Are Marketers Now Required to be Engineers Too?

As much as I hate to admit it, online marketers with engineering backgrounds often have a significant advantage over non-engineering marketers.  They are simply much more capable of “getting stuff done.” The rest of us waste a lot of time and creative energy figuring how to get the obvious stuff done.

Not only are engineering marketers more capable of getting the essentials done, they can use their reserve of time and creative energy to be scrappy about building marketing experiments.  And of course the experiments they build on their own can be much more interesting than us non-engineers.

One way I have worked around my engineering deficiencies has been to hire the skills onto the marketing team.  For example, in my last long-term VP Marketing role I hired a front-end designer/engineer to design and code landing pages and a dedicated DBA to build reports and run ad hoc queries.

Tools are Leveling the Playing Field

Fortunately the playing field has begun to level in recent years so that non-engineering marketers can be much less dependent on engineering help.  For example, I now use KISSmetrics to build my own reports and run ad hoc queries.  And because it is so easy, I spend a lot more time digging into things like event-to-goal correlations.  This helps me know the events I should be promoting to website visitors in a given lifecycle stage. In the past, I was just seeking visibility into the marketing campaigns and landing pages that were and weren’t working.  KISSmetrics allows me to get much deeper and identify additional levers to improve results.

I’m also no longer dependent on front-end design and development help.  Not only can I build extremely effective landing pages with Unbounce, I can also very easily set up and manage A/B tests. This takes me beyond the stuff I even bothered asking for in the past.  For A/B testing landing pages, I previously had to replicate every ad to point to different landing pages.  It doubled the amount of time it took to set up any new ad campaign.  Now with Unbounce it is all automatic.

Even more empowering, I can actually manage all the content and design updates for our entire website using Optimizely.  This proved to be very useful a few months ago when Qualaroo lacked a front-end developer.  Despite limited HTML skills and no design talent, I was able to make all the necessary changes and still keep the key design templates that were custom created by a talented designer.  Finally, Optimizely made it a no brainer to retain the old version and run it as an A/B test.

What’s Next?

I’m very excited about the range of tools that will emerge over the next few years to further empower marketers.  Eventually I see a time where an individual marketer will have the ability to identify and control all of the most powerful levers for driving growth, even from deep within their website.

An important step that is also taking place is automation of the marketing programs that work.  All of this will continue to free up more time for creative marketers to build marketing experiments that truly push the envelope on results.

Figuring Out Your Way to Startup Success

“Team.”  It’s the cliché response from VCs when asked about the most important factor in deciding to fund a new startup.

But what separates great teams from weak teams? I believe it’s the team’s ability to “figure stuff out.” Founders figure out potential customer problems that are worth solving.  Engineers figure out how to build a well functioning product that meets this need.  Marketers figure out how to reach people who really need the product and how to convert them into customers…

While natural talent is a big part of figuring stuff out, we can all benefit by improving our work environment.  There are two areas in particular that prevent creative problem solving.

1) Too much focus on financial rewards

It is obvious that the effort required to raise VC funds can be a major distraction from executing the business, but few realize that the repetitive discussions about financial outcomes can also shut down your ability to figure stuff out. In my 15 years in startups, I can’t think of a single breakthrough epiphany we experienced while fundraising.

Daniel Pink demonstrates the potentially negative effect of financial incentives in his new book Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  He describes several experiments where people who were offered a financial reward to quickly complete a challenging task actually performed worse than those who simply did it for enjoyment.  An important part of figuring things out is getting into a state of flow (sometimes known as being in “the zone”) and a focus on financial incentives often prevents this state of mind.

The book mostly challenges the effectiveness of typical incentive structures inside more established businesses, but I believe the implications are even stronger in startups where survival is contingent on our ability to figure stuff out and the financial rewards of doing so are potentially enormous.

2) Too much pressure

I’ve also realized that I’m not good at figuring stuff out when I put too much pressure on myself.  A few months ago I had a beer with a friend and successful serial entrepreneur, Antony Brydon, and he zoomed right in on my problem.  I had put myself under so much pressure to help the startup with which I was working, that I had virtually shut down my creative abilities.  He mentioned that he’d been reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography where similar self-induced pressure had destroyed Andre’s ability to play tennis.  His career only recovered when he remembered to loosen up and have fun.   Every time I feel myself getting tense, I now remind myself to loosen up and immediately feel my creative problem solving abilities return.

While self-induced pressure is common in startups, pressure can also be applied externally by the Board (or the CEO to the rest of the team).  Most leaders don’t realize how counterproductive this can be in a startup.  It is OK to apply pressure for better execution of things that have been figured out, but it should be applied very sparingly when trying to encourage the team to figure out the remaining unknowns.

The solution: loosen up and have fun

When breakthrough thinking is needed, a fun, collaborative and supportive environment will generally yield better/faster results than the pressure of sticks and carrots.  This is especially important in the early days of a startup while the team is still figuring out a viable formula for the business.

Also, given the likely negative effects of fundraising, I recommend fewer/bigger rounds of financing (if possible).  Run leanly on your first round while you figure out the key success elements of the startup.  Then raise another round while executing the formula.  This may result in more dilution, but a more valuable company should offset this dilution.

Finally, encourage the team to obsess about solving customer problems rather than their potential financial outcome from success.  The best breakthroughs initially come from immersion in customer problems and then later from understanding the customer experience and benefits of your solution.