This post is for founders of venture-backed tech startups with a Product or Engineering background.
I spend my life working with venture-backed tech startups. And here’s a scenario I see all too often: Good product, terrible marketing strategy.
My company is brought in when VCs see that one of their portfolio companies need help. The scenario is always the same: The company has a semblance of product/market fit, and is logging decent revenue, likely on their A or B funding round. However, much of this early revenue came as the result of beta customers, the board, and spamming. Over time, lead volume has stagnated. And so has revenue growth.
The problem is always the same. When my company explores the engineering and/or sales departments, we find them large and healthy, flush with talent and experience. But the other side of the equation? We often find that a company has one marketer. Max two. And they are usually very junior, maybe three or four years’ experience as a generalist. They know a little SEM, a little SEO, a little display, some social… you get the picture.
To makes matters worse, here’s another thing these companies all have in common: their website and content all looks nearly identical to that of the competition.
When I meet their marketer for the first time, she is stressed, and rightfully so. The pressure to deliver is enormous, and she’s overwhelmed. She’s getting direction from all sides; the CEO, the Sales team, the Execs, and so on. The problem is they don’t have enough experience to drive strategy, so they are executing at random. Instead of operating from a long-term plan, they are trying to grow at all costs in a 90-day window.
When we first arrive, we get our arms around the in-house marketer. Sometimes literally. Because that’s what they need. Typically they are talented, but just lack the right oversight and leadership. Next, we set expectations with the CEO and Sales in terms of time, deliverables and outcomes. Then get to work building marketing from the ground up, or upon what’s already been created. We start with personas, and we end with revenue. And the most important step? The knowledge transfer; making sure the team continues to thrive long after we’re gone.
My advice is always the same:
“Overspend on your first marketing hire. Get the best possible talent you can afford. They will set you up on a solid foundation.”
(Also, try and hold out for a female. Gender diversity is sorely lacking in startups. It also helps set the expectation for future hires across the organization.)
People frequently ask why I encourage startups to do this, because they think it will put me and my company out of business. Here’s the answer to that: One, most won’t do it. Two, one internal marketer can’t do it all, so we still get the call. But the pace of the work goes much faster if they have a pro in the driver’s seat.
So: If you’re the founder of a venture-backed startup, and you have a background in product or engineering, do what you’re great at it. Build the best product the world has ever seen. But don’t skimp on marketing. Recruit the best. If you don’t, you’re doomed. I see it every day.
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