Entering Marketing at a Startup

With software eating the world, many marketers are deciding to enter startup organizations for the first time. CEOs, being told they need a brand, or to spend on paid acquisition or insert X marketing activity here, are trying to find marketing talent in a industry that has a dearth of it, so they’re happy to accept people from other industries or larger technology companies. Sounds like a win-win, right? Not exactly. The culture shock as a marketer from switching to a startup from almost any other type of company is hard to over-estimate. The switch chews up and spits out as many, if not more, people than it accepts. I’ll talk a bit why that happens and what marketers can do about it to be more successful.

The first thing you need to accept is that marketing is not understood as a function at most startups, and therefore it is not respected. These are organizations that have gotten to where they are without marketing, have probably never read a definition of marketing, and whose connotation of marketing is the seediest of snake oil sellers you can imagine. Starting from a position of distrust in a new position in a new company is never a fantastic option, but it’s where almost all startup marketers start. And they are not prepared for it. I remember a meeting my first week at GrubHub where one of the co-founders suggested firing me (referring to me in the third person even though I was there) to the other co-founder and just growing organically. The following week, I proposed doing email marketing to retain users after their first purchase and was met with a flat out “no, that’s not a good use of time.”

No one tells you to expect these types of barriers before you join, and many marketers never get past it. Marketer’s first instinct typically is to rely on the best practices argument. “But, every other company does this.” I can say from myself and watching several other marketers try it that it’s pretty much a worthless argument. If it’s a best practice in marketing, but your company thinks marketing is bullshit, then your argument doesn’t hold water. So, if best practices won’t work, you need to find arguments that will.

In the past, I’ve recommended AB testing with people, and I still do. In this scenario, there is one strategy that is almost guaranteed to work, and that is relying on data. Entrepreneurs live and die by metrics, and with most startups being founded by engineers, they trust data above all else. So, marketers first need to think about how they can generate data on their activities. AB testing is generally the best way, even if it’s pretty crude. The other is to write out a clear strategy. If something is a best practice, it’s because it’s logical. Breaking down the logic in detail can be the right way to help those not familiar with your craft why something is the right course of action. I prefer to write clear “because A causes B, and B causes C, and we want C, we should do A” type papers, but feel free to adopt your own style. In the email marketing example, I started sending emails manually and built the campaign up to drive thousands of orders before I proposed a technical solution again. It was much clearer the value then, and the project was accepted. In the Pinterest case, one of our marketers just started sending emails without telling people, and it’s now a significant re-engagement channel for us.

One caveat: don’t manipulate data for your own gain. This is a mistake I see many marketers make. In the absence of data, you need to work to generate reliable data, not appropriate available data to try to explain your impact in a way that is forced. For example, when you see a lift in metrics, I’ve seen many marketers jump in to grab credit e.g. “That’s because of our Mother’s Day campaign on Facebook!” when the campaign was only seen by a couple hundred people and only had a dozen likes. This further deteriorates credibility, as startup employees see through it. Only claim credit when you’re confident and have the data to back up your claim.

Currently listening to 6613 by DJ Rashad.