Journeymen, Mavericks & Superstars: Understanding Salespeople at Startups

Posted on Apr 8, 2010 | 159 comments


Most technology startups seem to be founded by three types of people: product managers, engineers or biz dev types (MBAs and the like). Very few of them are started, in my experience, by sales people and very few early stage companies really understand sales. That’s why I started the Sales & Marketing Series and at one point I will do a bunch of posts on the sales methodology we developed at my first company called PUCCKA.

Today I want to talk about sales executives and a model for thinking about them. If you ever have to interview, hire, judge the performance of, decide whether to promote, assign clients/regions to them or have to decide whether to fire sales people, I think having a framework for thinking about them is helpful.

Here’s mine:

Let me start with a few biases. First, I think that most great sales people have an innate skill that can’t be taught. That view from me isn’t surprising since on the topic of Nature vs. Nurture in entrepreneurs I’ve clearly come down on the side of nature more than nurture (again, that doesn’t mean nurture has NO influence, just less than nature). Second, I think that running great sales programs is mostly about running great sales processes.   So as you grow your business and if you’re looking to hire sales people, one of the most important things to look for is somebody who understands the sales process and somebody that you perceive as “process oriented.” More on that later.

1. Journeymen - Journeymen (Journeywomen!) are, as the name implies, the people who have “learned a trade and work for another person usually by the day.” They are hugely process driven. These people take directions well from a sales manager on how to approach sales campaigns. When you hear them speak in an interview about how they’ve run sales campaigns in the past they describe the methods with precision. They are masters at using Salesforce.com because they love the structure that it provides. They’re organized and methodical. They’ll have taken 10 sales courses and they’ll list them all on their resume (why??).  They set up “tickler” lists to remind them of calls and they always make the calls they say they are going to make. They’re always on time.  They work through ROI calculations with customers. They’re great at orchestrating your company to deliver product demos. They know how to walk a deal from business owner, through IT, through procurement and through legal to get a closed order. They are the LIFEBLOOD of sales organizations because they’re plentiful and deliver great value relative to their costs. They’re also usually very loyal to your organization. Almost by definition. They’re journeymen.

But doesn’t Journeyman almost imply something pejorative? Yeah, kind of. Even though they’re great at process you can tell when you spend time with them that they miss some sort of “spark” that you’re expecting in a sales person. Some sort of magic where you just finished the meeting and can’t remember what they were selling but you know you needed three of them. It’s the “je ne sais quoi,” the “X factor.” And in my experience Journeyman are not good in two scenarios. a) they don’t tend to make great heads of sales departments and b) they aren’t the people you want early in your company. The reason for “b” is that most early stage companies survive on “evangelical sales” as in when you’re having to educate the customer on something new and different and get them to take a leap of faith. Journeymen don’t do “leap of faith.” They sell more commoditized or well understood products that can be sold via a well-defined process. That’s my view, anyhow. And my experience has taught me that.

2. Mavericks – Mavericks are the opposite of Journeymen.  Mavericks are by definition bad at following rules and bad at process.  I should know because I’m a maverick.  (John McCain used to be a Maverick but as Jon Stewart points out is no longer one – super funny 5 minute video – must watch if you have time and if, like me, you used to love McCain before his lobotomy.  If you still love McCain, um … not so funny then).  Mavericks are the people who innately know how to navigate a sales campaign. They can get access to senior executives and champion a sales campaign from the top. They still hit all of the highlights of the sales methodology (getting a champion, understanding the pain, mapping your solution, proving the ROI, finding out the competitors and differentiating and getting every department to “yes”) but they can’t follow the exact same process every time. They’re unmanageable. I’m unmanageable. We’re chaotic by nature. But in the end they know how to put the big wins on the board. They can smell the person who holds the purse strings in a company and how to gain access to them. They inspire trust in the buyers and they build long-term relationships. They’re not afraid to break a few eggs along the way – nothing ventured, nothing gained.  The buyer is more loyal to the maverick than to your company.  That’s OK.

Every organization needs maverick sales people. They hit your home runs. But … they DO NOT make good sales leaders. In fact, if they work in sales they shouldn’t have anybody reporting to them. They should go for the big wins and get all the support they need. I think I made a pretty good CEO but I know I would be lousy sales manager. Maybe like somebody who could run a restaurant but wouldn’t make a great chef?  To be a great sales manager you need to get a team of people to be able to follow your sales process methodically. You need to do weekly sales team calls, regular customer calls with your team, review their pipelines with them, find out when they’re BS’ing you, produce weekly forecasts, etc. Don’t confuse your mavericks who have the innate ability to sell with a potential VP of Sales that will need to run your team. The difference is PROCESS ORIENTATION.

Mavericks do work well in early-stage companies and are probably your best bet for you first hire or two. You need somebody who can lead evangelic sales and get referenceable clients that can be marketed later when you have your journeymen.

3. Superstars - These, as the name implies, are the rare breed of individuals who have the innate ability to sell and are very structured and process oriented. You get all the benefits of a maverick but with more reliability and predictability. You also get somebody who can work well with leverage. They’re able to manage and therefore harness the power of many journeymen to consistently deliver your sales numbers. I generally think that superstars are not the first people to hire in a startup. The best of them will require too much money and will be working for somebody else managing a team AND carrying a bag. Superstars are best to hire once you’ve got your product/market fit, proven your product will sell, hired a maverick and a few journeymen and now need to bring in leadership and structure to enable you to scale more quickly and predictably. If you found the right person who is a superstar and is ready to join your early-stage business I wouldn’t kick them to the curb. But … I question if they’re really a superstar if they’re willing to work for you at a super early stage. Have to ask yourself why. Or whether you have the wrong read on them.

4. Trouble – If you interview somebody who doesn’t seem like they’re religiously process-driven / can take good direction and if you don’t have the feeling that they could sell ice to the Eskimos then don’t hire them. They will not succeed at sales. Enough said.

In life I’ve found it useful to have little frameworks to try and interpret the world through.  They don’t always apply 100% of the time but they’re a useful way to shorthand.  The Journeymen, Mavericks and Superstars matrix has always suited me well and has stood the test of time.

Thank you to the lovely Jacqui for helping me with the Balsamiq mockup graphic.  LOVING Balsamiq!

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O'Horo

    I'm generally a fan of your blog and thinking, Mark, but, having trained senior lawyers and other sales-reluctant professionals how to facilitate multi-stakeholder, high-stakes decision processes for 20 years, I've gotta disagree strongly with your nature/nurture position. Ironically, it's your belief in process that undermines your argument that “most great sales people have an innate skill that can’t be taught.” The skill resides not in the individual traits of the practitioners, but is baked into the integrity of the decision process and how well it aligns with, and evokes, buyers' self-interest.

    Superstars are, by definition, scarce. Even pro sports teams, with their almost limitless money and with entire organizations focused solely on identifying and attracting stars, know they can't get them on demand but will, hopefully, get lucky and find one occasionally. I've heard them described as “super-experts,” i.e., roughly 3% of the population. That kind of scarcity precludes your planning on hiring and keeping one, much less a few.

    Reliable results depend on having a methodology that doesn't require good people to be great, but consistently good, and doesn't require your company to, in the words of the Gallup Organization, “fix people.” IMO, the right process allows OK salespeople to become good, good ones to become great, and great ones to become artists.

    If we can get dramatic results out of people who were not only not good at selling but affirmatively didn't want to have to do it, it would be fun to generate big revenue out of people who've actually chosen sales as how they make their living.

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O'Horo

    I'm generally a fan of your blog and thinking, Mark, but, having trained senior lawyers and other sales-reluctant professionals how to facilitate multi-stakeholder, high-stakes decision processes for 20 years, I've gotta disagree strongly with your nature/nurture position. Ironically, it's your belief in process that undermines your argument that “most great sales people have an innate skill that can’t be taught.” The skill resides not in the individual traits of the practitioners, but is baked into the integrity of the decision process and how well it aligns with, and evokes, buyers' self-interest.

    Superstars are, by definition, scarce. Even pro sports teams, with their almost limitless money and with entire organizations focused solely on identifying and attracting stars, know they can't get them on demand but will, hopefully, get lucky and find one occasionally. I've heard them described as “super-experts,” i.e., roughly 3% of the population. That kind of scarcity precludes your planning on hiring and keeping one, much less a few.

    Reliable results depend on having a methodology that doesn't require good people to be great, but consistently good, and doesn't require your company to, in the words of the Gallup Organization, “fix people.” IMO, the right process allows OK salespeople to become good, good ones to become great, and great ones to become artists.

    If we can get dramatic results out of people who were not only not good at selling but affirmatively didn't want to have to do it, it would be fun to generate big revenue out of people who've actually chosen sales as how they make their living.

  • zebedeefranklin

    Great post Mark. Speaking as someone who has worked at the coalface of sales first in bookselling retail (10 years) then corporate hospitality (4 years), followed by last 5 years in technolgy startups, I would consider myself a maverick and would add, that a maverick is not often appreciated or even understood – mavericks by their very nature do not like to be tied down by endless procedures – they use their intuition, experience, take risks to unearth the nuggets of intelligence that can provide the edge for their clients – the workings out are not always clear to see at the beginning, but they provide the essentail platform for others to build on – the journeyman and superstars – mavericks can give you the edge but you have to trust them

  • zebedeefranklin

    Great post Mark. Speaking as someone who has worked at the coalface of sales first in bookselling retail (10 years) then corporate hospitality (4 years), followed by last 5 years in technolgy startups, I would consider myself a maverick and would add, that a maverick is not often appreciated or even understood – mavericks by their very nature do not like to be tied down by endless procedures – they use their intuition, experience, take risks to unearth the nuggets of intelligence that can provide the edge for their clients – the workings out are not always clear to see at the beginning, but they provide the essentail platform for others to build on – the journeyman and superstars – mavericks can give you the edge but you have to trust them

  • http://www.springunited.co.uk Zebedee Franklin

    Brilliant summary Brent – if your product has nor elevanve or value to the buyer, greatest salesman on earth isn't going to change that – neither is great saleman of any type going to expose his black book of contacts to shoddy product – the contacts you have painstakingly built up, come at a price – start-ups especially need to realise this – they ain't special and many are too lazy or cluless to even speak to customers in the first place, to find out if their product, service or idea is even valuable or relavant to the market -

  • http://www.springunited.co.uk Zebedee Franklin

    Brilliant summary Brent – if your product has nor elevanve or value to the buyer, greatest salesman on earth isn't going to change that – neither is great saleman of any type going to expose his black book of contacts to shoddy product – the contacts you have painstakingly built up, come at a price – start-ups especially need to realise this – they ain't special and many are too lazy or cluless to even speak to customers in the first place, to find out if their product, service or idea is even valuable or relavant to the market -

  • http://twitter.com/amitseshan Amit Seshan

    Excellent post – I saw this just after your VP Engg Vs CTO 2X2 matrix. The net-net across them together is the process orientation… if we look across both matrices, early stage startups (a) CAN WORK with both technology visionaries, and maverick salespeople, but not with their spark-devoid process-heavy versions (which you describe with “pejorative” metaphors) and (b) MUST GROW UP to transition out these sparky but unreliable “commando” types with more disciplined “brigadier general” types. I guess that is the point at which a VC pitches in to rewire the team.

    I must say, though, that I feel your Engg matrix (the analogue of the above, with CTO Vs VP of engg) should probably invert its Y Axis, to put CTOs top right. You have not used these “metaphors” there (with their innate “status” pejorative and superlative attributes) – so the visual metaphor is more educative.

    Keep 'em coming. Cheers!

  • http://twitter.com/amitseshan Amit Seshan

    Excellent post – I saw this just after your VP Engg Vs CTO 2X2 matrix. The net-net across them together is the process orientation… if we look across both matrices, early stage startups (a) CAN WORK with both technology visionaries, and maverick salespeople, but not with their spark-devoid process-heavy versions (which you describe with “pejorative” metaphors) and (b) MUST GROW UP to transition out these sparky but unreliable “commando” types with more disciplined “brigadier general” types. I guess that is the point at which a VC pitches in to rewire the team.

    I must say, though, that I feel your Engg matrix (the analogue of the above, with CTO Vs VP of engg) should probably invert its Y Axis, to put CTOs top right. You have not used these “metaphors” there (with their innate “status” pejorative and superlative attributes) – so the visual metaphor is more educative.

    Keep 'em coming. Cheers!

  • KarenBordner

    Sorry Kid, but most great sales people AREN't gregarious because they spend their time listening to the customer, and therefore matching the customers needs with the product they are selling. Some of the WORST sales people are the talkers. You don't earn trust by talking but by asking questions, listening and getting the job done, including “breaking a few eggs along the way.” Superstar sales people know when to break a few eggs, when to back off, and when to hold their accounts feet to the fire whether because of process, or to protect profit margin. You don't get this in any “sales academy” or blogging/blabbing about how great you are, but by experience, listening, and doing.