A CMO’s guide to transitioning to a startup

For accomplished professionals, the allure of working at a startup is powerful. This is especially true for individuals who have spent decades building their careers at large corporations. Eager to have a meaningful impact on a relatively new, high-growth company, plenty of experienced marketers abandon their corporate day jobs to help lead startups. At the same time, these marketers who risk their reputation and job security may find it hard building a business from scratch.

Tales from the trenches

To get a better understanding of how professionals successfully transition out of their comfortable corporate day jobs and into the role of CMOs for startups, I spoke with four marketers about their experiences. I’ve highlighted their tips for thriving in a small business environment.

From Apple to Techstars

Before joining real estate startup and Techstars graduate TRELORA as CMO, Rett Kearbey held various positions at AT&T and worked in business development at Apple. For marketers leaving their corporate gigs to join a startup as CMO, Kearby advises, “Know that all your timelines for delivery are about to shorten drastically. Surviving in a startup is all about failing forward quickly and doing more faster…on a shoestring budget.” He adds, “Be prepared to sacrifice (your time, your comfort, and your finances).”

Making every penny count

When Joseph Nagle left Microsoft to lead marketing at electric vehicle charging company EverCharge, he found the startup’s budget to be limiting.

“At Microsoft, budget seemed nearly endless and traveling around the country and the world for big conferences was never much of an issue,” Nagle says. “Once you get involved in a startup, every penny counts and to succeed marketers would do best to rely on their creativity to work around monetary issues.”

“There is, however, a large upside,” he continues. “At Microsoft, I faced a myriad of hoops to jump through. While budget was never an issue, the headaches of getting approval were.”

In a startup, the marketing leader may in fact be the only marketer on the team, at least in the beginning. This is especially likely in tech-first, engineer-heavy startups. The chain of approval, then, features a single link. But spend carefully!

Becoming resourceful

Resources can become crutches.

“It’s not easy to go from having the corporate walls around you to a startup, especially when you’ve had huge teams doing the work in the weeds,” says Janine Popick, CMO of business intelligence platform Dasheroo and former founder of VerticalResponse, a DLX company. “It can be daunting, all of the things around you in a large company have been taken care of by resident experts. Now you might have to either be all things marketing to all people, or hire the right types of people. And sometimes there’s not a ton of money to go around at a startup to hire a marketing army.”

For a newly minted CMO, the secret to success is building campaigns from the ground-up—by yourself—and then outsourcing that workload as soon as there are defined processes that demonstrate proven and predictable results. You won’t have many foot soldiers to command, so you will have to be the first person to get their hands dirty.

Relentlessly focusing on results

Ultimately, what matters most for startup marketers is results. Customer acquisition and retention should be a priority even at the expense of brand image.

Dan Laufer, CEO and acting CMO of apartment discovery tool RentLingo knows this. “Many large corporations spend a ton on branding and may not be as concerned about the ROI of any given ad spend. A startup doesn’t have that luxury,” he says. “You have to be focused on pure acquisition out of the gate. Money spent that doesn’t have a clear ROI is money wasted for a startup.”

Early on in his career, Laufer worked at management consultancy Bain & Company, then enterprise software firm Mitchell International. In corporate environments he saw that marketers were obsessed with maintaining a very specific brand image amongst clients and consumers. In a startup, Laufer believes, “There will be a time to build a brand, but in the early days any brand building should be a happy derivative and not the goal itself, otherwise you’ll run out of money before you know it.” Your peers will measure your success by how much revenue—and profits—your efforts generate, not by how popular your brand actually is.

With limited resources, startup CMOs must adopt a whole new set of skills to thrive in a fast-paced and unstructured environment. Though the transition may be tough, many marketers may prefer leading growth at a startup that gives them the chance to be self-driven and to control the success of their company.

For more tips on making the transition from a hulking corporation to a scrappy startup, I recommend Michael Fertik’s Harvard Business Review article, “Seven Keys to Switching from a Big Company to a Small One.”

Post by Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label (an award winning menswear company focusing on luxury made-to-measure garments) and does marketing at Grapevine (a platform that drives eCommerce, helping retailers partner with YouTube celebrities). Tweet him @dannywong1190