Let's say you have a software company that's been around several years, has grown healthily through word of mouth alone and now you are tasked to building a marketing function from scratch, to amplify this growth, in a company where no employee even liked the word marketing. How would you do that?
I don't know. But I can tell how we did this.
Make a great first hire, then a second, then a third
A quite common characteristic of software companies is that they don't do marketing, or they do it as an afterthought. Most stories go like this: take one brilliant programmer that builds something, that he puts out in the world on forums and communities. That thing is phenomenally successful, he starts growing a lot and puff! a company is born and he's magically transformed into a young CEO whose only desire is to continue building stuff. Less so promoting stuff, since programmers deeply believe that product supremacy is what drives success and if you need to sell people on it, then you have a poor product. And they'll happily cite Steve Jobs on how marketing sucks!
But a moment comes where growth cannot come through word-of-mouth alone. Where customers are so diverse with needs so varied, that spending your precious technical time on sorting customer woes on communities just doesn't pay off. Or the CEO may want to launch in US but his development center is in Romania. And selling in US means you have to do PR, of course. At this moment, the CEO knows he has to enlist marketing help because he's able to do anything, but not cater to journalists' every whim.
So here is where I came in, tasked with building a marketing team in a company where marketing was seen as a necessary evil despite the fact that the things that grew that company were the very things marketing relied on.
Hire for values
The first employee that you hire sets the tone for the entire team that follows. The second as well. After that, you can safely say you've set the groundwork for some healthy departmental principles. A first marketing employee has to have two things going on for him or her: (1) fit in with the culture and (2) really care about people. Incidentally, both these things boil down to values.
Startups are very specific, so if the culture isn't a fit, there is going to be pain. CEOs that are founders are very specific about how they want things done. Many say they want customers to be raving fans, but this may mean in practice that they want smart, ideal customers to be raving fans. If somebody isn't, well then, that's not a customer we want because he's less than smart. Or they may want marketing to be very efficient without their personal involvement. So you have to know from the start what type of person you are looking for.
Questions to ask future hires
So, besides assessing for skills, assessing for values is much more important. Here are some questions that I routinely asked:
Which skills and talents would you like to pick up apart from what your job requires? Give an example of something you noticed about your work and how you decided to improve on that aspect.
Being in a startup environment, nobody had time to tutor much new hires. So we had to make sure we hire self-learners able to learn on the fly, notice how things work and go out and look for knowledge by themselves, outside a formal company development plan.
The customer is pointing out a big problem with your product, on your Facebook company account of which you are responsible. What do you do?
What does great marketing mean to you?
By asking this I look into their caring ability. With a company that grew through word-of-mouth, you want to preserve that, so you need hires that care deeply about customers on a personal level. Marketing is not shouting. Marketing is having a conversation. Marketing is treating customers first and foremost, the rest will follow.
Give an example of a project where you had the lead but where information was insufficient. How did you complete it?
When you start a team, you want people who can think on their feet and go out and find missing information. When things are not set and structured, people have to make the most of ambiguity, especially as we were, trying to do marketing internationally, on several countries at a time, with no footprint and no previous experience, not even in our headquarter office.
Create processes, being mindful of legacy
Normally, even though marketing didn't formally exist, people were involved in marketing: social media, forums, blog writing, some Google Adwords and so on. Yet, since no one was responsible, everyone pitched in, argued a lot and the resulting work was the proverbial "no good joke survives a committee of six" - meaning the objectives of the action were lost in the process (or lack thereof).
While it's important to build processes for the new team, it's equally important to build processes for the rest of the company as well; to set boundaries and responsibilities. And make sure you do this separation smoothly because employees that played marketing roles, are generally not keen to give up on this work.
Measure and collect data
We took care not to impose strong rules from the beginning but rather focus on measurement. Data and figures were something marketers understood, but more importantly, the rest of the company understood. So measurement, data collection and tools to do this were our common ground. We structured data from 3 key areas: Sales, Customer support and Marketing Activities. Together, these 3 areas provided a complete picture upon the customer. We were grounded enough in order to go forward.
Treat each customer as a gold mine
Another process that we set up was the learn & research one. We had customers all over the world, but not so many as to be worth it to invest money in complicated market research studies. So we picked our customers' and our leads' brains. Each time a new customer signed up or things were advancing with a lead - we had team members set up a short call with that person and ask about the product experience, their respective market, their needs and how our product was used. This way we build up our case studies, usage scenarios, marketing knowledge base, potential product feature list as well as content for our inbound marketing program.
Focus on a few key practices, nail them. Move on
It's tempting at first to launch into the myriad of tactics that online marketing affords. But it's also deadly. So we approached this with tight prioritisation. We focused on what was proven to work so far, improved on it, and only after that channel was mastered, did we move on.
We paid attention to the customer community built on Get Satisfaction platform. Given that most of the business came through recommendations, we had to make sure that the hand-off was smooth, that clients noticed an improvement in how the company communicated and that they were heard, above all. Then we tackled third party communities like Spiceworks, Voip-Info etc, where our customers and potential customers were looking for information. We leveraged our customers' voices to bring in new leads. We also complemented this effort with display advertising.
In parallel, as we reached out more and more - we set up the online marketing flow, starting with landing pages, remarketing lists and webinars to pull in more leads. But each step was carefully considered as we were a very small team with plenty of work.
Automate as much as possible and enlist help
Not having many people in the department, we focused on internal tools that could save us time with manual work. We had a disciplined program of testing various tools each month, out of which we decided to buy or, at the very least, helped increase organisational knowledge about available software. In this manner we discovered Zapier to automate email marketing - specifically we linked Highrise (CRM platform) to Mailchimp (email platform) so that each time a contact changed status, an email was triggered. We tested SEMrush and Similar Web for market research, , Crazy Egg and many more.
Another thing we did - was to find internal help on certain skills. At first, we didn't have enough work for a graphic designer. Until things scaled up to justify hiring one, and we didn't want to outsource, we found people in other departments that liked and tinkered with Adobe Creative Suite. Their help was priceless not only because they filled a role in our team, but also because they understood better what marketing was trying to accomplish and they developed a sensibility for what customers resonated to.
Embed marketing in all other departmental activities
Even though marketing was a new department, we made sure we were viewed as part of the larger team, bringing a new perspective at the table. So we negotiated that once a week, at the departmental meeting, one marketing team member was to be present, be it HR, Professional Support, Sales, Product Management or Finance. Thus seamlessly, marketing was up to speed with everything that was going on and could pitch in and leverage this information.
All in all, setting up a new department was a thrilling discovery process, taking lots of creativity and compassion to bond with other employees. If there is a single key element that I would bet on, is find people that are inquisitive, gritty and able to make ends meet by any means (moral and legal means, of course).