What’s more important: product or sales?

It’s the age-old debate among start-up circles: which is more important to the success of a start-up: the strength of the sales/distribution strategy or the quality of the product?

On one end of the spectrum, many start-ups think that great products sell themselves, while the other camp argues that it’s the channel and monetization that define a company’s success.

The simple answer to the question is you need both. To be successful, a stand-alone company needs a top-notch product and a clever distribution/sales strategy. However, there are a few nuances to add to the discussion.

1)  Start-ups are generally more successful when the founders are product-driven. It’s typically much easier to add sales expertise to a product-driven organization than it is to add product focus to a sales-driven start-up. Sales is more of an execution game, meaning a start-up can hire senior executives to shape and refine the sales and distribution strategy. On the other hand, a great product requires great leadership with the right product instincts. Those intangibles are usually much harder to add.

2) Sales-driven companies can turn into service organizations. Sales-driven companies are often focused on maximizing short-term return on investment and this mindset can shape product decisions. The natural consequence is that sales-driven companies can evolve into service companies as they are stating to build every feature that clients are asking for instead of following a long-term product vision.

3) The consumerization of IT is putting more emphasis on product. Historically, software and products were sold to a company’s purchasing agent and CTO. The sales cycle hinged on the ability of the vendor’s sales team to make the right contacts and manage the sales process and relationships from start to finish.

Today, it’s a different story. The CTO and other management no longer serve as gatekeepers for which products are used in the organization. Products are now introduced directly to end users. This trend has a double impact (and both in the product-driven start-up’s favor):

  • Small start-ups that don’t have a large sales force can now sell their products in the enterprise.
  • The enhanced role of the end user in buying decisions makes the product experience all the more important. Good products that are easy to use take hold in this environment.

While the sales cycle may be changing, start-ups still need to focus on their sales and distribution strategy. Products, no matter how great, usually don’t make money on their own. As a result, product-driven companies need to focus on distribution in order to succeed in the long-term.

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  • http://www.markevans.ca/ Mark Evans

    I’m a big believer in the value of a great product to drive sales. As someone who helps startups with marketing, it’s always easier when there is a good product foundation to build upon. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to drive growth of a “meh” product even with good marketing and sales efforts. It’s the old adage of trying to put lipstick on a pig.

  • bwertz

    agreed – you need both but the product is the foundation

  • Donna

    Love this article. Great insights and accurate insights. More people should practice these principles. Thanks for sharing!

  • jo

    With a good product I need $1000 in marketing to make $1000 000.
    With a bad product I need $1000 000 in marketing to make $1000 000,
    but all the marketers are happy.

  • http://wmougayar.com/ William Mougayar

    That’s a very good point. I’m seeing a lot of (mature) startups continue to focus on the product for way too long, and ignoring or delaying sales even with a very good product that is monetizable. There comes a point when you have to shift from a product culture to a sales culture, and not all founders can do this, because many of them are so product focused. I wrote a bit about that here:
    http://wmougayar.com/blog/2013/6/2/forget-the-product-start-focusing-on-the-model

  • bwertz

    good post – thanks for sharing

  • Dwain Browne

    Switching from product driven focus to sales and marketing strategy
    could be a real challenge, especially when you’re running a really small team. In
    my case, I’m both a developer and an entrepreneur, when I’m not building out
    new product features, I’m focus on supporting customer needs. Even though I
    consider myself to be a relatively good sales person, balancing between the two
    is quite the challenge; but I do agree that there must be effort in both
    department to be successful.

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