Fractional CMO
4 min read

Should you hire a CMO or growth marketer first?

For any early stage startup, with limited resources, should you bet on generalists or specialists and at what stage, let's uncover this.
growth marketing strategy for startups
Written by
Published on
28 Nov 2023
“Shouldn't an early-stage startup spend its limited resources on doers (e.g. social media marketer) rather than a strategist (e.g. CMO)?”

I hear this statement a lot from early-stage founders, arguing growth marketers should be the first hire as the product is built and now they want to dive into fast growth and expansion.

So they end up hiring agencies and multiple contractors, managing all by themselves. Which, in fact, becomes too hard, confusing, costly and ineffective to manage a bunch of marketers.

If you’ve ever worked hard on building a product, you might have seen marketing can get even harder.

Mostly because

  • You have unclear positioning & messaging
  • You have no idea about the customer journey
  • You have no plan on how to communicate the product with customers
  • You are entering into a crowded marketing without knowing how you’ll sustain it
  • And you’re unclear on delivering ROI on a limited budget.

So, just hiring a content writer, ad specialist, etc. won’t fill the gap. Rather than the first hire being a growth marketer you need a marketing leader who can hire the right contractors/specialists, execute, strategize, align and bring creative flow to work on campaigns.

It may be a consultant, Fractional CMO or Product Marketer

In the initial days, cash might be limited or you might be raising funds in a very tight environment.

That’s why directly betting on specialists to help you with a channel or customer acquisition might not work in your favour.

Before you hire them, you need to make sure you have a system and process built in-house. Typically, that looks like testing product-market fit, positioning, messaging, PR and successfully launching the product. You need someone who can predict revenue growth and have some sense of urgency.

This person not only helps you with creating a solid system but develops a basic marketing foundation and strategy which helps you see whom to hire next.

Someone who can run everything under a budget, deliver incredible ROI and find a product-market fit. When you have your foundation in place it becomes easy to provide enough context to contractors or other marketing people in the team to successfully market your product.

Also if you’re raising funds this person will help you deploy the capital (so you don’t burn out fast), drive growth and show a convincing business model to the investors.

I have worked and advised many startups less than two years old suffering with existence as they never thought of marketing in the first place or hired the wrong people at the early stage. They want to solve the problem of who are their customers, and what marketing they should do, all in a very short time and limited budget. Because by the time that had already burned most.

Marketing Foundation to start with

Whether you hire a fractional CMO or consultant they need to have a strong grip on product marketing (understand the customer & business), demand generation (prove value of marketing) and brand awareness (drive enough awareness for the company).

That’s not it, your new product and company need more:

  • How to approach the market
  • Is the marketing meeting the financial needs
  • Are they able to hit goals and build the team
  • How to grow fast
  • Are we spending the time and money on the right things
  • Align with sales, customer support, product and overall team

Founders work together with them to build the foundation:

  1. Understand the audience, market, ecosystem and competitive set
  2. Create a story around the product
  3. Positioning and messaging
  4. Map out customer lifestyle and Go-To-Market strategy

You can’t leave too early inputs on specialists for them to figure out the rest.

Have specialists after you have a growth-distribute engine built out

“We should hire a content writer/SEO expert as we need to get traffic from search engines to convert into paying users”. That’s what most founders say when they hire the first marketer.

These ideas come out of trends without any strong evidence to back with.

Now, this can be something you need at the moment, but make sure you have your system ready:

  1. You know why content marketing should be your choice of communication with your potential customers
  2. What impact does these content have on the overall growth
  3. Who it’s written for and who are you competing against?
  4. Have an editor or founder to ensure the quality and brand image
  5. What strategy and distribution plan do you have in hand?
  6. You always want to make sure your website is optimized for conversion.

Some founders find marketing can be done after some announcement on social media or by starting a blog or paid search ads, but it’s more than that.

The biggest thing that startups miss in marketing is context - which defines your customers, your brand, your positioning, where you are in the market, and why you even exist.

And then understand analytics to produce a better strategy and deliver incredible ROI.

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