This article was originally featured in Tech in Asia.
The role and expectations of marketing in a startup are often high. What’s needed in a seed-stage startup will not be what’s required in series A, B, or C. With limited resources, it’s important to know what teams and activities will serve you best as you scale.
Having learned a lot of lessons from experience and research in a trial-by-fire manner, I thought I’d write this article to help others avoid the same mistakes. Do note that this article is in no way meant to be all encompassing, and that marketing requirements can be very different in some verticals and situations.
I’ve tried to provide the rationale behind my suggestions so you can decide whether these ideas are right for you.
Seed to series A: Awareness and customer/product research
Focus: market research, product-market fit, and organic traction
In my opinion, this is usually the most ambitious and exciting part, especially for marketers. There are a lot of important learnings marketing can provide in these first stages:
Search for strong data points to find your product-market fit
With your founders spread thin and the development team putting insane time into your product, a marketer can help by researching competitor analysis, beta user feedback, target audience, and market/vertical research.
Down the road, this work can be handed off to a product marketing team, but for now, a great marketer with research as a secondary skill is all that’s required.
Test your organic marketing channels for traction
During this time, your marketer should be testing myriad earned and owned channels. Owned channels are those that you are currently developing (your social channels, email, website), while earned channels include media, events, partnerships, and referrals.
Learn how these channels could work for your startup. Then, establish the core marketing channel activities that add the most value.
Get the word out there
When you’re strapped for cash, you shouldn’t budget much, if anything, on marketing activities, especially when you’re looking to give your startup ideally about 18-21 months of runway. Finding a marketer who understands how to get traction from non-paid marketing channels will be a boon to your startup.
From my experience, I’ve found focusing on PR-able content right at the beginning really helpful. A marketer doing great PR crafts the story and narrative for your startup, manages potential image and media risks, and gets you a share of voice and industry awareness (which helps your SEO rankings).
Series B: Leadership and process building
Focus: setting a long term foundation for marketing success
About half of all series A startups make it to series B. As competition becomes fierce, marketing becomes a full-fledged function. Competitors are coming for your head. Investors have greater expectations. You need to hit revenue targets.
Establish your marketing leadership team
Ideally, the person running your marketing has built a tech or startup team before. Series B-sized startups are building marketing for the long game, which involves thinking of the long-term strategic items (e.g. user flows, cross-selling, diversifying revenue streams, building data infrastructures, and your ideal marketing tech stack).
Leadership also keeps you from spending unnecessarily on failures that can be avoided, stop you from hiring too quickly, and can provide counsel when marketing competes with other business goals. Having leadership established at this stage will ensure your marketing team is being built properly.
Hire functional experts and channel specialists to address your marketing funnel
No matter who you bring on to your team, make sure you understand how their work fits together in the customer journey and ROI. The end goal is to convert users/customers by bringing on the right people with skills that complement your team’s.
Bring on a marketing data infrastructure specialist
You want to start automating, measuring, and structuring the growing amounts of marketing data (those you’ve been accumulating from sources like your website, app, or social) in order to optimize your marketing ROI.
This is often an arduous process if done too far down the road, so if your startup is growing in a healthy manner, it’s best to start standardizing before your focus shifts to exponential growth in series C.
Series C: Expansion and scale
Focus: scaling, innovation, and profitability
Series C for most startups is about growth, expansion, and profitability. The tricky thing is that every little input affects the scale of your growth, leading to dramatically different results. Hopefully, you’ve put the right pieces in place to help reduce growth friction.
Solidify your marketing operations and processes
This is an incredibly important part of marketing that startups tend to forget about until it’s too late. When you’re no longer a team of one, you need to start establishing effective communications, measurable goals, operations, and process frameworks. Not doing so leads to functional silos, sporadic communications, and a rapidly growing team that neither builds on successes nor avoids past failures.
Many teams put off this step, but once you get closer to expansion mode, it will lead to bottlenecks.
Hire a proper growth team
In Asia, “growth” is often considered a marketing division, but in places like Silicon Valley, growth often sits completely outside of marketing. While they may work closely with the marketing team, growth teams are often coders and engineers that work just as closely with product or the C-suite on data-driven initiatives. They often solve issues that don’t fall under a traditional marketer’s skill set or tasklist.
Growth teams test anything and everything that can build customer engagement, lower the cost per customer acquisition (CAC), and increase customer lifetime value (CLV) in a repeatable manner.
Obsessively focus on your marketing “north star”
There is usually one thing that marketing should completely focus on that would create a sea change in success: your “north star.” However, marketing at this stage will be an incredibly complex organism, and you can lose focus.
If your OKRs, reporting structures, and roadmaps look like something a nuclear physicist would create, you’ve probably gone too far. Push back on competing objectives and simplify. Complexity feels good, but simplicity works.
Caveat: it’s worth regularly monitoring how your north star is affecting your team and company values. Make sure your north star doesn’t become a means to an end.
Series D and beyond
If you’ve made it this far, you’re most likely in it for the long run. You may do a few more rounds, get acquired, or IPO. Marketing will help you get there by reaching potential users and customers, interacting, and improving the value of your product or service through a poetic blend of art, science, and psychology.
Continue to have fun with your work even through the ups and downs, as morale can be a huge issue in startups. Be creative and curious, and the breakthrough moments will happen.