I can’t hold back anymore. Yet another company I admire with a strong CEO has blown it again.  They hired the wrong person to lead sales and marketing.  

The process is almost always the same.  Conduct an exhaustive search for “The A player – the Rockstar.”  Find her after a long process and announce with great fanfare to the Board and investors that the Messiah has agreed to join the team.  Watch the person underperform for six months. Agonize for six more months deciding whether the person should stay or go, have countless discussions with other team members and the Board, finally decide to fire the person, pay severance after being threatened with legal action, start a new search, and suffer a material (and publicly embarrassing) setback. Over and over, this has to be the one hire that startups consistently get wrong.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

For starters, the job spec is just wrong. Who woke up one day and thought that combining these two functions into one position made sense?  What’s next? VP of Finance and Culinary Delight? Sure, sales and marketing are related, but they are not the same. And they aren’t peanut butter and jelly either. These functions require people with vastly different experience, training, education, and maybe most importantly, personalities.

A great sales leader is also a battle-worn salesperson. She knows how to set goals for reps, develop appropriate comp plans, and has a proven track record that reps respect. She can train and relate to salespeople because she succeeded at the job and loves to sell.  She has received formal sales training–great salespeople are built not born. She brings an extensive network of proven sales reps and customer relationships. She is a sharpshooter, a tactician, a likeable aggressor who knows how to track and close. She brings a deep reservoir of social capital and relationships that can be deployed and leveraged to close deals when the quarter is closing out.  

Day to day sales leadership is about hiring the right sales team, setting aggressive but achievable goals, stoking motivation, and closing deals. Great sales leaders thrive on achieving near term goals like crushing quotas.  

On the other hand, your marketing leader should be strategic and cerebral — a forward thinker.  Maybe even a tad nerdy. Go-to-market strategy is complex and nuanced. Most startups have multiple potential target markets with different value propositions that require different messaging. The permutations are endless.  Getting this right requires constant iteration and experimentation where patience is a virtue. This stuff is intellectually challenging and requires exceptional analytical and pattern recognition skills.

Said another way, the marketing team figures out the strategy. The sales team executes the battle plan.

Sure, there are the rare exceptional individuals, the supernovas, who can lead both functions. But most mere mortals simply do not possess both skill sets.  Finding such a person is the proverbial needle in a haystack, so be prepared for failure and disappointment.

If forced to choose, hire the head of sales first.  Why? Early sales provide customer and market validation which greatly facilitates fundraising.  Companies without revenue typically struggle mightily to raise institutional funding. More importantly, the CEO needs to set the vision and strategy in a startup. If the CEO can’t provide this, hire a new CEO, not a new head of marketing.  

Photo: dangrytsku, Getty Images

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