Sep 29, 2002 3 min read

Early Selling: Thoroughbreds and Explorers

Early Selling: Thoroughbreds and Explorers
Photo by David Dibert / Unsplash

Start-up selling is different from selling established products. It includes navigating new product waters and locating islands of early adopters — and calls for different skills than classic quarter-driven account selling. Knowing which you need is critical. (I’ve seen organizations repeatedly hire the wrong sales force, with terrible results.)

This column divides sales teams into thoroughbreds (race horses) and explorers. Thoroughbreds outrun the competition along smooth paths by selling well-understood products. Explorers hike rough terrain to discover early customers. It’s important to know the lay of the land when picking your team.

So, which of these two sounds more like your situation?

  • Surveying the territory: So far, your first three customers have three unique uses for your product. They have nothing in common except demands for free consulting. You need to invent a market map, define the competitive landscape, and position your product.
  • Starting the quarterly quota race: You’ve closed a few dozen deals, have a good description of target customers, and are building a consistent sales process. You can sort mainstream opportunities from dead-end tributaries. Boosting deal size and shortening sales cycle are key goals.Clearly, the first organization needs to discover a market and find repeatable product solutions. The second organization wants to run ahead of the competition, arriving first to dominate its marketplace. Now, let’s match these organizations against their broad choices for sales teams.


Top sales people at established companies already think of themselves as thoroughbreds. I agree. So what can we learn about salespeople from racehorses?

Galloping along the rail

  • Without them, racing wouldn’t exist.
  • They are very expensive, but the best earn millions.
  • They are great at what they do: running like the wind for 1 and 1/4 miles. They don’t plough or blaze trails.
  • They need controlled conditions. Champions don’t run on rocky, uneven, badly maintained tracks.
  • They need a big support staff.
  • If you have too many thoroughbreds or too few races, they have to run against each other.

Likewise, top sales people with established companies get top-tier comp packages and live for the end-of-quarter adrenaline rush. They are always well groomed (and wear expensive shoes). Most expect the supporting team to provide a complete selling environment: leads, collateral, awareness, pricing, competitive knockoffs, demo units, pre-sales consulting. You’d love to hire a winner with specific experience on your terrain (e.g. mid-market CRM for automotive). And in the President’s Circle, they hold up the trophy on behalf of the whole team.

Warning: don’t fill a stable with top sales people before you can afford them. You’ll need a repeatable sales process and receptive market to pay for the oats.


So, some companies are not ready for herds of thoroughbreds. They don’t know the right customer segments or killer application. Perhaps some vertical markets will turn out to be quicksand, and others rich with hidden minerals. These companies need a few sales explorers to map the customer terrain and find a path to success.

When Lewis & Clark set out in 1804 to explore the Western US, they had no map. Thomas Jefferson provided start-up capital and staffing, but no guidance en route. What can we learn about selling from this?

  • Lewis & Clark had a mission, but changed tactics and paths frequently.
  • Getting lost was expected. Discovery was hard to schedule.
  • They carried everything with them. Solutions were custom-crafted with no help from Washington.
  • The long, unpredictable journey favored a mix of skills, backgrounds and outlook.
  • This was a long-term commitment. Replacing team members was not easy.

Early-stage sales champions have to help find the destination en route. Many discover customer opportunities that Marketing missed. They are comfortable with muddy boots, uncertain sales cycles and changes in product message. Explorers sort prospects early to keep focused on the few with real potential. In partnership with Marketing and Engineering, they keep reconfiguring the available product.

Since the destination isn’t yet clear, most explorers have broad industry experience. Someone who’s sold Manufacturing ERP as well as channel-driven SME networking gear (or hospital systems or security services…) is a great asset. There’s time later to find market-specific stallions.


Consider the maturity of your market when choosing early-stage sales people. Changing explorers into thoroughbreds is difficult, and the reverse nearly impossible.

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