The founder is often the first sales person. But as the go-to-market motion scales and becomes more sophisticated and complex, new strategies are needed to keep large teams working efficiently to achieve goals. That’s where a GTM operations leader steps in.
Great GTM operations is an essential — and often misunderstood — part of driving revenue at any SaaS business. Much like the pipes and wires of a well-functioning vehicle, the Ops team provides the mechanisms that turn a cross-functional, multi-channel GTM strategy into a series of measurable, actionable steps. Once a startup attains product market fit, bringing on a GTM operations leader can help a founder scale sales, marketing, and customer success headcount, and define GTM strategy, processes, and performance tracking, while avoiding the typical growing pains of siloed teams, fragmented data, redundant tooling, and disjointed customer experiences.
As your company and customer base grows, so too will the cost of running your GTM organization and the importance of getting the most out of that investment. Adding a GTM operations team at a typical B2B company can reduce overhead by 30%, improve sales productivity by 10%, and increase marketing ROI by 100% by providing support in several key areas:
- Strategy: How do we best allocate our resources to hit targets? How big is the gap between expectations and reality? How can we close it?
- Data analysis and service: What are the metrics that matter to our business? What’s the right target? Are we on track to hit it?
- Communication: Have all stakeholders given input? Does every team agree and commit to the plan? Is everyone made aware of changes as they happen?
- Alignment: Does everyone have the same set of facts? Is everyone working in lock-step, across teams and levels, to achieve the revenue target?
- Day-to-day operations: What tools, training, and data do teams need to keep the GTM engine running smoothly? Are processes codified, repeatable, and efficient?
As LinkedIn’s VP of GTM Operations Lekha Doshi puts it: “Operations brings vision to reality. We connect the dots across the go-to-market functions, including marketing, sales, and post-sales, and act as a conduit between go-to-market and other functions, such as finance and legal, all in service of helping go-to-market functions achieve the corporate vision and strategy.”
With more than 10 years of leadership experience in the function, Lekha would know. Today, she oversees operational planning, strategic insights, lead generation, and monetization partnerships for LinkedIn’s B2B SaaS and Ads Businesses, which has scaled its revenue ten-fold under her direction.
Though her day job involves running an organization of 1,300 people across five teams and several time zones, Lekha works with founders of businesses of all sizes in her capacity as an operational advisor at Bessemer.
In this guide, you’ll get the field expertise that Lekha dispenses in those one-on-one conversations with founders, as well as a wealth of other valuable insights any leader can use to make a fantastic first GTM operations hire.
Operations gets used in a wide range of titles (People Ops, BizOps, Legal Ops), but companies typically have just two teams whose purpose is to run operations for another large organization within the business. Those teams are research and development (R&D) operations, and GTM operations or, as it’s sometimes called, revenue operations (RevOps).
One of the key responsibilities of the GTM operations/RevOps leader is taking board and executive-level goals and using data to break it down into attainable yet ambitious targets for each team. Determining the right targets requires not only accurately forecasting to predict performance, but also closely collaborating with leadership and GTM teams to come up with the plan needed to achieve it.
"The GTM ops leader starts with answering the question, ‘How do we get there?’"
“If you want to achieve $50 million in ARR, you can’t just assign that to a few sales reps and hope for the best,” says Lekha. “The real work for your go-to-market ops leader starts with answering the question, ‘How do we get there?’ Let’s say we run an analysis and expect we can get $10 million from marketing and $40 million from sales. That just introduces more questions for operations to answer: Where will those leads come from? How do we measure their quality? How much can each sales rep take on? Where do we need to add resources?”
What are the core competencies of GTM Ops leaders?
The typical GTM operations team at a SaaS company has a whole host of responsibilities to the rest of the organization and to the business, from integrating and maintaining GTM tools to keeping data consistent, up-to-date, and accessible across the organization. Among these, three stand out to Lekha as the hallmark of a really effective GTM operations leader.
1. Setting the right targets
More data doesn’t necessarily lead to more insights. An effective GTM operations team identifies the metrics that teams really need to pay attention to in order to hit the most important GTM metric of all: revenue growth. But setting the right targets requires working with people as much as it does working with data.
GTM operations has to consider both board expectations and on-the-ground experiences of teams when setting targets. This includes facilitating hard conversations to prevent functional leaders from sandbagging their goals and preventing executives from picking numbers out of a hat. Being trusted as this objective voice of reason allows GTM operations to get buy-in more easily and set accurate targets.
“You can use both the top-down and bottom-up methodologies,”explains Lekha. “When I work with an executive who has a target in mind, I’ll be honest when that target is unrealistic or has less than a 50% chance of attainment based on my bottom-up analysis. The executive can either agree to adjust the target down, or we can propose ways to increase our probability of success of achieving the stretch goal.”
2. Closing gaps between expectation and reality
Many times, the corporate-level vision won’t line up with the forecast based on past performance, and in such cases, GTM operations can partner with marketing, sales, and post-sales to determine what additional resources or changes to the strategy could potentially reconcile the difference.
“You may be under pressure to show top line growth for a given quarter or year. In that situation, I think of myself as a helpful portfolio manager who steps in to say, ‘Based on my analysis of the data and conversations with teams, here are a few ways we can reallocate resources or make new investments to get us there.’”
In our conversation, Lekha highlighted five levers of growth she keeps in her back pocket for these situations. Her team may propose one or a mix of strategies, depending on the size of the gap, how performance is trending, and what she’s hearing from people who will ultimately be responsible for hitting the target.
Five levers of growth to close the GTM gap
Lever 1: Compensation
“When you incentivize your team to perform at another level, they often do,” says Lekha. Each company will have a different philosophy when it comes to sales compensation, and you can work with your GTM operations leader to find the one that works best for yours. Regardless of what you choose, one rule of thumb: if everyone hits quota, you’ve set it too low. Like everything in nature, even your sales performance will look somewhat like a natural bell curve, but quota attainment can look different depending on your goals.
Tight distribution: You’ll likely end up with a tight distribution of sales rep performance if your business is indexing on retaining and protecting existing revenue streams vs. driving aggressive growth, and you’re aiming to keep performance predictable. This incentive plan will often attract people who are consistent and reliable, and work to keep their earnings as predictable as possible.
Wide distribution: If you’re an earlier growth stage company or one trying to enter a new segment, market, or geography, you’ll likely end up with a wide distribution of sales rep performance. This type of incentive plan usually attracts candidates who are comfortable with risk, and are motivated by the chance for outsized returns, even if that means they don’t always hit their target earnings.
Lever 2: Hiring
If you have more pipeline than your sales team can handle, increasing incentives won’t drive growth. Hiring is expensive, but if you’ve validated that your sales performance is scalable, it pays off in dividends. If your business has reached more than $10M in revenue, you might consider recruiting reps with experience selling to specific verticals, companies sizes, and geographies. Specializing your sales hiring can allow you to widen your market and improve performance with certain segments. In order to develop a strong business case for additional sales or marketing headcount, you’ll need to maintain a close relationship with the finance team, and be able to show GTM’s ability to hit short-term internal hurdle rates and bring in revenue without sacrificing customer retention or profitability.
Lever 3: Pricing
Some SaaS businesses resist pricing adjustments once pricing has been standardized because the change requires a big cross-functional effort, and if done poorly, can lead to upset customers. But when done well, increasing your pricing is one of your best levers to hit a target since the revenue goes straight to your bottom line. Much like products, pricing is ever evolving and benefits from regular iteration. If it feels like your pricing model or strategy isn’t optimized to the value you are delivering to your customers, consider re-evaluating. If you’re concerned about churn, experiment with pricing for new customers first, and then bring existing customers up to parity over time.
Lever 4: Sales strategy
Earlier stage startups tend to (rightly) focus on new market entry, but eventually, you’ll reach a point where renewals eclipse the value of net new customers. To have success at this stage, you’ll need great sales reps and great relationship managers, two complementary roles for very different profiles.
The Hunters: Sales reps have to create something from nothing to close new accounts. This work is ambiguous and unpredictable, but has outsized returns. Hunters have the ability to stay motivated and energized through uncertainty and set-backs. They often make a great first impression and enjoy and excel at making connections from scratch. When entering a new market, you may opt to incentivize hunters based on the number of new logos they can close, and then, as you start to gain traction in that market, transition to a traditional revenue quota.
The Farmers: Relationship managers retain and grow existing accounts by helping customers get the most out of your product. Farmers are consultative, developing and offering industry knowledge and best practices to customers. Very effective senior farmers may even think of themselves as part of the client’s extended team. By building strong relationships and trust, farmers can upsell, cross-sell, and mitigate churn risk. Once you reach scale, you can consider giving farmers specialized incentives for multi-year contracts, early renewals, and new product penetration to help achieve a target that hunters wouldn’t be able to on their own.
Lever 5: New Markets
Entering new verticals, segments, and geographies can create opportunities to drive top line growth. GTM operations can identify and then assess each opportunity by: (1) objectively evaluating existing market data; and (2) conducting pilot experiments. Because of the length of the sales cycle, GTM operations have to design and manage pilots over long periods of time. If the company is considering creating a channel partnership or making an acquisition as means of entering one of potential markets, GTM operations steps in to predict the performance of each approach from a margins and growth perspective, and see if it’s likely to outperform other strategies that the internal team can run on their own.
Ultimately, Ops leaders are looking to answer the question: how much incremental revenue can we bring in through new channels, possible acquisitions, or internal builds?
3. Effective course correction
GTM operations can’t adopt a “set-it and forget it” mentality when it comes to targets and planning. In theory, everyone has a responsibility to stay on top of what’s happening with the business as a whole, but in practice, GTM teams will naturally narrow in on their specific piece of the puzzle: marketing on leads, sales on closed won deals and revenue, and post-sales on retention.
According to Lekha, GTM operations has the responsibility — and the leverage — to intervene and regularly bring attention to performance across funnel as a whole by:
- Choosing metrics that make teams accountable to the entire funnel (i.e. replacing a marketing-generated leads KPI with a sales-qualified leads KPI)
- Continuously monitoring and reporting widely on performance, and ringing the alarm whenever a trend line starts looking unfavorable
- Initiating conversations with marketing, sales, and executives to adjust forecasts and strategy as needed to stay on track
Signs of success: How do you measure the measurers?
How GTM operations contributes to the overarching revenue goal is different from the rest of the organization, and that means they have different leading success indicators too. To quickly assess the performance of your GTM operations function, have the team reflect on the following questions (and hopefully get a resounding “Yes!” to all three).
Are our targets accurate?
“If your sales team hit 10% above plan, that’s great news for business, but actually a red flag for operations,” explains Lekha. “If you blew out your targets, that means you set them too low and may not have used your budget effectively, when you should have predicted that the team could stretch more.” At LinkedIn, Lekha has made variance between targets and actual achievement a key metric for her team. “If variance is within plus or minus 2% of actuals, we know we’re doing a good job.”
Are we a trusted voice?
“You should be able to separate the signal from the noise and distill down key data points in a way that’s easy for your stakeholders to understand. Ideally, others will see you as an objective third-party who knows what’s going on with the business,” says Lekha. Being unbiased and approachable means that executives and teams alike will be willing to have honest conversations about the goals, strategy, and performance.
Are operations an enabler, rather than a blocker, for the business?
If you have high-functioning GTM operations, all other GTM teams shouldn’t have any operational blockers preventing them from achieving their goals. That means cross-functional deliverables, roles, responsibilities are clearly defined, accounts are passed seamlessly between marketing, sales, and post-sales, territories are built quickly and strategically, quotas are set accurately, deals are processed smoothly, and all the tools work well.
It’s a long list of things to get right, but for GTM operations, it’s table stakes. What makes for a standout GTM Operations team is the ability to balance the operational responsibilities with the strategic ones. “It requires ruthless prioritization,” says Lekha. “It’s human nature to want to fight fires, but sometimes you have to let the fires burn so you can identify and go after opportunities for meaningful growth rather than just facilitating incremental change.”
Case study: Leveraging data science for Ops at LinkedIn
Lekha shared a recent example from her time at LinkedIn where data science played a critical role in helping the operations team find a solution to an otherwise unattainable growth goal.
“Our team is risk-averse when it comes to account quality,” says Lekha. “For a long time, we had a stringent standard for what counts as a high quality lead based on a range of factors, including projected LTV, and we gave our leads a quality rating of A, B, or C based on that standard. Only grade A accounts were passed on to our sales reps.” But when the team couldn’t hit a more aggressive growth goal with the available pool of grade A leads, Lekha’s team went looking for other opportunities.
In partnership with LinkedIn’s data science team, they built a model that identified a cohort of grade B accounts that had as high a likelihood to buy and succeed as grade A ones. “We used historical data of existing customer accounts and married it with firmographic data and real-time signals of prospect accounts, such as hiring growth and how much they used our platform. From there, we cherry-picked the best accounts from the larger pool and passed them onto sales to help drive growth.”
Not only did they identify “cream of the crop” Grade B accounts that would allow the sales team to hit the higher target in their short-term, but they also increased account quality to generate larger LTV in the long-term. “We started looking into ways to improve retention to ultimately increase LTV,” recalls Lekha. “Since we knew that the first 90 days really determines the retention rate, we proposed a 30-60-90-day onboarding program that reduced churn.”
Making the hire — five qualities that make an ideal GTM Ops leader
Revenue Operations (RevOps) is the fastest growing career in the US, and by 2025, Gartner expects that 75% of high-growth tech companies will have a dedicated RevOps function. For any founder considering hiring a GTM operations leader in the future, here are the five qualities Lekha finds most important for the success in the role.
A key function of GTM operations is forecasting and reporting, so being comfortable working with complex datasets is non-negotiable. An ideal candidate also stays on top of innovation in machine learning and AI-enabled tools that can reduce the workload of teams strapped for time.
Bias towards action
“You want someone who’s quick to roll up their sleeves and get stuff done,” says Lekha. As we’ve learned, this team is not just analyzing and disseminating data but also acting on it. If they see an issue or opportunity, they propose solutions and bring people together to agree on one.
Managing the entire GTM portfolio of a SaaS company is a huge responsibility, especially in the current market. When you have someone advising leadership on where to invest the next dollar, you have to trust they sought out all the right information and perspectives and are prepared to help you make the best decision possible.
“Your first hire needs to be able to speak the truth and speak it clearly — and never be afraid to share bad news,” says Lekha. In her career, she has seen a lot of great operations people with consulting backgrounds, as both roles require you to transform data into objective, easy-to- understand stories that help an organization see the need for a change and work in concert to make it.
Your GTM operations leaders will need to seek out and balance multiple perspectives across teams, levels, geographies, and be trusted by individual contributors and executives alike. To determine how well they’ve been able to collaborate across the entire org chart, contact former colleagues on adjacent teams.
The organizational glue of the GTM function
If you’re tackling revenue operations at a SaaS business, there are four key ways your leadership and function create value across the organization: by connecting executive vision to the daily operations of different teams, improving the efficiency and efficacy of the GTM funnel, creating a source of truth through the data and tools that are implemented, and being a conduit between the GTM teams and the rest of the organization.
The role of GTM Operations is an extremely interdisciplinary one — part data science, part GTM strategy, part systems work, and part internal communications. A huge component of a GTM leader’s efficacy hinges on their ability to act as an ambassador across functions and levels in order to make critical connections across the company and full funnel.
Driving consensus and teamwork at a large organization is difficult but required if a GTM operations leader wants the GTM organization to take the kind of measured bets and risks that can transform a business. “Influence is an art.” shares Lekha. “You have to bring people around the same table. You have to be curious and open to everyone’s perspectives, but always question ‘business as usual’ in order to constantly improve the performance of GTM.
“The best way to turn a vision into reality is to invest in your cross-functional relationships across the organization — it’s collaborating with experts that turns a strategy into repeatable and scalable programs that drive incremental revenue.”
GTM Ops — Core areas of responsibility
Connecting executive vision to daily operations
Fostering cohesion among marketing, sales, and post-sales
Driving organizational awareness
Establishing data accessibility
Leadership understands the opportunities and obstacles for every target. Each team knows where the targets came from and what they need to contribute toward it.
All the teams work in concert to achieve the revenue target, and there’s a quick feedback loop to report issues or suggest improvements in the funnel or customer lifecycle.
The entire company is aware of GTM plans, performance, and problems, and other functions, such as legal, finance, and product, know what part they need to play.
Everyone has the same source-of-truth for data across the GTM funnel. Key metrics and analyses are made accessible to teams via dashboards and regular reporting.