Why B2B startup founders are disappointed with their internal marketers or external agencies

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First of all, it’s likely your fault. Yes, if you are disappointed with your marketing, whether internal or external,  it’s probably (not necessarily but most likely) due to your misjudgment. Sorry, but I had to say it out loud.

I hope that by the end of this post, you will understand why I think this way, and I sure hope that you will agree.  

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But for those of you who always start with reading the last page of every book they read, I have no intention of keeping you in suspense. Here’s the bottom line:

Let’s start with the end

If you are disappointed with your marketing operation it’s because, well…you most probably didn’t consider enough the fact that you are in your early days.  Early-stage B2B startup marketing (Post seed to round A) should be planned and executed by professionals that know everything about startups at this stage.  Startup marketing (in the market fit establishment phases) is unique. Marketers that work on such startups must understand the unique challenges at this stage, the tools that they should and should not use, what milestones they should gear up to, how to gain feedback from the market with a low budget, limited resources, and a new brand behind and a lot more. 

Thinking that anyone who has marketing expertise can adapt to manage the marketing of a young startup is naive. I am not saying that there are no exceptions but after 7 years of managing startup marketing for B2B startups I know how unique startup marketing is. 

You can’t expect any marketer to know how startup marketing is done. Not even experienced tech marketer, as talented as she or he may be. B2B startup marketing should be handled by – B2B. Startup. Marketers. 

I’ve learned it the hard way, trying to hire talented marketers with no specific early-stage startup marketing experience. The gaps were huge and it took so long to get them adopted.

 Today I truly believe that when a startup is making its first “real” marketing steps out there, there’s very little room for critical mistakes. Some marketers and agencies are used to bigger companies, some are not quite familiar with highly technical B2B products, others know how to operate only a specific part such as the PR, or the content, or the branding, of the growth. But only a few early-stage startup marketing creatures will know exactly how to set up the initial marketing operation from scratch, how to build just the right budget, how to create feasible operational planning, how to build optimal foundations and digital assets that are not under or overkill,  what tools to insist on and what to leave for later and more.

But, that’s what you need to win this game. And if that’s not what you made sure to insist on when you started your marketing operation, you are either enjoying begginers luck, or you are now disappointed. Simple.

Let me ask you a question

Do you have a team of marketers, a single one in your team, or no one internal? If your startup is young, and assuming you even have someone wearing a marketing hat, most likely it’s just one person. Makes sense, as this is the situation in most early-stage startups. None or one. Reality and common sense.

Just one marketer, huh?

Here’s another question: Think about your past experience in the case it ended with a disappointment. If you were and are not disappointed “from marketing in general” then you have nothing to think about. But, to judge by the number of founders that I hear complaining about their past disappointments, there are quite a few that do still have a bitter taste of disappointment, and that bothers me a lot. Back to my question, thinking about your past disappointment, was your marketer or agency the kind I’ve described above? No, I didn’t ask if she, he, or they were nice or seem professional. I simply ask how experienced were they in managing the marketing of similar size B2B startups? 

When this topic comes up in my day-to-day life, and like I said, I must admit that many founders I meet with have already experienced some kind of disappointment from an internal marketer or an external agency (or both), I usually understand what went wrong as soon as I learn that neither the external agency nor the internal marketer can be described as ‘experienced B2B (seed to b) startup marketing persona’.

The key for mismatch and disappointment most probably lies in here. Nobody tried to do you wrong, you just probably hired the wrong people for the task. not sure they even realized that when they started the work.  

Those of you who came just to hear the punchline, you can leave now. That’s ok, I got your cookie anyway, expect to feel the love soon 🙂

All the rest, I want to share with you a few insights that I have on that matter

Why, oh why?

First of all, to set the record straight: I am talking about early stage B2B startups only.  Post seed to round A or max B. That’s my main experience, startups that are trying to find the market fit holy grail and are currently operating by an internal team of fewer than 40 people, in most cases.

But, this can be relevant to others as well. You will be your own judge.

Internal marketers, if they exist in such startups, mostly work alone and have no one to lean on for professional training and day-to-day challenges (Needless to say, when teams work together, it’s enough to have just one ‘professional startup marketer’ onboard that can train the others).  

Startup marketing is different

In fact, I’d even claim that startup marketing in most cases is usually the complete opposite of ‘traditional’ or corporate marketing. Startups are unique and their nature is completely different than corporates. Their ability to run quickly, stay agile, innovative and on the go is often a key competitive advantage. Take that away and watch a lot of them die. While corporates move slowly, they are buried under tons of regulations, restrictions, policies, and politics. On the other hand, startups aren’t stable: The messages are relevant for today, not necessarily tomorrow, plans are changed on a weekly basis, pivots are done, you know how it goes. 

The unique attributes of a B2B startup marketer


Why is B2B even relevant here? Well, if you ask me, the B2B marketing landscape has significantly changed over the past years. Fortunately, B2B marketers started to use more ‘B2C’ data-driven tactics and loosened up a bit, drifting away from the traditional B2B marketing prototype.

Naturally, as startups are usually very innovative in nature, B2B startups are the trailblazers. They just had to be more creative and much more knowledgeable to survive. Startups are hungrier and are used to paving the way. They also have the freedom to be creative.  

Therefore, if you ask me, the transformation that traditional B2B marketers have to make to become great and successful B2B startup marketers is huge.

Let’s try and compare the qualities that a B2B startup marketer needs to have (in order to help her early stage startup cut through the noise), with the qualities of a corporate marketer.

Please excuse me for the rude generalizations that I am about to make, the reality isn’t black or white, I just think it will make my point easier

I believe that these are just some of the important attributes of a startup marketer:

  1. A stand-alone player– While almost all marketers who work in corporations are used to being part of a bigger team, a startup marketer in a young company is a stand-alone player who needs to make decisions without sharing the responsibility with other people. It’s a lonely position, and marketers struggle here – even experienced ones who are used to working in startups. But marketers who are inexperienced at working alone may break. I have seen it more than once.
  2. Full-stack in nature – While marketers in corporations are hardly ‘full stack’ in nature, and usually they master specific activities, counting on other team members to complete the marketing mix, startup marketers must operate multi-area activities simply because they work alone and their resources are limited. They don’t have someone on the ground to be the focal point for social, another one for PR, the third one for lead-gen and… you get the idea. it’s just them on board. If they lack the know-how, and naturally have no one to train them, disappointment and frustration occur.  
  3. A CMO, project manager, and a hands-on executer – Corporate marketers are often clever project managers and can lean on third-party agencies to run all their hands-on activities. However, young startups have limited budgets, meaning that no matter how senior the marketer working in the startup is in terms of title, he or she will eventually have to run a ‘CMO level strategic thinking’ AND conduct project management related planning, AND deal with hands-on execution (even when an external agency is on board to support parts of the execution). Not every marketer is built for this unique mix of skills.
  4. An agile personality with a strong ability to focus on what’s really important – Startups run faster than corporations. Much faster. That’s their biggest advantage. As this is critical to their survival, they must make compromises along the way. Hopefully, ones that are subtle to outsiders, but still, compromises. A startup marketer must follow the ‘good-enough principle’ and know when to stop. There’s no time to dive into one single task at the expense of others. It’s VERY different from what corporates expect of their employees, and making this shift when working for a startup is hard. I am talking from experience. It takes a lot of time to adjust, some never make it. And when a marketer does not manage to focus on what’s really important and doesn’t deliver fast enough, disappointment is bound to happen, sooner or later.   
  5. An explorer in nature – Big companies usually hire marketers to scale activities that have already proved to deliver a good ROI. No one needs to build things from scratch, as almost everything has already been tried before. Startups are just on the opposite of the scale. Startup marketing is pretty much a lab, made of endless trials, errors, and tweaks that help the company gear up towards more mature marketing. Startup marketers must master the art of research. Again, this shift from working in a corporate to running the marketing of a startup may be long and tedious.

Can a person grow (or shrink, depends on how you choose to look at it :)) to be a successful startup marketer? Sure, it’s not rocket science. Can an agency become a startup fairy? The same goes here.  

But it takes time, effort, and experience before it’s satisfying, and the problem is that not everyone can wait that long.

Bedtime story  

Instead of a ‘regular’ summary, let me tell you a story.

Before I just started my way as an entrepreneur (even before the days of G2M Team), I left a tech corporation (well, corporate in an Israeli scale…) and took my first steps in a startup I co-founded. I thought that since I am an experienced marketer, at least that aspect of the business is gonna be pretty easy.  I thought I could save on a big chunk of the investment, as I can easily do what I do best, right?

Wrong.

Not only did I not know anything about startup marketing, but I also had to try and forget everything that I did know, as it was just a set of predispositions that interfered with the new methods that I had to develop.

The tactics were different, the tools were different, learning methods were different, the community was made of other people than what I knew before, success measurements were different, quality of deliverables was different – and you know what? Almost nothing was the same.

So I started working towards my startup marketing degree…

Yes, I learned the ropes, and yes, I managed to run startup marketing. But it took time and many mistakes to get me there.

So, hopefully, before you hire someone internal to join your marketing team, or onboard an external agency, you should run a serious set expectations process to avoid future disappointments. Because if they do come, I will again claim that it’s your fault. Good luck!

 

via GIPHY

 

Einav Laviv
Einav Laviv is a tech marketing expert, a startup founder and the CEO at G2Mteam, that supports Israeli startups with full stack global marketing services. She lives, breathes and loves startups & marketing: B2B, B2C, Mobile, online and product
Einav Laviv
Einav Laviv
hello [at] g2mteam.com