Startup guide to hiring your first marketer

July 21, 2017


Hiring your first marketing person is often a big moment for most start-ups.  In some ways it’s a validation that you’re doing something right, have product-market fit, have raised or made enough capital to begin to formally support marketing and/or preferably have the acquisition and engagement metrics so that if you throw “fuel on the fire” you can scale your business to hundreds, thousands or millions of customers (depending on your business type).  


The purpose of this post is simple:  To give you an idea of when you should hire a marketer, what kind of marketer you should hire, what skills they should have and how much experience they should have and how to hire them.  I’ve even thrown in some interviewing tips at the end as a bonus (these apply to anyone you hire not just marketing).  


Why should I hire a marketer?


First things first.  To know why you need to hire a marketer you really have to agree on what the definition of marketing is since this will ultimately drive what type of person you hire and the skills they have.  There are many definitions of marketing but my prefered one is this:


“Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. (American Marketing Association, 2012)


There are key distinctions here vs. what some tech types or VC’s think when they think of marketing today.  Marketing should be involved in “creation” because over time as your organization grows,  marketing (and sales) will likely be the two teams that are closest to your customers and will become more familiar with customer needs and the competitive landscape then your product team.  Since marketing will also be owning things like your Brand Tracker as well as competitive research, their feedback to product will become invaluable.  As you scale, you, as a founder, and your engineers and PM’s will have less and less direct interaction with customers. This separation varies by industry and company size and some PM’s are able to stay relatively close to customers but your product managers will mostly be spending time with engineering, analytics, marketing, sales and customer support.  They should always be encouraged to spend time with customers but this becomes progressively harder over time.  This isn’t to say marketing owns product creation but they will provide more and more insights that should help drive your product direction and feature roadmap.  


Marketing is involved in delivery from the point of view that in some organizations customer support (customer success in B2B businesses) is part of marketing.  Why?  Customer support gets real time feedback from users on what doesn’t work with the product and areas for improvement (sadly most of us call to bitch and moan as opposed to give praise).  Those customers likely are also voicing concerns over how the product meets the expectations created by your company (ie. the messaging coming from your marketing team).  At its core, marketing creates a set of customer expectations (through communications) which product then delivers on (hopefully). The result is a customer who is satisfied with the exchange in value (the payment they made for a service promised).  Make sense?  Cool.  


You might look at this and be like “impact on society”?  WTH?  Over the past 5+ years there’s been a lot of research showing that certain customer groups, particularly millennials, don’t just care about what your product does but care about why you’re doing what you're doing and how you’re doing it.   According to an article written in Huffington Post: “In its 2015 Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report, Nielsen found that “66% of global consumers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable brands—up 55% from 2014.” It also found that 73% of global Millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings—up from 50% in 2014”


So you want to hire a marketer not just to acquire users, run advertising campaigns and write blog posts.  You want to hire a marketing person because they are fundamentally better at understanding customer needs than you are.  They understand customer aspirations, trends, fears and emotions and are able to feed that understanding not just into effective communications materials (ie Advertising, PR, Content) but also into the product development process and the post sales process.  


When do I hire them?


The simple rule of thumb is to bring in marketing as early as possible. Most investors and VC’s will balk at this.  They’ll say “You should only bring these guys in when you have proven product-market fit and are ready to aggressively get out there and market your product!”  That makes sense if you hire “growth hackers” but not if you hire real marketers.  It also makes sense if one of your founders has a strong marketing background.  The risk otherwise is that you build something in a vacuum, position it incorrectly or target the wrong audience.  I hear all too often “build it and they will come”.  Consumers see over 5,000 ads a day and their attention spans are shorter than ever so unless you’re Steve Jobs (who was a marketer, not a product person) you do this at your own peril.  


One important point to note here:  I’ve seen some businesses that are very early stage (1st year of operations) deal with this either by having a fairly engaged board advisor who has a strong marketing background or by hiring a strong generalist (see below) marketing freelancer who works for the company 1-2 days a week.  This can be a particularly effective approach if you’re more on the B2B side, are cash constrained and can’t make the hire or have a business where branding is less important (though in my book branding is always important).  The key here is getting the right person who has experience and the skills mentioned below.  


What will they do and what skills do they need?


Your best bet in an early stage company is to hire (or contract) a “generalist” at first. By this I mean a jack of all trades that can do a lot of heavy lifting and wear multiple hats.  The key skills and things this person should be doing are:


  • Segment, Target and Position your product (see my deck on STP here). The key here is for your marketing person to understand what the market looks like, who the right audience is and what you should be telling potential consumers.  They should also be able to support your product team in performing competitive analysis to map out competition and competitor strengths and weaknesses if you haven’t done this already.  

    • Skills:  Research, Analysis, Audience Segmentation, Branding & Positioning, SWOT analysis


  • Develop your brand, brand pyramid and guidelines.  I have several posts on this and the tools involved.  Laying the right foundation for what your company is and wants to become helps define what you build, your culture and even the people you hire.

    • Skills: Branding


  • Acquiring your first users.  The goal here is to test your messaging and value proposition on different channels (Google, Facebook, YouTube, mobile ads) to find what resonates with consumers and what could possibly scale with additional budget.  You want to uncover what the right message is, which channels work best and what type of creative units (ie. graphics / banners / videos) work best.

    • Skills:  Digital Advertising (Adwords and Facebook ads. Particularly mobile if you’re B2C), Google Analytics, Email marketing (think tools like Mailchimp), Social Media marketing (including tools like Hootsuite), and Google Tag Manager to help track your campaigns.  Familiarity with design tools is a big plus but otherwise someone that can use tools like Canva is also a benefit.  If your business is very consumer acquisition driven you’ll want a person who is highly analytical and very adept at using Google Sheets or Excel.  


  • Content marketing.  This one is particularly vital if you’re in an enterprise / b2b space but is also becoming a lot more important in B2C.  In B2B content marketing directly drives leads which is the engine for your business.  Ideally, a candidate who has familiarity with tools ranging from CRM like Hubspot, Pardot and Marketo to sales tools like Salesforce is a must.  Candidates also need to know how to manage blogging platforms like Wordpress or even manage your website / blog on a platform like Wix.  At the expense of being obvious, they should be competent writers who can not only write and edit their own work but do this using words, phrases and a tone that is true to your brand (as defined in your Brand Bible)

    • Skills:  CRM, Writing / Editing, Email marketing, Social Media Marketing, Google Analytics, Content Syndication (this is a big plus and involves finding ways to get your content noticed across the Web).  


  • Writing / developing your marketing plan.  At some point you’re going to want to “launch” your product publicly.  Your marketing person needs to work closely with your team to develop a plan around this launch.  I’ll be writing a separate post on what this is and should include but in short it should answer - who is your intended audience, what are you telling them, what tools / channels / activities are you using to tell them this, what are your performance indicators, and what is the budget for all this.  Ideally, your marketing plan also includes a PR plan with PR related activities (see below).  

    • Skills:  Project management (tools like Asana / Trello are great to keep organized and share this with the rest of the team), forecasting, budgeting and analytics / tracking.  


  • PR / Communications.  This goes hand in hand with content marketing in my opinion since if you produce great content (like ebooks, infographics, product videos and testimonials) these can serve as great PR material.  PR involves dealing with reporters, external agencies, ngo’s and, depending on the business you’re in, government agencies and regulators (though if sensitive enough you’re probably handling this yourself).  The key to PR is that you have to invest continuously in it for it to pay dividends.  Thinking that the Techcrunch article is to going to bring you tons of traffic (it’s not) and that you can do this once a year is delusional.  PR works if you set yourself a goal of building press relationships, providing data and sharing it often.  And forget PR agencies.  At this stage agencies are too expensive (minimum $15-20k / month) and require a lot of hand-holding to be effective.

    • Skills:  Networking / People skills, Communication (written and verbal), Quick thinker, Detail oriented and can project manage (knowing how to use tools like Trello or Asana helps a lot here).  Experience using PR tracking tools like Cision is a plus but PR is probably lower on the list of priorities at this stage unless you’re in a particularly heavily regulated (healthcare) or controversial (cannabis) space.  


Profile and Experience


You’re probably thinking “great, I’m looking for a unicorn!  What are the odds I’ll find one?”  Well, knowing what you need is the first step to finding it.  These unicorns do exist but they are rare.  In terms of personal attributes you’re looking for someone who is:  smart, humble, autonomous, results oriented, high energy, scrappy, a good communicator and highly collaborative.  It’s also a huge plus to have someone who is a good people person and networker since they’ll probably be one of the externally facing people on your team.  I would also add that it’s a big plus if this person has management experience so that they can effectively hire and manage a marketing team of their own as you scale.  However, as an early stage company that’s probably unlikely unless they were in another startup.  In terms of experience I would look for someone with 5-7 years of experience at a minimum.  They should be college educated but I’d probably not hire an MBA at this point.  As an MBA myself, we often tend to come from larger organizations and think strategically.  That’s not to rule out MBA’s entirely but their skillset and experience is usually better suited to later stage start-ups (series B and later).  Though most founders will automatically aim for Google or Facebook employees, there are other tech companies that have great talent (though Apple employees are great as well,  Apple tends to be more siloed and structured so you’re probably less likely to find great generalists there).  I would also strongly consider traditional consumer companies like P&G, Unilever, Pepsi and Coke.  Not only do they have very strong marketers but they have a lot of generalists and have a more holistic perspective on marketing since in many cases brand marketers often own the profit & loss statement on their products in these companies.  They may not have the technical chops of someone from Google or Facebook but most likely other people on your team have those already.  


Conclusion and interview tips


OK, so at this point I should probably stop but I’d be doing you a massive disservice if I didn’t share some hiring tips.  So here we go:





  1. Prepare for the interview.  You’re selling yourself, your product and your company more than the candidate is selling themselves.  Make sure you think of and have answers to tough questions.  These people are pretty unique and the good ones will dig deep.

  2. Have everyone on your team interview the candidates.  This is a key hire and that means culture fit is essential.  You don’t want to find out 3 months in that your marketing person can’t stomach the product person.  That would be bad!

  3. Have the candidates do a case study.  Give them a real life problem you're working on and have them either work on it with you onsite or do some homework and send it to you.  This will give you an idea of how they approach the problem and also you’ll see how serious they are about the process and your company

  4. Have different people ask different questions.  You should have a list of pre-agreed questions for the candidate base on IQ,  EQ (emotional intelligence) and Culture Fit.  You’ll never get through all of them so have different persons on your team ask different types of questions so you can form a full picture of the candidate.

  5. Never hire based on money.  Don’t hire them because they are the cheapest (unicorns by default are never cheap) but also don’t hire people too focused on making money.  These people are going to help define and tell your story.  They should be excited about it and want to work in your company.  If you hire for money they’ll leave for money.  

  6. Try different interview settings.  Most interviews happen in the office.  Since this is a key hire, I’d suggest mixing things up a bit.  Have an office interview, lunch with the team and maybe even invite them to an outside team event.  The goal here is “fit” and trying to see how they integrate in different settings.  There’s nothing worse than an employee who can’t handle their alcohol at a party and does something rash (this happened to me and I had to fire the person).  Mix it up and have fun.  It will take more time but be worth it.

  7. Always back channel. Remember those Linkedin references?  Well forget them.  Try to find people who have worked with the candidate but aren’t necessarily a person they recommended.  You want the complete picture here and it’s rare just to get that from the people they tell you that you should talk to.  Those people might not be as impartial as you’d like them to be.  

  8. Make sure they’re scrappy and flexible.  Things change in startup land.  You don’t want someone awesome who flinches when they have to do something that wasn’t in the job description or who falls apart when the product is delayed or features change.  You need someone mature, scrappy who will roll with the punches.  

Anyway, hope this helps.  As always, if this article was in anyway helpful please click the little heart button and share this with friends and colleagues.  Your comments and thoughts mean a lot to me and your feedback is super valuable.  Be sure to check out my YouTube page and don't forget to subscribe to my blog.  


Happy unicorn hunting!


Mad Mork.  


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