If you're on a marketing team in a small startup, chances are that "wearing a lot of hats" doesn't cover it by a long mile. Even if you're not the only marketer and there's a rough delineation of responsibilities, you'll find yourself covering and owning areas outside your job description.
This cross-functional, dynamic experience is part of what makes working at a startup thrilling. Every day is different, you learn how to think quickly and strategically, and you have much more freedom in choosing what you do. The other side of the coin is that you're juggling approximately 5,000 different priorities, you always have more work to do than there are hours in a day, and the price of freedom is a level of accountability that most twenty-somethings aren't held to.
So here are my 5 rules for being in a small, cross-functional demand generation team – both how to succeed professionally, and do well by yourself. I'm not going to tell you whether you should prioritize content marketing over sales enablement or ad buys over social; that's dependent on your skill sets, your business, etc. Rather, this advice is meant to help you decide which strategies to pursue, and how to know if you've made the right choice.
(And if working in a small team sounds exciting, great news - DataFox is hiring!)
1. Live and die by metrics (and make sure you have the right ones)
My old boss once told me that a CEO's greatest dilemma is having 100 revenue-positive activities that he or she could be doing, and correctly choosing the right one to spend time on. It's applicable to marketers as well: Part of the challenge of being a generalist marketer is that you're responsible for a lot of areas – content, marketing automation, social, product, etc. – and you have to decide which one will bring the most value to the company. So how do you choose between writing a killer article about sales prospecting, or finding the right keywords to buy, or going to a trade show?
Metrics. If you have a standard to measure all of your possible activities by, you'll know whether you're doing the right thing on any given day. Work with your boss (or the CXO, or whoever you think will give good input) to decide what you should be optimizing for, whether it's leads, closed deals, traffic, links or something else. Then, gauge your work against those chosen metrics, and have a case-by-case discussion on activities whose value isn't accurately captured by the metrics you're working towards.
There are two benefits of this. First, you know how you should be spending your time, and how valuable that time is to the company. And second, you have a justification for saying that you should start doing something, or conversely, that you should stop doing an unproductive activity. Pushing for or pushing back on an assignment can be risky and uncomfortable; metrics are a way to have a dispassionate discussion about what you should be doing. It's empowering to clearly understand, and have a say in, the best way to spend your time.
2. Measure outcomes, not outputs
In the nonprofit world, organizations often create logic models to guide their thinking and evaluation (shoutout to Brown's Swearer Center, and its great class on effective philanthropy). A logic model maps inputs (the resources you need) to activities (what you'll be doing) to outputs (the result of your activities) to outcomes (the broader goal you're trying to achieve).
Every organization faces the temptation to measure out_puts_ - the number of patients seen in a free clinic, say. But that's just simple math: number of physician-hours worked * patients seen per hour. If you aren't meeting your expected outputs, something's wrong - they're necessary, not sufficient.
Instead, you have to look at the out_come_: a more nebulous, but still measurable, result of your activities - the number of emergency room visits, or patients’ ability to manage chronic diseases.
The idea of tracking outcomes rather than outputs seems obvious on the surface. Especially at startups, you don't see an account executive measured by the number of deals closed regardless of contract size, or an engineer by the sheer volume of code written. But how many content marketers are judged by how much content they write in a week? Or SEO experts told to deliver a certain number of links?
Here are two examples of a marketing logic model:
If you're just looking at outputs, deciding between ebooks and SEO changes would be impossible: how do you compare an ebook against more visitors? But if you look at outcomes, you're on solid ground. You can run quick experiments to guess how many leads each activity would garner, and measure that against the time spent.
It's a bit of an overgeneralization, but you can see outputs as a referendum on inputs (are you accurately budgeting time/money, and are you being productive?) while outcomes are a referendum on the activities themselves. In marketing, as with nonprofits, measuring outcomes is hard, so there's a temptation to rely on outputs instead. But when you're in a small team, outcomes are paramount: until you have a marketing playbook, you should be focusing on writing it.
3. Consider time horizons
This is the hardest question I face as part of a three-person demand gen team: should I optimize for short-term wins, or go for longer-term, higher payout goals? I'm often faced with the choice between, say:
- Option 1: 100 guaranteed leads this month
- Option 2: 25 leads this month and 175 leads next month
- Option 3: a 75% chance of getting no leads but a 25% chance of getting 400 leads a month into perpetuity, and as a cherry on top, you won’t know which until six months from now
Pure math says that the third option is the right choice. If you expect your company to stay in business for at least three quarters, door #3 has the highest expected value. Though if you need to be conservative – maybe you've just started your job and don't have much political capital, or the management team needs some quick wins – you might opt for the second option.
But sometimes, you just need results, and you need them now. That's the kind of conversation you should be having with the CEO: should you be sacrificing long-term gains for short-term results? If your boss needs 25 leads this month but wants 75, you can have a conversation on whether you should go with option #1 or #2. But if you have to produce at least 75 leads, full stop, then you'll go with option #1.
Of course, you can (and should) see if there are ways to get guaranteed wins while still pursing high-risk, high-reward strategies. If possible, talk to your boss about hiring a more junior person to tackle those activities, or outsourcing the work to freelancers. But there are times when your responsibility is to hit singles and doubles rather than swinging for the fences, and that's part of your job.
4. Manage up, but more importantly, manage yourself
Since you're responsible for metrics, not activities, it's important to communicate clearly about what you’re expected to produce. Check in regularly about how you're measuring up to your goals, and whether you think what you're doing is helping those goals.
And when you're part of a small marketing team, you'll find yourself pulled in 100 different directions. Ambiguity and cross-functionality are part and parcel of startup work, but the downside is that it's really easy to say yes to everyone and find yourself overworked as a result. I learned this lesson the hard way: in startups, the default route is burnout, and you have to actively work to prevent it.
If you find yourself stressed out or unable to enjoy work as much as you used to, try to move some things off your plate or somehow your workload. In a good company, your manager is incentivized to ensure you're functional and productive three years down the line. He or she should be an ally in making sure that you don't work yourself to the bone – but don't expect your manager to know your limits if you don't know them yourself.
5. Start planning for your next job today
Again, cross-functionality comes with the territory of working in a startup. But it can have downsides for younger marketers. Often, I'll see startup entry- and manager-level marketers who are jacks of all trades: a bit of social media, a bit of content, a bit of paid marketing, etc. Director-level hires tend to be more specialized (product marketing, SEO, etc.), while VP and C-level marketers are strategists who take a generalized view. When you're at that generalist level, you have to prepare yourself for specialization, and ideally, for tacking back to a strategic multi-channel role.
One of the mistakes I made as an entry-level startup employee was to try to be all things to all people – a little bit of content, a little bit of product, a little bit of PR, and so on. That's great for early-stage startups, but less so as they grow: it's hard to become a manager to a group of generalists, and even harder to manage a specific area while still trying to maintain a generalist role.
If I could do it again, I would choose a specialization that I'd like to move into, and enlist my manager's help in growing the skills I'd need to be a director-level specialist. And if I wanted to be a VP of marketing or CMO, I'd try to put myself in situations where I had to choose between different marketing strategies. If I have one piece of advice to give young marketers, it's this: don't put yourself in a situation where you can't move up the organization. Be conscious of how you spend your time, and how you set yourself up for your next job.
And if you’d like to help grow this tiny demand gen team, we’re hiring! Check out our available jobs here.