3 ways to get fired as a marketer at an early-stage startup

Being the only marketer at a startup can be exciting and frightening (mostly frightening). Here are some of the mistakes many marketers make; you will do well to learn from them.

Mistake #1 - Build a new website

You're a marketer. Messaging and storytelling are your top skills. You've spent a lot of time looking at the websites of hot startups from the valley. And you think your startup's website is a steaming pile of dog shit. Your first impulse would be to go and revamp the entire website. My advice is simple: don't do it. Revamping your website is a time and energy-consuming exercise. Here are some obstacles you will face if you decide to go down this path.

  1. No one trusts you yet. You might be a good storyteller but you don't understand the users, industry, and product, as well as your founders. This experience alone makes them better product marketers than you at this stage. Unless their copywriting is horrible and unfunctional (which it is mostly not), your ideas will not be received well. Unless a website and messaging revamp is specifically the top ask from your founders, don't attempt it.

  2. Website design and development can be frustrating. Finding the right talent is hard. Getting them to agree to your tiny budget is harder. Getting the desired output within the desired timeframe is the hardest. Project managing this entire exercise can be a pain unless you have very simple expectations. What's worse is that your founders will change their minds halfway into the process, which can make things harder. Also, it's time-consuming - this project will eat into a good chunk of your time.

  3. Should you be building a new website at all? If you answer "Yes" to one of these three questions, you need a new website. 1) Are you spending over 3000 USD a month on paid digital advertising? 2) Do you have a "freemium plan" or a "free trial" on your website as one of your primary acquisition funnels? 3) Have many prospects told you repeatedly that your product is "so much more than what's on your website"? Or "that your website does not represent your product accurately"?

    If you answered "No" to question 1, then an amazing website is not a must-have for you at this stage. Your startup is a sales-driven org. It uses an outbound model powered by email outreach, cold calls, partnerships, and more. If you said "no" to question 2, then your website is not your most important salesman. There are real humans who will drive leads down the funnel and get paid to turn prospects into customers. But, if you want people to sign up for a free trial and become paid users, an excellent website is a must-have. If you answer "no" to question 3, then your product messaging is fine, your website is good enough, and you can focus on other things for the time being.

    So unless a new website with better messaging is a TOP ask from your founders, don't attempt it. If they make this a part of your mandate, try your best to work on just the storytelling and messaging. This means completing all the copywriting and pass off the project to someone else. Let them execute it for you - do not get your hands dirty, because the treasure at the end of this adventure is not worth it.

I've even seen many new Marketing Heads / Directors join a company and make the website revamp their first big initiative. Did it work out well? Well, they're still Heads of Marketing and Marketing Directors but just at different companies.

Newly appointed heads of marketing should focus on leading teams to create amazing new content, run campaigns to add more quality MQLs to the top of the funnel, or even develop fresh nurture campaigns to improve conversion rates and increase velocity across the company's funnel.

Mistake #2 - Have growth/revenue targets on your OKRs/KPIs

A 1-person marketing team cannot grow a business. Repeat this with me - say it out loud five times.

Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, there was that one company that did it. Sure, your co-founder probably did it in his last venture in 2008 - good for them. But you, my one-person B2B marketing team in the 2020s, cannot do it. I often meet marketers from early-stage startups who are responsible for getting many new users per month with almost no budget. Who are their founders kidding?

In most cases, marketers cannot independently generate leads or acquire new users without the right budget. There are exceptions, like when you have famous founders and a powerful product-market fit (maybe like the growth story of Slack).

There are many stories in the 2000s and 2010s of companies doing amazing marketing with almost no budgets. There will be almost none in the 2020s. Why? Since every VC is arming their portfolio companies to the teeth with millions in funding.

Call me a pessimist. Call me uninspiring. I don't care. You might be able to do some zero-budget marketing in B2C, but you sure as shit aren't going to do any in B2B in 2022, my friend.

In fact, if your founders/ managers speak any of the following dialogues, it's a red flag.

"Anyone can grow a business with paid ads; the greats do it with zero budget."

"We have zero budget for this. But it's really important. We need a growth hack. We need you to become a growth engineer. Are you ready to take up the challenge?"

"I need you to think beyond partnerships, community, and paid ads - I want something fresh, a new way to reach enterprise customers - please think out of the box."

If you're asked to send clever cold emails to acquire new users at enterprise companies, this is not marketing. They are asking you to perform a sales function. Every sales function/team has a bunch of SDR/BDRs, who send thousands of cold emails and make hundreds of cold calls to ideal prospects. Some of these prospects reply and show interest. They are passed on to Account Executives or Account Managers, who turn responsive leads into paying customers. This is sales; if you are being made to do this, please understand that this is usually done by a sales team.

Sales is cool. It is very rewarding. It requires a great degree of intelligence, endurance, and skill to sell. But sales is sales, and marketing is marketing. Please understand the difference!

TLDR: 1-person marketing teams cannot generate leads and revenue without sizeable budgets. If you are a 1-person marketing team, do not let them add revenue goals to your OKRs, you will most probably fail. Unless you are a seasoned marketer with a generous budget.

Here's what small teams of marketers should work on during the early stages of a startup.

  1. Content Marketing - A great newsletter. A quality podcast. An excellent webinar series. An insightful blog with actionable, high-utility blog posts. Creating and distributing amazing content can help companies get attention and build a following. Examples include Toplyne's stellar blog/newsletter.

  2. Sales Enablement - No, you shouldn't spend all your time making PPTs for the sales team. That's not marketing; it's called slavery when marketers spend over 40% of their total bandwidth on it. Instead, Sales Enablement is creating great content that helps your sales team close deals faster. Examples of such content/sales assets include case studies from your most successful customers. Product 1-pagers to help explain features and capabilities in a quick and effective manner. Battle cards to help them fend off competition or beat tough questions/objections from prospects. Short and snappy product videos that show off industry-specific use cases. These content pieces help your sales team to sell more effectively. In fact, if you can make these assets well, you'll get very good at creating any kind of content for any kind of marketing use case. And you'll become amazing at one of the most important aspects of product marketing.

  3. Field Marketing - Help your company engage with its target audience at events. Plan and run events, devise and execute the strategy for important industry conferences, host webinars, and much more. This function is usually run by sales and marketing together; they work hand-in-hand to make these initiatives succeed. Marketing is usually trying to assist and support sales through field marketing.

  4. Social Media - Doing clever/witty things on social media consistently to help your brand stand out and gain a cult following. Here's a nice example from Contentful, a popular headless CMS. And then there's one from a VC, RedPoint; their Insta reels or Tiktoks are hilarious! Also, here's a nice example from the team at Razorpay, who recently hired a dog as their CPO to win some serious love, engagement, and attention for the brand on Linkedin

Mistake #3 - Doing too many things (and doing them poorly)

If there is one thing that all marketers share in common, it is enthusiasm. In fact your manager hired you because you're an enthusiastic puppy that says "yes" a lot, smiles big smiles, and can also write or use social media (maybe). But mostly you've been employed for your enthusiasm.

Once you get the marketing job, I want you to use the word "Yes" as little as possible. In fact, unless you're being offered free food, friendship, or a beverage, I want you to mostly say "No" at work for the rest of your marketing career.

Most founders or managers have the tendency to hire one marketer and make them do many, many things all at once. Here's an example: at one company, I saw one marketer (let's call him Thomas) doing all of these things simultaneously:

  • Website Revamp (Project Management only, of course, the founders didn't let him work on product messaging)

  • Content for a Bi-weekly Newsletter with industry updates

  • Sales Enablement (Case studies and use case decks for different industries)

  • Printing T-shirts for the whole company (Find the best vendor at the lowest price)

  • Project-manage the new brand video (which was being made by a local agency)

  • Run Twitter ads with 500$/mo (Lol, they didn't know that 500$ gets you nothing, poor shmucks)

  • Write and send product update emails to all customers and prospects.

Thomas was asked to work on half of this list. While the other half were things that he volunteered to do (because of his enthusiasm).

Was this person a hard worker? That's a big YES!

Was this person successful? That's a big NO!

Was Thomas seen as a success by his manager? No.

After nine months, he almost had no wins to show for all his hard work, blood, sweat (and sacrificed weekends).

  • The website project was delayed by three months and over budget by 1.5 lakh rupees.

  • The newsletter was good but never went out on time, and its quality began to dip with each edition.

  • The Sales Enablement assets were stellar - the only successful project that they had on record.

  • No one gives a fuck about who printed the t-shirts.

  • Brand video - too long, too many iterations by the founders, and not enough users completing the whole video - so the company shelved it in 6 months.

  • Twitter Ads - Zero leads generated (obviously). And no one knows how to react to 23,000 impressions in 2019. Sure, they all thought 23,000 impressions in 2013 was AMAZING because no one knew anything about digital marketing. But in 2019, impressions are meh; they'll win you a spanking at work if the goal is purely lead generation.

So yeah, that's your lesson right there - do a few things, and do them well. I know saying "No" as a young marketer is hard - you have no leverage, no confidence - but you got to do it, or you'll end up like my good friend Thomas (who has learned his lesson and now become a sought-after PMM in Indian Fintech).

Also, your first or second marketing job is the place where you build skills and a portfolio. So if you spend your time working on nonsense, you won't have much to brag about at your next job interview. This means spending less time on website revamp management, and more time on email marketing, sales enablement, field marketing, and content marketing.

Summary time!

  1. Don't change the website unless you really need to.

  2. Don't let them add revenue goals to your OKRs unless they arm you with a solid budget that lets you afford paid media and talent for execution.

  3. Do a few things. Do them well. Make sure you're working on things that will be appreciated in your future jobs.

  4. Build some skills. Build a portfolio. Register some wins on your quarterly OKRs.

  5. Win your manager's trust. Keep your job.

Or you'll end up writing these long marketing blog posts on a Sunday afternoon like me.

Yours sincerely,

Akash Bhat

PS: If you know any marketers with less than 1-3 years of experience, please share this post with them so that they can avoid all the mistakes listed here. Thanks!

PPS: I will be releasing another blog post on important marketing skills that everyone should try to acquire. It will serve as a checklist for marketers so that they can ensure that they are working on in-demand skills that many companies look for when they hire marketers.