Top 4 Career Killers for Startup CMOs (and How to Avoid Them)

November 23, 2015

It’s no secret that a CMO role – especially in a startup – is fraught with land mines. Aside from the usual pressures and career-killing traps of the C-Suite, the 90% fail rate of startups – as well as the difficulty of building a brand presence and marketing process from the ground up – ensures that startup CMOs forever walk a tightrope across a very real (and very deep) abyss.

But hard isn’t impossible and, in many ways, taking on the CMO role at a startup is a bit like a crucible test: you either come out infinitely stronger or… you don’t. Fortunately, career success as a startup CMO has nothing to do with the success or failure of the actual business, but rather how (and how well) CMOs carry themselves, their teams, and their brands across the peaks and valleys of the startup experience.

After chatting with several top CMOs in the blossoming DC Tech scene, we identified the top 4 career killers for startup CMOs and what these leaders have used to avoid them.

Career Killer #1: Not Being Involved in the Startup Scene Surrounding Your Business

In this day and age, every major city has a startup scene, and it’s really problematic to launch a marketing effort and choose not to participate. Yes, you may think but we’re going to be a national / international brand, and the local scene is small potatoes, but think again.

Multiple DC CMOs said they actually owe a majority of their success to their local startup communities. “By being active in the scene,” one argued, “you open the door to valuable alliances that translate to partnerships, brand advocates, investments, and a healthy amount of perspective. You meet people, you share your vision with them, and it creates a very real buzz.”

Choosing to ignore the startup scene in your area can create some pretty nasty effects. In addition to the obvious missing out on free publicity, hype, recruitment opportunities, and the like, you run the risk of being perceived an outsider and an ineffective marketer (who couldn’t even get the word out about your product in your hometown), and you’re don’t exactly become attractive when looking for new opportunities.

The Fix: Participate in local chapters of StartupGrind and any Tech Meetups that are in place in your area. Pitch at pitching events, rub elbows with your industry, and keep in constant contact with your local network.

Career Killer #2: Being Unwilling to Get (and Stay) in the Weeds

If you’re new to startups, let me just say that it’s a very “weedy” place. Running lean teams with big goals while lifting an entire marketing strategy off the ground and keeping your very tired marketing team inspired is a big job, and you won’t do anyone any favors by taking a hands-off approach.

Despite what you may be used to (especially coming from a larger organization), the startup CMO’s life isn’t just lunches and high-level strategy. It’s playing the role of chief inspirer, mentor to your team, occasional writer, ad buyer, progress analyst, UX expert,email marketer, and more. It’s basically finding any part of the marketing operation that could be better (or which isn’t currently staffed) and executing like your career depends on it (because it does).

The Fix: Don’t approach a startup CMO position as a cushy job. It’s fun as hell, but it’s long hours, high stress, and a whole lot of work. Prepare yourself mentally, and make sure you have the time / lifestyle in place to make this kind of commitment before the fact.

Career Killer #3: Being an Inflexible Micromanager

I know these are harsh words that no one cares to admit about themselves, but by the time you’ve reached the CMO level, you have strong opinions about what works and doesn’t, how things should look, sound, etc. That’s great (and almost certainly why you got the job), but in a startup, you just don’t have the time or resources for that.

Because your team is inevitably wearing 3-5 hats each, you need them to have great momentum – their will and their sense of ownership in what they’re doing – to get stuff done. Reading and editing every blog post your content marketer writes isn’t going to allow for that, nor is tweaking the design of every email, perfecting every ad before it’s delivered, etc. You hired a team because of their skill and – assuming they’re on board and up-to-speed with your business – you have to trust them, and they have to trust you.

The Fix: Develop a comprehensive marketing strategy with your team, allowing each of them to strategize for their own roles while you fill in the gaps. At this stage, you can critique / edit their approaches to ensure they’re aligned with your goals and vision for the company’s marketing program. That way, the day-to-day work they perform will have all the features of your vision and experience without derailing their momentum (and, ultimately, your entire marketing effort).

Career Killer #4: Misalignment Between You and the Founding Members

The quickest way to unemployment for any startup CMO is distorting the founding team’s vision for the brand and building that distortion into the marketing plan. And it makes sense. Founders and early hires have risked everything for an idea and have a hard time transitioning away from it or seeing it become something else entirely.

That’s absolutely not to say that you should stop listening to your customers and pushing your product / service in the direction / toward the message the customer needs. It’s just to say that you shouldn’t let your difference of opinion / approach ever escalate to a misalignment.

As you know, a huge part of any executive’s role is educating other stakeholders on what you do and why it’s good for business, and this situation’s no different. Be sensitive and respectful to the original vision while you steer their thinking (and the brand’s direction) toward where it ought to be.

The Fix: As the brand identity and message evolve, hold regular meetings with other stakeholders to get your efforts blessed. By including them in your thinking, you allow them to be a part of the evolving brand story. That way, when you make changes, you’re not “changing the brand.” All you’re doing is updating the message to match the evolution of your brand becoming perfectly aligned with your customers.

Content Marketing Manager

Austin Duck is Content Marketing Manager for <a href=""> CircleBack</a>, an innovative address book designed specifically for networking and sales. He regularly contributes to StartupGrind, Business2Community, and elsewhere and lives in DC with his army of cats.