This is an excerpt from Bob Tinker’s talk for Pear Accelerator S20.
Pear Accelerator is a small-batch program, where our partners and mentors work hands-on with exceptional founders to reach product-market fit and beyond. Learn more: pear.vc/accelerator
Early startups in Silicon Valley tend to focus so intensively on product-market that they might forget to think about what comes after. But as any startup founder knows, you’re never “in the clear” when you’re running a startup.
Once you hit product-market fit, your next challenge begins: growth. From experience, we know that this phase can feel even more vague and amorphous than product-market fit. Often it sounds something like your investors saying, “Okay, go do that sales and marketing stuff.” We don’t seem to have a good, well-known framework to talk about how to unlock growth after product market fit.
Bob Tinker believes this shows a core bug in Silicon Valley — that fundamentally, we tend toward being a product shop. Investors and mentors around here do a great job helping founders build products, but often do a terrible job of helping founders build good markets on the back of their products. It causes many startups to get stuck on being a product (stage 0.5, as we call it), and fail to make the transition to being a business.
Bob has constructed a framework that we refer to for our own companies: go-to-market or GTM fit. It is the transition from a founder-hero personally selling a beloved product to users, to building a repeatable growth machine.
The Two Common Mistakes Founders Make With GTM Fit
(1) You try to find it as the founder.
Here’s the crazy thing — founders fundamentally cannot find Go-To-Market Fit. We know you went through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to unlock that elusive product love, but the reality is: your ability as a founder to go find and win a customer is not characteristic of the real world.
As a founder, you have something like “magic founder pixie dust,” where you can say all sorts of the things on the fly in a customer meeting, talk about the 20 different things your product does, or pivot and make as many promises as you want. That’s not a realistic representation for what a normal salesperson, or digital marketing campaign could do.
Ironically, the very things that you were doing as a founder to win those early customers for product market fit is not a real test for unlocking growth with go-to-market fit. It’s a big mindset shift to wrestle with.
(2) You try to hire a star VP of Sales.
Sometimes your board will tell you to just go hire a big time VP of sales for this stage. Unfortunately, that’s also the wrong thing to do. That’s because no amazing VP of Sales is going to be the first salesperson in the building for you.
Great VP’s of Sales are usually more like battlefield commanders. They’re not the ones that figure out the playbook, the path through the woods. They’re the one that scale it. They turn the crank and hire the army.
A better way to think about your first sales executive hire is that you want someone more like a Davy Crockett—an explorer, frontiersman, trailblazer type.
Note that this person could also be yourself, as long as you don’t think of yourself as the Founder (as discussed in mistake #1). You will need to put yourself in the shoes of an actual salesperson and sell like them.
Finding GTM Fit Is Like Surfing
There are three parts to surfing that map well to the three parts of finding GTM fit. There’s making sure you have the right surfboard, catching the wave, and riding the wave. The parallels, respectively, are: (1) picking the right sales model, (2) aligning with the urgent wave of customer need, and (3) building a repeatable playbook.
Catching the Wave of Urgency
Catching the wave requires some skill in terms of reading your market, reading your customers, and understanding where you are. Good founders and early team membershave a bit of an intuitive feel for this — it’s how you got to product-market fit, after all. It’s similar in that you are trying to get a sense for where the urgent pain is in your potential customers that gets them to want to buy your product now.
However, to be a category defining company, it’s not enough to just find one urgent pain and solve it with a product. That pain needs to be part of a larger wave of change that is strategic for your customer. Your company needs to ultimately fit into a full customer journey with a big opportunity.
The challenge for many founders when trying to find GTM fit after product-market fit is that the pain point that unlocks GTM fit is not necessarily the same as the pain point that you started your company on. As a result, it can feel like you are betraying that initial founding idea or core principles.
When Bob was CEO of MobileIron, a company that provided security management for smartphones, the wave that was happening was the shift from Blackberries to iPhones. Executives wanted to get rid of their Blackberries and get an iPhone for work. They were going to their IT teams and telling them to make iPhones secure enough for corporate work, pronto. This was the initial pain point that would turn into a long term wave of every company wanting to become a mobile enterprise.
In retrospect, it’s clear that MobileIron needed to shift their focus away from the Blackberries and Windows phones they’d previously been building for and serving. This caused many big internal fights, because of the feeling of betrayal.
Bob candidly admits that had he been the one running sales, he might have been too stubborn to actually see and catch this wave, because he was too married to his original founding idea. Luckily, his Davy Crockett sales head was out talking to customers and made the push.
Picking the Right GTM Model
There’s a spectrum of sales models between sales-led, marketing-led and product-led, and there is no one right model for everybody. You, as the founder, need to determine what’s right for your customer and right for your product.
The one key thing to pay attention to is how your customer decides to buy. Note, this is different from the logistics of how they buy. Rather, you need to pay attention to the customer’s cognitive process of deciding to buy.
As a single consumer, when you go to buy a product, you might do a search, browse different websites, learn, engage with sales reps, and then make a decision. This is product-led selling, where the buyer and decider are the same person. Your product is typically pretty easy to understand and you can reach your customers with digital marketing.
If the buyer and decider are something like two different people, perhaps the VP of Marketing and the CEO, you can do a low touch marketing-led sale, where you generate leads with digital marketing and then engage those leads with sales reps.
If the cognitive process to buy is much more of a committee decision—for example, in MobileIron, there was the security team, the apps team, the mobile team and the IT team—then you need to do a sales-led model. The sales team’s job is to coordinate the decision amongst all the stakeholders.
Here’s where you’ll need to make sure the economics of your model work. If the way customers buy your product is a committee decision, for example, and your ticket price is super low, then you might not be generating enough revenue to cover the cost of acquiring that high touch customer.
Building the Playbook
After assembling an early sales team, that team went to Bob and told him they needed to build a go-to-market playbook.
As a product and customer-centric founder, Bob’s conception of a GTM playbook was a good PowerPoint and some tactics. His team helped him to see that the GTM playbook is actually the operating system for your entire go-to-market strategy.
Bob’s playbook is a short one or two page document with three parts: the customer journey, the sales actions that correspond to each stage of the customer journey, and the resources required for those sales pitches.
The Customer Journey
Your GTM playbook should not be internal focused. The standard sales funnel of “first meeting, qualification, negotiation, etc.” is not what you are going for. You want to make sure the basis of it is the journey from your customer’s eyes.
The Sales Actions
At each step of the customer journey, there needs to be a corresponding section that outlines what your sales team will be doing and saying in each stage. This section is the key transition point from founder led selling to becoming a company that sells things.
You will need to distill your sales strategy into, at most, the three things that your team will say or do at each stage. You have to sacrifice. You can no longer talk about all the 20 amazing things you could do and ask the customer which one they want. That does not scale, that’s not repeatable. At this point, you need to figure out those two or three things that reliably get your customer to sit up and really pay attention. What Bob calls, the “WOW” moment. This is how you build a repeatable, scalable growth machine.
Finally, for each stage of sales action plans, you’ll want to list out the resources and materials that are necessary to really deliver on that phase of the customer journey. What are the tools or collateral you need? What does the product need to do? What competitive information would be useful?
Outlining all of this will have the side effect of getting your whole team aligned. Instead of your product or engineering team viewing sales as a separate entity, or seeing requests from sales as an annoying distraction, they’ll have a better understanding of why that request is important or necessary and contributing to the value of the entire company. They’ll understand how their work fits into the GTM strategy and plan.
Another great side effect is that your GTM metrics will now come much more easily once you’ve figured out this playbook, as you can simply watch customers prospect from stage to stage to stage to stage.
How to Know You’ve Found GTM Fit
The answer here is, perhaps a bit frustratingly, the same as with product-market fit — you will just know. You will feel it.
“It feels like momentum. Like all of a sudden, you put more in and more comes out. Leads start to grow, conversions grow, sales people and marketing people are running around with their hair on fire, and they can’t keep up with all the deals. It’s a blast.”