can succeed in a dynamic environment like that are a very different animal than the ‘regular’ rep who needs structure and a process, and everything to be buttoned-down and defined.
The sales people that work well in the early days are entrepreneurial. They tend to be generalists, even ‘cowboys’, who feel comfortable selling a little bit of a road map to the future versus pitching the product or company as it exists today.
In the beginning at Eloqua a lot of sales were made when reps told clients, “Yeah, we got that,” or “That’s coming in our next release in a month,” when it really was planned for six months out. It forced the company to change priorities and get the changes done ahead of schedule to satisfy the new client.
“Lying is never cool,” Mark says. “But selling a bit of a vision—I think that’s actually okay. Entrepreneurs are typically very comfortable and often live in an alternate reality anyway, so they actually do believe or convince themselves that it’s coming out in a month.”
And his Eloqua journey showed that you can hire sales reps that don’t have extremely good closing skills in the early days because they’re not going to be closing deals anyway. Someone senior is going to be doing the closing. What you need are sales reps that have a good understanding of where the company is going, with strong relationship-building skills, and who are smart. They’re able to position a product in the right way that really fits the needs of the customer. They’re able to show the customer that they have needs that they didn’t think they had.
In fact, the best stage one sales reps can help you build your vision of your company’s future because they have such a great understanding of your customers and what they want. Plus, they have the passion to inspire those customers to follow you into that future.
When Mark started Influitive he had a chance for a redo. He learned a lot from all the trial and error he had done at Eloqua, and in the new company he made sure to replicate all the things that had worked. But he also had a chance to change things he had been frustrated by the first time around. In particular he was determined not to repeat the biggest mistake he made at Eloqua.
As he says, “I held on to sales management too long. And it cost me a lot of growth.” He learned the hard way that the first thing the founder needs to do as the company and sales team grows is to hire a great VP of sales. In Mark’s opinion the founder should run the sales team until he or she has six sales reps, and then it’s time to typically bring in a VP of sales.
In hindsight Mark believes he waited six to eight months too long to hire an SVP at Eloqua. But starting Influitive gives him a mulligan, and as he says, “I brought in a head of sales much earlier this time…we’ll see if I made the right call.”
The last word
That’s the beauty of starting your second business—you have the chance for a do-over. You get to revisit everything you tried the first time around, cherry pick the things that worked and apply them in the new company. But you also have the chance to right wrongs.
As Mark says, “I think repeat entrepreneurs are successful—because we screw up so much. A lot of this stuff is gut feel, and talking to people, and trying to learn patterns—but if you hadn’t seen the pattern before, you won’t necessarily know when it’s the right time to do it.”
Mark learned a lot from his Eloqua experience, and it’s helped him build his sales team on his second go round at Influitive. The rest of us may not be starting our second businesses, but we can give ourselves a do-over with our current companies. Like Mark, we can learn from all the things we’ve tried in the past and make sure we repeat what worked and try to change what didn’t.
What would you differently with your sales team if you had a do-over?
About Mark and Influitive
Mark Organ is the Founder and CEO of Influitive, the advocate marketing experts. Influitive helps B2B marketers mobilize their advocates and fans to share their positive experiences across the social web in order to influence buyers. Influitive is headquartered in Toronto with offices in Boston and Palo Alto. To learn how to get your advocates working with you, visit www.influitive.com.