Karl Hughes

Karl Hughes

Why Marketing Management is so Hard in Startups

Why Marketing Management is so Hard in Startups

I’ve gotten to know a lot of marketing managers at startups since I started working on Draft.dev full-time last year. I was talking to one recently and she mentioned some of their marketing goals and constraints.

“I’m the only marketer and my budget is tiny, but they want me to pull off a miracle!” She lamented.

I wish this weren’t the first time I had heard something like this, but it seems to be pretty typical.

Working for a startup is a totally different game from working in a big company. From the long working hours to the scarce benefits, it’s sometimes hard to imagine why good employees would ever take the risk. Layer on the fact that expectations are sky high, budgets are razor-thin, and investors want to see traction in less than a year and the job of a marketing manager can seem downright impossible.

Steve Blank, an entrepreneur and author of The Startup Owner’s Manual, defines startups as organizations still searching for a business model that’s repeatable and scalable. Obviously, this brings up a number of challenges for marketing managers, not the least of which is, “What exactly are we selling? And to whom?”

In this piece, I want to dig into marketing management. I’ll share some of the challenges and key skills marketing managers at startups need and hopefully give you some useful resources to help you understand the role.

Note: If you’re a startup marketer and you’d like to learn more about content marketing specifically, I co-created thisisgoodmarketing.com just for you.

What is a Marketing Manager?

Marketing managers are typically responsible for leading an execution-focused marketing team and may lead a channel, market segment, or the entire function.

At a very small startup, the marketing manager (or possibly a Head of Marketing) may also share a role in go-to-market strategy, conducting market research, and creating a marketing plan. They may even bleed into other areas, managing the company’s public and investor relations.

Moreover, they’re expected to train and hire a team to assist in executing the strategy, are required to continuously adapt to keep up with changing trends, and need to manage relationships with external agencies and consultants too. Finally, they’re likely facing the prospect of limited capital and a small team, with the average startup having as few as 10 people.

This is obviously a huge set of responsibilities, so as companies grow, the role will eventually splinter into multiple functions, but in the early days, somebody’s got to do it all.

The marketing role eventually breaks into multiple

Let’s dive deeper into some of the challenges that marketing managers face when coming into their first startup role, and offer some useful tips for first-time marketing managers at early-stage startups.

Challenges of Marketing Management at a Startup

Marketing managers still working on product-market fit face unique challenges. At this stage, one of your primary concerns is building a customer base and figuring out what resonates with potential customers. That said, it’s not easy, especially if you’re supposed to show astronomical growth numbers.

1. Resource constraints

Startups often begin with limited capital, making it important to establish steady cash flow. Regardless of the scale, money will always be an issue at a startup.

Even if you manage to raise enough money, there’s still the question of financial management and allocation. These financial constraints may make it difficult for you to create and execute established marketing strategies like paid advertisements or content marketing.

2. Hands-on and leadership role

Like most leaders at a startup, marketing managers must wear multiple hats. They’ll need to perform tasks outside of their comfort zone but are still crucial to the startup’s survival. While this can be exciting, it can have its drawbacks, particularly if your new marketing manager isn’t equipped to execute these tasks properly.

Working on a tight schedule and gives rise to time management and priority issues. When everything is urgent, nothing is urgent, so it’s easy to lose focus on your core duties as a marketing manager. This can be a fatal mistake for a startup.

3. Failure to niche

It’s a given that early-stage startups are still in the process of identifying and segmenting their target audience. You’re working toward building a customer base and winning their trust.

While marketing what you offer to everyone can be tempting, doing so is more likely to result in failure than picking a viable beachhead market or niche. Marketing managers need to lock in that niche *before * getting too tactical.

Competition is another challenge that many early-stage startups face, particularly if you’re marketing a product or service in a crowded marketplace. On a different note, marketing a product that has no demand can cause a startup to fail.

4. Still figuring out product, positioning, and branding

Early-stage startups are prone to constantly changing their product features, pricing plans, and brand positioning.

Startups must pivot, but the lack of proper planning, particularly when it comes to marketing, can lead to trouble. Marketing managers need to work with founders to lock in a position and carry it out.

5. Working with founders

Working with founders, especially highly opinionated leaders, can be tricky.

While they may be passionate about the business, they may also unwittingly contribute to startup challenges. Some founders hoard work, refusing to delegate important decisions. It’s critical for founders to recognize that while they may be an expert in a particular field, they must acknowledge their limitations and trust their marketing manager to do the role they are best suited for.

Tips for Startup Marketing Management

Do things that don't scale

Effort only fully releases its reward after a person refuses to quit. - Napoleon Hill

While the challenges are real, marketing management at a startup can be very rewarding. Leading a go-to-market strategy for a company that takes off can help skyrocket your career and build a life-long reputation.

Here are a few tips for surviving startup marketing management and (hopefully) coming out on top:

Identify 1-2 channels that work

There may be several things you want to try out, but pretty quickly, you need to hone in on 1-2 marketing channels or tactics that work. Don’t try to replicate complex, multi-channel approaches that huge companies with teams of marketers implement. Keep it simple.

Know your strengths and hire freelancers/agencies to fill in the gaps

With a small team, it’s important to recognize your strengths and limitations. Be open to enlisting freelancers or specialized agencies to cover areas you aren’t especially strong in. For example, if you know advertising but content isn’t your strong suit, find a content creation agency to take on that part of your marketing plan. Don’t spread yourself too thin; most marketing takes persistence over time.

Remember, management is a skill in itself

If this is your first time in management, particularly in marketing management for a startup, don’t think you just wing it. Talk to people, read books, and get feedback on your performance. Being a manager is a totally different skill set than being a practitioner.

Use data, but don’t get lost in it

Data is a crucial component in marketing, but having too much data and not knowing how to use it can be counterproductive.

Try to focus on 5-10 key metrics that actually matter based on your marketing strategy. If you’re focused on top of funnel goals, don’t measure mean time to conversion on a daily basis. On the other hand, if closing deals is a priority, know your daily conversion metrics well. Establish a few key performance indicators (KPIs) that help reach your goals and stay focused.

Make your early customers into advocates

Remember that your customers are people too—they’re not just figures on a chart.

Many early adopters are great advocates for your brand, so build genuine connections with them and nurture those relationships. As Paul Graham says, “Do things that don’t scale.” Identify champions who are willing to recommend your business through word of mouth or referrals on social media channels and then leverage those relationships to drive as much growth as you can.

Being a marketing manager at a startup is tough, but it can be incredibly rewarding too. You’ll get the unique opportunity to learn almost every facet of marketing and might just get to see your company go from a fledgling idea to a unicorn.

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