How to Hire Smart Startup Marketers
It has always been one of the biggest business challenges to find, recruit, and retain the best staff.
As you grow a startup, you need to grow the team.
This expansion is fraught with difficulty; from cultivating the right working culture to managing tasks, communication, and collaboration across departments.
I work in startup growth marketing. This means I’ve spent a lot of time with businesses during their most volatile and exciting period. The companies I work with are VC-backed and growing quickly.
But success is on a knife-edge, and the marketing team is central to sustained growth.
Building a great startup marketing team is no mean feat: under pressure, it becomes a huge challenge.
In this article, you will learn the common mistakes made when hiring startup marketers, and you will learn which qualities are demanded from a growth marketing leader in the startup environment.
COMMON MISTAKES WHEN HIRING STARTUP MARKETERS
During my research, I searched around the major business and startup websites to get their take on the biggest startup hiring mistakes. Unfortunately, most of the advice out there is vague and questionable.
A common thread is to “not hire people you know” – when in fact I believe that your network is a huge asset. Naturally, you shouldn’t hire people just because you know them.
But how many smart startup founders actually do that? I’d hazard a guess: not many.
If you know the experience and achievements of someone in your network that would be a good fit… by all means get them on board!
Furthermore, I see advice on not filling roles in a rush.
As any startup founder will know, this isn’t a luxury afforded to businesses during fast growth.
You need to hire fast; that’s just a fact. The key is to hire fast without taking dangerous risks or disrupting a positive company culture.
In this first section, I will give you insights about the mistakes I see first-hand when startups are hiring marketers during early-stage growth.
I’ll also look at the background principles of recruitment, whether you’re hiring a leader or a mid-level marketer (i.e. senior executive).
1. Searching for a candidate who doesn’t exist
I agree with one common piece of advice out there: there’s no magic candidate who fulfils multiple roles at the same time. I come across this pitfall frequently.
Startup founders try to fit too much into one candidate, and this person simply doesn’t exist.
They’ll look for someone who has deep experience and knowledge in programmatic ads, web analytics, and product analytics – with a sideline in marketing automation, affiliates, content marketing, and graphic design.
Oh, and let’s throw coding into the mix!
Whilst the startup environment demands a certain “all hands to the pump” mentality, it’s unrealistic to expect one person to comprehensively cover all of these bases.
We’re all human, after all.
With this in mind, what should you do instead when building a startup marketing team?
Narrow down and get stuck into the details of what you need and why you need it.
When hiring startup marketers, I recommend focusing on the three to five most important specific areas where they can make an impact.
The more specific, the better. You should think about “jobs to be done” rather than get distracted by broad skill-sets.
It might sound like common sense, but you need to get the right person for the role. To help startups do this, I’ve created a methodology for refining who you need:
At the start of this process, I list about two hundred specialist marketing areas. Next, I group these marketing areas into dozens of corresponding categories.
I go through these categories methodically with the startup founder, and ask him or her to rate the importance of each area.
The final scores are tallied-up to give an overview of what they actually need from a candidate.
For example, this process might show that marketing automation is a true priority, whereas TV and Radio isn’t required at all.
Without this clarity, TV and Radio experience might seem vaguely appealing to a startup founder who wants to future-proof and cover multiple bases.
Here’s what the end-result might look like, after the scoring process:
As you can see, this graph gives a very clear overview of the five important areas: marketing automation, paid advertising, web/product analytics, conversion rate optimization, and search marketing.
In my experience, 80% of startup growth tends to come through one channel.
Two at most. It’s tempting to hire for a broad range of capabilities, but even this concise graph above could be narrowed down more.
If we’re looking for three to five specialisms needed for this startup, it’s marketing automation, paid advertising, and web/product analytics that should be the focus when sorting through candidates.
2. Ill-defined job adverts
Startups tend to emphasize attitude and cultural fit in their job adverts, and this creates a vague set of requirements. Instead, I would lean towards a more solid and detailed job description – focused on competencies, skills, and technologies.
Ultimately, you will need to source a pool of candidates with the right knowledge to get a result. The interview process will then be used to uncover good-fit potential.
In addition, maintaining a “quirky” startup identity can sometimes get in the way of hiring the best talent.
A title like “Head of Vision” or “Chief Engagement Officer” sounds interesting, but often limits the response because it’s unclear what you’re actually looking for.
When you’re running a fast-growth startup, you need to hire quickly. You can’t afford to create ambiguity. Keep the ad simple and clear.
As Martin says in his Cleverism article about writing the perfect job adverts, “titles should make use of descriptive words that anyone will immediately recognize and understand the moment they lay their eyes on it.”
This will guarantee better exposure among the relevant groups of candidates.
3. Hiring for the wrong strategy
Startups sometimes hire perfect candidates for the wrong strategy.
For example, a startup might aim to acquire customers through organic search marketing, and hire someone who can get results with SEO and content.
However, if the competition is deemed too fierce or search volume is too low, it’s impossible to succeed by relying on this channel.
If the business pivots to paid channels only, the SEO-focused marketer is no longer a good fit for the job at hand.
Furthermore, product-market fit is absolutely critical – and it directly impacts marketing hires. If the product isn’t performing, marketing investment just accelerates the demise of the business.
Building a growth team to push a product or service without establishing its feasibility in the market is a sure-fire way to burn through cash.
Whilst this is a product problem rather than a hiring problem, it’s important to stop and take stock of product-market fit before you build an expensive marketing machine.
4. Recruiting people into silos
If a startup organization is split into silos, even the most talented marketing recruit will find it difficult to make an impact.
Full-funnel marketers rely on integrating data analysis with product, sales, design (UX/UI), and more.
Without a full view of the landscape, it’s impossible to make informed decisions about content, growth channels, and marketing budget allocation.
This is especially true for SaaS startups, who rely heavily on usage data to optimize acquisition and retention of customers.
WHAT DO YOU NEED FROM A GROWTH LEAD?
Lots of startups rush into hiring a CMO or Head of Growth. I believe that businesses in their earliest stage do need this strategic vision, advice, and experience – but on a part-time or freelance basis.
Startups need to remain nimble at the outset, so putting all the eggs in one basket is a risk. According to Glassdoor, the average pay packet for a CMO in the UK is £115,000.
That’s high caliber. As an on-demand CMO, I often work in partnership with “acting” growth leads who are founders or co-founders.
I provide advice and strategic direction for in-house teams or external agency partners, without burdening the business with a huge salary outlay. This setup seems to work for many startups.
In my view, a startup needs to be in or beyond Series A funding before it hires a full-time Head of Growth, and in or beyond Series B funding before it hires a full-time CMO.
Until that point, it’s reasonable to stitch together a part-time or outsourced team to gain experience without a heavy investment in senior staff.
I usually advocate getting a specialist for two or three days per week, rather than getting a junior marketer to hack at the strategy. The latter rarely works, from my experience.
Your growth lead, whether part-time or full-time, needs to be a T-shaped marketer.
Put simply, this means cross-discipline competence with deep discipline expertise. It is up to the startup to figure out in which areas they need deep knowledge.
In most cases, T-shaped marketers have worked at startups before; getting their hands dirty with tactical tasks in a pressured environment.
Most experts argue that past startup experience is required, and I tend to agree.
There’s a mindset of resourcefulness, proactivity, and initiative that comes with having worked at startups. Furthermore, your growth lead should be comfortable with uncertainty.
Startups are volatile and challenging, but they present an incredible opportunity if you crack the code to success.
Past experience also needs to be seen in the context of industry and sector: for example, a B2B SaaS growth lead will have a very different background to a D2C eCommerce growth lead. The mindset and processes are very distinct.
Strangely, I often see startups desiring development and coding skills in their job adverts for senior marketing hires.
Granted, we’re living in an age where technical skills are valuable – but in truth this is very rare to find.
In a recent cohort of ten growth leaders I interviewed, only one candidate had hands-on coding experience. So, whilst it is desirable, startups need to understand that it’s unlikely.
Finally, the best growth leads often have an interest (or even a trained background) in psychology and behavioral economics.
This is a distinct advantage in shaping how they approach marketing strategy. It’s certainly a nice-to-have (versus must-have), but it’s worth considering the benefits of a candidate who can demonstrate knowledge of the how, why, when, and where of human behavior.
Recruitment is a challenge, especially for startups. When the stakes are so high, every hire needs to be push the business forward.
It can be tempting to go for a marketing generalist, but this person often doesn’t provide deep enough value in critical growth channels.
Startups with limited budgets also take on juniors, in the hope that they can hack at growth.
But without experienced guidance, this is a mistake.
Whilst cross-discipline capability is essential for startup marketers, ideally this should be in the T-shaped format.
Deep knowledge in a few key areas, backed by an understanding of the broader marketing landscape and the interconnectivity between different areas.
It’s valuable for marketers on all levels of the ladder to grow into T-shaped professionals; this will give their team balance and broad expertise.
Most importantly, startup founders and senior management should clearly define their short-term, medium-term, and long-term needs through “jobs to be done”.
This will help the business hire for best-fit rather than focusing on skills in isolation.
The scoring framework I outlined in the first section of this article is one way to make the recruitment process more objective, and it will help you zone-in on candidates who offer serious value in the most business-critical areas.
If you’re building a startup marketing team right now, good luck and enjoy the ride!
Oren Greenberg is a growth marketer and founder of the Kurve consultancy in London. He helps startups and corporate innovation projects scale using digital channels. He has written for leading marketing blogs and has been featured in the international press.
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