Extensive Notes from SalesConf

As an engineer with no direct sales experience, I’ve always wanted to learn more about how to turn code into cash, but wasn’t sure where to start. A few months ago, I got an invite to SalesConf, an affordable sales conference with a great speaker lineup. I bit the bullet and signed up, and I’m happy to say that I learned a ton. While the conference was targeted at SaaS startups, many of the lessons are broadly applicable.

This post is a collection of my notes from the conference, which was held last Friday.


There are a lot of notes here – about 6,000 words in all – and not everyone has the time to read that much. While I think there’s a lot of value to reading the entire post, here is a summary of high-level points that came up in multiple talks:

Ok, on to the notes! If something doesn’t make sense, it’s my fault and not the speakers’.

Table of Contents

  1. How to Crush Your Sales Goals by Aaron Ross
  2. Uncovering a Treasure Trove of Sales Opportunities With Customer Data by Lincoln Murphy
  3. How To Fast Track Sales Reps To Peak Performance by Bridget Gleason
  4. Step-By-Step: $290K MRR In 14 Months by Tim Sae Koo
  5. Build A Massive Personal Brand-Powered Referral Network by Carolyn Betts
  6. Build a Hyper Targeted Lead List in 12 Minutes by Ilya Lichtenstein
  7. How to Sell a Product Before You Create It by Josh Isaak
  8. Growing B2B and SaaS Sales Teams by Armando Mann
  9. How to Write a 3m Page View Article by Nick O’Neill
  10. How Mattermark Sold Their First Million by Danielle Morrill
  11. Sales Hot Seats with Hiten ShahLincoln Murphy, and Steli Efti

How to Crush Your Sales Goals by Aaron Ross

Speaker background: Aaron spent 2002-2006 at Salesforce, where he built out the outbound prospecting team. He is also the author of Predictable Revenue.

Aaron talked about common sales mistakes and how to fix them. 

Fatal mistake #1: not having a sales system

Indicators of this mistake include high (>10% per year) churn on the sales team and/or missing your goals. You need to have a process in place, be able to describe your ideal customer, etc.

Corollary: at large companies, missing quotas is often blamed on salespeople, who are then fired and replaced. But if recruiting, training, and other processes remain the same and quota continue to be missed, the problem is with the processes, not the salespeople.

Fatal mistake #2: confusing your prospects

When people are confused by your pitch, they default to saying “no.” Don’t pitch your product as a kitchen sink or ask your prospective customers what features they want. Instead, try to understand each customer’s problems, then give a very focused, targeted pitch which makes it easy for them to make a yes/no decision. Confusion always defaults to a ‘no’ reply.

Make the pitch about what customers want. They don’t care about what you do, they care about what you can do for them. For example, don’t talk about your “scalable platform,” because a prospect won’t care; they only care that you can solve their specific problems.

Tips for improving messaging:

Fatal mistake #3: driving growth by growing the sales team

It’s less common today, but the way people used to think about growing sales was “I have 10 salespeople, and I need to double sales, so I’ll double the number of salespeople.” The real lever is lead gen. If you have great sales but terrible lead gen, you’ll struggle; if you have great lead gen, you can mess up the sales process and still succeed.

3 types of leads: seeds (word of mouth), nets (marketing), and spears (outbound sales).

Tips for word of mouth:

Tips for marketing:

Tips of outbound prospecting (Aaron’s specialty):

Fatal mistake #4: not specializing and trying to do too much

Salespeople often avoid prospecting because they’re either not good at it or don’t like it.

Over time, you want inbound and outbound salespeople who qualify leads, account execs who close sales, and customer success managers who increase the value of existing accounts.

If salespeople own the entire process, customers get horrible service because salespeople focus on deals they’re trying to close that month, and prospecting and customer success suffer.

Even if you’re at a small startup and you own the entire sales process, at least separate functions by day of the week so that you’re not neglecting anything (e.g. Tuesdays are for prospecting; Thursdays are for customer success.)

Most marketers try to do too much (webinars, events, white papers, etc). It’s better to do a few things very well instead of a lot of things poorly.

Specialization leads to predictability: you will get insights on what works and what doesn’t, better scalability for each layer, and a talent/farm team system where you can hire more junior people and help them grow into more impactful roles. You will struggle without specialization.

For some parts of the process, outsourcing can be effective if done right. See: LeadGenius and Carburetor (Aaron’s company).

Salesperson churn is usually due to unrealistic quotas, poor management, or lack of coaching. It’s rarely about compensation.

Online resources that Aaron recommended during the talk:

Uncovering a Treasure Trove of Sales Opportunities With Customer Data by Lincoln Murphy

Speaker background: Lincoln is a customer success evangelist at Gainsight, which offers products for customer success management. He also has a great blog called SaaS Growth Strategies.

Tip #1: Even if you don’t have enough customers for meaningful data right now, you need to start collecting now.

Tip #2: Focus on your ideal customer. Founders are often afraid to do this because they have a fear of missing out on other customers, but in the early days, you don’t have the resources to handle everyone, so you may as well be choosy.

Ideal customers have 7 key attributes: ready to buy, willing to buy, able to buy, will get value/success out of using your product, profitable (you can make money off of selling to them), have expansion/upsell potential, and have advocacy potential. Lincoln focused on the last 4 attributes during his talk.

General methodology for finding ideal customers:

  1. Determine what situation you’re solving for (e.g. potential customers who will refer others or sign a contract quickly or pay a lot.)
  2. Get access to your customer data.
  3. Find existing customers who match your situational criteria.
  4. Look at all of the data you have for those customers: which product features do they use? What industries are they in? How many employees do they have?
  5. Look for patterns among customers who match the profile you’re looking for.
  6. Use those patterns to find new customers who match your profile.
  7. Profit!

Basically, find your most successful customers, then try to find more customers who are just like them.

Different types of customers, and the patterns that reveal them:

In general, customer success is a prerequisite for each of these customer types. That is, if customers are not getting value out of your product, they are not going to increase their spending, advocate for you, or be profitable for very long.

How To Fast Track Sales Reps To Peak Performance by Bridget Gleason

Speaker background: Bridget is VP of Sales at Yesware, which offers email-based tools that make salespeople more efficient and more effective. 

Everyone wants to be a peak performer, but how do you increase each person’s probability of success?

5 things to think about as you create your system and assemble your team: 

Ideal sales reps

Just like you expect salespeople to know ideal customer profiles, you should know the ideal sales rep profile (which might change over time). For your first hire, the ideal rep is probably someone who is both a great individual contributor and a great team builder – not just one of the two.

Strong onboarding program

You can’t just hire people and then expect them to hit the ground running. You should have a training plan for making reps more successful. This plan can include content you create, or a collection of public content like blog posts and videos. Regardless, you shouldn’t expect people to come in and just ‘figure it out’. You don’t have to teach people everything at the beginning, but you need to provide enough for them to get started.

Clear expectations

New reps should know what to expect in terms of what they’ll be working on, their works hours, quotas and goals, attitudes, etc.

Team involvement

Involve the rest of your team in onboarding (via training, mentorship, social events, etc). The more the whole team is involved, the more everyone feels vested in the entire team’s success.

Commitment to the system

Onboarding is not a one time event, it’s an ongoing commitment.


Q: Thoughts on commission-only vs. commission + salary?

A: Not a fan of commission-only because people aren’t as committed. In the early days, when there’s less predictability in the sales process, might need to pay higher base and less commission. Over time, shift to lower base and higher commission. Bridget favors people who prefer more commission because they are betting on themselves. At her previous company, Engine Yard, new hires were given a choice of taking more salary or more commission. (Personal note: this is like engineers often having a choice between more salary or more equity.)

Step-By-Step: $290K MRR In 14 Months by Tim Sae Koo

Speaker background: Tim is the CEO of Tint, which lets you display social feeds anywhere.

Path to $290k MRR (and lessons learned along the way):

Tint’s sales tech stack/process:

Tricks for scaling up:

Build A Massive Personal Brand-Powered Referral Network by Carolyn Betts

Speaker background: Carolyn founded Betts Recruiting, which helps companies hire sales and marketing people.

After you attend a conferences or event: prioritize your follow-ups, make the follow-ups personal, and invite people out socially to form deeper relationships.

Have a strong online presence:

Build a Hyper Targeted Lead List in 12 Minutes by Ilya Lichtenstein

Speaker background: Ilya is the cofounder/CEO of MixRank, which helps sales teams automate lead prospecting (i.e. find new customers).

MixRank has grown dramatically over the last year. Ilya talked about how the company did that while spending time on sales, but not on marketing.

Main theme: you don’t need marketing when you’re starting out. If you have a product that costs more than a few hundred dollars per month, you don’t need marketing, but you will need sales. Blog posts or SEO are helpful, but they’re not required. In fact, at a typical company, 80+% of closed deals come from sales, not marketing.

In the past, qualifying criteria included attributes like job title, company size, location, and firmographics. Today, it’s also possible to use tech signals (what technologies does a company use?), social signals (who are they connected to?), fundraising signals, user activity (in freemium/trial product), etc.

The traditional way to qualify a lead is linear: go through a list of leads and qualify them one-by-one. Today, you can take a more lateral approach: find reasons to say ‘no’ to most prospects and only focus on the perfect customers. When you’re big, you want to add as many customers as possible. When you’re small, you don’t have enough bandwidth to sell to everyone, so just focus on the customers who are the lowest hanging fruit/the easiest to sell to. You can address other customers as your team grows.

Think about who your ideal customers are, then figure out what they have in common. Some company attributes to consider: industry, location, funding level, and technologies used. Purchase attributes: seniority, title, and dpeartment. To generate more ideas, first look at common attributes among your own customers, then among your competitors’ customers, then among your partners’ customers.

Use Google’s advanced search operators to search LinkedIn for new leads. Google shows more results and allows you to do searches that you wouldn’t be able to do directly on LinkedIn. Examples:


Q: How do you find someone’s email address?

A: Use Google/Twitter searches to find people at the same email domain and see what kind of email address convention they use. Then try that convention for other names at the same domain. toofr is a handy tool for this kind of stuff. 

How to Sell a Product Before You Create It by Josh Isaak

Speaker background: Josh used to own a brick and mortar business, then went into consulting, then recently moved into SaaS where he has successfully pre-sold products before building them.

Most businesses fail because they build something that’s not wanted. Often, they start building too early and start selling when it’s too late. One solution is to sell something before it exists.

Two key topics covered in the talk: believe you can sell something before you write a single line of code; apply this process to create your first product, or to add new products to your business.

The process:

1) Ideas

Ideas come from problems. Good ideas come from problems of people who have lots of money for solutions.

So, pick a market that has people with money (dentists, engineers, etc.), and ask those people about their problems. You can just call or email them. You can use a very simple script like: “Hey, I saw your website and really liked ______. My name is ______ and I’m reaching out because I’m doing research on what problems lawyers are facing. Can you tell me about a challenge that you face? I’d love to hear back, even if it’s just once sentence.” 

Email dozens of people a day until you have enough data.

If you already have a company, ask your current customers about their problems.

2) Validation

Is the problem you’re thinking of solving universal? Keep emailing and talking to more people until you’re sure the answer is ‘yes’.

3) Pre-sell validation

This is scary =).

Remember that you have to deliver if pre-selling works!

How do you presell? 1) build a wireframe, 2) get feedback from potential user, 3) tweak wireframe, 4) go back to user, 5) ask them if they want to join as an early adopter. (Note: users know they’re looking at wireframes and not an actual product.)

For wire-framing, Josh uses Keynotopia. For demos, he uses join.me and Skype.

After incorporating feedback, invite users to pre-pay to become early adopters. Given them incentives like the ability to be involved in product development and discounted pricing for life. Offer bigger discounts and incentives for longer up-front contracts. For example, you might offer 6-, 12-, and 24-month contracts at 30% off the retail price. If someone signs up for the 12- or 24-month plans, you will give them an additional 2-4 months free. Note that the discount is for life – the value of great customer advocates is worth more than the lost revenue.

When you’re pre-selling, explain that you want customers to pay so that they can be committed to the product and to giving good feedback, and because pre-selling helps you fund product development. You can also offer a guarantee (e.g. refund within 3 months for any reason.)

4) Launch!

First, launch to early adopters and build up case studies. Next, launch to the public. Josh has done this twice now (with clinicmetrics.com and clinicrise.com), and both products were funded with pre-sales.


Q: Beta customers often want different features, so how do you avoid feature creep?

A: This works best if you target people in the same industry or with same problem.

Growing B2B and SaaS Sales Teams by Armando Mann

Speaker background: Armando build out sales teams at Google, Dropbox, and RelateIQ.

3 parts to this talk: defining your sales process, measuring success, and maximizing success.

Part 1: Defining your sales process

Guiding principles at RelateIQ:

Part 2: Measuring success

  1. Measure key milestones (e.g. what makes someone a lifetime customer?)
  2. Isolate leading indicators for those milestones. What makes them happen?

Milestones to measure: white paper downloads/engagement (see doxIQ), trial usage, customer satisfaction, renewals, upsells, etc. In general, measure everything. Identify the 3-5 metrics that drive your business. For RelateIQ, it turned out that trials and the brands of existing customers were among the key growth factors.

Churn is a bad metric to measure (e.g. you might lose 10% of your customers over the course of a year, but be making 2x the revenue with the customers who stayed – the churn metric looks bad, but your revenue actually grew dramatically). Instead, measure cohort growth over time (ACV by cohort).

Ways to expand your business:

  1. Add capacity (more companies using your product)
  2. New use cases (e.g. RelateIQ can be used by the sales team, but also the customer success team, the marketing team, etc.)
  3. Adjacent orgs/teams within the same company.

Random statistic from the talk: 15x close rate (!) for RelateIQ if someone from RelateIQ connects with a self-service client – even if it’s just for a short chat.

Another lesson specific to RelateIQ is that most people sign up if they’ve imported data during the trial, so imports receive a lot of focus.

The recurring theme: figure out what makes people sign up and stay, and then focus on that relentlessly.

Part 3: Maximizing success

Most sales orgs are set up like a production line: BD reps get leads, account execs close them, and customer success managers (CSMs) make sure those customers are happy.

RelateIQ sets people up in “pods” with a biz dev person, a junior and a senior account exec, and a few CSMs. By setting the system up so that the same sets of people keep working together on accounts, accountability goes up. Pods also make it easier to create career progressions. For example, a junior account exec can move to a new pod as their senior account exec.


Q: Thoughts about pricing?

A: It’s common to give discounts to enterprise, but Armando thinks it’s better to go the other way: lower per-seat prices for small customers, higher prices for bigger companies. This could either be done with different license tiers, or with decreasing discounts as company sizes increase.

Q: Thoughts on free/fremium?

A: Free makes sense if it’s winner take all, or if users don’t get immediate value from using product, or if the end user and the decision maker are different. However, there are many situations where not offering a free tier makes a lot of sense – it depends on the industry and the product.

How to Write a 3m Page View Article by Nick O’Neill

Speaker background: Nick organized Sales Conf and used to be a prolific blogger. He grew one content site to 1.4m uniques per month.

The power law applies to articles. Nick has written 3,500 articles, and 25% of the total page views came from the single most popular article. Given that dynamic, it makes sense to work as hard as possible to produce a hit.

Miscellaneous tips for content marketing:

How Mattermark Sold Their First Million by Danielle Morrill

Speaker background: Danielle is the cofounder/CEO of Mattermark, which provides private company research, prospecting, and tracking. Prior to Mattermark, she was the Director of Marketing at Twilio.

Danielle told the story of how Mattermark reached its first million in sales in the course of a year. The talk was more storytelling than bullet points, but highlighted many valuable lessons.

Sales Hot Seats with Hiten ShahLincoln Murphy, and Steli Efti

This was a panel Q&A session where attendees would ask the panel how to solve a specific problem.

Problem: in a previous business, selling was easy because there the product had scarcity built-in. In new SaaS business, that’s not the case. How does one create feeling of scarcity – especially without fiddling with pricing and discounts?

Suggested solutions:

Problem: easy to get people on the phone, but they’re rarely the decision makers. Often that’s not obvious until well into the call. How do you quickly figure out who the decision maker is without offending the person you’re talking to?

Suggested solutions:

Problem: Product is truly scarce and can only be sold to a certain number of customers. How do you maximize profit/make sure you pick the best customers?

Suggested solutions:

Problem: Sometimes sales cycles take a very long time, especially at big organizations. What can be done to address this?

Suggested solutions:

Problem: When selling to larger companies, they often want custom work done before committing to a contract. How should that be handled? How should the custom work be priced?

Suggested solutions:

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