Hey Startup Marketers, Let’s try not to Suck. OK?

Interesting chain of posts this week. First off, Fred Wilson started it with two provocative articles challenging marketing and its effectiveness in startups. Fred is obvioulsy taking this very personal:

I believe that marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks or when you make so much profit on every marginal customer that it would be crazy to not spend a bit of that profit acquiring more of them (coke, zynga, bud, viagra)….I’m angry at the marketing profession for these transgressions over the years and it spilled out into my post. I’m not proud of that but it is what it is.

As expected, the marketing pros were not pleased with Fred’s analysis. One of the best responses I read was from SEOMoz,

I’m not a believer that a market will simply flock to a great product. Many great products have died due to obscurity; only a few great products have succeeded in spite of rejecting marketing. Fred uses the examples of Twitter and FourSquare; Google could be another reasonable example. Those are outliers, and while they might be the types of companies Fred is seeking to invest in, they’re the exception, not the rule, and thus I worry that the advice and perspective will have the wrong impact.

April Dunford also had an interesting take on the challenges of hiring good marketing people for the startup world. April’s point revolved around some of the misconceptions on the definition of marketing and the challenge of finding the right person for the specific need. April writes,

I refuse to believe that there are more bad marketers out there than there are bad programmers or sales people. But I also believe Fred’s right that the failure rate in senior Marketing positions at startups is high (I’ve certainly mopped up after a few). Why? I think companies often hire the wrong marketer for the job and marketers sometimes accept the wrong job. Both problems stem from the fact that “Marketing” means many different things.

April brings up a great point on all the different tactics that may be needed to build your marketing strategy.  From building campaigns, to content marketing, to messaging, to product management – there is a lot of know-how that a startup marketer must bring to the table.

Even more challenging is the fast paced nature of a startup – there isn’t much time for experimentation. Pick the wrong path at the wrong time and you can either be out of a job or even worse, out of business.

As luck would have it, Advertising Age (yes, I am aware of the irony here) also had an article this week addressing the skills needed by a successful marketing organization – strategy, analysis, program design, and technology. From the article,

It’s a major transition from the hub-of-the-wheel organization in which the brand or product manager is at the center, to the Rubik’s Cube structure that requires all functions to be interlocked with one another as they rotate around a core — the brand — in perpetual pursuit of the winning pattern. Successful interactive marketing demands collaboration and cohesion.

In a large marketing organization, you can build out all these competencies and work on the processes to align. At a startup, you may be required to do all these things at once and have it done yesterday.

The challenge of us in the marketing world is to do a better job learning the strategies and tactics and understanding when and where to use them. The challenge of those hiring startup marketers, make sure you find one that understands that marketing is not a “one-size-fits-all” problem and one that can address not only where you are now but where you want to be.

That’s my two cents.  What do you think?

Image Credit:  xtopalopaquetl

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  • Sorry to say, after spending 15 years in tech and now 10 in marketing/pr….there are WAY more bad marketing people (and PR people) than programmers. Salespeople can be bad but they usually don’t last that long since they’re on commisison. 🙂

    • You bring up a great point – with the sales team you can tell on a monthly/quarterly baisis who’s not making it. With marketing, it takes a longer period of time before you can tell who made the right call and who didn’t know what they were doing.nnThanks for the comment!nnJosh

      • Further, to agree with @waxgirl333, programmers must at least master basic logic or their programs just won’t work. Bad marketers can stay in the “fuzzy areas” their entire career and continue doing so in each firm until they get called out or caught. FWIW.

        • Mike,nnThanks for the comment! nnLesson learned, just like when you find a good coder, when you find a good marketer don’t let them get away! nnJosh

          • +1 to that!

          • Bertrand Hazard

            The problems with marketers is that there is not an easy way to measure their effectiveness whereas in the case of a sales person or a programmer, that easy. The former can’t close and the latter can’t code.

          • Exactly. nnActually you know when a marketer isn’t good in your gut, but hope springs eternal (I’m speaking as a former employer of both good and bad marketers.)

  • Tim Johnson

    Joshua,nnMore anecdotal evidence of bad marketers: All the companies at RSA claiming to be “leading providers” of “next generation…” Yes, there are a lot of bad marketers out there and a lot of the blame deserves to be laid directly at the feet of Kottler and all the B-School profs who still use that ancient tome to teach “Marketing.”nnThere is a small but growing cadre of folks that ‘get it’ – including all the folks mentioned in your top bloggers post recently – doing what we can to rid the world of bad marketers. Eventually we will win out, despite what Fred Wilson says.

    • Tim,nnI agree, there is definitely a set of growing marketers out there that “get it” and a lot of mentors to thank for that. nnI am for winning but not sure I am ready to cast all the blame on Kottler yet (I am biased since he is from my alma-mater and all). I think the bigger challenge is convincing marketers that they need to never stop learning and that while the “theory” may be correct, the practice is always evolving. nnIt is always great to receive comments but even better when you have one that can turn into a discussion or blog post on its own. Thanks Tim! nnJosh

      • Tim Johnson

        Okay so maybe it’s not Kottler himself but all the people who think the 4 P’s are the be-all, end-all of marketing. I first learned the 4 P’s in the late 70’s at university (dating myself there). Not much had changed beyond the cover art by the time I got my MBA in 2003. nnThe problem I have with Kottler is it is all inward focused: Our product, Our distribution channels, Our pricing, Our promotion. There is nothing that incorporates the other Ps: the Personas and the Problems they are trying to solve. Because Kottler is so focused inward, we get marketers who think features are what sell products. Hence all the leading providers of next generation crap that are out there.nnI’m being a little passionate about this today because I got a follow up email from one the vendors at RSA that sounded like Boris wrote it. http://value-prodmktg.blogspot.com/2011/02/value-is-overrated-guest-blog-by-boris.html

        • Tim,nnAgree, personas, problems, and selling the value go a lot farther these days than focusing just on the product. I think their is an additional need to focus more on technology marketing at the MBA level. Only one of my MBA classes was on tech marketing and the majority of the rest focused a lot on the classical CPG industry. Tech marketing and startup marketing are really their own niche that need a direct focus. nnBTW – if you are reading this and have not read Boris’s post, would recommend it. He is spot on with his “next generation” analysis. nnJosh

  • P.S. Your photo credit should be “xtopalopaquetl”, not “Flickr.” The latter is the repository, the former is the actual photographer.

    • Mike, nnThanks for pointing that out. Will fix.nnJosh

  • hello. what kind of marketing does a startup need? it all depends on the goals of that startup, doesn’t it? enter the downward spiral of confusion. lets assume the startup has found it’s business model, sold to a few paying customers, and is now ready to ramp up to sell on a larger scale. what is the most important first task for a marketer at a startup? nmarket research, nadwords research to test the market size on the web,nseo of web content to capture inbound marketing, nname recognition through branding, noutbound marketing to generate leads for sales to convert? nncan 1 marketing person do all of these well, or does each one of them require such deep wells of knowledge to do it properly, that you’ll need to hire mulitple people as independent contractors to execute each step?nnif it’s best to hire all these deep experts separately, is there a resource where a startup founder can go to find and evaluate people who provide these services?nnwould 1 person acting as a chief marketing officer oversee all these separate people doing these separate functions, and making sure they align with goals & strategy?nncan a startup even afford all of this (let’s talk real startups without Fred Wilson’s money)nn

    • Very true and I would say this is one of the contributing reasons why most startups fail. Unless you can get to a certain revenue point that you can either afford to bring on talent yourself or through investment, it is hard to scale your marketing efforts. nnIt’s all a reason why startup marketing is its own special breed. You need to find people that are not only comfortable wearing multiple hats at the same time but thrive in the chaos of not having the time and resources to get everything done. nnThanks for the comment!nnJosh

      • and yet there are many many small micro businesses that have managed to survive and grow, and most of these do so on the efforts of the founder who handles all the sales functions. so maybe we are making this harder than it needs to be, or maybe those micro businesses are simply too small for what we want to come out of our startup efforts, i.e. we want to grow huge, into a feacebook sized business, and the micro business owner simply wants to provide themselves with a decent paycheck for as many years as possible,

  • Bertrand Hazard

    The issue is less one of finding marketers that don’t suck but one of finding talent capable of striving the start up world. In the perfect start up world, everyone bears the sales hat, the marketing hat, the customer service hat etc. Finding the one talent to guide the marketing direction for the start up is not easy for most of the reasons that you describe Josh but it’s not an impossible task. nnWhat I see most are people who are unable to survive the start up pace, across all departments.nnnBertrand

  • Right off the bat, I think that Wilson confused startups with late market/aftermarket public companies of the convergent categories type. Yes, marketing is very different in these two contexts. Yes, marketers get hired into the wrong positions. nnSoftware companies are tricky. A complementor lives or dies off of their promo spend. Prime vendors must work their way through the technology adoption lifecycle, and that is full of traps. These two types of software companies demand very different marketing.