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Startup Sales Lessons From The Beer Industry

Startup sales lessons are key for getting an early-stage company off the ground, and there’s no better way to learn than from the experts. Despite that, the startup tech ecosystem tends to be relatively secluded with little cross communication from experts within other industries. This past week, we headed to Columbia Business School where Josh Halpern, the Chief Sales Officer at North American Breweries, was interviewed by our friend Wendi Sturgis of Yext. Josh gave many pieces of advice from the beer industry for anyone looking to increase sales. Before we dive in, a little more about Josh. He’s been in the consumer products industry in sales and sales management for the last 15 years, growing sales for companies including Proctor & Gamble, Clorox, and Budweiser and has won numerous awards for his work in sales. His team today at North American Breweries is over 200 selling beer brands like Magic Hat and Labatt to distributors, bars, and restaurants around the world. Here were four startup sales lessons that we took away from the conversation.

1. Ask Yourself: What Currently Prevents You From Winning? “This is the number one question that every salesperson needs to ask themselves” Josh explained to the group. He works with his sellers to understand this once he joins an organization and makes them keep it in the back of their minds always. Immediately following asking yourself this question, salespeople have to take ownership. “It’s easy to be at effect and accept that circumstances are responsible,” but the best thing in the world for a salesperson to do is to accept “I am the problem.” Josh literally had the entire class repeat this! After you accept this, “you become the solution.” Accountability is where it all starts.

2. Simplicity Is Key. Always being on the lookout for the simplest solution was Josh’s second key piece of advice. “If it’s too complicated to explain in a minute or less, it’s too complicated to be your pitch.” For sales managers that means recognizing where the problems lie within your sales team and looking for the simplest, most efficient, fixes. Otherwise it just wont work and complexity generally kills selling organizations.

3. Unlock Your Salespeople’s Time. Also from a management point of view, Halpern believes it’s fundamental that people “get out of the ivory tower” and into the market. Whether it’s communicating with owners or seeing what your sales team is all about, sales managers and salespeople alike need to be as externally focused as possible in order to make sure they stay at cause. You need the “right people in the right places calling on the right people in the right places” and the best way to continuously improve is to be as externally focused as possible. In fact, Josh is so committed to this ideal that at North American Breweries he banned all emails and meetings for all sales team representatives between Tuesday and Thursday. That time is 100% external and the change has been so successful that the company has never looked back.

4. Create Centers Of Excellence And Streamlined Processes. A lot of Halpern’s work deals with strategically designing incentives. If done right, companies can recognize their employees’ desire to be competitive and guarantee peak performance from all of their employees when it’s most necessary. He analyzes customer acquisition cost weekly and is OK as a sales manager giving huge incentives to top performers. He even admitted to the group that he is going to be taking some of the top performers to the upcoming Olympics because it was something that was driving the team to succeed. What will ultimately cost him tens of thousands of dollars in selling costs likely is offset by millions of dollars of revenue.

It’s always great to hear from people outside of the traditional tech ecosystem and even though you’d think the beer industry is pretty far removed, there is a lot of startup sales lessons to be learned in what Josh Halpern had to say. His emphasis on accountability, simplicity, external awareness, and incentives applies across all sales fields but is especially key for startups looking to set a strong sales foundation.

If you liked “Startup Sales Lessons From The Beer Industry” and want to read more content from the Bowery Capital Team, check out other relevant posts from the Bowery Capital Blog. Special thanks to Robbie Linck for his help with this post.

Michael Brown
Michael Brown
Michael is a Founder & Managing Partner at Bowery Capital based in New York. Prior to Bowery Capital, Brown was a Co-Founder and General Partner at AOL Ventures. Before AOL Ventures, Brown worked for the investment arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. He began his career at Morgan Stanley as an equity research analyst. Outside of his professional life, Brown serves on the Board of Directors of the National Forest Foundation and the Columbia College Alumni Association. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University.