A sales blueprint for early-stage founders

Chase Roberts
Vertex Ventures US
Published in
5 min readNov 14, 2023

Running a marathon requires two feet: you can hop on one foot temporarily, but both feet must move to finish the race. Winning a category is similar: founders must build an exceptional product and invest in designing the go-to-market (GTM) strategy. Too often, I see founders hopping on one foot: they concentrate their efforts on product development without sufficient investment in GTM execution. For founders keen to jumpstart a commercial motion, here are five questions to consider when developing a GTM strategy.

How do your customers realize this is a problem they have?

The status quo is an alluring drug. Buyers don’t always realize their problems have potential product solutions. For example, I doubt users of CRMs pre-Salesforce fully realized the opportunity cost of buying software on-premise in a perpetual licensing model. By positioning the benefits of a subscription-based service delivered in the browser and the downsides of the incumbent tools, Salesforce’s marketing efforts helped buyers realize the problems they didn’t know they had. In that way, the answer to this question reveals early product positioning: help prospective buyers see the present more clearly. This is what’s broken about your current approach. If prospective buyers realize the problem, your positioning should amplify the business costs of not solving the problem. Let’s look at Snowflake, which abstracted many tedious operational components of managing databases. Buyers had decades of experience with the operational burden, so Snowflake amplified these challenges in early positioning.

Where do your customers initially reach for a solution?

The answer to this question indicates which channels you should prioritize. Category creation usually implies buyers don’t realize product solutions exist. This lack of awareness emphasizes the importance of outbound marketing. Let’s look at developer tools as an example. To tackle software development problems, developers start with Google and talk to their peers. For founders building developer tools, this emphasizes the need for effective SEO and garnering mindshare within developer communities and forums. Buyers might study analyst research reports in long-standing categories like ERP, databases, and marketing automation, emphasizing the need to court industry analysts.

How would they evaluate a solution to this problem?

Software purchasing is a value trade: buyers realize the value that a product might produce for their organization and will pay some fraction of that value to acquire it. Evaluating a solution starts with identifying the measurable business metrics your product impacts. Buyers measure value along three dimensions: increased revenue, improved profitability (either through cost avoidance or productivity increase), or reduced risk (applies primarily to security products). For example, buying a managed database like Snowflake might eliminate the need for three database administrators. If those folks cost $150k per person, the product can claim at least $450k in value creation. For software infrastructure products, the value capture typically reflects the cost to build a similar solution internally.

Beyond value measurement, this question also requires product builders to consider the necessary features for a buyer to adopt. In an enterprise context, product companies must earn SOC II certifications and support enterprise requirements like access control, SSO integration, uptime guarantees, and logging. The answer to this question informs the value you must reveal during a sales process and highlights product requirements to invest in.

Lastly, answering this question reveals a buyer’s steps to evaluate a tool. An evaluation might include security revenue, proof of value (POV), business case presentation to a budget holder, user feedback, compatibility testing with other tools, customer references, etc. Understanding the typical steps reveals what you should prepare for before engaging a customer prospect. For example, you should standardize a POV framework and success criteria before engaging buyers who typically require them.

Who is involved in evaluating a solution?

I often see founders celebrate a potential win with prospective users, who acknowledge their product is the most fantastic solution to their problems. Unfortunately, you’re not done selling at this step. Direct sales are like herding cats. Closing a deal requires revealing the relevant stakeholders in a sale and respective buying criteria and orchestrating the necessary communication between these parties to complete the sale. For example, a security stakeholder might want to hear from an internal architect how your product integrates with incumbent security monitoring systems or how it satisfies data security policies. As the salesperson, you must shepherd these interactions; otherwise, you’ll wait indefinitely for the order.

What are the required conditions for your customer to buy?

Customers acknowledge they have problems all day, but it’s another obstacle to compel them to act on these problems. Understanding the catalysts to buy tells us (a) if they’re qualified and (b) why act now. The most common explanation I hear from founders about why their deals are dragging is, “The customer has other priorities.” The catalysts describe when buyers feel an urgency to act. I’ll emphasize this point: the default mode for your buyers is not to do anything. Typically, something must be breaking in the business, or some other tactical failure is causing them to act on the problem now. Here are a few hypothetical examples:

  • Infrastructure software — A homegrown solution failed, causing a customer outage. Two team members maintaining this solution departed, emphasizing the need to find a new solution.
  • Sales software — A competitor consistently outperforms your customer prospect, revenue growth subsides during the previous two quarters, and the budget is capped to hire additional account executives. Sales productivity is trending downward.
  • Security software — Incidents spiked in the last two quarters, and a recent breach caused a regulatory fine and two critical customers to churn.

In all these cases, you can guarantee buyers feel compelled to act! Revealing the buying conditions also informs customer qualification: the buyers’ attributes and criteria that signal they are likely to buy. The most precious asset in startups is not capital — a competent team building a unique asset in an important category will always find investors — it’s time. Thorough qualification ensures that you maximize your return on time, and adopting a sales methodology like MEDDIC is a good starting point.

Wrapping up

Answering these questions is an iterative process. In the same way, your product will evolve on the never-ending quest for product market fit, and so will your sales process. It takes two feet to win a marathon, so focus your efforts on both feet: product development and sales.