Start Marketing Before Sales

Email and web

It is amazing how much traction a business can get on purely founder-led and word-of-mouth sales. Many companies go years, and reach significant milestones, before building a sales team, and those with product-led growth can go even longer. However, the “no sales team” approach often has a ceiling. At some point, growth may start to slow and flatten. Typically, the desire to build a sales team increases as a business wants to move up-market towards larger customers that bring more significant and secure revenue.

When that time comes, the company is ready to build a true go-to-market (GTM) motion powered by sales and marketing. This is where many entrepreneurs and operators make a common but critical mistake: we try to start doing sales before we have marketing.

At first glance, it often appears that we can “brute force” the sales process by hiring an individual, high-performing sales rep and just hitting the phones or cold emails. While this can yield some results, it is often a fool’s errand because that sales rep lacks the marketing and sales management support needed to be successful. So, why is it so tough to make sales work prior to having any marketing in place?

Lack of air cover

Without marketing, when a sales rep gets on the phone or sends an email to a prospect, they need to tell the entire story. They need to articulate what the problem is, why their product exists, and how it delivers value for that prospect. That is a lot of story to tell, and often, it may take a prospect hearing that story many times before it resonates enough for them to opt into a sales process.

Air cover refers to all of the “story telling” that marketing is doing before a lead ever reaches a sales rep. The education, the content, the ebooks, the webinars, the advertisements, the email campaigns. When this lead nurturing is done early, a prospect that is speaking to a sales rep is far more qualified to buy.

It is possible for the sales rep to attempt to do all of that education as part of their outreach process, but that is a lot of work, and slows them down from focusing on the other mechanics of a great sales process that they are likely more skilled at.

Lack of infrastructure

Often in early GTM teams, marketing takes ownership of infrastructure, i.e. the tools needed for a sales team to actually sell. This might include CRM, email sequencing, prospect data enrichment, lead routing, etc. As a company grows, this can be owned by a dedicated Revenue Ops function, but early on, I have found that it is typically the marketing leader who is technical enough to assemble that infrastructure (Ryan did a fantastic job with this at my last business, Crystal).

I am making a generalization here, but many people who are great at sales do not want to context switch into configuring systems. It is dangerous to assume that an early sales rep or sales leader will want to spend a lot of time in the technical trenches on RevOps infrastructure, rather than speaking to prospects.

Necessity for full cycle cold prospecting through close

Without marketing, we are expecting sales reps to do everything, from completely cold prospecting all the way through negotiation, close and handoff to Customer Success. Having sales generate their own leads can be done, but as described earlier, those leads are going to come in with no prior context or education about the product (i.e. nurturing) . Once again, this just requires more of a sales rep’s limited time and effort, likely increasing the sales cycle and spreading reps thin.

A Better Way

Now, let’s consider the scenario where marketing is in place prior to building a sales team, or at least in tandem with the early start of a sales team. If that happens, marketing can deliver several critical components that address the challenges above.


It seems so simple, but dissatisfaction with collateral is often one of the top complaints of a sales team. The collateral is either out of date, not easy to access, or doesn’t cover certain sales objections that commonly occur. Marketing most often owns collateral, and it’s an area where the Marketing Leader must be in lock-step with the Sales Leader to understand what collateral is working, and what the biggest needs are.

When I led marketing at Netpulse, we created tremendous amounts of ebooks, infographics, webinars and other content to nurture leads and qualify them for demos with our sales team. Each time a new collateral piece was designed and published, our marketing team would send an email to the sales team that provided context on what the collateral was, when to use it, and where to find it. This email was always sent before we did any email campaigns to send the collateral to existing leads/opportunities in our CRM.

Also, an often overlooked step, collateral needs to be organized and easily usable, which is also often owned by marketing. HubSpot has great tools for uploading and inserting collateral into sales emails. Marketing needs to train and retrain sales reps on where to find the collateral and how it is organized. In larger organizations, that process may be owned by Sales Enablement.

Nurtured leads

Delivering a nurtured, qualified (even inbound) lead to a sales team is so much better than a cold list of emails or phone numbers. As I mentioned earlier, it is certainly possible for sales reps to just engage in cold outreach, but if that is done without a great web presence, without any relevant advertising, without any collateral that provides validation and social proof… It is going to be an uphill battle to win deals.

Proper infrastructure like CRM and marketing automation

To follow up on the challenge illustrated earlier, when marketing is in place prior to or just as a sales team is being built, you are more likely to end up with better infrastructure and tools for success. Do not underestimate the importance of getting this stuff right. Little things like leads getting assigned properly or demo requests not being lost in the shuffle are crucial for a sales team to operate well, and with a high degree of morale. Marketing is often a sales team’s best friend in making sure those operational components work well, prior to having a dedicated RevOps person.

Key Takeaway

Both sales and marketing are critical components of a GTM strategy, and I am not suggesting one is more or less important than the other. Instead, the key takeaway is that we need them both working in tandem, and the order of operations should be marketing first, then sales.

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