I’ve been a marketing manager for five startups as an employee (and even more as a consultant), and it can be tough. Don’t get me wrong, it can also be a lot of fun. With a startup, everyone is contributing to the success of the company. You’re close to the action and you can come away with battle-tested relationships that will last a lifetime.
At a good startup, everyone works hard, but marketers have a few extra burdens. Here are some that I’ve found to be common across multiple organizations.
- The boss knows everything (I can say this now because I don’t have one). At every startup I’ve worked for, the founder/CEO has said “I really want to be involved in marketing” when I was interviewed. Every single one. Why? I assume it comes with the territory–the founder conceived the idea for the company because he or she saw a market opportunity, and most are naturally very confident people. They are also usually industry insiders–especially in tech companies where they tend to be technical experts. Because I wasn’t an engineer, they didn’t really trust that I knew what I was doing. The problem is that the difference between opinion and fact can be hard to differentiate. The CEO says “I don’t like the website.” You probe for why and it turns out that he showed it to his wife and she didn’t like it (true story!). They rewrite your press releases, fuss over every detail of a product brochure or trade show booth graphic. It’s exhausting. Usually the only people they listen to are the PR and marketing agencies we would hire for projects. That’s one of the reasons I joined an agency!
- You have three jobs. At every startup I’ve worked at, I’ve had three jobs. First, I have a job that is beneath me. I’m doing things like stuffing envelopes, shipping trade show materials, formatting contact databases, and other administrative tasks because there’s no one else to do it. Next, I’m doing what I’ve done many times before that I’m comfortable with like getting a website built, creating a messaging hierarchy, getting logos and style guides together. Finally, I’m doing things I’ve never done before that scare me to death, like speaking at a conference. For one company, I spoke at a dozen technical conferences! I wanted to say to my boss, “You know I’m a marketer, right?” It was terrifying. The great thing is that your range of experience grows fast.
- You don’t always get respect. This is especially true in tech companies. As I mentioned before, many technology companies are technology-driven. That’s changing, but when most of the executive team members have engineering degrees and you don’t, it’s harder to get heard, and marketing is seen as more fluff and trickery than science and metrics. I can’t tell you how many times someone in the engineering department has pointed to a competitor’s ad in a trade magazine or website and said, “Look, we’re being out-marketed again!” I could never figure out how they came to that conclusion. Maybe we’re being outspent in print advertising, but that wasn’t part of our strategy.
If you’re a marketing manager for a startup, especially for a tech company, I feel your pain. The ironic thing is that as the company grows, it gets better because you get more resources and you get a cleaner chain of command. Just as that happens, you’ll start to miss the good old days when there were just a few people and decision got made faster.
If you’ve been a marketer at a startup, feel free to share your story.