There are two keys to success for B2B SaaS startups: a strong product and a strong go-to-market strategy.
I’ve noticed a common thread in my time as a go-to-market leader and an Operational Advisor (OA) at Elsewhere Partners. Technical founders are brilliant at building and designing a product, but often have under-invested in go-to-market talent and strategy. While there are many elements to a strong go-to-market plan—a crisp definition of your target customer, an understanding of their problems, and the right partnerships and integrations—finding the right talent and knowing when to bring them on is an essential foundation.
Entrepreneurs often pride themselves on wearing multiple hats, but there comes a time in every company when it’s time to bring on deep functional expertise to accelerate your efforts. Your foundational team—the first few hires you make as an early-stage startup founder—will greatly influence your long-term success. As the core talent behind your business, these people will either fuel your growth or your failure.
That’s why Elsewhere Partners is launching a new series on the right time to hire talent, starting with marketing. In this article, I’ll walk through how to hire your first head of marketing as a B2B tech startup—from when to hire to what skills to prioritize.
It’s a good sign that it’s time to hire when you find yourself trying to do your startup’s marketing yourself—especially when it comes to product messaging. Entrepreneurs are skilled at wearing multiple hats, but go-to-market isn’t the time to fake it until you make it. At best, it’s not a smart use of your time as a founder or CEO. At worst, it’s actively detrimental to your company’s success.
For example, I’ve seen technical founders rush to explain their product’s features and capabilities to potential customers. While “Our multi-channel, AI-powered data normalization and processing algorithm ” may sound incredible to engineers, a buyer might not understand why that’s a differentiator, or how it will help them. A marketer understands how to translate your standout features into a clear pitch: “We detect security threats faster, while you sleep.””
Your company’s success relies on your team’s ability to succinctly explain your unique selling proposition. Are you overly focused on features over value? Then it’s time to find a marketer.
There are several distinct core skill sets harnessed in marketing—from product marketing to public relations to branding and content. While very senior marketers—typically VP or CMO—usually have experience across the board, most managers and individual contributors are strong in one discipline over the others.
One of the most common mistakes I’ve witnessed during my career is hiring the wrong kind of marketer for your stage and needs. Technical founders often struggle to understand the difference between marketing disciplines, and ultimately end up letting their first marketing hire go because they weren’t the right kind of marketer—not because they weren’t a great marketer. This is just as frustrating for a founder as it is for the employee.
Typically, I recommend founders build out their marketing teams in this sequence to start:
There are many more sub-focuses within marketing—such as email marketing, social media and digital ads—but the key is to know exactly what you need at this early stage to figure out who you need. If you want to set your marketing hire up for success, clearly define the role and discipline first. There are utility players who can creatively work across several of these areas, but it’s important to prioritize what problems need to be solved first, as well as planning for how you can add more resources as you witness success in your marketing efforts.
Research shows that nearly 98 percent of marketing qualified leads (MQLs) never convert to customers. With most companies spending 15 percent of revenue on marketing, that’s a lot of burned cash.
Instead of relying on the sales-led approach to marketing of sales-qualified leads (SQLs) and MQLs—driven by cold calls, client dinners, emails, and digital ads—find people who have a product-led mindset. A product-led marketing strategy shows customers the value of a product through freemium or free trial models, rather than telling them or “selling” them Look for candidates with experience at companies who have effectively leveraged a PLG strategy, this is not a skill you want your team learning through trial-and-error.
When your product is your key channel for marketing, your team’s attention becomes entirely focused on how to bring users into the freemium funnel. Product-qualified leads (PQLs) use in-product behavior to measure how users behave in freemium or free-trial models, and estimate time frame and overall likelihood to convert—rather than trying to coax people down a lengthy funnel.
Candidates should have a keen sense of curiosity, a willingness to experiment, and an ability to act fast on new knowledge. While hiring someone deeply familiar with product-led growth is obviously ideal, there are plenty of resources available to help accelerate your strategy—such as Elsewhere’s e-book, “A Guide to Pragmatic Product-Led Growth for B2B SaaS Startups,” or Wes Bush’s ProductLed community.
Your marketing hiring strategy should map to the problems you are trying to solve, and have a keen understanding of how to lead with the product. Even the best, most qualified hire won’t succeed if their skillset isn’t a match for your immediate needs.
Most importantly, while the right talent can fuel or hinder your startup’s growth, your go-to market strategy isn’t a one- or two-person operation. You need as many functional leaders as possible working together—from sales to marketing to analytics to product—to achieve success.