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Five Things to Remember When Building Out Your Startup Marketing Department

Updated: 2 days ago

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There are a lot of boxes to check when growing a startup. Frequently, marketing is one of the last functions to get addressed. It’s understandable; priorities often lie with other “fundamentals” of the business — engineering, sales, HR, accounting — before marketing.


For startups, that can be a fatal mistake. Don’t short your marketing department as you start to grow your business. Without establishing an effective marketing element early, you could scramble to catch up at a later, critical juncture. 


Here are five things you need to remember as you build out your startup’s marketing department.


1. Have a marketing function. 

The first thing to remember when building out your startup’s marketing department? Actually have a marketing function. Marketing is not an everyday, throwaway task; don’t tack it on to the job responsibilities of an already-busy sales department or out-of-their-league graphic designer. It’s not something to ask a between-job buddy or relative to help out with, either (something ubiquitous in the startup world). Nope. Marketing is a complex and demanding task that requires a wide range of specific skills to do properly. When you’re in a financial place to add headcount, adding the right marketing professional — emphasis on the professional — is a must. Proper investment and care in the function as soon as you can help your organization get the outside attention it deserves as it grows — and avoid the all-too-common problem of scrambling for marketing support far too late in the game. 


Action item: There’s a good chance you know someone who works in the marketing or communications world. As you’re thinking up your marketing plans, pick their brain about how they work with leadership. Find out what works for them (and what doesn’t) so you know how to properly form a relationship with your marketing department over time. 


2. Don’t overstaff.

Overstaffing a marketing department is an issue for many startups, especially ones with too much money to burn. While enthusiasm and support for the marketing function are essential, it’s important not to go too overboard. Especially in the startup stage, depending on size and scope, one person might be able to handle internal and external communications or your marketing director could have the external PR under their job function. 


Those are only two examples of overstaffing, but there are dozens of ways to pack a marketing department so full of personnel that your team winds up confused and bumping into each other's roles. Think clearly about what you want to achieve with your marketing efforts and base your hiring around that plan.


Action item: Try looking for a “super-utility” marketing professional to round out your staff, in the same way some valuable baseball players can play around the diamond. Look for a well-rounded individual experienced in the different things that marketing demands. They don’t need to be a graphic designer, website specialist, or PR maven; but being comfortable in Canva, possessing rudimentary back-end website skills, and experience dealing with the press will go a long way. Look for individuals coming from smaller organizations, other startups, or non-profit enterprises who may possess these super-utility skills. 


3. Provide the tools marketers need.


Let’s continue with the baseball metaphor for a second (the season isn't far away!). One of the things to remember when building your startup marketing department is that they need tools in the same way a pitcher standing on the mound needs a glove, a ball, and perhaps all that stuff the Major League veteran had. Your sales department requires contact resource management; your HR department needs a way to track payroll, manage time off, etc. Don’t forget to build money into the budget for the tools marketing needs: a subscription to a PR newswire and database, project management platforms (Monday, Asana, etc.), SEO analysis services, and even things like Grammarly for checking all the content they’ll be putting out. At the same time, don’t be a pushover when your marketing department asks for tools. Don’t double down on unnecessary SaaS platforms and blow your budget. 


Action item: Think critically about the marketer’s tech stack and optimize for efficiency. Look for ways to leverage tools you already have in other departments, and bring them to marketing. For example, some marketers might love Monday, but if your engineering, HR, and sales departments already use Asana (and you have the license), there’s no need to add another program layer to your stack. If you can use the platforms you already own for marketing purposes, ask them to adapt, not vice versa. 


4. Avoid the temptation to hire for experience (one way or the other). 


Think of the great Q introduction scene from Skyfall here. “Age is no guarantee of efficiency,” the young Q tells Bond. “And youth is no guarantee of innovation,” Bond shoots back. They’re both right, of course. Don’t overlook experience and staff your department full of newcomers, and don’t stack the team with grizzled veterans either. Look for individuals with the knowledge and skills you need and the personality you can grow with, and forget those graduation years they might have on their LinkedIn and CV. That’s the least important thing to focus on when staffing your marketing department.


Action item: The startup world is full of unique demands and pressures. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Many marketers you talk to — veteran, young, and mid-career — may never have spent time in the startup world. That’s definitely not a disqualifying factor; however, make absolutely sure that they know and accept what the environment will be like before moving forward with the candidacy. 


5. For the love of Skynet, don’t let AI do all your marketing.


We’ll return to that last Skyfall scene: “Every now and then, a trigger has to be pulled,” Q says.  There are a lot of triggers that need pulling with startup marketing, and AI can’t do a lot of them. You need real-life, talented humans working behind the scenes to get your marketing done. AI can do a lot, but it can’t make the magic you need to secure marketing success. That’s still a flesh-and-blood job.


Action item: Ask your marketing team to build a strategy of how to use AI in the most efficient and strategic way. Take a crawl, walk, run approach after an analysis of the tools on the market. It's not something to jump into, outside of small experiments. Having an AI strategy will be key. And make sure the rest of your organization is using AI appropraitely too -- make sure they know that the marketing department is the expert in your brand and communication about your company, and they're available to help.


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Michael Nadeau is an experienced marketing and communications professional and longtime freelance writer, covering just about all industries and mediums. You can connect with him here.

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