Founders Make the Best Startup Marketing Leaders

CEOs often ask for my advice on the ideal candidate profile to lead their ongoing customer growth efforts once we’ve completed the key steps to unlocking growth. You would think that after running marketing at two startups through IPO filings that I could easily answer that question. But I’ve struggled to define the ideal profile of a successful startup marketing leader. After many course corrections, I finally believe I have it figured out. But to really understand the ideal profile, it is important to comprehend why the role is so challenging.

Based on anecdotal evidence, I’d guess that 90% of startup marketing leaders don’t work out. This corresponds to the overwhelming majority of startups falling short of expectations of founders and early investors. When a startup falls short of expectations, the startup marketing leader is the first to go. Even those fortunate enough to gain early user traction still face the uphill battle of finding cost effective ways to acquire users at scale. And if they do succeed, then startups are often tempted to hire a “next level marketer” to replace them.

A successful startup marketing leader must be undaunted by these risks and believe they uniquely have what it takes to succeed. That sounds a lot like the profile of most startup founders. So it’s not surprising that the best startup marketers are entrepreneurs at the core. Entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk and are generally tenacious enough to uncover the channels necessary to drive long-term growth.

I came to this conclusion after finding the common thread between myself and the two most effective people I’ve met at uncovering growth channels. One is still CEO of his company but has done more to drive customer adoption with a fraction of his time than most startup marketers do with undivided attention. The other highly effective startup marketer is a founder that transitioned to leading marketing. They share a persistent desire to connect their innovative solutions with the people that really need them. After implementing critical tracking systems and an efficient customer acquisition process, they are now relentless about experimenting with channels until they find things that work.

Contrast this to a typical marketer, who is generally more focused on marketing activities than marketing results. Most of these activities do nothing to move the needle on the business, but make the marketer feel good because they are working hard.

It may be tempting for a startup CEO to read this and think that aggressive targets can steer the marketer in the right direction. I don’t think that will work. Effective marketing leaders will challenge themselves by pushing the boundaries of the startup’s growth potential. The CEO should be a partner in this process rather than setting arbitrary unrealistic goals. If you don’t have confidence in your marketing leader, the founding CEO should micromanage the process by being an active participant in channel brainstorming sessions and challenging the marketer to ensure tests have been implmented to perfection. Once you have created a product that people really want, most of the remaining company risk and upside lies in your ability to aggressively drive customer adoption. This is not something a CEO should abdicate to the marketer until they’ve demonstrated a relentless drive to uncover profitable customer acquisition channels.

The CEO can also facilitate channel discovery by ensuring that the marketing leader gets the tracking systems they need to execute marketing efficiently. Of course the marketer should be able to make a case for why these resources are important.

What about successful startups that had an initial marketing leader with a more traditional background? First, there is nothing wrong with a traditional marketing background if at the core the marketer is entrepreneurial. Second, the marketer does not always deserve credit for strong user growth. Sometimes great products really do market themselves. My experience with Dropbox certainly supports this assertion. Also, I recently spoke to the former VP Marketing at a company that sold for billions and he agreed that his most important growth contribution was not getting in the way of the viral growth engine.

Of course the risk in hiring an entrepreneur to lead your marketing is that they’ll eventually leave to start their own company. Agree that this is an acceptable outcome if they are willing to give you at least a couple years.

Finally, only the marketing leader needs to be entrepreneurial. In my experience, it is not an essential characteristic for the rest of the marketing team.

12 thoughts on “Founders Make the Best Startup Marketing Leaders

  1. Sean-

    This is something that may be very relevant for me in the near future. It’s a good mindset to put myself in as I pitch myself as an incoming member of startup team.


  2. Agreed Sean. Those with the greatest vision for the product are best suited to drive creative, entrepreneurial and successful marketing. They really do go hand and hand. Good article.

  3. This comment really hit home for me… ‘his most important growth contribution was not getting in the way of the viral growth engine.’

    As marketers we are always tempted to create something new. Yet new activity is not always the best way forward.


  4. Sean – I just experienced the worst of this, first hand. Thanks for a great write up and a lesson to all the CEOs and CMOs of startups.

  5. I remember reading some research a few years ago about the average tenure of CMOs in big corporates (by Booz Allen). The argument was that most CMOs get replaced with 18 months because they fail to live up to expectations.

    I think the version of marketing leader you’re describing relates to what they called “Driver of Growth,” someone who partnered with the CEO, drives the marketing capability to propel the central agenda. It’s the agenda that matters, not the tactics.

    A startup looking for that kind of help would surely be disappointed with the two alternatives the study turns up: marketing services provider (organising widgets), and marketing advisor (compliance).

    Sure this study points to the Fortune end of things but I’ve always found the model fits smaller companies.

    Founders who’ve been around the block focus on the primary agenda. Too many career marketers have come up through organisations bent toward service provision or compliance, put their attention on great execution, and miss the point.

    On the other hand, if you’re a CEO with a head for marketing, hiring a service provider may be the way to go; someone who can deliver the outputs.

  6. I think this has some merits, but you assume that all founders have the marketing savvy or interest to do “Marketing.” I think your readers wouid be better served with a “Do you have what it takes to be a good marketeer” story line.

  7. Jason, thanks for the feedback. It wasn’t my intention to imply that “any” founder would make a great startup marketer. Instead, I’m suggesting that the best startup marketers I’ve met have been founders. In hindsight, probably one of the most important points of the blog post is that CEOs must take an active role in driving customer growth whether or not they have an interest in marketing. Nearly all of the risk and upside in a startup is in your ability to gain customer traction and then drive scalable customer growth. The CEO should not abdicate this responsibility to the marketer.

  8. Sean,

    Your words are spot on. Given my Professional background, past and present – your article applies to not only startups but also to those that lead organizations through times of extreme change.

    For early stage companies and/or organizations, a CEO must be willing to be open enough to step back and acknowledge it is the power of the entire team which will enable the company to succeed. They must be part of the Marketing Strategy and then allow the Marketing Leader to execute with the appropriate metrics to track the success or to make a course correction that works.

    Without creating a culture and environment which allows for open, honest communication and healthly debates, the CEO will find themselves with a Startup that falls into the 90% that fail.

    One of my Mantra’s: “We are only as strong as our weakest Link”.



  9. This is a great article and a breath of fresh air in a world where developers think they don’t need the business guy. You have to build it, but sell it too…

  10. Hi Sean, Nice post. You and I have been going around on this a bit ; ) and I think you’re on target here. An entrepreneurial marketer knows how to “use” and complement the natural skills of a non-marketing-oriented CEO.