What to look for in a sales leader


Navigating the hunt for a sales leader? Find out what it really takes to find a champion for your startup's mission.
As the founder of Vimaan, I've learned firsthand how important hiring your first sales leader is — and why this hiring decision is so important.

In this post, I’ll share my learnings on identifying the right person to spearhead your sales efforts and land those important early-stage sales.

Starting strong: The value of a sales leader as an initial individual contributor

Based on the experience I’ve personally had growing startups, I believe an ideal candidate for sales leader is someone who is willing to embrace the role of an individual contributor (IC) before transitioning into a leadership position. 

A leader ready to begin as an IC can genuinely grasp the customer's needs, the sales cycle and the challenges faced on the ground. This experience is invaluable in fine-tuning a sales strategy that resonates with customers and addresses their pain points.

After establishing a strong sales foundation with their own personal sales, the leader should demonstrate the skill to recruit, mentor and manage a sales team capable of expanding the company's market reach. The right leader knows how to choose team members who can stick to (and improve) established sales processes.

The leader should also know how to formalize the sales process and incorporate it into protocols that the team follows as they close sales. This includes a deep understanding of the customer's purchasing process and how to align the sales strategy accordingly.

This individual sets the stage for the company's initial sales success and also lays the groundwork for scalable, sustainable growth.

Since you should be hiring a sales leader before hiring individual reps, you can expect this person to bring in a big chunk of your initial sales. If your first sales leader can take you to $10-20 million in sales, you’ll know you’ve done a great job in recruiting and hiring that person.

How to look beyond the resume

Selecting your startup's first sales leader is about finding a champion for your mission — someone who is a true believer, not just a mercenary. 

This role demands more than just chasing quotas — it's about embodying the company's ethos and vision for the future.

The ideal candidate is someone deeply committed to understanding every facet of the product, the competitive landscape and the unique value proposition that sets your company apart. They will be deeply invested in what the company aims to achieve in the long term, and will be excited about shaping the evolution of the market over the next five years.

This sales leader will be a partner to the CEO, and will need to complement that person’s skills. As the leader of the sales team, this person will be responsible for building the organization’s infrastructure from the ground up. They're responsible for nurturing a team that can execute this vision, instilling the company's mission so the entire team can row together in the same direction.

If a candidate is just focused on quotas and commissions, not the company's broader goals, they’re not the right fit. The first sales leader must be a standard-bearer for the company.

Your challenge will be finding someone who has this kind of visionary enthusiasm, but also has the pragmatic execution skills to build a team.

Identifying the right sales leader isn’t easy. Many founders — including myself — find this hiring process daunting. But the decision is crucial for your company's success.

My personal blueprint for picking a winning sales leader

Drawing from my entrepreneurial experience, including at Vimaan, I've solidified my own personal criteria for the ideal sales leader. Here’s what I look for:
  • Skills beyond bureaucracy: I’m a little less inclined to look for someone who is solely a team-builder. Those skills are important, of course, but your first leader has to wear multiple hats, and will be focusing on scaling your processes and truly understanding your market — rather than just building a massive team as fast as possible.
  • Business school background: A business degree encourages big-picture thinking. These individuals see beyond immediate sales targets because they understand broader business implications and strategic opportunities.
  • Tech savvy: You need someone who can grasp the significance of your product, and communicate that value to customers. They need to walk the talk of technology and innovation.
  • Ambassadorial zeal: They must embody the mission of the company and have an innate hunger to change the status quo.
  • Strong academic background: This indicates diligence and a propensity for hard work.
  • Startup pedigree: Your sales leader needs to have experience in the startup ecosystem. It doesn’t matter if their startup flamed out or went public, because the outcome isn’t the most important part. Having startup experience shows their passion and grit for the unpredictable journey of building something from the ground up.
A hungry mid-level candidate: Don’t look for someone who has been a VP at multiple places and has had hundreds of people working for them. Seek out burgeoning talent instead. A mid-level professional who’s passionate about growth — especially someone who has been under the tutelage of a hotshot salesperson at another organization — would be a great fit.

Your first sales leader’s key qualities

Choosing the first sales leader is a defining moment for a startup. Your goal is to find someone who has both the innovative drive and the foundational sales acumen to elevate your startup from its early stages to being a market leader.

Here are the things to keep in mind when you’re hiring your sales leader:
  • Choose someone who is willing to start as an IC so they can understand the customer and the market.
  • The right candidate will align closely with the CEO and be committed to long-term growth.
  • Look for a flag bearer of your mission — someone who is passionate about learning and adapting, not just hitting their quotas.
  • An ideal candidate should have a robust academic background, technical chops and relevant startup experience. Shoot for mid-level professionals rather than VP-level.
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