Consider This Before Accepting a Marketing Job for a Startup

Right before graduating from the Startup Institute, I snagged a dream gig as the first marketing hire for an early-stage startup. At first, the experience was exhilarating. We had a talented team, an awesome product, and a terrific culture. But the job was difficult. From attracting customers to getting them to use the platform, every day felt like climbing the last 1,500 feet of Mt. Everest, only to do it all over again the next day.

Looking back on the experience, I would not have applied for the position. In fact, I would have told my boss not to hire a marketer at all.

[bctt tweet="Looking back, I would have told my boss not to hire a marketer at all, says @willthefrench"]

What’s a marketer’s job, anyway?

These days, marketing encompasses a bunch of disciplines—from traditional “PR” and branding to more technical fields like SEO and paid advertising. Although there are exceptions, the ultimate goal behind most marketing activities is to generate and nurture leads for the sales team to close.

The assumption is that there is a group of users that you can market to. In other words, there is a known market with a proven track record of paying for and using a product. The fancy term for this assumption is Product/Market Fit, or PMF.

The life of any startup can be divided into two parts—before product/market fit and after product/market fit.

—Marc Andreesen

As Marc Andreesen explains, PMF means the difference between success and failure. You can have a team of rockstars and the most well-designed product in the world, but if users aren’t sticking around, you will fail.

That’s why early on a startup’s singular focus should be to achieve PMF. Outside of raising funds, roles are binary. You’re either building the product or you’re trying to find people to use it, or both. ;-)

[bctt tweet="#Startups are binary. You're either building the product or finding users— @willthefrench"]

So where does that leave marketing? Well, if by marketing you mean building out personas, creating a keyword list, writing content and analyzing data in Google Analytics, then the answer may be “nowhere.”

Without PMF, putting together a traditional marketing strategy isn’t possible or even needed. It’s actually detrimental. Imagine that you’re talented (and lucky) enough that your viral campaign draws thousands of users. Then what? Most will churn and your efforts will be for nothing.

Pre-PMF, startups don’t need marketers as much as they need hustlers with marketing skills. That’s an important distinction, especially if what you want is to roll out a carefully planned inbound marketing campaign.[bctt tweet="Without #ProductMarketFit, traditional marketing strategies can be detrimental, says @willthefrench"]

How to find out if a startup has achieved PMF:

Brian Balfour wrote a terrific post on ways to evaluate PMF. Obviously, it’s not simple. There are many false positives. A startup can have paying/active users and still miss the mark.

So how can you tell? I would start off by asking the founder(s) (or whoever is interviewing you) directly, but keep the question open-ended, e.g. “How would you define ______’s growth in terms of product/market fit?” If they’re unsure or say pre-PMF, then ask them why they’re looking for in a marketer, what do they expect the responsibilities to be, and how will you be evaluated.

Personally, if they’re still pre-PMF but talk about the marketing gig like they’re not, I call that a red flag. It’s very unlikely you’ll be successful in the role.[bctt tweet="Ask about a startup's progress on #productmarketfit during your interview, says @willthefrench"]

What kind of marketer do you want to be?

I don’t want to discourage anyone from working as a marketer pre-PMF because it’s challenging. Like all jobs at an early-stage venture, the odds of success are low. Everyone knows most startups don’t make it.

And if you do happen to survive and make the jump, you’ll have a great advantage because you’ll be part of the team that figured it out. You’ll have insights and knowledge of the challenges your customers face that no one else in the world has. To a marketer, that kind of perspective is invaluable.

Marketing after PMF:

Andreesen describes companies with PMF as being “pulled by the market.” Instead of a Sisyphean struggle, the process of acquiring and retaining customers gets radically easier (not “easy” mind you, everything’s relative in startup land). Having experienced both, I can attest that this description is 100% accurate.

If I can leave you with one idea, it’s not that one stage is inherently better than another. Both bring their own joys and challenges. The key takeaway is to be aware of the distinction and set your expectations accordingly.

Agree, disagree? Would love to get your perspective! Please leave a comment below or reach me on Twitter @willthefrench.[bctt tweet="Marketers need to be aware of #productmarketfit and set expecations accordingly, says @willthefrench"]

Photo credit: Maria Ly via Flickr cc