In the early days of a tech startup, teams tend to be small and lean; so the day-to-day running of the business tends to take an all-hands on deck approach. The lines of responsibility between different jobs are often blurred. Frequently, product and sales pick up the heavy lifting of customer onboarding, implementation and enquiries.
But, as the startup scales, product teams will be less able to see the customer through implementation, and the CTO will no longer have the capacity to field technical support enquiries. Its at this point you call in the solutions architects (aka start making some hires!).
With growth a priority, most B2B tech startups must maintain a momentum that isn’t workable if engineers are distracted by customers calls, or if the CEO or CTO becomes a bottleneck for sales. It therefore makes sense to take a ‘divide and conquer’ approach - letting engineers keep their focus on software development, and to hand solutions architects the client-facing tasks that come with integrating the product into the end-user’s enterprise architecture.
SAs as the bridge between sales and product
The best SA teams successfully bridge Sales, Customer Success and Product teams. A great SA will have good understanding of customer needs, and a deep knowledge of the company’s product. They aid the team in implementations, managing customer expectations, document best practice, and feeding vendor requirements into the product roadmap.
Depending on your product, employing SAs may not always be necessary. The general rule of thumb is that solutions architects are of most value when a solution or service needs to work with the end user’s legacy systems and technologies, and some level of integration is required.
Once you’ve established whether SAs are needed, then the complexity of your product will impact when you make your first SA hire.
SA as part of the customer journey
For B2B tech startups, it’s crucial that the customer journey - from sales to implementation and aftercare - is as smooth as possible. Solutions architects play a key role in this seamless sales and integration experience. While sales development reps (SDRs) help to qualify, evaluate and categorise potential leads for account executives (AEs) to outreach to. For leads of a certain size and/or complexity, the AEs will work with an SA in order to develop an in-depth implementation plan.
SAs are also valuable outside of the sales pipeline. Due to their unique technical and customer insight, they can work with the company’s engineers to troubleshoot more complex support issues for new and existing clients. An SA can also team up with the Success and Product teams to document best practice and feed vendor requirements into the product roadmap.
What to look for when hiring a solutions architect
As a solutions architect myself, I have seen the benefits and challenges that the role brings. At Paddle, I’ve learnt that being a solutions architect requires an ability to balance everyone’s needs, while implementing a solution that obtains the desired business outcome.
As a chameleon within the business, there are key traits that a good solutions architect must have to deliver value to the business and the end user. These include:
REALLY knowing the product - look for the person who can get under the hood of a product. This doesn’t mean spouting off reams of product literature, but rather understanding how this product works for end users, and being conversant with the issues that may face.
Acute listening skills - While SAs may have better knowledge of the product, having the ability to listen to the customer is critical. It’s worth remembering that, sometimes, a customer may not know the problem they’re facing, and it’s the SA’s job to help work that out.
Empathy - it's important that the SA is able to put themselves in the shoes of customers and understand what motivates them. Not everyone will prioritise the same outcomes. So they should be able to quickly get to know people, what their challenges are and what's currently blocking them from realising their needs.
Practicality - An SA should have a practical approach to finding solutions, and be happy building examples to test different options using the product you're supporting.
It's important to have a completion mindset - often an SAs work will be the missing link between a teammate or customer being able to move forward. Therefore, they will need to have a disciplined approach to keeping on top of outstanding tasks and communicating your progress.
Juggling - The nature of the SA role means individuals are pulled in multiple directions. Those seeking out SA roles should be able to quickly switch between multiple strands of work and balance time between proactive and reactive problem solving.
Where do you find SAs
I discovered Paddle through AngelList. Which is a great resource for finding talented individuals who have an appetite for working with startups. I had already been working in a semi-technical team and seen some data integrations with another startup and wanted to further my experience in this area.
While hiring outside of the organisation is an option, building out the SA role may also be an opportunity for existing staff. It's a great role for an employee who is wanting to work in tech and develop more tech skills without being a full time engineer (though it could be a path to working in Product or Engineering in future).
Solutions architects are instrumental in making sure that a startup’s technology and products fit the needs of its customers. They support and collaborate with the sales teams by listening (and in some case uncovering) customers’ business problems and technical requirements, linking the technology to those problems, and presenting tailored solutions to these customers.
This is why the role of a solutions architect requires a blend of technical, commercial and sales skills to help salespeople do their job better. They will form a vital part of any B2B tech business as it grows and be a vital part of the customer experience.
Edward Long, Solutions Architect at Paddle
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