Early-stage startups do not need a marketing team

The marketing teams and skills that succeed in a larger company may have limited relevance to the work that needs to be accomplished in the early stages of a startup’s development.

Startups do not have sales or marketing teams: They use a single Customer Development team

Startups following Steve Blank’s Customer Development Model will not have a separate marketing team during the first two stages of the startup’s development (customer discovery and customer validation).

Rather, your single Customer Development team will need to focus on learning about your customer’s problems and how your startup can build a solution that addresses these problems. Your team should not approach sales, marketing or business development as separate tasks to be handled by different individuals. During these two early stages, all team members need to work together on these common tasks. The startup’s priority at this point is to build a roadmap to identify customers and to sell to them by focusing on identifying a sustainable business model.

As Blank explains in The Four Steps to the Epiphany, during the customer discovery and customer validation stages, “neither the end users nor the markets, nor the channels are known.” Spending time developing strategies and plans for a product that is rapidly changing in an agile environment is ineffective.

Tactical shock troops: Different skillsets than traditional marketing teams

Blank describes the group that is needed early on as being “tactical shock troops.” This type of team will own a sharply different skillset than those typically found on the marketing team, or sales or engineering teams in a larger company. Venture capitalist Dave McClure has declared that the early-stage startup team should consist of “a hacker, a hustler and a designer.” He describes these three functions:

Hacker: The hacker builds products. They can write code and they understand the technology sector in which they operate

Hustler: The hustler is responsible for validating the business model by finding customers, partners and funding

Designer: The designer understands customers and their problems

Initial team building should focus on ensuring your startup fills these three roles. Avoid the temptation of hiring too soon those individuals who possess marketing abilities suited for a more advanced stage of company development. According to the Startup Genome Report, the most common cause of startup failure is premature scaling—i.e., adding human resource and infrastructure costs before customer validation.

When should a startup build a marketing team?

When is the right time to spend time and money on building a marketing team? When you reach the end of the customer validation stage (your customers are identified, and the type of market you are entering has been considered) and you are ready to move on the customer creation stage.

At the end of your customer validation stage, you most likely will have a validated business model, and possibly a sales pipeline or user base that can be monetized—facts that may help to attract outside capital to help scale the business. You most likely will also have knowledge of which customers to target, the product to sell them and the channel to reach them. That’s when you can start adding to your sales and marketing team.

Hiring for the right fit at your startup

Being able to scale does not mean you can hire freely. In addition to hiring to fit your corporate culture, keep in mind that a small and rapidly growing organization will require staff with multiple skills. You’ll need talent who are happy to cover two to three functions in the early days and even one to two functions until the company reaches about fifty employees. This means finding people who are rapid learners and who constantly challenge the boundaries of their “comfort zone.”

Marketing and your team: Further reading


Blank, S.G. (2005). The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Self-published: Cafepress.com.

Tsotsis, A. (2011, April 10). Dave McClure On 500 Startups: “If Sequoia Is The Yankees, We’re The Oakland A’s”.  Tech Crunch. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2011/04/10/dave-mcclure-on-500-startups-if-sequoia-is-the-yankees-were-the-oakland-as/

Marmer, M., Lasse Herrmann, B., Berman, R. (May 28, 2011). Startup Genome Report 01. Retrieved from