10 Rules for Being a VP of Marketing at a Startup

Brendon Cassidy’s 10 Rules to Being a VP of Sales in a Startup are spot-on for veteran and aspiring sales leaders considering a role in a startup. They also made me consider rules for the key startup role that I’m more familiar with — the VP of Marketing. So here goes:

1) The closer you can tie your efforts to generating revenue, the better.

As an incoming VP of Marketing, you need to quickly become fully aligned with sales leadership, and focus right away on demonstrating how your contributions will directly support the sales team, and ultimately convert to bookings. Don’t assume you’ll get the credit you deserve anecdotally — actively show how your contributions are tied to revenue and making an impact by building influence and tracking infrastructure from the start.
Joe Payne, the CEO who led Eloqua to their $92M IPO and later acquisition by Oracle, told me once that this is ultimately the reason VPs of Marketing and CMOs don’t make it past the two year tenure average.

2) Define marketing’s responsibilities up-front and avoid distractions to remain laser focused.

Is it your job to get net-new logos, cross-sell and upsell into existing customers, retain customers and reduce churn, or position and launch new products? Your team’s functions and responsibilities also differ by the segment you’re targeting. Ex: Is your go-to-market strategy focused on a small set of high-value, strategic accounts? It might make more sense to focus on sales enablement than demand creation.
Get crystal clear about what you’re responsible for with your CEO, VP of Sales, and board so you can deliver the expected results right out of the gate.

3) Think carefully about your culture.

In the early days, your culture often develops organically. It’s more or less a manifestation of who you are as the marketing leader and the work you’re doing personally. But Brian Kardon, CMO of Fuze, told me you need to formalize that culture by putting down on paper both what it is and what it isn’t as you grow. That includes your vision, team charter, etc. Keep it top of mind as you’re hiring and building your team, and start planning out how it will evolve as your organization grows.

4) Put yourself in the shoes of your customers, prospects, and your VP of Sales.

Get out of the office. Marketers who really excel in their job are able to adopt and fully appreciate the mindsets of all of these personas. Salespeople are constantly being measured and feeling pressure to hit quotas; while prospects and customers are struggling with their own wants and needs that can be mapped to your solution. Being able to empathize across the board will allow you to add value and fuel success much more effectively.

5) Quickly build a specialized team.

At an early-stage company you may be required to be very versatile and hands-on, but as the business grows you will need to hire for roles with expertise you can delegate to. If it’s all going through you or you’re too involved in the details, you won’t be able to lead at a strategic level. Just like a good VP of Sales should do, always keep good marketing candidates in your hopper and maintain relationships so you can recruit them when the time is right.

6) Know your strengths and weaknesses and develop your skill set accordingly.

I learned from Jeff Whatcott — my CMO while I was at Brightcove, who led us to our IPO and $100M ARR — that there is a huge difference in taking a company from $0 to $25M and growing it from $25M to $100M. Each growth stage poses its own unique challenges and requires totally different skills. In order to cross the threshold you need to be able to shift from building to scaling and optimizing, and not every marketing leader is cut out for that transition.
Be honest with yourself about the role you truly want to be in, and what skills you need to develop or augment to succeed. Just as Jason Lemkin says, there are different VP of Sales personas for each growth stage, and the same goes for marketing leaders.

7) Success is the best marketing pitch, but try new things too.

It can be easy for marketers to shy away from trying new things and experimenting because they feel like they have to prove the ROI of every campaign. While you should be smart and selective, you also need to take risks and give new things a shot. Not everything is going to work. That’s a given. But keep in mind you’ll never have to fight too hard to get funding for the things that do. Coca-Cola’s SVP of Brand, Wendy Clark, pioneered the 70/20/10 rule for marketing: invest 70% in established programs, 20% to new programs that are starting to gain traction, and 10% to next ideas that are completely untested. I’d adjust the weights for B2B and different growth stages, but the principle remains.

8) Don’t become separated from the day-to-day.

While you certainly need to stay out of the weeds, you don’t want to lose touch with how your marketing organization actually runs. You still have to understand all of the technologies you’re using, how lead flow works, your conversion rates and velocity, etc. The best, most productive marketing leaders know firsthand how all those things connect with their processes and people and can translate them to future innovation and strategy.

9) Be data driven.

You don’t need to be a data scientist, per se, but you do need to know how data works and how to utilize quantitative methods. You’ve got to be familiar and comfortable with the technology and analytics, have a genuine inquisitiveness and curiosity for data. That’s the only way you’re going to not only succeed as a marketer, but attract the best talent.

10) You’re expected to lead, not just manage.

When you’re brought on as a new marketing leader you’re expected to have a vision to transform and lead the organization. That means building or (re)organizing a talented, self-sufficient team as quickly as possible. But remember, as Jeanne Hopkins, SVP & CMO of Continuum IT Managed Services, told me, CMO doesn’t stand for Chief Managing Officer. Hire leaders and put them in the right roles to succeed as you grow.
Are there any rules you would add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

Blake Harris
Blake Harris
Head of Growth

Blake Harris is the Head of Growth at Formlabs, which develops professional 3D printers for designers, engineers, and other creators. He was previously a Growth Strategist at OpenView.
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