4 Things CMOs Wish Founders Knew

This article was originally published in Inc. Magazine. 

Heading marketing at a startup is like being an NFL quarterback. Everyone has an opinion on how you should do your job, no matter their qualifications. They think, come up with a clever ad, spend some money, buy a sponsorship and--voila!--you've got marketing success. What's so complicated?

The reality of marketing at a scaling startup is quite different. Competition and prices seem to only rise and execution of a comprehensive strategy has tons of moving pieces.  

Throughout my career, I have not only led the marketing at several high-growth startups but I have also connected with a wonderful peer group of CMOs. Life as a startup marketer is not for everyone, but it can be incredibly fun and rewarding as it balances creativity and constantly tapping into one's analytical mind

Marketing leaders need to be able to hyper-focus on the goals and filter out the noise and distractions, even when they come from the founders. I have always enjoyed working directly with founders, but here are four things I wish they knew: 


1. Going Viral Should Not Be the Goal.


The idea of going viral and getting "free" attention seems like a worthwhile cause to have marketers focus on. The reality is that to truly go viral, much of the execution is outside the marketer's control. The attention is also often short-lived, causing a sugar high of excitement that only leaves the team desperate for another hit. 


In today's world, more attention should be placed on building product-led growth. This involves using the product itself--and the benefits to users--as a driver of customer acquisition, conversion, and expansion. Marketing working hand-in-hand with the product team can help to build initiatives that give more than just a viral sugar high and instead create a growing revenue strategy. 

2. Just Because It Worked for Them Doesn't Mean It's Right for Us.

Running a successful startup can cause some anxiety. Many founders I know can't shut off trying to find an edge or the answer to their growing list of problems. It is all too common for a founder to hear or read about a successful marketing campaign and wonder, "Should we be doing that too?"

It's challenging for a marketing team when a founder's idea of the day derails the current strategy and plan. Founders should be able to engage in an open dialog with their leaders without the expectation that they drop everything to execute every idea that comes up.

I always try to practice an 80-20 rule for new ideas: About 80 percent of the time, I focus on what works, which leaves 20 percent for testing new ideas. This framework allows founders to get some of their ideas tested, but doesn't derail the larger strategy. 

3. Data Should Not Make All Marketing Decisions.

Modern business, especially for venture-backed startups, revolves around data. Every board slide deck centers around metrics. The company tells a story around them, how much they've grown in the past three months, and how much they'll grow in the next quarter. So it's not surprising that marketing leaders--having fought their way to get a seat at board meetings--are asked to focus on the numbers. For marketing, though, numbers can only tell part of the story. 


For marketing to cut through the noise and be really effective, campaigns need to be running on several channels each with its own initiative. The campaign that drove the lead or new user to the website was not working alone and should not get all the credit. Multi-touch attribution still falls flat in the marketing world as several companies have tried to track and report how each initiative drove value. Founders need to realize that just because there may not be a clear line between an item in the budget and the desired result, it does not mean that the plan is broken. 

4. An Investment in the Brand Won't Be Paid Back Tomorrow.

A brand is not about a logo or website. It is about how your company is perceived by the outside world. I like to think of a brand as a relationship that evolves with every touchpoint.

The issue many founders often have with investments in brands is that it is hard to quantify, but building an incredible brand takes time. Founders need to ignore the desire to focus on short-term return on investment and incorporate programs that don't fit in a spreadsheet. Early investments can pay dividends in the future and become force multipliers to other marketing, sales and customer success efforts.

Founders who are honest with their teams--and themselves--about what they understand about marketing and where knowledge gaps remain will start out with a distinct advantage over those who don't. If they're willing to trust the marketers they hire to "own" and execute the strategy, and exercise patience along the way, they will be less susceptible to Monday morning quarterbacking. 

They can leave that for fantasy sports.