Dear SaaStr: If you were hiring a head of sales for a high-priced, niche B2B SaaS product, would you focus on general B2B SaaS sales experience or on market/customer knowledge, assuming it will be very difficult to find a candidate with both?

This is the scenario when the trade-off is the most acute.

Imagine you are selling a $100,000+ product and you yourself as CEO/founders have limited knowledge selling to the customer base. You’ll be very tempted to hire someone with a seemingly magical rolodex.

What doesn’t work for sure is hiring someone with (x) no domain expertise who also (y) has also only sold small (e.g, $10k) deals. That’s a Double No.

But as the deals get bigger, the value of domain expertise in the early part of a reps tenure does go up.

Because reps with a lot of industry experience in bigger deals don’t always quite have the rolodex they claim — but they often can bring you at least 1 or 2 strong leads. At $1k a year, so what? But at $250k a year, those two ringers can more than justify the hire.

  • So my vote is to try both in the early days, if the ACV is large. Hire the best AE you can find with deep industry experience and see if she can quickly bring in 1–2 strong, qualified opportunities from her network. Even if she isn’t great for your company at this stage … those 1–2 deals may be.
  • And also hire the best AE you can find just with general experience at your price point. You’ll end up hiring a “better” rep here because you won’t cut her or him slack for the domain expertise.

See who does better. Maybe both perform.

But to summarize:

#1. Most complex vertical SaaS start-ups I’ve worked with haven’t made their first 1-2 sales reps successful unless they have domain expertise.  Not all, but most.

So be wary of hiring generic B2B reps into your early-stage, complex vertical B2B SaaS.  No matter how compelling the brand seems to be.


#2. When it Comes Time to Hire a VP of Sales, If It’s Complex Vertical SaaS, They At Least Have to Quickly Become a Domain Expert.  And this is generally impossible if the last product they sold was a less complex sale.

For highly transactional sales, ignore this advice. Too many leads, too much velocity, for the rolodex to matter. And domain expertise without a rolodex? You can pick that up in 60 days.

But running a quick experiment on if a seasoned AE can bring in 1–2 big names, at least as far as a qualified opportunity? It’s not that expensive, not really.

Just judge the experiment fairly quickly, and make sure The Other AE you hire is even stronger. Don’t just hire one. More on that here:…

A related post here:

Field Sales: When Domain Expertise Can Help. Just Don’t Over-Index On It.


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