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The Valuable Marketing Lessons I’ve Learned As a Start-Up CMO

June 15, 2017

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I’m not so sure Silicon Valley is a place as much as it is an idea. Today, tech start-ups and new ecosystems are springing up everywhere in the United States. But what they lack in geographical similarities, they make up for in other common characteristics – scrappy thinking, cat-like reflexes to the marketplace and media, second-nature growth hacking abilities and passion, to name a few.

I didn’t know what to expect when I first dove into this world; I wouldn’t be honest if I said everything was smooth sailing from the beginning, but that was neither a surprise nor atypical of start-ups in general (and the marketing role specifically).

What did surprise me, were some of the parallels that marketing in a start-up has with other industries and companies. What’s more, there are quite a bit of lessons we can, as marketers, pull out of their handbooks to inspire innovation, ROI and even personal growth at our own brands.

Lesson 1: Be Ready to Run on Hyper Speed

In a start-up, you never quite know what’s going on until you’re on the other side. Many look like a large company but are still very much a bare bones team, which means there’s never a ‘pause’ moment. My background is in video games and I used to think that was a fast-paced industry. This is that – on steroids!

When you are forging the way in a new industry or coming onto the scene as a major disrupter, there can be a lot of eyes on you. In the past, it’s been my role to build brand reputations and equity from ground zero, teaching me how to juggle and be ready for the many moving parts that are involved with grassroots marketing efforts. PR, events marketing, conferences, panels – nothing is off limits to the start-up CMO. It has opened my eyes to the many different options brands have to get their story out there.

Another huge benefit of moving at a 100 mph, has been seeing that agile mindset we always talk about in action. It’s powerful. The people on my team never stop. They are always evolving, moving past challenges and feeling inspired to come to work knowing that tomorrow will look drastically different than today. It’s not only a huge part of our strong culture, but a fundamental piece of the successes that we’ve had thus far.

Lesson 2: Growth is Built into The Company Culture

Because of the pace we are moving at, the leadership within our company needs to be thinking about scalability on a daily – almost hourly – basis.

Historically, when your company grows past 150 employees, your culture dynamics change and communication becomes more important. Silos, misinformation and non-trust can crop up, which is why a culture initiative evolves at that level. It’s vital to have that team support and goal alignment, or else the brand will be buried. Culture needs to move at the same speed as growth.

For me as a marketer, there’s nothing more fun than building a team and its initiatives from scratch, but the challenge (no matter the company) lies in scaling appropriately and being a good people manager as a leader. I’ve been in roles where the eyes of the world were upon us as we grew but now I’m in a position where we have more traditional business challenges of simply wanting and needing to do everything – but not being able to.

In a constant state of growth, I always bring it back to helping my team (and myself) prioritize and then double-down on a few critical tasks at a time. The rest can be revisited as items are checked off the list.

Lesson 3: Not All Startups NEED a full-stack CMO

After being around start-ups for a while, I have noticed that most beginning-stage startups don’t really need a Chief Marketer. What they might need is a Director-level person or Marketing Advisor to help them grow up and grow into themselves a bit more.

Ozobot did this part right – they were strategic with funding and exactly when and how they wanted to bring on a marketer that could help them find and align with their North Star. Timing is everything here. So, before signing on with a company, make sure you are strategically selecting a role where you bring value and are truly needed, or you will run into problems down the road.

It’s amazing to be able to hit the ground running and come into a company at that very moment where you know you can make an impact – I’m here to take this to the next level! Just be careful when you shock the system. As a company’s first CMO, my first step is to build trust with the team who has already put a lot of pride and passion into creating something amazing. Everyone needs to buy into the new growth and new processes in order to grow together.

Lesson 4: The Learning Never Stops

One of my biggest learnings that will undoubtedly carry over to other roles in the future is learning how not to always be the boss. Instead, I’ve learned how to service other people, whether that’s my team, the media or our customers. It’s very much a mindset shift and as a result, I look for agency experience and team members who are used to servicing clients’ changing needs.

The busier I get, the more important it becomes to get out to networking dinners, other industry events, summits, etc in order to step out of the group think and see the larger view of what we are accomplishing. As a start-up CMO, I also wear the hats of Mentor and Advisor, so staying up to date with the larger ecosystem is vital.

Internally, don’t be afraid to literally start by answering, “What is Marketing and why do we need it?” to the team. It’s important to articulate how marketing works together with the rest of the company. I’ve done this successfully by sharing a brief overview of processes that we can put in place to work more efficiently. For example, by sharing how we might decide whether to create something in-house or outsource it with some of our new budgets.

Lesson 5: Everyone is Here because they want to Change the World

Perhaps my favorite thing about start-ups is the passion – it really can’t be duplicated anywhere else. This is where my original statement about Silicon Valley being an idea really comes full circle. Everyone on my team is 100% in the game, because we have the ability to create something and solve a customer problem in a way that’s never been done.

Looking at that long-game is what motivates us daily. All else comes secondary.

So far, being a start-up CMO has come with some pretty exciting (and unexpected) twists and turns, but it has given me a whole new definition of what it means to be a leader and marketer for the brands that will undoubtedly shape our future.

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