The biggest mistake folks make when they go to hire a VP of Sales is hiring a top AE that's never really built a team
Being the top rep at a SaaS company, as an IC, is a great and even necessary start
But it does not remotely prepare you to be a VP of Sales on its own
— Jason ✨BeKind✨ Lemkin ⚫️ (@jasonlk) December 4, 2020
Over the past years at SaaStr, we’ve summarized a lot of VP-level hiring decisions down to one strategic choice: do you (x) pick a Stretch VP, one that hasn’t quite done it before, a Director of Sales to be your VP of Sales, etc. …. or (y) do you pick someone that has the Perfect LinkedIn, and has seemingly done it all, a proven VP of Sales to do it once again (again, seemingly), at your startup?
The choice in reality is often not a choice, but rather an illusion. Because the perfect candidate, even if they really exist, isn’t going to join your start-up. Not until you are Uipath, or Canva, or Algolia, or whatever the next super hot startup is. So that perfect LinkedIn, that seemingly perfect VP experience … well that candidate if they’ll join you is usually either a wash-out, or someone that never really did it.
So for 90% of you, a Stretch VP is better than someone that is or seems more seasoned, but hasn’t really done it. Not at your stage at least.
A few classic posts on that “choice” here. They are pretty good and each worth a read:
- If You are Going to Hire a Stretch VP — Do It Early
- The Benefits of Hiring a Stretch VP — And The Risks
- How to Succeed as a First Time VP of Sales
But now we are getting into Year 12+ of the bull run, and the choice has evolved. Everything is overheated. So the question many founders are now faced with is not just to make a Stretch VP Hire … but whether to risk a Double Stretch Hire. A VP candidate stretching 2+ levels up the experience ladder. Typical examples are:
- A top individual sales exec with no management experience wanting to be a VP of Sales.
- A director of marketing experienced in one area (e.g., corporate marketing or growth hacking) insisting on being your CMO.
- A customer success leader that was good at upsells — which is sort of, but not really, sales — that insists on being your VP of Sales.
- A director of sales with some team management experience that wants to be your CRO, and own the entire number, including renewals, success, everything.
- A top SDR that wants to skip the AE part and be your Director of Sales.
- Etc. etc. etc.
You can feel like you are in a tough spot when one of these candidates seems super-talented and pushes you hard for the title, and more importantly, the role. It’s so hard to find anyone great, and these days, competition for talent is the fiercest of all time. The simplest risk to take is often to just hire a “double-stretch” and hope for the best.
I wish I could tell you I’ve seen this work out. But really, I haven’t — with just a few exceptions. Those exceptions are where you have time. If you hire a double-stretch candidate super early, e.g. at 10 or 20 customers … there is time. A double-stretch “business leader” can have 18-24 months to evolve into your VP of Sales, if she joins on Day 30. The same with a double-stretch marketing leader. Time helps them grow 2 steps up the management ladder.
But outside of very early-stage start-ups, or relatively slowly growing start-ups, there’s rarely time. You’ll hit a wall in 6 months when their first hires don’t work out (their first hires almost never are great, since they’ve never hired anyone great before themselves), or they struggle to manage areas they have no experience in (they fake it, and then it bites them). So the general rule of if you are going to stretch, then stretch early — doubly applies for double stretches. Maybe try a super-stretch in Year 1 of revenue, for the company as a whole or for a new product line. But after that, it’s tough.
OK besides a blanket Don’t Ever Do Double Stretches Except in Year One, what’s another idea, SaaStr? One other. Start with the Paypal-style of a “barrel” role. Most of us try to make these stretch and super-stretch hires the “Head of” something as a hack to bridge an experience gap, and that’s OK, but it doesn’t really solve the fundamental issue. Which is that there will be too much pressure on them to deliver too quickly at a level that they simply can’t.
So instead, maybe get them / force them to be a Director of One Clear Thing (e.g., Inside Sales, Demand Gen, Customer Success, Outbound) At First — and tell them every 90 days, they can add one more area of ownership — if they are ready. Every 90 days for the first year, and maybe even always. This is better than an amorphous “we’ll promote you to VP when you are ready”, which won’t make any hyper-ambitious prospect happy. Instead, crisply define the ownership for the First 90 Days. And then add on to it on Day 91. That’s quick, and soon, and you can even force-rank on Day 0 what else they’d potentially own on Day 91 — provided the first 90 Days go according to schedule.
This also gives a talented double-stretch candidate a chance to walk it back at Day 90, if she’s indeed truly great … but not really ready to double-stretch. At least not yet. Double stretches tend to implode when they realize they can’t handle everything that’s been thrown at them. But if you let them wait to add to their plate until Day 91, sometimes they can just keep on plugging away in the zone where they have the most success and experience.
And finally, be it Stretch or Double-Stretch: help get them a mentor on Day 1. Give them budget (equity and cash) to find one themselves. And even better, go help them find one. Even the best stretches can start off feeling a bit .. insecure. And not sure who to ask for help, when they are dropped into a position where they are supposed to have the answers. Get them a mentor VP on Day 1 who they can talk to. This is almost always the best investment you can make to help. More on that here.
This quick snippet that is awesome on many of these points:
(note: an updated SaaStr Classic post)