How to hire your first head of marketing

Three qualities to prioritize when looking for your company’s first marketing leader

So, you’ve founded a company, launched your product, raised funds, and are seeing early signs of growth. Now it’s time to hire your first head of marketing. The challenge is where to start. You know you need someone great, but how will you find the right person and what can you do to best understand whether they will meet the needs of your business?

At least once a week I talk with a founder asking these very questions. Here’s my advice on what to look for in your first marketing leader.

I. Principles vs. Playbooks

The foundation laid by this hire will impact the success of everything to follow. This means you need to find someone who can build the teams and programs that are aligned with your specific product and business, rather than simply implementing another company’s playbook. You’re looking for a marketer who leads with first principles, which will enable them to dig for and find your unique advantage in the market and optimize around it.

How can you recognize a playbook marketer from one who begins with first principles?

  1. Dig into the teams and programs that someone has built in their past roles to test for flexibility in thinking. If they’re relying on a playbook, you’ll notice that lots of things (e.g., organizational design, key programs, audience focus, etc.) will be similar. They may also be a strong advocate for one approach to marketing over all others, noting how well it’s worked historically.
  2. Have them talk you through a program that worked for one business but not another. How soon in the process did they realize they needed another approach? Were they able to shift course and build something purposeful? What approaches have they taken in roles that followed?
  3. Ask them to walk you through the types of questions they ask about a business and its products when creating initial marketing programs. You’ll want to look for someone who can prioritize and conduct solid exploratory research. As opposed to playbooks, frameworks, or ways of analyzing the world, are useful, and you can best understand whether someone has one by getting them to explain the thought processes they go through when building a marketing organization from scratch.

Note: There will come a time where your marketing department will need playbooks to repeatedly run, but if you’re bringing on your first head of marketing, you’re not there yet. Curiosity is a far greater skill than certainty at this stage.

II. Audience Expertise

Every new hire has a great deal to learn, and to get the most out of your first marketing leader, you’ll want the focus of that education to be on your product and the marketing programs it requires. This means you should look for someone with audience expertise that they can bring to the table and apply from day one.

The people you want using your product demand (and deserve) a tailored approach, and every audience has unique peculiarities that marketers must take into account. Think about the differences in IT leaders and developers as a case in point: each one brings a specific set of expectations for everything from how you’ll talk to them to the steps required to become a paying user. Forcing developers to download white papers isn’t going to get you anywhere, but without them, an IT leader might not take you seriously.

To find someone with audience expertise, look for previous experience marketing to the people you want to use your product. You’ll also want to explore the kinds of insights someone will bring to your company.

  1. Ask them what they like and don’t like about marketing to your audience. Audience expertise often shows up as a nuanced understanding of the potential and pitfalls in marketing to a particular group of people. A marketer who knows your audience will not only bring that nuanced perspective, but will also have opinions about it as well.
  2. Have someone talk you through the story of how they came to know your audience. There’s a difference in what can be learned passively versus actively, so you’ll want to look for someone who has spent time in the field talking to users. Ask about their experience with user research or whether they have signed up to join sales calls and answer support tickets.
  3. Expertise is not a fixed state, however, and your audience will continue to evolve. As much as a breadth of knowledge is useful now, it’s well worth understanding how someone plans to continue learning so that the ways in which your product is marketed stay relevant. Understanding how someone prefers to learn is also incredibly useful context, giving you a sense of how to provide those opportunities and help your new hire be successful on an ongoing basis.

Note: Audience expertise and program expertise (e.g., product marketing, demand generation, field marketing) aren’t mutually exclusive, and you’re likely going to speak with folks who are stronger in one area of marketing than another. To not be single point of failure, whoever you hire is going to need to bring on program level experts as your business demands. Optimizing for audience expertise in your leader is in service of having a marketing organization that functions from a human-first perspective. Programs are for people, after all.

III. A Track Record of Experimentation

Early-stage start-ups are in a constant state of reinvention as new information that comes to light will either confirm or shift your product and business model. This means that you need to find someone who not only has a high degree of comfort with ambiguity, but who also views a lack of answers as an opportunity to test and learn.

The programs that will drive growth for your business have to be found through experimentation. How can you find someone who will take an iterative approach?

  1. Deeply explore a past project that was experimental in nature. Ask questions about the data that was gathered, especially the insights it surfaced and how those insights were used to inform what happened next.
  2. Instead of just focusing on projects that went well, talk through an effort that spectacularly failed. Not only do you want to understand how someone is able to recover from failure, but you also want to test their comfort level around experiments not going well.
  3. Get someone’s take on both quantitative and qualitative data. Understand what they value about each and how they use these two types of data to inspire their work. Your business is still winning hearts, so you’ll want to find someone who values numbers, but who doesn’t forget about humans in the process.

Note: There’s a healthy balance to strike between experimentation and scaling programs, and as your business grows, the person you hire will need to apply what works, building teams and infrastructure that will systematize marketing and drive predictable growth. Testing for an ability to scale is useful, but likely not worth over indexing on at this phase. There’s still a lot to learn.

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