How to expand internationally: GTM Strategy for SaaS sales leaders (ft. Sidharth Sharma)

by Mohammed Shehu

Most of us forget someone’s name or face five minutes after being introduced to them. But Sidharth Sharma, who has led sales at Amplitude, BrowserStack, and now at SaaS Labs, suffers no such problem.

“If I’ve ever spoken with you even for five minutes, whether at a meeting or work or a party, I’ll never forget your face, your name, and the conversation we had. It’s kind of the same with numbers as well. I have a fairly decent memory, and one of my fears is that it’ll fade away as I grow old.” - SS

It’s fitting, then, that such a person would develop an obsessive passion for startups, their charismatic founders, and the metrics that power their reports and fundraising rounds.

“I love reading about startups, who’s doing what in what part of the world, and looking at their metrics, specifically SaaS metrics." - SS

We sat down with Sid to get his thoughts on international go-to-market strategy, reducing churn, and sales leadership.

Getting skin in the game is key for SaaS growth

One thing quickly stands out about Sid’s approach to business: his tendency to have or get ‘skin in the game’ in everything from SaaS pricing to distribution strategy.

Take raising VC money, for example. As an angel investor, Sid advises founders to get several members of their ideal customer persona on their board or cap table — no matter the check size.

The reason is that an engaged investor with skin in the game will help you polish your product, scale your user base, hire better, and raise even more money.

“If someone’s saying, “Hey, I’ll only give you $10,000,” fine. You don’t care about that $10,000. You care about that person invested in you. They’ll not only help you get connections, hire, and get a bunch of deals, but they’ll also share their experience.” - SS

Regardless of how much they raise, founders still need to nail one of the most critical events in their startup’s journey: their go-to-market launch. And Sid, who specializes in GTM strategy, has a few pearls to drop.

How to craft the perfect GTM strategy for SaaS

Sid’s go-to-market strategy hones in on four critical elements:

  1. Ideal customer persona (ICP)
  2. Customer buying process
  3. Sales analytics and tools
  4. Hiring the right people

#1 Ideal customer persona (ICP)

A detailed understanding of your ideal customer persona leads to better ad messaging and content marketing.

This reduces customer acquisition costs, improves ad relevance metrics, and helps your content reach more people through overt (digitally attributable) and covert (‘dark social’) channels.

Beyond knowing basic demographic and psychographic data, startups should aim to understand the media diet of their target audience and where they congregate — both offline and online.

This allows you to tap into the conversation and organically present your solution to solve their problems. Tools like SparkToro help with this.

#2 Customer buying process

Understanding your customer’s buying process is even more important — because most companies assume that the way they want to sell is how customers buy their product.

This leads to all sorts of misalignment — like pumping money into Google ads that get ignored, deploying an ineffective organic social strategy, and badgering prospects with endless email sequences that either aren’t correctly segmented or don’t speak to where prospects are in the buying cycle.

One step toward fixing this problem is investing in user and market research. Understand how personas in your niche research, compare, and purchase products like yours — and how they use your product internally, which may differ from how your Product team intended it to be used.

You can go a step deeper and ask your early adopters how they sold your product internally to their colleagues and leadership teams. This gives you the exact language you need to apply to your messaging to resonate with your ICP.

“At Amplitude, I was selling product analytics. How does someone buying an analytics product create a business case for their VP or CEO? What do they say internally to sell it? You take that and use that to devise your messaging.” - SS

#3 Sales analytics and tools

Data is another critical requirement of nailing your go-to-market strategy.

This means clearly defining which segments map to which territories, the total addressable market size and average potential revenue per account, your sales cycle length and average deal sizes, and your product attach rates.

It’s also essential at this stage to invest in the right tools to power your sales team’s efforts. This includes tools for:

  • Forecasting
  • Sales engagement
  • Deal management
  • Email management
  • Meeting scheduling
  • Contact management
  • Ssales commission management

If you can get these tools before you need them, that sets you up for faster success — the same way building a marketing engine from the start is better than waiting until you’re about to raise funding.

“A lot of early-stage startups don’t invest early on because they think, "Hey, you know what, when I reach 25 million ARR, that’s when I need to build my sales stack. The truth is, you probably need one at like 5 million or earlier, if possible.” - SS

#4 Hiring the right people

Lastly, hiring plays a considerable role in the success of your GTM strategy. An oft-repeated piece of advice is hiring for attitude and aptitude and training for skills later — a playbook Sid has witnessed and applied many times in his career.

“You can go out and hire the best-experienced people, but if they don’t fit together culturally, don’t have the right behaviors and intentions, and don’t want to pitch in to build a successful org, it’s probably not going to work.” - SS

As with Mallorie Maranda (Envoy) and Francoise Brougher (Google, Pinterest), Sid selects for curiosity, humility, and growth orientation.

A curious sales rep digs deeper into the customer’s needs, generates helpful ideas to solve them (even if they don’t involve your product), and handles the entire interaction with empathy.

“I believe salespeople who are innately curious go a long way. You need to be someone who’s trying to understand the why behind things.” - SS

How to scale an enterprise sales team

Scaling and growth are at the top of the agenda for many sales leaders, but most leaders rush to add new sales tech to their stacks and ramp up hiring.

Sid advises taking a step back and nailing one critical piece of the puzzle: turning your sales pirates into mercenaries who evangelize your product.

“Build a widespread belief in the product. Your sellers need to truly understand the value your product brings to a customer, the problem it solves for someone, and have 100% faith in it. Nothing beats that.” - SS

Next, build out your sales engine by hiring strong Sales Ops professionals, training them extensively on the product and sales process, and empowering them with the right sales tools.

Lastly, fuel your sales engine with sales enablement and coaching. As sales teams scale, it’s easy for each rep to develop their own version of the official pitch, which muddies prospects’ understanding of your value proposition.

Sales enablement assets align everyone on the correct messaging around your product and help drive a coherent narrative. Coaching removes blockers from the selling process and brings out the best in your reps.

Deploying both at the same time leads to greater focus, better results, and higher staff and customer retention.

SaaS international go-to-market and expansion strategy

Success in international expansion hinges on entering markets similar to your own and defining your preferred market entry mechanism.

As you consider expanding internationally, determine which global markets are similar to yours in personas and buying processes.

“For example, Indonesia, as a startup ecosystem, follows India closely right now. There are a lot of shared investors in the market. Many products being launched in Indonesia are products that have existed in the Indian startup ecosystem for the last eight or ten years. So if you’ve done well in India, you’ll probably do well in Indonesia, and you’ll still maintain that relevance.” - SS

Language also plays a role in your international GTM strategy, especially if you’re a US-based company. For example, while Japan is one of the largest SaaS buying markets after the US, Australia and India are probably better options to target as they’re both English-speaking territories.

This reduces the need for extensive translation of marketing collateral and increases the chances that customers in that territory will resonate with your messaging.

Your entry mechanism also defines how successful you’ll penetrate the market, build market share, and scale revenue.

Different options abound — from joint venture partnerships to channel resellers and affiliates. Each of these options aims to do one thing: lower the barrier to entry.

“These markets are highly relationship-led and have their own language and cultural nuances. Find companies that are already selling other SaaS products and see which partners you could work with.” - SS

While you’ll sacrifice some percentage of profits taking this route, you’ll reduce the likelihood of failure. This is due to the more intimate local knowledge and existing relationships your channel or joint venture partners have.

You can start with resellers, create a viable customer base, then decide whether you want to scale with the same resellers or deploy a direct sales team.

Demand generation strategy: Educate your market for faster and easier sales

“An ideal customer is someone who knows the “why” behind things. They can articulate the problem they have, why they’re looking to buy a solution, their use cases, and how their different teams would be impacted by it.” - SS

While such ideal customers are rare, it all boils down to educating your market on the problem, possible solutions, and your solution specifically.

At each point of the customer journey, consider how you can help the buyer take a step toward buying your product. This might mean:

  • Creating evaluation checklists for offerings in your category
  • Showing just how ineffective current solutions are
  • Publishing content around your point of view

“What a lot of SaaS companies focus on is differentiators: ‘There are eight products in the market, here’s how we’re different.’ I think that’s good, but what they need to focus on is being educators of the market, being the people who help solve the problem in an agnostic way.” - SS

Playbooks are one example, and Amplitude, Sid’s previous employer, does this well. The digital optimization platform partnered with advisors and experts to create playbooks around product management, retention, and engagement.

Each provided the company ample opportunity to inject their brand where appropriate organically.

“If you are the market educator, you tend to be the product that someone thinks of. That’s something I wish more SaaS companies did.” - SS

How to reduce churn in enterprise sales

It turns out there’s a way to reduce churn that’s more powerful than offering incentives and loyalty perks, requesting early feedback, slapping on exit surveys to cancellation emails, or obsessively tracking usage and engagement rates.

It’s time — specifically, multi-year contracts that give customers a longer time frame in which to truly get value out of your product and get attached to it.

After all, it makes sense that most enterprise customers don’t start seeing true ROI from their tech stack deployments until a few months in.

Multi-year contracts give them sufficient time to integrate your product into their workflows and get true ROI from it.

What’s more, a longer time frame gives your sales and customer success teams more opportunities to upsell and cross-sell other products across your portfolio, which contributes to higher ARR.

Thanks to this, finance teams are better able to forecast revenues, marketing teams can plan around case studies and co-marketing campaigns, and investors can rest easy with guaranteed ARR numbers.

“For a lot of enterprise products, you do a one-year contract. Implementation gets done in a couple of months. By the time customers start using it and getting trained, you’re already at month four to six. You continue another quarter, and suddenly you’re at month nine and talking about renewal. It’s too soon. It’s too early.” - SS

In contrast, a longer contract allows you to shift the conversation from “When can we renew?” to “How can we help you grow and deliver more value?”

With the benefit of time, you’re able to plan for a long-term future rather than optimizing short-term metrics.

But how do you convince customers to sign multi-year contracts with you if they’ve never used your product long enough to see its value?

That’s where your sales process comes in — specifically, the pre-sales support, messaging, and sales enablement assets you deploy to show the value you’ve created for other companies.

“During your sales cycle, proof points come into place. Do customer references. Take prospects through those case studies. Have them meet your post-sales team during the deal cycle. Let them see what the experience would look like and the people they are going to work with once they sign the contract.” - SS

But as with everything, there’s a limit to this approach. While multi-year, multi-product contracts confer many benefits related to revenue and time-to-value, they also expose you to the risk of changing business landscapes and unforeseen changes to the customer’s situation.

You can counter this by staying up to date on your customer’s progress, requesting regular feedback on KPIs, and moving to solve any issues they might have with your product or its implementation.

How to advance into sales leadership and succeed

It’s time to throw away the religion of hustle culture. While hustle and hard work are necessary to growth and advancement, they don’t scale beyond a certain point. At that point, focus and discipline become the major drivers of growth.

“Hustle doesn’t scale beyond a point. What scales is focus and discipline — that’s where you need to invest more energy. Couple that with the right hustle and you’ve got a magic potion.” - SS

But focus, discipline, and hustle can only get you so far. To advance even quicker, mentorship is paramount. This is especially important in a profession like enterprise sales, where much of your learnings are acquired on the job, and there’s a higher likelihood of making costly mistakes.

“Early sales folks make the mistake of jumping ship for more money or a title bump in the first two to four years of their career. I think people should instead focus on honing their skills with the right mentors.” - SS

And once you get there, says Sid, networking is the key to maintaining success. Sid has found himself leaning more towards this as his career progresses — setting time aside to learn about others in the industry and the challenges they face.

“I’ve realized that enterprise sales is all about having the right partners, influencers, and connections. I wish someone early in my career would’ve taught me this. I used to be afraid to think I could just reach out to another VP of Sales for coffee and a conversation. I’m obviously not anymore, and I think with remote work, it’s becoming even easier.” - SS

Remote working has made it harder to forge connections in person, but it has opened up a whole new world of networking and collaboration.

Setting aside a few hours each week to have virtual coffees with potential customers and future partners can pay dividends down the line. Tools like Lunchclub exist to facilitate such conversations.

“You never know who you’ll meet, and that meeting can turn into a great friendship, a deal, or your next job. So just keep meeting more people.” - SS

And in the spirit of meeting and connecting with new people, we advise you to connect with Sid on LinkedIn.

And when you’re done, return to read up on a former sales director who now powers a $100bn investment fund — with plenty of advice for sales teams on how to scale.

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