5 questions startups should consider before making their first marketing hire

“Who should my first marketing hire be?”

This is (by far) the most common question I’ve received since starting as Fuel’s CMO, and for good reason. Your first marketer will have an outsized impact on team dynamics as well as the overall strategic direction of the brand, product and company.

The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

The nature of the marketing function has expanded significantly over the past two decades. So much so that when founders ask this question, it immediately prompts multiple new ones: Should I hire a brand or growth marketer? An offline or an online marketer? A scientific or a creative marketer?

Once upon a time, the number of marketing channels was fairly limited, which meant the function itself fit into a neater, tighter box. The number of ways to reach customers has since grown exponentially, as has the scope of the marketing role. Today’s startups require at least four broad functions under the umbrella of “marketing,” each with its own array of subfunctions.

Here’s a sample of the marketing functions at a typical early-stage startup:

Brand marketing: Brand strategy, positioning, naming, messaging, visual identity, experiential, events, community.

Product marketing: UX copy, website, email marketing, customer research and segmentation, pricing.

Communications: PR and media relations, content marketing, social media, thought leadership, influencer.

Growth marketing: Direct response paid acquisition, funnel optimization, retention, lifecycle, engagement, reporting and attribution, word of mouth, referral, SEO, partnerships.

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As you can imagine, that’s a lot for one person to manage, let alone be an expert in. What’s more, the skill set and experience required to excel in growth marketing is quite different from the skill set required to succeed in brand marketing. The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

So who do you hire first?

Unless you’re lucky enough to nab that unicorn, your first hire should be a generalist who can tend to the full stack of the marketing function, learn what they don’t know, and roll up their sleeves to get things done. Someone smart, savvy and super scrappy who understands how to experiment across marketing channels until they find the right mix.

But this utility player should also bring deeper expertise in one of the big marketing functions: brand, product, communications or growth. Before making this key hire, you need to figure out which marketing priorities are most urgent and, consequently, which marketing “persona” is most appropriate for your business at the earliest stages.

To figure out which skill set you need most in-house, consider these five questions:

Which marketing channels have proven successful to date?

If you’ve done some marketing experimentation previously, have there been any bright spots? Which channels are proving the most efficient from a customer acquisition, conversion, retention, engagement, whatever your key KPI is, perspective? If you find a promising area, find a candidate that has expertise in it. For example, if you are seeing good results with Instagram ads, hiring a candidate who has expertise in growth marketing makes sense.

Where are the target customers?

If you don’t have much data from channel testing, consider how your target customers are currently finding competitive products or services. At TaskRabbit, we knew from early customer research that clients were finding help with home services either through recommendations from friends or by asking Google (i.e., SEO and SEM).

So, that was a natural place for us to start. Our focus from a resource and staffing perspective in the early days was on growth marketing — driving more word of mouth, plus optimizing our SEO and SEM.

How competitive is the market?

How competitive is the category you’re playing in? Are there dominant players with strong brands? Do these brands have endless marketing budgets? Are CACs exorbitant because well-capitalized competitors are outbidding each other? If so, you might want to focus on building an exceptional brand and product/customer experience.

That means disseminating a unique story through organic channels (word of mouth, PR, influencers and organic social media). A brand marketer or someone with deep PR and communications experience makes sense in this scenario.

Where do the founder’s skills lie?

Another aspect to consider is the skills the founder(s) — or other members of the founding/early team — bring to the table. If a founder has a strong vision for the brand and extensive experience building brands, then focus less on a brand marketing hire and rather supplement the branding skill set with another marketing priority (i.e., product marketing). Likewise, if a founder has a strong vision for the brand but no one on the team knows how to build one, that’s a skill gap that your first marketing hire should fill.

How important is trust building?

Trust building has become an increasingly important aspect for brands as customers become more and more discerning. But trust building tends to be more critical in certain areas than others: New, nascent industries or markets, sectors with a lot of human interaction (services businesses, dating platforms, etc.), industries that are fundamentally changing consumer behavior (ride-sharing in its earliest days), or industries where the stakes or cost is relatively high (luxury goods).

If trust building is critical, consider a branding expert who understands how to build trust and credibility, and build an experience that consumers are passionate about. This person will likely have deep expertise in PR and brand building, as these channels tend to inspire the most trust among consumers.

What level of experience is necessary?

Once you’ve answered these five questions, you should have a pretty good idea of the type of marketing experience you want. But just how much experience should that person have? I typically recommend that seed-stage founders look for senior manager or director-level candidates at midsized companies.

At this experience level (six to 10 years), these candidates’ salaries tend to be more in line with a young company’s budget. Moreover, at this stage of their career, they tend to be both strategic and tactical. This means they can level up and think strategically about the business and the marketing function, but they are also happy to get their hands dirty and execute — actually dive into the Facebook platform and create ads, plan and host an event, or pitch a journalist.

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