Firmex CEO, Joel Lessem on “building a machine”, a culture of respect, and why Firmex will never hire sales engineers


We sat down with Joel Lessem, CEO of Firmex, a fast growing SaaS company. We spoke to him about making the right hires, 'culture carriers', and analyzing and implementing the right technology tools for the job.

Tell us about Firmex today.

Joel Lessem (JL): Firmex is 11 years old now. We are a for profit SaaS company. You find a lot of them aren’t making money. We’ve grown steadily in North America and now overseas. We’re over 100 employees and a “rule of 40” company. Great operating business with the biggest customers only representing 1.5% of revenue. It is all recurring revenue with 92% gross margins and 25% operating margins. Very healthy business. We’re very proud of it.

How is the biggest opportunity for improvement in software sales?

JL: Sales as a craft is done poorly, generally speaking. As a result you can take advantage of that as an operator. If you have the right sales structure and training, you can outperform your competitors. I think, particularly in the tech industry, there is a belief that salespeople are not intelligent enough to present software, which to me, especially if it’s user based software, is a bias of the tech or engineering industry. If you train your salespeople to be able to talk and present intelligently about the product as well as all of the other things they are supposed to be doing like listening and understanding customers needs, then you’ll have a competitive advantage.

You’ve had incredibly low turnover on your sales team. Why is that?

JL: We set achievable targets. We have a heavily leaning commission structure, so the high performers can consistently over-achieve their targets. We have a relatively low price point [for the average sale] from $5,000 to $20,000 so our salespeople are writing a couple of hundred orders per year. It’s the consistency and predictability of their earnings plus the autonomy over the whole sale. They do the sale from soup to nuts. Plus, we have a lot of inbound leads. Inbound is 90% of it. For any salesperson it’s a great environment to work in.

Was it a conscious decision to leave the full sales process to the rep and avoid the more common “solution engineer” role?

JL: When I sold ERP software it could take 3 days of demos, and I would do them myself. Firmex has a product you often can demonstrate in under an hour so there is no reason we can’t do that without sales engineers. In fact sales engineers, and I have witnessed them, do a terrible job generally speaking because the “show-up and throw-up”. I never for a minute at our price point considered sales engineers. It is not that complicated because it is such an easy business software to use.

From a KPI perspective what has been important to you?

JL: That’s a simple question with many answers. I mean when it pertains to sales, closing percentages are an indication of competitiveness. That’s a key KPI for us. The other KPI is a simple demand generation. That’s the marketing and viral function of our product. If the demand isn’t coming in, then we know the bookings aren’t going to flow through. To that point, in our business, automation is a key part of keeping our cost of sale productive. That’s another one: cost of sale. What is the cost for me on the sales side of acquiring new revenue. We try to get more productive each year. As the business scales that’s an important point. Have you maxed that out or can you keep going?

What do you look for from your sales people?

JL: The myth in sales is that good sales people talk a lot and impress people. Our salespeople are the opposite of that stereotype. They are quiet and listeners. They are respectful of other people and pay attention to their prospect. They don’t have to be highly experienced but they have to have the right personality and be willing to learn. We are prepared to take chances and hire people for what they are and don’t look at their resume. We look at who they are as people.

When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur or a business leader?

JL: I was always, even as a kid I had little businesses. I think I always had the instinct. In my university days I thought I was going to be a professor; I studied history of philosophy. But then I decided I didn’t want to live in a library. The only job I could get without any qualifications was sales. I ended up being pretty good at it. I started as a bra salesman for Playtex. I don’t know many other people who have sold bras. I worked for entrepreneurs after that. My first company I started when I was 32 did not succeed, and then I started here at 39.

What about culture?

JL: People ask me what I do to drive the culture and I tell them: I don’t do a lot I let it breathe. I let it have its own autonomy. If you’ve done a good job of hiring, you should not have to worry about motivating people. You should just have to worry about demotivating people (laughs).

What’s the secret ingredient to determine if a salesperson is also going to be a strong manager? Is there something they have that is different?

JL: People always ask me ‘what does it take to become a manager?’ First of all, you need to be thinking about the company over yourself. As an an individual contributor you have to worry about one thing; putting up the numbers. It’s about your paycheck and your success. It’s a tough change. It’s about helping others- you’re only as good as your team. You really have to think broadly about the operations of the business. If someone’s like that- and a good coach and leader- then they will progress.

You start to see it early because they are coaching before they are in a leadership capacity.

JL: Are you going to be a ‘culture carrier’? Are you showing leadership in the company whether its the social committee, etc. You are showing leadership in other areas of the company. Can you be a respected leader or culture carrier in the company? Can you contribute to company culture? That’s an important factor in leadership in a company.

Let’s talk about technology in sales. How do you analyze the thousands of different tools that are out there right now? How do you decide what to use, and who does that?

JL: That’s something your sales manager has to do. They have to be technology savvy, fans of tech. They make the decisions. They have to be always looking for tools to make their teams more efficient. Your sales leaders should be the driver of technology to know what’s useful. You’ll never have adoption of your CRM platform if it’s not implemented by the VP of sales.

Any last advice for any sales leaders to create a successful sales infrastructure? What would be your biggest tip?

JL: I think fundamentally you’ve got to invest in your salespeople internally. Hire salespeople for who they are as people and if you have the right systems in place you can have a great repeatable process. I think the attitude to take is one of respect. Unfortunately the sales cultures in many large organizations is one of stick and carrot. There’s great pressure to hit monthly numbers. There’s a lot of yelling and screaming and huffing and puffing. A lot of stress- it just makes a lot of noise.

I think that culture of respect is really clear in every answer you’ve had about delegation of people, how you hire, what you hire them for. Obviously Firmex is a really impressive organization. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I hope everyone that listens learns something because I know I did.

JL: Thanks Jamie, cheers!

For more interviews in our Great Sales Leaders Know series click here.

Five things I learned in my first year as a Sales Manager

 Sonya and her SDR team at the 2017 STA holiday party

Sonya and her SDR team at the 2017 STA holiday party

by Sonya Meloff

In 2017, I embarked on a journey to build a sales team for Sales Talent Agency. Prior to that, we’d never had one, as I had been the only “dedicated” sales person.  This worked well for many years but by the end of 2016, having grown to approximately 60 people, we recognized the need to build a proper sales department to ensure consistent growth.  We also realized that if we could get it right, we had a huge opportunity in front of us.

Though I’d always been a strong individual contributor, I’d never been a sales manager before and it quickly became my job to figure out how.   For a second, yes, I was terrified. But then instantly excited!

We decided to run with an SDR model to see if we could replicate in a service business what we’d seen software companies do so successfully.  That is, we’d break up the sales process in to fragmented segments, hire and train high-potential/low-experience talent, and train them on how to master the earliest and toughest part of the sales process: finding the right opportunities and booking high quality meetings for the senior leaders to carry forward. We also ramped up our marketing efforts to drive inbound opportunities, but that is for another article.

We first test-piloted the idea of an SDR team in the summer of 2016 with a university intern. With a bit of trial and error, we proved quickly that the model worked and pushed forward to build a full-time sales team. By the end of 2017, our team had grown to five full-time sales people and it proved to be a year of tremendous learning and great results.  We hit 107% on an aggressive target, brought on more than 100 new clients, and solidified our team as a critical part of STA’s future growth strategy.

Five key things I learned in my first year as a sales manager:

1. Hire the right people

5 years ago, we developed our DNA/PRO™ methodology for analyzing sales talent for our clients. The most critical of these are the first 3: Drive (are they ambitious, with the work ethic and resiliency to meet their goals?); Nature (are they emotionally intelligent and able to connect easily and authentically with customers?); Acumen (are they bright, curious and able to become a business expert?). Using this methodology we hired 3 high-potential sales rookies who have all excelled (all met their 2017 targets) and have since been promoted. Never have we been more convinced of this methodology than after using it for our own hiring.

2. Pick 3 KPI’s

Starting from scratch, we needed to figure out the basics of what we would measure: how many companies was it reasonable to contact on a daily basis, how many calls should the sales people be making in a day, how were they going to find who to call, do emails work better and how many emails to send, and how many conversations could be had, and meetings booked?

We set and revised daily activity targets and recognized what we could only measure that which we could control - specifically, who we were calling (did we identify the right contact), how often we called them, and what exactly were we saying.  

There is no doubt that the right activity leads to the right results and, with the help of a strong internal Salesforce partner, we set up dashboards and reports to help measure everything.

3. Training must be ongoing

Beyond our training manual with the basics on both sales and product training, I quickly realized that training for sales is an ongoing thing, often in real-time after or before calls are made, emails written, etc.  

I set aside weekly 1-on-1 meetings with each rep to review deals in play,  opportunities stalled, and to complete a thorough pipeline review.  This allowed for pin-pointed and effective knowledge transfer and ensured effective pipeline management.

As a team, we also met daily to review achievements based on the previous day's goals. This has since been modified to a Monday and Friday meeting only.

4.  Tech for Sales has arrived and it’s great!

We discovered and tested great tools like Lusha, Pitchbook, ZoomInfo, Boomerang, ConnectAndSell, LinkedIn Sales Navigator, Calendly, Vidyard and others which helped us get sales insights on our prospects quickly and saved time with tough tasks such as finding key contact info (aka mobile numbers!) for prospects.  Time is money, and we continue to trial and explore new tools that can help drive efficiencies for our team.

5. Celebrate the small wins and have fun as a team

Working in sales can feel like getting beat up a daily basis.  Putting aside the slamming down of the phone, the crass replies to emails, there are prospects that will commit to a meeting, then not show up, never to be heard from again. If that’s not ego-bruising, I don’t know what is!  But with every no, it’s one step closer to a yes, and along the way we enjoyed celebrating the small wins, including: finding an important number, having a good conversation, getting a referral, etc.  We reviewed and celebrated these small wins daily.

We also celebrated big wins - hitting targets and team promotions - and most importantly we had fun along the way. We learned to laugh at ourselves and had fun laughing at and with each other.  Most importantly, we learned that sales is a team sport and nobody can do it on their own.

Because we help companies hire salespeople for a living, our standard is to be the salespeople our clients want to hire.  We set a high standard for each other and, as a team, held each other accountable.  This included work activities and personal goals, and basic expectations around showing up on time, using proper grammar, and being accountable to do what we say we are going to do.  We set a bar to not be late for meetings, to always be prepared and not miss targets,  while recognizing that nobody is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. By stating our expectations clearly, it set the tone for how we wanted our team to be perceived, both internally and externally, and ultimately I think helped us achieve strong results.

The profession of sales is one of constant growth and learning and this couldn’t have been more true for my first year as a sales manager. Our theme as a sales team for 2018 is: Always Be Growing.  The definition of growing is to become greater over a period of time and I’m looking forward to continued growth for me, my team and everyone on it.

For the love of Sales!


These 6 things helped me achieve success as a woman in business


Let’s jump right into it!

 Women in Leadership luncheon by Salesforce

Women in Leadership luncheon by Salesforce

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The first thing that has helped me as a women in business is that I really never think about it. I’ve always just taken the view that to be the best me in business, you really just have to be the best in business, regardless of gender.  Competition in business, unlike say .. professional sport, is not segregated by gender, so in whatever it is that I was doing, whether selling for an ad agency, or selling recruitment services,  I have always focussed on trying to do it better, smarter and  faster than anyone else.  It’s not my gender that determines if I put in the extra effort, and I’ve just always been told that if you do the best job, you will win every time.   

So I wake up every day, prepared to go to battle, and never do I think that any of my successes or failures, wins or losses, are based or influenced by gender. Out of sight, out of mind, and I believe winning in business is gender neutral and I just never think about it. Focus on being the best and it wins every time.

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You have to be scrappy and fight your way to get in the door, or a seat at the table - and that may not happen overnight - but once you are there, it’s your shot to build your reputation and build your credibility.  Nobody expects you to know everything, but come prepared and be ready to ask good questions.  If something doesn’t make sense to you, be prepared to speak up and don’t be afraid to ask ‘why’ or ‘how’. You will never look bad asking good questions, and chances are if it doesn’t make sense to you, then it doesn’t make sense to someone else who’s also afraid to speak up.  

One of the best ways to earn credibility is by having strong expertise in whatever it is that you are doing.  So no matter what your profession of choice, focus on becoming an expert because if you can become an expert, people will listen and you will be the person that people look to for advice and solutions.  Expertise is not gained overnight and it comes with time and repetitions.  

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The first thing that everyone needs to understand is that we are ALL in sales. Every day, we are working in sales. Whether it’s selling an idea to a classmate, selling yourself to a potential employer, selling an idea internally within a company, selling students to come to an event, or actually selling a company’s product or service, we are all in sales, everyday. Point one.

Point two to understand is that sales solves everything! Knowing how to sell is incredibly important and sales skills must be learned and practiced.  There are lots of misconceptions about what it takes to be good at sales, primarily around personality types, but we know that if you’ve got an engine, have high emotional intelligence, and a sharp mind, whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, amiable, aggressive, male, female, everyone can be good at sales.  And a company will always need sales.

So whether or not you actually work in sales, having the ability to convey a value proposition, and learning the skills of resilience, are critical whether you are a scientist trying to get a grant, or a founder of your own next-gen game changing app. See yourself as a salesperson!

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If you want to set big goals, then you have to be prepared to fight for them, get bloody, and not let excuses get you down.  It is very easy to set big goals, but unless you are prepared to overcome any obstacle put in your way, it really doesn’t matter. So be prepared to go through the wall, over the wall, or under the wall in order to achieve your goals.  That is drive and drive crushes ambition every time.

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Sometimes I get frustrated with the negative doom and gloom stories that I hear and read in the media about how bad it is for women in business. Dare I say fake news. If you look around, there are so many unbelievable women leading some of the  largest companies in almost every sector of the economy.

Here are just a few examples:

And if you’re interested in the business of politics, it’s actually amazing how many countries have elected female leaders, including presidents, prime ministers, and heads of states.  Again, a good news story can be found.  Even in Canada, we’ve had our female Prime Minister, Premiers, Mayors, and Governor General.  For those with an interest, there is inspiration that can be found everywhere.

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If there is anything that I would recommend to women in business, it’s to understand that if you want something, you’ve got to ask for it. Make your intentions known, put your hand up, and be clear and direct with your request.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella got himself in some hot water a few years ago when he first advised women in business at a conference that if they wanted a raise, it would come with good karma.  He later walked back those comments, but let’s all just re-iterate, that that ain’t how it happens.

Asking for a raise is but one example where it helps to speak up and ask for what you want. Speak up and ask for what you want and need. If it’s more flexibility once you’ve had a child, ask. If it’s a raise, ask. If it’s wanting a meeting with an executive, ask.  If you don’t ask, you don’t get.  And not everyone will say yes, all the time, and that’s ok.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook CFO and Founder of, along with McKinsey, one of the worlds largest global consulting firms,  published a study which found that women aren’t getting promoted as fast as men. What’s going wrong she asks?  They found that women are less likely than men to feel that their managers give them opportunity to grow, and  the higher up the corporate ladder you go, women just seem to get promoted less, despite asking.  

I think there are a lot of factors that go into this, and I don’t believe that gender parity in the workforce should be a goal, but I believe Sheryl Sandberg is accurate in her findings that many women remove themselves from the workforce, even mentally, well before they need to because they foresee eventually removing themselves from the workforce when they have kids. Therefore, because they know they’ll be leaving, they don’t fight to get as high to the top as they could early in their careers. Leaving on mat leave is inevitable, but it’s better to leave and be as valuable to  a company as possible.

So my advice to women in business, the advice that I will give to my daughter, is that you can’t change your gender, so just get on with it and don’t think about it too much. Remember that credibility is earned, you gotta learn how to sell, ambition is not drive -- how hard are you prepared to go through the wall to achieve your goals, choose to see inspiration everywhere, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Happy Women’s History Month.

For the love of Sales!

Is there any value to your value proposition?


While our job at Sales Talent Agency is to help companies hire sales people, we spend a huge amount of our time ensuring our clients equip their hires for success. After all, if a salesperson we introduce does not perform well, our own value to the customer drops.

One of the most common issues we find is that a company is not clearly articulating a compelling value proposition consistently throughout their sales team. If your salespeople do not know what makes your company and its products unique and important, every cold call and customer engagement is weak.


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Quick exercise

Ask all of your salespeople and leaders to write down your company’s Value Proposition. If they come back uninspiring and varied, you need to fix this before making another sales hire/fire.

How to fix this

So what should your sales reps be saying about you? Here are 3 simple “beats” that have to be covered:

1. What problem are you solving?

As B2B salespeople, we are problem solvers. A company needs to make more money, be more efficient, retain their customers, inspire their employees… Our products must solve a business issue. The first part of your value proposition should clearly explain the problem you are solving.

2. Why are you uniquely better at solving this problem?

We have to show how our company provides a better solution than any of the alternatives (i.e. competitors, legacy practices, or doing nothing). Typical advantages show cost savings, improved performance, and/or better customer engagement.

3. What proof do you have that you have solved it for others?

We can say anything, but can we back it up with evidence? Examples of proof can include: specific names of current customers, performance metrics, awards, our own revenue/customer growth.

Once you have these basics worked out, you can add depth to your value proposition with some return-on-investment projections or historical data. You can further support it with reference letters, testimonials and case studies. But without the basics, your sales people are going to battle completely unarmed.

For the love of sales!

9 tips for presenting a job offer to your preferred candidate

Not every entrepreneur is a born recruiter, but hiring the right people is essential to making your business a success. And identifying great candidates is only part of the problem. Once you’ve found them, you’ve got to get them through the door.

Creating "buzz" around your business


"Every time we finish helping a client on a project, when we send the invoice, we request them to write a reference letter on their company letterhead. We've told our employees that if they can get a reference letter from their clients, we'll pay them $100. Before we knew it, we had 75 reference letters on our website; they're on the walls in our offices. When we're out prospecting, we have this big book of reference letters. That's been very helpful in getting new clients."

—Sonya Meloff, president, Sales Talent Agency Inc. (No. 181)

View the full article here.

For a full list of Sales Talent Agency's reference letters, click here.

What salary should a new graduate expect for their first professional sales rep role?



Great question! A recent graduate with no sales experience but tonnes of energy and enthusiasm should expect a salary range from $25-45k for their first role. Sales roles should also offer a commission/bonus that rewards performance. If you achieve your annual targets as a new sales rep, you should expect a total income ranging from $40-60k in your first year.

For a more detailed look at compensation across sales roles, check out our Definitive Sales Salary Guide.