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April 4, 2024

How Tech Startups Can Evolve from Founder-Led to Founder-Inspired Sales

man and woman high-fiving at a desk

Tom Turner has held senior marketing and sales positions at category-defining cyber startups such as OKENA and Q1 Labs. He managed Cisco’s endpoint security business and was the founding CMO of IBM’s Security Division. Tom was most recently President and then CEO of BitSight Technologies. In this guest post, he explains how to transition from founder-led sales to founder-inspired sales.


Startup investors and non-founder CEOs rightfully expect their founders to take the lead in making early sales. Founders have the vision to help prospective customers understand how their product will resolve key business problems. Their passion is infectious and their charisma can open doors that are closed to others. In addition, they can talk in as much technical depth as the customer needs, and with similar strategic vision for how solutions will evolve.

Founders are the ideal people to attract those critical beta customers and design partners. Who has more passion for the value the product can deliver? What engineer at a potential customer’s site wouldn’t be thrilled to engage with the founder? What salesperson doesn’t want to lead with their best asset?

However, when a tech startup is ready to advance from beta customers and design partners into customer-acquisition mode, the company must evolve from a founder-led sales model to a more mature go-to-market (GTM) model that will enable it to scale.

In this second installment of a two-part blog series, I offer guidance on how early-stage tech companies can — and should — evolve from founder-led to founder-inspired sales. In part one, I explained the phenomenon of GTM Operator Gaps, a common mistake among tech startups where founders lead the sales effort by themselves for too long.

From Founder-Led to Founder-Inspired Sales

The transition to a more mature GTM model begins with reducing the founder’s role in sales. They can no longer be the sole reason for an initial meeting with a prospective customer. Instead, the founder should serve as the impetus for meetings where senior leaders from your company connect with all the decision-makers at your best customer opportunities.

To help in this transition, it’s essential to observe and learn from the founder in customer engagements and then translate those interactions into a repeatable sales methodology.

The Founder-Operator Roadshow

Step 1 is having the GTM operator accompany the founder on every customer engagement. Their job will be to observe and record all the salient points of the conversation.

As a careful observer of the founder’s pitch and customer interactions, the GTM operator should take note of things such as:

  • What stories does the founder tell?
  • How do they solicit customers to describe their problems, and then show understanding and empathy in addressing those problems?
  • How do they transition from discussing the customer’s problem to describing a possible solution?
  • What terminology do they use to build rapport?
  • What intel is revealed about the competitive landscape?
  • When does the founder go “off track”?
  • Where are the opportunities to identify business drivers and decision-making criteria among the technical discussions?

If the meeting is over a video call, the operator should record it and study the recording for further insights. In essence, they are trying to bottle the “secret sauce” that allows the founder to win deals so they can pass it on to the greater sales team. Don’t expect the sales rep who coordinated the customer meeting to fulfill this role as well as the operator will. It takes GTM expertise to translate the founder’s positive (and negative) exchanges/experiences into repeatable, scalable GTM motions.

The Foundational Sales Presentation (Sans Founder)

The output of the operator-founder partnership should begin with the ideal presentation of the company and its solution. It may include a demo (with script), impactful customer stories that inform the ideal customer profile, answers to common objections, and questions for the customer.

Sales personnel should use the presentation in the field and make incremental improvements as they gain more experience with it. Achieving success here is an iterative process of practice, refine, practice, refine, test, refine, and so on. It is a mistake to simply share the materials with a field force and assume that they are being used correctly — a mistake that all early stage companies make! The practicing, refining, and testing should be a whole company effort with measurement of everyone — including the CEO and founder.

By following this initial step, the company’s early customer engagement model matures such that the founder is involved later and later in the cycle and then (with some customers) not at all. Imagine that.

Now, to be clear, the foundational sales presentation work (and it is hard work) is just one step in transitioning to founder-inspired sales. To get a sense of the broader programmatic work that needs to accompany it you should read this blog post on building your first sales playbook.

More About the Author: Tom Turner stumbled into the nascent cyber security market in 1998, by accident. Over the next 25 years, in an industry awash with technical solutions, challenging jargon, and marketing that majored in fear, uncertainty, and doubt, he worked to bring clarity in communication, articulate business outcomes, and build repeatable GTM motions. He held senior marketing and sales positions at category-defining cyber startups such as OKENA and Q1 Labs. He managed Cisco’s endpoint security business and was the founding CMO of IBM’s Security Division. Tom was most recently President and then CEO of BitSight Technologies. Now a house husband 🙂, traveler, and dog walker, he consults in his spare time for people who he likes and can help.

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