Startup Marketing Isn't Rocket Science, So Don't Hire the Ph.D Too Soon

Guest blogger Darren Barefoot is a writer, marketer, technologist, and co-founder of Capulet Communications, a web
marketing firm that specializes in high-tech and sustainability
clients. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book about social media
marketing for No Starch Press entitled “Friends with Benefits.” Darren’s
personal blog is


A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I met with a potential client, the newly-hired Vice President of Marketing at a technology startup. She was a heavyweight, having spent the last decade in charge of marketing at a major Canadian corporation. She’d been craving a change of pace, and so accepted an offer to oversee the marketing at this eight-person startup. She’d only been with the company for a couple of weeks, so I asked about her immediate plans. She replied, “I’m going to start by putting some policies and procedures in place–we could really use more structure.”

Her response highlighted one of the most common mistakes we encounter when working with early-stage startups: the founders hire too much marketing talent too early.

Why does this happen? I’m not sure, but I wonder if it’s because many founders have a technical background. As such, they’re unfamiliar and sometimes a little intimidated by the challenges of promoting their startup. To assuage their concerns, they bring in a senior marketer with plenty of credentials.

In theory, this looks like a rational decision. After all, the more experienced the executive, the better. Practically speaking, things aren’t quite that simple.

These types are usually great strategists. That’s what got them high on the ladder at their previous corporate or agency job. They’re accustomed to devising a strategic plan and overseeing a team that implements that plan. That’s fine, because, a startup obviously needs strategy.

By their nature, though, they’re thinkers, not doers. They’re great at wrestling with thorny messaging problems or rejigging the corporate branding, but how often have they run a CPC advertising campaign, or how good are they at grokking Google Analytics?

The work they’re accustomed to delegating or outsourcing is now work that they must do themselves. They have some ‘doing’ skills, but they’re often atrophied or antiquated. Your average startup doesn’t have a graphic designer or a copywriter or an SEO expert on staff. The VP of marketing at a bootstrapped startup must be all of these people, and we find that the average corporate escapee can’t fill those roles.

What’s the answer? A startup still needs strategic thinking. It just doesn’t need it 40 hours a week with medical benefits and a corner office. Instead, founders should contract a senior marketing consultant with expertise in their field for a fixed number of hours a month. Have them weigh in on the hard decisions, draft launch plans and so forth.

Then, saving on the cost of an executive’s salary, contract out the tactical marketing or employ a couple junior staffers to do the legwork. Marketing isn’t rocket science, after all, so hold off on hiring that marketing Ph.D. until you’re certain that you need them.

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