The importance of learning how to sell in tech startups

September 13, 2023

From a small team to a 75-person operation, emphasising the importance of intentional hiring and learning the art of selling for aspiring founders.

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The importance of learning how to sell in tech startups

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In this episode, Shensi Ding, co-founder of Merge, a unified API for integrations, shares the story behind the company and how they offer developers a way to integrate various services through their APIs. Shensi also discusses the intentional growth strategy of the company, emphasising the importance of hiring efficiently and ensuring each new hire is a strategic fit. Tune in to hear more about Merge's journey and their approach to scaling their team.

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The key moments in this podcast are:

00:01:56 Get expertise in finance early on.

00:04:27 Energising vs. Dreaming.

00:09:27 Seeing team members' growth.

00:11:13 Hiring based on potential.

00:13:15 The adventure of creating a new business.

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Read the transcript

00:03 Charles Brecque Welcome to the Tech Story podcast, a place where we interview founders and interesting people in tech. Today, I'm very excited to welcome Shensi Ding on the show. Shensi is the co-founder of Merge, a unified API for integrations. Shensi, thank you for taking the time for being with us. Would you like to share a bit of background and the story behind the company?

00:22 Shensi Ding Yes. Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here. I'm Shensi, co-founder at Merge, started the company around three years ago, now we're around 75 people, San Francisco, New York City, and what we offer are unified APIs to allow developers to integrate once, to offer full category of integrations to their customers. We currently cover HRIS, ATS, accounting, CRM, ticketing, file storage, and marketing automation.

00:47 Charles Brecque That's great, and you mentioned the company's three years old and already a team of 75, so what has that growth been like and what can you share?

00:56 Shensi Ding We've always been pretty intentional about hiring. We never had a phase where we were just trying to hire as many people as possible. There definitely were some periods in the company's journey where we were very much at capacity. It definitely did not have enough people, especially in the beginning when we had a lot of signups. But I think one thing that we did really well was we hired a head of finance early on, and she was really good about making sure that we were very efficient and that every single hire was very, very, very attentional. So even though we're 75 people in just around three years, every hire really came at a steady pace. We never had a period where there were a lot of new people who didn't have any contacts. Everyone would really have time to onboard themselves for the next person. So it never felt like it was too crazy. We never had like a huge hiring search, which I think was a really good thing for our team.

01:45 Charles Brecque So I guess the key takeaway is get expertise in finance early on, whether it's yourself or a hire, and then that's the best way to grow.

01:56 Shensi Ding Black people don't value finance roles to the same degree, but I think one thing that we found was that at my previous company, we had a really, really strong strategic finance team, and this team extended its scope across the entire company. from like RebOps, obviously, to also looking at CODs and figuring out how we divided the different teams, to looking at infrastructure costs, to figuring out go-to-market. Overall, this team was very impactful on the business, and it can oftentimes be a revenue-generating goal too, especially with pricing and packaging and really making sure that we're hiring the best people. So when we started the company, there was a point where we started having some more operational complexities. And I knew this person from my last company, and she was the best person I'd ever worked with. So I really, really, really wanted to see if I could convince her to come to Merge. And we did, and she's one of the best people we've hired. We're very fortunate to have her. She's completely changed the company.

02:56 Charles Brecque That's great and yeah, it's true that hiring is really crucial and as much as it can make the company, if you hire the wrong person, it can also break the company. So through your experience of hiring over 70 people, what sort of other key things that you look for and what sort of tips can you share for other founders?

03:18 Shensi Ding The most important thing for a lot of founders to do is just practice recruiting a lot. We sourced, especially for the first 10 people, thousands and thousands and thousands of candidates all legged in. It's extremely time consuming and you just have to have those reps in so that you become familiar with what kind of profiles you like, don't like, and you just become more well-versed in what that industry really looks like. It's also a really great education for when you're starting to hire departments that you haven't hired a recruitership before. And so taking those first calls, really learning about different types of people, learning about their experiences, it helps you also start understanding what the industry looks like. So I think founders really need to practice recruiting themselves. You can't really outsource it. If you do, you're not going to learn how to sell and persuade someone to join your company. You're also not going to be able to learn to persuade people to join you on this vision outside of just recruit, like we're joining our company. It includes sales, it includes fundraising. So I think in general, recruiting is a very important skill set to really hone in on and develop over time. But what we ended up looking for, I think, is pretty specific to Merge. We're really excited about what we're building. And I think there's this phrase that my co-founder has that's like, are you energising or are you dreaming? And it's really palpable in conversations with candidates in the first call. Like, are you someone who's going to add energy to what we're doing? Are you going to add momentum? Are you going to excite everyone around you? Because what we're doing is so interesting and so fun. Or are you going to bring everyone down? Are you going to be negative? Are you going to reduce the energy in the room? And so that's something that we are pretty Like, we have a lot to our senses for whether or not someone is going to help everyone or if they're going to decrease the momentum of a project potentially in the future. I mean, I think that's more unique to Merge, but that's also why I feel like we have a pretty cohesive culture where everyone's just very excitable. But in addition to those things, there's a lot of other things that are important, like, can you do the job? Do we think you're a good person? Are you going to be nice? But I think that's one thing that's very Merge-specific that we've decided to invest

05:26 Charles Brecque Yeah, I think having a positive outlook is really crucial in startups because it rarely goes to plan and there'll always be spanners in the works and you need to have the right attitude and positive attitude because if you do complain or say, oh, this is impossible, then chances are it is impossible. Whereas if you have that optimistic, naive approach, and I'm not saying that energising is being optimistic and naive, but you need to have that positive.

05:54 Shensi Ding Totally right, yeah. It is. You do need to be a little naive and optimistic because it is what makes companies succeed.

06:02 Charles Brecque Yeah, no, exactly. But my problem is I'm often the skeptical pessimist so I need to, yeah, luckily I have an energising team, but yeah, great. And what do you wish you'd known before starting Merge?

06:20 Shensi Ding I think one thing that I wish I pushed on, or I wish I decided earlier on instead of now, was that it's always easier to do the thing that everyone else is doing. It's easier to be remote. It's easier to let everyone just hang out and not really commit themselves. It's also really easy to just make a hire because you don't have enough people. In the end, you really have to do the thing that you feel like is going to be great for the company long term, which means like waiting for that perfect person, really enforcing your culture early on, asking a lot from your team, but also making sure that you're investing a lot in them as well. It's not always easy, just stay firm with that. So I wish like early on I was more I had been more confident in those decisions Because and I think like it was by luck that some like some outside force would like remind me like okay You guys have a strong vision for culture just like you'll have to stick through with it And I wish that I knew that back then but now it's kind of like me telling myself and I think it just would have made the past three years a lot easier when I had a lot of doubts about whether it was the right thing to continue growing just in San Francisco, New York City, and whether it was the right thing to do making certain bad solid products. And I'm really grateful that I did have the luck of those outside forces that kept us in that line.

07:37 Charles Brecque So you're saying that, you know, it seems like culture is really important for you as a founder and sort of not being afraid to sort of set your culture is sort of key to, you know, the success of the company.

07:51 Shensi Ding I agree. There's this Frank Sleeman interview that came out recently where it's not fun to be the bad guy and ask a lot from your team. It really isn't fun. But I think sometimes it is important to remind everyone there's a reason why we're here and there needs to be a certain intensity for this company so that we can succeed. If we just let this company remain in its default state, we're going to fail eventually. It's going to atrophy. We're not going to have the best people. We're not going to have momentum. And the only way to be successful is to continue pushing along. And I think that, again, it's not fun to do that, but you have to do that. And the best thing that you can do as a leader is promise your team that you're not going to just give up and stop caring and stop reminding your team what we're really trying to do at the end, which is build a successful company. So yeah, I think that was something that I wish I just told myself at the very beginning and reminded myself over and over again. But now I think especially as the company has gotten bigger and I've learned a lot of lessons, it really is the right thing to do. And I think the worst outcome for me is I give up and I stop caring and I stop speaking up if a spec is wrong or if a design is wrong or if I'm noticing something off pricing. That's when a company really starts atrophying and we really need to make sure keeping everyone We're keeping everyone to the degree where everyone really cares and everyone says what they really think so that we can come through.

09:10 Charles Brecque And I think, I mean, as a fan, I always get a bit uncomfortable when I feel like I am sort of giving in to something which doesn't feel right, but you need to be the bad guy and not be afraid to sort of make those decisions. Great. And what's been your favourite moment so far?

09:27 Shensi Ding seeing some of the early team members and how their careers have evolved. It's so rewarding seeing people who join you very early on in their career and you see how they start to hire and manage teams, how they start to hire and manage multiple teams, and how they really started to grow over time. And I think that has just been really rewarding. I love managing people and I love developing the team members that are at the company. And I think that's a really important part of my life and Verge as well. And so that has always been my favourite part, just being with the people, seeing them grow. I also think we just have a ridiculous team. Everyone bullies each other. It's so fun. Everyone gossips. It's just a really fun time at Verge. And so I love

10:08 Charles Brecque And you mentioned hiring employees at the start of their career sort of in an environment which is competitive and usually investors at least tend to say you should hire for experience. So why did you sort of take a bet on these more venue employees and how did you sort of, especially if you've been interviewing thousands, why did they stand out?

10:30 Shensi Ding I think there's a few different things that you have to factor in when you're starting a company. And one of them, unfortunately, is also just the age and experience of the founders. I think it's really hard, especially if you start a company at a younger age, to hire people who are super, super experienced. Because why would those people put their career and fate in your hands when you are so much more inexperienced than they are? And so what we really have to do is think through, okay, Who realistically would want to join this company and who can I provide a great experience to? And oftentimes in those cases, it was team members that are more junior than we were. And especially in situations where we were like, this person's going to be a star. I really want to be around this person. I want to bet on this person. That was when we knew we needed to make a hire. And it didn't really make a matter of like how many years of experience, because in the beginning, a lot of it was just energy and pushing things along versus making really, really, really astute decisions after having lots of data, because there was no data at the beginning. A lot of it was just brute force. And that requires really like strong early team members who are okay with pushing

11:31 Charles Brecque So I guess, yeah, energy and being able to push things forward as a, over experience. And I guess that's, I mean, I can definitely write about being a young founder. Plus I've got a baby face, so that doesn't make it easy. But, but yeah, I think, I mean, one thing that I found when speaking to older people, whether it's investors or potential hires, as they say, no, no. Honestly, you've achieved a lot and that's enough for them to sort of feel like they're still learning or being in a challenging environment. But I think it is still easier said than done when you are a young founder, especially in the early days, because it's so hard to convince anyone to join you in the early days that when you're convincing someone who's got a family or commitments and 20 years of experience,

12:20 Shensi Ding But now, especially that we have so many more data points of momentum and being able to show where this company is going to go eventually, now it's a lot easier to hire people who are more senior. And especially as the company grows and there's so many people now involved in every single decision that is made, it becomes more important to make good decisions versus just brute forcing everything. So I think each company has its different journeys, but for us in the beginning, a lot of it was just about really pushing this idea and new category along. And now a lot of it's about making good decisions.

12:51 Charles Brecque Great. And so now you, you know, you're hiring these experienced people and, you know, growing rapidly. What's sort of the vision for the next three, five years?

13:01 Shensi Ding You want to keep growing and eventually, obviously, you want to become a generational company. But I mean, what we're building is so fun and it's a huge pain and it's not only technically difficult, but it's also operationally difficult to build too. And so it does require a lot of creativity. We're not going to always make the right decisions, but it's a really great experience. And I think it adds a lot to the texture of life, like having this adventure of creating a new business that is not natural. Like it's very natural to kind of just float along. Um, and this does require a lot of pain and like energy and like, you know, rejection, but it does add a lot to life.

13:40 Charles Brecque So, and I guess you mentioned, you know, you've got integrations right now to CRM, HRS, ticketing, so I guess it's just integrating with everything.

13:49 Shensi Ding All of our categories. We also want to be multi-product as well, so we have some plans for that too.

13:54 Charles Brecque Really exciting. And what one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring founder?

13:59 Shensi Ding I've said this at every conference, and I still believe it to be true. I think you have to learn how to sell. I think a lot of founders think that, especially technical founders, think that they can outsource that to either their non-technical co-founder, or they can hire their first sales rep, or they can hire an outside agency. And I think you as the founder are always going to have the best intuition by your company. You also just have more longer contacts. And so learning how to sell, it's one of the unique things that you are uniquely going to be able to do always through your company's journey. So I think it's a really important skill set to follow.

14:33 Charles Brecque Yeah, and I agree. Luckily for me, a lot of our early clients were inbound, so I didn't need to worry about learning how to sell, but I think beyond learning how to sell, even pricing or business model is an area where I wish I had more experience because it really can make or break a company or send you down a specific direction and yeah, had I had Maybe the expertise or knowledge that I have now, maybe two years ago, we'd be in a better position. Who knows? And you're on the Tech Story podcast, so what is your favourite tech product other than Merge?

15:17 Shensi Ding Google Maps, actually, because if I didn't have Google Maps, I'd be fucked. I would have no idea where to go. And so I know everyone's like, oh, what's a cool, unique app? It's just Google Maps.

15:28 Charles Brecque Great. That's the first time we've had Google Maps on the show, but that's a great answer. Great. Well, thank you very much, Shensi, for being on the podcast and best of luck growing Merge.

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