Product management · Sales

Do product management and sales teams generally work well together at early stage companies?

Ryan Dodds Product Manager at Sparkcentral

April 10th, 2015

I've been thinking about how product teams and sales teams work together at early stage ventures recently and I'm curious to hear other people's experiences. I've seen two examples: Assistly (custserv startup) where I was on the sales side and iMatchative (fintech startup) where I was on the product side. Assistly did a good (not great) job of working with sales. At iMatchative, the sales/product relationship was poor. Assistly had pretty strong product-market fit and and iMatchative did not. What has been your experience? If productive, how? if not so productive, why not? Thanks!

David Kurtz Chief Product Officer at Opera Mediaworks

April 10th, 2015

They better work well together or you're going to be in serious trouble.

In my experience, at an early stage, Product should act as Sales Engineers/Support for the company. That has two major benefits:
  • They get direct feedback from the market by being in meetings and hearing how clients react to the product (rather than it being 2nd-hand through Sales reports). This allows good product people to see the gaps in product-market fit and build features and new products that address those gaps.
  • They personally experience the pain any gaps create and have a personal incentive to fix those pain points.
That role can persist quite a while, I still use it at some level even once scaled out.

Not all PMs can play this role equally effectively, given that it requires external contact...but all PMs should aspire to be able to play that role and it's going to help them round out their skill set.

Vincent Roazzi Principal at JPM Partners, LLC

April 10th, 2015

Like David above I too have been on both sides of the equation. The sales team can be very valuable in making a product, even a great product, more desirable. If a PM is wise he will attend sales meetings periodically and interview the top producers individually. The only understandable caution I would make is to remember that a salesperson will usually make the suggestions that will make the sale easier, but not necessarily as or more profitable. This is where a relationship with the sales manager becomes most valuable as s/he better understands the entire equation. Best of Luck!  

Rodrigo Vaca Product & Marketing

April 10th, 2015

Ryan -

I think this is an excellent topic. There are many philosophies out there, and it depends on which one you subscribe to.

If you subscribe to/believe in the "Lean Startup" thinking, you'll agree that the role of a start up is to validate an idea. Validating the idea is hard work and will require the "sales" aspect of it.

However, if iMatchative had not achieved product-market fit and they already had a sales department....that makes me wonder. Many people (particularly engineer-minded people) think of sales as guys who get business based on relationships and playing golf. That is rarely the case. Sales is about building a repeatable process that takes leads at the top of the funnel and converts those leads into customers and revenue. But you can only build that if you have product-market fit.

So, if a company that hasn't achieved product-market fit has a "sales department" like it was a fortune-500 company instead of the CEO/founder/product-guy/lead-engineer being directly involved talking with those prospects... seems that's just asking for trouble.


Peter] Peter Jones creates solutions for product USP, market messaging, team building, venture and other commercial capital

April 10th, 2015

I think you are answering your own question when you point out a poor product market fit.

A good sales team will always struggle to sell a poor product. Customers today are pretty savvy, won't be hectored into buying as they once would, and certainly won't recommend poor product to friends.

The journey to good sales actually starts with decent market research, and key identification of who target customers are.

It's very easy to say all the above, but much harder work to actually do it. But once done, it makes the lives of sales teams much, much easier.

Find the great products, and sales will look after themselves, given even only fair management.

Jesse Landry

April 11th, 2015

Considering the stage of the company, they should work well together as there won't be any silos or layers to contend with.

Both product and sales (I'll assume this is one person on each side) will be working in pretty tight proximity to one another and each other's ideas and feedback are going to be critical to the overall mission of the startup...

Early stage, it is all hands on deck and if product and sales can't gel in the beginning, what happens should the company scale? Friction! That is never good....

Mike Rozlog Advisor at TechColumbus

April 11th, 2015

I have found that the sales need to be "Hunters" and not "gatherers" they are going to be making first contact, they will be trying the message and seeing what sticks.  It is up to product management to learn how to talk to them and work with them to refine the message and delivery.  I have found that "gatherers" will not have try to additional questions, or try to dig and they usually come back and complain.  The problem with "hunters" is that they hunt and if they don't find the game they move to another territory.  It is also important that the product managers have some type of sales in their background... going out on sales calls, doing demos, surveying existing customers.  This is for early stage products going to market... it is a little different when you have an established products that is profitable.

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