How to build a killer marketing function for your startup

Its not about ideas. Its about making ideas happen.

— Scott Belsky. Founder Beehance

Congratulations! You have managed to build up your start-up up to this point. By this time you have gone through multiple steps of creating refining, pitching. You probably met with numerous prospects, gathered tons of feedback, perhaps even some investment. Now it’s when it all gets real. Now it’s time to scale and put those VC / Angel / Bank of Mum and Dad dollars to work.

For a lot of startup founders this is where the “fun” begins. Up until this stage you have probably dealt with aspects of your company or product you are more or less familiar with. At this stage, however, you are asked to step outside of your comfort zone and create whole functions from scratch, in a lot of cases without any prior knowledge or experience.

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So where do you start? 

In the event that you need to create a marketing function from scratch there are a couple of quick pieces of advice:

  • Dont panic
  • Dont pick up the first marketer you happen to know from your extended network unless you have good reason to believe they are the right person to execute the mid term marketing vision

Once you have internalised the above points you are good to get started. And as you probably are already aware, the best way of attacking a big problem is to break it down into smaller components.

Creating a killer marketing team for your startup is no different. Here is a list of the most crucial questions you will need to attempt answering as you are going through the process:

  • What should be our marketing goals be?
  • What skillsets should we hire for?
  • What level should we hire for?
  • How to assess talent without in house expertise?
  • How can we set them up for success?

Marketing goals 

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Things in startups are changing constantly so its very unlikely that you have a clear view of what your marketing targets are at this stage. This is ok. What you do need to have, however, is a general idea around your go-to-market strategy and how that broadly translates to awareness, consideration, and purchase buying stages.

The hardest thing to do this early in the game is to align these to a channel strategy. 

If you don’t have a person internally with a broad marketing skillset my recommendation is to speak to an external consultant in order to get a view on strategy and marketing mix.

Why? Because if you have a view of what your marketing strategy is trying to achieve it will help you answer the next questions around skillsets and levels.

Skillsets and levels

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Most startup job specs are incredibly broad. I have personally seen countless specs boasting that all types of background will be considered for the job.

This is a recipe for disaster and here is why.

By constructing a broad marketing job spec you are effectively leaving role fit to luck. 

The vicious cycle starts like this: In the beginning you will most likely be bombarded by all kinds of candidates. If your startup is working on something incredibly exciting or has recently been featured in the news expect this number to be in the hundrents.

Without a clear system for preference or assessment you will either take too long to hire or just hire the person who was able to sell themselves better in the interview. This person is rarely, if not ever, the best fit.

More importantly you might end up waiting precious time if you have to go through rounds of hiring – firing – hiring sequences.

If you have already taken the step to leverage an external consultant in order to refine your marketing mix earlier this is where that work can come pretty handy. By knowing what your broader marketing approach is you should be able to get a better steer with regards to channels and KPIs.

By extension, if you know what you are looking for you are more likely to find it.

The next step is to hire for the right level. I have seen too many ads advertising Heads of roles asking for a swiss army knife of capabilities, a person who is both operational and strategic at the same time.

Here is the thing, such a person exists but they are rare.

Lets stop and think about this for a second. Someone who has had the time and experience to develop both hands on technical knowledge alongside cross channel strategy and potentially team management is a person who is a superstar all rounder and probably has spent more than the typical 5 years in the industry. 

By consequence two things happen a) she is probably very expensive b) requires a particular set of conditions to maintain interest in her role.

Realistically, the majority of the work you will be requiring to begin with will be 80% or more hands on implementation with some strategy around testing and scaling.

So where do we start?

There are a couple of ways to go about it.

You can either hire a Head and get them to build a team around them, which is tricky to do for the reasons explained above.

Or, you can hire a few junior marketers and hope they will figure out the marketing mix as they go along.

There is a third way, but it requires discipline

Start by building a hypothesis and structure a testing team around it using flexible resource.  Once you have proven that a channel is scalable you can hire permanently. This saves you both time and money.

Talent assessment

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Let’s say you published the spec and you have 50 candidates coming down the pipeline. With some basic screening you managed to narrow that down to 35. 

How are you going to know if they are any good at their job? Surely a CV will be able to tell you that, however, things can get much murkier if they person has been working as a freelancer before or has been employed by smaller firms. 

If you don’t already have a marketer in house this has the potential to cause a massive headache.

Having a partner in hand who can help you assess the technical aspects of the job is crucial. You might be able to leverage a consultant for this or, potentially, if you have any connections that can help vet the candidate you might be able to work around it.

Preparing for success 

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There are two key components in play:

How do we provide the right support for the new hire to thrive and how do we measure their success.

With regards to the former, a lot of things can get in the way of a good onboarding process in a start-up. The fast change of pace, lack of continuity and poor documentation are just a few I have come across but its easy to see why it could be difficult to establish a smooth onboarding operation.

Focus on doing the following:

  • Ensure you have some topline documentation around the company’s structure, missions, values, and future direction
  • Arrange for meeting with key stakeholders within the first two weeks
  • Create opportunities for the new hire to get as close to the customers as possible
  • Resist the urge to throw them at the deep end and pile work on them for the first thing

Once you have done all of the above, the next step is to set clear expectations. Both you, and the marketeers should be aligned on the answer to this question: “What does success look like?”

Where I have seen startups fail in the past is that they dont set a clear set of expectations for the candidate post-hire. A common defence is that there is a lot of volatility and with that in mind we have to maintain a level of flexibility.

Whilst this is true, its also a common pitfall that stops the startup from defining success with any level of clarity.

Regardless of volatility level or skillset a good marketing hire must demonstrate the following:

  • Communication and stakeholder management skills. In particular, being able to articulate information around projects in flight, measurement and changes in prioratisation and timelines
  • Accountability and ownership of projects. Everyone should be clear on what projects they are driving, and how they plan to achieve their goals
  • An eye for structure and futureproofing. Is their approach logical and scalable?
  • Ability to collaborate cross functionally. 

This is of course a broad framework which will need to be adjusted for each company but also revised as you go along.

To conclude, if you find yourself in the very exciting part of your start-up’s life cycle when you all of a sudden have to create a marketing team from scratch, fret not. With a bit of thought and planning its perfectly achievable to build a killer function.


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