Talk to young, aspiring marketers and many will glamorize working at startups—no bureaucracy, rapid-fire decision making, fun-and-games type of environment. In contrast, many will disparage large firms—slow, bureaucratic, pain-inducing decision making processes. Yes, you can move faster in a smaller organization but there are a number of new and different challenges that make succeeding in a startup environment difficult.
To better understand why startup CMOs fail (and how not to fail), I turned to Matt Hirst, Partner at West, a venture studio that specializes in designing, building, and launching brands.
Kimberly A. Whitler: You used to work at Google and now work at a company that has visibility into a number of startups. Can you share insight on why so many startup CMOs fail?
Matt Hirst: I think many CMOs (or senior marketers) underestimate their ability to wear all the different hats required at a startup. This is especially true if they are joining a company that hasn’t previously had a marketing department to-date.
In a large company you have the benefit of a team that you can rely on for specific functions. For example, the insights and data team will usually be different brains from the creatives. In a start-up, you have to wear all of those hats from one day to the next and, frankly, that’s a lot to ask of one person, especially when they are new to the role.
Whitler: What advice can you give people faced with this challenge?
Hirst: It’s important that you start off by being honest with what type of marketing you are predisposed to doing and therefore where your blind spots are. We often talk about the ultimate marketer being a three-headed monster of Brand Marketing, Product Marketing and Growth Marketing. Most marketers are predisposed to one of those disciplines, maybe two, but very few are world-class at all three. That’s okay – and common – but when building something from the ground up in the hyper fast-paced startup world, you need to be prepared to access all three disciplines interchangeably and so it’s critical to know where you excel and where your blind spots are.
And, this should be an open dialogue with your executive team. They might not understand all of the nuances (that’s why they are not marketers!), but that conversation builds trust and lays the groundwork for future team growth.
Whitler: And is there anything startups can do to ensure they make that correct first hire?
Hirst: At West, we actually have dedicated resources to help our companies hire talent. You need to ask: “Who is the best person for the needs of the business today and in 6 months to 1 year?”
When you’re CEO of a fast-growing, venture-backed startup, you play a constant game of whack-a-mole, always looking to fill immediate gaps. So, we work with our companies to find the right person who can cover for the immediate term, but has the skills and vision to grow with the business. You have to look ahead down the road. If you only hire for the immediate, by the time that person is on-boarded and in the door, you’ll need to begin the search for their boss. That’s a very timely and expensive endeavor for any company.
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