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.

What kind of marketing do you 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 be honest.

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.

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