As an operator-turned-investor, I have worked at a few great companies, been fortunate to partner with dozens of iconic founders, and observed patterns in hundreds of companies. In a breakout startup, everyone agrees you need a few types to round out a great team: You need a founder with the charisma and determination to will a company into existence; a rock-star engineer or three to create breakthrough technology; and a product visionary to see how that technology can be applied in a disruptive new way. But too often, companies discount the need for a great go-to-market leader—a sales, marketing or customer success chief, typically—to turn that potential into reality.
I believe one of the reasons for this gap is that founders tend to think of go-to-market expertise as a necessary evil that they could probably provide on their own if they had the time or the interest. In my experience, strong founders tend to over-index on their own expertise. They clearly see the value of things they’re good at, but underestimate the importance of skills they know less about. So if they’re not passionate about sales, marketing or customer success, they think talent to lead this is something you can recruit without much trouble.
This is dangerous thinking. Very often, you need great go-to-market expertise to nail one of the first, and largest, problems facing any start-up: product-market fit. Many founders suffer from what I call “genius syndrome.” While it’s obvious to them how their product could be used to greatest effect, customers don’t have the time or interest in figuring it out. So they don’t buy. Or maybe they do, and don’t get immediate value. That’s even worse.
If you provide some value right from the start, most customers will consider sticking around as you build out your larger vision. If there’s no early benefit, you’ve probably lost that customer forever. And as a company scales, go-to-market functions become even more critical – how to scale beyond founder-led sales, how to establish repeatable processes for customer acquisition; how to efficiently ensure customer success, and the list goes on. One of the triumvirate of leaders I respect calls this the See More, Win More, Keep More formula.
As a venture capitalist, I’ve met many such leaders who have and are making a huge impact at our portfolio companies such as Marketo, ServiceMax, Moat, Outreach and others, but also many whom I count as advisors (and friends) outside the Mayfield family. I have found that they are great people to know–passionate, intellectually curious and emotionally intuitive. Not surprisingly, I’ve gravitated to such folks over the years and built an extensive personal network. And more recently, we decided as a firm to be more intentional about building our combined personal connections into something more: a formal community of go-to-market leaders that can serve as a resource to our firm, to each other, and to the industry at large.
To that end, this year, we hosted a gathering of GTM leaders, titled Leadership and Life in the Customer-Centric Era. The venue was a restored church in San Francisco, and the conversations were suitably revealing and comforting. The community came together to share insights and act as a resource for each other—whether to provide advice on an operational problem, share tips on how to develop careers, or to share new playbooks for getting companies to escape velocity.
Stay tuned for insights from this community. We are looking forward to nurturing this vibrant group and establishing further recognition of the role played by these superstars in building companies that last.