5 Reasons Startups Shouldn't Hire A Full-Time Chief Marketing Officer

As startups grow, pressure starts to build from investors, stakeholders, your team and the wider market about what you should do next - AND who you should hire next… 

October 1, 2022
  (NZDT - GMT +12)

As a marketer with a decade of experience leading startups in multiple senior roles, growing businesses in markets from the sports sector to the space sector, scaling global teams in the US, East-Asia Pacific, UK & Europe, and running budgets from $500/month to $50,000 per month, I’m here to tell you that your next hire SHOULD NOT BE a Chief Marketing Officer.

There are plenty of reasons for this, but in this blog, I’ll break down my top 5 reasons in the hope that your business can avoid the pitfalls others make and hire where it is needed, while still getting the marketing impact you need to grow as an early stage business.

In this article we’ll go over the following headlines:

  1. You don’t need a full-time resource at startup stage
  2. Other positions are a priority at startup stage
  3. Virtual CMO options are available [part-time!]
  4. Brands & products change too rapidly in early startups for big marketing strategies to be required
  5. Most Chief Marketing Officers don’t understand startups

1. You Don’t Need A Full-Time Resource At Startup Stage

Let’s be serious, you have either just gotten your first round of investment or are still pre-investment and spending straight out of your own pocket. There is no room for spending money on the wrong project or people. You need every cent to go directly to actual ad or content spend that will see a direct return on your investment in the short term.

It stands to reason that you need doers, not planners, and not long-term strategic thinkers. You need marketing that can test a theory and either get a return or move on to the next attempt, and you need it done while keeping as much of your budget as possible on the actual ads.

So why would you hire a full-time Chief Marketing Officer to plan out your brand, comms, strategic placement and more? Use that money wisely, and as a founder or early-stage team member, start trialling new ads and content placements. The money from that full-time role will see direct ROI on Google Ads, Social Ads, sponsorship opportunities, event attendance and more.

2. Other Positions Are A Priority At Startup Stage

If you were to list the most important senior job titles to fill in an early startup, marketing simply isn’t one of them. You are likely technology-based, so a CTO is a must, the founder is likely taking the CEO position, and your next most likely requirement is for one of two options:

  1. Chief Operations Officer
  2. Chief Commercial Officer

In a lot of cases, the COO will take on commercial responsibilities, merging two roles into one. At this stage, you need people who can make sure the business just runs, that teams are delivering, events are happening, invoices are being paid, support is apparent, and that finances continue to stay in the black (or at least no further in the red).

This allows the CEO to fly off around the world and attract investment and customers, it allows the CTO to make sure the technology is running and getting better, and it allows the business to continue operating without collapsing on itself!

Team working on their computers
A startup team dedicated to delivering what they need to, including marketing elements such as advertising and social media, but focused on delivery and hacks to get traction without cost - not big picture corporate playbook marketing strategy - that is the critical difference in early stage startups. | Dylan Gillis - Unsplash

3. Virtual CMO Options Are Available (Part-time!)

Now, marketing is still going to be needed, and sometimes you need some guidance, a plan, and a person you can run things by to ensure you are on the right track. But that person doesn’t  have to be a full-time Executive with a big salary. You can simply hire a Virtual Chief Marketing Officer - and part-time at that!

There are consulting firms around the world that provide this service, in fact, Virtual Marketers (where you are reading this blog) is one of them. We operate as Virtual CMOs for many businesses at all different stages, and for all sorts of budgets. Whether you can afford 20 hours a month, or 200 hours a month, a business that is skilled in this area can provide someone to give you pure benefit, without the risk and cost of a full-time CMO hire.

4. Brands & Products Change Too Rapidly In Early Startup Stages For Big Marketing Strategies To Be Required 

If you’re in a startup right now, you know how many times your business, brand and products change within the space of a couple of months. How your market pivots, or your entire app pivots! You are learning, testing, growing, and finding where you fit - and that simply isn’t a place for someone thinking 3-10 years into the future of your marketing strategy.

You need insights on what to test, insights on your market (or your new market as of last week!), and insights into what is the best ROI for you at your current stage of growth.

Males sitting around an informal table
The average room when a Chief Marketing Officer tries to implement standard corporate marketing playbooks into a startup without the knowledge of the product, it's direction, it's constantly changing applications or direction, and without a fundamental understanding of how to get things done on a shoe-string startup budget when every cent counts. | Annie Spratt - Unsplash

5. Most Chief Marketing Officers Don’t Understand Startups

Finally, I’ve seen many marketers in many different industries and business sizes, and it is really clear that just because you are a good marketer - it doesn’t mean you understand startups. Too many awkward splits happen in senior leadership teams in the early stages of startups because people are brought in as “experts” though they simply don’t know how to operate outside of the corporate or agency world.

In startups there are no hard and fast rules for budgets, or guaranteed resources, or even products you are going to sell. One month you might have $20,000 to spend, the next you need to reduce your burn rate for your next investment round and have to drop all spend and focus on free marketing only! For some people that uncertainty isn’t an option, they can’t adapt, and so clash with leadership not only wasting money from a lack of output - but costing time (and sometimes more money) as the leadership split occurs.

The point being, you are better off finding either:

  • A good all-round marketer who can deliver anything and everything as you change
  • A part-time Virtual Chief Marketing Officer who has experience in startups

The first gives you internal flexibility, and the second gives you insights and experience but without any risk of a full-time hire!

Final thoughts on Chief Marketing Officers in startups?

In general, marketing is needed in startups, it’s just the full-time executive role that isn’t. Focus your attention on keeping your risk low, your burn rate down, and your options as adaptable as possible.

That’s why I highly recommend a Virtual CMO, part-time, to suit your needs. It’s the best of all worlds giving you:

  1. The resource you need without the cost and risk
  2. Flexibility to prioritise the full-time roles you really need
  3. Insights and expertise for an ever-changing startup landscape
  4. A marketing leader that understands startups and your needs

If this is something that interests you then why not reach out? At Virtual Marketers, this is something we specialise in, and I’d be happy to talk you through our options, experience and what a Virtual CMO could look like in your startup today.

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