Katie Stanton is a founder and general partner at Moxxie Ventures. She previously worked as a VP at Twitter, CMO at Color Genomics, Principal at Google, and a Board Member at Yahoo. In this Q&A, Katie shares her advice on building an executive marketing team. This is an abridged summary of Katie’s interview on Execs, our podcast where we interview executives from high-growth companies.
When is the best time to start building a marketing team?
Katie: I think the best time to start building a marketing team is once you have the beginnings of product-market fit. That’s when you’re ready to find that growth marketer and figure out your tools, channels, budget, CAC, and all those things.
Growth marketers are often in demand. Sometimes people hire them too early and you just blow through your budget really fast. The right time for a growth marketer is probably once you’ve raised your series A round, when you’ve proven that you have some product-market fit and now you’re ready to scale.
The brand marketers can come a bit later, once you’ve established your storytelling and you feel ready to go a bit bigger. Maybe that’s series B or C. But product marketers should come earlier — you may need a couple of them to get your message right.
The communications role often gets overlooked. Communications can come in between the series A and series B stage. It’s about making sure that you’re in control of your company’s narrative and story, both internally and externally. Making sure that you’re saying one thing a hundred times instead of saying a hundred things one time each, which often happens.
A little inconsistency is natural, because you’re a startup and you’re evolving. I see this in our portfolio companies. They’ll send a monthly update and remind us who they are, and I can see that it’s not the same as the last month, but that’s because they’ve learned something, so that’s okay. That’s to be expected. But once you’re at the series A or B stage, you want your message to be more consistent.
What’s the first marketing hire startups should make?
Katie: I have a weird take: if you’re a founder at the seed, series A, or maybe even series B stage, you’re not ready for a CMO. You don’t deserve a CMO.
You really have to get the work right at the beginning. A lot of traditional CMOs, myself included, go to these companies and suddenly you need a whole team and a budget. You need resources. So as a company, you really should be at the series A or B stage. At the beginning, focus on getting the marketing basics right, and bring in a CMO later.
The first hire I have a bias towards in early-stage companies is a great product marketing manager (PMM). A PMM is similar to a product manager — it’s someone who knows how to build, but who’s also great at detail, communication, and team coordination.
It’s not easy to find someone who’s both quantitative and qualitative and has a really great instinct about the product. This is someone who pays a lot of attention to the customer: they know them inside and out, are empathetic to them, and spend a big portion of their day listening to customer feedback, watching customer meeting recordings, or talking to customers directly.
FInding a PMM is really, really important at the seed or series A stage. Try to get someone who has prior PMM experience, who is very well trained and has seen a lot. Sometimes you can get lucky with someone who doesn’t have that experience, but especially if the founders themselves don’t have any marketing or PMM experience, it’s useful to get someone who understands the best practices from the get-go.
There are a couple companies that I think have this really well. I admit that I’m biased, but I think Google has done a great job of fostering a community of PMMs. Netflix and LinkedIn have done great as well. Shannon Stubo, who was a CMO at LinkedIn, is one of the greatest CMOs of all time.
How do you feel about promoting from within versus bringing in external expertise?
Katie: I’m such a big believer in promoting from within. It’s great to give people that you’ve already invested in as long of a runway as you can so they continue to grow. It’s also great for culture when people see that one of their colleagues has been promoted for their excellent work and service.
If you don’t have that role or you don’t have that person and you really need to hire externally, that’s fine, but when you start to do that, I think it’s really important to make sure you communicate well with the company.
For example, let’s say you have a PMM in place and they’re wonderful and they’re working hard, but you’re pretty sure they’re going to have a hard time scaling to a VP of marketing role, and you have someone outside in mind. Always talk to your employee first and let them know before you hire that person.
You can say: “Listen, here’s why we’re going to hire externally. Here’s why this is going to be great for you, and here’s how your role may or may not change. I want you to be a part of the process. I want you to help us interview this person.”
I think that’s one of the best ways you can move forward in a tricky situation.
When should you hire a CMO or VP of marketing, and what does success look like for them?
Katie: Sometimes you might have a friend or someone that you work with that you have great chemistry with. You trust them and you like their background. Finding talent is really hard — it’s so competitive out there. So if you happen upon somebody that you really like, even if it’s a little early, grab them.
Otherwise, be patient. Be slow to hire and fast to fire. The VP of marketing especially can come a little bit later. I get worried when I see pitch decks for seed-stage companies and they already have a CMO or VP of marketing. It raises questions, like what their budget is, and what they’re doing. Sometimes it makes sense, but not often.
In terms of what makes a successful CMO or VP of marketing, it’s about really understanding the customer and being deeply empathetic to them. Don’t lose sight of that — especially as your teams grow, it’s easy to be in the executive boardroom and forget about that and talk about all kinds of existential problems instead.
I think Leslie Berland, the CMO of Twitter, is doing a phenomenal job. Twitter is a hard product to market in a way; if you ask a hundred Twitter users what Twitter is, you’ll get a hundred different answers. Twitter has actually owned that and not tried to define it in a strict way. I think Leslie has done a really great job.
Look at Patagonia — it’s a dreamy brand that’s so purposeful, so authentic and willing to make hard decisions and take risks. I think great CMOs are those who are willing to take risks on their product while still being true to the customer.
How do you set a new CMO or VP of marketing up for success?
Katie: That’s a great question. I don’t know if it's specific to marketing, but it’s important to set expectations for their first 30, 60, and 90 days and be super clear about that. Ask what their expectations are for that time period as well and be really clear about their team and budget.
Part of these expectations should involve listening to your customers. I think all marketers — but especially marketers at early-stage companies — should be spending roughly 20% of their time interviewing customers or prospective customers and really understanding what they love or hate about substitute products.
Your CMO or VP of marketing should be focused on understanding the customer’s language and feeding that back to the team. They should also bring in your product managers and engineers and make sure they have a similar type of empathy. There’s a lot of learning and sharing.
Like anything, you have to build a lot of trust, especially among your senior organization that’s setting the pace, tone, and goals for the company and making sure everyone’s going in the right direction.
How did you get started from scratch as CMO at Color Genomics?
Katie: That was the biggest learning experience of my career. I started from ground zero as I learned the industry and the function. I was fortunate to be surrounded by so many other smart people who gave me the runway and the feedback — both good and bad — to do the job.
The first thing I did was just learn and talk to people I had a lot of admiration for. I had worked with Sundar Pichai at Google and I reached out to him and asked him who was the best marketer he’s ever worked with. He told me to talk to Eric Antano, so I did. Eric would coach me every Friday; we’d have lunch at the Color office and just talk about marketing principles. Not to oversimplify, but it came down to two things: knowing your customers, and knowing who you’re serving and why.
Another thing I did was think through our guiding principle and the voices that were resonating. We were in healthcare, and we had to be credible. We had to be trustworthy and approachable. We had to be human, and we had to be smart. So it was a matter of thinking through the tones and values that we had, and then going through the mechanics.
Also, I did the number one thing you always do in any company, which is to hire someone smarter than you. I was on a fast mission to figure out: who are the marketers that are far smarter and more capable than me? I’ll hire them and then get out of their way.
Especially if you’re hiring internationally or remotely, you have to be able to trust the people you hire; trust in their judgment, trust in their ethics, trust in their grit. You have to trust that the people you hire will use their time well and make really strong decisions.
Once you have this trust, get out of their way. I’ve loved hiring people who I felt were on their way up. They might not have been a VP of some company, but sometimes it’s more about potential than pedigree. That’s a practice that’s always works well for me, both for hiring and investing.
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