A friend of mine recently landed a job at a startup as the first marketer and reached out for advice. I often get this question, so I’m turning my answer into a public post.
Being the first marketer at a startup is an extremely challenging yet rewarding opportunity. On the one hand, you often wear multiple hats: project manager, researcher, designer, copywriter, advertiser, analyst, PR, meme dealer; the list goes on. But, on the other hand, you also get to collaborate closely with the founding team and have an influential role in the overall company's culture and strategy.
The following is based on a compilation of advice from my network and personal experience. I hope it can help some of you navigate this formative adventure.
1. Think like an investor
Let’s be honest: joining as the first marketer at a startup is a risky bet. At the end of the day, most startups fail. Borrow from VCs to inform your decision. Before joining, make a complete due diligence on the market, product, and the team.
Here are some questions to ponder:
Is there a path to a big market? Who are your first users going to be, and how do you know they want this?
Does/will the product delight its customers? Can it scale?
How determined are the founders, and what’s their primary motivation? Are they resilient enough to keep going when things go wrong? What’s their track record?
Would you bet your own money on this? Why might your belief not be true?
It’s not a perfect science (even professional investors make bad bets), but that could help you spot the most obvious red flags.
What makes a decision great is not that it has a great outcome. A great decision is the result of a good process, and that process must include an attempt to accurately represent our own state of knowledge. That state of knowledge, in turn, is some variation of “I’m not sure”.
2. You’re not alone
Being the first marketer doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any marketing initiatives before. Insights are probably not well documented and spread out in the organization. So spend some time talking to everyone in the team, listen and learn.
Here’s what Sophia Bendz did when she joined Spotify:
When I joined, what I actually did, was that I held a workshop with everyone in the company and at the time we were just 11 people; I bribed them with popcorn. We had like a 2-hour workshop where we talked about: Who are we? Why do we matter? Why do we believe that we will succeed and no one else will? That set some of the core values of Spotify and laid the foundation of the brand positioning.
Katarina, Rémy, and Stefan echo similar advice:
Find allies in all other departments. Start with sales and customer success to identify the stories/messages from customers and prospects that resonates with your target audience.
Communicate as much as you can with your team: let them know what you are working on, ask for their feedback and wishes.
I am by no means a generalist marketing person, but from my experience as a product person, the importance of product marketing & collaboration between product work and marketing work is huge in those early days when everything needs to shift continuously to find the right fit. No point in trying to do growth or build a brand out of a product that just doesn’t fit its audience.
Not only will doing this help you gather ideas, but it will also set the right expectations while educating the team on why marketing matters and how they can contribute.
3. Don't assume, validate
Talking to your team is great, but there’s a major downside: they are probably biased!
Get out of the office and form your own opinions by talking to customers and potential ones. Just make sure to take another approach than Jared 😂
Desirée and Dave recommend:
Take time to sit down and understand the target audience(s) for the product/service/offering. Makes it so much easier to create and to start communicating.
Work the hardest at defining the customer's profile and needs, then find some and listen carefully to them . . . best time investment you can make, as it will inform everything going forward.
4. Focus, focus, focus
If there is one thing you need to be good at as the first marketer: it’s prioritizing. Prioritize ruthlessly! Deciding what not to do is as important as choosing what to do.
Catherine, Katarina, and Arnaud add:
You can't excel across all marketing functions.
Focus your efforts and execute a few things really well and see them compound over time instead of trying to do everything at once.
Focus on understanding your audience (speak with your customers!), start building your strategy BUT get some external expertise to execute. The more hats you put on, the less valuable the outcome will be.
So drop some hats! If you have difficulty defining a clear scope, I shared a framework for getting started with customer acquisition here. If you struggle with getting things done, I would recommend going analog and ditch your laptop from time to time. You’ll be more creative and effective when faced with fewer options and distractions.
5. Get comfortable with failure
Don’t overthink stuff, dare to just try! Do small tests and measure. Then increase budgets. Learn from mistakes, don't take them personally.
Don't be afraid to fail! You'll learn MOST by failed campaigns.
Be ready and prepared to learn, fail and get back up. It can get stressful, a bit lonely and a bit frustrating at times but it's worth it in the end.
Failing sucks. But at the same time, it’s the best way to learn. Failure is something you can’t avoid when you’re in startup mode. It’s going to happen: you will fail. So why not embrace it? Who said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”?
6. Embrace being small
In the early days, many startups try to look bigger than they actually are.
They want so much to seem big that they imitate even the flaws of big companies, like indifference to individual users. This seems to them more "professional." Actually it's better to embrace the fact that you're small and use whatever advantages that brings. Their standards for customer service have been set by the companies they've been customers of, which are mostly big ones. Tim Cook doesn't send you a hand-written note after you buy a laptop. He can't. But you can. That's one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can.
Forget about chatbots and automated email campaigns for now. Instead, be personal and go the extra mile to delight your early customers for as long as you possibly can sustain. There will be plenty of room to think about automation when you scale operations.
7. Ask for help
Being a marketing team of one can be lonely, so loooonely.
It helps to have someone you can bounce ideas off of — someone who understands the specifics of the job and has experienced what you are going through.
If you look around you, I bet that there’s plenty of support available in your ecosystem.
Ask for help (mentors, network, peers, colleagues) if there are areas you're unsure of. You're often alone for a while.
But beware of bad deals, warns Felix Lundevall, Head of Growth at Mindler:
From my experience, you will get contacted by 1000 different people trying to sell different services and types of media as soon as you start advertising. Some things are good and some people are trying to rip you off. If you are uncertain of what a deal actually contains, then you should wait with buying it. People trying to sell media will often bundle different packages to make you confused and make things seem a lot better then it actually is. Remember that there will always be plenty of media to buy so you never need to rush into a deal. Don’t let other people decide what you should buy but instead do your own research. Compare different options and when you then find a deal that you find priceworthy be fast on buying it.
8. Document your journey
Documenting will help you keeping track of your progress. It will also be a treasure trove of learnings for the next marketing resource (whenever that might be) and save you some precious time in the onboarding process.
It’ll also be some great material when you look back at your journey years from now.
Start doing monthly reports (if only for yourself) really early, it's really cool to look back at and see the development. It's kind of a growth diary!
Sometimes when I think about the Spotify years, it’s like a big green fog because we were so busy. I wish I had taken more notes while at it.
9. Enjoy the ride
I’ve been there. Joining an early-stage startup is an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes you’ll feel amazing. Other, you’ll feel like giving up. It’s easy to forget when things move fast, but it’s not the destination; it’s the journey that matters.
Katarina, Anna, and Rémy conclude with words of encouragement:
Enjoy this time, being the only marketer means you get to interact with many different departements and get a broad understanding of the business in addition to using a wide range of the marketing toolbox. It is super rewarding and makes you develop your skill set and business acumen at rapid speed.
I've had the chance to join big marketing team at one startup and be the first marketer for another startup and, if I had to choose, learning wise, I would choose the latter. By doing a bit of everything one gets the chance to truly experience a bit of everything and shape the future they want in marketing.
YOU ROCK! Everything you are doing will be invaluable for the company and will serve as the basis of all future marketing ops! Congrats
If you’re joining a startup as the first marketer, I hope the insights above help. If you have any questions or need help with anything, feel free to reach out 👋