Trial by fire: The new manager’s guide to building a sales team

Building a SaaS sales team from scratch? Watch this interview with Justin Gold where he shares from the frontlines of a fast-growing SaaS startup in San Francisco: Poll Everywhere.

In this interview, Justin and Steli talk about developing a company's initial sales process, hiring the first reps, coming up with a sales compensation plan, managing the sales team and establishing sales in a strongly product-focused startup.

Poll Everywhere is an audience response system and fellow Y-Combinator startup that turns “presentations into conversations” through real-time polling.


Zero to six in 24 months

When Justin joined Poll Everywhere in 2014, they were a 15-person team. Although they had a number of freemium users, Poll Everywhere was operating on a self-serve sales model and had no sales team to convert those users into customers.

Almost two years later, Poll Everywhere has grown to 40 employees. Justin currently manages a successful sales team of six (including himself), and they are on track to grow larger still.

Not bad for less than two years of work. Let’s take a look at how he got there.

Choosing the right sales tools

Justin's first order of business at Poll Everywhere was to set them up with the right sales management software.

Because of their focus on inside sales, it's has been the perfect CRM to grow and manage their sales team. (If you haven’t yet experienced the benefits of Close, check out our free trial!)

Managing a team of none

What’s the first thing you’d do as a sales manager without a sales team? Hire?

Slow down!

Before you even consider building a team, make sure you know your product, company, and customers inside and out.

As Justin points out, “If you can’t function like a customer support person, you’re not going to be an effective salesperson.”

In the beginning, take as many support calls as you do sales calls. You should hear customer complaints, praises, concerns, and questions firsthand.

For Justin, this was a two-month process.

Only once you can confidently handle any support call should you shift your focus to sales.

You must master the sales process before you can effectively ask others to do the same.

When one of your team members encounters an objection or challenge you need to be able to say, “Here’s what worked for me,” or, “Here’s what I did, and it didn’t work.”

And once you’ve developed that sales process? Document it.

Justin wrote what he calls the Sales Torah, a new-hire’s guide to anything and everything sales. Name it whatever you want, just make sure you have a manual that documents your sales process.

Want to lead your team to success? It all starts with solid sales manager training. Dive into our article for insights.

It’s the little things

A startup without a sales team probably doesn’t know that they should respond to an email within two hours at the latest.

They probably don’t know that you should always call a customer before you send them an invoice so you can manage their reactions.

They may seem like little oversights, but they have a big impact. Be prepared to overhaul the entire sales process in preparation for your team.

Hiring is just brutal

That’s why we’ve written extensively about it in the past.

One of the most difficult parts of hiring is just getting the team to agree on the type of candidate to recruit.

One person wants a junior salesperson and another wants someone more senior. One half of the group pushes for a sales background, the other thinks that a software background is the way to go.

You need to find a couple of core traits everyone can agree on.

In the case of Poll Everywhere, they eventually settled on searching for someone who was hard-working and genuinely likable.

Sound familiar? Just the traits we saw in Justin when we hired him.

You can teach someone how to write an email or handle an objection. Humor, passion, and motivation? That’s a different story. Search for the traits you can’t train. Everything else will follow.

Hiring forwards

Most managers hire backwards.

They set a revenue goal for the coming year and then calculate how many salespeople they will need to meet that goal.

Justin took a different approach. Instead of trying to anticipate the future needs of Poll Everywhere, he looked at what they needed in the moment.

He filled roles as they arose, instead of creating roles to fill.

Here’s how that looks in practice.

The first hire: Sharing the workload

Justin brought Katie on board only after he had mastered the sales process and had more accounts than he could manage on his own.

Because his workload was already at capacity, they didn’t fight over accounts. The two of them soon developed a professional relationship that was more collaborative than competitive.

Both sides regularly sacrificed their own commissions in favor of working, learning, and growing together.

The second hire: Small opportunities

The new team was so effective that they spent the majority of their time managing their larger accounts. As a result, smaller deals ($500-$2,000) were falling through the cracks.

Knowing that these deals are important, Justin decided his next hire would be a junior salesperson to manage the smaller accounts.

The third hire: Outbound sales

Until now, Poll Everywhere’s prospects were almost entirely inbound. Now that these accounts were properly managed, it was time to start pursuing outbound leads.

Before he began the hiring process, Justin sat down with his team and asked them to define their ideal customer. They analyzed their most loyal and profitable subscribers and searched for similarities:

  • What industries are they in?
  • How large are they?
  • Who is the decision maker?
  • What’s their job title?
  • Their background?

The resulting customer profile made it easy to identify promising opportunities.

Once the outbound rep joined the team, they worked together to create an outbound sales process. That meant documenting every step to validate their own hypothesis and to showcase what outbound sales was capable of producing.

The fourth and fifth hires: Filling the gaps

The final two hires were brought in to fill needs when they arose.

If you see a salesperson who has more leads than they can handle, ask them what’s going on.

Are they struggling because they’re putting in 14-hour days? It’s probably time to expand your team.

“I want you to make mistakes”

When it comes to training new hires, documentation only goes so far and mock phone calls only do so much.

Get your new hires on the phone with clients as soon as possible. Let them learn from their mistakes.

How soon? According to Justin, “If you think you’re ready, we’ve waited too long.”

New hires at Poll Everywhere spend their first month shadowing senior sales reps. After that, they get their own accounts.

Let them face rejection from day one and they’ll learn to embrace it.

How to manage individual and team performance

Every sales team is comprised of different people with their own talents, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses.

So how do you manage individual and team performance?

You’re not going to want to hear this, but …

You need to set aside time every week to hold both group and individual meetings with each of your team members.

Here’s Justin’s approach.

Group meetings

Get rid of all that corporate hierarchy BS.

Encourage everyone to pitch ideas, solve problems, and plan for the future, regardless of title or position.

The easiest way to level the playing field is with total transparency.

Display your company’s total revenue and growth for the past week. Beyond that, share individual and group statistics, especially your own.

And finally, make sure to present your own concerns, shortcomings, or failures over the past week. Ask for feedback from your team. When you are vulnerable and open, you invite your team to do the same.

Individual meetings

Feedback and advice can appear hostile in a group setting.

Consider saving individual assessments for a one-on-one meeting. You’ll find that your salespeople will be much more open to advice in a private environment.

These individual meetings also give you the opportunity to understand how each member of your team sells.

For instance, one salesperson might make 150 calls a day while another says, “I’m just going to make eight calls today, but they’re going to be the right eight calls.” As long as both approaches produce results, neither are wrong.

If you understand their approach, there will be no surprises. When you know what to expect from each team member, you can work with them to create an effective sales plan.

Using sales metrics to increase sales productivity

Poll Everywhere uses Close during their meetings to review individual and team sales metrics.

Our powerful reporting features make it easy for them to quickly pull out the metrics that matter to them:

  • Emails sent
  • Calls made
  • Deals closed

It’s one thing to talk about performance; it’s something else entirely to see performance. Get the most out of your meetings and your team with Close’s streamlined interface.

Developing a commission structure for your SaaS sales team

Setting up a commission structure is easy to do for one or two people. The trick is building something that doesn’t have to change every time you hire someone new.

The process is always going to be a guess, but there are a couple of steps you can take to make sure that guess is educated.

Get everyone involved

Talk to your team about any changes you’re going to make and let them voice their concerns. This show of respect can go a long way in smoothing over big changes, and ensures that people are on board.

Plan for now, later, and everything in between

It’s easy to come up with a commission structure that works for the moment, and it’s easy to come up with one that works for the distant future. Your goal is to bridge the gap in between.

Keep in mind that every time you change your payment structure, you affect the finances of every single one of your employees.

You will have to sell them on every change you make, and you can only do that so many times before they get fed up.

Safeguard against constant changes by knowing what you want your team to look like in six, eighteen, and thirty-six months.

Make sales and engineering work together

Salespeople have a reputation. “Hacks with greasy hair,” as Justin puts it.

That can be a difficult stereotype to overcome, especially if you’re the first salesperson in a company.

The developers have already poured their blood, sweat, and tears into this product. Now they’re being asked to trust their creation to someone new.

But contrary to popular belief, salespeople and engineers can work together.

Here’s how you can begin building that culture.

Highlight your wins (but don’t boast)

Show that you’re making a valuable contribution to the company as soon as possible.

Fight for early wins, even if they’re small, and make sure that people notice.

But be careful. There’s a fine line between highlighting your victories and boasting about your greatness. Don’t cross that line.

It’s not “Look what I did!”, but “Look what we did (with my help)!”

Plan for the long-term

Quick wins are great, but the engineers who have invested so much of themselves want to know that you’re in this for the long run.

Create a long-term contribution plan that showcases the heights you’re going to take their product to. Project as far into the future as you can and get them excited.

Be the voice of the customer

By the very nature of their jobs, most engineers don’t have much contact with their customers (Which is why at Close, every single engineer does support, no matter how senior they are.) The typical engineer hears the complaints and churns out updates, but that’s about it.

Tell your development team what the customers love about the new update and give them context about those features that aren’t being accepted.

If you become a trusted expert within your company on what your customers and the market want, engineers will value and seek your opinion. Your presence in the company can bridge the gap between customer and developer.

Create joint projects

It’s hard to be collaborative when you never work together.

Create a joint project that showcases the strengths of both the sales team and the development team.

To start, share your sales process with the engineers.

No matter how good you think it is, I guarantee that the development team is going to find some way to streamline it.

Remind both teams that they’re working toward the same goal by creating opportunities for them to collaborate and learn from each other.

Who’s in charge of your time?

As a manager, there is nothing more valuable than your time. If you don’t invest your time well, someone will invest it for you.

There will always be customers and coworkers vying for a piece of your day, and you need to learn to say “no”.

It’s hard to say “no” to a customer or employee in need, but your success (and the success of your team) depends on it.

Before you take on any new task, ask yourself whether or not it moves you closer to your goals. If it doesn’t, either delegate or eliminate.

Sales doesn’t cure all

Startups often have unrealistic expectations when implementing their first sales model. They expect a salesperson to usher their company into a golden age.

Poll Everywhere knew that there was a learning process; they recognized that it would require a collaborative effort.

Due to the support of the Poll Everywhere team, Justin was able to build a successful sales team much faster than he could have otherwise.

“We want you to figure this out,” they said, “and we’re going to work with you.”

If you've managed a sales team, what has worked for you? And salespeople, what do you think makes an ideal manager? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Questions or comments for Justin? Shoot him an email at

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