How to build a winning SaaS marketing team with Kathleen Estreich (Part 1 of 3)
Early hiring, setting the right goals, and getting alignment among a team
I spoke with Kathleen Estreich of MKT about all things SaaS marketing. She shared valuable advice on what founders should know about building marketing organizations from the ground up, from hiring to goal setting, to getting focus and alignment among a company’s board and advisors.
Kathleen is the co-founder at MKT1 Capital where she invests in and advises early-stage B2B startups. Since founding MKT1, she's partnered with 50+ companies on marketing strategy, including OpsLevel, Pulley, and Tailscale. Over the past 15 years, she's built and led marketing and operations teams at several high-growth startups including Intercom, Box, Facebook and Scalyr (acq by SentinelOne). Her experience in both marketing and operations brings a holistic view to help founders grow their business. She lives in the Bay Area with her 2 young kids and enjoys taking advantage of the amazing running trails on the peninsula.
Kathleen had such great feedback on this topic that it could not all fit in one post, so I’ll cover her insights over a three part series:
Part I: How to find the right first marketing hire for your startup, identify quick wins and set them up for success
Part II: Setting marketing goals for founders. (For me this section could also be titled: Half of my marketing dollars are wasted, and I don’t know which half, but MKT has a framework and a pretty good idea)
Part III: Send this part to your board. What board members should be asking marketers
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How to find the right first marketing hire for your startup, identify quick wins, and set them up for success
Lyndsay A lot of the B2B SaaS companies I work with are not doing any formalized marketing when we invest. The founder has been the salesperson, the marketer, and the evangelist, but may not have had time to focus in-depth on any of these areas.
Let's talk about your experiences being the first marketing hire for companies at those stages. What are the early days like? What should the founder's mindset be, and what should the marketers'?
Kathleen In the early days the founder is the first marketer. The experience of bringing the first hire on starts with setting the scope of what you need from them. Defining who is the right first marketing hire to make.
One mistake that a lot of founders make is not hiring the right first marketer and it goes down from there. The advice we give is that the first marketing hire and leader needs to be a 𝞹-shaped marketer (like a T-shaped marketer, but with 2 areas of depth). Typically you want someone with depth in 2 of the 3 core areas of marketing, whether that's product marketing, content marketing, or growth marketing. Whoever you hire is going to own all of marketing from the start, and if they haven't ever owned growth marketing, for example, and have never owned content, they might create a lot of great content and not know where to distribute it. You want someone who has been exposed to all aspects of marketing in some form.
Lyndsay How does a founder figure out what the two legs of the 𝞹 should be?
Kathleen One of our favorite analogies to talk about strips away the jargon of marketing. There’s two things. There's the fuel, which is all the positioning, messaging, content, and there is the engine, which is the distribution and the growth channels. You as a marketer or as a founder should think about what you have more of. You need to figure out if you have a fuel problem or an engine problem.
If you have a bunch of great content that no one's seeing, then you have an engine problem. You probably want to hire a 𝞹-shaped marketer who's good at growth and either content or product marketing as their other competency. If you have a bunch of eyeballs but nothing is converting, then you have a fuel problem. You need to make sure that that first marketer can help you fix the fuel problem.
The other thing you need to find is someone who understands that you have to find the right fuel for the right engine. You don't want to, for example, have a Tesla at the gas station. That would require understanding what fuel goes with what engine and finding a marketer who can bridge that gap.
Lyndsay Once this hire is in place, what really sets them up for success? Where are the pitfalls?
Kathleen The first thing for the first marketer to do is spend a lot of time getting to know the customers. This means talking to as many customers as they can, whether that's through recorded calls or conversations, looking at the marketing that has been done to date. You're not always starting from scratch because, again, the founder is typically doing something on the marketing front. If you have a website, you have some marketing.
For the marketer, it's important to balance two things. One is getting up to speed on the company, the product, the audience. The second thing to think about is how can I get some quick wins here? These are typically fairly obvious things that you should do in your first couple of weeks so that you can build credibility. One of the challenges that I see for marketers is getting that balance right, the balance of getting up to speed, building context, which you need to set a strong marketing strategy and at the same time feeling like you need to execute and make progress.
It's balancing those two things where there's probably some quick win things that are, even if you're not fully up to speed, going to help the business. So get those done and build credibility while also in the back of your mind thinking through as you're getting this context, what's my longer-term strategy, and what are the big bets I want to make? You probably don't have enough context in your first couple of weeks to know what those are but you should be thinking about them and starting to coalesce around the big bets that you want to make.
In my opinion, going into the end of your three-month ramp, you should have a good sense of what your marketing strategy and plan should be.
Lyndsay Are there common things that you see as quick wins with companies?
Kathleen I think it depends. A good way to identify a quick win is when you go around and talk to different stakeholders in the company, you might start to hear themes and trends of what the company needs. The sales team, product team, and customer success teams touch marketing in pretty direct ways and are good to start with. If you start hearing the same thing over and over from those folks that you're meeting as you're onboarding, it's probably a good indication that there's something there.
They might not tell you exactly what it is, but they might be able to help you identify a problem that is nagging the organization that marketing can help solve pretty quickly. I've seen things from sales teams such as we need reference customers or case studies. From product teams: we need a lightweight product launch process. You might not have full context into the organization, and everything you're trying to do but they're pretty standard things that most marketers can come in and do that can help alleviate whatever pain there is in the organization.
Lyndsay What is the best way to ask those questions?
Kathleen What are your biggest pain points? What are you hoping to see marketing do? I like asking fairly open-ended questions to see what's top of mind for people. It also helps you define how they think of marketing. What do they think the marketing job is? That's another challenge for any marketing leader coming in. If the team and function haven’t existed at this company before, it's your job as the first marketing leader to define what marketing does at the company.
By asking some of these questions of your stakeholders, you'll get a good sense of how they think about marketing. Do they think of it as a strategic function that's really going to help move the business forward?
Lyndsay Same thing on long-term strategy. How should people think about starting to build that, what are the inputs?
Kathleen The biggest input is understanding the company strategy and goals. A lot of times that can either be very well-defined or less well-defined and depending on the founders. But I think your job as a marketing leader is to get clarity in terms of, what are the company goals? How can marketing build a strategy that's going to support that?
For example, I’m working with a company that has a massive free tier, but they're trying to move more into business users. You as a marketer have to decide, I have a finite set of resources. Where do I prioritize? There are a couple of things to think about when you're setting your marketing strategy, and it's short term, long term, but also, what are the big bets that you want to make versus the incremental ones? If you keep doing the same things, you'll continue to grow linearly.
What are the big bets that you think are going to help you grow? Change the shape of the growth curve to be exponential growth. And it's typically not doing the same stuff that you've been doing for the last six months. It's typically a big bet you want to make.
It might take you a little bit of time as you’re onboarding to figure out what the big opportunities are that can change that trajectory. Once you decide what to bet on, it's important to be very clear that this is a big bet that you’re making. You can start to pressure test to see if it's going to net out. It’s important to not just think of incremental growth, but what will drive step-change growth.