Should Early Stage Startups Have Marketing?

This op-ed by Jessica Livingston about why startups should focus on sales, not marketing, has gotten a lot of chatter recently. Given that I’m working with several early stage startups on marketing right now, I figured I should offer my perspective.

My hope is that for founders, this post helps you decide if you should hire a marketer. For marketers, I hope this helps you decide if you should accept a job offer as a first marketing hire, and helps show you what you should focus on.

Do early stage startups need marketing?

Yes, but it may not be what you have in mind.

If you have one beta customer, $50,000 in angel funding from your uncle and a still-in-progress MVP, you shouldn’t hire a $100,000/year PR agency yet.

Your friend that does videography may make a fantastic creative director for your startup one day. She may be willing to leave her job right now. But if you don’t have a product to create videos for yet, she isn’t the right person for the company right now.

You definitely need marketing, but there is such thing as being too early for certain kinds of marketing.

I actually liked Livingston’s post. The thing I disagree with is that a lot of what she describes as important steps to getting early users can be done by the marketer. Long story short: We’re usually really social people, research is a huge part of what we do, and we’d be great at customer development. Plus, there are so many more things that a young business needs, which I outline below, that marketers are acutely skilled for.

What kind of marketing do we need?

Of course this is different for every company. Building upon Dharmesh’s post from, here are some broad guidelines for marketing at early stage startups:

1) Customer Development: Before you build a product you should talk to customers. Marketers are great at market research, talking to customers, and processing takeaways.

2) Positioning: Ever heard a 10 minute elevator pitch? I know I have. You need to describe what you do concisely. This directly applies to your website content, ad copy, and sales outreach. A marketer’s perspective is really helpful for this.

3) Pricing: This is marketing.

4) Content: A good B2B content marketer can translate your company positioning into data sheets, blog posts, and your first piece of gated content. These things take a few months to show results in terms of leads and customers. However, these are still valuable for early stage startups because when people come to your site from ad campaigns or cold emails, you give them something to learn. It can shorten the sales cycle for leads from those sources.

For early stage B2C startups, it’s hard to say where content fits in. I’ve met some people who don’t focus on content and say they make a ton of money from Adwords and Facebook ads. Alternatively, you look at Luxy Hair, who has had some amazing success with its YouTube channel, and you can’t help but reconsider the value of content for B2C. I say, validate your product first with early users through direct outreach. Then, pick your acquisition channels and test.

 5) Case studies and user-generated content: If the marketer already talks to customers through customer development, it’ll be a natural transition to get case studies and seed user-generated content. This content is highly shareable, kickstarts traffic to a blog or new website, builds community amongst early users, and generates referrals.

6) Metrics-driven process: Based on the price people are willing to pay for your product, you need to figure out how many users, leads, visits etc. you need to make this a viable business. This sounds like financial modeling, but nowadays, this is marketing.

7) Acquisition strategy: Now that you’ve gone through your personal network and gotten everyone you know to try your product, you need to put a formal acquisition process into play. If your first 50 users came from your personal network, where will your next 1,000 come from?

Shouldn’t founders do all of this stuff?

Sure. That’d be great. But don’t be delusional.

You’re only human, and you’re swamped. There’s a good chance you haven’t thought of all this stuff yet or haven’t had the time to fully execute on it.

Having a marketer who thinks about this stuff in this way day in and day out is a huge advantage.

My advice

Founders: You should hire a marketer, but don’t hire a marketer if you’re not personally ready.

Remember that marketing isn’t just the Twitter account or press. Of course it includes those things in the long run, but for an early stage company, it’s a lot more about learning about the marketplace and positioning your company for success. And that’s what you need right now.

Don’t hire a marketer at all until you’re ready to empower that person to talk to customers, dig into metrics, own messaging, and make some real decisions. If you aren’t ready to hand that responsibility over to someone else, that’s totally understandable.

Marketers: Do your homework and keep these seven initiatives in mind when evaluating early stage marketing roles.

The initiatives I laid out in this post probably sound a whole lot like stumbling around looking for a business model and pushing a rock up a mountain.

That’s exactly right, and that’s exactly what early stage companies should focus on. If you don’t want to do these things, don’t join an early stage company.

If you are interviewing for a job at an early stage company and they are asking you to focus on other stuff (“TechCrunch!”  ”This conference though!”), be honest and advise them otherwise.

You may see marketing job openings for companies that appear to be further along than they are. That’s why you need to learn just how early stage a company is before you join. Funding, prestigious accelerators, accomplished advisors, customer logos on a website, and team size can be deceiving.

Do they have a product? How many customers/users do they have, and how did they get them? Do they have reliable internal tracking to back that statement up? How do they collect data on that type of thing and share it with employees? Do they have revenue targets and an acquisition plan in place? Ask these questions before you join.

There are a ton of social media manager openings out there for startups who don’t have any of these things, so you need to do your homework. If you’re aware of this stuff, you can pick the right marketing role at the right company.

If deep down what you really want is a specialized role, you most certainly should go find one – at a later stage company. I’m sure HubSpot, Acquia, Birchbox, or Warby Parker would die to have a talented and hard working social media manager (or insert other specialized marketing role here.) But you won’t find this at an early stage startup, even if that’s what they think they want to hire right now.

A founder who is ready for that first marketing hire will want your input, will gladly answer these questions, and will happily discuss how marketing fits into the overall scheme of things.

So that’s it. I hope that you found this post useful! Let me know in the comments what you think.

20 Debates Your Startup Should Stop Having Today

Startups are known for being fast-paced. But anyone who has worked for an early-stage venture knows that isn’t always the case.

When you lack infrastructure as a company, it’s tough to gain momentum and get things done.

It can be unclear who owns decisions in flat organizations.

You’re often doing things for the first time. There aren’t any past practices to rely on for guidance. [Read more...]

Advice for the Class of 2014: Accept That There is No Path. You Might As Well.

It’s graduation season and I keep seeing all kinds of “advice to the class of 2014″  blog posts. I have now been out in the real world for five whole years. Given my five years of real-world experience and that I am now an expert on everything ever, I present to you my thoughts for the class of 2014.

My thoughts can be compiled into one sentence, actually:

You need to accept that there is no “path” to success in your career.

This is difficult to accept. When you realize it, it feels like you were lied to your entire life.

I’ve seen it take some people years to get over. Don’t waste years of your life getting over this. Embrace it. [Read more...]


To catch you up if you missed my post from last week, I’m off into a new career direction of consulting.

I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for all of the messages of support, and somewhat surprised to hear from many others that they struggle with similar “self-branding” issues.

In my last post I promised to share my process with you. I tried a number of different methods to refine my offering, and some worked better than others.

Here’s what I’ve got so far. [Read more...]

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No company’s marketing has moved me in the past few years quite the way that Chubbies has.

Chubbies makes short shorts for frat bros, and they are on a crusade to rid the world of cargo shorts one pair of gingham print “Danny Dukes” at a time.

The mission is concise and clear, and in a startup world full of “It’s this for that!” and 200-floor elevator pitches, I appreciate the focus. Maybe Chubbies wants to be this huge lifestyle brand one day. Maybe they have this big, broader vision in mind. It’s possible, in fact, probable, given what I know of founders so far. But that they were able to dodge the shiny objects and channel those dreams into a single focus is an accomplishment to be revered. [Read more...]

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A few months ago Kristin, Pam, Liz and I started Marketing on the Rocks – a new marketing blog. I’ve been writing there once a month, so you should follow along and read our posts! Below is a snack-size portion of my latest one. Read the complete post here.

Whether it’s just another quick set of eyes on a blog post or a deep conversation about your career direction, getting great advice can be really helpful. It can even be life-changing. At first blush, feedback may seem like something you take as it comes to you. But there are some things you can do to proactively get the help and advice you need to improve your work.

1) Distance Yourself From The Work

Taking ownership and responsibility is much different than taking everything to heart and associating your self-worth with your job. This is essential for startup employees in particular to understand. To join a startup, a certain level of passion or at least personal interest is necessary in order to choose a risky, fledgling business over stable corporate life. But to incorporate people’s feedback into the projects you do at that startup, you need to balance your heart with your head and take an objective approach. A mental distance between you and the work impacts how you ask for feedback and how you receive feedback. [Read more...]

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Hi Susan,

Great writers are often avid readers. Since you are a writer, I was wondering if I could send you my copy of Half the Sky, a book I was lucky enough to read last summer.

This book moved me. It told stories of the billions of women in the world facing horrible oppression. Nope, I’m not talking about “leaning in” and still not getting the promotion you want because you’re a woman. [Read more...]

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One Mighty Roar began as a digital marketing agency. Through client work we developed a few different products. One of the products was technology for connected experiences, so now we are rolling those capabilities out into a spin-off Internet of Things platform called Robin. We launch this spring and you can sign up for our beta here, although I think the audience that reads this blog would be more interested in just learning about the Internet of Things and subscribing to our blog. [Read more...]

Career and Life Update

By now, the 12 of you who read this blog have heard about my next career steps. But just in case there is a 13th or 14th person who hasn’t been texted, emailed or joined me for coffee or wine over the past few weeks – here is your update.

I’m no longer at Localytics. I’m doing some marketing consulting right now as I re-energize, explore and figure out my next career steps. In particular, I’m excited to be working with the awesome people at One Mighty Roar on all things marketing. If your company needs help with content strategy, messaging or anything else (I’m well-rounded) – reach out! If I’m not a fit for a project I’ll try to introduce you to someone who is. [Read more...]

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At Localytics I managed a big company rebrand and website redesign. We launched this in conjunction with new pricing, a new UI and three big new features. (We were busy!) It’s been a few months since the site launched in August, and the time has helped me process the experience and consolidate my thoughts into some website redesign tips.

Ready? Okay.

1) Identify the Website Redesign Decision Makers

Many people will have opinions about a redesign. However, it’s not realistic to have an entire company chime in on every little decision. First, you need to narrow down the feedback team, identify the key representatives from each department and strategically involve those people in the right conversations. Second, to ensure the decision-making process goes as smoothly as possible, you need determine whose opinion and approval is nice to have and whose opinion and approval is a must-have. [Read more...]