by Billy Cina

Why I almost quit my job as CMO of a very successful startup

May 31, 2016
CareersIT LeadershipStartups

All startups live for the day that they close a funding round. Seed, Round A, Round B etc etc. This is the validation that not only they (and their mom) believe in their revolutionary technology and company. However, significant funding changes every facet of the company and requires a different modus operandi. The marketing function spearheads the company changes and in doing so, must embrace many growing pains. This is a tale of one ambitious CMO of a newly funded startup.

Marketing a recently funded startup is the equivalent of learning to steer a cruise liner after years of combat on a marine assault vessel.

A good friend of mine, James, is CMO of a tech startup that only 9 months ago received a 20 million dollars funding round; he has subsequently secured a very nice salary raise, and a marketing budget that his peers would die for. He has, by industry standards, landed  the dream job.

So you can imagine my surprise when we go out for drinks one evening and he confesses that he has recently resigned. Yes, quit his job. Here’s why:-

The company was trapped in startup mentality but now had the big hairy audacious goals* to reach in order to prove their worth, and become the next unicorn.

Needless to say, I asked for some examples:

[James starts]

1. The marketing budget is not a company’s savior. There is the distinct delusion that if you throw enough marketing dollars at it, the product will self-sell from there on. Not true. So while the budget is impressive and we do have far more options, we also have far bigger goals and money does not buy us everything. Product. Sales. Service. Platform. – You know, the rest of the company also needs to be on the same page.

2. Miracle hacks are even less possible than ever before. Scaling means planning and processing and this means things take longer. There was no silver bullet beforehand which marketing could use to make the leads flood in and now that we need 100-fold the number of leads and consistent growth, we can only reach that through planning and scaling our activities.

The market, our prospects and investors all expect us to act, and present ourselves differently now, so we can’t book the last booth in the far corner of the trade show two weeks before and hope for the best.

We need to tone way down the sense of frantic urgency and attain a healthy rhythm of high quality work. We are now in the marathon and not the 200m race.

3. Focus also means not changing plans every week. While the advantage of being a startup meant the marketing team (just me back then!) could be driven crazy by new ideas and requests for urgent PRs, new banner ads and an emergency product launch – or two, grown-up company days do not make that possible. We cannot decide overnight to product launch in Australasia instead of Western Europe. This is because all of the support channels and accompanying wagon of online and offline marketing tools required are all geared for Western Europe. And no, deciding to ‘just add’ another market overnight is not really possible either!

4. Everybody is a marketing expert. I can sit in a management meeting and colleagues who have not spent a day working on messaging, pitching or PR will dish out their ‘best practice’ thoughts. I’m all for input, but we’re in the big league now and there’s even less room for amateurs in here. Let the professionals do their work. That is what they’re paid for.

I don’t recall sitting in an R&D led product meeting with marketing and sales, or legal, chipping in on how to speed up “one small feature request” that’s taking 6 months to develop; but when it comes to marketing, everyone’s a self-appointed expert, with a voice.

5. Branding is not about your favorite color. This is what blew it for me and was the last straw. Five months into the branding project, during the final final final presentation made to management and the CEO says, “You know what, this green doesn’t really do it for me.”

We’d hired one of the top 3 branding agencies in the US. They had worked diligently for weeks and polled preferences of close to 100 people representing the relevant target audiences, documented reactions to different design elements and types of font, checked the brand elements on every single type of online and offline media possible – and the results were, quite frankly, spot on for the company.

But the CEO does not like that shade of green. I was half expecting some guerrilla stunt team to come out with a camera. It was a joke, right?

[James finishes]

[ME] Gulp – Yeah. Tough one. “So what made you stay?”

[James] Oh, turns out the new CEO starts on Monday.

*Big Hairy Audacious Goals: A strategic business statement similar to a vision statement that is created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.