This article is based on Cristina Lasagni’s brilliant interview on GTM-FM, the official Go-to-Market Alliance podcast. More into listening than reading? Check out the full episode here.

Imagine being tasked with launching a sales function completely from scratch – no brand reputation, no processes, zero market credibility, just you, a promising product, and the challenge of turning that into a billion-dollar revenue engine.

That was the scenario I faced when I joined Cloudflare seven years ago. We were a scrappy scale-up company with ambitious growth goals, and I had to expand from a few hundred million dollars to over 1 billion dollars in revenue, which is where we are today.

In those early days, it was easy to feel overwhelmed. When you're cold-calling prospects who've never heard of you, imposter syndrome kicks in hard. But through relentless hustle and continuous learning, my team steadily built our reputation, shaped our value prop, landed those crucial first customers… and never looked back.

Today, Cloudflare is a public billion-dollar leader, with our go-to-market engine across Southern Europe a key driver of that trajectory. While exhilarating, the ride definitely wasn't easy. That's why I want to share the hard-won wisdom we gained as we scaled for success.

In this article, you'll get a candid look at our journey. You'll learn practical strategies we used to build brand relevance, the traits we targeted when hiring a world-class team, and how we fostered a culture of inclusivity. Plus, I’ll share what it’s really like to be a sales leader and a new mother. On top of all that, I’ll share the core leadership principles that empowered us to achieve the seemingly impossible.

How to start a sales function from scratch

When I started at Cloudflare, we were building the sales function completely from scratch. The reality is that when you're just starting out, you try different things. You don't have a script or process – you don't really know what you're doing.

But here's what's important: you need to understand your market before you start selling. Analyze it, try out different strategies, and get feedback. Keep iterating until you get it right. Really investigate – understand what your competitors are doing, what your unique value proposition is, and what gaps in the market you can fill.

Once you understand the unique value that you can offer, start testing your pitch. You'll fail a few times, but then you can use that feedback to improve. Slowly, you'll figure out your sweet spot – which customers are the right fit, what resonates and what doesn't, and what makes your value proposition unique.

With that dialed in, you'll start getting your first clients. And when you have clients, you can ask for referrals and recommendations. Before you know it, you'll have a community advocating for you. 

This strategy works really well when you're building a sales team from nothing. It's rewarding work, and in exchange, your business will grow.

Building a brand from scratch  

How do you build a brand? It's a big question with no easy answer. I can only share my own experience and story.

If your company is just starting out, chances are, you have no brand. Nobody knows who you are, and you have to get used to that. I remember going to trade shows years ago and being completely unknown. People would ask, “Who are you?” when I cold-called them. Those awkward moments are just part of the journey.

But the important thing is to keep asking questions. Ask, “What do you need? What are the gaps? What are you currently doing?” Ask clients, tech partners, and people you meet at trade shows (so long as they aren’t your direct competitors!). That way, you’ll gather tons of vital information that you could never get through old-fashioned desk research.

That's exactly what happened to me. After many painfully unsuccessful trade shows, I finally met a contact who is now our main regional partner and distributor. I built that relationship, and it's healthy, strong, and growing rapidly along with our businesses.

Cultivating a brand is a journey built on customer interactions, partnerships, and a growing reputation. Sometimes growing your reputation means helping people for free – you're building the brand, not getting paid. It's an essential part of the journey.

Cultivate your brand via customer interactions, partnerships, and a growing reputation.

Combine all those efforts with a great supporting team, and you'll experience a sales and partnership boom in no time. That's ultimately how you build a strong brand from nothing.

The challenges of building a multinational brand

As Cloudflare’s VP of Southern Europe, it’s essential that I customize our global brand messaging to suit the needs of each market in my remit. People are very different culturally and linguistically across regions. So, how do we ensure our brand message stays clear despite those differences?

There's no easy answer. When I started at Cloudflare, everyone was trying different strategies. And that's okay – there's beauty in experimenting to see what works. What works for my team in London might not work for their peers in Munich, and that's important to understand.

Ultimately, you need a management team that's receptive to different ideas and angles. They need to trust the regional expertise of their people on the ground. That's the easiest way to build continued momentum and success regionally.

At the end of the day, your regional employees are the face of the brand locally. Theoretically, you've hired a capable team who knows their market best. If you don't think they do, that's another issue. But assuming they're capable, let them guide how to go to market in their region.

You'll have one core value proposition, which can evolve over time. But regionally, you'll need to allow some variation in the go-to-market approach, if it makes sense for that territory. The messaging should stay consistent, but the delivery tactics can adapt to the local culture and market nuances.

Scaling your brand

This brings us to the next topic – scaling. When's the right time? Once you've built your brand foundation, you're in a better place. But how do you determine if now is the time to scale resources?

Most teams I've seen start scaling sooner than they probably should. As soon as you see a little growth, you get excited and start hiring more people. In many orgs, the sales function scales fastest.

My advice? Start small, and don't get too carried away by early successes. Keep asking for feedback – from your sales team, other departments, and customers. You need to understand what's working and what's needed before taking the next step.

First, map out what success looks like, then reverse engineer what's required to get there. Depending on company size and that roadmap, you'll likely need specific ratios between sales, customer success, tech support, partnerships, etc. Maintaining those ratios is key to healthy growth.

The type of talent you attract also matters. In the earliest stages, hire for potential – you need people who can move fast. As you scale, make decisions to fit the strategy. You'll eventually need different skills to take it to the next level and maintain that growth.

Going from startup to scale-up is fun. But sustaining growth at an enterprise level is harder. In the beginning, you're building. Then you're scaling rapidly. The final phase is just maintaining forward momentum across a full-fledged organization while staying competitive. For me, that last phase is the most challenging.

Building your sales dream team

Let's talk about the hiring process and what makes a good candidate at every stage. When you're just starting out, who's the perfect early hire? And then, who's the right teammate to sustain that momentum long-term?

Let me start by saying I'm passionate about hiring diverse teams. When I began this journey, I was hired for potential – the person who brought me in took a bet on me, saying “Let's see what you can do.” 

I'll admit I didn't make a strong impression during those first two to three months. But my motivation was so strong that I kept pushing and ended up closing the biggest deal the company had ever signed within that first quarter. You never know the impact you can make until you just do it.

In those early days, you really need to hire for potential, because new ideas come from fresh perspectives. The more diverse the team, the bigger the impact you'll have. Even if you have a set idea in mind, maybe you should aim higher – you just don't know your own ceiling until you build that passionate, mission-driven team willing to work hard but also have fun.

Once you have that foundation, then you need to start hiring more for specific know-how and experience – not necessarily super senior folks if you can't afford them yet, but solid mid-level talent to complement that entrepreneurial hustle with process and best practices.

Cultural fit is hugely important throughout the entire hiring strategy. You absolutely must test for values alignment – you don't want to hire people who just don't mesh with the culture you're building. Motivation matters, but so do inclusion and diversity – right from the very start.

Your first hires set the tone and trajectory. The second wave raises the bar as you scale. But that initial entrepreneurial, passionate team is what gets you off the ground by sheer force of will.

The four key traits of a great salesperson

Beyond passion, what makes a good candidate for a role? For me, four key things stand out. 

First, coachability. Someone who is coachable will always be easier to work with. You can exchange feedback and help them to grow their skills and learn new technologies. Coachable people will really support you in any career phase.

Next, positivity. In interviews, I always ask if they see the opportunity in this role. If they don't, I tell them not to take the job. For a sales role, the person must believe in the product and see the career opportunity to make their mark. It'll be hard for them to succeed if they don't have that positive vision for impact. 

There's a myth that great salespeople just convince others, but you can't truly convince someone who isn't already open to it. You need to build relationships, but you must genuinely believe in the product and company vision first.

Thirdly, resilience is crucial – especially in the hard-knock world of new business sales. One of my first interview questions is always, “Why do you want this job? It’s hard!” Different people have different motivations, but I want to see some kind of grit come through in their answers. Resilience is a skill for life, not just sales. 

You can't be resilient unless you truly believe in what you're doing. That’s where sincerity, the final key trait of a great salesperson, comes in. It’s vital that your team and your clients can trust them. So, do they seem sincere and able to have an authentic conversation? 

Four traits of a great sales team candidate: coachability, positivity, resilience, and sincerity

If a candidate shows these four key traits – coachability, a positive attitude, resilience, and sincerity – don't let them go.

Building a successful team culture

Many components make a team successful, and culture is a key one. It's important to define the kind of culture you want the company to embody from the very earliest days. This shouldn't be an afterthought.

If you want a unified, motivated team, you have to ensure everyone's values align right from the start. Your people must believe in and be inspired by the company's mission and leadership. An employee who feels that connection will always be more productive than someone who’s disconnected.

It's also crucial to nurture the talents you have. People want to feel listened to, recognized for their contributions, and have a clear path to progress in their careers. Fostering a culture of coaching and open feedback allows individuals to naturally grow, get better, and be rewarded. If you don't have a strategy for this, partner with your HR team because this is why people stay.

Last but not least is inclusion and diversity. A study by Harvard Business Review shows that diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets. Meanwhile, research from BCG shows that diverse leadership teams drive 19% higher revenue, which, according to ClearCompany, goes up to 41% if male and female employees are equally represented.

Talent can come from anyone with a different background, culture, or perspective from yours. Having a diverse team shouldn't just be an HR checklist, it should be a priority we incorporate into our culture from the top down as leaders.

A winning culture happens when people feel their values are reflected, they're motivated by the mission, have opportunities to grow, get coaching and recognition, and there's true diversity infused into everything. Get those cultural pillars right early, and you'll build an unstoppable team.

The key elements of a winning culture, value alignment, a motivating mission, coaching, recognition, and diversity.

Being a sales powerhouse and a mother

I was the first woman on Cloudflare's early sales team of seven, and the first mother in the company. I loved it. There's so much fear around being a mother in a demanding sales role or fast-paced company, but in my experience, that fear is unfounded. 

When I was pregnant, I actually delivered the best results of my entire career as an individual contributor. My grit and motivation were out of this world. And when I came back from maternity leave? I closed the second-biggest deal in company history.

Sometimes, as women, we get scared about what motherhood could do to our careers. But I think that's all in our heads and the heads of people who believe you shouldn't go down that path.

The reality is, being a parent demonstrably increases your multitasking abilities, problem-solving skills, and people management talents. You do it every day with your child! Motherhood changes your brain in a way that actually makes you more effective – almost superhuman! Yes, we may need to work slightly fewer hours to care for our families, but in those hours, we become hyper-productive and focused.

How being a parent makes you a better leader: increased multitasking abilities, problem-solving skills, people management talents, and focus.

As humans, we crave comfort and normality, but it's so important that we continually challenge ourselves with harder tasks, bigger roles, and opportunities for growth.

There will never be a “perfect” time to have a child, go after that next career step, or ask for a promotion or raise. You just have to go for it, regardless of your personal situation. Don't let fear hold you back from realizing your full potential.

On authentic leadership

Being a leader is tough. No one tells you how to do it. You can learn from amazing thinkers (like Simon Sinek) who illustrate what good leadership looks like, but ultimately, the best leader is your authentic self. Bring your whole, imperfect self to work.

If you try to be someone you're not, people won't stick with you or believe you. You won't be able to motivate anyone truly. We're all imperfect in beautifully human ways. Our friends love us for who we really are – so why shouldn't your team?

When you show up as your genuine self every day and do the hard work rather than just telling others what to do, people naturally get inspired and want to follow you. And if you set an example by rolling up your sleeves as a team member, you earn major respect.

It’s also vital to lead by coaching rather than judging – people will love you for it. I'm lucky to consistently get feedback that my team wants to be there and is motivated, because they know I genuinely love and stand up for them. My motivation as a leader is helping others grow – bigger revenues and impact naturally follow.

Your drive as a leader can't just be making money. It has to be about helping people. Until recently, my team was the only one with an equal gender balance. I wonder if that's because as a female leader, I brought a perspective that truly valued diversity and representation.

I try to be fair, but I also make mistakes and am open about that failure. Owning your imperfections is respected and understood. At the end of the day, authentic leadership is showing your real, flawed self and putting in the work alongside your team.

Scaling your business and your sales team: Closing thoughts

If you're trying to scale up your business or sales function, understand that making mistakes is a natural part of the process. The more you embrace and learn from them early on, the more value you will create.

Also, don't wait until you've scaled to 3,000 or 4,000 employees to get systematic with your vision and processes – you'll have inherited a mess by then. Be methodical about how you scale. Establish processes and staffing ratios that can supportively enable organic growth.

Finally, when hiring talent, prioritize inclusion and diversity. And remember: if you want to attract diverse candidates, you need to make sure you have female representation on your board and leadership team.

Be conservative in your approach, but be bold in building a diverse, talented team using proven processes. Have a clear vision, but stay nimble enough to apply learnings from your inevitable missteps along the way. 

Embracing your failures and consistently improving is how you'll truly scale a sustainable, successful business.