âWho should be my first marketing hire? “
This is (by far) the most common question I’ve received since starting out as a Fuel CMO, and for good reason. Your first marketer will have a disproportionate impact on team dynamics as well as the overall strategic direction of the brand, product and business.
The nature of the marketing function has grown considerably over the past two decades. So much so that when the founders ask this question, it immediately sparks several news: Should I hire a brand or a growth marketer? An offline or online marketer? A scientist or a creative marketer?
In the past, the number of marketing channels was quite limited, which meant that the function itself was part of a cleaner and narrower framework. The number of ways to reach customers has since grown exponentially, as has the scope of the marketing role. Today’s startups need at least four general functions under the umbrella of “marketing”, each with its own set of sub-functions.
The reality is that anyone who is good at all marketing functions is a unicorn and almost impossible to find.
Here is an example of the marketing functions of a typical startup:
Marketing of the brand: Brand strategy, positioning, naming, messaging, visual identity, experiential, events, community.
Marketing product: UX copy, website, email marketing, customer research and segmentation, pricing.
Communication: Public and media relations, content marketing, social media, thought leadership, influencer.
Growth Marketing: Acquisition paid by direct response, funnel optimization, retention, lifecycle, engagement, reporting and attribution, word of mouth, referral, referral, partnerships.
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As you can imagine, this is a lot to handle for one person, let alone being an expert. Additionally, the skills and experience required to excel in growth marketing are very different from those required to be successful in brand marketing. The reality is that anyone who is good at all marketing functions is a unicorn and almost impossible to find.
So who do you recruit first?
Unless you’re lucky enough to catch that unicorn, your first employee should be a generalist who can take care of the entire marketing function, learn what they don’t know, and roll up their sleeves to do get things done. Someone smart, knowledgeable, and super disjointed who knows how to experiment across all marketing channels until they find the right mix.
But this utility player should also provide more in-depth expertise in one of the major marketing functions: brand, product, communication or growth. Before proceeding with this key hire, you must determine at an early stage which marketing priorities are most urgent and, therefore, which marketing “persona” is most appropriate for your business.
To determine which skills you need most internally, ask yourself these five questions:
Which marketing channels have proven their worth to date?
If you have already had marketing experiences, have there been any positive points? Which channels are most effective from an acquisition, conversion, retention, customer engagement perspective, whatever your key KPIs? If you find a promising area, find a candidate who has expertise in that area. For example, if you get good results with Instagram ads, it makes sense to hire a candidate who has growth marketing expertise.
Where are the target customers?
If you don’t have a lot of data from channel testing, think about how your target customers are currently finding competitive products or services. At TaskRabbit, we knew from early customer research that customers found help with home services either through referrals from friends or by asking Google (i.e. SEO and SEM) .
So that was a natural place for us to start. In the beginning, our focus from a resource and staffing perspective was growth marketing, further boosting word of mouth and optimizing our SEO and SEM.
How competitive is the market?
How competitive is the category you play in? Are there dominant players with strong brands? Do these brands have endless marketing budgets? Are CACs sky-high because well-capitalized competitors outbid each other? If so, you might want to focus on building a great brand and product / customer experience.
This means spreading a unique story through organic channels (word of mouth, PR, influencers, and organic social media). A brand marketer or someone with extensive public relations and communications experience makes sense in this scenario.
Where are the founder’s skills?
Another aspect to consider is the skills that the founder (s) – or other members of the founding / rookie team – bring to the table. If a founder has a strong brand vision and extensive experience building brands, then focus less on a brand marketing hire and instead complement the branding skill set with another marketing priority (eg. example, product marketing). Likewise, if a founder has a strong brand vision but no one on the team knows how to build one, that’s a skills gap that your first marketing hire should fill.
How important is confidence building?
Building trust has become an increasingly important aspect for brands as customers become more demanding. But building trust tends to be more critical in some areas than others: new and emerging industries or markets, sectors with a lot of human interactions (service companies, dating platforms, etc.), industries that fundamentally change the behavior of consumers (carpooling in its early stages), or industries where the stake or the cost is relatively high (luxury products).
If building trust is essential, consider a branding expert who understands how to build trust and credibility, and create an experience that consumers are passionate about. This person will likely have in-depth expertise in public relations and branding, as these channels tend to inspire the most trust among consumers.
What level of experience is needed?
Once you’ve answered these five questions, you should have a pretty good idea of ââwhat kind of marketing experience you want. But how much experience should this person have? I generally recommend that early stage founders look for candidates for senior executive or director positions in mid-sized companies.
At this level of experience (six to 10 years), the salaries of these candidates tend to be more in line with the budget of a young company. Plus, at this point in their careers, they tend to be both strategic and tactical. That means they can take it to the next level and think strategically about the business and the marketing function, but they’re also happy to get their hands dirty and run – actually dive into the Facebook platform and create advertisements, plan and organize an event, or feature a reporter.