What I learned about sales from software engineering

What I learned about sales from software engineering

Agile software planning with post-it notes
We’ve been working on Heresy full time only for a few months, but the idea of making sales more open and collaborative is something I have been obsessed with for quite a while.

The saga begins (Mexico, 2009)

That journey began in the summer of 2009 in Guadalajara, Mexico. At the time I was working on my first startup OVIA and had to spend a month with our Engineering team in Mexico. We were getting ready for a big release and were shipping new features pretty much every day. I remember being absolutely fascinated with the predictability of the Engineering team and how in sync all team members were. Everyone knew what had to be accomplished, how much work remained to be done, what different individuals on the team had to do (and how that affected others), as well as what (if anything) was in their way of getting there.

There was a very simple, yet highly effective chart that everyone in the office could see. It was comprised of only two lines. All it took was one quick glance and you instantly knew how the dev team was doing. Our CTO would update the graph every morning and the team would have a quick meeting to discuss the progress made and where that left them with regards to the tight deadlines we had to meet. For anyone familiar with Agile software development, this would hardly seem innovative, but to me at the time it was huge. I started wondering if I could use that type of graph to track sales performance and how it might change the dynamics of the Sales team if we employed it on a team-wide level.

The Stack Overflow Years (2011–2016)

A snapshot of my team’s sales performance

The “hack” of tracking sales performance in the same way engineers track product development, quickly grew into a whole sales methodology. It was a simple, yet very powerful idea, which I’ve been able to test, refine and develop further over the years. It’s something I took with me to Stack Overflow and it served as the foundation of building the company’s high-performing sales team. It facilitated our growth from 3 people when I joined in 2011, to over 120 people in Sales by the time I had left in March 2016, and enabled us to be incredibly accurate in forecasting. It allowed us to build a very cohesive sales culture, where team members are truly invested in their peers and the team acts as a single unit, constantly striving to smash targets. Writing this, it almost looks too good to be true, but the results we achieved speak for themselves. In Europe alone (the market I was responsible for), we were able to grow our revenue more than 192% Year 1 to Year 2, 125% Year 2 to Year 3 and 76% Year 3 to Year 4. At the same time, the staff turnover rate for those four years averaged at only 0.87% — a tiny fraction of the industry average of 34% (for SaaS inside sales).

What’s Next?

With Heresy, we hope to help other sales teams achieve the same results we’ve had at Stack Overflow. The product that we are building has a number of dimensions and we are still fairly early on in our journey. We’ll be releasing parts of our solution in the coming months, but thought we’d start with that super simple, yet powerful tool, that inspired this whole methodology and subsequent product — the burndown chart.

Heresy burndown, showing a team’s progress halfway through the month

The burndown chart is the swiss army knife of sales management. It has served me incredibly well to manage my own sales performance, but it’s been even more useful on a team/company-wide level. I’ve used it as a diagnostics tool to identify problems early on and fix them before it’s too late; it’s helped me with spotting top sales talent; it served me as a great motivational and forecasting tool, and most important of all — it was the foundation upon which the entire sales management structure of my last company was built.

In the next post in this series, I will elaborate on each of those use cases and give examples as well as practical advice on how to use the burndown. Stay tuned!

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