A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of filling in for a marketing class at The Startup Institute.

At one point during the class, one student told me, “You should start a marketing agency!”

I smiled.

“I did,” I replied.

It’s true. Quietly over the past year, I’ve done marketing consulting for almost a dozen startups.

I’ve learned a lot over the course of this year, and the one year point sounds like a decent time to share some of that. So grab some popcorn and a cozy seat. Here’s what I’ve got:

Lesson #1: Growth marketing is hard to explain.

The beginning of my career was spent in this frantic early-stage startup mode. I was executing on the nuts and bolts of marketing while also coming up with the strategy, and it was all about getting things done.

I learned how to do a ton of things, but what I didn’t learn was how to communicate the strategy. I got good at marketing before I learned how to explain it.

People who learned marketing in the digital age struggle with this, as we do a wide variety of weird stuff to market businesses online. Those tactics are hard to describe, and so are the results of our work. Marketing right now is all about testing, and not all marketing tests work. It takes time to find the thing that sticks.

Growth marketing is kind of like trying on swimsuits. You know what you’re trying to buy, but you have to try on a lot of different sizes and styles that are awful until you find the one that works. Then, that suit is only in style and it only fits for so long before you have to go shopping again.

Explaining growth marketing isn’t easy, but I’ll offer this: It gets better. Over time you get to know the channels more. You learn the benchmarks, recognize the patterns, and build up your confidence. With time, it gets easier to communicate the strategy of growth marketing, and in turn, and gets easier and more fun to do your job.

Lesson #2: Being a generalist can be a great thing.

When I started consulting, a lot of people asked me what my specialty is. I didn’t know how to answer that, and it made me feel really unsure of my abilities. Working in startups, I’d had to wear a lot of different hats as it was the nature of small companies. That’s why it was hard to narrow my abilities down to one thing, like Adwords.

Now I’m comfortable more broadly defining my skills as a “full stack marketer,” with a strong emphasis on content, and I see how understanding the full marketing funnel can be a strength.

Generalists can get a bad reputation for being Jacks-of-all-trades-and-masters-of-none. I understand the frustration of working with an unfocused colleague or cleaning up sloppy work.

But here’s what I’ve learned: I think the key to being an effective generalist is self-awareness. You have to know what you’re good at. (For example, I’ll happily admit that I while can use Photoshop/InDesign, but I am by no means a subject matter expert at design. I’m glad to delegate that. Seriously, here you go. Here’s the logo, the color palette, the eBook—knock yourself out.)

I think as long as you are self-aware, willing to delegate, and productive—being a generalist is a great thing. It means you can contribute to a wider variety of marketing products, speak the language of colleagues beyond your department, and own products that have a broad business impact. Shiny object lovers, I say… explore those interests!

Lesson #3: Even with marketing, startups still have to sell.

I’ve chatted with a number of prospective clients who wanted to bring in marketing so they didn’t have to do sales.

Honey, that’s not how it works. Even with a marketing consultant hanging around to help with blog posts or PR or something, sales people still have to sell. Sales and marketing have to work together.

Anything other than direct sales is a slower growth channel. You need time for that stuff to convert.

Pre-funding, a startup has to drive sales to help with runway. In that case, the best way for sales and marketing to collaborate is through a case study. That case study will be a phenomenal asset for the sales team to use when talking to prospects. They’ll love it.

For its part, sales needs to land that first customer who is willing to do a case study. For marketing’s part, we can come up with a ton of ways to re-package that content (blog post, webinar, press) and drive traffic to it. As you can see, it’s a team effort, and sales’ participation won’t go away even with marketing’s support.

Lesson #4: It’s never too early to focus on the customer.

We are in this phase of marketing right now that is incredibly accountable and metrics-focused. Marketing used to be a cost-center, now it’s a money-maker, marketing’s the new finance… etc. etc. We’ve all heard this. This conversation is great stuff, but it’s getting into the heads of folks who aren’t ready for it.

People are worried about optimizing a theoretical newsletter for conversion before an email list even exists. People are concerned about creating a repeatable process for lead generation before they have even decided who the ideal lead is. Cart before the horse, much?

“You need to take a step back and define the customer more” is tough marketing advice to give to an eager founder. But I find myself saying this more and more because in many cases it’s the best advice I can offer.

So. That’s what I learned this first full time year of consulting. I just want to give a huge thank you to my clients for taking a chance on me. I’ve loved working with you and becoming more than a business partner to you, but also a friend. Seriously, a friend. I feel like I made some lifelong founder friends this year and I cannot thank you enough for being a part of my journey. 🙂

6 Comments on What I’ve Learned From Startup Consulting

  1. AuctusMarketing
    May 11, 2015 at 3:58 pm (2 years ago)

    Great insights and i am in the same type of role.  I concur with your points wholeheartedly and it shows that the layers of the onion or each project/relationship reveal more as time goes on.  The more one listens, stays aware and has an open mind, the more one will gain.  I really always try to emphasis to my start-up clients that less is more.  For example, don’t focus on going national out of the gates; instead just build locally to prove your concept.  I am also a big fan of simply focusing on daily/weekly/monthly progress and of course being very honest with setting your expectations with your clients.  A lot of experience definitely helps here with these start ups and i lean and refer to mine a lot which gives me a lot of credibility, but is still no huge accurate predictor of success as this market is so competitive and dynamic.  Anyway, thanks for sharing these great points!
    -Christian, Founder Auctus Marketing

  2. kontentlab
    May 12, 2015 at 10:15 am (2 years ago)

    Honest and down-to-earth. Excellent write-up, Janet. I liked the way you put the thoughts of a “generalist.”

  3. JanetAronica
    May 13, 2015 at 2:18 am (2 years ago)

    kontentlab “down to earth” is such a nice thing to hear. Thank you for reading!

  4. JanetAronica
    May 13, 2015 at 2:19 am (2 years ago)

    AuctusMarketing Like your ideas on going local first. That definitely applies to one of my clients in terms of business model. Thanks for reading. Cheers! 🙂

  5. TheCoolestCool1
    May 13, 2015 at 1:46 pm (2 years ago)

    Great post Janet. I think your point about Sales & Marketing working together is one that needs to be stapled to the front door of every marketing and sales departments office in a startup. Recognizing that most startups don’t have separate offices, a sticky on their laptop would probably suffice. 
    I’ve seen this issue occur time and time again with startups. Marketing goes into its own little silo and creates great content that makes all their marketing friends happy and excited but the sales team sits back unimpressed because the content doesn’t convert. Why doesn’t it convert? Because marketing isn’t asking sales what their prospects actually want. In fact, the sales team isn’t even thinking about marketing as a part of the sales process and as a result, the startup struggles. Bringing both sides to the table is KEY.

    Content can help an early stage startup but in B2B, that content better be great for lead nurturing, lead development or customer acquisition as a whole.

  6. JanetAronica
    May 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm (2 years ago)

    TheCoolestCool1 Glad to hear you agree! One big thing that we need to talk more about is that creating the content isn’t enough. You have to invest in creating the content but also you have to invest time/money/resources in getting the content in front of the right people. This isn’t 2010 anymore where simply Tweeting things on a brand account gets traction. You have to get friends/family to hustle the content for you, have to republish to Medium, Svtle, and Linkedin, have to guest post… have to get an ad budget… have to build that email list as soon as you can. My advice: 1/2 time should be spent creating the content. 1/2 time should be spent hustling the content and entire early stage team has to help.


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