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Interesting reflections from a quality growth hacker on the transformation of the 'full-stack' marketer when a startup grows bigger.

  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    over 5 years ago #

    This post reminds me of a post that I wrote in 2008 called "The Startup Marketing Launch Process is Broken".

    I actually think that the curse is only a curse if you look at if from a typical career path. As marketers, we expect to be able to evolve with the company and continue to run the show. But the fact is the early stage "full stack marketer" has developed an incredibly value set of skills. Particularly if they are combined with a relentless desire to achieve results. The early stage is also the most fun in my experience.

    The recommendation in my 2008 blog post is to specialize in the first year. Of course you need to be very selective and validate that a product has product/market fit before signing on to help. But it is at this stage where the fastest company valuation appreciation tends to happen. If you can negotiate equity that mostly vests in the first year and maybe an advisory role in the second year, you have an opportunity to add significant value and be appropriately compensated for it. You also have an opportunity to get really good at executing through the challenges of this stage. When I did it, I created processes and templates that gave me a big head start in each role.

    Here's the post if you are interested (it's a quick read): http://www.startup-marketing.com/the-startup-marketing-launch-process-is-broken/

    • BP

      Brandon Pindulic

      over 5 years ago #

      Sean,
      I agree 100% with what you said. I know you had a lot of success taking that approach, but have others? (success defined as convincing a startup this will work)

      I'm assuming in order to do this, this person needs to be *extremely* well qualified and the startup has to be just entering their growth phase, correct?

      What sorts of things were included in your processes and templates? No need to share if it's confidential of course.

      • SE

        Sean Ellis

        over 5 years ago #

        My comment was really in response to Growlot blog post. The author wrote about the curse of working themselves out of a job. That means that they were successful enough to get the business to the point where they could hire a qualified VP marketing. So getting a foot in the door didn't seem to be the challenge. For the author it was more about keeping the foot in the door.

        Obviously the more qualified someone is, the more likely they will be able to choose from some awesome well funded early stage companies. But I've also found personally that there are early stage companies with strong product market fit that haven't yet attracted much funding. Someone with less of a track record probably needs to focus on that type of opportunity and take less cash more equity in the beginning.

        As far as templates and processes, I've shared them on my blog for years. My post "Milestones for startup success" is pretty detailed on processes, "the startup marketing pyramid" is more high level. Survey.io was initially my template for starting to get my head around the product/need fit. And a lot of the information in my CRO blog posts and presentation were also part of the process/templates.

        • BP

          Brandon Pindulic

          over 5 years ago #

          Makes sense (I should have read the article first :)

          I've definitely used the info on your blog as a guide, and will continue to do so.

        • TW

          Tommy Walker

          over 5 years ago #

          So in other words, move from startup to startup, taking advisory roles & equity then start qualroo ::ahem:: your own startup, is that about right?

          • SE

            Sean Ellis

            over 5 years ago #

            That wasn't the plan. But it turned out to be great training for starting my own startup. The best online marketers I've met are all entrepreneurial anyway, so it may be a decent formula.

      • SC

        Shana Carp

        over 5 years ago #

        The problem is "just entering growth phase" is only apparent after the fact.

        • SE

          Sean Ellis

          over 5 years ago #

          Not necessarily. If none of the early users consider the product a "must have" then the company should not be focusing resources of driving growth. Everything should be focused on driving just enough users to iterate on the product until it becomes a "must have." Once it's a "must have" then it's ready for growth, and someone needs to lead the charge. If that person is good, then the company is "just entering the growth phase."

  • MB

    Morgan Brown

    over 5 years ago #

    As a full stack marketer who has now been doing it for 14 years, I don't think that the situation is all that dire. Yes, companies outgrow early marketing headcount and need more specialized skill sets, but full stack marketers do have a couple of things going for them:

    1) Companies are loathe to give up great talent. If you're really valuable to the company they will find a role for you. You may have to help hire your new boss, or move into a more specialized role, but either way, you're able to gain real, specialized expertise with that move.

    Case in point, I had a company who hired me for a social marketing role, moved me to director of marketing, and then, when they were thinking of re-orging wanted to move me to product, because the VP of product thought I should be on her team.

    2) You can always specialize. If you're at an existing company and worry about lack of specialization, take the opportunity to specialize and lead on projects that get you the requisite experience that you want to build. You can go more broad or more narrow depending on what you think is best for you.

    3) Build a team. If you can get to managing a team, suddenly you have another important skill. You can manage people and understand the pieces of the business. Even better? Build a team of specialists underneath you who are smarter/better than you. Suddenly you're overseeing a team that is kicking butt.

    4) Enjoy what you do, forget the specialized roles. If you're successful at startups in a general marketing role, don't worry about the specialized roles. Managing $4 million/month in PPC spend probably isn't as exciting or lucrative as what you're doing.

    5) Do what Sean says. You can actually get a lot of value by helping numerous companies out along the way.

    6) Focus on your entrepreneurial background as a strength. I talk to large organizations every day who say "We like that you have an entrepreneurial/startup background. It means you know how to work in uncertainty and get things done."

    7) Become management—Dylan mentioned this already. You will get hired for having good strategic vision and understanding what can/can't be done.

    So while it may seem like a disadvantage, I've found that it's been the single greatest asset for my career. I wouldn't trade it.

    • SC

      Shana Carp

      over 5 years ago #

      The issue is the "how to transition into management" role is very unclear for marketers in general now - very few people stay with marketing at one company/one account for more than 2 years.

      What then?

    • SC

      Shana Carp

      over 5 years ago #

      Something worth thinking about:

      Marketing is very radically changing. The idea of data management, relationship managent, and pr being data driven is suddenly really changing the tenure and type of marketers who succeed.

      if you are full stack - you will be fine in 5-7 years. Many old school makreters actually are having a more difficult time than you'd think. The nature of full stack is data driven, you will be able to keep up.

      (see: adage)

  • CB

    Cody Boyte

    over 5 years ago #

    Thanks for all the comments. I don't actually think it's a dead end of a career. It's a part of the skill set that's rarely talked about. Jack of all trades, master of none.

    I know that I'll have to move to a smaller company, helping it scale quickly or building out the marketing from scratch in order to maximize my skillset. My other option is to go somewhere else as a marketing director. I'm just not a good fit where I am any more which can happen as a company grows. Thought it was something other people should think about as they think about being full stack marketers in their own careers.

    • JD

      JM DV

      over 5 years ago #

      Thanks for writing that post. I was thinking very similar things a few months ago. I have similar years of experience and would consider myself a FSM as well. I was a 'SEM Specialist" at a successful funded startup and before that strictly agency land focused on SEO. I felt a bit isolated as a specialist due to having a much wider skillset. I just didn't feel like my voice or experience was taken into account outside of SEM.

      I recently left the startup and was hired as the marketing director for an advertising agency. They reached out to me due to the experience and vast skillset I had. I've never been so happy with my decision. I'm building all the systems and processes for all our digital marketing services and I'm brought in to consult and come up with ideas for clients who aren't signed up for marketing services (design/creative clients). The plan is to build out the whole division and hire a team around me as we bring on marketing clients.

      I was torn about staying at my current position at the successful startup or looking for a new early stage startup. I realized that as long as I'm able to consult and help businesses grow that I'll be happy.

      The secret is finding a place where you feel valued and able to help the bottom line.

  • DL

    Dylan La Com

    over 5 years ago #

    Sure, this seems like a natural progression. Someone's still needed to manage the team, though. Seems like someone with a full-stack skillset would be more prepared to manage all the pieces than perhaps someone specialized in a certain area.

    • GH

      Graham Hunter

      over 5 years ago #

      I completely agree Dylan, The way I see it, there are 2 career paths: the generalist and the specialist. Each of these people seem to have difficulties at different times.
      The Specialist excels quickly to manage people within their specialty (i.e. Sr. SEM Manager) but then has a hard time jumping any higher into a multi channel management role.

      The generalist excels slowly in the beginning (as they are learning more and more) but once that is done, can hold a higher position that the specialist sooner.

      Just my observation.

    • EH

      Ezra HaLevi

      over 5 years ago #

      I agree. I had the same thought.

  • NM

    Nick Mueller

    over 5 years ago #

    I hope that full-stack skillset=deadend doesn't become a larger phenomenon for folks on this board.

    Doesn't seem that way.

    Here in the bay area, 7 years experience on the full marketing stack would be golden for Director level marketing jobs at a ton of companies (not just startups).

  • WL

    Will Lam

    over 5 years ago #

    I think it's an odd position to be in or maybe just plain bad luck. I'd imagine one who's an early marketing hire who teeters on edge between marketing and development is still very useful, especially if they've helped moved the needle within that company. Why would that person put themselves outside of a job as a result - especially if their efforts resulted in increasing the bottom line? Perhaps a fitting role/title would be a product manager that's geared towards growth? That way they're at the intersection of many disciplines but still able to commandeer certain functions in the company.

    I'd imagine his prospects in the job market aren't all that limited, especially if he's deep in knowledge for one skillset (say SEO for instance), he'd still be picked up by someone.

  • DT

    Daniel Tronier

    over 5 years ago #

    Great discussion. For me with 1,5 years experience working with marketing in startups and an actionplan to work towards becoming a full-stack marketer, there's some great insights in the comments so far. I am definitely aware that having an excessively generalist approach can have its pitfalls.

    But couldn't specializing in an area within online marketing also be "dangerous" if the overall development of the landscape somehow renders that specialized skill redundant?

  • ME

    Mark Evans

    over 5 years ago #

    It's not so much a curse but the reality of how the needs of a startup/company evolve over time. In the beginning, they need something who can do everything. Over time, however, they're looking for stars/specialists as opposed to generalists (aka the full-stack marketer).

  • BF

    Bill Freedman

    over 5 years ago #

    I posted a comment on Cody's blog and will share it here too:

    Cody, I feel your pain. You have a lot of valuable skills but they don’t cleanly mesh with the kinds of organizations where you are seeking employment.

    First off, chin up. The employment market is highly inefficient. You know how hard it is to find job openings, hiring managers who understand your value, etc. It takes time.

    Second, I noticed there are a few skills I’d consider part of the “full stack” that you don’t speak about in your post. Those skills are product expertise, salesmanship and sales enablement. Lots of marketing jobs require deep understanding of products and customers … along with the ability to persuade customers that your products deliver value against their needs. If customers and selling aren’t part of your passion, many in marketing leadership positions will see yellow flags.

    Third, the term “full stack” typically applies to engineers. Perhaps you should position your self as a “digital marketing expert.”

    Finally, skills and results are very different things. You are confident in your skills which is a good start. If you can growth web traffic 100% and sales-ready leads 120% that will get you noticed in marketing circles more than your ability to save money by correctly specifying a negative keyword list in Google Adwords.

    Make sense? In reading your post I sense you don’t have a skills problem to bemoan. I think you have a positioning and marketing job ahead of you. Good luck.

  • BP

    Brandon Pindulic

    over 5 years ago #

    Just another thing to add here....just because you're a full-stack marketer and effective across a range of skill-sets doesn't mean that a "specialist" is necessarily better than you at their specialty.

    I've met some people who are truly great at their chosen field of expertise in digital marketing (SEO, paid, social, etc) but I've also met a lot of others who are "experts" at 1 or 2 channels, but in reality are just mediocre at one or two channels.

    There are a lot of very valuable full-stack marketers out there who are in fact experts at a handful of specialties. So, just because someone is a full-stack marketer doesn't necessarily make them "pretty good" at a lot of things. They could be great at a lot of things.

    related: http://qr.ae/nyeP4

    (understandably, though, the larger the company the more you'll have to focus)

  • KM

    kristin matysik

    over 5 years ago #

    Wow after reading that I couldn't agree more. I work at a start-up now and I wear about 20 different hats on any given day or point. But I do worry as the company begins to grow where exactly do I fit in? Like you said some of the more old school thinking comes to a specialty in each area but when you are at start-ups or doing your own consulting/contracting being a full stack marketer is necessary.There are days I would dream of VP of marketing or CMO but honestly I absolutely love doing what I am doing. It would be amazing if I could branch out even more but again that comes back down to not having that "specialized" area per-say. Great Read!

  • SB

    Stephen Burg

    over 5 years ago #

    I've been working in the ad agency world for a while and recently found myself at a new opportunity to develop a "Full-Stack" marketing team within an established agency to help clients out. However, what I've come to realize is that once specialties have been built out, they are loathe to give up any of their strategy to a group that specializes in seeing the full picture. What this does lead to is a fragmentation of messaging to consumers and ultimately could lead to a confusing brand presence. I truly believe in the presence and need for a team of marketers to see the full picture but it seems like there is more and more land grabbing going on by specialists who don't themselves see the need for a bigger picture. It's an interesting shift in an industry that is shifting more and more towards an omni-channel and full stack approach. Do we think that this shift could be fixed with the growth of startups who take a full stack approach out of necessity?

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