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What to Know When Hiring a CMO for Your Startup

by Oren Greenberg on

I recently wrote a LinkedIn post about why CMOs fail when they migrate from a corporate role into an early-stage venture (see it here). And in this short article, I want to dig a bit deeper into the topic, and also highlight what to look for when you’re hiring a startup CMO (or equivalent).

Why do some big-brand CMOs struggle at startups?

First, a reminder. Why do some CMOs fail when they join less mature companies? In my view, it’s usually to do with their conditioning within bigger organisations:

  • They’ve been focused on large-scale resource allocation – delegating the right jobs to the right people (and agencies), and managing established marketing budgets;
  • They’ve been focused on team-building, growing a marketing department gradually with people who contribute to a healthy working culture;
  • They’ve been navigating internal complexities and organisational politics, and working to secure their position of authority within a sprawling company;
  • They’ve been overseeing a hefty enterprise tech stack, containing lots of different systems, processes, and custom integrations;
  • They’ve been working exclusively on oversight and strategy, without getting into the weeds on how or why particular channels or tactics work.

On the face of it, most of these things look useful to any business. But at an early-stage company, CMOs need to be hands-on, agile, responsive, and… well, scrappy

On a conceptual level, many corporate CMOs are invigorated and motivated by this change of gear. But practically, the experience of being a C-suite leader at a big brand doesn’t prepare a marketer perfectly for tighter budgets, investor pressure, limited runway, and minimal in-house skills. 

What to look for when hiring a startup CMO

Some CMOs have earned their crust at early-stage businesses, helping them scale from seed to series A, B, and beyond. More have seen battle in failing startups, and have the scars to prove it. 

But there are others who have sailed up the chain of the command at household-name brands with competence, intelligence, consistency, management, and guile. While that candidate is undoubtedly a solid professional, it’ll be a risk to take them on in your startup.

So, what should you be looking for in a startup-optimal CMO?

  • Knowledge of tools and tactics, as well as strategy and management. Your CMO may need to get stuck into the nitty-gritty of execution every now and then;
  • Real-world battle scars and tough lessons learned, rather than a polished sheen of constant gradual success in comfortable roles;
  • Experience managing tight budgets, as well as managing big budgets in a smart way. The former shows resourcefulness, and the latter shows responsibility;
  • Knowledge of managing acquisition channels, not only brand-building channels;
  • Flexibility, perhaps in the form of a part-time or on-demand CMO to reduce the risk of a full-time hire (CMOs cost upwards of £100k per year);
  • Someone with a network of specialist contacts (freelancers and/or agencies) across paid and organic fields, which they can call on to provide expertise when required.

Getting a result is difficult. Ask any marketer in any job. And when the stakes are so high, as they are in a startup, strategic CMO-level expertise will come in very useful. But not all CMOs are suited to this gig, because of the unique demands that a startup environment entails.

Hiring strategic growth expertise vs DIY marketing (or junior hires)

It’s not uncommon for founders or co-founders to be in charge of marketing at startups – while wearing one of their many hats. Sometimes they do this with little to no experience, and often they do a very decent job. But as I say in my original LinkedIn post, it’s not about how hard it is to ride a bike. The right question is about how long it takes to learn to ride it quickly and safely.

When you want to shift gears and scale a startup, experience and proven expertise will help you skip the painful experience of falling off your bike half-way through the race.

And this is why it’s also a false economy to bring on a junior Jack or Jill of all trades. Even the smartest and most energetic graduate won’t have the necessary context or the perspective to guide a startup’s strategy down a bumpy track with competitors jostling for advantage.

Startups don’t have the luxury of time. And this is why:

  1. You need to get someone experienced to fast-track your growth strategy, and; 
  2. You need to get someone who won’t take 6-12 months adapting to the new pace.

When you have to learn how to optimise a single channel, that’s one thing. But multiplied by 50 channels with multiple campaigns all being tested at the same time. Now that’s tough. And slow. It compounds the difficulty of learning on the job, because there’s simply too much noise.

Put simply: you need someone who can step into the role and bring clarity and confidence to your marketing operation overnight. And if hiring a full-time CMO is too much of a gamble, you now have an increasing wealth of part-time (on-demand) CMOs entering the workforce. I’m one of them. This gives you the expertise you need, without the risk of a permanent hire.



Oren Greenberg

Oren Greenberg has a proven track record for growing startups and scaleups as a strategic on-demand CMO. To speak to Oren about what you can achieve with Kurve as a growth marketing partner, get in touch today.