Field Guide
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Once an enterprise startup has innovators for product/value hypothesis, it’s time to engage with design partners. Design partners help founders refine the product and the sales process.

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  • TL;DR
  • The 4 steps in a qualification-led sales process: discovery, scope, validate, and negotiate and close
  • Scope is where we see most opportunities die — that’s by design. Disqualifying an opportunity after one or two meetings is great as long as it’s done because of a technical or business hurdle you can’t overcome at the moment. You can then reallocate time to more qualified opportunities or building new pipeline.
  • In qualifying sales opportunities, you want to live by the mantra “no surprises.” You need to know how you can win and how an opportunity can die, so you’re always in control and aren’t getting blindsided or dragged around by the prospect.

(Hopefully) you are here

You and your team are now two quarters in, and have successfully done the following: 

  • Completed this Modern GTM Framework exercise to segment your markets into innovators, design partners, and early adopters and get clarity around your positioning
  • Identified and interviewed 50+ innovators for product feedback, informing your first product roadmap
  • Received commitments from 10–15 innovators to become design partners when your product is ready to test 

To-dos for the next 6 months

  • You and the team will finish building your beta version of the product based on feedback from innovator interviews.
  • Your design partners will install the product to test its performance, and then convert a subset of your design partners to your first paying customers. This phase usually covers months 7–12 in the 18-month timeline. 

Sales process overview

Up to this point, as you build your beta version, design partners have provided feedback on wireframes, mockups, and demos every one to two weeks based on a predetermined cadence. 

Now that they have the ability to test your beta version, you’ll need to make the evaluation more formal in order to forecast if they will convert to become a paying customer or just provide more feedback and then move on. This is where your first sales process comes into play. 

Design partners who are willing to install your product and provide feedback but don’t convert to paying customers (and therefore have to uninstall or downgrade to the free tier) are still extremely useful. If you have 10–15 design partners, five to 10 might fall into this category. The remaining five to 10 will install the product, test it and provide feedback, and then find they are getting enough value to pay you in order to continue running the product in production for the next 12 months. 

Using a sales process for all design partners once they are ready to install your product and start testing is what allows you to separate these two groups, and spend more time with the ones who have a higher propensity to buy. 

You’ll use a more sophisticated qualification process (MEDDPIC: Metrics, Economic Buyer, Decision Criteria, Decision Process, Identify Pain, and Champion) with the early market and beyond as your product matures.

What is a sales process?

A sales process can be defined as a set of steps to be completed in order to purchase a product. From the USER’s perspective, this defines what's necessary to test and buy your product. From the founder and sales perspective, it enables you to determine at any point which of your USERs has the highest probability of buying by a specific date. This becomes the basis of your sales forecast. 

In this section, we’ll look at a qualification-led sales process. Your product might also benefit from a self-serve sales process that enables USERs to, for example, purchase a subscription using a credit card. However, if you are a founder with an enterprise product, you will need a qualification-led sales process to enable corporate deals with much larger average sale prices (ASPs).

4 steps in a qualification-led sales process

Sales processes will look slightly different for each company, but the four step-process we utilize has worked as a baseline for the vast majority of our enterprise founders (regardless if they are product-led or qualification-led) and is closely related to the process we followed at Databricks, MongoDB, Segment, Sumo Logic, and AppDynamics. The four steps are: 

  1. Discovery
  2. Scope
  3. Validate
  4. Negotiate and close

Each step of the process has a gate (requirements that must be met) before you can move an opportunity to the next step. If you’re unable to meet the gate requirements, you have to keep digging in an effort to achieve them with your current prospect or look elsewhere in the organization. Alternatively, it might be a sign that this opportunity isn’t qualified and you should move on. 


During the discovery stage, the two key questions to answer are:

  • “Does this prospect have a problem we specialize in solving?”
  • “Is there a compelling reason for them to solve it now?”

Every discovery meeting should be judged on how much you learn about the prospect, their team, the business, and how things are going. The key to discovery is to learn if and how you can help and to provide value in each interaction.

Discovery is conducted in one 45-minute to one-hour meeting, where you use the questions we’ve outlined in Building your first customer presentation with an accompanying discovery deck. During the early market phase, this will likely drop to a 30-minute meeting.

In order to pass through the gate to move the opportunity forward to a scope meeting, the following criteria must be met.


In the scope stage, you answer the question, “Does our product meet the technical requirements to work in their environment, and how would they justify paying for the value we provide?” Here you will get into the weeds with the full team to detail the technical use case (USER) and how that will lead to positive business outcomes (BUYER). 

You’ll need to meet everyone who will be involved in their decision process to understand their motivations and objections and to learn about any competitors in the running, including internal solutions. Ideally, you'll get all of them in the same meeting to test your champion (main USER who advocates for your product) to see if they have the influence they claim. 

Scope is where we see most opportunities die — that is by design. Disqualifying an opportunity after one or two meetings is great, as long as it’s done because of a technical or business hurdle you can’t overcome at the moment. You can then reallocate time to more qualified opportunities or building new pipeline.

An example of disqualifying an opportunity for technical reasons

One company we work with had the experience of looking to get adoption from design partners, only to find out during the installation process that one of their hypotheses was wrong. They'd underestimated the degree to which prospects were customizing the APIs for services such as Kong, NGINX, and GraphQL or using different versions of these services. They had to pause, decide which to prioritize, and build those features, before they could resume.

The road map choices this company made were an important determiner of which design partners remained as viable prospects. For the others, this company had to have the confidence to walk away since the installation and configuration requirements were not a fit given their revised product roadmap. 

An opportunity can also die for business reasons. In one case, we observed technical USERs advocate for testing a machine learning (ML) platform only to be stopped by a VP who owns their budget. The VP’s rationale was that they’re already paying AWS $2M a year and, with SageMaker, they can achieve 80% of what they want to do with less work and no additional cost.

In qualifying sales opportunities, live by the mantra 'no surprises'

You need to know how you can win and how an opportunity can die, so you’re always in control and aren’t getting blindsided or dragged around by the prospect. 

Once you're confident of the installation path, performance tests, and success metrics, you’ll need to get your champion to sponsor a meeting with the BUYER. This is known as a Go/No Go meeting. The Go/No Go meeting boils down to, “Here's what we’ve heard from your team, these are the pains you’re dealing with and the negative impact on the business. If we’re able to prove that we can solve those pains by hitting your success metrics, can you confirm you’ll move forward with a purchase by X date?”

It’s much more powerful for your champion to walk the BUYER through the case for your product on your behalf, with you in the meeting to answer questions and educate where needed, but in all likelihood you will do this together. 

The BUYER will then agree to the terms of the evaluation and let you proceed, or they will say no. If the BUYER says no, you’ll need to debrief with your champion and work to fix what you’re missing or disqualify the opportunity, document why you lost it, and walk away. 


In the validate stage, you answer the question, “Did our product do what we said it would do — both technically and for the business?”

Once you have alignment with your champion, their team, and the BUYER, you can kick off the product evaluation. Make sure to document and tag any bugs that are discovered, gaps in the product, or feature requests, prioritizing those that align with your road map. 

Starting with the installation, you’ll need to send calendar invites in advance to the team involved in the evaluation in order to hit the agreed-upon timeline. If the prospect needs to adjust this once or twice, that’s not a big deal. However, if they constantly reschedule at the last minute, stop the evaluation and reconfirm that your product is still important with your champion. If not, disqualify them and move on

Another issue that can emerge is getting into a never-ending cycle of “just one more feature.” What’s important to specify during the validation phase is that if you meet the requirements that the design partner asks for, then you’re ready to move on to a proposal review and negotiation. It’s important to create a mutual agreement that the prospect won’t continue to adjust their requirements to stretch your team’s resources or disrupt focus from the task at hand.

If you’re getting the same ask from several design partners, then the feature might be worth considering. In addition, consider how you can set up a give/get scenario if you agree to an ask of the design partner. This could be related to the price, a public mention, when they sign, or some other arrangement that is mutually beneficial. If you're unable to quickly reach an agreement that's good for you and your product and good for the design partner, disqualify them and walk away.

Once you get an indication that you’ll be able to hit the technical success metrics, you should go back to the BUYER and ask to kick off the paper process while you put together a deck with the results of the product testing. The paper process is the list of security, legal, and procurement items that need to be executed in order for you to get a signed order form. These processes can be very time-consuming, which is why you want to ask for permission to start them as soon as you’re confident the evaluation will be a success. 

Negotiate and close

In the final stage you answer the question, “Now that we have approval to move forward with a purchase, what is the mutual action plan to get a signed order form?”

This is when you’ll be working with your champion and the BUYER to complete all the required aspects of the paper process (new vendor forms, security questionnaires, redlines on your MSA/order form, etc). You’ll want to stay ahead of the agreed-upon timelines outlined in your mutual close plan, which keeps your forecast accurate and holds the champion and BUYER accountable. 

When it comes to negotiating, especially with design partners, since they’ll already expect a discount somewhere in the range of 20–50% for the risk they’re taking, you can usually pull three levers to make that steep of a discount worth it for you: 

  • When they sign (the sooner the better!)
  • How long they sign for (we don’t advise doing more than a two-year deal to start)
  • Being a public-facing reference — either just the logo or, ideally, a testimonial

You’ll want to optimize for all three of those negotiating levers, and at a minimum, pull one to justify the discount — all of which should be reflected in your order form. 

How to qualify a design partner in each step of the sales process 

Sales process ≠ qualification methodology

If your goal with a prospect is to go from a design partner testing your product to a customer paying for it, the sales process we just walked through is the map that shows the path between those two points. The qualification method is the turn-by-turn GPS directions on how to get from one to the other (an analogy I’m borrowing from John McMahon, who is arguably the best software CRO ever.)

For the design partner section, your qualification method will be getting the information required to pass the gates between sales stages. In the next Field Guide article, 4 boxes of discovery with prospects (a five-minute read), we'll walk through the details of the qualification method for design partners.

Continue to: 4 boxes of discovery with prospects


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