When should startups make their first marketing hire?

Rachel Carrell, CEO and founder of nanny share business Koru Kids, says that hiring – particularly the inflexion points you need to bring on different expertise – has been a really big topic in the two-year-old company’s growth.

“Inevitably, when people start out it’s always the founder doing everything all the time and the person doing it often doesn’t have the exact expertise,” she says.

Rachel prioritised marketing experience for her first hire even though it’s a platform business and they didn’t have in-house development expertise.

Marketing to prove a concept

Marketing is fundamental because it enables them to win the initial customers and prove their theory on why the business will create value – are we building something that people want to pay for? – and whether the cost of acquiring those customers is tenable.

Rachel looked for investors to support product development almost immediately after their soft launch. But it was crucial they had won an early customer base to prove the assumption that people who hadn’t met would share nannies (assuming Koru takes care of vetting them etc.).

Similarly, the team-building specialists The Great Escape Game took on its first marketing hire within a month of opening. Three years later, the real-life themed puzzle game is about to open a third site, having grown to a team of 48 staff and had over 150,000 players through their doors. Founder Hannah Duraid says the decision was led by “rapid growth, lack of time and big ambitions”.

Dealing with fluctuating demand

Founders normally think about hiring when they’re having to turn down opportunities or are unable to build a business because they are spending too much time on day-to-day operations.

Marketing plays a key role in dictating the level of demand in other areas of the business, such as customer services and fulfilment. Koru’s launch campaign saw them get as many sign-ups as the previous six months combined.

“It’s been a matter of we do a bit of marketing, we get swamped, we hire someone. We’re now at six people,” says Rachel.

Experimenting with marketing channels

Start by asking potential customers what social networks and publications they pay attention to. Experiment with these channels to find out what can drive results. Social media has a relatively low barrier to entry in terms of advertising costs. It’s worth investing money to learn at first, rather looking for a positive return immediately.

Koru Kids focuses on Facebook, email and PR, all of which has been done in-house so far. Rachel recommends implementing a 70-30 rule when it comes to trialling new marketing channels; spend 70% of the time on the channels you know work and 30% on experimentation. The latter of which might fall slightly as the business becomes more established.

It doesn’t always work either. Rachel recalls being on holiday in Northumberland and clicking ‘like’ on an unnamed social network a thousand times in an evening. In another test, she used Hootsuite to post a childcare fact every day: “I thought people would RT them and it would get momentum. It led to absolutely nothing. I thought they were interesting, but no one else did.”

Even when marketing channels work, it’s possible for them to run dry even early on, with customer acquisition costs rising rapidly once a certain threshold has been reached.

“Let’s say you know Facebook and Pinterest work for you. You should max out those two, once you know something’s working. However, any channel will only take you so far,” explains Rachel. “Google PPC is a classic one where you can spend a little and get a great result, but the more you spend the more the value for money tails off; if you keep squeezing, the last bit of juice will be really expensive. To grow you need to be able to find more channels.”

What should you look for in the first marketing hire?

The Great Escape Game’s job advert speaks to the business’ unique values; “ENTHUSIASTIC? ENERGETIC? CLINICALLY INSANE?”

It’s one thing to ensure new staff members have the right values – in this case, they’re ready to promote a business with an Alcatraz room that echoes with “crazed voices” – but what about the qualities and experience?

In The Great Escape’s case they wanted “someone who is rather quirky,” but Hannah stresses: “We needed a marketing team that could hit the ground running and had some form of experience, so they could jump straight into our adventure.”

Koru’s Rachel also hired an experienced marketer (their VP of marketing was previously head of ecommerce at LloydsPharmacy).

What happens next?

There ’s an argument for early investments in marketing expertise. That said, founders’ involvement in the marketing function doesn’t stop there.

Marketing expert Sean Ellis helped build Dropbox and Eventbrite, as well selling his own million-dollar marketing analytics business. Asked for his top advice, Ellis warns founders to have a direct link to the marketing process when they do bring in expertise.

“The success and failure of all early-stage companies is; can I acquire and retain customers? The upside of figuring that out is held by the founders of the business. They have to be super hands on. It’s hard to hire a marketer that’s really talented enough to go through the pain of figuring it out without super-aligned hand-holding with the CEO,” says Sean.

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Chris Goodfellow
Chris is founder and CEO of Inkwell, the company that runs The Pitch. He’s a journalist and editor by trade, and his work has been featured by everyone from The Guardian and The Financial Times to Vice magazine.

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