Feb 6, 2024

When Should B2B Tech Startups Hire Their First Marketer?

By Matt Dodgson

Co-Founder - Recruiter & Marketer

Introduction

When should you hire your first marketer? 

It’s a question a lot of B2B tech start-ups struggle with and, unfortunately, tend to get wrong. 

But making the right decision, not just about when to hire, but also which type of marketer to hire first, can have an enormous impact on your start-up’s growth. 

In this episode, Emma Westley guides us through the question of when B2B tech start-ups should hire their first marketer. She also provides plenty of helpful advice for determining what kind of marketing professional to hire, and using your newly established marketing function to drive business growth. 

Today’s Guest

Who they are: Emma Westley, VP of Marketing at Delegate CX.

A bit of background: Emma has been in B2B tech marketing for over 20 years. She’s worked in agencies, in-house roles for global enterprises, fractional CMO roles, and most recently in early-stage start-ups.  

Where you can find Emma: 

Prefer Video? Watch a full video of the podcast here…

In terms of their growth journey, when should B2B tech start-ups hire their first marketer?

This is a question many of our viewers have asked us recently. 

And, as is the case with most important questions, the answer often depends on your unique circumstances and certain variables. 

Emma agreed with that notion, reminding us that each business is different and, therefore, should make decisions that are specific to themselves. 

But there are some helpful guidelines you can use to find the correct answer for your own start-up. 

Emma advised start-up founders and CEOs who are thinking about hiring for their first marketing role should ask some key questions internally first, such as: 

  • Is it a product-led business, or a-sales led business? 
  • Is it a software product, or is it services that you’re selling? 
  • Have you got sufficient funding?
  • Do you know you have product-market-fit?
  • Has your product launched yet? 
  • Do you have a sales team already in place? 

All these things are important factors to consider regarding how your first marketer will fit into your business, and what outcomes you need marketing to achieve for you. 

Emma said, “Generally, if you’re a CEO or founder, you’ve probably got a small team around you. If it’s a product company, you’ve got a small engineering team, or if you’re a sales-led company, you’ve got a small sales team and customer success. The first sort of thing to look out for, as a sign of needing some marketing help, is if you need to go out to a broader audience and you need to market to that audience.”

Beware of confusion between sales and marketing 

A common mistake many start-ups make is hiring a marketing professional when they actually need a salesperson, or vice versa. 

Emma pointed out that it’s important to understand the right kind of resources you need to achieve the desired outcomes at every stage of your company’s journey. 

“I will put such emphasis on that, an audience you need to market to, because there’s a real confusion, especially in early-stage start-ups, between sales and marketing,” explained Emma. 

“It’s common to think you need to market to an audience and you need to reach that audience, when actually what you need to do is sell to that audience. If that is the case, hire salespeople or, as the founder or CEO, get into that selling motion yourself.”

“You need to be clear on the difference between marketing or selling to your audience. That means you’re looking at lead-times that are inherent in marketing, especially in B2B if you’ve got long sales cycles.”



Understand what marketing is there to do

One way to avoid that mistake is to gain a better understanding of exactly what marketing’s role and purpose is within your business, and define the differences between that and sales. 

Emma explained, “Marketing is about generating brand awareness, generating demand, creating some sort of pipeline of leads, but it’s not about creating sales. There’s a distinct difference that a lot of CEOs and a lot of founders get wrong there.”

“You’ve got your product, something that you need to market to a wider audience. That’s probably your first trigger to notice that you might need some sort of marketing help.” 

Consider part-time or fractional arrangements for senior roles

Regarding the strategy behind making that first marketing hire, Emma also noted there are a variety of ways to approach this, which may be more beneficial for certain types of businesses. 

For example, it’s becoming increasingly popular for start-ups who are seeking a very experienced, senior person as their first marketer to leverage part-time or fractional arrangements. 

“This is a bit of a mind-set shift for a lot of people, but you don’t necessarily need to bring someone in full-time,” said Emma. “And the good thing at the moment is there are lots of different options available in the market in terms of how you can hire. One of the things I talk about from a bit of a biased perspective here is the fractional approach.”

“If you’ve got question marks around who the audience that you need to reach is, or how you reach them, or what the go-to-market strategy is, then a fractional CMO or marketing director is a good first person to bring in and help define your strategy to go-to-market.”

But don’t hire someone too senior, too early 

Having said that, it’s perhaps more wise for an early-stage start-up to hire someone less senior as their first marketer. This is because that initial marketer will probably need to get involved practically and help with the execution of marketing activities. 

One of the biggest mistakes we see here is that companies hire too senior too early, thinking they need a VP of marketing or a CMO, when really they’d be better off with someone who’s willing to get their hands dirty. 

Look for balance and don’t be afraid to think outside the box 

An approach that’s worked quite well for some of our clients is hiring more of an execution-focused person, somebody that can grow into a more senior role further down the line, and layering in a more experienced fractional person to help on the strategic side of things. 

That fractional leader can then help develop and nurture the more junior marketer, and the junior marketer will still be able to gain experience with planning and strategy, and they feel more supported as well. 

Do you think there’s a type of profile of marketing professional that suits early-stage start-ups better?

Emma suggested that certain types of marketers are better suited to working in early-stage start-ups, as she’s learned over her decades of experience working in different types of businesses. 

“In terms of general attitude, general approach, marketers in start-ups need to be more adaptable and flexible,” said Emma.  

“Of course, they need a basic understanding of marketing as a whole, that obviously there are different channels, there are different ways of doing things. When it comes to being more of a T-shaped marketer, that’s really important.” 

“Then, if you’ve got that sales motion in place, you should have some understanding of what channels are working to reach your customers. So that will define your T-shape. For example, we need a generalist that’s going to be able to pick up things quickly, learn new things easily, but we know they need to be able to focus on events, or slightly more of a digital slant in terms of paid ads or something like that.” 

“Start-ups will benefit from knowing which skill-sets they want their marketers to focus on, but I do think it’s more about bringing the right attitude to it, especially for working with small teams.”

This is why flexibility and adaptability are so important for marketers in start-ups. Strategies and plans need to be able to change quickly if they’re not working, and so do your channels or areas of focus. If you hire someone who’s too much of a specialist in one discipline, you’ll struggle to adapt to the trends and preferences of your target market. 

A T-shaped marketer is a great first hire because of the breadth of their experience and their ability to move between different channels and disciplines.



How can a CEO or founder determine whether marketing is working once they place their first hire? 

When your start-up hires its first marketer, you’ll be keen to ensure their performance meets the required levels and their work delivers ROI for your business. 

But it’s crucial to understand that marketing will rarely begin driving immediate growth of revenue. Marketing, when done right, requires patience and a long-term view. Your first marketer will need to get the basics right first, building foundational aspects of marketing – like brand awareness among a relevant, engaged audience – before driving high volumes of leads and revenue opportunities.

You also need to remember that certain tactics and channels will return better results than others, even though they may be wrong for your specific business. 

Select the right strategy and channels for your unique start-up

Emma said, “First of all, you need to understand what it is you need to be doing from a marketing perspective. Obviously, there are channels that will have a quicker impact depending on what type of business you are.”

“If you’ve got a very simple self-service product and it’s targeting other start-ups or SMBs, your sales cycle is probably quite short. So, you’ll be able to see quite quickly when testing a marketing channel whether it’s having an impact. It’s at least creating a pipeline, or it’s getting the eyeballs on it that it needs to convert.”

“But if you’re a more service-led company targeting enterprise clients, your sales cycle is potentially going to be nine months, or a year, possibly even more. So, in that case, expecting a marketing channel to flip the impact of that in a matter of months is nonsensical. It’s not going to work.”

“So, think about it sensibly in terms of what your business does and how much traction you’ve got so far. How can you replicate that and how long is that going to take?”

This is where a more senior marketer, whether fractional or full-time, will be especially valuable. They can help identify the best channels to target, and they’ll know whether the metrics that you’re getting within that channel are healthy.

Emma added, “It does need patience, and it needs a few things happening at each different stage of your customer journey. You first have to get the awareness of the product and the brand out there, then get some sort of education in the market to clients, and then start converting that on a gradual basis.”

A few other highlights to look out for in this episode:

  1. Emma’s thoughts on marketers making the switch from a large business to a start-up, and vice versa.
  2. Discussions of the recent challenges in the tech industry, and how Emma believes this is affecting both marketing and recruitment for start-ups. 
  3. Insights into using modern, flexible agency models for support in specialist marketing disciplines
  4. Warnings to avoid common mistakes and pitfalls that Emma has seen many start-ups fall into when building a marketing function.