Founders often struggle with making their first marketing hire.
Every role has the seniority question -- should I hire a VP or IC first? -- and industry question -- “they’ve never worked in our industry before. Can they learn?”, but when it comes to hiring for marketing you also have to deal with specializations.
Marketing has so many different specializations within its department you have Paid Growth, Designers, Operations, Copywriters, Content Creators, Demand Gen, Product Marketers, Developers, etc. all trying to work together to build a marketing program. And so when you’re looking at resumes and talking to marketers it can be a confusing web for founders to work through and understand who to hire.
I was lucky enough to join Lattice as it’s first marketer and scaled the marketing program to a 16 person team that attracted over 1,800 customers like Slack and Postmates. I’ve done a lot of self reflection over the past couple years on what made me successful in this journey. This post builds on these experiences and tries to give founders a framework for making their first marketing hire.
(If you like what you read, make sure to sign up for Alex’s newsletter.)
The natural place to start when thinking about who to hire as your first marketer is their resume and the seniority level of the hire. Do you need someone who is more senior or a more junior executor?
This decision should be based on the playbook you want to execute and size of the marketing budget. If you know that, for example, your product launch will require a huge multi-channel marketing push then you should hire someone more senior to build the strategy and they will hire a team that will execute their vision. If you go more senior, then a proven track record in your industry is important, but they also need to possess some of the early stage skills that are essential to success in the early days (see below).
For most startups, who have an unproven product market fit and go-to-market engine, it usually makes more sense to hire a more junior generalist as the first marketer to join the team.
These people typically are on their first or second job and have some background in marketing. Ideally, they are working at a company similar to yours, but a stage or two ahead (Seed recruits from A/B). The most common titles I see working are from a “Demand Generation” or “Product Marketing” background, but also have well rounded marketing knowledge (Tomas Tunguz recommends PMM). Whether they’ve worked in B2B or B2C is another important distinction and can greatly shape their world view on marketing.
It’s important to realize that there is no one size fits all approach to finding your first marketer and the resume only tells part of the story. Before I worked at Lattice, I worked at an advertising agency as an Account Director. I had experience in product marketing, advocacy campaigns and community building. I didn’t know what an MQL was when I joined and I had never worked at a startup. I likely wouldn’t have passed the resume test.
The resume only tells a small part of the story. The reality is that you’re not going to be able to find someone who has the perfect experience. The person you hire will likely have an imperfect background and that’s okay -- what’s more important are the different characteristics that you need to find in your first marketer.
You need someone who has entrepreneurial drive. You want someone who has a growth mindset and figures things out. In an interview Keith Rabois did with Lattice, he talked about the mindset you’re looking for,
“You ultimately need people who are tenacious; the tenacity to go over the wall, under the wall, through a wall, making friends with a wall, figuring out why the wall doesn't matter and that's the core skill that most startups need Intellectual horsepower -- most companies are solving problems that other people haven't solved or can't solve or don't think they can solve and sometimes that comes from pure insight married with tenacity and not giving up.”
The most important marketing channels are digital. You need someone who has a history of promoting things online, bonus points if they got paid to do it. This digital marketing experience can be both shown in real jobs, but side projects (ecommerce stores, newsletter, instagram account, etc) also show the marketer's ability to make other people take action online. You want to find people who show a track record of growing and engaging an audience. You want someone who can do thing on the Internet.
You’re looking for someone who is not just a talker. They can actually click the buttons to run campaigns, setup systems, send emails, work with other people, etc. You’re looking for someone who has enough technical chops to do things online or can watch a bunch of Youtube videos to figure it out. The button clicker test usually snuffs out the consultants and MBAs who are great at talking about business and marketing in theory, but don’t know how to execute campaigns on their own.
Your first marketing hire needs to have a solid understanding of business and startups. This will help them become a better product marketer as they understand the market dynamics of the startup ecosystem and then can apply this general knowledge to your specific industry. They don’t need to be an expert (they can read books and talk to people to figure it out), but they should nerd out about startups and business. They need to have good instincts on how the business world works and how to position products.
The first marketer needs to be someone who is a strong communicator and can prioritize effectively. Things will be moving so fast in the early days that you need someone who can constantly communicate the status of projects, push work forward, re-prioritize work and ask for help when they need it.
You want someone who is an excellent team player, and can take feedback well. They are eager to learn and have the ability to change how they think in order to do what’s most impactful for the business.
Writing is fundamental to everything you do in marketing. It’s what you see on the website, read on the blog, how you write ads, etc. They don’t need to be an expert copywriter, but having solid writing skills is a prerequisite.
Marketing has the power of leverage. The first marketing hire needs to get really good at working with freelancers, software, agencies, etc. to augment their work and get more work done.
The pace of work will be moving so fast in the early days that priorities will constantly evolve. You need someone who is able to prioritize the important work, not get distracted by low ROI tasks and can be agile enough to keep up with the pace of the business.
You generally want to hire an executor who can own big parts of marketing programs. Your first marketing hire will need to parallelize a lot of efforts and keep many balls at once.
It’s impossible to find someone who can do everything in marketing, but your first marketing hire should be able to figure it out. They need to be able to use the Internet and the people around them to learn. Your first marketer should scale personally as the company grows.
The standard interview process can make it difficult to really understand what kind of marketer you’re getting and whether they have the employee-job fit to become the first marketer on your team.
From my experience, one of the best ways to understand how a marketer thinks is by asking them to build a marketing plan or campaign. You should be able to see how they think strategically and then you can dig in on all the tactical elements to get a sense of what they know. A good marketing campaign plan will start with objectives, share a concept, outline audiences and relevant messages and also show the ability to handle multi-channel marketing campaigns. I always recommend asking for a plan as a take home assignment during the interview process.
If you can make it work, contract-to-hire is the best way to completely de-risk hire altogether. Both sides are able to see if they like working with each other and are able to provide the value that you’re looking for.
In the end, the marketer you hire will not be perfect, so your job as their manager will be to understand what kind of marketer you’re getting. You need to internalize this and your first marketer needs to be self aware around their skills.
Once you’ve recognized their strengths and weaknesses, you can then begin the process of augmenting their skills. This should start with the marketer teaching themselves and talking to experts around what they need to do. So for example, if you hire someone with a strong performance marketing background, then they should be listening to podcasts on product marketing and trying to meet with product marketers at other companies.
Depending on the first marketer’s ability to learn, then it starts to make sense for you to start bringing in other marketers to complement their skill set.
Just remember, when making your first marketing hire you’re looking for the following:
The marketer’s approach and ability is more important than their resume. Here's what to look for:
Good luck hiring!