Zero to Won: Sales in a Product-Driven Company with David Apple (Notion)

In this episode, we sit down with David Apple (Head of Customer Success and Sales at Notion) to talk about how to build a sales team in a product-driven company. Before joining Notion, David also headed up Sales and CS at Typeform. Drawing from his experience, David discusses how to align sales and customer success, how sales works in a product-driven company, and his first steps in building out the sales team at Notion.


  • Combining sales and customer success: 01:50 - 05:20
  • Integrating sales in a product-driven environment: 05:20 - 09:10
  • Managing small versus big accounts: 09:10 - 10:50
  • Customizing the pitch: 10:50 - 15:40
  • Aligning with tough conversations: 15:40 - 18:54

3 Key takeaways

#1 Aligning sales and customer success

Closing is step 1. But building recurring revenue, generating expansion revenue, and making customers successful in the long term is what drives company growth. More and more SaaS companies are aligning sales and CS by bringing on a CRO. This allows Sales and CS to work hand-in-hand to manage handovers and set the right expectations - in terms of implementation, features, and pricing - from the get-go. It also means thinking strategically about compensation systems: either incentivizing CS, implementing a team-based commission system, or mixing both approaches.

#2 Putting product and engineering at the forefront

Working in sales in a product-driven company means accepting that the product is the first driver of value for the company. It requires being mindful of things like feature requests and actually acting as a filter for the engineering and product team's time and resources. And being successful in a sales role in a product-driven environment involves adopting a different mindset: for example, celebrating wins with a "the whole team made this possible" attitude rather than by ringing a gong.

#3 Customizing your pitch for each customer

Selling a product that is very horizontal in a company that is inbound-driven means handling very different customer profiles and use cases. David starts off his calls with a brief overview of what the product can do (2 minutes), then asks questions (using the SPIN Selling framework), and then performs a demo using a library of templates to illustrate features and use cases that are relevant to the customer's context. He also qualifies leads early on in the funnel to focus his limited time and resources on high-potential accounts.

Full transcript of our chat with David Apple:

You head up sales and customer success at Notion. Could you tell us a little bit more about what makes sales unique at Notion?

David Apple: It's still very early days for sales at Notion. Most of our growth was done without a sales team and without a marketing team which is pretty unique and pretty amazing. As a result, I've come in with the challenge of really high volume. So, we have thousands of signups every day. And, basically, I need to figure out where to focus my time and make sure that I'm not speaking to the people who either won't convert or convert to very low plans and that I'm adding value by speaking to the high value potential customers.

And prior to that, you were also leading and building the sales and customer success team at Typeform. My question, naturally, is, "Why would you combine sales and customer success?"

David Apple: That's a good question. I actually think it's happening more and more under a different title that Chief Revenue Officer does control sales and customer success. I think it makes a lot of sense because, historically, Sales would close a deal, and that would kind of be most of the revenue of the deal, and then they would hand over and not really care what happened afterwards. With SaaS, when you close a deal, you're only getting a small percentage of that revenue from that customer, both because it's recurring revenue and also because you have a lot of potential for expansion. So, it makes a lot more sense for those two teams to work together to bring in customers by not over-promising and making sure that you're setting the right expectations, and then having a nice follow-through and teamwork with the customer success team to continue to deliver success for that customer. And, hopefully, that will translate into expansion.

On paper it sounds good, but aren't there times where both teams don't necessarily share a common interest, and how do you manage that tension?

David Apple: My goal as the leader of those two teams is to create that common goal. It has happened that people come in - I'm talking about Typeform now - and someone would come in with a different background that's used to working in a different way, and it's my job to kind of catch that early and say, "I know that's the way you worked in your previous company, but that's not the way we work here. You need to spend the time to do a proper handover with the Customer Success Manager. If the customer wants something custom, you need to align with the Customer Success Manager that's going to handle that account later to make sure that they're okay with it and that things are priced properly and everything." So, I think it's my job to make sure there's alignment, and if there isn't, that's on me.

Do you tweak the commission system a little bit to make sure that, for example, Sales and CSM are on the same page when it comes to expansion revenue and things like this?

David Apple: Yes, but in a slightly unorthodox way. In the sense that, at Typeform we never had commissions for the sales team. You have a base salary and, hopefully, you enjoy your job enough to come in everyday and do your best work. That was in Barcelona. In the U.S., I'm just about to start building my team at Notion, and I'm not sure if I'll keep it that way or not. Let's speak again in a few months. I like the fact that there's no commission and maybe more like a team-based incentive where, if the salesperson closes a deal, it's never just thanks to the salesperson. It's thanks to our great support team. It's thanks to our great product. It's thanks to Marketing and bringing in the right profile of customers. So, just a salesperson getting a check when nobody else does, when it's really thanks to everybody, doesn't sit well with me. I don't know how to reconcile that yet, but we'll see if we can figure that out in the next few months.

Speaking of product, my understanding of Notion from the outside is that it is a very product-driven company, and if I'm not mistaken, for quite a long time, there were mostly engineers and product people, right?

David Apple: That's right.

How are you managing to introduce sales into that product-first environment?

David Apple: This is something I learned first at Typeform because it was similar where I was the first salesperson and, previously, it was just a very product-driven company. And it still is a product-driven company. I think the first thing is knowing your place. In a sales-driven company, sales tends to be at the forefront, and that's what some salespeople may be used to. In a product-driven company, it's the engineering team and the product team that are at the forefront, and it's realizing that their time is really valuable. They're the ones driving the improvements in our products and, therefore, in our company. I'm very careful about the feature requests I make. I make sure that they're backed with a lot of data, and I also make sure that I'm not interrupting engineers or product managers all the time with little one-off things. I'm basically trying to protect my company's engineering and product teams' time. That's one difference compared to a sales-led company.

The other one is, one of the biggest challenges, both at Typeform and at Notion, is that our biggest competitor isn't another company. It's actually our cheaper plan or free plan. Our free plan was so generous that it was hard to convince people to pay. And at Notion, it's a little bit easier to convince people to pay at the low plan. But convincing people to pay more for the Enterprise features, the incremental cost versus the incremental value perception, is hard to build.

You were touching a little bit on how engineering is the most valuable resource when you consider a product-led company or a product-driven company. Is having a strong sales culture compatible with a DNA that places engineering above all else?

David Apple: I think culture is an interesting topic. The way I think about culture for my team is based on a couple other things. Who are we selling to and what's the culture of the buyer, and how should we behave with the buyer? Just like, a very obvious example, if you're selling to a bank and you walk into their office, you probably want to wear a suit and maybe even a tie. If you're selling to a startup, you're going to go in in jeans and T-shirt. Those are some differences, but you have to adapt to who you're selling to.

And, also, you need to adapt to your company culture. It wouldn't make sense for me to try to build the sales team with a completely different culture that doesn't really work with our company culture. With those two in mind, the way I like to think about culture and sales is very customer centric, very honest and transparent with our customers, and basically serving more as trusted advisors or consultants than the traditional view of like a used car salesman just trying to get you to buy something.

Is that manageable when, with a product, like, not Notion, obviously, you've got a very horizontal product, very high-volume business. I imagine, also, quite low ARPA. How do you switch from one role to the next when you're selling to a high value account versus, perhaps, a customer with smaller needs? And what challenges come with that?

David Apple: So, the way that I think of managing small leads versus big leads is basically, at the moment, at least at Notion, I don't have the time or the capacity to speak with the small leads. So, the goal is creating a segmentation. In this case, automated where I automatically weed out the lower value leads and make sure I'm fully focused on just the high value leads. This is pretty important for me right now because at Notion, right now, I'm a team of one. I'm about to start hiring. As the team grows, we may lower the bar of what's okay to speak with, like which profile customers are okay to speak with. But for now, I'm just very, very rigid with whom I'm willing to speak to and who I'm not. And I've created a nice handover process with our support team where they hand certain leads over to me, and I hand certain leads over to them.

You must be spending quite a bit of time at the moment talking to customers.

David Apple: Yes.

What are some of the first steps that you try to put in place when you jump on a call with them? Do you do it in person?

David Apple: At the beginning, I try to meet a lot of people in person because I think you can get a little bit more when you're interacting in person, like how people are responding to your demo or your pitch, especially if there's a room of people. As I was perfecting my pitch or my demo at the beginning, it was really valuable to see people face to face. But now it's 100% on video.

To answer your question, the way I start my meetings is always by asking questions and understanding the context of why - because I only deal with inbound - why this customer reached out to us, what they're trying to achieve with Notion, what questions they have, so that none of my pitches are exactly the same. Or, none of my demos are exactly the same. They are all tailored to what the customer asks for.

What are some tips that you have to salespeople who would be looking to, as you're doing right now, kind of customizing the pitch each time? Do you use specific tools to help you manage that?

David Apple: Basically, what I do is, I've created a presentation that is about two minutes long that is an overview of why Notion exists, what problems we're solving. In that presentation I use, basically, exclusively customers' words. I've interviewed customers, gotten their feedback, and used that feedback to create the presentation. I like to make that really short because, otherwise, it's boring and you lose people's attention. At one point in there when I'm saying, like, "These are the problems we're solving," I pause, and I ask, like, "How does this relate to you? Can you relate to this? Can you relate to all of these or are there specific ones that are more painful for you?" And then I'll jump into the demo, and I'll make sure that I'm focused on specifically what they asked for.

I use Notion to give the demo, and I basically created a bunch of templates that will address almost any lead from any customer. In some cases, I actually build the use case with the customer, like, together so they can see how easy it would be to do what they need to do in Notion.

At which point in your presentation do you know exactly when you've had enough information to actually start building out that use case?

David Apple: I like this book called, "SPIN Selling." SPIN stands for Situation, Problem, Implication, and Need-Payoff. I try to go through some of those questions to understand. I don't religiously go through all of them because sometimes things are pretty similar from customer to customer, but I want to make sure that I'm not making too many assumptions and that I'm asking the right questions to the customer.

How does video fit into that strategy that you're currently building out at Notion?

David Apple: We have customers all over the world - in Europe, Asia, the U.S., Latin America, and really all over the world. For me, video is the way I meet all of our customers, and it's the way I'm building relationships with my customers. I have early morning calls like today with you because you're in Paris and I'm in San Francisco. And then I'll have late evening calls with people in Singapore or something like that. Video allows me to be really flexible and not have all the down times that I would have if I was meeting people face to face like traveling. Literally I can hang up with you now and speak to somebody from anywhere else in the world. It's efficient.

One last question about what you were saying earlier about building the sales team out at Notion, how do you foresee bringing in a team of salespeople impacting the culture which you already described that exists currently in the team at Notion?

David Apple: I think it goes back to somewhat of what I said before. I don't want to rock the company culture by bringing in a sales team. I think if they don't come in with the immediate culture fit, then it's my job to kind of make them aware of what the Notion culture is, what's important to the company, and what's important to me. One example was, I recently closed a pretty big deal, and our COO was like, "Oh, we should get a gong so that you can…" And, I was, like, "No, no, no. That's not the culture that I want to start creating."

Again, to the point of, "The whole team made this possible," it's easy for me to sell when our product is awesome and support team is awesome, which they are, and our marketing team is awesome as well. So, I was like, "Maybe we should just get a budget for donuts and bring those for the whole company," or something like that. But the point is to be inclusive and never be like, "Us versus them," like, "Sales wants this, and the company wants that," but rather, "How do we make sure that we're always aligned and all working together?"

Any final tips on how to create that alignment between all those different roles that you described - sales, customer support, marketing, product?

David Apple: In my experience, never shy away from the tough conversations. You're definitely going to have tough conversations along the way with all those different leaders. It's really important to just address those head on in a friendly, empathetic way. First of all, assuming that they also want what's best for the company, and try and understand their perspective, because if you understand what's a win for them and they understand what's a win for you, then maybe you can find a win-win.

Too often, it's like, "Oh, these people just don't understand what we need." No, that's probably not the case. They just are looking at it from a different angle, and maybe they can illuminate you a little bit, and maybe you can illuminate them a little bit, and you can figure it out together. That's a super generic answer. There's a lot more practical things, but if we're talking about how to align with all the other departments, that would be my tip.