For over 20 years, Stage 2 Capital LP Kevin Knieriem has been driving revenue growth and building sales teams, at both tech giants and rocketship startups. He is currently the CRO of Clari, where he has grown the team from 12 reps to 130+ quota carriers. 

Kevin joined Stage 2 Capital Operating Partner John Boucher to share his experience with early-stage founders and discuss how to establish a high-growth sales organization from day 1. 

As a startup sales leader, how did you build your organization from the ground up?

Back in 2016, Kevin was the founding CRO of Early on, his primary focus was “figuring out what segment the product was built for, determining what problem it solved, identifying who we were selling it to, and eventually, finding the right people to sell it.” 

“The solution was something most people hadn’t sold before,” Kevin says. When thinking about the first sales hires, he shares, “I had to find a seller that was super curious, had an entrepreneurial mindset, and they had to be someone that could sell to a more technical audience.”

How do you find a sales hire that can evangelize a solution into a market that might not be well-defined?

“Sellers are really good at selling, which means they’re usually good at interviewing. Our job is to sniff out if they have the substance and the key qualities we’re looking for — a presentation is a great way to examine this,” Kevin says. “I’ll provide candidates with a topic I’d like them to address, based on the company we’re at or the type of selling role they’ll have. A panel of folks will come on to see if the candidate can lead a constructive conversation of open dialogue and Q&A.” 

Kevin adds, “We’re trying to find reps that can uncover pain for customers, and then help the customers see, in a designed way, how we will alleviate their pain and produce value. A lot of that comes out in a candidate’s final presentation.”

When should a company add in different types of sales hires?

Before you can broaden the types of sales roles on your team, Kevin says you need to have a repeatable sales motion in place. Prior to that, “It's really a lot of pressure tests and you need [sales]people that will do every job — build the proposal, build the pricing, do some SDR work, etc.,” he explains.

However, when reflecting on his time at Clari, Kevin shares, “The DNA of a seller I’ve hired has not changed [since joining the team in 2018]. We’re still selling to a Head of Sales and need people who can close the experience gap between themselves and the buyer.”

Should early-stage founders spend a lot of time with their sales organization?

“It depends on the type of CEO you are. If you’re a go-to-market-based CEO, you’re naturally going to spend time in sales. If you’re an engineer, you’ll probably spend more time with the product,” Kevin says. 

Regardless, “A big part of [an early-stage team’s] job is listening to the pain in the marketplace, and helping to guide the product to meet and resolve that pain. I think a CEO can be that conduit, connecting the pain [that is often surfaced by sales] into what is built,” he adds.