Startup marketing: Hiring your first VP of Marketing

Confused babyThis is a question I seem to be getting a lot lately and wanted to share my thoughts.  Let’s start with two quizzes. Pick your choice:

  1. ASAP
  2. Once you have a few early customers
  3. Once you hit $XXM in revenues / ARR

Actually the correct answer is #4: it depends on the skills of the founders.

Now to the second quiz. Assuming the founding team consists of mostly technical founders, what you should look for when hiring this person?

  1. A branding / marketing communications expert
  2. A product marketing expert
  3. A demand generation expert

If you selected #2, read no more.

The bottom line: The most important skill an early-stage company needs is someone that can communicate the value your product delivers. Period.

If the founding team consists of mostly technologists, then you need to bring in an experienced product marketer on board once you have a few early customers.

In my discussions with founders I still encounter quite a bit of confusion on this topic. Many think they need a branding expert, while others look for a demand generation expert before they have refined their messaging.  Both of these can be fairly costly mistakes.

Let me explain…Most marketing departments consist of three distinct marketing skills:

Corporate Marketing (aka Branding / Marketing Communications)

These are the agency types. They own the brand from your company’s name and logo, to your company’s overall positioning, to managing the PR/AR and advertising relationships and budget, all the way to the email signature templates and tchotchkes to hand out at events. Many of them have an agency background and are seldom domain experts in your business.  As a matter of fact, I have observed an increasing trend of marketing professionals with a B2C background entering ‘traditional’ B2B industries as these industries discover that ‘buildings don’t buy your product, people do’.

Hiring such folks at the early stage of your venture will rarely help you.

Product Marketing

These are the content types. They bring both the domain expertise and ability to communicate the value of your company’s products. They are first and foremost responsible for defining your products’ messaging and positioning. They help you translate your features and functions into something your buyers actually care about. The content they produce varies for both the stage of the journey the buyers are, but also the channel (e.g., digital / social, sales, partners, etc.). They also typically interface with your media and industry analysts, to both get their input but also influence their perception of your company’s products.  In some companies, they are also responsible for what is called the inbound component, i.e., gathering and understanding the market requirements.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this role, especially for teams with mostly technical founders.

Demand Generation

These are the ‘bring-in-the-dough’ types.  They work hand-in-hand with your sales team and are responsible for driving demand (a.k.a, Marketing Qualified Leads) for your awesome products. They do so through a variety of tactics (e.g., inbound and outbound) and channels (e.g., SEM, email marketing, social media and tele-marketing).

Of course you can always try to hire someone that excels at all three skills.  In my experience, most marketers can be strong at one or two of these but not all three. The latter two are the most critical skills to look for.

Before all the growth hacker enthusiasts flame me with hate mail, I do realize the world is neither that black-and-white nor that linear. As a matter of fact, in my last company we leveraged SEM not to drive leads but rather help us with our positioning.  It is helpful however to think through what stage your company is at before starting to look for the utopian Renaissance woman.

Now go grow your business and start looking for your demand generation team…

PS.  If I have offended any of my marketing colleagues, I apologize.  I stereotyped to emphasize my points.


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