4 Tips for Navigating Startups, Mastering Sales, and Growing from Individual Contributor to SVP:
A Conversation with VideoAmp's Alli Felter
Alli Felter likes competition. Challenge her to a game of soccer or a sing-off, and she'll be there, ready to give it her all.
That made a career in sales a natural fit.
She found her way into the field early on. It helped that her dad was a long-time salesman. Then an early internship cinched her interest. Even while she was cold calling 100 people a day and getting a bit tongue-tied when someone was actually interested, she loved the work. Her internship turned into a part-time job during college, where although she worked just six hours a week, she was outperforming full-time employees. That's when she realized the first of several sales (and life) lessons that helped her on her path to becoming an SVP of Account Sales at advertisement investment platform VideoAmp just eight years out of college: quality of work is more important than quantity of work.
We're excited to share some of Alli's tips for building a career in sales, particularly in fast-paced startup environments.
1. Be strategic as to how you spend your time
"It's not necessarily how long you work or how many emails you send," says Alli. "The important thing is to focus on the quality of your work and to consider the bigger picture." For Alli, that means taking a long view and investing in herself to make sure she can bring her best self to work. "I think a lot about what's going to have the greatest influence on my overall success—not just tomorrow, but a couple of months from now and beyond. Missing workouts and eating like crap may mean I can cram a couple more things in, but longer term, it's unhealthy and it impacts your relationships with clients and colleagues, which are pivotal to the success of your career. It definitely makes it easier to focus on this balance when working for a company that makes health and wellness such a priority. VideoAmp offers daily workouts and really encourages us to make time for fitness and mental breaks."
2. Create value-based relationships
Alli credits her career—and her rapid ascension to a leadership role—to her hard work and the strength of her relationships.
Several years ago, Alli found herself in the final stages of the interview process with a company she was excited about. She called a client-turned-confidant—someone she'd worked with at another job and whose opinion she respected—to get her advice on whether she should take the offer. The ex-client told Alli that before she said yes, she should check out VideoAmp, where the ex-client had just joined. Alli zoomed through the interview process in a couple of days and ended up getting an offer from VideoAmp, too.
That new opportunity presented itself only because Alli had invested in the relationship long before it was time to ask for advice or a favor.
As a saleswoman, and now with a team of 20 people reporting to her, Alli has a rule: never just "check in." This applies to networking as well as relationship building with clients and prospects.
"Just 'checking in' is my least favorite thing to do. If you're reaching out to someone, what is the value you're offering that you feel is worth them giving back to you?" she says.
3. Evaluate job opportunities with this framework: people, mission, funding
With two offers in hand, Alli had to buckle down and figure out which company was right for her in the long run. Having worked for a company she'd loved, followed by a company she didn't like so much, she assessed why she loved the first company and what she found lacking in the second. From there, she created a framework to evaluate her options.
"I really think that asking the right questions before you join an organization is key. Make sure you share and understand their views and support their mission, this will enable you to flourish and grow in your personal life and as well as your professional life," says Alli.
She realized the first key factor in evaluating a startup is understanding what the people are like. "Is every single person at the company just unbelievably excited to be there? Do they have that energy? And do you feel something when you're speaking to them? I think a lot of companies underestimate the importance of culture. You can tell when colleagues like each other, when they want to spend time with each other, and when they genuinely feel like they're in it together," says Alli. "And I felt that with VideoAmp from the moment I started the interview process."
The second factor to consider is the mission and whether the company knows what they are building towards. "Do they know what problem they are trying to solve?" she asks. "It's okay if it's not entirely clear how they'll get there—being part of the problem-solving is why many people are attracted to startups—but knowing where they're headed is key," says Alli. "At that time, VideoAmp was about powering the convergence of linear TV and digital to enable brand marketers to make better decisions between desktop, mobile, tablet, OTT, and then the big screen or television," she says. "And today, we really have been able to do so effectively."
Don't be swayed just by a fun team and an exciting mission, though. Alli advises that anyone considering a role with a startup be a realist, too, and ask to see the numbers on funding. "That has a huge, huge impact, especially in the startup world, on what kinds of programs a company is able to offer, what kinds of things they're able to do, how they're able to take care of employees and how they're able to build a presence and a name in the industry," she says. When she was interviewing with VideoAmp, they had just closed their series A round of funding and Alli felt comfortable enough with their growth path and potential to sign-on. Looking back, she's confident she made the right choice: "Right now, we've raised over a hundred million dollars to help us continue on this journey of solving our mission," she says.
If you've gotten an offer from a startup you like that passes Alli's criteria, she suggests you take it: "I challenge people to pursue opportunities outside of their comfort zone and to be scrappy — to have the power to drive towards a goal and build something that doesn't exist."
4. Identify your leadership style and use it to lift up others
When Alli was an account executive at VideoAmp, she was an individual contributor, which meant clear metrics for success: she needed to produce a certain amount of revenue and have a certain number of meetings.
But as she became a VP and then SVP, she had to shift her focus from her own performance to start focusing on building competency in others. She says she learned that "managing is about creating a mindset and a culture that you want to facilitate and foster."
Creating that culture has meant learning to not have all the answers and allowing your team to grow into their own working styles. "One of the things my mentor at VideoAmp, Laura Tormey, has taught me is to lead by example. It's important to create a framework for people to be successful but to also trust them to figure it out on their own. Show your team how to do something, instead of telling them what to do, and then watch how they make it their own," she says.
Three of the sales leads who work for her are women—"which is really, really rare for a sales organization," notes Alli. She wants to create a culture that encourages and empowers all employees, especially women.
"I try to promote speaking up and grabbing a seat at the table. You're not going to get what you don't ask for," she says. "I'm also always mindful of the words used to describe women's working styles, because language really matters. A woman can be perceived as bossy or aggressive, when really, she is just being direct. I try to create an open dialogue and conversation to empower my female colleagues."
Do you have questions for Alli about working in sales as a woman, growing into a VP or SVP role, or navigating the world of startups? Leave a comment below!