The ideas contained within this article were originally delivered as a talk at Turing Fest 2021 by our Managing Partner, Bethan Vincent.
There are plenty of challenges that start-ups and scale-ups face. Making your first marketing hire is one of them. Every company’s needs, problems and stakeholders will be different and your hiring manager is going to bring their own biases to the table as you look for the ideal person.
Before we get stuck into the ins and outs of how to hire your first marketer, it’s important that you factor in these biases. Think about the potential problems that these could cause as you put together interview questions and rule out candidates.
Go back to the drawing board to narrow down what you actually need to be looking for – a marketer that will solve the current promotional problems of your business. Every market is unique, every company culture is unique. Think about what’s right for you, not your nearest competitor.
Once you’ve got those bases covered, you’re ready to move ahead. In this post, I’m going to cover everything from when and who to hire as your first marketing team member, to scaling beyond a team of one.
When do you hire your first marketer?
As a start-up, your biggest priority is trying to get off the ground and break free from the constraints of time and money. I won’t bring up the stats about how many businesses fail in their first five years, but let’s put it this way: early traction is crucial.
You could start out with a sales team model, where you approach prospects one-on-one and nurture them until they become paying customers. That’s fine, but it’s time consuming. Enter: marketing.
It’s really important to understand that marketing isn’t sales. It’s about achieving scalability, reaching your audience quickly and efficiently with the resources that you currently have. Sales only reaches about five percent of your market at any one time, the prospects who are in the ready-to-buy phase. Marketing’s job is to build relationships with the other 95 percent.
Think of marketing as part of your start-up holy trinity – product, engineering, marketing. And with that comes your early adopters, the people who are bought into your product or service from the start. They make the road ahead look easy but it’s not.
Don’t let those early sales metrics cloud your vision moving forward. They’re early adopters for a reason and aren’t a true reflection on the rest of the market. Having marketing involved at the beginning is the best way to nurture that next phase of your audience upfront, to come up behind the early adopters and stop your business from falling apart before you’ve really got going.
You also need to remember that being “first to market” is no longer a defensible moat. Code can easily be copied, products can easily be copied. But what people can’t copy is who you are. Brand, then, is really your best bet. And who’s in control of this? Your marketers.
Marketers need to be there from the beginning. It may be daunting to hire someone to promote your business when you’re a founder. But when you have rose-tinted glasses about the product or service that’s your brainchild, you often can’t see beyond anything right in front of you. Someone internally needs to own the voice of the customer and speak for them. Again, that’s your marketers.
Who should you hire?
Now you know that making your first marketing hire in the early days of your business is essential, but who should that person be? To decide on the kind of marketer you need, you must have a marketing strategy. But to build an effective strategy, you need marketing people. See the problem?
We’ve talked about the benefits of T-shaped marketers for years. It’s valid in theory, but there are a few key attributes that are often missing from this mentality that you really need to focus on as you hire your first marketer.
When time, money, and resources are your biggest constraints, you need someone who’s strategic but also action-oriented. As a marketing team of one, that person needs to get things done. You also need an insightful person who isn’t solely focused on data. Numbers are great, but what do they mean? Why are they important and what can the business do to improve them? It all comes back to strategic action.
It’s also crucial to hire an excellent people operator. This is a trait that often gets overlooked in favour of action, but it needs to go hand-in-hand. Everyone thinks they know how to do marketing, from product to engineering. Your hire needs to be able to handle that without alienating the rest of the team. Those leadership and management skills will also come in handy when you’re scaling your marketing team beyond one person.
You only have so many resources to work with, so look for the best candidate you can find within those constraints. If you need to prioritise something, it should be their bias for action and willingness to fail. But when you haven’t done much marketing before, how do you know that?
Taking inspiration from Amazon, there are ways to test for bias to action in your hiring process. Add in interview questions and scenarios like:
Describe a time that you took action when it was not something that was expected of you.
Give me an example of a situation where you had to take a big risk
Walk me through a big problem your organisation faced that you helped to solve.
Hiring from big marketing firms
While there are some amazing individuals working at consulting companies, hiring someone from an agency as your first marketing hire is not always the best solution. You may think that you’re covering all bases here, but really, you’re not.
Marketers coming from a big firm have had plenty of resources to play with. Whether that’s budget or other teams, there’s always someone else there to help solve the problem. So how will they handle bootstrapping a marketing department, possibly on their own, for the foreseeable future?
This also translates into that individual likely never having ownership of a marketing strategy before. Your first marketing hire needs to own your entire marketing strategy. And if you do manage to find someone that checks this box, it’s very unlikely that your start-up can afford to hire them.
While there are exceptions to every rule, you ultimately need to be focusing on candidates who have experience in lean businesses with few resources but still managed to get things done. They need to have some experience in building a marketing strategy from scratch and running with it. They also need to have experience in partnering with other internal teams that have nothing to do with marketing.
What about freelancers and agencies?
Ideally, you want to hire in-house for your first marketing hire. But low budgets and hiring timelines can make this more difficult.
Good marketers are expensive. You don’t want someone fresh out of university who’s essentially a marketing intern. You need an individual with practical experience, but isn’t so advanced in their career that you can’t afford them. If your budget only stretches to hiring someone experienced for one or two days a week, that’s better than having an inexperienced person at the marketing helm.
Hiring also takes time. The average time to bring someone new onboard can be up to 12 months. When you’re trying to generate traction as quickly as possible, bringing on an external freelancer or agency can help to speed things up in the meantime.
Rules for single person marketing teams
If you’re the only person on your marketing team, I applaud you! It’s hard, really hard. I’ve been there myself so I want to share some of what I’ve learnt along the way.
Your job is all about extreme resource management. Lean on your strategic background to prioritise your best bets. When you only have so much time and money, play the cards that you think will buy yourself a few wins. Because those wins mean you can negotiate for more marketing budget and additional team members.
1) Focus on the money
Marketing’s goal is to get people to pay. Ignore the vanity metrics. Everything boils down to how many customers you’ve acquired and how many have become actual paying customers. Your job is to convert customers to get more in the bank.
2) Be invested
To achieve your goals, you need to co-own revenue. That means being as invested in the success of the company as the founder and reporting directly to the CEO. Marketing must have a seat at the top table to see this kind of success. If you’re interviewing as the first marketing hire for a company, ask who you’ll be reporting to. In a start-up, it should always be the CEO or founder.
3) Fight for dedicated tech resources
At some point, you’re going to need dev time. But in a start-up, the engineers are going to be focused on the product, because that’s their job. So who does marketing turn to for help? Have that conversation early on. Is the solution allocating a set amount of engineering time each month to marketing, or are you going to hire freelance developers as needed? Don’t ignore this because it ultimately impacts your ability to do your job.
Scaling your marketing team
Let’s quickly revisit a point we addressed earlier. Hiring in-house for your first marketers is really important when it comes to scaling. Investors like fully-fleshed out internal marketing teams and many are looking for this before they make their investment.
Roughly half of VC dollars are put into marketing, but they’re being wasted on digital ads that do nothing to grow a business. Investors now are savvy. They want to know marketing fundamentals like cost-per-acquisition and the plans to lower or maintain that. That’s something an in-house marketer should be able to discuss.
If you’re in a position where you’ve been working with a freelance consultant before your first in-house hire, make sure that you have a 12-month exit plan in place to hand those responsibilities over to someone internally.
Beyond your strategic marketer, one of the best positions that you can hire as you’re scaling your marketing team is a project manager. They’re essential for keeping the operational side of marketing running. What you don’t want, which is often what happens, is that your marketing manager steps into that role. Their time and energy shouldn’t be wasted on this when they need to be a strategic leader.
A PM is great once your team reaches six to eight people, each owning a different part of the marketing process. The PM keeps the process moving along between each specialist until a task is complete.
How you actually scale your marketing team will depend on your strategy and how you plan to dominate your market. There’s no one-size-fits-all start-up marketing team structure. They’re as unique as the businesses themselves.
Take GitLab for example. They’ve built their marketing team around the different strategies that they use to win.
Source: GitLab Handbook
Developer evangelism is an important part of their acquisition process, so they have a community relations team. Marketing ops supports the other marketing teams, almost like a mini agency for the rest of their marketing divisions, because speed is an important part of their brand.
So what can we learn from this? Really, there is no perfect structure. Think about what your product and company needs most and scale based on this. Build your plan around your strategy. This is why it’s so vital to have this in place right from the beginning.
If there’s only one thing you remember from this…
Act quickly. Your first marketing team should be structured for speed above all else. Once you reach your start-up’s escape velocity, then it’s time to think about what comes next.
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