Bryan Sapot | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Bryan Sapot

Background:  

St. Louis-based SensrTrx designed a cloud-based manufacturing analytics platform that helps users collect, contextualize and display data from various points on the plant floor. The platform allows manufacturers to send real-time data to maintenance crews, machine operators or others who can take actions to improve efficiency. SensrTrx won a $50,000 equity-free grant from Arch Grants in November 2016 and is part of the Ameren Accelerator program.

The Mistake:

Not understanding the sales process as a company founder.

I started my first business at 23. It was a custom software company and I got my first deal through a referral. So I thought, “Sales are going to be easy.”

When that project started slowing down, I had to look for the next project. It was hard because I wasn't prospecting. I didn't understand the different things you need to do as a founder or a salesperson to go out and get new business. So, for a very long time, we’d go through boom and bust cycles. I would land a deal and start growing the company. But I'd be working on the current project rather than trying to go out and find additional business for the future.

We continued along those lines for a long time until, one day, I took my cousin, a career salesperson, to a trade show. He showed me some tips, tricks and how sales is not really a scary, hard process. It's just something you need to be consistent at. As a software guy, this was a bit of a revelation to me because I was used to dealing with computers more than with the public. I took some additional sales training and got better at it, but was still a little reluctant.

As the company grew, I started developing more of a pipeline. Then we got big enough that I would hire a salesperson. Over the years, I went through quite a few different salespeople and it never really worked. It seemed like they were going through the same process I had – this boom and bust cycle – even though the company was growing a bit.

 If you understand how to sell your product, that means you know how to teach the next person and the next person. 

The Lesson:

Then I started another business and was listening to other tech company founders, people who started really as engineers and had to grow as salespeople. What I realized was how important it was as a founder to understand the sales process. If you understand how to sell your product, that means you know how to teach the next person and the next person. You understand the type of person you need to put in the role to be successful because you've done it. You know what the process needs to look like. That ultimately makes the company more successful because you end up with a repeatable sales process.

Another part of sales is getting information from prospects and learning about the market. If you're one or two people removed from those conversations, you're not going to get that direct feedback. When we started this company, I decided I was going to be the primary salesperson until I knew what the market was, what messages people were responding to and what the sales process was going to be. Because, how can I expect anybody else to do it if I don't know how to do it myself?

Now we have a template for the type of salesperson we need, a process for them to follow and a market for them to go after so they're not just calling on any business in America that makes something. It's been a recipe for success.

Entrepreneurs who are not comfortable selling should get formal sales training and coaching from someone, not just a seminar, but an ongoing course or mentoring arrangement where someone can help them navigate how to sell. I would also suggest company founders try to close the first five or 10 deals themselves without any outside salespeople to understand the process and cycle. And, as a CEO, you're always selling in one way or another, so having sales skills can only help you in everything you do.

Bryan Sapot is on Twitter at @bsapot and SensrTrx is at @SensrTrx.

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