When you join a startup as a marketer, you have to be careful. Really careful.
Some non-marketing founders view marketing as a magical potion that can heal a lack of a great product, a great market, and a great team. They think getting some digital ink in TechCrunch/search engine rankings/email marketing/etc will cause the world to beat a path to their door. (Fortunately the popularity of Lean Startup and Customer Development has made excellent progress in killing this belief, but it’s still present.)
This is simply not true – press doesn’t help a startup that’s not ready for prime time. And all the demand generation/demand harvesting/branding/thought leadership/channel optimization/etc. in the world can’t help a startup that hasn’t achieved product-market fit. Additionally, startups with limited markets or markets facing impending obsolescence all spell a limited, yelling-filled tenure for their marketers.
When you look at startup marketing roles, you should ask yourself some questions:
Is this a great market? Will trends in the market drive increased adoption of the product?
In honor of Andy Rachleff, formerly of Benchmark Capital, who crystallized this formulation for me, let me present Rachleff’s Law of Startup Success:
The #1 company-killer is lack of market.
Andy puts it this way:
• When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins.
• When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins.
• When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.
You can obviously screw up a great market — and that has been done, and not infrequently — but assuming the team is baseline competent and the product is fundamentally acceptable, a great market will tend to equal success and a poor market will tend to equal failure. Market matters most.
Sequoia’s Don Valentine offers a similar sentiment:
“I like opportunities that are addressing markets so big that even the management team can’t get in its way.”
The market always wins. At some level, the market is like the ocean – it was there before you, it will be there after you, and it will grind anything in its way into dust. But, like the ocean, if you find a great wave and work with it, rather than against it, you can have a great ride.
Does the company have a great market? How big is it? Will trends drive an increased need for the product in the future? Or will other options emerge that circumvent the company’s offering entirely?
Is the team great – both for the market, and for you? Do you think they can conquer the market? Do you want to spend an afternoon with them?
Conventional wisdom suggests that the team is the most important factor. I continue to think the team is really, really important, but simply can’t overcome a bad market. (And after all, some of the largest startups ever – like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook – were started by college students in huge markets major players ignored.)
With market as the first criteria, evaluate the team. Can they succeed in the market? Do they have significant blind spots, or are they focused on customers? Do they have ‘the skills to pay the bills’? Remember, startups are hard. As Paul Graham says, you want people who you’d describe as animals.
Additionally, you’ll be spending a great deal of time with your team, so it works best if you like the other folks on the team, at both a personal and a professional level.
Is the product great (yet)? Do customers like it? Does the product roadmap make sense?
People really don’t like it when you reposition their companies without their permission. And if the company hasn’t achieved product-market fit, they need customer development, not marketing. If you’re joining a company in a marketing role, absolutely make sure there are customers, they pay consistently, they’re using the product, and they like it.
Perhaps more importantly, see what the customers have to say about it. Do some Twitter searches (Topsy is great for this) and some Google searches, especially for things like “[product name] problems” and “[product name] sucks”. If you find too many negative results, that may speak to deeper problems.
Do you like the customers? Do you like the market?
You can’t be a great marketer serving customers you hate. If you don’t like technically unsophisticated people, don’t sell software to school teachers. If you think IT people are weird, don’t market systems management software.
The more you like the product and like the customers, the better you’ll do. If you could happily drop down into a customer’s shoes for a week or two, you’ll be a much better marketer.
Is the startup in a place you want to live? Is the work-life balance appealing?
Work/life balance – pick a place where you can walk or bike or bus to work and relax, get work done, and destress. Do not sign up for a freeway commute or you will spend your life tired and pissed off and sleepwalking through your day.
You are a person – live and work in a place you like, especially if your friends, family, and hobbies are nearby.
- Michael Wolfe, Founder, KANA, Vontu, I/PRO, & Pipewise
Marketing, for all its appearance of sitting at a whiteboard, spreadsheet, or Word doc, is hard mental work that requires a mix of creative, persuasive, and analytic skills. It’s hard to deliver this if you sleep under your desk and work 100+ hours a week consistently.
And after all, you are a person, and you deserve to be happy.
Will You Learn Something New?
If you aren’t learning a new channel, a new skill, or get to serve in a different role than you have before, it’s not a great opportunity. The world of marketing is changing too fast to specialize in only one channel.
As they say, one trick ponies rapidly become glue.
Thanks for reading! How do you evaluate new career opportunities?