Heads Up with Thibaut Ceyrolle, Partner, Atomico

Thibaut Ceyrolle is a Partner in the Growth Acceleration team at Atomico, a European Venture Capital firm investing in technology companies at the earliest stages through to IPO. He works with their portfolio companies to build effective Go-to-Market strategies and Sales functions.

Tell us about your background and your focus within Atomico. 

I don’t come from a typical VC background. I’ve worked 22 years in software, tech and IT companies, always in sales and always in go-to-market. Before joining Atomico,  I was the first employee outside the US at Snowflake; employee #162 to be precise. In 5 years, we scaled the EMEA business across 14 countries and grew to about $250M revenue. We also IPO’d during my time at Snowflake. 

At Atomico, I am a Partner in the Growth Acceleration Team. We are a group of experienced operators with real-world experience to help Founders on their growth journey. I spend at least two-thirds of my time working with Founders to guide their GTM organisations in three areas; hiring, sales execution and sales management.


What are the patterns of success that you see in strong SaaS companies? 

Two things – focus and consistency. Focus is so crucial. Too many times startups will dilute their efforts. Understandably, they are very proud of their product, and they want to show the product to anyone that accepts a meeting. But that doesn’t necessarily create leads. You need a very clear picture of your target market; for example, at Snowflake we had a laser focus on replacing AWS in technology companies and online retailers that were already in the cloud, because we knew we had strong product differentiation.

Consistency is the second key factor. Startups are fast-paced, dynamic organisations which makes consistency difficult. I often see startups implement something and give up after a few weeks because there are so many changing demands on the business.  Consistency is especially important in pipeline generation. The most successful companies that I see have consistent forecasting and sales methodology and these are delivered in a way that inspires the sales team rather than something that is enforced. Consistency also creates a common language in the business, meaning that everybody looks at deals and pipeline in the same way. The same principle applies to hiring: clear hiring criteria and a clear definition of success which, in turn, creates a culture of performance and execution.


How does your approach to hiring evolve at different stages of growth?

At the very beginning it’s important to hire people you trust because you are a small team and having total trust in each other is not optional.  Then, you need to find risk takers. When I joined Snowflake, I left a good job with a team, good salary and bonus etc. But I felt ready to take a risk for greater upside in the long-term. The risk is real, comes with personal sacrifices, and for me, it included making lifestyle changes such as taking our kids out of private school. When I was recruiting the early team, I spoke to many people who weren’t prepared to take any personal risk. When the company starts to scale you need to have different types of people. The early risk takers are great at driving new customer acquisition and awareness. Then, more senior individuals are needed to lead very large sales bids and big accounts. This is a different skillset to someone who opened the account. 


Throughout every stage of growth, it is important to hire against a clear set of characteristics. This helps build culture and drives consistency during periods of rapid growth. It is also particularly useful for new categories such as AI where so few people have any real industry experience. I use the following criteria for all the companies I support: 


  1. Drive – do they have the right level of ambition and motivation
  2. Ownership – do they take ownership of their pipeline/performance/customer?
  3. Coachability – can they adapt what they already know to learn a new technology, sector, pricing ?
  4. Curiosity – do they truly want to understand the business, products and customer?
  5. EQ/IQ – do they have the right balance of intellect and awareness?


How can early-stage companies sell high into enterprise customers?

It’s a question of mindset from the beginning. Enterprise sales are an investment. They come with higher costs, and it takes longer to close deals. That is a challenge for growth stage businesses where there is pressure to show results quickly and manage costs.  It also forces Founders to think hard about the proposition and the strategy. They are rightly proud of their product and sometimes I think they fear rejection by a blue-chip customer.  

Most Founders don’t have a sales background and the process can be new to them. Selling high into Enterprise customers often requires a shift from selling features and technical capability, to selling value. It requires start-ups to sell to a new type of buyer; the Economic Buyer. This means demonstrating clear ROI and demonstrating the product is something they need. When you can demonstrate the need, you can drive high into accounts. It’s a process of give and take. In the early stages, you give a lot with business cases and POCs, but you need to leverage that early work to get access to other stakeholders and get the inside track on the decision process. The Economic Buyer will always say it is their decision, but you need to ask whether they need formal or informal approval for the deal. Usually, you will find someone higher who is very influential, and you need to be talking to that person. 


What makes a great CRO in 2024?

It comes down to experience. I look for people who have written the story and not just people who can tell the story. In early-stage companies, you need people with experience of solving problems such as increasing enterprise deals, selling internationally, managing big renewals etc. when there is no template. These are all things that happen in big companies, but it is a different challenge when there are existing people, processes and commercials in place. That doesn’t make it easy in a large company, but it is different. In a start-up, there isn’t a playbook for any of those things and your job, as CRO, is to figure it out and to make it repeatable and make it scalable. It’s difficult to find those people because it is incredibly hard work, and they might not want to do it again if they have been successful. 

The buying environment has changed dramatically in the last few years, and I think the most successful CROs will be the ones who can articulate business value. Sales were easy in 2021/2 but just pushing software doesn’t work anymore. The market is much tougher, and you really need to demonstrate the business value of your product. There are methodologies to help with that, but I always come back to my hiring criteria – Drive, Ownership, Coachability, Curiosity and EQ/IQ 



Interviewer: John Smith

Please feel free to contact John Smith directly via email jsmith@hiec.com should you have any questions or would like to discuss the above or anything else further.