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Laying the Foundation: A Marketing Toolkit for Early Stage Startups (Part 4)

“A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

This is the fourth and final installment in a series to help startups navigate the various challenges to building marketing capabilities in a scalable, thoughtful way. The landscape has changed so that these fledgling companies must start to build marketing muscles earlier than ever before. In my experience as a CMO and adviser to startups, there are four main pillars that are essential to success in this endeavor:

Now that we’ve covered Pillar #1, Pillar #2, and Pillar #3, let’s dive into #4, the final piece in this series

. Pillar #4: Hire selectively and surgically Let’s face it. While hiring is hard in general, hiring the right marketers is exceedingly difficult. Why? You’re up against four challenges that often converge to form a perfect storm of complexity for early stage startups:

As marketers continue to specialize, it’s incredibly challenging to find the right skill set for the unique needs of your business. Marketers come in all shapes and sizes, such as data-focused growth gurus, brand strategists, creative content strategists, and so many more.

Even if you get #1 right, it’s hard to properly match a candidate’s level of seniority and personality profile to the needs of the company and its stage of growth.

Changes in product strategy, which are common in young companies, can very quickly shift the needs of the business and require a different mix of marketing talent than what the organization originally hired.

Often, the first generation of employees is heavily product-driven and may not have deep experience in the particular nuances of hiring marketers.

In summary, there are hundreds of permutations of marketing roles, and startups can invest months interviewing candidates who aren’t exactly what they need, only to discover they prioritized the wrong roles or skill sets in the first place. Fortunately, there are some rules of the road that can help startups avoid the biggest mistakes.

1. Define the specific “musts” vs. “nice to haves” in building out the team. Frequently, especially after a series A or B funding round, the focus is to bring in a mix of “doers” and “player-coaches,” as opposed to hiring expensive executives right out of the gate. While it’s tempting to hire senior people right away, they may not be as close to the day-to-day details as required at first. In addition, many of the job profiles for marketing roles are hopelessly broad, in the hopes of finding the rare jack/jane-of-all-trades who does everything well. To stay relevant, marketers are increasingly going deep in a select number of areas, so startups need to be sure they are clear on what type of specialty is absolutely critical to success at that point in time. It’s essential to make tough, realistic calls on “musts” vs. “wants.”

2. Optimize for flexibility and fit. More often than not, a new hire’s role will change dramatically over the first 12 – 24 months with an early stage company. Companies need to be sure the people who join the team have a proven record of adapting to new situations — and the hunger to go on that ride again. This consideration is especially important in marketing, where the team will test a range of tactics to drive growth and then have to adapt accordingly. Personally, I love seeing resumes of candidates who have lived through multiple incarnations of the same company, as it speaks volumes to that person’s scrappiness and capacity for reinvention. Finally, it’s important when hiring to consider more than just the skill set of the individual, but how that person will gel with the collective organism of the team. While this argument applies to every function, I believe it’s vital for marketers, as startups need to ensure that all the various marketing levers fit into a cohesive whole.

3. Figure out where you truly need full-time team members, and what contractors or agency partners can handle on an interim basis. It’s not uncommon — especially after a funding round — to add a lot of headcount quickly. Unfortunately, this approach can result in substantial overhead of employees who either don’t end up fitting the evolving needs of the business and/or aren’t fully utilized. To hedge against this type of outcome, it’s often helpful to balance full-time “in the trenches” team members with outside help to fill project needs or take on mercenary projects. This approach ensures the company is matching the individual’s level of expertise to specific needs of the business. The added benefit of leveraging contractors is that the company can get an up-close look at that person and can assess whether to convert him/her to a full time employee down the road. I’ve also had a lot of luck, with scrappy, flexible agencies to fill key project needs, although finding the right fit in these situations is a complex exercise in and of itself.

These are just some of the tips and tricks to navigating the elusive challenges of building the right team at the right time. There is never one set playbook for building marketing capabilities in a startup, but by applying some disciplined principles along the way, companies can avoid some of the most common headaches. Ultimately, the rollercoaster ride is part of the adventure.

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