Skip to main content

The Founder’s Guide to Hiring Your First Head of Marketing

Know the four superpowers, take your time, and avoid the CMO revolving door.

It’s one of the biggest reasons that many startups fail: Founders launch companies with great ideas, but with no go-to-market expertise. I see this constantly, with founder/CEOs who think their products will “sell themselves.” 95% of the time, they won’t.

There’s never been an ultimate guide to help show founders why they need a head of marketing and how to go about it. Until now. My goal with this is to make clear the steps and potential pitfalls, so you can get the CMO or VP of Marketing that you need—and help your business take off.

While at Salesforce, our success in developing a marketing strategy was instrumental in leading the company to become the behemoth it is today. Marc Benioff understood the central role marketing plays, and we were able to create the first enterprise software company with a friendly, approachable brand. 

Later, when I joined Yammer, David Sacks originally insisted he didn’t need sales and marketing given his consumer background—but ultimately changed his mind. Our go-to-market strategy helped transform Yammer’s trajectory. It was acquired by Microsoft for $1.2 billion.

To be fair, most founders have no reason to know about marketing. Very few have any experience in the field, so they don’t understand it well. And to get their product or service off the ground, they’ve had to sell the idea to colleagues, friends, contacts, and perhaps early funders. So they’ve gotten used to being spokespeople representing the brand. The idea of bringing in someone else to be chief marketer can seem like ceding control over an idea and project that is their creation.

Why hire a head of marketing?

Let’s start with making the value proposition clear. You need someone to tell your story in a way that resonates with your desired audience and emphasizes value.

Marketing is about convincing. No matter how great your idea may be, it won’t excite people and win over customers without a message.  This explains why some companies are choosing to set aside the title of chief marketing officer and instead name the position chief storyteller.

You need a head of marketing who will determine the category your company either fits into or needs to create, and then craft the story that will help you own the category. This requires knowledge and expertise. It takes unique research, fine tuning, and a record of success in differentiating a company among competitors.

Revenue is the CMO’s job—even if you have a VP of Sales/CRO/CSO.

Christopher Lochhead
Co-author of Play Bigger

It’s no exaggeration to say marketing can make or break your startup. As Play Bigger author Christopher Lochhead, whom I’ve been lucky enough to work with, says, “Revenue is the CMO’s job — even if you have a VP of Sales/CRO/CSO.”

To put it simply, great marketers do two things. They create the market category and demand for what you’re selling, and then move the market forward via the launch of campaigns that bring customers to you.

When’s the right time?

CEOs often ask me when to hire a marketing head, and tell me they already have four salespeople. I tell them they’re late! Marketing should be one of the first hires you make—either at the same time that you hire a sales director or quickly thereafter. You also need to have a small set of customers that you can learn from.

Your sales reps are going to be calling prospects and customers. They need to be equipped with a single, clear message that they can all coalesce around. And they need content, such as pitch decks, demos, and other materials, that make the message clear.

If you don’t have a marketing head, each salesperson will make up a different story. Clients and prospects will have different understandings of what your company does, and why it exists. As these stories spread through word of mouth, it will sow confusion about what your startup even is. This will burn through a lot of leads. People don’t buy what they don’t understand.

And who will set up your marketing tech stack, create a process of getting new leads into the funnel, and nurture the people you speak to? It takes a marketing leader to do all that. 

This person doesn’t have to have a CMO title. More often, I’ve found the best first hire is a director of marketing—an up-and-comer who is hungry for experience and wants to build a category-defining company. Someone who doesn’t need a CXO title and is excited for the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and get busy. 

Whom should I hire?

This is where things get tricky. In marketing, there is no one-size-fits-all rule. So, while it may sound surprising, you don’t want someone who is simply considered “good at marketing.”

What you need, instead, is to understand that great marketers generally have one of four “superpowers.” The Marketing Superpowers are:

  1. Performance Marketing

  2. Corporate Marketing

  3. Product Marketing

  4. Creative/Brand Marketing

Your marketing head should be someone with proven expertise in the specific superpower you need most.

Your marketing head should be someone with proven expertise in the specific superpower you need most. 

But how do you decide which that is? First, you need an understanding of what each of these superpowers is all about. Then I’ll show you an exercise to determine which you need.

Performance Marketing

People with this expertise are data-driven. They like to measure everything and synthesize it. They focus on understanding the ROI for marketing initiatives and seeing how well those initiatives are performing. Key skills include:

  • Demand/lead generation
  • Funnel optimization
  • Digital marketing (web optimization, paid campaigns, content, SEO and more)
  • Tech stack management (predictive analytics, account-based marketing and more)
  • Marketing operations, including establishing a framework to measure success

(Some people have used the term “performance marketing” differently in the past, to refer to campaigns in which marketers are paid for each sale or click. But it’s time to broaden out the term because performance marketers are the team responsible for measuring everything.)

Corporate Marketing

Someone with this superpower can take a 100,000-foot view of your space, define the market and category, and gain a clear understanding of where it’s headed. This person uses the information to make clear whom your target customers are and how to reach them. Key skills include:

  • PR (public relations)
  • AR (analyst relations)
  • Messaging/positioning
  • Social marketing
  • Internal employee communications
  • Executive communications

A great example is Salesforce, which spots trends that are becoming mainstream and develops messaging that links the brand to those trends. It drives this home through campaigns and by arming its 30,000 employees with the right message, at all times. When I worked there, every new employee had an hour-long session with ad exec Bruce Campbell, who explained how he was branding the company and why. 

Product Marketing

Think of people with this superpower as positioning masters. With a thorough understanding of the competitive landscape, they push the product team to focus on building products and features that drive the category forward. They also work closely with the sales team to build messaging that will crush the competition. Often, these ninjas serve as the glue that holds an organization together. Key skills include:

  • Category creation and development
  • Competitive intelligence
  • User persona development and segmentation
  • Sales enablement, including first call pitch decks, training and more
  • Content creation, including for internal and external placement, supporting prospects and customers

When I was at Yammer, we needed to shift from selling to small teams to booking enterprise-wide deals. So we ran an analysis of our 2 million users to determine which segments were most engaged. We identified four personas and built new go-to-market content, collateral and messaging for each. The new direction and campaigns drove exponential sales growth. Later, when Microsoft bought Yammer, Sharepoint adopted Yammer’s messaging framework and rolled it out globally to its 40,000 sellers.

Creative/Brand Marketing

People with this final superpower are, simply put, the keepers of the brand.  They care passionately about who you are as the founder and what your product stands for. These individuals are especially adept at building your startup’s brand and making sure it comes across in everything you do. Key skills include:

  • Websites
  • Presentations
  • Ads
  • Microsites
  • Product design
  • UI and UX of products

Zoom Video Communications is a great example of creative/brand marketing genius. The company raises awareness with straightforward messaging and design that gets to the core of what the Zoom experience is about: “happiness.”  Zoom’s “Meet Happy” message appears in campaigns everywhere and is an integral part of corporate and product communications. The company even has a chief happiness officer.  (Zoom, Salesforce and Yammer are all among the companies in our portfolio at Emergence Capital.)

Enjoying this article?

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter & learn about the latest in sales and SaaS strategies from the team behind Salesforce, Box, Yammer, Zoom, and more.

Which do you hire for?

All of these superpowers are desirable. You may be thinking, “I want someone who does all four!” After more than a decade in marketing, I can tell you: No one is an expert in all of these at once.  

Each person has one superpower, which you can think of as his or her “major.” Every good candidate also “minors” in one of the other superpowers.

  1. Write down your top three, four, or five goals for the year ahead.

    One of these goals may be sales, such as hitting a certain ARR target. Another may be launching a new product. A third may be reaching a certain number of users. A fourth may be a big new campaign to express your startup’s unique brand.

  2. Once you’ve written the list, spend time considering which of these goals is most important.

    If a year from now you’ve only achieved one of these goals, which do you want it to be? This will help you figure out which marketing superpower to hire for. For example, if launching a new product is most important, you probably want to hire for product marketing. If the brand campaign comes out on top, you probably want creative/brand marketing.

  3. Write the job description and requirements accordingly,

    now that you know what your most important goal is.

How to find the right candidate

Ask contacts for recommendations using these specifics. Don’t ask people, “Know any good marketers?” That wastes your time and theirs. Instead, explain the superpower you’re looking for and ask for names of people with proven track records in that area.

When interviewing people, ask them directly: Which superpower do you have and why? A good candidate will know how to answer the question. Ask for specifics of how they’ve demonstrated these skills in previous work. Check their references.

Make sure this person is also ready and willing to find and hire people who can complement their strengths by bringing in the other superpowers. A great marketing leader recognizes the importance of building a team that covers all the bases in the best ways possible.

Avoid the revolving door

This will be the toughest role you hire for. As a general rule, it will take you six months to find a marketing head. It’s worth it.

Unfortunately, most people don’t hire for the role thoughtfully and strategically. They don’t look for superpowers. That’s why CMOs have notoriously brief tenures. I see this all the time, and have been brought in to replace ousted marketing leaders and get companies on track.

CEOs often hire someone who simply impresses them in an interview, or who seems to be a “cultural fit.” They don’t take the time to find out what they actually need the marketing leader to do.  When they don’t see the results they want, CEOs then move on to another new marketing hire, and again fail to get the right person. The revolving door continues.

Not only is there a hefty financial cost to this kind of turnover, there’s also a very large cultural cost. It ripples through the company. Employees think it’s a sign that something is fundamentally wrong with the business—and that their jobs may be in jeopardy too. They get nervous and start looking for work elsewhere.  Morale goes down throughout the organization, and along with it, productivity.

Cede your turf

After you hire a marketing leader, give him or her a chance to succeed. That means stepping aside as your startup’s only chief storyteller, and allowing your new hire some room to breathe.

As founder/ CEO, you have a lot else to do. You need to focus on the business and its operations, assembling and overseeing a team, making decisions about the future and more. It’s time to let someone else set the marketing agenda.

This person will join you in being the company’s most outspoken cheerleader. And they may not always say everything exactly as you would. That’s OK. Watch how they build your company’s narrative, and watch the results.

How to know you made the right choice

In the months after the hire, watch to see how well your company is progressing toward your top goal. Look for ways your marketing leader is helping move things in the right direction.

If you’ve given this person a budget to hire a team, make sure they flesh out all the superpowers and that the team is helping you approach all of those top goals.

Be sure your CMO (or whatever title you gave this person) is working closely with other teams, including sales, product, and customer success. Some marketing teams act as though they’re entirely independent. But the best don’t. They’re deeply integrated. A great marketing team makes every other team move faster.

This person will also be your most strategic partner, offering you big picture ideas with a perspective that you don’t have. They’ll help you make high-level, high-value decisions. They’ll build the company with you. When you send them into a meeting, you’ll know that it’s the closest thing to going there yourself.

If you take the time and focus to do this right, you’ll introduce a marketing superpower into the DNA of your operations—and will be best equipped to grow your creation into the hugely successful enterprise it can be.