We need more marketers to lead and mentor start-ups

Start-ups underestimate, and undervalue, marketers, which impacts their success and their ability to attract and retain talent. This mindset needs to shift, Stephen Neville argues. And as a former adland exec and current start-up CEO, he thinks more marketers need to lead and mentor in the space.

It’s a mistake nearly every start-up makes: the attitude of distrusting marketing and sales, combined with a ‘build it and they will come’ mindset. It’s a mistake because it leaves many early-stage start-ups with little or no marketing. They may have a great team and a solid product but, without marketing, they struggle to find early growth.

I’ve seen companies at Series A and beyond without any sort of marketing plan. I’ve heard “We got this far without any marketing” from founders over and over, as if it’s something to be proud of.

Start-ups need to better value marketers, to retain and attract talent

These companies get by, for a time, on the back of self-promotion or support from their accelerators and immediate network. But somewhere along the line, they stall. Organic growth becomes difficult and that early buzz starts to fizzle out.

Conversely, there are companies that do the right thing by bringing in a marketer, but, within a few months, start to question their impact. Talk to the marketer and they say it’s because they are stuck doing basic SEO and analysis work that really should have been done from the get-go.

The root of the problem here is that there is a lack of understanding of the value of marketing for early-stage businesses, or perhaps even the many functions that a good marketing team can assist with. The only people who don’t believe in marketing have never worked with a good marketing team.

This is backed up by the most recent Start Up Muster report. It shows that most founders hold a management or tech background. Less than a third indicated that had some experience in marketing. Even then, that level of experience is probably questionable.

In the same report, when asked what skill founders wished they had invested in early, most of them said marketing.

As all marketers know, marketing efforts are compounding. The sooner you start it, the greater your returns down the line.

Even simple things like developing a strong value proposition, creating solid messaging, and nutting out branding make a huge difference early on. But that effort compounds, because they also pave the way towards larger brand-based campaigns and activations.

The challenge is that, while this is all obvious to us, we need to realise that this isn’t widely known among founders.

Founders need a better understanding as to what a good early-stage marketing strategy looks like. They need to be shown case studies on success, they need to know exactly what to expect in terms of output, how long it takes and how exactly marketing benefitted their business.

Without these resources, founders are left only hearing about the horror stories. Distrust in marketing means founders simply don’t value marketing as part of their core team.

That chronic undervaluing of this skill set has led fewer and fewer people to excel at it. And as growth marketers are the first to be blamed for any failure in the business, there’s also little incentive for other senior marketers to retrain.

Fixing this mindset is the first step. And there’s a great incentive to do it: Every cog in the wheel of start-up growth could benefit from a better understanding and appreciation of marketing. From venture capitalists and startup advisors to innovation teams in corporates and agencies.

Crucially, this education will benefit the career path of all marketers too.

Reports show that me being the CEO of a tech start-up and having an advertising background is unique. I don’t see why this should be the case. Marketers bring an excellent skill set and understanding of management roles. Often, in a crowded market, it’s the start-ups with a marketing-based founder that stand out.

I want to see more marketers end up as co-founders or executives and more non-marketing founders recognise the value of our input. I’d love to see more marketers putting their hand up, or being asked to mentor start-ups, either directly or through the many and varied accelerator programs.

Our entire start-up ecosystem and industry will be better for it.

Stephen Neville is CEO of Bug Herd and a former executive of IPG Mediabrands


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