With relatively few founders and CEOs coming from a marketing background, the org often remains a black box, particularly in the earliest days of a startup. There’s the hyper-focus on finding product/market fit, onboarding the first set of customers, and ironing out the kinks in the product to contend with — leaving marketing near the bottom of the to-do list. But plenty of startups then find that their launches are falling flat, there’s no way to get the word out without well-crafted content, and the initial website copy isn’t grabbing any eyeballs — potholes that a marketing hire can pave over.
So you and your founding team agree — it’s time to start building out the marketing team. But what happens next can make or break this nascent org before you even make your first hire.
Over the course of her career, Maya Spivak has fielded plenty of questions from founders wading into the waters of marketing for the first time. Spivak is Head of Marketing at Mux, an API that enables developers to build unique live and on-demand video experiences. She’s got a wealth of marketing experience that runs the gamut of nearly every specialty. Prior to Mux, she was a marketing leader at Wealthfront (where she focused on product marketing) and the second marketer at Segment, where she ran brand marketing and communications, including the teams and agencies responsible for user events, marketing design, campaigns, out-of-home advertising, content, PR, AR, and video.
One of the most common mistakes she sees founders make? Lumping all of these specialties together, rather than plucking out the pieces that are most applicable to their startup.
To borrow from “Ted Lasso,” all people are different people, and all marketers are different marketers. Figure out which kind of marketer works best for your startup.
For founders who are unsure if it's time to hire a marketer in the first place, start here with this classic guide from Arielle Jackson. But if you're committed to the headcount and looking to narrow in on the right profile, design the best interview loop, and train yourself on what to look for in your conversations with candidates, this is the follow-on read for you.
In this exclusive interview, Spivak begins by giving a quick primer on the three main marketing pillars: product, growth and brand. She explains how to hone in on the pillar that best fits your startup, by aligning your go-to-market strategy and sizing up how the founders’ strengths spike in different areas.
Next, she draws on her experience interviewing hundreds of marketers from all sorts of backgrounds and plucks out her best advice for finding first-rate folks. Across the product, growth and brand marketing pillars she explains more about that particular specialty, her favorite interview questions and exercises for identifying stellar candidates (or uncovering red flags), and her tested tips for sealing the deal with your dream candidate. Whether you’re a founder making your first-ever marketing hire, or a marketing org leader looking to brush up on your interview playbook, there are tons of tactics you’ll want to borrow. Let’s dive in.
MATCH YOUR FIRST MARKETER TO YOUR MOTION & FOUNDING TEAM
Depending on the specialty, a marketer’s day job can include anything from drafting a press release, A/B testing website copy, teaming up with sales to craft personas, or interviewing customers for testimonials (just to name a few). Before jotting down any sort of marketing job description and posting on LinkedIn, Spivak implores folks to first consider their startup’s sales process — is it product-led growth or top-down sales? “This will determine the types of marketers to consider hiring first. Think through the path that a marketing organization will take as it grows for your company,” she says.
Regardless of which motion you’re trying to match your marketer to, Spivak holds strong opinions on the level of experience early marketing folks should bring to the table. “I caution against finding someone who’s very far removed from actually doing any IC-level work. That’s not to say that you’re hiring a marketing leader and you expect them to do IC work forever, but they should be prepared to do some for at least a few quarters. You’ve got to get some quick wins for the company while you figure out which marketer is the most necessary to hire next,” she says.
And while the broad categories she outlines below can help you narrow in on your ideal marketer profile, don’t get too stuck on any one particular skill set. “For a first hire, I favor the T-shaped marketer or someone who has extensibility. So many things can change in the earliest stages of a product. Six months after hiring someone you might decide to change your entire go-to-market motion, or expand your product line, or the pricing and packaging model,” says Spivak. “You want someone who’s going to adapt to whatever change is happening — because it almost certainly will change.”
She highlights her experience as Segment’s second marketing hire to illustrate this point. “The first marketer, Diana Smith, had been there for about a year and a half prior to me joining. She is my example of the perfect prototypical first marketer. She had a very definite skillset around communications, which the founders specifically sought her out for, but she also had excellent flexibility,” says Spivak “She had high technical aptitude, which I’ve found to be rare for communication professionals. So that comms background paired with her technical know-how perfectly primed her to grow into the product marketing leader she eventually became.”
With those caveats in mind that extensibility is key rather than hyper-focusing on any one profile, here’s how Spivak broadly sketches out the marketing skills that align with a startup’s current GTM plan.
“When you’re selling a product directly to the end-user, the number one thing that you need is for these prospects to be aware that your product even exists. Ideally, you need a growth marketer who knows how to reach these folks,” says Spivak.
She lists out a few tactics that should be in any product-led growth marketer’s wheelhouse: “They’ve bought ads in the past, have experience in email marketing, and they know social media marketing, SEO and SEM. They don’t need to be an expert in all of these areas, but they should have familiarity with all kinds of tactical strategies to directly reach consumers quickly,” she says.
And while top-down sales companies certainly want customer eyeballs, the approach (and thus, the marketing needs) are different. “If a company has product adoption primarily led by the sales team, they have to get prospects on the phone and convince them that the product is worth buying. They’re often selling into the enterprise, which means a long sales process. You’re spending a lot of time in convincing mode, which means you need different education-oriented marketing materials,” says Spivak.
She sketches out the to-do list for a marketer in a top-down sales startup: “You need to write case studies, craft website copy that is genuine, authoritative and credible, collect testimonials with supporting evidence from customers willing to endorse your product or join your webinar. It’s a more product marketing-oriented skillset that’s content-based,” she says.
This brings us to the third main pillar of marketing, which Spivak considers a bridge between the creative-oriented product marketer and the analytical growth marketer. “A brand marketer can potentially be plugged into either motion, where they exist within both the creative, left side of the brain and the analytical right side of the brain. They can create campaigns oriented towards selling quickly, and generating awareness slowly over a longer period of time,” she says.
Where do the founders fit in?
After painting in broad strokes what marketing skills best align with the go-to-market strategy, it’s time to size up the founding team. “It’s all about assessing the current strengths that exist on the team and the highest priority gaps to fill, prioritizing based on the immediate needs of the company. You may have founders who are particularly creative and design-oriented, which means you have beautiful websites and really delightful brands built out before a marketer even gets there,” says Spivak.
“That means you don’t necessarily need to find a marketer who is spiking out on the creative dimension, because you’ve already solved for that internally. Instead, you can focus on finding a marketer who’s more analytical. Or if you’re struggling to explain a more technical product, you’re looking for a more technically adept marketer who's going to translate the brilliance of your product into digestible marketing materials.”
Half the battle is figuring out where to prioritize your skillset search. Uncover what you already have so that you understand what you need most.
With a high-level overview of the three marketing pillars, and which might align best to your startup, Spivak dives deeper into each pillar, with specific tips for interviewing and hiring incredible product, growth and brand folks to build out your early marketing team.
THE PLAYBOOK FOR HIRING A PRODUCT MARKETER
What is a product marketer?
While Spivak notes that product marketing is a broad discipline that can look different depending on the company, here’s how she generally defines the role. “A product marketer bridges the product teams that are guiding the roadmap and the sales teams that are trying to reach consumers,” she says.
Here’s how Spivak distinguishes good from great: “A great product marketer fundamentally has the ability to understand what it is that you’re building. They have high technical aptitude and can translate super complex ideas into a way for the consumer to understand. It’s not just a person who knows the product marketing playbook and can build a go-to-market plan. It’s an excitement about the product that’s being built, which gets translated in the copy, the messaging, and the materials you create to help sell,” she says.
The two most important components of a product marketer are: Do they light up when they talk about the product and can they write well?
Tips for assessing technical aptitude.
When it comes to product marketing interviews, Spivak always includes some sort of technical assessment. She suggests a few ideas:
Fill in the blanks. “Give the candidate a vague outline of a product you might release in the future or an under-built page from your site and ask, ‘What’s missing? What would you recommend changing about this particular product page or one-pager?’ You want to see the wheels turning as they parse what could make your product stand out.”
Make it binary. “At Segment, we had a one-pager explaining a feature that we asked candidates to read. Afterward, we’d ask them questions about the product — there were no tricks involved, if you understood the one-pager, you could understand what made the feature special. I remember one question in particular where the answer was that the data had to have a timestamp. It’s binary — you either get that or you don’t. So that one test made it easy to not pass people through to the next round of the interview.”
Step into the customer’s shoes. “At Stripe in the early days, they had everybody in the interview process read through a customer support question and try to answer it. You have full access to the entire repository of customer support, but it’s up to you to figure out the context of the answer that you’re looking for. Do you grok what’s going on for the customer to compile the right answer?”
Questions to lean on when interviewing a product marketer.
“What was the elevator pitch for the last product you worked on?” “You would be surprised how many times I’ve asked candidates: ‘I’m not familiar with your last company. Can you tell me about the product?’ And the candidate will say something almost completely unintelligible,” says Spivak. “That’s a shame because that’s the entry-level skill for a product marketer to be able to give a great elevator pitch on your company. What was the category? How did they sell the product? Talk me through the sales process. Not being able to clearly answer this is a giant red flag.”
“Tell me about what you’ve launched in the last couple of years.” Next, you want to dive into their launch experience. “The vast majority of startups fail, so you might be speaking to somebody who has worked at several startups but doesn’t have the experience of winning or selling a product that has product/market fit,” she says. “If the answer to this question is that they haven’t really launched anything, have they even seen product marketing done well?”
“Pick one recent project that you’re really proud of. Talk to me about the process end-to-end.” One common step you won’t find in Spivak’s interview loop? Any net-new project assignments. “I don’t think it’s fair to have folks do something really time-intensive as a homework assignment or as a tryout. I’d much rather spend time diving deep into past work,” she says. “Towards the mid- to final stages of the interview process, I want you to show me your work. Ideally, I want to be able to actually navigate to something that’s still live. What can you point me to that shows your skills? And if you’re a leader, I want me to show me your team’s work and walk me through the decision-making. How did this idea happen? Who came up with the plan? Why did you make this bet? Talk me through the rationale, the ideation, and the creative process,” she says. Dedicate plenty of time for digging in with follow-up questions. “Whose idea was this? How did you come up with the messaging? Tell me who specifically wrote the language. You’re getting closer and closer to who’s responsible for the work you’re seeing. If you find that a person starts tripping up on these answers, you’ve hit a really telling soft spot,” says Spivak.
And look for comparable startup experience — particularly when it comes to your first product marketing hire. “I find that marketers who come from larger companies are often more process-oriented and analytical. They’re more rigid with their playbook — every step in the process has to go in the correct order. It’s a beautiful thing when you find that person, but they’re probably not the ideal first hire. In those early phases of the company, so much changes. You’re looking for a certain level of flexibility and change resilience.”
How to sell your dream product marketing candidate.
You’ve gone through the interview loop, identified your top candidate, and are itching to get them to sign on the dotted line — but Spivak’s seen far too many hiring managers make one big mistake. “It’s incredibly important to show them the product. Demo, demo, demo — there’s no better way to convince a product marketer than showing them how the product works,” she says. “You can’t rely on just the website — you’re probably hiring a marketer in the first place because your website needs work, so that’s not convincing enough.”
As a founder, being gregarious, empathetic and thoughtful will get you far with exciting your dream candidate, but nothing will get you farther than an actual demo. Show me the product — I want to see how it really works.
THE PLAYBOOK FOR HIRING A GROWTH MARKETER
What is a growth marketer?
A newer marketing specialty, a growth marketer hyper-focuses on the funnel, implementing experiments to drive user acquisition, keep customers engaged and retain them. “This is the person who is aware of all of the ways to reach your audience. I say familiar with, because even if they've not personally done it, they have freelancers, contractors, or agencies that they can deploy quickly. Growth marketing is the type of work that you should be able to get off the ground relatively quickly.”
Before hiring a growth marketer, review Spivak’s checklist first: “If you want to hire a growth marketer, you should already have materials in place, meaning you have a decent website and an easy sign-up process. A growth marketer is not building these materials — they’re disseminating them and putting money behind them to get people to convert. And if those users aren’t converting, your growth marketer will develop a hypothesis and run experiments to bring conversion rates up,” she says.
Questions to lean on when interviewing a growth marketer.
“Tell me about some of the experiments you’ve worked on recently.” Similar to product marketing, Spivak devotes a large portion of the interview to excavating past results. “In some ways, it’s easier for a growth marketer to show their work because there should be lots of different campaigns and experiments for them to pull from,” she says.
“What growth strategies do you use most frequently? What’s something you want to get better at?” Of course, dig in here with follow-up questions. “They should be able to explain what kind of advertising strategy worked or didn’t work for them. How did they think about their ads budget? What is their stance on SEO and content marketing? You want to see a mix of different promotional tactics,” she says.
“What’s the most creative growth experiment you’ve run?” Spivak perks up when the candidate can illustrate a quirky, out-of-the-box experiment. “Even if you’re hiring for an entry-level growth position, you’re looking for creative ideas. If they don’t have an interesting story to tell, or if all their experiments are predictable suggestions you could just Google, they’re probably not a very exciting candidate,” says Spivak. She points to a hypothetical example. “I remember master growth marketer and former colleague Guillaume Cabane talking about how if he was selling lawn furniture, he would use free satellite imagery to determine which addresses had pools installed. He’d then compile that list for personalized direct mail with furniture fit for a pool or a garden setting, which is brilliant,” says Spivak.
“What are some growth hacks you’ve seen that you’re not a fan of?” On the path to creativity, don’t ignore these yellow flags. “Keep an eye out for the types of growth marketing tactics and ‘hacks’ that a person has done for past companies. There are some that, broadly speaking, can be considered a bit shadowy,” she says. “As an example, many years ago on LinkedIn it was too easy to press a button and import your entire address book. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but you ended up spamming everybody with these requests to join LinkedIn. What is their stance on these quick win growth marketing hacks? What level of hacking is too much?”
“What would be the first experiment you’d run for our website?” An easy exercise she recommends with every growth marketing candidate is to present one specific feature or demo with lagging sign-ups and ask the candidate to suggest some quick wins for boosting conversion. You may end up uncovering what Spivak calls the biggest red flag:
A baseline decent growth marketer will try your sign-up process before they sit down for an interview. If you get to an interview with a growth marketer who hasn’t gone through your product’s signup flow, it’s over at that point.
How to sell your dream growth marketing candidate.
When it comes to stirring up excitement for your top growth marketing candidates, apply an approach similar to product marketers — don’t skimp on demoing the product: “The best growth marketers are going to be excited by your product and all the fun and interesting ways they might be able to sell it to the different personas. You should relay how much blue sky there is to experiment and that you’re up for off-the-wall ideas,” she says.
THE PLAYBOOK FOR HIRING A BRAND MARKETER
What is a brand marketer?
Broadly speaking, brand marketing is the way that the outside world describes and thinks about your company. “It’s an assessment of your reputation, your look and feel, your voice and tone. Brand marketers are the folks who are responsible for setting that standard and making sure it’s reflected in everything public-facing,” says Spivak. “This could include your website, your big user conference, outdoor advertising and billboards, or direct mail.”
While brand marketers don’t have to be artists, Spivak notes that the throughline tying all brand marketers together is creativity. “They generate ideas — but more importantly, they cross the chasm between that initial spark and bring it to life,” she says. “They create a project plan and maybe bring on designers or an outside creative agency to make it a reality. The best brand marketers are a special mix of analytical, organized and creative.”
Anybody can come up with, "Wouldn’t it be cool if we started a podcast?" But a brand marketer plants that seed of an idea and waters that seed until it’s an actual sprout.
Questions to lean on when interviewing a brand marketer.
“Tell me about some of your favorite campaigns you’ve worked on.” Of course, you need to devote plenty of time in the interview loop to unpacking their portfolio of campaigns. But pay attention to which projects spring to mind first for the candidate. “I always find the order in which a candidate tells you about their past campaigns to be interesting — what springs to mind first, which ones pop up later? You can tell a lot from these stories — how much pride of ownership the person had about their work, and how the candidate reflects on their team and collaboration,” she says.
“What projects are still live?” As with the growth and product marketing interviews, ideally there are work samples that are still live. “If nothing is live anymore I’m curious if they’ve ever worked on evergreen initiatives. If the answer is no, that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, but it’s time to probe. Is it because the candidate specialized in seasonal campaigns and the brand was constantly refreshing its marketing campaigns? Or is nothing live anymore because the work wasn’t very good?” says Spivak.
“Can you pick one campaign and walk me through each step along the way? Who owned each piece of the project?” With brand marketing encompassing everything from the initial idea and scoping the project, to managing a team of freelancers and measuring results, it’s important to get specific here. “Get into the details of the campaigns, from the conception of the idea to shepherding it over the finish line. If you stay too high-level in the conversation, you risk walking away with a very different idea in your head of what the candidate is capable of versus the reality,” she says.
“What’s one creative campaign, even one you didn’t work on, that you really admire?” Before speaking to any candidates, set aside some time to pull together your North Star brand marketing campaigns that stand out from the crowd to guide your search. Here’s an example from Spivak: “Plenty of companies have the prototypical ‘Life at X Company’ recruiting video. The quality varies, but even with high production quality, at some point, they stop being very creative. It’s all just nice-seeming people saying nice-sounding things about what it’s like to work at a company, there’s not much creative variation,” she says. “For years I’ve admired this one particular video from Dropbox where they put a quirky odd spin on this run-of-the-mill video by using Muppets. I’ve been using it as my opening volley to get creative with video ideas for probably six years.”
So it was kismet when she got face to face with the brains behind the operation. “Very recently I was interviewing a woman who asked me if I’d seen that same Muppets Dropbox interview. When I told her I loved it, she blushed and told me she was responsible for the video. It blew my mind! I had finally met the woman who creatively inspired me for years — and now she works with me at Mux,” says Spivak. Her tip? Find your own Muppets video example that you can dissect with brand marketing candidates to gauge their creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.
How to sell your dream brand marketing candidate.
Nerding out with your top brand marketing candidates on your favorite campaigns is one step to show folks that you’re open-minded and game for off the beaten path ideas. But to convince them to join your company, you’ve got to back that up with creative control. “Be explicit about what kind of budget and oversight they’ll have in the role. It comes down to trust — if you want to work with someone because you think they are superbly creative and have interesting ideas, then the candidate will want assurance that they’ll have the muscle to execute those big ideas,” says Spivak.
WRAPPING UP: ALWAYS PUSH FOR GREAT.
Regardless of which type of marketer you’re adding to your org chart, Spivak leaves us with a prescient reminder to check in with yourself. “How do you feel when you leave the interview? Do you leave feeling captivated by the person you just spoke with? That’s what you’re looking for — that golden spark. If you don’t feel that leaving the interview, that should be a pretty telling sign,” she says. “Unfortunately most of the time we ignore that feeling because we’re so desperate to hire. We think, ‘Maybe I wasn’t dazzled, but I really need the help.’ So you settle for good enough. We need to push for great.”
And pushing for great goes both ways. “Your energy in the interview process guides the candidate’s energy in return. Consider how you’re selling the company. You have to stand out in a way that makes the candidate light up with their creative energy,” says Spivak.
Cover image by Getty images / MicroStockHub.