How to hire the first marketer for your team or startup


I’ve built 3 marketing teams, hired more than 30 marketers, made a couple of colossal recruiting mistakes, been hired as the first marketer in a high-growth startup (Pipedrive), spent 5 years at the marketing team of global tech company (Skype) and founded a mar tech startup and found someone to hand marketing over to (Outfunnel). I haven’t “seen it all” but have clocked enough hits and misses to dare to write this post.

Hopefully, this post will help to hire your first (or third) marketer. As we all know, hiring is hard, and it’s painful to be working in a team where you’re missing a core skill.

The foundation: be mindful of the three big areas you’ll want your first marketer to be responsible for

“Marketing” means different things to different people. Without a shared understanding of the basics, you’ll run the risk of hiring the wrong person for your needs and wants.

It’s a good idea to start this post (and your hiring process) from definitions. The three big areas that a marketing head needs to cover are:

  1. Product marketing: positioning, competitive intelligence, research and customer insights including persona, sales enablement, product launches, “packaging” and pricing.
  2. Acquisition: lead generation via digital marketing (SEO, paid, email) and other channels, conversion aka growth, marketing ops (measurement, tools), internationalization.
  3. Communication: message and story, media, social, “viral”, analysts and investors, internal comms, creative. (Creative can also be treated as a standalone team/function).

There are other and perhaps better ways of defining and splitting up functions of marketing. The main thing is that you’d need to have all the above-mentioned areas covered.

It’s worth pointing out that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the to-be-hired marketer needs to cover all three areas. For example, a founder can take care of bigger vision and communications, or the bulk of product marketing for a period.

Comparing marketing functions to be covered to the strength and weaknesses of (non-marketing) team members already in place is a great place to start the hiring process.

Conventional wisdom: start with a “full stack marketer”, but category awareness can help to be more specific

Conventional wisdom is to bring on a “full stack marketer” that can adapt to needs as the company, product or target customer evolves. Which makes sense because you’re aiming to take care of all aspects of marketing.

The best “full stack marketers” know a little bit about all marketing functions but they’ve developed deep expertise in one of them. Such professionals are sometimes dubbed “T shaped marketers” with the horizontal stem of T representing everything they know about and the vertical stem representing the area(s) they know inside out.

Ideally, the vertical stem matches with what your team or startup needs.

For many B2B or B2B startups with a self-service model (ie. customers buy without talking to sales), the ideal core skill is acquisition marketing. For many sales-led b2b companies this is product marketing or communication. If you’re establishing a new massive and futuristic category, or if you’re the next Google or Facebook, it’s probably communication.

You can get even more specific. If you map the category awareness and category urgency for your company (which takes less than 5 minutes, I’ve written about this here), you’ll know exactly what channels the acquisition-minded marketer would probably need to cover, so you can be even more specific about the required experience when assessing candidates.

How to actively grow the candidate pipeline

The worst tactic for finding good candidates is putting up a job posting and waiting for candidates to put up their proverbial hand. The best people are not actively looking.

I’ve found the combination of following tactics useful for finding people to talk to.

  1. Network. Speak to everyone relevant in your immediate network and investor/advisor group (which you’ve probably done already).
  1. Do active sourcing. If you’re not geographically limited, comb Medium,, Slideshare and other sites for people who have shared their experiences with producing notable work. Not everyone shares publicly though, so you may want to sign up for a LinkedIn Recruiter account and use its rather powerful search functionality to shortlist and contact interesting candidates.
  1. Use good old marketing. I’ve sometimes gotten results from running Facebook+Instagram or LinkedIn ads for open positions, so I almost always spend some money to promote important positions to “friends of people who like the page” as well as segments targeting the specific skill.
  1. Try the new cool tools. Use one of the many novel services that have popped up in the space. I’ve hired people via Jobbatical and have gotten solid candidates via Meetfrank and Hundred5
  1. Post on job boards. Of course, no harm posting open positions to job sites as well. I recently tried Join (works in Europe) for a non-marketing position, and this generated 2 solid candidates in the first 3 days alone.

Traits I look for during interviews

I’ve picked up an interviewing strategy from Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic. In a podcast interview he has said that he looks for 4 things when assessing people to work with:

  • Curiosity – how does someone learn, stay up-to-date, look for better ways, and change  behaviour as a result
  • Work ethic – do they actually want to get work done at this stage in life
  • Taste – do their aesthetic and methodology preferences match with yours
  • Integrity – are they honest and dependable

I’ve found this gross over-simplification of traits super helpful, and I’ve designed many interview questions around the first three traits. (I haven’t tried but I’m guessing a question like “tell me about a time when you lied at work” wouldn’t really fly in an interview, so integrity is best checked via reference checks.)

The other important thing to look for is fit with company values if these have been defined.

My favourite interview questions

There are 2 questions I tend to ask almost always, independent of the role in question.

  • What (accomplishments, achievements) are you proud of? What would you, or have you, highlighted in your LinkedIn bio?
  • Tell me about a time when you struggled at work.  Take me through what you personally did/said/thought/felt. (aim is to understand painful lessons learned so far)

Both are great questions as you can get a sense of whether they value results or inputs, whether the examples are about team or solo work and whether lessons learned communicate finger-pointing or taking responsibility for one’s own actions.

And these questions get even better if you follow them up with a “tell me why”.

It’s worth pointing out that very few people have an answer handy for these questions, and some candidates need support and/or more time to answer. I’ve also seen interviews where there is no proper answer to either of these questions — and I’m yet to hire someone from those interviews.

One quirky thing: many of the great marketers I’ve worked with have a chip on their shoulder. They’ve painfully failed or missed out on an opportunity. I’m not saying to not hire people who have gone from strength to strength their whole career, merely that seeing someone conscious of their mistake(s) can be a big plus.

Cut through the BS by working together

If you look at LinkedIn resumes, then all companies that have ever employed a marketer must have been vastly outperforming the competition. (Suggesting that major stock indices should all be up by a factor of at least ten). Clearly, it’s far easier to make a resume look pretty than it is to move the proverbial needle.

The best way to get past this is to not bring someone on full-time, but hire them for a fixed-scope consulting project initially, something the candidate can reasonably do in the evening and weekends. And as this would be a paid gig, neither party feels too bad, if this relationship doesn’t proceed further.

This is sometimes not possible, so the next best thing is a test task. You’re then limited by how much work is polite to ask, but you can always offer to compensate for the test task, even if you’re not planning to use the result.

Agree on the fundamentals before making an offer

Marketing, like most things, is very subjective. There’s a lot of art to marketing, and people can have wildly different opinions on what constitutes a great logo, piece of content or onboarding program.

But even the science side of marketing is not black and white.

You can measure content by traffic or new business generated.

You can measure onboarding activities by conversion to paid or by retention.

You can measure the effectiveness of paid marketing by growth or by profitability.

There’s no right or wrong, but it’s important that you and the person you’re about to bring aboard agree on the fundamental metric the work will be measured by.

I’ve lost many hours of sleep for once hiring a talented, hard-working content marketer who had a very different understanding of how that function would be measured. We were looking at the world through very different lenses. We butted heads for almost a year, and the only way out of this was to part ways.

Make sure you’re aligned on the main metric before making an offer.

Recruitment ends about 100 days after the first day on the job

Finally, all of the above may be a wasted effort if you don’t do your best to help people be successful in the job.

I’m a big fan of preparing “First 100 days” plans for new marketing hires. Onboarding involves a good amount of one-on-one and group meetings, but I’ve found it helpful (through new team members finding it helpful) if the most important expectations and to do’s are written down. Things like:

  • Who to meet and establish relationships with
  • Must-read materials and resources
  • Projects where you expect contributions or results. Usually “Craft a rather detailed strategy and/or plan for the functions is among the things I ask.
  • Goals and measurements (if there’s anything that can be measured in that short time)

I’ve found 100 days to be a good amount of time because it’s long enough to get oriented into the business and role and short enough to force both parties to make a conscious decision at the end of the period: is it a good idea to continue?

You want both parties to be confident before you commit to a longer time period. Some amount of doubt is fine, there’s always a bit of that. There are always things to improve for both them and you in order to be more productive. But if you find yourself grappling with a number of concerns, trust your gut feeling.

Last but not least, don’t forget to make room and let go.

The aim of hiring is to bring someone aboard who is either smarter about an area than you, or more interested in area than you. As a leader, you have to find the optimal balance between being supportive and helpful, and getting out of the way.

PS. I recently wrote the flipside of this post: How to get that perfect marketing job at a hot startup


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