‘Athletic Nerds’: A new profile for the modern seller with Sam Werboff

How the 'Athletic Nerd' sales profile shaped the early GTM organization at Airtable.

Sam Werboff
January 16, 2024
‘Athletic Nerds’: A new profile for the modern seller with Sam Werboff

‘Athletic Nerds’: A new profile for the modern seller with Sam Werboff

Alexa, CEO of Pocus, hosts Product-Led Sales (PLS) “Ask Me Anything” sessions with PLS experts to share best practices, frameworks, and insights on this emerging category. These AMAs are an opportunity to ask PLS leaders any question — ranging from hiring to sales compensation to tech stack — in a low-key, casual environment.

The PLS AMAs are for members of the Product-Led Sales community, the place to learn, discuss, and connect with go-to-market (GTM) leaders at product-led companies. The goal of the community is to bring together the most thoughtful and innovative GTM leaders to build the next generation of sales together.

Interested in joining? Request an invite.

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Meet Sam Werboff, Enterprise Sales at Anthropic 👋

Sam Werboff has spent the last decade building and scaling go-to-market teams at some of the best PLG businesses, including Airtable, Pendo, Algolia, and Mixpanel. Now, he’s taking his expertise over to the world of AI at Anthropic. 

Sam’s leadership at these prolific PLG businesses is set apart by his early emphasis on using data to drive decision-making. His superpower is not only doing this himself but training his team to become ‘Athletic Nerds’ a term he coined to describe the modern, data-driven seller, who uses product usage signals and other forms of intent in their sales motion.

Sam is passionate about how to build not only the right team for a modern era of go-to-market but how to reconcile the challenges of bringing together a PLG motion with top down enterprise sales. As he said to us, “where those unite is a complicated problem that I don't think anyone has a perfect answer to, but I have made it my passion to try to figure out as much of that problem as I can.”

Continue reading this recap of our community AMA conversation with the self-described ‘Athletic Nerd,’ Sam. We’ll share the high points of our discussion, including: 

  • Defining the Athletic Nerd profile and why it’s so important for PLG companies 
  • How Sam helped Airtable harmonize PLG with enterprise sales with a hybrid moton
  • How to successfully move upmarket from your initial self-serve SMB customers to enterprises
  • Hiring and training the right profiles for this hybrid motion 

Let’s dive in:

What is an ‘Athletic Nerd’?

At Pocus we host quarterly dinners with leaders who are shaping modern go-to-market. Sam shared this term with us for the first time at one of those dinners in San Francisco. As he described the profile of an ‘Athletic Nerd,’ heads around the table began to nod. We were so inspired we collaborated with Ross Pomerantz, aka CorpBro (who was also at this dinner) on a couple of sketches that highlighted the strengths of an ‘Athletic Nerd’ vs. the old-school seller (no disrespect to John). 

Check out the sketches here and here

Sam described this seller profile as someone who can combine the drive and hustle of a salesperson with technical aptitude, business acumen, and intellectual curiosity. This profile is especially needed in PLG organizations, where a salesperson needs to know more about the product and how the customer is currently using the product. He coined the term with one of his former colleagues, Will Paulus, who he worked with at both Algolia and Mixpanel. Both products were technical in nature and the reps who performed the best were those who didn’t always need to bring or as he put it “pass the buck off” to a Sales Engineer.

This unique combination allows reps to excel in a PLG world by providing value beyond simply closing deals. Sam sees this change in sales profile extending beyond PLG companies. 

Even if teams are doing only outbound sales, the amount of data that exists has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Instead of blindly making 60 cold calls, a rep now might have access to or can go find data that helps them only call the 20 prospects that will actually answer. 

“I think that independent of Product-Led Sales, the profile of the seller has changed a lot over the years…sales as a motion has become more sophisticated and requires a higher business acumen. The information that is available to the buyer is very different than it was when I started my career. When I started, I remember sitting and making 60 cold calls a day. I'm not saying that motion is dead, but now I ask myself how many of that 60 should I call based on who is likely to answer.”

Airtable’s journey from PLG to Product-Led Sales 

When Sam joined Airtable, the company was in its infancy, with a strong focus on self-serve motion and a 15-person sales team. 

Self-serve in those days accounted for a majority of revenue. Airtable was getting 1000s of inbound sign-ups per day- a great problem to have but an unmanageable volume for most teams. So Sam had a choice, leave these sign ups alone so sales doesn’t cannibalize the PLG business or find a way to nurture potential enterprise opportunities. 

Sam’s first job was to answer this question by bridging the gap between the PLG and sales to build the ideal go-to-market motion for Airtable’s customers.

Building out an Onboarding Specialist team

To get started, Sam established an Onboarding Specialist team that provided a human touch to the sign-up process. At first, this team did not think about sales or revenue at all; instead, the focus was on driving better activation and retention. The Onboarding Specialist team's key activation metric at the time was active users that were inviters, which for them meant inviting their team within the first 4 weeks. 

Sam describes the initial team as an experiment, where the goal was just to understand the customer’s response to adding humans into an otherwise self-serve journey. Alongside the Onboarding Specialist team, he also set up an Experiments team that consisted mainly of data scientists who would spend their time looking at the data from these sign-ups to detect patterns, and identify metrics that could be key signals to predict retention and revenue. 

4x conversion by adding a human touch

What did Airtable learn from these initial experiments? 

Adding humans to the loop in onboarding proved successful. 

“We saw things like conversion rate from free to paid go up 4x. We saw retention rates go up tremendously. We saw the average land size go up 10x.”

Any doubt about whether it was a waste of money to put human capital on top of the self-serve motion was cast aside after these results. But, Sam warns that it’s important not to go overboard. A balance needs to be struck where adding humans in the loop is incrementally better than leaving a customer in self-serve, and it largely depends on that customer’s segment. 

Sam also emphasized that this worked particularly well for Airtable because it is a product that requires some level of education to get to full value. So for PLG businesses with more complexity, especially in onboarding, adding humans to this stage of the customer journey becomes a force multiplier on future revenue. 

Moving Upmarket

A sizeable segment of Airtable’s inbound sign-ups was companies with sub 300 employees. As Airtable grew, they set their sights on moving upmarket into the enterprise segment. In these Fortune 500 companies, the likelihood of a VP signing up for the product self-serve was much lower than their existing ICP. 

This required a more top-down and proactive motion. Sam sought to marry their existing self-serve, sales-assisted, and enterprise motions into a single go-to-market strategy. 

“Airtable was fortunate enough that even in those larger businesses, we did have pockets of usage. So, how do you leverage that usage? Typically [in those accounts, we had] more junior-level folks. We call them builders or creators, the tinkerers within the product. How do you leverage that to get up into higher-value use cases?”

Moving upmarket presents various challenges for companies transitioning from a PLG motion to an enterprise sales motion. Cultural, operational, and go-to-market readiness changes are necessary. 

Companies must balance their PLG roots while developing a more outbound-focused culture. Reps must adapt to a different operational approach that requires leveraging pockets of usage and scaling up account planning. Product and go-to-market readiness become critical, including compliance, security, and tactful conversations at a higher organizational level.

Working on moving upmarket? Let the team at Pocus help, chat with a PLS expert:

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Focusing human effort on long-term revenue

Preventing cannibalization by using their new sales resources efficiently was a focus for Sam and the team as the Onboarding Specialist team grew and revenue became more of a focus.

The key lay in defining their customer segments and really understanding how to differentiate their offerings between SMB and enterprise customers.

Finding Repeatability and Differentiation

Finding repeatability and differentiation in a PLG motion involves focusing on specific customer profiles, verticals, and ideal use cases. As Airtable moved upmarket and grew the sales team, they needed to begin dialing into their most valuable ICPs and customer segments.

Sam shared there is no perfect process for this, and it requires a lot of focus and experimentation. Data plays a crucial role in identifying the most valuable customer segments. Sam explained how product usage data helps surface indicators of future growth so the team could better prioritize which accounts and customers to engage. 

Hiring and training the right profiles 

The type of profile Sam hired for has changed with every stage of growth Airtable experienced. His initial Onboarding Specialist team was made up of entrepreneurially minded folks who could deal with ambiguity. However, Sam always knew that this role may eventually evolve into something more sales-focused and needed folks with some closing experience or high slope to learn the ropes.

Despite being a relatively junior role, Sam’s early emphasis on hiring for technical aptitude and sales skills paid off. 

“I knew this would evolve into a sales motion, so [I needed] someone with closing spirit but savvy enough to be technical. So I would take them through an interview process that had them try to understand Airtable and teach it back to me. We had a relatively high bar for that role, even though it was relatively junior in nature. People who went through the Onboarding Specialist program ended up being some of the best reps at the company.”

Finding the right profiles for Product-Led Sales boils down to hiring folks who are curious, intellectually agile, and willing to be coached. Sam recommends creating a standardized interview process centered around these defined attributes and using a quantifiable scoring system. After hiring, continuous training and coaching help reps develop the necessary skills for success. 

Transition reps between stages of the business

While sales reps can transition between different stages of the business, it is not always seamless. Certain reps excel in specific phases, while others struggle to adapt. The key lies in finding reps who possess attributes aligned with the company's stage and being open to the possibility that some may not be an ideal fit during different phases of the business. 

As Airtable matured their sales-assisted motions, roles like the Onboarding Specialist changed. Sam shared that part of the reason is as your PLS motion matures you learn to automate parts of the work, which necessarily means the role changes to flex in other areas. 

Use scorecards to drive rep accountability and improvements

Sam is a big proponent of creating a rep scorecard and finding metrics that you can use to continuously improve the team’s output. This rep scorecard should include both quantifiable metrics and qualitative metrics that you can coach toward. Sam’s scorecard is broken down into 3 areas: build pipeline, move pipeline, and close pipeline. 

“The scorecard is rating different metrics from 1 to 5 across those elements of the sales cycle. Reps are rating themselves and managers are rating the reps. Then managers and reps  have open dialogue every single week around where reps stand on those metrics. I’m then holding managers accountable on a monthly basis on their reps' scorecards.”

Learn more in the PLS Community

Building a PLS motion and hiring the right ‘Athletic Nerds’ will largely depend on your unique business, ICP, and goals. Focus on building muscle for experimentation within your teams and you’ll be able to iterate your way to the right motion over time, just like Sam and the team at Airtable.

Making these decisions and charting your GTM motion can be hard. But you don’t have to go at it alone! Apply to join Pocus’  PLS community and learn from those who’ve done it all before and others who are just figuring things out. 

Sam Werboff
GTM Leader at Anthropic
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