Sign up

What matters to you matters to us! Customize your newsletter–tell us what you're most interested in and we'll handle the rest.

loader image




March 26, 2024

Why Tech Startups Fall into the GTM Operator Gap – and How They Can Avoid It

a woman leaping from one rock to another against a sunset background


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 the GTM Operator Gap phenomenon, a common mistake among tech startups where founders lead the sales effort by themselves for too long.


Founder-led sales is a common go-to-market motion in the early stages of a tech startup, and it’s easy to understand why founders are front and center when trying to land early customers for a new product. But when companies rely on that model for too long, they can create an organizational gap that will make their next stage of growth much more difficult. I call it the Operator Gap or GTM Operator Gap, a risky blind spot that I encountered all too often during my years as a CEO at tech companies.

In this first of a two-part blog series, I’ll explain how  GTM Operator Gaps form and how to recognize them.

Contributing Factors of a GTM Operator Gap

In the early stages of a startup, the founder is the ideal person to attract critical beta customers and design partners. Afterall, the founder often has the ability to sprinkle “pixie dust” when it comes to early sales and customer engagements 😀.  But what happens when the company gains some traction and needs to start acquiring customers in a repeatable fashion, and at scale?

At this point, startups need a formal GTM strategy and an executive with the sales and marketing chops to lead it. When that critical role isn’t staffed, the Operator Gap rears its ugly head at a pivotal juncture in a company’s journey.

Operators who have the needed skills and experience to establish and scale GTM functions are often hired later than they should, and the consequences can be painful:

  • Progress toward product-market fit slows
  • Important milestones in revenue and customer growth aren’t achieved
  • The company burns through cash without significant progress toward goals

Everyone from the board on down is frustrated.

Signs of a GTM Operator Gap

Here are some warning signs that a startup has a GTM operator gap:

  • All (or virtually all) important sales engagements orient around the founder
  • Foundational components of a GTM model don’t exist — no ideal customer profile, no GTM readiness plan, no sales methodology (if they exist as blueprints, they are rarely followed or enforced)
  • There’s a disconnect between the company’s market vision and product roadmap and customer requests, which are added after every customer engagement
  • Marketing spends inordinate time and effort on thought leadership and PR
  • Accelerated hiring of senior staff (usually in sales) is seen as a panacea

It’s hard to break out of this cycle, despite the headwinds it creates for a young company:

  • Repeatability is hard to capture
  • Discipline is rarely enforced
  • Customer engagement is often capped at the technical level
  • Scaling is very difficult

Why GTM Operator Gaps Are Hard to Fill

One of the reasons GTM operator gaps persist is that the people available to help fill them often aren’t suited for the role. Consultants tend to lack the appropriate track record and DNA for immediate impact. Board members rarely have the operator-level skill sets to offer plans and playbooks for a multi-channel GTM strategy. The growth equity operating partner model is not geared for early-stage organizations or for companies with an investor syndicate. And venture capital investors tend to champion founders.

When startup leaders realize the urgency of bringing a GTM operator in, they can go into accelerated hiring mode. That has its own risks. In the rush to get someone in a seat, they may overlook whether a qualified candidate’s skills and experience align with the company’s current stage. When those don’t match, you could end up with a revolving door of senior executive hires with short tenures, leading to excessive cash burn, culture dilution, and diffusion of responsibility and ownership.

So, what attributes make a GTM operator a good fit for an early-stage tech startup?

What to Look for in an Early-Stage GTM Operator

Your investors can be a valuable source of operator talent, as they have likely worked with accomplished leaders at other companies. But be wary of hiring sales or marketing executives who come from successful IPOs or medium- to large-scale exits; they may not have been operators in the crucial early stages of company growth.

In general, an ideal early-stage GTM operator is an executive who:

  • Has been in customer-facing roles in the early-scaling stages of a company
  • Takes a “roll up your sleeves” approach to the sales and marketing tasks required in building a repeatable customer engagement motion
  • Is neither intimidated by, nor in thrall of, the language of technology
  • Has experience in building ideal customer profiles, identifying market readiness initiatives, collaborating on revenue funnels, and enabling companies to scale
  • Demonstrates discipline in implementing initiatives and measuring their progress

To be clear, this is a different profile from someone whose expertise is scaling later-stage organizations.

In the second part of this series, I’ll explain how to transition from founder-led sales to founder-inspired sales when you have a GTM operator in place.

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.