In this interview, we sat down with Dave Atkinson, the co-founder of SenseOn to discuss their initial go-to-market (GTM) strategy. This Q&A is relevant for any founders building products for the enterprise and looking to transition away from founder-led sales.
Sneak peek – 5 takeaways:
- Hire the right people, and revenue will follow. Hiring is the most important thing you’ll do as a founder.
- Be courageous in recognising when there’s something broken in your team or processes. Take a step back and figure out how to self-correct. It’ll be challenging in the short term but will yield huge value in the long term.
- Prioritise getting your first customer(s) through the door. Most importantly, ask them the hard questions about their experience. You’ll need their feedback to iterate your product.
- Leverage your network. In the early days, it’ll be your gateway to bringing on the right people and reaching your first customers.
- Keep iterating your hiring strategy. Your first hires will be radically different to those joining at later stages.
Who are you and what is SenseOn?
I’m Dave, co-founder and CEO of SenseOn. We’re on a bold mission – to equip businesses with a revolutionary cybersecurity platform to address the cyber risks of the future. We’re driven by a host of strategic factors:
- Cyber criminals are rapidly advancing their attack techniques, exacerbated by ransomware and blockchain
- Enterprise security structures are becoming increasingly complex
- The volume of data that companies collect is increasing exponentially
- There’s a severe talent shortage in the cybersecurity industry
We believe that the threat from cyber criminals will only become more frequent and more sophisticated, and it’s important that we get ahead of this as a society.
James and I wanted to design a solution from scratch, thinking that “if we don’t do something courageous now, we won’t stand a chance in the future.” We began to sketch out what we saw as the cybersecurity architecture of the future on my dining table in my London flat. With James’ background in national big-data infrastructure and my background as one of the first cyber operatives in the UK’s specialist military groups (my specialty being breaking into networks), we believed we could combine our skills to really address the issue.
What does this mean for our customers? We’re creating a world where they don’t need to buy a plethora of tools that require maintenance to reduce their risk but most importantly the safety of your organisation does not depend on humans doing repetitive, mundane work such as wading through a volume of inaccurate alerts. We hyper automate this process. That’s what drives us everyday. Cyber is exciting as there’s always a moving target.
Where are you on your GTM journey? (company size, traction, who’s selling, how you got there so far, etc.?)
Our focus over the last six months has been to transition away from founder-led sales and we believe we’ve accomplished that now. We’ve grown to 70 people, with a sales team of 10 people, managed by a VP Sales and a Regional Director.
We learned the hard way how to hire the right sales talent at the right time and nurture them with growth opportunities in order to retain them. We’re now extending this strategy to our marketing and channel teams. On the marketing side, we’re looking for a super smart marketing leader to communicate how SenseOn disrupts the legacy cybersecurity technology design. SenseOn is a technical product, so it’s crucial that the sales team has the required support to maximise chances of success. (If this sounds like you’d be a good fit, please reach out to Anna Doyle for more info!)
I sense there were key hiring learnings along the way. Can you please expand?
Our very first hire was a sales leader, who we onboarded way before we found product market fit (PMF). We then hired an AE who’s luckily still with the company as the GTM operations lead. Another 5 new AEs followed not long after.
To be completely transparent, we got GTM very wrong at the start. We thought that bringing more AEs on board would help us collect more valuable data and help us iterate and understand how to actually sell the product. The thing is, when onboarding the initial sales team, we realised we hadn’t figured out our “secret sauce” on how to sell the product, and hadn’t settled on a robust sales strategy. Coming from a large cybersecurity company, we were trying to sell based on marketing led vs. product led strategies. Our sales team at the time was not getting any signals of reaching PMF. We ultimately switched to a product led strategy. It actually took us way longer than expected to find PMF – in hindsight, it always takes longer than you think.
Finding PMF is the holy grail, indeed! What was the initial signal indicating early PMF?
Reproducibility, 100%. I knew we were getting there when the AEs and I could consistently close sizable deals per quarter. It didn’t feel like luck anymore, it was reproducible throughout our funnel, from our cold outreach to actually closing the deal. At this stage (and only then!), you can bring more people on board. I’ve learnt that the hard way.
It’s difficult to face such a hard reality of having an established sales team but no PMF. How did you self correct?
We had to completely hit the reset button – I vividly remember a session where Crane advised us on how to go back to basics. I became obsessed with refining our sales pitch, reframing our ICP and strengthening our qualification methodology using MEDDICC (see my book recommendation at the end). My primary focus became building an excellent sales team, which meant we unfortunately had to part ways with a few people along the way. In 2020, the sales team was back to being only me and 2 sales people – this is when we began achieving reproducibility.
At that time, I was strongly inspired by the Harvard Business School article “The Sales Learning Curve”. It talks about three stages – initiation, transition and execution. There’s a simple formula – you know you’ve made it past the initiation stage when your revenue is larger than the fully loaded cost of your sales team (including the CEO’s salary). You can then move on to the transition phase.
Now that we’ve talked about WHEN to hire, did you learn anything about WHO to hire? What profile do the right people have initially and how does it evolve as the company grows?
Go beyond CVs and skills, and look for traits and behaviours in candidates, especially in the early days. In my opinion, the early sales hires should show intelligence, coachability, unique character, curiosity and hunger. They should also be entrepreneurial and empathetic to customer challenges, as they will relentlessly work on refining the pain points and use cases. You might be surprised that I’ve not really insisted on experience here!
Also, keep a flexible approach – you’ll have to constantly iterate your ideal candidate profile as your company grows and goes through the 3 stages mentioned earlier (initiation, transition and execution). When you achieve PMF and revenue that’s 3-5x the cost of your sales team, you can start hiring more experienced sales reps, who are typically driven by targets and comp. In our case, we recently hired people with deep enterprise sales experience. It’s a recipe for success at our stage given we’re driving a repeatable sales process. But those experienced enterprise sales reps wouldn’t have thrived in the early days when we were scrapping for deals!
Overall throughout the stages of your company, I would say that 2 abilities are key. First, coachability – people need to have a growth mindset to adapt to the ever changing sales process. Then grit – losing a deal is like being punched in the face. You have to be able to get up from the mat. In interviews, you should always ask people about the most difficult thing they’ve worked through, as it’s difficult to find people who are not only used to dealing with setbacks, but can see them as an opportunity to grow!
Now that you’ve successfully transitioned away from founder-led sales, it may seem like an old memory. But can you remember the very first thing you did as a founder to take the product to market?
James and I closed our first deal off the back of a penetration test completed for a finance firm. In the report we produced, we teased details of how SenseOn would mitigate against the risks that were uncovered.
At this point our product was only in the testing phase, and we still managed to close a three-year deal off the back of our recommendations. It took a few sleepless nights and *boom* we launched the first version of our product. It felt exhilarating.
This first customer was pivotal for SenseOn – they produced real data with which James and I iterated the product (we had only a couple of engineers). It also helped me understand that you need to leverage your network. This penetration test opportunity came through an ex military colleague and in the early days, our network was the source of 100% of our deals.
In hindsight, what are your key takeaways from scaling a company?
The three Rs:
- Recruitment: Focus on attracting A players into the company.
- Retention: inspire and develop your talent.
- Revenue: it will follow naturally.
I strongly believe that it’s crucial to recruit and retain the right people before chasing revenue. If you hire the right people, train them and retain them, you’ll find commercial success. Hiring is difficult and a real skill. Hiring is where we as founders make the most mistakes, and yet it’s where most value lies. You can set yourself back years by not recruiting excellent people from the start. For this reason, you should look at becoming as proficient at hiring as coding (if you’re technical) or selling (if you’re commercial). I’m guided by a saying from the military: “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. Hire slow and get it right. In the long run, you’ll move faster.
What book would you recommend to founders who are starting their GTM journey?
The MEDDICC methodology was my guiding star as I shaped the new qualification process in the journey to building a repeatable sales process. So I would say “The Qualified Sales Leader: Proven Lessons from a Five Time CRO” by John McMahon. And definitely the HBS “Sales Learning Curve” article that I mentioned earlier if you are in the early stage of founder-led sales.
To finish off, any last piece of advice?
A message I want founders to take away is to never give up. I learnt from experience that it’s always possible to turn things around. Success comes from failure and you’re never going to get it right the first time. When we felt we were in the worst situation possible, we emerged with a bigger sense of purpose and mission thanks to our belief and perseverance. I set up this company as I am truly passionate about solving this problem, and that passion got us through the tough times.
Today, we’re lucky enough to have a fantastic team with great growth and strong gross profit margins for a Series A company. Never give up!