Just about every startup has to cross this bridge at some point: making their first marketing hire. I often get asked about this topic and after several conversations, I was inspired to put together a guide on how to scope, evaluate and hire a strong first marketer for your team.

Defining the scope of your marketing role

The challenge for many teams of hiring a marketer is that often they aren’t entirely sure what they want. Hiring a marketer can mean a lot of things depending on what your business needs, and it’s not always a specific or quantifiable set of activities. This results in marketing searches that are centered on a set of marketing activities and traditional areas of ownership, rather than how marketing is expected to help the business grow. With that said, I do think there are useful frameworks to approach how to define and structure your marketer’s role.

The first step is to take a step back and consider what’s prompting you to make this hire. Start with the top 1 or 2 outcomes that you’re hoping to achieve. Imagine that you’ve brought on a marketer and it’s now six months after they joined the team. You’re reflecting on what a rockstar they are and how you can’t imagine in such a short time what an impact they’ve made to the business because they’ve really moved the needle on … what outcomes?

Here are some example outcomes I’ve heard in response to this question:

  • establishing my brand so when press writes about my product category, I’m one of the companies listed
  • taking over the prioritization and execution of testing new top-of-funnel growth channels to get more customers for my business
  • getting the whole team on the same page on how we talk about my business, and updating our website and marketing materials to better improve our lead and conversion rates
  • partnering with my sales team and help them more efficiently close the leads they have
  • taking my fledgling SEM tests that have seen positive results and scale it
  • figuring out how we can get more developers to start using our product
  • figuring out the market that our product is resonating with and achieve product-market fit
  • building out our blog and social media channels to create sales leads
  • taking our existing product which is generating a lot of press and buzz already, and amplify and focus it on generating business leads

During this process of defining the top outcomes for your business, it’s a good idea to ask this question of your team as well to gauge what they consider success for your new marketing hire. Often what I find is that there are often multiple desired outcomes within a team, and it’s a valuable discussion to determine which of those are most important or where they overlap. This enables you to clearly communicate what success looks like to your team as well as the marketer you bring on board.

After you’ve identified the one or two items on this list, think about what they need to do in order to achieve these outcomes. What challenges do they need to overcome in order to move the business forward? Are there specific skills, experience or knowledge that would be critical to getting them there? Map these against your outcomes.

Appending to the earlier examples in italics:

  • establishing my brand so when press writes about my product category, I’m one of the companies listed
    — experience in public relations
    — skill in messaging and positioning my product relative to others
  • taking over the prioritization and execution of testing new top-of-funnel growth channels to get more customers for my business
    — experience working with product and engineering teams
    — knowledge of growth metrics, A/B testing, statistical significance
    — skill in critically evaluating and prioritizing tradeoffs
  • getting the whole team on the same page on how we talk about my business, and updating our website and marketing materials to better improve our lead and conversion rates
    — experience copywriting and working with design teams
    — skill with customer segmentation, messaging and positioning
    — skill with leading initiatives across cross-functional teams
  • partnering with my sales team and help them more efficiently close the leads they have
    — knowledge of b2b marketing levers and funnel measurement
    — experience working with sales teams
    — skill with measuring and optimizing funnels
  • taking my fledgling SEM tests that have seen positive results and scale it
    — skill and experience managing SEM campaigns
    — experience working with product and engineering teams for tracking
  • figuring out how we can get more developers to start using our product
    — skill in customer research or experience in developer community
    — knowledge of potential marketing and growth levers
    — skill in primary and secondary customer research and problem solving
  • figuring out the market that our product is resonating with and achieve product-market fit
    — skill in primary and secondary customer research and problem solving
    — knowledge of potential marketing and growth levers
  • building out our blog and social media channels to create sales leads
    — experience in blogging and social media
    — knowledge of your company’s space or skill in customer research
    — knowledge of quantitative metrics for lead generation
  • taking our existing product which is generating a lot of press and buzz already, and amplify and focus it on generating business leads
    — experience in public relations
    — knowledge of quantitative metrics for lead generation

Ultimately, your objectives and the key experiences and skills will become the basis of your job description for the marketer you’re hiring. It should clearly spell out the top business objective you’re hoping they will help with, and the key experiences and skills they would ideally have for the position. By starting with the business outcomes, you’re able to create a much more precise and targeted job description than just a list of responsibilities or activities.

This also becomes a valuable tool to begin your search for the right candidate. This list of skills and attributes is a useful way to describe your ideal candidates.

For example, the desired outcome of “working with my sales team and help them more efficiently close the leads they have” closely maps to the field marketing or demand generation function. It’s much more specific to say “I’m looking for a marketing leader to help my sales team close leads, ideally they have a background in field marketing or demand generation.”

I’ll often look at the top objectives of a company and map it to the function or job title their target candidate likely has passed through or has. As a guide to figuring out what function that might be, I refer you to my ‘Anatomy of a Marketing Organization’ post where I cover the different functions within a larger marketing organization. Having the vocabulary to describe what you’re looking for makes the search much easier when guiding a recruiter, searching LinkedIn or asking for referrals from other people.

Evaluating a marketing candidate

A common challenge that startups face when they’re hiring their first marketer is that they don’t know how to evaluate them. If you have no marketing expertise, how can you evaluate if they’re the right marketer for you?

Establish a strong hiring process

The hiring process that I’ve found effective is loosely modeled off the Microsoft interview process. For a given marketing position, I’ll select a group of people for the interview loop who will be closely working with the candidate if they are hired for that position. This small group is committing to meet with every candidate for this position, and I assign each of them a specific area of focus to interview every candidate against. This focus area is based on the interviewer’s strengths as well as one of the desired skills for the candidate. Assigning a focus is helpful because it ensures that one person on the team is going to go in-depth on that area, and it avoids the issue where too many interviews get bogged down in general ‘walk me through your resume’ discussion. One key note to this process is that I also ask every person to focus on asking the same questions to every single candidate.

Even if no one on the team is an expert in a specific area, they should be able to assess some of the hard skills or ask the candidate to teach them about that area. Here are some examples of responsibilities I might assign:

  • Product manager — Focus: knowledge of growth metrics, A/B testing, statistical significance. Assess the candidate’s quantitative understanding of typical growth metrics and levers, as well as if they understand the concept of how to structure an A/B test.
  • Designer — Focus: experience copywriting and working with design teams. Assess the candidate’s prior experience working with marketing design and product designs teams. Show them the current homepage design and assess how well they can evaluate and suggest improvements on messaging and design.
  • Sales — Focus: experience working with sales teams. Assess the candidate’s prior experience working with sales teams and understanding of sales process and funnels. Ask them to walk you through how they’ve worked with sales in the past and how they’d want to work with you.
  • Anyone — Focus: communication and cross-group collaboration. Assess the candidate’s ability to lead cross-functional initiatives. Ask them to walk through the biggest project they’ve ever done, communicate the rationale, and walk through how they resolved conflict and got people to agree.
  • Anyone — Focus: experience with public relations. Assess the candidate’s prior experience with public relations. Ask the candidate to explain a previous PR effort they’ve done, and explain/teach you the best practices on how they would go about structuring an outreach campaign for our company.

By keeping the interview loop and the questions the same, each interviewer on the loop should have the ability to meet multiple candidates and gauge for how well they’re answering the questions in their specific area of focus. The group convenes as soon as possible after each candidate’s loop and provides their yes/no vote and feedback to the group based on their focus area. After asking several candidates the same question, in my experience the difference between an excellent and good answer becomes very clear.

Establishing a strong interview process is a huge asset to anyone who is hiring whether it’s at scale or a single hire. For your team, developing a shared internal process centered on transparency and candor can go a long way to establishing the expectation of what type of talent you want in your company. When members of my team see me hold the bar high on filling a position and waiting it out, it sets a powerful example that we aren’t going to hire quickly just to fill a seat. Document and take notes as much as possible, because you never know if you’re going to need to look back at prior candidates or refresh your memory if a search is running long. I like to capture the hiring pipeline in a spreadsheet for the hiring group to see who is in phone screen, first round, second round, and whether we’ve made a decision to keep the process organized and moving quickly.

In the competitive hiring market, making sure candidates have a great experience is key as well. When you’re interviewing a lot of people at once, it’s easy for it to devolve into a funnel and numbers game. Make candidates feel great with personal touches, like asking interviewers to review their resume in advance and offering them refreshments or tours while they’re visiting. Leverage the interview process as a way to ensure they are having a high-quality experience. Use the feedback from the interviewers to send timely feedback and get back to them quickly. While large companies struggle with the speed of feedback, startups can have a unique advantage in showing that they are delivering a personalized and fast-moving recruiting experience.

When the perfect candidate isn’t available, interview for potential

It’s not uncommon to see situations where the ideal candidate just isn’t available or doesn’t exist. Many startups are focused in new markets or product categories where people with relevant experience simply don’t exist. In situations like this, it’s a priority to find people with the potential and curiosity to rise to the challenge. Often these are the marketers who need to be capable of (and excited about) wearing multiple hats and adaptable to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving business.

To interview against potential, I primarily look for the the traits of curiosity and problem-solving. For curiosity, I try to ask them questions to get at an aptitude for learning. For example, I might ask a marketer what they know about the technology of the company they are currently or previously worked at. Or, what happens to a lead after they fill out a lead form at their company? If they know the answer, how did they learn that? Curious people have a tendency to pick up details about how the world works around them. They are the folks that are constantly asking questions and trying to understand the system beyond the world they think in which creates great starting points for creative thinking.

For problem solving, I like case questions as a great way to evaluate this, either as prepared interview homework or a live case interview in the office. The goal is to have the candidate address a unique marketing challenge and walk me through their thought process on how they would investigate and solve this problem. Here is an example of a case study might look like:

For this exercise, we’re going to take a complete fictional example. There are no right answers but I would like you to walk me through your thought process as you consider this situation. Imagine we are launching a product for school nurses in K-12 schools. Can you walk me through how you’d figure out how to reach these nurses and promote to them?

In the candidate’s response to this example, I’m looking for several things:

  • Customer research — are they reaching out to the nurses to find out if there are events they attend, articles they read, associations they are part of? Often I will probe for how they would go about locating and contacting the nurses.
  • Hustle — are they extrapolating from their previous work or experiences ideas that might apply to this situation? A candidate might share that they would reach out to the parents of school-age kids and work through them to get ideas.
  • Creativity — are they willing to brainstorm some crazy ideas?

Hire based on the strengths of your current team

I am strong believer that it’s important to focus on hiring people who are A+ on an area that your team needs help in over hiring someone who is a solid B+ all around. Well rounded doesn’t always make sense for a first marketing hire. Instead, it’s important to aspire for the T-shaped person who has depth in key areas you need help with, paired with the capacity to collaborate and learn across disciplines. Rather than searching for the full stack, hire based on the strengths of your existing team and how collectively this team can address the needs of your business. If you have strong expertise on the team in quantitative marketing but need help in brand, it’s more important to get a rockstar brand marketer in the door rather than someone who has done both fairly well.

I often see companies passing on candidates who are extremely strong in a functional area because they lack substantial management experience. However if the candidate has willingness to learn and there are strong managers on the team that can coach them in this area, it may be worthwhile to weigh the risks and give them a chance. This is a unique opportunity to get a high-quality hire who is going to immediately add value and attract and retain them with a substantial learning opportunity.

Your first marketing hire doesn’t have to be hard

In conclusion, hiring your first marketer at your company doesn’t actually have to be hard, but it should be a thoughtful process to ensure that you and your hire are set up for success. Start by defining a clear scope for your marketing role, reinforce it by running a strong hiring process, and ensure you are laser focused on the skills and experiences you need to move your business forward.

Ada Chen Rekhi is co-founder & COO of Notejoy, a collaborative notes app for individuals and teams. She’s also an executive coach who works with founders and executives looking to scale themselves as they scale their teams. If you enjoyed this essay, subscribe to her newsletter or follow her on @adachen.