Companyon Content Team / April 2, 2024 / 8 MIN READ

Driving Scalability in the Transition from Founder-Led Sales: Q&A with David McFarlane, Evan Whelchel, Jenny Vance (Part II)

Companyon Content Team / / 8 MIN READ

Driving Scalability in the Transition from Founder-Led Sales: Q&A with David McFarlane, Evan Whelchel, Jenny Vance (Part II)

For expansion stage startups looking to create a capital-efficient, repeatable, and scalable sales process, it’s critical to transition from founder-led sales to team-led sales in a way that elevates trust among prospects.

However, as sales teams at these companies often look to the founder to lead their sales strategy, they may ultimately end up struggling to implement their efforts as they lack the same level of frontline knowledge and expertise—which can have a significant negative impact on their ability to scale effectively.

This month, we sat down with sales experts David McFarlane (Operating Partner, Companyon), Evan Whelchel (CRO, Allstacks), and Jenny Vance (Founder/CEO, GrowthJen; Companyon Expansion Team Member) to chat about best practices for empowering the sales team to be just as effective as the founder—if not more so—at connecting with their audience and selling their product.



Q: Why is transitioning away from founder-led sales “mission-critical” as described in our last post

David McFarlane: A big part of it is that the whole organization, if you’re not careful, can have a tendency to just rely on the CEO because they do such a great job. They have all the domain knowledge, they’re so passionate about solving this problem, and they have all the authority on how to deliver on that solution. So, you find salespeople sitting back and bringing in the CEO to do the pitch. That’s happening at the very beginning of the funnel and it’s just not scalable when you’ve got to significantly expand your breadth and touch.

Jenny Vance: What I’ve seen in founder-led sales is that the founder is usually selling off of industry expertise, which builds a lot of trust. They often win despite the sales process that’s in place, and so they get this false belief that they’re great at sales when really, they’re very good at selling their product. But in the context of scalable patterns, sales skills, and techniques—they’re not using those. So, when a salesperson does come in without that knowledge and tries to use the sales skills, the trust established doesn’t carry over. And that’s where we start to see that falter. 


Q: How can organizations more effectively lead this transition without sacrificing sales opportunities? 

Jenny: The big key is this transition of knowledge at the right points. And what I’ve seen the most success with is starting at the top of the funnel, where there’s high volume and the least complexity—that’s what I try to transition knowledge around first. I keep moving down the funnel, which also turns our founder’s ad hoc involvement in the sales process into a power position, instead of us giving away the power of founder involvement in our first call, which can hurt our sales process downstream.

Evan Welchel: I would say the ultimate goal would be to make the CEO or the founder the escalation point—the real gravitas to bring in at the end. Optically, it helps you—especially if you’re selling into enterprise or moving up the market—to say, “Hey, the CEO is not going to take the first discovery call.” They can, and they’re probably the best at it, but the reality is that getting access to them needs to be warranted. 

It’s all about how you present yourself in the market. You may be a 30-person company, but you don’t have to look like a 30-person company. It’s extremely important for a company, as they mature, to remove that complete, easy access to executives and use it as an escalation point. That resonates really well with prospects over time, and it also makes your company look more credible. 

David: Part of the art form here is helping an organization to not try to do exactly what you may have done as the founder and the CEO, but helping it learn how to sell this product or service so that you can deliver it in a scalable form that isn’t dependent solely on your unique knowledge and expertise.


Q: What does this look like in practice? 

David: The first thing that you need to do is find a way to get all of the founder’s amazing knowledge, passion, and insight that has been at the forefront into a professional sales team—even into bots and an AI interface—in order to be able to engage the customer really successfully. That’s where I think conversational AI tools really come in, because they can help you go through that process of capturing and transitioning, which allows a CEO to engage asynchronously to the process. You can be in the meeting without being in the meeting. 

Through this technology, you can even intervene in real time if you want, but also understand what is being done successfully—and what is not—to help coach your team and move your involvement away from the very top of the funnel toward the end of the process, where you can be more useful and scalable. 

Jenny: When we think about this in the context of our revenue funnel, I want to start first by ensuring that the founder is not involved heavily in prospecting. Maybe they have to help with transitioning knowledge for pattern development and template design that helps get people started—but they need that volume off of their plate pretty quickly, because they can’t manage that as a founder. 

Then, they should focus on the next stage of the funnel and start to transition out of demos. What’s interesting to me is that we often see founders try to get out of the whole sales process all at once, but there has to be a transition plan in place. 

Evan: Any time you can replace a real-time call with a customer and give them the ability to learn asynchronously, you don’t have to block out time where you could be doing a new demo or following up with a new prospect or doing enablement on a trial—that’s critical, especially when you have a small team. 

Your high-value resources should be focused on pipeline progression and running the process and moving opportunities through the sales cycle. Those are your higher cost resources because of the competence required. And those should be focused purely on the closing motion whereas you can use things like asynchronous tools to focus on lower value activities like that but still have the same effect. 


Q: How do people in sales organizations or companies create that culture of trust where more entry-level sales people can be empowered to interface with higher-level prospects? 

Evan: I have a relatively controversial opinion on this—I am a firm believer that the way software or product is sold has changed dramatically. I don’t think it’s sold anymore. I think it’s bought. And those are two very different words.

The reality is, there has to be some sort of credibility. How many times have we all been prospected where the BDR doesn’t understand the first thing about the business and it’s very generic? We focus heavily on enablement with the sales team. 

They need to know the ecosystem, they need to know the problems they’re trying to solve and bring credibility in order to have a value-based conversation. They don’t have to know everything, but they just have to be able to bring the right people in at the right time who can help solve that problem. 

Jenny: When we look at that knowledge transition for the sales closer, many times there’s a belief that they have to know the answers to be credible—that’s not true. They have to create the belief that they can find the answers and that the company has the answers, as we are a whole entity that is working together. That’s the bridge. You have to enable them to be the person that can help the prospect find the answers, and that puts them in a position of power and establishing trust.

David: Active listening is such a critical part of this, which can sometimes play into the fact that your CEO and founder may not be the best salesperson if they don’t always actively listen. They think they have the answer—and they’re pretty convinced of that, or they wouldn’t have built the company. Sometimes they’re not picking up on really important objections and issues that are higher in the mind of the customer, because they can already see what they think is the solution. 

Good salespeople aren’t going to become experts in every asset of the company. They’re experts in managing this process. They’re experts in listening, they’re experts in not just waiting for the customer to make objections, but to find those objections and those challenges along the way and find the best way to handle them. That’s their expertise.


Key Takeaways: 

Some of the most important things you can do when building out your sales team and transitioning away from founder-led sales are:

  • Lean on your sales team and their expertise at implementing scalable patterns, skills, and techniques that founders may not be skilled in 
  • When it’s time to transfer founder knowledge to the sales team, ensure that you have a transition plan in place that starts at the top of the funnel first before moving on to tackle subsequent stages 
  • Leverage your founder as the primary source of gravitas by introducing them only as an escalation point during the sales process to both improve scalability and strengthen trust 

If you found this post informative, check out our blog for more insights into the expansion stage. Our team members have been there and lived to tell the tale—now we’re here to provide advice, guidance, and insider knowledge to the next generation of startup founders.

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