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Jordan Lepper

Recruited Veterans Versus Vetted Rookies: What to Look for in Your First Marketing Hire

The way most entrepreneurs feel making their first marketing hire

It’s one thing to convert a ground-breaking idea into an equally impactful product. Developing a company to adequately support such a product, however, can be the most challenging opponent to success you will face in the startup world. Laying a sturdy foundation – a solid-yet-flexible marketing strategy – is one of the first, most treacherous steps in building a sustainable company.

This responsibility falls on your Marketing Director, but how do you find a Marketing Director that can successfully build and scale your company? What if you have no marketing experience yourself? What should you be looking for in your first marketing hire?
Fear not, new executive. We’re here to help

Marketing 101

Marketing is more than finding a competitive mental angle that will propel your product to top-of-mind status, or laying out a coherent marketing direction – a lot goes into a solid foundation. But, for our purposes here, that’s an acceptable paraphrase of the biggest components.

A great marketing candidate will understand that this initial branding can be paramount in cultivating a market’s ideas surrounding a product, and approach it with tireless energy and zeal; an ideal candidate might also be able to demonstrate having successfully developed a marketing strategy from the ground up, including having identified a competitive mental angle, drawn a coherent marketing direction, and led a team, ensuring it consistently moved together in that direction.

Tackling the task of finding – let alone attracting – the candidate who is most compatible with your vision and values can be daunting, so I tracked down an industry great to get some perspective.

The Right Candidate: A Veteran’s View

marketers should focus on benefits, not featuresMike Bauer is a true veteran of Indiana’s startup space. A 1969 summa cum laude marketing graduate of Ball State’s Miller College of Business, Bauer has served as cofounder, president, and CEO of Auctor Corporation, a recipient of Indiana University’s Growth 100 award each year from 1995 through 1997. Since, he’s served as Vice President of Marketing and Sales at two successful software and consulting firms, one of which being long-established Anacomp, Inc. Considering all of this, it seems wise to take note when he warns against what he believes to be the most hazardous pitfall when selling a new technology:

“Engineers always want to explain how their product works, but nobody cares…Tech companies are trying to sell to non-tech users…and those users want to know about why it’s better.”

You might think this sounds like more Marketing 101 – that’s because it is. Bauer believes it’s worth repeating, and while he concedes that it can be tough for an engineer to, “…embrace the tech without getting tied up in how it works,” he firmly believes that focusing on your product’s benefits to your customer’s lifestyle is foundational for successful commercial- and consumer- technology marketing.

Enter your marketing director: someone who understands how to interpret the merits of your product into tangible benefits for your customer, in plain and practical terms. Even if you’ve already been at it for awhile, she will be able to leverage your product with your current market, rocketing your brand to the tops of consumers’ minds.

But how do you get someone like this – a real game-changer? You could spend your time vetting and training fresh talent, but Bauer suggests an “attractive” alternative.

Rules of Attraction

Did you know you could attract better talent to your startup by offering equity?

Did you know you could attract better talent to your startup by offering equity?

One way – the best way, argues Bauer – to build a strong marketing team is to attract high-level, established talent to your startup by offering large incentives. Bauer explains that this approach simplifies the hiring process, given that these candidates’ proven track records will tell you all you need to know. You can really only do this, he says, by competing with big companies from a nontraditional approach to compensation.

Early in his career, Bauer was mentored by Anacomp cofounder and then-professor at Purdue University, the late Dr. Ron Palamara, from whom he learned something he says he will always remember:

“Dr. Palamara aspired to have every marketing and sales person in the company make more money than he made through commissions.”

The underlying idea here is if you offer a hefty incentive for your head of marketing and sales to convert your potential (i.e. your product) into revenue, then where she is already creative and hard-working, she will also be more considerate of long-term consequences, more passionate, and more team-driven. All of this stands without mentioning an invaluable corollary for both of you: if you haven’t got a lot of initial capital, you can reconcile her small salary with a generous commission on gross margin or net revenue dollars.

Bauer identifies for us a fundamental problem with this, namely that, “Highly skilled sales and marketing people aren’t interested in startups, which are too high-risk.” He quickly provides a possible solution, though. Since they’re likely already making a lot of money, offer them something big companies cannot: principality – a stake in your company.

“I think the way you attract that kind of guy…you have to bring him in as a principal.”

By offering a substantial amount of equity to an experienced marketing professional, you not only offer him a strong incentive to work for you, you offer him a reason to fight with you; you might even inspire his entrepreneurial spirit and long-term interest in your success. The best part is, once you’ve established a sustainable company together, you both come out on top.

Sometimes, though, you just can’t offer much compensation – funding is finite, after all, and even a lot of equity in a small, young company holds at present little real-world value. But fear not. In Bauer’s view, hope remains.

Vetting the Rookies

In 1989, Bauer cofounded a consulting venture that later became the aforementioned Auctor Corporation, an IT consulting and software development firm that now serves state and local governments across the country; in the late ‘90s, he led The Venture Club of Indiana as its president; today he resides as Chairman of the Board at Auctor. Needless to say, he’s been doing this for a long time. But he, like the rest of us, was new once, and didn’t have unlimited amounts of capital to invest in top marketing talent.

In fact, Auctor boasts a 23-year standing relationship with its first VP of Marketing and Sales, and Bauer insists this was initially maintained by said VP’s entrepreneurial, team-driven spirit. “…maybe equity players would be interested, but let’s face it, it’s very difficult for startups to attract big talent.” You need to find someone with a driving entrepreneurial spirit, who is willing to grow with you, take risks, and learn along the way.

There are merits here: for instance, a young candidate might understand less about the established market, inspiring innovation and paradigm shifts. While this could create a disconnect between you and existing competitors in the industry, in the startup space, we would call this disruptive – and it’s good. If you choose wisely, you also get the boon to morale and creativity wrought by a young candidate’s bottomless well of spirit, positivity, and enthusiasm.

If he doesn’t possess such a well, he probably isn’t a good candidate for you.

Cleanup

Whether you’re targeting a seasoned marketing veteran, or the greenest recent graduate, in the end, “What you want to look for is someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit…who doesn’t mind taking risks,” summarizes Bauer.

To summarize in turn:

When hiring a marketing director, look for a candidate with the following:

  • The ability to explain in practical terms how your product benefits your customer
  • A strong entrepreneurial spirit
  • Genuine passion for your product and the industry
  • Appreciation of the team and the assertiveness to lead
  • An understanding of technology without a fixation on it
  • JoshuaHall

    Nice marketing talent summary for startups. The one thing I think is missing from your list of qualities and skill sets is a SOLID understanding of sales, the sales process, the sales cycle, the specific sales challenges/obstacles for your own products/services, sales, sales, sales. I think the marketing function should be hand in glove with sales as a priority over brand building and communications, etc., especially with startups.

    • Tim Hickle

      That’s a great point. As a new marketer myself, I find it striking how infrequently the sales process is discussed in a lot of marketing environments. Focusing on small things like the sales cycle of your industry can have a BIG impact.

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