Anatomy of a Growth Marketer: What to Look for When Hiring One for Your Startup
Our startup clients often ask us the same question: what type of marketer should I hire to grow my business? Their lack of clarity on this topic is understandable because few functions have evolved so dramatically over the last decade as marketing. And with so much “hacking” noise out there, how do you know who to look for?
The first step in your hiring process is defining the growth marketing role for which you will be hiring. While it sounds obvious, you’d be surprised how many startups fumble this step.
For one, startups typically need a growth marketer yesterday, so they don’t take the time to really think through the goals and responsibilities of this position. Also, many entrepreneurs don’t have a marketing background, and being unaware of what the growth process truly entails, they have a tough time articulating who it is that they need.
Whether it’s the rushed process or the lack of experience, companies often end up piecing together a job ad based on a few samples that they find on the internet and get it out there with the false hope of landing that great hire.
Instead, take a step back and start by asking yourself: what do you want your growth marketer to do and what outcomes do you expect him or her to achieve for your business? Think about what specifically you hope this person will have accomplished in their first 3, 6, 12 months on the job.
Are you looking for someone to fill up the top of your funnel because you are confident in the product? Or are you getting a ton of traffic and need someone to optimize the conversion? Or are you looking for someone who can take a holistic view of your funnel and create a foundation for long-term growth?
Do you want a hacker with a bag of tricks to give you a short-term spike, so you can impress potential investors, or do you want a growth marketer who won’t look for shortcuts and can play the long game?
Once you’ve outlined the objectives and expectations for the role, you can create your growth marketer persona. What does the ideal person for this job look like? What kind of person do you want to work with? And what type of qualities does he need to have in order to fit in with your existing team and culture? You need to be clear on these aspects of the candidate persona because people can learn the technical skills, but they can’t change their basic values and personalities.
Let’s first look at the candidate profile in terms of choices that startup founders often face when deciding who to hire as a growth marketer.
Generalist vs. Specialist
If you are an early stage startup hiring its first growth marketer, you might be tempted to hire specialists for those channels where you’ve found early traction. Why shouldn’t you?
First, scaling up is a whole different story. Growth drivers change, and what worked for you early on may not work when you’re growing bigger. Hiring narrow expertise may blind you to discover those more powerful growth channels.
Second, even in the scale-up phase you may realize that you need to change your focus or pivot. When that happens, you don’t want to go through the painful process of re-hiring because your marketer’s specialty no longer fits the new model.
Instead, for your early marketing hire you should be looking for a generalist – that well-rounded marketer with solid fundamentals and understanding of strategy, who can scale and optimize channels that are already working as well as experiment with new ones. And a generalist should be versatile enough to deal with potential significant changes to your business.
A generalist growth marketer should have enough cross-disciplinary knowledge and practical skills in order to design and run experiments without having to constantly rely on the specialist in a particular area to support them. And if your new marketing hire does need specialist support, he or she can always bring in top-notch freelance talent to work on a project basis.
TL; DR: hire a marketing generalist until you grow large enough to have well-defined specialist roles.
Experience vs. Potential
Startups often make mistakes on both ends of the scale by hiring someone either too senior or too junior.
A CMO/VP level marketer from a larger company coming into a smaller startup as the first marketer is usually set up to fail. Their strengths are in setting the strategy, hiring the right team, and leading and managing them to deliver on the company’s growth goals. It’s hard for them to be effective in a smaller startup, where they don’t have the infrastructure and need to roll up their sleeves to do the execution.
Also, getting someone who drove growth at a larger player to crush it for your startup will be difficult as the motivation may not be there.
On the flip side, you shouldn’t stake the success of your business on a junior marketer who knows some of the theory and practice but can’t figure out what the right growth strategy is. If you hire for intelligence, passion, and work ethic and don’t place enough value on experience, you will end up spinning your wheels while you search for the right way to grow.
So who should you hire? Look for candidates that have had a few at bats and have a lot more potential than what they are currently doing. This is someone who is not yet VP level but is on a strong upward trajectory in their career to get up to that point.
To use another analogy, your ideal candidate is a solid player with a coach potential: he or she can develop a strategy and own the execution and at the same time has some experience in managing people and can eventually build up and lead your marketing team.
If this is your first marketing hire, look for candidates with experience of driving growth in your industry. Why is experience important?
First, marketers who have a practical know-how from having done it in a particular industry can better identify and prioritize growth opportunities. They will likely know what’s going to work and can quickly get things going, which is very important at the early stage since resources are scarce.
What’s more, an experienced growth professional brings his network to the table to accelerate your success with content marketing, PR, and other growth channels. Finally,
having a growth marketer on the team who has experience in scaling a company and knows the market instills confidence in potential investors.
While you want a candidate with experience, beware of hiring someone with a ready-made playbook. Your marketer should draw on previous experience, but your company, your market, and your customer base are different, so he needs to define a growth strategy that takes into account your unique circumstances.
TL; DR: hire a marketer with a proven track record, preferably in your space, who is on the way up in his career and can eventually scale to a VP-level position.
Analytical vs. Creative
With so many different flavors of growth marketers out there, should you look for an artist who can come up with creative ideas or a scientist who can uncover insights in the data? The truth is you want someone who is good at both.
Your growth marketer must have an analytical mind and know how to use data to inform the strategy. He should be comfortable working with data from different sources without getting into analysis paralysis.
At the same time, you don’t want someone too quantitative and formulaic who will test every strategy that exists to see which one works better. If you do the same thing that everyone else is doing, it’ll be hard to stand out.
What you need is a marketer who can look at data and come up with new ideas on how to drive growth for your company. Your growth marketer is a problem solver willing to take risks and try non-traditional approaches to achieve your growth goals.
Does that mean you need to find someone incredibly creative? Not necessarily. Here is Hiten Shah’s perspective on this:
TL; DR: hire a marketer who can leverage data-driven insights to come up with new, out-of-the-box approaches.
What else should you look for in a candidate? Here are some of the most important considerations that map to impactful growth marketers.
Successful marketers have a mindset of growth and learning. They test and analyze everything they do, so when looking for a growth marketer, you must absolutely make sure that experimenting and testing is in their DNA.
Look for a decisive growth marketer who has a sense of urgency and is relentlessly focused on getting results. Also important is a track record of building upon successful tactics, iterating, and driving incremental growth, as opposed to resting on the laurels.
Growth won’t come overnight, so growth marketers must invest time in the process and demonstrate consistency, discipline, patience, and the ability to leverage learnings to improve the experiment success rate. As Pierre Lechelle puts it:
Foundational marketing skills
Everyone wants to hire a full stack or a T-shaped marketer these days, but finding one with the complete skillset is a Herculean task.
Sure, it’s great if your growth marketer is able to run an SQL query or do an API integration on his own, but realistically, you can bring in outside experts to help out with these things if you do not have capacity in-house.
What you want first and foremost is someone who is really good at the fundamental elements of growth marketing. Brian Balfour defines those elements as follows:
While data has come to be recognized as the lifeblood of decision making in marketing, the importance of qualitative research and understanding customer psychology is often lost on today’s growth hackers. Yet, without these critical elements, a growth marketer is simply a data scientist playing with numbers.
The marketer you bring on board needs to be able to uncover your prospects’ needs, motivations, and decision making criteria and apply this information to design more effective growth experiments.
And your growth marketing hire should have an intuitive sense of how and when to speak to different audiences and how to form emotional connections with them. If he doesn’t, he is going to have a tough time scaling the business.
From the technical profile standpoint, go with someone who is skewed towards marketing as opposed to coding. After all, growth marketer is a marketer first! Besides the strong grasp of data and user psychology, you want someone who is well versed in the mechanics of growth and understands funnels, acquisition channels (online and offline), A/B testing, and CRO, among other things.
With a solid foundation across principal marketing areas, a good growth marketer will be able to quickly pick up any new tactic, channel, or tool that comes along. He or she equally won’t be scared off to learn how to build a landing page, deploy marketing automation, or photoshop an ad creative. Keep this in mind when considering candidates from a technical perspective.
Every good growth marketer is an avid learner. With the constantly evolving marketing channels, tools, and tactics, a candidate must demonstrate curiosity and desire to learn in order to meet the new challenges and grow as a professional.
Look for a high-energy, intellectually curious individual who constantly pushes himself to learn new skills and is at the cutting edge of best practices in growth. Having a clear passion somewhere in their lives and ability to go deep on something, even if it is not work-related, is also a sign of a strong learning mindset.
Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, defines grit as the special blend of passion and purpose. In her words, grit is the driver behind outstanding achievement as passion (internal motivation) for the activity helps persist longer than willpower, while purpose (external motivation) helps persist even longer than passion.
Look for marketers who love your space and share your purpose and can forgo a better compensation package elsewhere for a chance to join you. If a marketer is passionate about your product or service and genuinely cares about the mission you are on, there is a good chance that she will excel at it or have enough motivation to learn what she needs in order to perform well.
When looking for a growth marketer, you need to make sure that the candidate is aligned with core values at your company. In fact, your entire hiring process should be designed around those values.
Whether those values are transparency, compassion, scrappiness, integrity, being an owner, or others, look for people who embody them. Getting this part right is critical because you can’t really teach values and you can’t change them. Either the growth marketer has them or she doesn’t.
Each company’s value system is unique, so make sure you identify yours in order to know what to look for in potential candidates. Chamath Palihapitiya, who started the growth team at Facebook, shared some of values that he considered important in potential growth hires, among others:
It goes without saying that your candidate also needs to pass the grade on things like work ethic, energy, communication skills, and other qualities and skills you would expect any of your hires to have.
Also, it is sometimes important to bring on board a growth marketer who is your target user and really understands and lives that persona. Particularly for companies in the B2C space, having a marketing hire who is using your product or service and knows how to speak to your target audience can make a big difference.
While all of this may seem like a wish list, it is not. When you are hiring for a position that can make or break the success of your business, you want to make sure you check all the boxes. In the words of Mike Volpe, former CMO of Hubspot:
Each business has its own unique circumstances and unique goals. So, take the time to define the role you are hiring for and your growth marketer persona. The more thought you put into this early step in the hiring process, the more effective your search will be. Happy hiring!
Looking for a proven growth marketer?
Find vetted growth talent at Growth Engineers.