MaRS Library 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
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
- The Customer Development Model (CDM), product development and technology startups
- Business models
- Identifying the right recruiting strategies for your startup
- Recruiting for sales: Your first hire in a tech startup
Your marketing team and stages of venture development
The Startup Genome (Compass) model defines five stages of venture development:
This article relates to startups in the discovery and the validation stages—with marketing team being expanded beyond the hacker, hustler and designer roles toward the end of validation stage.
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
- Case study: Dell—Distribution and supply chain innovation.
- Customer onboarding: Preparing customers to use your product.
- Create a succinct value proposition: “Customer discovery” and the Customer Development Model.
- Environmental analysis (or PEST)—an element of your startup’s strategic plan.
- Identifying target customers for a social enterprise.