When I connect with startup founders, no matter the industry or stage, the conversation often comes back to a common challenge: marketing. How do we do it well? How do we maximize our spend? And who’s the right person to do it? These are all valid questions, and they all come back to one central factor. People. The key to building a successful marketing engine for your growing company is surrounding yourself with the right people — from the talent you bring on to the advisors you rely on for support and guidance. So, let’s talk about what that looks like in practice.
Build your team thoughtfully.
Many tech startups focus their early hiring in operations and engineering. Eventually, though, you’ll need to consider introducing a marketer to get the word out about all the great work you’re doing. Whether you have a background in marketing or not, you absolutely need to be intentional about who you bring on in this core business function. I’ve talked about the importance of being human in your marketing, and that starts with bringing together team members who get it. Here are some of my practical tips for hiring marketing talet:
Hire more senior than you think you need.
A common mistake I see among early-stage startups is an inclination to seek out a junior marketer — a “doer,” if you will — as their first marketing hire. And I understand the reasoning. Junior employees are less expensive, and they’re more likely to focus on execution, which is key at this stage of the company. But if you don’t have someone in the role with the capacity to build a cohesive strategy, your marketing will feel scattered and lack a human touch.
Instead, I recommend you look for someone with enough experience that they can bring critical thought to the role, but not so senior that they already have deeply held ideas about what needs to happen. Generally speaking, seven to 10 years of experience is the sweet spot — marketers will have seen enough in their career to come into the role with a strong foundation but also have room to grow. You want someone with a versatile mix of experience, who has the capacity to apply strategy to actions.
Ask the right questions.
When I need someone who can cultivate a strong marketing program (now or in the future), I look for a candidate who is dynamic in how they lead a team, able to adapt their style to whoever they’re managing. Asking the simple question of “What is your management style?” can offer deep insight into how a candidate might lead your future marketing hires.
To dig deeper into how they’ll manage a marketing team, I like to ask candidates to tell me a turnaround story — an example of someone who had potential but wasn’t on the right trajectory, and how they helped them grow. I’ve heard a wide range of responses to this question. One candidate ultimately moved a report to another team after they weren’t able to show improvement. Not a particularly inspiring story. Another discussed the way they helped a report mitigate their weaknesses to “B-level” work while shining as a superstar in their strongest area. That’s the kind of leadership I look for when thinking about building out a successful marketing team — or any team, for that matter.
Another of my favorite interview questions asks the candidate to define and stack rank the following: execution, creativity, strategy, and scaling. It’s a fantastic question because there’s no right answer, but it will give you important insight into the candidate’s thought process and priorities. For a growing company, the definition and ranking of ‘scaling’ gives me a good look into how they’ll enable others and the organization as the marketing function evolves.
Manage your marketers well.
Once you’ve brought on strong marketing team members, it’s critical to manage them well — especially if you don’t have a marketing background yourself. A trap that many founders fall into is letting their marketers set their own measurement of success. Even without a deep knowledge of marketing, you need to take ownership over what success looks like in their role. Work together to level set and agree on expectations. And remember: in the early-stages, your marketing leader shouldn’t be declaring a static plan. Instead, empower them to set hypotheses, run tests, and continually iterate.
Seek out sound external advice.
Aside from your in-house team, I highly suggest bringing on strategic advisors as you think about building your marketing engine. I always recommend that founders and potential advisors “date” for a while before committing to a working relationship. The process of getting to know each other will help ensure the partnership is a good fit and that it will be fruitful for both parties. Successful advisors need to know that their counsel will be taken seriously and implemented at the company, so as a founder you should only bring on advisors you genuinely trust and respect. And when you do choose to enter into an advisory relationship, formalize it. This might seem like an unnecessary step, but it’ll ensure you both have skin in the game.
And once you bring on an advisor, don’t just use them tactically. Remember that advisors bring a different perspective to the table than your board members. It’s completely acceptable — in fact, encouraged! — to build a candid relationship with your advisors. You’ll get so much more out of their counsel if you commit to an open, no holds barred dynamic.
Above all, when you’re building a new marketing team at your company, surround yourself with a team who can align with your vision and goals while challenging you to experiment, adapt, and grow. Because at its core, marketing — and business — is about people.