Whether you’re a startup, scale-up or grown-up, there is always room for improvement. And no matter what stage you’re in, the pitfalls are more common than you might think. Sales consultant and startup coach Olivier de Ruyver talks about his experiences working with startups, scale-ups and corporates and shares tips and quick wins for sales, identifying your clients and customers and the process of hiring the right people.
Olivier de Ruyver has more than 20 years of experience, working with companies like RTL, DELL, Philips, De Persgroep, Catawiki, Jellow, Funda and Parkos, to name just a few. He also coaches startups for Collider, an international accelerator program focussed on technology startups in marketing, advertising and media, based in Amsterdam and London. De Ruyver also coaches startups for Founded in Friesland, Founded in Groningen and OCO (Entrepreneurs Coaching Entrepreneurs). De Ruyver’s area of expertise is sales, from strategy, process and tools, to recruiting and managing teams.
The why, what & how
“What I really love about my work, is figuring out quick wins to help companies of all shapes and sizes grow and increase their revenue”, de Ruyver says. “No matter what stage a company is in, there is always room for improvement. The startups that I coach and work with have usually done a pretty good job at figuring out the why and the what, but it’s really the how that could use some work. And that’s where I come in. Things like a good sales strategy, pricing, identifying the right customers, hiring the right sales people. I also help with the overall sales performance, based on smart KPIs and OKRs.”
“And for the scale-ups and corporates I work with, it’s also about the how, but usually more on the operational side. You look at how you can optimize company processes and workflows, hiring, building and coaching good sales teams, implementing a CRM and help them rethink why they do things in a certain way. I mostly work with tech, SaaS and media companies, and many of their problems and pitfalls are the same, really.”
Identifying your customers
“One of the challenging things with any startup early on is that, being a founder, you’re wearing multiple hats at the same time”, de Ruyver says. “CTO, CFO, CMO, you’re doing a little bit of everything. Your time is valuable and limited and the money is tight in the beginning. It feels like you’re constantly running. More clients, more growth and doing that as fast as you can. So what I do is tell startups to stop running for a second and look at whether you’re running in the right direction. Acquisition is tricky if you have limited means and a small network and that’s part of the struggle in the beginning.”
“A common pitfall is not identifying your real customers. You need to know your product. Not in terms of how it works, but how it helps your customers and what type of customer would benefit most from your product. Another one is pricing. Having a lot of customers is great, but do you have the time and capacity to handle that many? Or is it better to have less customers paying more, but with a slower sale-cycle? It’s about focusing on either high volume, low margin or high margin, low volume. The two have very different sales strategies and approaches, and trying to do a little bit of both just doesn’t work.”
Landing and keeping your customers
“A lot of the startups I work with tend to want to jump straight to enterprise customers, because that’s where the money is. And while that’s true sometimes, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to land a big corporate. It will take you about six months, up to a year, to land a customer like that. And they also tend to be very demanding, so that’s a long time before you get paid, with a lot of effort.
You could try starting one step below enterprise and finding the right mix while you work on landing the big one. Or offer something like a freemium model. Sure, it’ll cost money, but being able to communicate that you have a big corporate as a customer, makes it easier to get traction and land others. And what startups tend to forget: who’s in charge of customer relations? Sometimes you get so caught up in landing customers that you forget to take care of the ones you already have. You don’t want to lose them, of course.”
Your startup is gaining momentum and growing, so now it’s time to hire new people. Sounds easy in theory, but according to de Ruyver, recruitment is actually one of the most highly underestimated aspects of scaling up: “For a startup, it’s absolutely crucial to hire the right people early on, especially when we’re talking about something like an account manager. Recruiting is a very costly and time consuming process, and you definitely don’t want to end up hiring the wrong person because that could end up killing your startup. You simply don’t have the money and time to make a mistake like that and start over.”
“And there are also a number of problems and pitfalls, to make things more challenging”, de Ruyver continues. “First off, you’re a new company and relatively unknown. There are lots and lots of other companies that are also hiring and they can probably offer a far more competitive salary than you can. The other thing is that the vast majority of startup founders have no experience in hiring people, conducting job interviews or knowing what questions to ask. And if there’s one thing all salespeople have in common, whether they’re good or bad, is that they’re great at telling you what you want to hear. So you may think you’ve just hired a winner, but you probably haven’t.”
So what should startups do about that? “They should hire an expert. A recruitment agency is probably too expensive and also not very relevant at this stage, but you could ask around in your network and find someone to help out, or hire someone who knows how to conduct interviews.”
A winning team and smooth operations
In working with scale-ups, de Ruyver’s efforts tend to be more on the operational side. “They’re already doing pretty good in terms of revenue and have maybe 40 people working there, so it becomes about looking at a scale-up’s internal structure and processes. Things like the sales funnel not being clear enough for example. Or not having a demo on the website. And when you have 20 or more people working for you, using data becomes much more important. Sometimes they don’t have things like monitoring tools, dashboards to measure and check revenue or sales performance, so I often help build models to get a good forecast and pipeline overview.”
“And on the people side, you need a clearly defined recruitment process. I always say, if you want to compete in the Champion’s League, you need a winning team. Professionalizing your team is so important. Monitoring performance, good coaching and training will pay for itself, because you’ll have a motivated sales team who know what they’re doing and can get you new customers, as well as getting more out of existing ones.”
Quick wins, big impact
Having worked with companies of all shapes and sizes, what would be some personal career highlights? “Working with Parkos was an absolute joy. Like with many startups growing into scale-ups, it was about looking at the internal structure and processes and professionalizing the sales team. By fine tuning things across the board, implementing an international sales strategy, for example. Just seeing how slight changes here and there can have a big impact and immediate results, that’s really great to see. And it was also great to help bring in the first big clients, going to Rome and get the airport as a customer, getting traction and momentum because of that, and then getting the airports of Milan and Venetia on board. Things are tough now because of the pandemic, but I sincerely hope we can pick things up after it’s all over.”
“Catawiki was also a great challenge. I came on board as the Head of Sales in 2015, when they landed the $82M investment from Lead Edge Capital. There wasn’t a really clear pricing model and sales strategy at the time and I was in charge of building an international sales team, both internal and external. Over the course of the next 10 months, we hired so many people. I interviewed probably more than 100 sales candidates, to hire almost 40 International account managers. It was a great challenge and also great to be part of a company that’s growing really fast.”
“As for working with corporates, it’s kind of funny, because the same thing I always hear when I suggest changes is: ‘That’s a great idea and I’m sure that works well for other companies, but we do things a certain way here and it wouldn’t work for us.’ But you know, when you do things a certain way for a long time, it’s very difficult to take a step back and look at how you can do things differently. That’s where I can add real value and, as a team, improve both performance and efficiency.