A Founder’s Guide To Hiring Your First Marketer

By
Geoff Roberts
·
23 min read

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The world of Indie Hackers and early stage software start-ups is filled with incredibly talented technical founders with big ambitions. But almost as universal as their ambition is another commonality—a general disdain and apprehension for marketing.

Have you seen the memes about marketing week versus coding week on Twitter?

While there are developers who become good marketers—and vice versa—these people are the exception rather than the rule. Most talented engineers will eventually turn their attention to hiring a marketer to help them grow their start-up.

If you’re still reading this, chances are that’s you. And don’t fret—there’s a ton of developers in the same boat as you. OK, maybe that’s what’s making you fret in the first place... 

Over the course of my career I’ve now played nearly every role in this developer-marketer relationship:

  • I was initially hired directly out of school to be Buildium’s first full-time marketing hire. 
  • I later teamed up with two engineers as the “marketing co-founder” at Outseta.
  • Throughout Outseta’s early years I acted as the marketing partner for several early stage SaaS start-ups in a part-time capacity.
  • As a consultant I’ve helped several start-ups hire their first marketer.

What follows is my guidance on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to hiring your first marketer. This includes:

  • Three different paths to consider when hiring your first marketer
  • An activity you can use to assess up-and-coming marketing talent
  • A word for word email that I recently shared with a CEO who just hired his first marketer—it’s ripe with tactical advice for setting your first marketing hire up for success, especially if you don’t feel confident in your ability to manage a marketer. 

Let’s go!

The mythical magical marketer

Let’s start with the bad news—finding a marketing partner is often difficult and unsuccessful because you don’t really know what you’re looking for. Everyone seems to be looking for:

  • A marketer with 5-10 years of experience growing SaaS start-ups—and a demonstrated track record of success.
  • Someone who can operate largely independently.
  • They’re experts in search; both paid and organic (SEO).
  • They’re comfortable with design tools and tech savvy enough to get shit done.
  • They understand user experience and conversion optimization.
  • A great writer—email copy, blog posts, etc.
  • Preferably they have a large social media audience that you can inherit.
  • Hubspot… because of course, Hubspot. 
  • Willing to work to some extent for equity. Or maybe a full-time role with a salary of $50,000-$90,000 to start.

The first problem is that this person basically doesn’t exist. Marketing is such a huge discipline, finding someone that’s truly an expert across all these skills simply isn’t likely—but it’s also not necessary. And the folks that do meet this description are in such high demand, they’ll be oversubscribed with opportunities well beyond what you’re suited to offer them. 

Which brings up to a few viable paths to consider.

Find a marketing co-founder

I am not a big believer in “going out and finding a co-founder.” If you’re using any sort of co-founder matching website or are running some sort of process to find a marketing co-founder, I think you’re probably already in a bit of trouble. Finding a co-founder is very much like finding a marital partner—going out with the deliberate objective of finding that person rarely works. You’re looking for a long term relationship, there will be ups and downs, your working relationship will bleed into other parts of your life, and finances will be an omniscient topic. 

It’s not that you can’t find a marketing co-founder in this way, it’s just that it’s not a bet I’d sign up to make. I believe that most good co-founder relationships come from people that you’ve already worked with before, or at least your existing network. It’s better to begin your start-up life with someone you already know and trust than to make the jump with someone that’s an unknown. 

If you want a marketing co-founder, it’s best to start building relationships with marketers years before you need them. Invest in your network early and the right marketing co-founder is much more likely to emerge somewhat organically.

Key Takeaways

  • Invest in your network early
  • Play the long game
  • You’re more likely find a great co-founder when you’re not deliberately looking for one 

Hire an experienced marketing partner, part-time

If you don’t have an obvious choice for a marketing co-founder, another alternative is to hire someone senior to act as your marketing partner in a part-time capacity. Or maybe you just don’t want to bring someone on as a co-founder, allowing you to retain a larger equity stake in your start-up. Regardless of your reasoning, I think this is both a viable and often super attractive path to consider. 

It’s highly likely that you’re indie hacking largely because you like working for yourself—you don’t want to deal with the BS that often comes with working in larger organizations. If that’s you, chances are the last thing you want to do is hire a junior marketer to whom you need to provide oversight. First of all, you’re probably not the best person to provide that oversight. Second, you’d probably rather put needles in your eyes. 

Talented senior people often just want to work with people of similar experience and skill levels— albeit in a complimentary area of the business. This will allow you both to work more independently and realize success that much more quickly. You can avoid a lot of potholes by working with someone that’s been there and done it before. 

An example of this path in action is SavvyCal—a technical founder, Derrick Reimer, hired an experienced marketing partner, Corey Haines, in a part-time capacity. It’s been a successful working relationship both ways. 

This path is admittedly tough—there aren’t too many Corey’s swimming around out there in the sea. Most experienced, proven marketers have a lot of opportunities these days and most are in full-time gigs. But the good news is this dynamic is changing—as more folks want to work for themselves, there are a growing number of marketers looking for predictable, part-time income as they work on their own entrepreneurial projects. 

This was me in the early days as we were bootstrapping Outseta into a viable business—I had a need for income until Outseta scaled to the extent that it could replace my consulting income. And this is Corey now—he’s working on his own SaaS project and growing his online community, something that’s made possible in part by his work with SavvyCal.

Aside from just identifying a marketing partner that’s looking for this scenario, there are a few significant challenges to navigate:

  • First, the financial means required to hire someone more senior means you likely need to A) be independently wealthy, B) raise funding, or C) wait long enough until your business is generating enough revenue to hire someone.
  • Second, if you’re paying top dollar you expect top results. Frankly, marketing doesn’t lend itself to consulting as well as engineering often does. While you can code and make progress on building a project if given a few hours a week, marketing is a longer term play and it’s simply tough to create great results in a very part-time capacity. 

With the latter point in mind, my overarching feedback is if you plan to pursue this route you should hire a marketing partner who can work with you a minimum of two days per week. I think that’s what’s really required to make significant inroads and progress—at least if you’re relying on this person for execution. With a commitment of less than two days per week, it’s just difficult to build the momentum needed to really be successful.

I started out working on Outseta two days per week, while leading the marketing function at another start-up three days per week. That eventually scaled down to four days per week at Outseta, one day per week consulting—at one day per week, I felt much more like an advisor than someone who could really drive execution and substantial growth. 

In either case, if you pursue this path I also strongly recommend that you agree ahead of time to work with your marketing partner on a set schedule. I insisted on this with all my clients and it was hugely helpful both ways. If you know your marketing partner is 100% focused on your business on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, you know that they’ll be fully accessible those days and you give yourselves the opportunity to focus without jumping between projects.

I’ve seen other variations on this, like marketers who work on one business in the mornings and another after lunch. Whatever works for you is fine, but to the extent you can avoid commingling your work schedules I highly recommend it.

Key Takeaways

  • Hire someone willing to work with you at least two days per week.
  • Agree to working with your marketing partner on a set schedule rather than co-mingling work for your start-up with their other projects. 
  • If you need additional marketing capacity, consider offering the marketer an opportunity to work partially for sweat equity in your start-up. If you lead with this offer, it’s often a red flag—but don’t be shy about mentioning the possibility if you’re open to it. Marketers generally don’t have as many opportunities to earn equity in tech companies as developers do. 

Hire a up-and-coming marketer and invest in their success

A final path to consider is hiring an up-and-coming marketer to work with you full-time. It might be that you feel like you need full-time help, it might be that you can only afford to hire someone that’s more junior, or it might be a combination of the two. In either case, this is absolutely a viable path as well. 

Reflecting on my own career, I was hired by Buildium directly after I finished my MBA. It was my first “real job” and I was one of the first 10 employees at the company. This worked out great, but hiring a marketer directly out of school is a path that I have a hard time advocating for. While Buildium’s early team certainly didn’t include another marketer, it did include a CEO that truly excelled at leadership and a VP of User Experience that had spent a lot of time in the marketing world. Those people invested a lot of time and energy in me—and beyond those internal relationships, two different marketing mentors and an executive coach were hired specifically to help me develop as a marketing leader. 

I was super fortunate to have this level of mentorship, and frankly that’s what led to my success in the position. The lesson here is that hiring up-and-coming marketers is actually a great alternative, assuming that you’re actually willing to invest significantly in their success. I see too many companies write off the idea of hiring junior talent altogether—and even worse are the companies who hire junior marketers on the basis of price, then give them little oversight and are surprised when they’re not successful. 

Mentorship opportunities for an up-and-coming marketer

There are countless ways to invest in your new hire, and doing so doesn’t need to break the bank. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Beyond investing in your new hire, here’s what to look for in an up-and-coming marketer.

What to look for in an up-and-coming marketer

As I’m talking to up-and-coming marketing candidates, here are the things that I’m looking for. These are generally leading indicators that they have high potential.

  • Ambition. The number one thing I try to look for when hiring up-and-coming marketers is ambition… drive…hunger… you need a go-getter! Look for evidence that the person has their own entrepreneurial projects and that they already invest in their own learning. Have they grown their own blog? Etsy store? YouTube channel? Look for evidence of something that indicates they’ve learned through doing before. 
  • Scrappiness. Besides ambition, the ability to get stuff done with limited money and resources is probably the biggest superpower you can find in this hire. Being able to write solid project briefs and hire freelancers successfully on sites like Fivver and Upwork is a great skill in and of itself. 
  • General knowledge of digital marketing channels. If you’re hiring an up-and-comer, they don’t need to be a master of anything—but look for someone who has a general understanding of the most common digital marketing channels. While you can’t expect deep expertise across the board, you want someone familiar enough with the marketing channels that are at their disposal to recognize which channels should be experimented with. 
  • A fail fast and learn cheap mindset. Even if you hire a more experienced marketer, no one can tell you exactly which channels will work well in the context of your start-up. You need someone who will consistently run experiments across different channels, with the goal of learning quickly—and without burning a lot of money. Ask potential hires what sort of growth experiments they’d run if hired, and how they might structure them.
  • A strong understanding of SaaS metrics. While it’s not difficult to learn the ins and outs of the SaaS business model, it’s critically important that this hire knows what metrics matter and which ones don’t. If they don’t already know this or can’t pick it up quickly, it’s a red flag. 
  • Deeper skills in an area that you have a hunch is important. Some marketers write. Others are analytical wizards. And some are natural conversationalists whose skills align well with podcasting. Whoever you hire, they have existing strengths—are these in areas that you think will be particularly beneficial to your start-up? For example, if you’re building a video hosting start-up you probably want someone that’s comfortable on camera.
  • Evidence that they’ve worked for someone great. This is more of a nice to have, but I always ask candidates who the best boss they’ve ever worked for is and then look that person up. Up-and-comers who have already had the opportunity to work for a great boss have likely picked up an awful lot of good habits already. 

During my interview for my first marketing job the CEO, Michael, sat across from me. “So what are we going to do about SEO?” he asked me, letting silence take hold of the room around us. The truth is I’d just finished a marketing focused MBA, but knew almost nothing about search engine optimization. Panicked, my mind raced to BS an answer.

“I actually don’t know anything about SEO at this point,” I finally blurted out, defeated. “But if you give me a second interview, I’ll learn as much as I can between now and then and will talk you through my SEO strategy when we meet next.”

I left the interview feeling pretty wary, but Michael later told me this response was largely why I got the job.  

Key Takeaways

  • Be open to hiring up-and-coming talent—but they won’t be successful unless you invest heavily in their growth.
  • Mentorship can come from internal team members, your network, or a variety of mentorship focused sites.
  • This hire doesn’t need to be a master of anything, but should have general familiarity with the most common digital marketing channels.
  • Hire primarily on the basis of ambition and scrappiness—if they’ve worked for a great boss before, that’s a big plus too.
  • Nothing will be more predictive of this hire's future success that collecting a relevant work sample—see the assessment below!

Assessing an up-and-coming marketer

If there’s anything that I’ve learned in my career about hiring, it’s that nothing is a better predictor of on-the-job success than collecting highly relevant work samples. If you want to go down a rabbit hole, here you go.

Think about it—if you were going to hire a baker, would you ask him how to bake a muffin or would you ask him to actually bake you a muffin? 

Here’s a simple activity that you can use to assess up-and-coming marketers. While there’s five questions here, three or four will suffice. I highly recommend that you make this a paid activity that you only ask 2-3 finalist candidates to complete. The additional cost is negligible in comparison to the benefits and you’ll make a great first impression with candidates who know that you both value and respect their time. 

Marketing Candidate Exercise

Setting your new hire up for success

If you’ve elected to hire a marketing co-founder or a more experienced marketer to work with you part-time, those people will be able to effectively drive both strategy and execution—you can more easily lean on their ability to steer the ship!

But if you’ve elected to hire a more junior marketer, their success will depend heavily on you. Here’s an email I recently sent to a CEO after helping him hire his first full-time marketer. This was also sent to the new hire to help align them both and set them up for a successful working relationship. Only the candidate’s name and company name have been changed.

Please note that I had some specific context on this company and that they were already making significant revenue when this hire was made—don’t read too far into these aspects of the email, but the underlying concepts are fairly universal in their importance. 

Hi CEO (Teresa) and New Hire (Doug),

This document shares some practical advice on setting Doug up for success as ACME’s first full-time marketing hire. When a first marketing hire doesn’t work out, in most instances it’s because expectations aren’t aligned both ways. This document is my attempt to help you both reach some alignment on what Doug’s early priorities should be.

  • Doug, I hope there’s some useful guidance here on what to prioritize as you get started at ACME.
  • Teresa, I hope there’s some useful guidance here in terms of holding Doug accountable and setting him up to be successful.

To a fruitful working relationship!

Marketing Scorecard / Metrics

One of the very first things I’d encourage you to do is align on a “Marketing Scorecard.” Ultimately there are lots of marketing related metrics that Doug can (and should) track, but the scorecard should really be focused on the most top level metrics that are directly correlated to ACME’s growth. Think of these as the metrics a CEO would care about, with all the other metrics being things that Doug might track on his own to provide additional insights on specific campaigns / channels.

A monthly reporting cadence works great. I’d advocate for this including:

  • New customers added
  • Total customers
  • New Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) added
  • Total (MRR)
  • Demo Requests
  • Maybe a “Demo to Customer” conversion rate
  • Total marketing spending

Don’t overcomplicate things! Less is more to start.

Conversion tracking and marketing attribution

Setting up conversion tracking and marketing attribution can be one of the toughest parts of marketing for less technical marketers. Too many CEOs obsess over this as a means of measuring marketing’s effectiveness—don’t! Any buyer’s journey is never linear, so sophisticated marketing attribution really doesn’t help you measure much. 

Instead, focus on setting up basic conversation tracking—this will be enough for you to see if your metrics are generally trending in the right direction, which is really all that matters. Marketing attribution is imperfect, but you want it to be consistent so you can identify trends.

In my opinion the easiest way to set up basic conversion tracking is using Google Analytics and “Destination Goals.” This basically just allows you to track a “conversion” when someone reaches a specific URL. For example, someone could reach a www.acme.com/thank-you page immediately after they request a demo. This allows you to track how many demo requests have come in and where the traffic came from. 

You don’t need much more than this! For any metric you want to track on your marketing scorecard, clearly identify and agree on where the data comes from (what specific tool, report, etc).

Long term vs. short term investments

One of the things I’d encourage you to discuss from a strategy perspective is what marketing strategies are short term vs. long term investments. You absolutely want a mixture of both.

For example, SEO is a long term strategy. Even if you focused all of your time here, it often takes 6-12 months to realize meaningful results. But this work is absolutely worth doing—once SEO kicks in, you have a sustainable channel delivering leads in near perpetuity. You need to find a balance and be clear with one another on what things are longer term projects (yet worth doing) as opposed to projects that can make a more immediate impact.

Teresa, that means you should absolutely expect Doug to spend some percentage of his time on things like SEO where he’s really going to have nothing to show for it for many months. 

Doug, that means you need to balance these longer term investments with some marketing experiments that you think can have a more immediate impact. 

SEO & Paid Search

It’s worth touching base on both SEO and paid search briefly—here’s how I’d encourage you to think about both.

SEO—SEO as mentioned is a long term play. A good place to start is to connect the ACME website to both Google Search Console and Ahrefs free site audit tool. Both are free and will surface technical issues with the website that make it harder for search engines to crawl. Cleaning up any technical issues that these tools find is a great place to start with SEO before you worry too much about keywords, content, and building backlinks. This is often referred to as technical / on-page SEO—you’re really just helping Google understand what your site is all about.

Paid Search—Paid search can 100% work for your business and have an immediate impact—that said, it’s enormously easy to burn money. I would not recommend investing a lot of money in paid search to start, and when you do I’d probably outsource this to an agency. Working Planet Marketing Group is absolutely phenomenal—they scaled Buildium’s spending from about $3k/month to over $100k/month extremely profitably. A general rule of thumb—don’t invest too much time / energy here until you’re ready to commit to spending close to $10k-15k  per month, which is the bare minimum most good agencies will require you to spend.

Whether it’s SEO or paid ads, when it comes to choosing keywords I always recommend you start with:

  • The keywords that most directly describe what you offer—even if they are expensive. IE: “membership software”
  • The brand names of your competitors (to intercept relevant traffic that’s searching for them)
  • “Long tail” keywords that have relatively low search volume and competition, but indicate strong buying intent. IE: “How do I charge membership fees for my online community?” While there may not be a lot of search volume for keywords like this, they are typically easier to rank highly for and can sustainably deliver traffic that has buying intent.

Always think through the lens of “What would someone type into Google that indicates they actually want to buy a product like ACME?”

Website updates

My understanding is that ACME’s existing website is basically self hosted HTML written by your  internal development team. 

There’s an old adage that it’s a red flag if a new marketing hire immediately wants to redo a company’s website. I’m not saying that by any means you need to start here—you could easily work with the existing website and focus on moving your metrics in the right direction to start.

That said, something you’ll want to work towards over time is making Doug more self-sufficient and less reliant on ACME’s internal development team. As-is today, it’s going to be very tough for him to make website updates which is something he’ll need to do routinely. 

Eventually migrating the site to a website builder like Squarespace, Webflow, or Carrd is something I’d advocate for. It will make Doug much more self-sufficient and these tools are very inexpensive. Any site migration is a big undertaking—again I’m not going to dictate timeline, but it is a larger project I would have on my radar. You need to put infrastructure in place to help Doug be successful well into the future.

Budget and resources

Teresa, as I mentioned a fairly accepted rule of thumb is that a SaaS company that’s financed like ACME has been to date should have a marketing budget that’s around 10% of revenue. You’re not going to be anywhere near that initially, but it’s a benchmark to keep in mind and work towards. Ultimately seeing your marketing spending grow should actually be viewed as something to celebrate, because it should reflect that you’re getting a ROI on your marketing spend. 

With that said, I think it is absolutely helpful to give Doug something of a budget to start. This gives him some guardrails and will force him to work within the confines of that budget—this is really helpful, as it will force him to prioritize spending in the areas that he needs help most. 

I think starting with a modest budget for the quarter would be fine, then you can reassess the following quarter. It can also be helpful to put some guidelines in place akin to “Any purchase over $1,000 needs to be approved by Teresa, anything under that Doug can spend on his own without approval.”

The budget aside, no marketer is going to have the complete skill set required to do everything they need to accomplish themselves. You should absolutely expect that Doug will bring in freelancers and / or agencies to help with projects as needed—that’s a big part of what he’ll use the marketing budget for. Doug, it’s your job to demonstrate that you can be scrappy and find freelancers that can help you cost effectively. Sites like Upwork can be really helpful—it’s a skill in-and-of-itself to clearly write up project briefs and find freelancers cost effectively to help you as needed. 

I would start by looking internally for resources that can help Doug. Who has design chops? Who on the dev team can help him with the website? It would be great to say “OK, we have an internal developer who can commit 10 hours per month to helping Doug with marketing related projects.” If we can get him some support from the internal team that’s regularly expected, then he can spend his budget hiring help in areas where you don’t have some internal expertise. If there are other team members that are going to be regularly contributing to marketing work, it’s helpful to invite them to whatever regular marketing meetings you have so they feel invested in marketing’s work.

We’re either winning or learning—but we should always be asking how do we learn quickly and fail cheaply?

This is the mindset you want—no one knows which channels will work, so the name of the game is testing ideas, learning quickly, and trying to do so inexpensively. For any campaign or strategy you want to try, ask yourself “How can we test this quickly and inexpensively?”

While this may sound counter-intuitive, there’s also going to be strategies that only work with consistency. For example, say you want to start a podcast. No podcast in the history of podcasts has been a success after one episode—learning quickly and failing fast is not recording one episode and then giving up if it only gets 5 downloads. But if you commit to recording 100 episodes, it would be almost hard for this not to be successful. Try to assess and discuss what you can experiment with and learn from quickly, versus strategies that you know will work over time if you commit to them with consistency.

Goals 

At this stage I don’t think there’s much benefit to giving Doug some very specific goal—that would be largely arbitrary. What I would advocate for is:

  1. He needs to know ACME’s big picture goals. What’s ACME trying to achieve at a company level?
  2. He needs to demonstrate that he’s serious about tracking a small number of metrics that directly correlate to ACME’s goals (IE the marketing scorecard).
  3. He needs to display good judgment and logical thinking in terms of the strategies he wants to test and the experiments he wants to run.
  4. You want to look for him to begin moving your most important metrics in the right direction. I don’t care what that looks like in terms of the number of new demos, MRR growth, etc—I really just want to see incremental progress in the right direction. Expect it to come slowly at first, but like SaaS, these things compound and accelerate over time.

I hope this document is helpful to you both—I’m happy to discuss it further with either of you anytime if that’s helpful!

-Geoff

Conclusion

If your start-up is looking to hire its first marketer, it’s a huge step and it can absolutely feel daunting. The good news is that there are many different approaches for you to consider. I hope that armed with the insights above, you feel that much more ready to find someone great.

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