We’ve spent a lot of words in this series talking about understanding and operating marketing functions, but almost none on people. The common challenges with startup marketing [and sales!] hiring look something like this:
No go to market strategy →No scope for a role, which looks the same as too much scope for a role →No sense of the kind of person to look for →No clarity in job descriptions or in direction to recruiters →No standards by which to evaluate candidates that connect to actual business goals
In this post, we’ll talk through what it takes to hire the right-est marketer for your company in your market serving your users and customers.
Programming notes: this post is n in a series of indeterminate length on GTM topics mainly for startup people, mainly leadership, mainly coming from non-GTM backgrounds. There’s a list at the end.
All marketing exists within some go to market [GTM]. What are you selling? Who is going to use it? How will it make their lives better? Who are you selling to? What industry are you selling in to? What is your intended sales motion? Who are your competitors? What will your funnel look like? Is it low-cost-entry, bottoms-up, land-and-expand or is it open-source, community, usage-growth, commercial-support or is it..?
If you don’t have answers to these questions, you haven’t gotten to the part of building a company where you actually go to market. And you really should not be looking for a marketer unless you have a ton of money and are hiring execs before you launch OR you’re very clear about finding someone who can help you answer all these questions and then execute on the answers [rare!].
Why? Because the person you hire to come up with or execute a marketing strategy for GTM A will not be the same as for GTM B. The same holds for sales.
If you’re selling enterprise software into hospital groups that costs $250k a year at its cheapest and takes three months to pilot and get through HIPAA reviews with an additional three months to integrate and successfully onboard a customer with the help of sales engineering or professional services once they’ve signed a contract — you will have a very different marketing strategy (and tactics) compared to a freemium product for ISRs selling into unregulated industries with initial buy-in for a paid tier of $100 a year with a 14-day free trial and self-onboarding guided by docs and in-app tutorials that takes on average less than 30 days.
Notice how much turnover there is in sales and marketing at startups: early when they are trying to figure out product market fit, later when they’re trying to figure out go to market fit, later when they pivot the product or the GTM or at different stages of growth ($0–5M, $5–20M, $20–50M, $50–100M, $100Ms).
Whenever there’s a material change in GTM, Marketing and Sales have to be reworked.
Marketing and Sales people, for better or worse, tend to be single track operators and are not effective across different go to market models and industries.*
*Note: This is definitely not true for all sales and marketing professionals. But it is true often enough that crossing boundaries, like going from B2B → D2C, is extremely difficult for sales and marketing professionals. It can be easier to change careers altogether than to get someone to give you an opportunity to do that.
Define the role
Do you want one marketer who will design, builds, and maintain a static website using Github and Hugo while designing a logo and visual identity and figuring out how what your demand get strategy is while running email campaigns out of mailchimp and traveling to events every month to give talks or run your booth while developing your product messaging and helping sales position the product against customers while researching keyword inventory and running search ad experiments while writing press releases and building relationships with tech journalists while interviewing customers for case studies and some other things too?
This is not a thing. You might find someone who will do all of this for you, at least half of it poorly, and burn them out in short order. But you won’t be happy. Neither will they.
In the words of Arielle Jackson:
Most marketers who aren’t new to the field specialize in either the so-called “soft” or “hard” sides of marketing, focusing more on brand and communications or growth, analytics, and channel optimization. “Even CMO-level candidates typically tilt more heavily in one direction,” she says. “I’m not sure where this desire to have it all in one package comes from — you wouldn’t expect an engineer to be amazing at front-end and back-end, but unfortunately this expectation exists for marketers.”
So you have to decide which things are more important to do most well for this role right now: product marketing, demand gen, pr/comms, or brand. At an early or pre-growth startup, say <100 people and pre-C, the answer to this is almost Product Marketing or Demand Gen.
This is key for recruiters, for your network, and for putting at the top of your job description.
Organize what you think they will have to tackle by immediateness and impact and then write it out.
Any set of priorities has a half-life. Typically, your primary goal is to hire someone who will get you from PointA, where you are right now, to Point B, whatever the next big business milestone is — for example from 0 to $5M in ARR.
You’ll look for someone who’s done that and also the next stage of growth after that in the same or a similar GTM context. The danger with this person will be that they will simply repeat what they did at their last job at your company without employing any critical thinking or consideration of the specific challenges with your specific GTM.
Make sure everyone who’s screening or interviewing candidates totally understands the jobs to be done and weights a candidate’s attributes and abilities proportionally. Passing over a great candidate just because they don’t have experience in a low priority skill for the role for now is an unnecessary mistake.
Now that you know what the person needs to functionally do in the role, what do they need to be able to do that on your team?
Just like your functional requirements, these too have to be stack ranked and clearly articulated both internally and to recruiters. Most of these things will never make it into a job description, but the ones that will help someone self-select should. That includes: details about seniority and management, expectations about being external facing, and travel vs distributed vs office time.
You want a person who has some experience in your sector with a company at your stage and maybe the next one, who can competently and effectively execute against the top items in your stack ranked priorities for the role while meeting the non-functional requirements you think are necessary for success in your specific go to market with your specific challenges.
It’s highly unlikely that such a person exists and that you can afford them and that they will work for you.
So, trade offs. Be very explicit about which items on the list are absolutely necessary, which are highly desirable, and which are only nice-to-haves. Make sure everyone in the hiring process knows.
The more junior the role, the less experience and record-of-previous-work you will have to go on. Which means more weight has to be given on how fast they’ll climb the learning curve, how well they might perform, and how well they can grow to be successful in your particular environment.
If you’re working with recruiters who don’t ask you the details of your needs and priorities and acceptable tradeoffs for a role, those recruiters will not find you the people you need. Recruiters who do dig in are generally expensive.
A job description should have everything a candidate need to self-select in or out of talking to you about the role. Look at it the same way you do copy on your website or in ads or on the side of a bus. It’s part of your top of funnel and you want qualified leads who are good fits for the role and your team to self-select in.
If you’re hearing from or receiving candidates that are all wrong, the problem is with your job description, your choice of recruiters, or how you’ve trained recruiters on the role. In other words, it’s your fault.
Understand the language of marketing seniority
Marketing roles and responsibilities vary quite a bit as companies get grow and deep specialists become more highly valued over generalists. Here’s a very basic ladder in a template that you can copy and modify for your company.
If you’re asking anyone to do material work that you might put to use, pay them for it. Otherwise, everything should be doable within the context of an interview or interview time.
The more senior the role, the more likely it is that you are being interviewed and not the other way around. The kinds of questions the candidate asks and what they choose to dig into are strong indicators about how they approach the role and where their interests or expertise lie.
These are the lines of inquiry I expect from senior roles:
The things I’m looking for in any hire are:
What is the mix of experience, competence, potential, and management overhead?
And finally, specifically for external facing roles: how well can they work a room and be an effective communicator in person or to an audience?
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