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Making your first marketing hire at a startup

Magda Cychowski

Marketing is best defined as the revenue and brand awareness machine of your company. Through press, blog posts, outreach, company events, social media, and valuable content, your marketing team is (hopefully) creating an image of your brand that is in line with your mission and hard to forget.

While there are a wide variety of marketing professionals, the key goals remain consistent: provide a channel to interact with customers, build company reputation, and help drive sales.

However, most early-stage companies don’t know who they should be looking for and when it makes sense to bring that person in: a senior VP who can do a lot of individual execution for a few months before you build out your team? A generalist who’s pretty good at a bunch of things that you hope will grow to become the head of your department?

Here, we'll help you answer the who, what, where, when and why about bringing the first marketer onto your team — we’ve also backed it up with Dover’s internal data and insights from our work with 200+ startups.

How do we define marketers and marketing departments?

Because the number of marketing channels used to be fairly limited, it meant the department itself fit into a neater, tighter definition. The number of ways to reach customers has since grown exponentially, as has the scope of the role.

That’s why startups hire teams under four broad functions that fit under the larger umbrella of “marketing.” They are:

  • 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 (sometimes looped in with Brand): 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.

Who do you hire first?

While it may be tempting to hire a VP or CMO right off the bat, you have to sit down and consider what their actual day-to-day responsibilities will look like. Sometimes, it can be helpful to hire a generalist or a junior marketer who is curious and eager to learn enough to fill in the gaps, and roll up their sleeves to get things done. This is someone super scrappy who understands how to experiment across marketing channels until they find the right mix.

The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find. Even a VP will likely have one or maybe two areas they’re exceptionally good at.

With marketers, the interview process is about finding the right strength instead of a lack of weakness. As mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to find someone who exceeds in all areas of marketing, and your goal is to figure out where their spike in strength is.

To visualize this, think about this as a graph. The y-axis represents the different areas of marketing, and x-axis represents a strength of someone on your team. The bar represents an ideal state of performance: you have a content machine, your ads are humming along, you’re hitting your revenue targets, etc. If you hire someone with spikes in one area, you raise your bar all around and can find other folks whose spikes meet the bar in their respective categories.

Consequently, if you hire people with spikes all around (again, highly unlikely), it’ll actually lower the bar for success, since their individual spikes will be much lower.

This is why a generalist will typically bring deeper expertise in one of the big marketing functions: brand, product, communications or growth. Before making your first marketing hire, you need to figure out which marketing priorities are most urgent and which “persona” is most appropriate for you.

These 5 questions will help you align your idea of what you’re looking for with who you should hire:

  1. Which marketing channels have proven most effective?
    a. Social
    b. Influencer
    c. Paid ads (Adwords, LinkedIn, etc.)
    d. Content (SEO-focused, thought leadership, gated, blog, video, etc.)
    e. Events (happy hours, trade shows, webinars/AMAs)
    f. Email
    g. Word of mouth

    If you know the answer to this question, you’ve got a great head start. Put simply, if you recognize a promising channel early on, you’ll want to hire someone with expertise in it to build out your marketing function. In other words, don’t fix what isn’t broken. For example, if you are seeing amazing results with Instagram ads, hire a candidate who has expertise in growth marketing and have them venture into more paid social.

  2. Do you know where your target customers hang out?
    a. Yes
    b. No

    This ties in a bit with question one, as your top channel might also be the best path for distribution — it’s where your target customers typically network or go to learn more about their job (like LinkedIn, for example). However, the answer might not be so cut and dry, or a channel might work for some time and then suddenly stop driving results. Part of a marketer’s job should be to experiment and research new channels for growth. How much of their job this entails will lead you to your answer here: do you hire for brand awareness, or growth?

    One way to decide this is to consider how your target customers are currently finding competitive products or services. For example, if you know from competitive research that clients are finding out about data migration solutions through recommendations from friends, you may want to hire a brand marketer who can work on driving top-of-funnel awareness. If they’re finding out about them through Instagram ads, you’ll want to hire a growth marketer to build campaigns.

  3. Do you have lots of competitors in your category?
    Additionally, ask yourself this: are your competitors dominant players with strong brands? Do they have endless marketing budgets? Are CACs in this space huge because everyone is outbidding each other?
    If so, you might want to put money into building an exceptional brand or 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 your founder’s skills lie?
    a. Product
    b. Brand
    c. Growth
    d. Communication

    As an early company, a founder or your early team will likely have some expertise in one of these categories. For example, if a founder has a strong vision for a product and extensive experience building and launching features, then focus less on a product marketing hire and rather supplement the skillset with another marketing priority (i.e., brand marketing). Likewise, if a member of your team 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.

  4. Are you entering a new industry and/or does your product entail a lot of human interaction (i.e. dating apps or on-demand services)
    a. Yes
    b. No

    Trust building has become an increasingly important aspect for startups as customers become more discerning, and the space becomes more crowded. If your brand is B2C and customer reputation is critical, or if you’re entering an early market, consider a branding expert who understands how to build trust and credibility. This person will likely have deep expertise in PR and thought leadership, as these channels tend to inspire the most trust among consumers.

How much experience should they have?

Once you’ve answered these five questions, you should have a pretty good idea of the type of marketer you want. But just how much experience should that person have? Jamie Viggiano, VP of Marketing at TaskRabbit, recommends that seed-stage founders look for “senior manager or director-level candidates at midsized companies.”

“At the 6 to 10 year experience level”, she continues, “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.”

Where can I find great marketers to hire?

General Job Boards:

Job Boards for Women:

Job Boards for Underrepresented Groups:

Which skills should I care about most?

Soft skills (like communication, empathy, and ability to take conflicting feedback) are critical to a marketer's success. To write this list, I sat down with Dover’s VP of Marketing, Brian Tecklenburg. He’s led 4 startups from zero to millions in revenue and has tons of experience building teams from the ground up.

Excellent collaborator

A marketer will have to function as a mediator between product, design and sales. Not only will they need to be good at delegating, they’ll also need to effectively compromise and make their case as to why a certain framing or positioning is correct.

Tell me about a time you disagreed with a member on your team and how you resolved it.

  • Weak answer: Defensiveness, placing blame on others, the problem resulted in gridlock or deprioritization rather than compromise and solution.

  • Strong answer: They have humility and self-awareness. They’re able to diagnose where and why they needed to compromise, and how they did so. A candidate who ends their response by saying what they learned from the situation and how they applied these lessons going forward should get serious bonus points.

More points if they allude to/give credit to the teammates they worked with to get the project accomplished. If a candidate is using a ton of “I” or “me” statements, they might not be the best collaborator, or are poor at giving credit where credit is due.

Strategic execution

In a startup environment, you’re not handing your marketing team a pretty good version of a project for them to optimize — often, you’re asking them to build something from scratch. For example, at an early stage company, you’re probably not too concerned with which subject lines resonate with your ICP, you’re wondering if you should do email at all.

Your team will likely receive projects without crystal clear direction or a baseline metric to build off of — it’s important that they can make strategic decisions and design assets that are measurable, and useful to prospects and your customers.This requires equal levels of strategic thinking and execution.

You don’t want to hire someone who is solely good at getting things done but too junior to think through each possible avenue. Think about it: what’s the point of writing 20 blogs in one week if no one reads them? An ideal marketing hire for your early team should be comfortable with conducting research, scoping, and defining success metrics and then (and only then) acting upon them. Strategic execution also entails other important qualities like time-management, effective communication, and excellent people management skills.

Do you have an example of a time you've not had clear direction of a project?

  • Weak answer: They’ve either never worked in an ambiguous environment, or recoil at the idea of working without definitive direction.

  • Strong answer: They can describe specific situations in which they’ve worked with little guidance and enjoy working autonomously. They’re able to discuss the roadblocks and hurdles involved, describe a thorough research and iteration process, and articulate how they sought feedback and revised the scope while still aligning with the company strategy or vision.

  • Insatiable curiosity:

Some of the best brands might feel like they have mind readers on staff — they serve you content exactly where you’re looking and almost seem to know what you need before you know you need it. In other words, they’re ahead of the curve on trends. But that’s not psychic ability, that’s curiosity.

This is backed by science: a study published in the Harvard Business Review found that an increase in curiosity is directly linked to a significant increase in creative solutions (especially in volatile markets), and is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. If you’re a seasoned marketer, you know that you will likely have to back your ideas up, field questions from the company, and have many tasks on your plate — defensiveness or aggressiveness would indicate a huge lack in the candidate’s ability to collaborate.

Look for folks who read the news and subscribe to marketing newsletters, or who like to stay on top of trends and emerging technologies. Having a pulse on wider market trends will likely translate into creative solutions to customer acquisition, lead generation and content ideation.

Consider asking: How do you learn more about your users?

  • Weak answer: Giving obvious or broad answers, not naming specific trends, technologies, or procedures they’ve used in the past to conduct user research.

  • Strong answer: Look for a wide breadth of knowledge when it comes to marketing trends: they should mention resources or programs they use for user research, and be able to articulate how they come up with solutions by consulting various sources.

Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?

  • Weak answer: If they have no interests outside of work, or can’t name something that peaked their curiosity. This is not necessarily a red flag, but it could be indicative that this is just not how their brain works.

  • Strong answer: Look for candidates who describe needing to learn something “just to know it” or because “they wouldn’t settle until they found the right answer.” Think reading books unrelated to one’s own field and exploring questions just for the sake of knowing the answers, or analyzing data to uncover new ideas. Look for folks who have diverse interests outside work, and are excited by learning opportunities, i.e. “I ended up taking a painting class because I just wanted to be better at it.”

For a more in-depth guide including compensation/equity benchmarks, tips for optimizing recruiting outreach to software engineers, and step-by-step advice for setting up an interview loop, download our Hiring Guide for Marketers.

Magda Cychowski