3 Steps to Successfully Transition From Corporate Sales to Startup Sales



90% of startups fail, but that doesn’t stop an ever-growing number of salespeople from pursuing a career in that high-risk, high-reward environment.

Problem is, a lot of them leave disappointed and discouraged. They either don’t know how to get a sales job at a startup, or they’ve been disillusioned about what it actually means to work at one.

If you’re one of those salespeople, let’s take a look at what working for a startup really means. Then, if you think you’ve got what it takes, we’ll cover the three steps to actually get hired.

Sound good? Great. Let’s get started.

The reality of working at a startup

What does working at a startup look like to you?

For most people, it’s all about those famous perks, like:

  • Netflix’s year-long paid parental leave,
  • Airbnb’s $2,000 travel stipend, or
  • Zynga’s free restaurant and coffee bar

Sure, a lot of startups do offer incredible perks and greater flexibility than corporate sales jobs. But a lot of them don’t. And even if they do, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

If you’re going to commit to a startup, expect:

  • Minimal job security
  • 50+ hour work weeks, and
  • Extremely high pressure to perform

Working for a startup means being self-motivated and setting high standards for yourself. If you don’t, you’ll fail. And at a startup, one person’s failure often means everyone’s failure.

Think you’ve got what it takes? Then here’s what founders look for in sales hires.

What startups look for in sales hires

Most startups are more interested in sales potential than sales experience. That means passion, skill, and tenacity will get you a lot further than an impressive resume.

At Close.io, for example, my team and I look for salespeople who are:

  • Natural entrepreneurs. Are you self-driven and ambitious? Or do you need someone to tell you what to do?
  • Competitive and compassionate. Your drive should be two-fold: Topping the leaderboard and providing the highest amount of value to your customers as possible.
  • Highly resilient toward rejection. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, you’re going to hear “no.” A lot. Practically all the time. Will it defeat you, or inspire you?
  • Excellent communicators. Sales is all about communication, but don’t confuse communication with talking. Listening is the most important skill for a startup salesperson.

And we’re not the only ones looking for salespeople with those qualities. Startups across the world have learned that potential is more important than experience.

If you don’t have those four traits, a startup sales environment might not be right for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be wildly successful elsewhere.

If you do embody those traits, you might have what it takes to get your foot in the door. Let’s take a look at how to land one of those coveted startup sales jobs.

3 steps to landing a sales job at a startup

Think you’ve got what it takes? Here are three steps to get hired at the startup of your choice.

Step 1: Think like a startup

Startups think and operate differently than other businesses, and that mental shift is one of the most difficult changes for new hires to make.

Where corporations are process-oriented, startups are experiment-oriented. In a startup, almost every major decision begins with someone saying, “I’ve got an idea. I don’t know if it’ll work, but let’s give it a try.”

Where corporate employees are often promotion-driven, startup employees are value-driven. For most startups, there’s no such thing as a “ladder” to climb or a “game” to play.

And finally, where corporations are focused on winning the game, startups are focused on creating it.

In a startup, you’re never going to have all the answers, resources, or tools you need. But that can never be an excuse not to take action and produce results. Learn to do more with less.

Step 2: Do your homework

Pick out a handful of startups you’re interested in selling for and learn everything you can about them.

Not sure where to start? Research their four C’s: Company, culture, customers, and competition.


Become an expert on the past, present, and future of any startup you want to work for. Who founded the company? What products do they offer? What’s on their development roadmap?

You should be so knowledgeable that you’re able to effectively sell a startup’s product long before you’re hired.


What is it actually like to work for this company? The best way to learn about a company’s culture is to use LinkedIn to reach out to a couple current and former employees.

Send a short message saying, “I’m thinking about applying and would like to learn about what it’s like to actually work at this startup. Would you be willing to hop on a five-minute call with me?”


Once you’re hired, their customers become your customers. The sooner you start learning about them, the better.

Most startups use their larger customers as marketing tools, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find current users. Send them a short message like, “I’m considering this product for my own business. Would you be willing to hop on a quick call to discuss how it’s helped your business?”


You want to understand the market as a whole, not just your ideal startup. That means identifying their key competitors and researching their company, culture, and customers.

Like before, firsthand knowledge is best, so do some research and get on the phone. The more you understand the market, the more valuable and versatile you become.

Step 3: Create value

Any startup you apply to should know your name long before they read it on your job application. If you wait until you’re hired to start providing value, you won’t be hired.  

Stand out by asking yourself what you can do to start providing value today. Not sure where to start? Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

  • Share their marketing content on industry websites,
  • Pitch their product to potential prospects, and
  • Inspire conversations in blog and social media posts

It doesn’t have to be anything grand, but it should be measurable and consistent.

Life after the hire

Startups take passion, hard work, commitment, and a bit of luck … and that’s before you get hired.

Afterwards? All bets are off. Startups live or die based on the day-to-day decisions of founders, salespeople, marketers, designers, and developers.

Are you up for the challenge? Good. Then get out there and start crushing it. I look forward to seeing you in Startupland soon.

About the author

Steli Headshot

Steli Efti is the co-founder & CEO of Close.io, an inside sales CRM that allows users to make & receive calls with one click, automatically tracks all your emails, and minimizes manual data-entry.

Want more by Steli? Sign up for his free startup sales success course!

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Kayla Kozan

Kayla Kozan

Director of Marketing at Ideal
Kayla spent the last few years studying Marketing and Entrepreneurship on 3 different continents. Now covering the latest in predictive analytics, workplace diversity and big data. She has a keen interest in tech and discovering underrated brunch spots.
Kayla Kozan


  • Daniel Andrade

    I like the part that mentions that you have to create value. In a startup you will work with your team in many roles, marketing, sales, customer success, even finance and accounting. There’s not a limited job description and your job is to shape one for next hires if the startup succeeds.