What Salespeople Should Expect at a Start-up

start upsUnless you are lucky or have connections, chances are that after you graduate from college, you will probably not work at a mid-size or major corporation. Your first sales job will probably be at a start-up.

Why a start-up? Because start-ups are hungry – if not desperate – for salespeople. And depending on the industry or product line, you could earn a decent compensation package. But even if the compensation package is bad, you could gain experience, contacts and sales stats that you could leverage later for better opportunities.

Sure, you may have your eye on the big prize – a larger company. You have dreams of large paychecks, above average benefits, a 401K plan (with matching contributions from your employer), and maybe even a 2 or 3 week vacation your first year. But most sales managers at major companies would prefer hiring someone with more experience and skills than a college graduate.

Consider a start-up to be your training ground before your hit the big leagues.

But what can you expect while working at a start-up?

1). Expect to work your ass off

If you are seeking a 9 to 5 job, forget it. At a start-up, expect to work 50 to 60 hours per week. That’s a given. You will find quickly that those who try to work normal hours are not going to survive very long. And if your base salary is low, you better work long hours if you want to make up the difference in your commission or bonus package.

2). Expect high turnover and a lot of new hires

Depending on how successful your start-up becomes, expect a lot of turnover in the sales team and a lot of new hires along the way. Start-up owners constantly experiment with a different set sales managers and salespeople before they find the right mix.

3). Expect a lot of changes in your compensation package

If you are one of the lucky few to get hired in a sales position in the early stages of a start-up, you will probably find yourself striking gold in a lot of virgin sales territories or prospects – at least in the very beginning. Your sales territory will probably be enormous. Your biggest headache won’t be the number of prospects or leads you’re working on, but properly managing your time and setting priorities on which key prospects or leads to target first.

However, if your start-up is successful, you will probably see huge number of new faces coming onboard quickly. That means territories will be divided more often, and you may find yourself working in a more competitive sales environment. Don’t be surprised if your base salary changes (up or down). Don’t be surprised if your quotas change (up or down). Don’t be surprised if you commission or bonus structure changes (up or down).

In short, don’t be surprised if your compensation package goes on a rollercoaster ride until the hiring spree begins to slow down, and upper management has a better idea of how to project quotas and measure sales success.

4). Expect to wear a lot of hats

So, you think you’re being hired as a salesperson only. Wrong.

Depending on your background and skill sets, you may find yourself wearing a lot of hats in the beginning before you completely immerse yourself in sales.

You wrote for your school newspaper? You took some writing courses in college?

Congratulations – besides selling, you are now the new blogger.

You took some marketing courses in college? You read some business books?

Great – besides selling, you will also be the new marketing manager until they can either hire a permanent marketing manager, or outsource the work.

You took some online courses on how to code? You developed some websites for your friends in your spare time.

Fantastic – besides selling, you are now the new website designer.

Do you expect to get paid more for all extra skill sets? Not likely. Well, at least not for a while.

5).  Expect a lot of stress and anxiety

Long hours. Bad diet. Little or no social life. Little or no health or dental insurance.

All this adds up to a lot of stress and anxiety.

And that’s just for starters.

Don’t be surprised if the owner or managers are yelling at each other.

Don’t be surprised if your co-workers are screaming at each other.

Don’t be surprised if you’re yelling at someone.

The stress and anxiety level are also excessive because start-ups frequently change their products and services. That’s understandable. As start-ups begin doing business with clients, they will evaluate the pros and cons of their offers, and adjust along the way. In addition, they may change sales and marketing tactics.

It comes with the territory.

selling at a start-up6). Expect selling to be difficult

Selling is always tough – no matter where you work. But at a start-up, your challenges will be higher because of the following –

Working for a company with little name recognition in the market place.

Working with a crappy CRM that’s not very reliable or doesn’t have all the bells and whistles like Salesforce.com.

Working in an open environment where you have little or no privacy. (Please read my post on Open Space Offices – Good or Bad Idea?).  Yes, it’s true that many companies these days, including large corporations, are going with the open space trend. But at a start-up you probably are not going to have a lot of office space. As a result, the noise level will be louder, and you may have a difficult time concentrating. (For example, I once worked at a start-up where I always had someone facing me every day. Very nerve-racking).

Working with little or no experience IT support. If your laptop or phone suddenly doesn’t work, you may be pretty much screwed for a couple of days.

Working with little or no marketing help. Some start-ups may outsource their marketing assignments for a while, but you won’t have anyone on site to help you generate leads, and clearly develop your company’s brand.

7). Expect culture to sometimes turn into a cult

Some start-ups love to glamorize their culture with weekly company lunches, Friday happy hours, company mottoes, and mascots. But underneath that veneer of happiness and camaraderie could be a cult in the making.

(I once worked for a start-up where the motto was “play nice.” But it was anything but nice – a strange young woman kept giving me the evil eye and cold shoulder all the time. To this day I have no idea why she was angry at me. At the same company, a sales person screwed me over royalty when she left and transferred most of her good accounts to two of her friends. I ended up getting mostly terrible accounts from her. So much for “play nice.”)

Some start-up owners and sales managers love to play mind games, or insist on forced group happiness. By keeping you extremely busy, you may be blind-sided by acute favoritism or financial problems. Don’t be so overworked that you don’t see the truth in front of you.

Stay in regular touch with friends and family. Maintain some familiar routines.

Never lose sight of your true self.

8). Expect little job security

You may be the top salesperson at your company, but if the company fails, it’s game over for you.

Many start-ups are created on a wing and a pray….and on maxed out credit cards, loans from friends and relatives, and iffy investments. That’s not to say that the start-up you are working for doesn’t have a great product or service to offer.

If there’s not enough revenue coming in, you could be going out.

We all must start somewhere. Start-ups offer a great opportunity to develop your sales skills, make contacts and hopefully get a steady paycheck.

Just make sure you are going in with the right expectations.

For more advice on working at a start-up, please check out these links –

“5 Things You Should Know before Working at a Startup” by Rikki Rogers

“9 Reasons Why it Sucks Working for a Startup” by Dana Severson

Note: If you like this post, please check out my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career