TLDR: Finding the right person to build a marketing function from scratch is one of the biggest challenges for founders at early-stage companies. Focus on finding the person who can excel in three areas – people, strategy and cross-department collaboration – and everything else should fall into place. Oh, and be cautious of anyone who worked at a FAANG, even if it makes for a great press release.
I speak to a lot of early-stage founders in my line of work. It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to pick the brains of people building something from nothing. Whenever I get the chance, I always ask the same question:
“What’s your biggest marketing challenge?”
One day I’ll pull together some numbers around the most common problems I hear, but I know already that finding the right person to plan, execute, evaluate and refine the communications strategy will come out somewhere near the top.
Having helped build teams from the ground up and lead the marketing of companies that went on to bag nine-figure exits, I’ve sat on the other side of answering this question.
Here’s what I advise CEOs to focus on.
Any great leader is always recruiting, even when they’re not hiring. In an early-stage, first-marketing-hire context, this means a couple of things.
First, has the person demonstrable experience building a team from scratch?
While there may not be a desire (or ability) to bring on anyone else in-house straight away, a marketing leader should be able to quickly spot what skills are lacking from the team and prioritise filling these against business goals – and have done it before.
Second, is the person active in “social circles” like LinkedIn, in-person events or online communities?
Some of the best hires come from a personal network and every all-star marketing lead has both a roster of potential recruits they can tap up AND an obsession with growing their network of contacts.
Finally, does the person have a black book of freelance/agency contacts they can lean on to execute?
Finding someone who can plan and execute across one or two channels is rare, but only a unicorn can do everything. I expect first marketing hires to have an idea of who can fill any gaps quickly without bringing on more headcount.
Imagine you’re going for a run.
Maybe you know where you want to go – but without the right shoes, you’re going to get a blister. Or perhaps you have the best equipment. But don’t know where you’re going? That’s an easy way to get lost.
The same logic applies to building a scalable strategy.
Your first hire needs to be able to set the destination and provide the tools to get there.
This means identifying what success looks like for their function in the context of business objectives – not just marketing ones – and understanding the tactics that will resonate with buyers versus what is just hype.
Here are the top three questions a founder should be asking before bringing someone on:
- How much revenue were you committed to in your last role and how did you hit the target? This shows you that the candidate understands how to position marketing as a growth driver of the business, not just a nice-to-have.
- What is the one thing you would change about our marketing? Not every candidate needs domain knowledge to be successful, but they need to do their research before taking on a leadership mantle.
- Give me an example of a time you ran a unique campaign for your sector. B2B buying behaviour is changing, yet many companies run the same tired playbooks they have for years. Look for evidence on how the lead has tried to find step-change growth.
#3. Cross-Department Collaboration
Marketing isn’t a one-player sport. It touches almost every function within a business.
Sales need marketing to sell.
HR needs marketing to recruit.
Product needs marketing to build.
And so on.
This can be dangerous territory. After all, if marketing is involved everywhere – shouldn’t everyone be entitled to an opinion?
Great marketing leaders understand how to most effectively collaborate with different departments AND set clear boundaries that protect the team’s time. Founders should look to understand exactly how a lead has previously helped sales close more deals or deliver insights to product that’s led to the development of a killer feature and how they did this without compromising other aspects of their strategy.
Whoever runs marketing in an org should only care about three things – people, strategy and collaboration. Great leaders focus on building the foundations across these pillars and building a machine that can handle everything else.
But there are a few extra traits I’ve seen also help in an early-stage company.
- Curiosity. All the best marketers are relentless in looking for new ways of doing things. This could be creative – how can we create a brand that blows all the others out of the water? – or analytical – how do we optimise our processes and become more efficient? – or somewhere in between. But the key trait is experimentation.
- Cultural Fit. Finding a person that gels with you as a founder and the culture you’re trying to build is paramount – not just for the harmony of your company, but also to ensure performance, commitment and satisfaction from the person in the role. Get clear on the specific traits you’re looking for and the true intention of your culture.
- Generalist. The reality is that most first marketing hires are going to be balancing a mix of high-level strategic planning and face-in-the-dirt tactical execution. No one can do it all, that much I know. But finding a problem-solver who can think quick on their feet is an invaluable asset early on.
- To FAANG or not to FAANG? As an extension of the previous point, my advice is to generally steer clear of senior folk who come from big corporates as a first marketing hire. Their experience is no doubt impressive and it makes for a great press release, but often the lack of infrastructure below them in a startup role can paralyse momentum.
Where Do I Find Them?
If recognising that finding a person to lead marketing is the number one challenge founders face, it’s closely followed by where to find them.
It’s not like they grow on trees.
Here are some places to start.
Twitter. Over the last 24 months, the marketing community on the social network has exploded, with a huge number of B2B marketers turning to the platform to share their wisdom in 280 characters or less. You can start your search by following this list.
LinkedIn. As the home of all digital business networking, an obvious place to look for talent. I find the platform a little inaccessible – a LOT is going on over there – but I know plenty of folks who have bagged opportunities from the platform.
Slack has a ton of great communities where potential communication hires hang out. Check out the marketing channel in Rands Leadership Slack. Or join FINITE B2B if you’re looking for Europe-based professionals.
Job Boards. There are plenty of them out there, but I’d suggest finding a niche portal that specifically targets marketing professionals. I haven’t used it personally, but I hear good things about DGMG Jobs.
Finding the right person to build a marketing function from scratch is one of the biggest challenges for founders at early-stage companies. Focus on finding the person who can excel in three areas – people, strategy and cross-department collaboration – and everything else should fall into place. Oh, and be cautious of anyone who worked at a FAANG, even if it makes for a great press release.