The startup founder's guide to building a marketing team
And the answer to that all important question: who to hire first?
I built my first marketing team at Wingify in 2016. Until then, I had led one or two people on specific projects, and been part of small teams in which I was slightly senior. I had no other management experience.
But it was something I had always wanted to do: build and lead a team.
The biggest influence on me (and on many others) in this respect was my first boss Girish Mathrubootham. I had observed his legendary management style at close quarters during Freshworks’ formational years, and his encouraging and empathetic approach was what I hoped to emulate.
And I began well.
Starting with that stint at Wingify, I have been able to build successful marketing teams at least twice now, with zero attrition and a great culture. Marketers I mentored and who worked with me are already leading teams and doing great work at India’s biggest SaaS companies. Watching this happen has easily been the most satisfying feeling in my career, something I don’t take an inch of credit for, but take a lot of pride in.
But I would be lying if I said this was easy. It has not been. And if it isn’t easy for me, a professional marketer, I’ve come to realise how difficult it must be for founders. Over the last couple of years, I’ve realised that founders find it very difficult to articulate what they are looking for in marketers, or are generally confused about when and who to hire.
This problem is what I’m trying to address in this essay, so founders have some clarity on how to go about building a great marketing team. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but I have put enough in here to make it a great place to start.
Modern SaaS marketing teams can be broken down broadly into the following five functions. The definitions are not exact, but they serve our purpose here.
Product marketing is responsible for developing positioning, messaging, and competitive differentiation. It also ensures that the sales and marketing teams are aligned and are working efficiently to generate and close opportunities. Sales enablement and technical writing can be parts of product marketing.
Demand generation provides sales the qualified leads it need to close deals and grow revenue. It’s a comprehensive approach to acquisition, nurturing, and deal-closure that comprises dedicated inbound marketing tactics, social interactions, ebook campaigns, weekly newsletters, pop-up events, webinars, and a lot more. SEO and SEM roles fit here.
Content marketing is the creation and distribution of digital marketing collateral with the goal of increasing brand awareness, improving search engine rankings, and generating audience interest. Content marketing also helps nurture leads and enables sales teams to close deals with targeted, actionable content. SEO helps content marketing do all these things.
Corporate marketing includes all activities being executed to promote the company as a whole, as opposed to individual products. Corporate marketing controls and runs campaigns to propagate and popularise the branding and messaging of a company, from the mission statement, language, and brand voice. Thought leadership content and large-scale media and ad campaigns fit here.
Projects is the newest addition to this list, what my former boss Vikram Bhaskaran, who leads marketing at Chargebee, calls his ‘SWAT team’. This function leads strategy and operations for all the shiny new things we now do: Webinars, events, virtual summits, podcasts, and other activities. Loosely defined, this team owns the development, administration, and execution of targeted, specialised marketing campaigns.
In most of today’s successful marketing organisations, some version of this structure is in place. Each of these functions needs specialised and sometimes exclusive skills, and though an ability to overlap is an advantage, it is around particular skills that teams are built.
Once this is clear, we come to that important question: Who should you hire first?
I’ll answer by drawing from an interview with Arielle Jackson, marketer in residence at First Round Capital. As you read, please keep in mind the different skills and functions we just discussed.
I’ve edited and titled the passages for simplicity and effect. Over to Jackson.
When should you hire your first marketer?
The right time to add a marketer depends on whether your GTM strategy is marketing or sales-intensive. If your primary path to conversion is organic, paid, PR, content, and so on, then it makes sense to bring on a marketer sooner, somewhere around the time you hit 10 people.
It’s different with an enterprise SaaS product. Typically, you want to get a repeatable sales model in place first and then layer on marketing to crisp up the story and start using new channels to drive leads. Usually that’s around the same time you’ve solidified the go-to-market motion and started looking for a sales leader to take over for the founder.
What if I have no money? Then?
A small budget doesn't necessarily rule out the possibility of bringing on a full-time marketer. If marketing efforts will be centred around content or community, then it can make sense to hire even before you have a lot to spend.
Why can’t I hire one marketer to do everything?
Often times when I look at a founder’s initial marketing job description, it’s a laundry list of almost everything on that list of activities. And I know very, very few people who are strong across all of those buckets.
Most marketers specialise in either the so-called soft or hard sides of marketing, focusing more on brand and communications or growth, analytics, and channel optimisation. Even CMO-level candidates typically tilt more heavily in one direction. I’m not sure where this desire to have it all in one package comes from — you wouldn’t expect an engineer to be amazing at front-end and back-end, but unfortunately this expectation exists for marketers.
I highlighted this exact point in my essay on the post-product decade.
In engineering teams, specialisation is widely understood and treated with respect.
A great front-end engineer is as important as someone who can build great back-end infrastructure. These are both different from engineers who are adept at integrations - handling, creating, and working with APIs to make sure different systems work together. And they in turn are different from those who work in data science, and those who work on DevOps.
These are all different roles with different needs, and demand different skillsets. Startups and founders understand this really well - that there are different kinds of engineers and different kinds of engineering problems to solve.
But for some reason they think that this doesn’t apply to marketing.
Almost every founder has a JD written for their first marketing hire that asks for an expert in content, email, tools, copywriting, product marketing, SEO, and paid demand generation, all at once.
Back to Jackson.
So who should I hire, then?
Look for someone with around five to eight years of experience for the first marketing hire. They’re still going to dive into the weeds without question, but they’ve also probably become an expert at the one or two areas of marketing you need the most help with. A great candidate at this level will uplevel your company right now, while they grow their own skill-set and potentially rise into a VP-level role in the future. If they end up not being ready for that step, you can still hire someone over them when the time comes.
Freshworks’ first marketing hire, employee 7, was from Zoho, like the founding team. A full-stack marketer, he specialised in demand generation, but was essentially an allrounder. He also knew more SEO than most SEO professionals, and was one of the genuinely good guys, a joy to work with. But again, his expertise, something he was exceptionally skilled and experienced at, was SEM. Sreelesh Pillai is now GM of Freshworks Australia, and only when Girish and Sree decided that his time was better spent in demand generation did they hire someone to write, employee 8: me.
Wingify’s first marketer was Paras Chopra, the CEO himself, but the first marketing hire was another allrounder, someone who could do a lot, but specialised in demand generation. He quickly put together a great team, making sure Wingify’s superiority in content was maintained, and built an engine that he led to great success for half a decade. Siddharth Deswal now leads marketing at Fyle, and is at work building another world class marketing machine.
I show these examples not as how-to-do guides, but as ways to think about your first hire. Marketers of this quality, the ones who can do two or three things well are rare, also because SaaS is still in its early days in India. But if you, as a founder know the marketing problems you want to tackle first, you can hire to solve those, and then build the team from there.
Putting all the takeaways together, then:
Know intimately your marketing challenges as a founder, decide what you want to get done first, and then think about who to hire.
Choose the one or two most important activities for you from the five kinds of marketing functions listed above.
Understand that the full-stack marketer is an exceedingly rare being, and even if this person did exist, the hire would cost you a lot. Be okay with hiring specialists.
Someone with between 5 - 8 years of experience can be a good fit, because they will be hungry to grow and yet be able to get into the details and execute.
If your primary acquisition model is organic (mostly SMB), you need a marketer very soon (even before you are done building, even). If it is sales-driven (mostly enterprise), you can hire as soon as you get a repeatable sales process in place. At this time, marketing can come in and really help sales scale the process they have built.
I hope there’s enough in here to help founders think through what is a really important question.