TL;DR be a business person doing marketing, not a marketer doing marketing
When marketers ask me for advice about what they should do to further their careers, they ask about the skills they should acquire, and the functional areas they should specialize in.
Mostly, they receive advice from others that they should be a T-shaped marketer, i.e. have a broad set of marketing skills where they’re decently good, with a couple areas where they have deep experience and knowledge. I agree and propound this view. Over a period of 30 to 40 years of a professional career, functional/technical expertise is one of your best bets to grow. There’s research to indicate that reportees prefer bosses who could easily do their job, and Andy Grove, the legendary founder and CEO of Intel built a company where he fostered “knowledge power” over “position power”, something that you see all across the flat hierarchies in today’s tech startups.
However, I also think that most marketers end up becoming “just marketers”, and the same happens to folks in other departments who dedicate themselves to only their craft. They end up being just sales people, or just customer success people, frequently capping their growth to the Director or VP of their respective functions.
Instead, I recommend you become a businessperson who is currently handling marketing. By a businessperson I mean you understand your entire business deeply, you understand the different levers that make it what it is, the customer behavior, the delivery of value, the metrics, the industry, what keeps this entity up and ticking, and finally, you understand how your function contributes to it all.
I say this because I see marketers speak in meetings with leadership, and their ideas are not accepted, they’re not given the importance they feel they deserve, or they’re just a part of the side conversation. While the CEO is busy thinking about big-picture stuff like cash flow, burn rate, inside sales process, efficiency, competition, product strategy, the marketer limits himself by capping his thinking at “how do I increase my budget”, or “what if we tried to do more social media”.
Marketers are taught to understand their target audience, but most of them repeatedly fail to understand what is it that’s bothering their CEO. And if you want a seat at the boardroom sometime in the future, you have to start talking their language today.
Advice on how to become a ‘businessperson’
Start by understanding the big picture, and then get an excellent grasp on how that drills down to the day-to-day activities performed by your organization. Basically, understand the levers that run your business. This will necessitate that you understand some key metrics, and once you do, you’ll be able to quickly size up any business in your industry if you get to know their key metrics.
For example, if you know that a SaaS startup has an Annual Contract Value (ACV) of USD 3000, then you should be able to guess that an inside sales team doesn’t make sense for them, churn is an important number to contain, and most of their growth will be coming from new business being added every month, instead of upsells.
Similarly, if a firm has an ACV of USD 200,000, then they’re likely to have a field sales team, extremely strong account management, and a large part of their growth, if not most of it, will be from account expansion (getting existing customers to pay more over time).
Ask yourself why, and what form of marketing is needed today.
If it’s a bootstrapped SaaS, then you should be able to infer that the CEO won’t spend heavily on paid marketing channels, because she doesn’t have that kind of money. Instead, she’ll focus on low-cost inbound marketing, and maybe outbound email/phone prospecting. For her, profitability is more important than outright growth.
If it’s a consumer business that wants to grow fast, then they better have a marketing war chest to spend, or incredible word-of-mouth virality. Aside: differences between B2C and B2B marketing.
If the business is heavily VC funded, then it is basically a financial product, not for you or me, but for the VCs who invested in it. Everyone’s job is to get it to an exit event in a defined(ish) timeline. That event is heavily dependent on growth, so expect a lot of budget for marketing.
If it’s an enterprise play, then marketing’s job is to support Sales with full-funnel sales collateral, product marketing (testimonials, case studies, whitepapers, spec sheets, knowledgebase), and make an impact at events where your target decision makers congregate. Essentially, you want your very specific potential customers to know you, trust you enough to give Sales an opportunity to talk to them, and then be able to evangelize you internally to various stakeholders. Aside: read this interesting post by Mike Volpe on difference between Enterprise and SMB CMOs.
Essentially, when you look at a given situation, you should be able to guess if marketing is needed at all, and if yes, then what kind and form of marketing.
Understand the business you’re in as a system
Systems thinking is a management discipline that concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the entirety of that defined system.
All businesses are complex systems, and these systems interact with each and other, and impact each other. As business people, it’s important that we marketers understand how these different systems affect each other, and whether things need correction or not.
1) A SaaS started out with a basic product that mostly catered to SMB customers. Over the years, competitors came in so they kept adding new features to stay ahead of the curve. So many features in fact, that the product isn’t meant for SMB customers anymore who prefer simple, easy-to-use tools. It is now better suited to larger customers with more detailed needs.
However, the brand, website, copy and collateral still retain that SMB positioning. Sales keeps trying to talk to enterprise prospects, but the conversion rate isn’t great, or the ACV isn’t as large as it could be. As a ‘businessperson’ marketer, you should be able to understand and rectify this mismatch.
2) Sales is incentivized to develop a new territory, but no marketing budget or team has been assigned to that new territory. Soon enough, Sales complains that it isn’t going as well as they hoped, and they need geography specific collateral and programs to generate demand.
Similar alignment issues crop up multiple times during lifetime of a business, and marketers must see the big picture, figure out how everything comes together, and push towards that.
Become friends with your head of Finance
When Wingify first hired a person to head up Finance, I thought ok, we probably need this role, but I wasn’t sure what value they’d provide. This was a classic “If you don’t think you need it, you haven’t seen greatness” moment for me. I’ve learnt tons from him since then about financial metrics, what they mean, and the underlying stories they tell. Understanding these metrics is one of the best ways to get a grasp the whole business.
While finance execs are hired a little later in the life of a company, if you have one in yours, I recommend to at least have monthly one-on-one’s with them to discuss the latest tech IPO S-1 and comparing those with others tech businesses. Or, you can get a headstart on this by going through Tom Tunguz’s benchmarking of 7 key SaaS metrics for various companies that have gone public.
If this is good stuff, I’d certainly appreciate you sharing it with your network: