The Entrepreneur’s Most Important Hat?

Standing out in a crowdOne objective that I have for this blog is to share lessons and advice that can help entrepreneurs with the process of starting their businesses. In addition to highlighting resources that I come across on the web, one way in which I hope to accomplish this objective is by sharing observations from my own experience being part of and eventually running the marketing team at PayPal, starting and managing World Ahead Media, and now advising several startups in the L.A. area.

I’ll kick off this occasional series by sharing a great post by Sean Elllis, an advisor KISSmetrics, entitled “Founders Make the Best Startup Marketing Leaders.” Sean points out that the person in charge of marketing at a startup is in a high pressure situation. He has to find a way to grow usage of a new product in a cost-effective way, knowing that if the keys to growth aren’t found his head will likely be on the chopping block. This leads Sean to conclude:

“A successful startup marketing leader must be undaunted by these risks and believe they uniquely have what it takes to succeed. That sounds a lot like the profile of most startup founders. So it’s not surprising that the best startup marketers are entrepreneurs at the core.”

Sean goes on to call for startup CEOs to work closely with their marketers in setting the table for growth:

“Once you have created a product that people really want, most of the remaining company risk and upside lies in your ability to aggressively drive customer adoption. This is not something a CEO should abdicate to the marketer until they’ve demonstrated a relentless drive to uncover profitable customer acquisition channels.”

I agree completely with his analysis. But at risk of creating a tautology—and causing engineers and techies everywhere to cringe—I’m going to take Sean’s point about the best marketers being entrepreneurs at the core and reword it.

The best entrepreneurs are marketers at the core.

Now before anyone gets in a huff about how product development is the most important objective for a startup, or send me links to Eric Ries’s blog, let me clarify what I mean. I’m not saying that the best entrepreneurs are smoozy ad guys or touchy-feely marketers. And I agree that developing an excellent product is the single most important thing a startup needs to do (besides raising the money needed to develop it in the first place). But what I am saying is that for an entrepreneur to be able to build a successful organization, he can never take his eye off the top line of the income statement. He’s got to have a strong sense of how to grow his organization’s sales, or all the time, money, and labor that went into building that excellent product will be for naught.

PayPal provides a good illustration of this.  As I wrote in my book, The PayPal Wars, the company’s hockey stick-shaped growth came after we deemphasized person-to-person payments and focused our efforts on auction transactions. It was feedback from the marketplace and the discovery that eBay’s existing network of buyers and sellers provided us with a huge opportunity that caused us to reorient our focus. In short, even though PayPal already had launched an excellent product at that point, it was sound marketing that showed us where we needed to go next, and that direction in turn impacted subsequent changes to the product.

Wearing a marketing hat is all the more critical for entrepreneurs in this current business environment. Investment capital is not easy to come by, and a truly lean startup is generally focused on hiring a few engineers, not marketers. (At the Dealmaker Media workshop earlier this week, Mark Suster said that the team that excites him has 5 engineers, 1 product manager, 1 CEO, and no MBAs.) But marketing still has to be done—even the best product needs marketing. It falls on the company’s entrepreneurs to wear that hat. And, as Sean Ellis points out, you don’t necessarily get to remove that hat as the company grows. So make sure it fits well.

1 thought on “The Entrepreneur’s Most Important Hat?

  1. Great points regarding my ealier post. In my post I mentioned two founders that have turned out to be fantastic marketers. Neither has any marketing training – both are engineers. This should help any engineers feel more comfortable about my assertion that after getting the product tight, most company risk and upside lies in a statup’s ability to drive profitable growth.

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