Marketing at a startup: What do you do first?

The first 90 days are crucial when you are a CMO at a startup


You’ve just been hired to lead marketing at a startup with a story and product you are excited to communicate to the world. You’re excited to help this company grow. What do you do first?

Startup CMOs have an average tenure of 18 months. In fact, the Harvard Business Review's "The Trouble with CMOs" had an entire section last year focused on "Why CMOs Don't Last". As a marketing leader, this is shocking to me considering the CEO's significant involvement in hiring the CMO. Ultimately, it comes down to establishing trust between the CEO and CMO to help shift this frightening trend. How do you do that? Through communication.

When going into a startup as a new senior leader, you have a short window of time to to adapt to the culture. As high-performing individuals, people in leadership roles are often focused on the job and getting results, but understanding the culture plays a massive role in determining your success. The first few days are key in creating an impression, establishing credibility and forming trust. They set the tone for your role and the impact you'll be able to have. The first weeks should be dedicated to listening, observing and learning about the people, the brand, the product. Be a sponge. Take in the wisdom of those around you, including product, sales, engineering and customer success teams.

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As the book The First 90 Days suggests, schedule 1-on-1s with team leads and the CEO. I prefer out of office meetings, paired with lunch or caffeine. Having them off-site allows team members to focus more on the agenda at hand and helps with relationship building. However, what's more important than the setting is what you're getting out of the conversations. We spoke to almost two dozen leaders across departments and sometimes, time zones, to find out what their conversations looked like, and what they wished was different. Here are some key takeaways:

One-on-ones with team leads

Ask: What do you most urgently need from marketing that you’re not getting today?

What are you listening for?

+ Their purpose, their values, their strategy and their goals.

+ Find out what the customer lifecycle looks like across departments.

Consider: How can you, as a marketing leader, make their life easier? What can you and your team do to help them and their team get closer to their goals?

Going forward...

+ Align cross-departmental leaders with a focus on customers vs the traditional org silos.

+ Relay the importance of each department for marketing. Reframe conversations to focus around how each department helps customers.

One-on-ones with CEO

Ask: Where do you wanna go and how can I help you get there?

What are you listening for?

+ Understand the CEO's purpose, values and goals. Keep in mind that the CEO reports to the Board and pitches to VCs, which means their goals and values are also important.

+ Establish trust through transparency.

Going forward...

+ Set goals based on shared vision. Define what success looks like.

+ Set clear expectations on everything from budget to reporting.

In the meanwhile...

Find out how the CEO and the team operates - what's the culture like? How do they like to communicate, individually and in a group setting? How are decisions made? Quickly? Over time? In meetings? By a select few individuals? As a group? Recognizing not just what your colleagues say but what they do and how they work matters if you want to be effective.

As a CMO and marketing leader, you are brought in to make an impact, to drive growth. Getting buy-in from multiple stakeholders is imperative to your success. Observe and discover how change occurs in this environment. There is no article or book that can do that for you. Start with a small group and test your ideas, and be sure to observe their reactions to the initial recommendations you make. Ask a few trusted colleagues how others might respond before dropping your next big idea in a formal setting. Before proposing major changes, know who has your back and ensure that you have addressed questions and concerns in your presentation that a potential stakeholder may have. Invest in engagement and dialogue to build consensus. Don't let small setbacks shake you up and focus on next steps. Ultimately, remember that you were hired to be there because they believed in your ability to drive growth. Now you can focus on doing that by setting goals.

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