Capturing Purple Unicorns: How to Hire an Amazing Sales Team for your Startup

By Tal Riesenfeld, Co-Founder and SVP Sales at Eyeview


Anyone who has founded a company also has to be a salesperson to some degree. Founders sell to VCs, employees, journalists, partners, potential clients, and even their own families. When building a startup, once you have a product and a vision, sales is next at bat. Even if you have an innovative and disruptive product, without a solid sales team, your company is dead in the water. In the last few years, I have had the experience both of selling as a founder and the honor of building an amazing sales team from the ground up.

Hiring matters most in building a strong team and quality is not something you can develop through training. I strongly believe that 85% of a seller’s potential for success will come down to the quality of the person who walked in on day one.  The hiring also cannot be delegated to recruiters or external people - it must be lead by the CEO or a very strong head of sales. The head of sales is tasked with bringing in this amazing group of candidates I like to call purple unicorns. Purple unicorns are the charismatic, smart, strategic, analytical, and persistent go-getters who can penetrate any account and build long lasting relationships with clients, all while representing a revolutionary product. And like most good things, they don’t come easily.

I learned this, and other lessons, the hard way. Moving to the US four years ago and building out a sales team, I initially made the mistake of attempting to leverage external recruiters.  I was wrong to assume that these companies had access to the kind of talent we were looking for and that they could attract, assess and recruit purple unicorns.  I changed our sales recruiting approach a few months before reaching one of those near-death experiences that Scott Weiss coined as “We’re F****d, It’s Over”.
Leveraging what I learned, I want to share with you a few key tips on making those first hires and getting an amazing sales team on your side. I can’t stress this enough: no one is going to do the hard work for you.  It is a huge investment of your time, but one you must make to ensure the success of your company.
Find Quality Targets
I believe in nurturing talent, but when launching your startup’s sales team, you need a core of experienced sellers.  Look at someone’s past performance as a strong indicator of their future performance. True, all companies are different with diverse types of products and in different stages of evolution, but a great proven seller is most likely going to be at least a good seller on your team.
In my experience, the references a candidate provides aren’t always those with the most insight. These people are helpful when it comes to verifying employment and the basic facts, but if you can, find your own contacts that know the person. And don’t be afraid to ask the candidate for a specific reference that wasn’t on his short list.  The only tried and true way to know if someone is great is to get a non-biased referral. Your non-biased referral should serve as the key reference. If you get that, you’re two thirds of the way there. Be it employees, friends, neighbors, the guy on the train, you just need to ask one simple question: “Who is THE best salesperson you ever worked with?”
I ask most of our candidates – applying to any role in the company – versions of this question. You can learn a lot about someone based on how they answer…and you can also collect names of the top performers in the industry. I am not ashamed to admit this question has led to some of my best hires!
Engage the Prospect
Like finding a good VC, a high-quality introduction is gold. Find out who the person is connected to in your personal network and ask for an introduction. You are going to get out of this process what you put into it so don’t be afraid to work hard on this step.
I know arranging a face to face can be tricky, but meeting a candidate in-person is crucial – especially since the person you want is likely doing well and not in the market for a new job. But, isn’t that why you want them? A good salesperson will appreciate smart persistence. Don’t be afraid to go to them.  Meet them in the coffee shop by their office. Let them know you’ll “be in the same area tomorrow afternoon.” If he or she is a good candidate, get the meeting. No excuses.
Assess Their Fit to the Company
It’s good to remember that while the candidate is the one in the hot seat during an interview, you are looking for a two-sided fit. If the candidate has a better understanding of your company, they can then determine whether or not they’re interested. It is better to learn quickly that they aren’t into it rather than four months down the road after you’ve invested in them.
The interview process is a great indicator of how the employee will be in the company – any small instinct you sense about the employee in the process is worth paying attention to as it will become even more noticeable after they join – for better or for worse.  For example, if you don’t feel your personalities compliment each other, maybe pass, but if the candidate is a tough negotiator for their salary, they’ll likely bring that skill when they come to work for you.
Meaningful relationships that come with a seller are a big indication of their abilities, but we all understand that people move around and what you sell today (and who you sell to) may change over time. Strong contacts are a plus, but not a done deal, so try to resist the urge to hire for the Rolodex and remember, knowing people and having relationships with them are two very different things.
Close the Deal
Working for a startup, one of the biggest competitive advantages you have over a bigger company like Google is you. While your superstar candidate might get a better offer from a company with endless perks, there is usually a lot of process and red tape that they are navigating. You on the other hand know that this is your candidate and they’re going to help revolutionize your industry – go get them! Close the deal yourself. You are the best tool you have. And remember, if the seller is bringing in good business (and a lot of it), compensate them. Let the bigger companies worry about capping the upside – you’re still small enough to focus on growing the pie.
Today, with our company having more than 100 employees with 4 offices across the US, hiring is much less of a roll of the dice. We have vice presidents who bring their sellers, sellers who bring their colleagues, product and account managers who recommend their co-workers, customer referrals, and on and on. But the fundamentals of hiring the top talent are still the same. We invest in finding them, bringing them in, assessing, and closing. Any time we cut the line or think someone else will do the hard work for us – we pay.
So, do the hard work, build your foundation of purple unicorns and watch your startup thrive.

-Tal Riesenfeld, Co-Founder and SVP Sales at Eyeview

About Innovation Endeavors-backed Eyeview:
Eyeview fuses the effectiveness of television branded advertising with the efficiency of digital personalization technologies: enabling brands to maintain effective, efficient and measurable individual consumer relationships.