In early stage SaaS, marketing is an essential investment that has the power to take your company to the next level, building awareness, reaching new customers, and making you look much bigger than you are. Given the limited resources and budget of an early stage startup, and the unique challenges faced, an expensive agency just won’t cut it. You need someone in-house with the right skillset, character, grit, and creativity to make it work. But how, when, and where do you find that person?
To help you hire this role successfully, we spoke to our friends at People Data Labs (PDL), specifically CEO and co-founder Sean Thorne and Chief Revenue Officer Andrew Elliott, who have built up their marketing org from the ground up and have key learnings to share. Also, being the first marketer at a startup myself, I’ve sprinkled in a few pieces of advice from my experience that should help you with this hire.
Hire as early as possible to minimize distractions
It might seem imprudent to hire a marketer early on, since the salary ROI is difficult to calculate when you may not have product-market fit figured out yet. However, one real danger of not hiring a marketer early on is founder distraction. The right marketer can focus on navigating murky waters and spend the necessary time to understand your target audience. In turn, you can focus on being the CEO.
Another risk is losing time. The marketing function takes time to get up and running, and even more time to start seeing results. The earlier you bring this hire on board, the faster you’ll grow the company.
“Like many companies, we tried to figure out Marketing pretty early, but relied on smart people we thought could figure it out vs hiring experience that had done it before. It took us a few iterations before we got it right,” said Andrew Elliott, the Chief Revenue Officer of People Data Labs.
I had a similar experience to Andrew when I was hiring the first member of my team. While the company execs were pushing for someone who had specific experience in B2B enterprise comms, I decided to bring someone on with indirect experience – specifically in the PR agency world – who I knew I could trust to figure things out without a lot of oversight. This worked out really well for us, as this person was willing to do whatever it took.
What we see time and again at Forum Ventures is founders realizing all of this late in the game and rushing to hire someone. In turn, they sometimes end up with the wrong hire – either too junior or with the wrong skill set – which either leads to wasted time or, worse, not seeing the possible power of marketing.
Key capabilities of an early-stage SaaS marketer
Knowing what type of marketer you need depends a lot on how much you already have figured out.
“There are a variety of ways to go about building out a Marketing function,” said Elliott. “If it’s early and the founders have a good idea of what needs to happen - i.e. fill top of funnel, support Product with great content, create assets to drive customer engagement, or some other kind of well-defined outcome the business is looking for, tactical hiring might work really well for the first few roles.”
However, if you’re looking for a marketer to come on board and figure out what you need, you’ll want to look for someone with a little bit of knowledge about every area of B2B marketing. In other words: a SaaS marketing generalist. Here are the four four key capabilities we recommend you look for when hiring an early-stage SaaS marketer:
1 - The ability to work alone
Chances are your budget will stretch to hire one marketer and that’s about it for a while. That means your first hire needs to be comfortable doing everything themselves and working alone. Ideally, this person has already worked in a small marketing department – ideally at a SaaS startup – so you can be sure they know the grunt work associated with the job, and how to keep moving forward with little support.
2 - Experience building and managing an external team
Despite being a generalist, no person is strong in every skill set - it’s simply not possible. So your marketer will need to build a team of external experts – e.g. writing and/or design freelancers, PR firms, SEO experts – to support them in different areas and move the needle faster. This hire needs to be able to source and manage the right external team, set and communicate goals with them, and build strong relationships, all while delivering their own work.
“Hire someone who is closer to an engineer than a traditional marketing person as marketing campaigns can be figured out later,” said Sean Thorne, co-founder and CEO of People Data Labs
I came from a background in advertising, and my experience working with different functions – designers, writers, developers, freelancers, PR agencies, and so on – set me up well to find, hire and work with the right external team of people to support my marketing vision.
3 - The ability to craft your story
By the time you hire a marketer, it’s likely that your brand story has changed a few times. And it’s likely it will change again. You need a marketer who can continue to develop a compelling story that both stands strong and adapts as your product does. They should be able to discern between the core things that don’t change - your vision, why you started the business - and merge it with evolving details like feature changes in order to clearly state what a customer gains from your product and why they should work with your company.
4 - Bootstrapping know-how
In many cases, you won’t have the time or formalized process to create a marketing budget by the time a marketer comes in. As a result, early-stage SaaS marketers need to know how to bootstrap. This means doing things themselves or finding affordable workarounds when they can’t. And they need to understand the spirit of running tests before spending resources on an idea.
These types of marketers can come from anywhere, so don’t rule out a candidate because of on-paper discrepancies. For example, if you’re in the B2B space and rule out candidates with B2C experience, you could miss out on the deeper traits that would make someone a perfect addition to your team.
Traits to hire for
In the interview process, you want to suss out if someone possesses the key capabilities mentioned above - and can handle the rigor and often craziness of a startup.
In specific, look for the following and ask for examples in the recruiting process:
Resourcefulness: As the first marketer, they will need to figure out a lot on their own. What they can’t figure out, they will need to know where and how to get help.
Follow through: The first marketer will lay a lot of the foundation. That means producing a lot of things very quickly – which can create opportunity for things to get lost. Following things through to completion is crucial.
Strong writing skills: In the beginning, your first marketing hire will need to produce baseline content for thought leadership posts, social media, press releases, web copy, blog posts, and more. Make sure they can write!
Flexible: Things change at startups - sometimes on an hourly basis. Your first marketing hire will need to go with the flow, try new things, and pivot when someone doesn’t work.
Stakeholder management skills: Balancing everyone’s needs and strong communication are critical skills for any early-stage SaaS marketer who has to deliver on their own metrics while taking into account different stakeholder requests.
Hiring a marketer can feel exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time. There’s a lot riding on this hire, particularly around bringing great leads into the organization. The key to success, said Elliott, is to define the role as tightly as possible so you can hire the right person at the right time. If you also vet candidates for traits like flexibility and resourcefulness, they will be able to go with the flow and evolve alongside the company.
Alexis Clarfield-Henry is a B2B SaaS marketing specialist who spent 10+ years in the advertising industry before joining a small Toronto-based B2B tech startup as the first marketer, building out their marketing org, and helping take the company to scale and then acquisition by San Francisco’s unicorn Instacart. At Instacart, she led Product Marketing for their Enterprise offering. Her love for helping early stage startups with their messaging and marketing brought her to Forum Ventures. Alexis is also a writer, musician, and sound meditation teacher.
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