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“First to Market” is a term we often use to talk about a product offering that is the first one into that particular space–often rewarded with a competitive advantage. In this article, I want to use the term to talk about the duties, tasks, responsibilities and importance of that person–literally the First to Market–who is the First Marketer of a particular company, product or service.

I believe the two ideas are related; it is often the First Marketer who will help you go to market first, but whether or not you have officially “gone to market” already, your First Marketer will begin, lead and accelerate the initial marketing processes of an early- or growth-stage company.

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Stages of a Startup

Startups represent the American Dream, right? Come up with an idea, begin to build it, get some funding, find your market, expand and grow, get acquired, retire rich and happy. Of course, the reality is more complicated than that. 

What do I mean by “startup”? Every business has to start somewhere, and starting up happens in different ways. In the environment of B2B SaaS or software companies, there is a predictable path that the majority of companies follow.

I am using the “Startup Development Phases” document, v3.6 from startupcommons.org. 

Startupcommons is an organization that began when they identified a need for a global language to talk about startup phases. There are many versions of similar things, but this one has been reviewed and vetted and seems to be widely accepted.

Every great business begins with an idea. In the Formation stage, the idea is developed, kicked around, shared with close friends and advisors, maybe developed and expanded within a small group. Questions are asked about the size and scope of a potential market, some details are defined on what problem should be solved. The team is small (maybe just one) and the commitment at this point is low. 

As the idea takes shape, a company may begin to form around the potential product or service. A team (permanent or ad-hoc) comes together to develop some of the big-picture assets like mission statements, objectives and milestones.

As this newly-formed company moves into the Validation stage a team of founders, ideally with complementary skill sets, a shared vision and an agreed-upon distribution of responsibilities, comes together. They put the necessary agreements in place and make the initial investments required to launch. They develop and agree on what the initial version of their product or service should look like and move forward with validating that in the market.

This phase includes what we call “product/market fit” or “PMF.” It is critical to the success of the company and this is where marketing often comes into play. Eric Riess developed the concept of “The Lean Startup” in his eponymous book. The idea is that a company creates their product or service with the minimum features and capabilities that are required to be included to call itself whatever product or service. This is known as “minimum viable product” or “MVP.”

A company with an MVP is trying to find that perfect fit with who they believe their product or service would appeal to. If they started as they should have, with trying to solve a problem, they are looking for people who have that problem and talk to them to see if the solution offered actually solves it or not. They are gathering feedback on what would make it better and implementing that into their offering.

If they find that the solution does not solve the problem adequately, they make changes and keep trying. Sometimes they discover it actually solves a different problem and so has appeal to a different target market. 

Once they have discovered a reasonable fit between what the market wants and how their product appeals to the market, they continue to develop the product as they move into the scaling tasks of the Growth phase. In this phase, the company is now trying to acquire as many customers as possible. This is where high-growth happens if the PMF is on target.  

The Growth phase is where a lot of other things begin to happen as well: processes are put in place, KPIs are established to measure growth, customers are onboarded and hiring increases dramatically to handle it all. Funding is easier to get now than in earlier stages and it helps cover the cost of increased investment in personnel, resources, development and marketing. 

Enter Marketing

At any company trying to sell anything to anyone, marketing happens.

The most simple definition of marketing is something like this: Marketing is telling potential customers about a product or service that they might like.

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Either way, you are trying to convince someone that what you have will make their life better. It happens with every consumer product, with business solutions, with public policy, in sports, science, industry, politics and religion. Everywhere. All the time.

Startup founders become so obsessed with their offering that they can’t help but tell everyone about it; how it will solve particular problems and maybe even change the world. They are the proud parents of a precious child that took their blood, sweat and tears to give birth to. That’s the first marketing that happens. As the company continues to grow, a marketing framework is needed to hang the necessary pieces on to create a real strategy for the growth of the company.

  • It’s good to have passionate people who evangelize the product/service.
  • It’s better to have a framework for targeted marketing efforts that someone can follow.
  • It’s best if a company has a dedicated First Marketer, or a small team, who is experienced and knowledgeable and can work with limited supervision to accomplish the marketing goals of the company.

So, from the very beginning of the startup, marketing has been happening in one way or another. Traditionally, a dedicated marketing function does not get stood up until the company is into the Growth phase when companies are trying to capture as many customers as they can for the lowest CAC possible, but there are very good reasons that a more formalized approach to marketing can be beneficial even before that time.

In high-tech companies selling B2B, this person is usually brought on at a Director or VP level position and becomes the de facto Head of Marketing or Chief Marketing Officer. They are the new leader, reporting to the CEO or COO, and usually (should be) included in executive-level meetings.

Companies with funding and the confidence to move forward with investing in the marketing function will allow the new marketing leader to build a team of specialists over time, while more financially conservative companies may have the marketing head working alone for several months or more. Marketers in this situation can still accomplish a lot individually and working with outsourced vendors and service providers. Either way, the functions and duties are essentially the same, it’s just a matter of who is doing them and how fast they are getting done. 

What are the Qualifications for a First Marketer? 

You’ve heard the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? Well, a First Marketer has to be Jack of all trades, master of multiple. This person has to have experience in multiple marketing disciplines because they will be doing everything at first, and supervising other pieces. 

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He needs to be capable of developing strategy and turning it into tactical plans. It is critical that he sees and understands the big picture, aligns marketing strategies with corporate goals and knows what it will take to put those strategies into place. Then he needs to be able to roll up his sleeves and execute that strategy.

The First Marketer has to have a full-funnel view of the marketing process, along with a vision of the entire business, starting with the development of the product, through product marketing, branding, demand gen to sales and retention. It’s critical to be able to view the company from 30,000 feet to achieve perspective but to also put boots on the ground and make things happen.

Expertise in specific areas is helpful, but what areas those are largely depends on the needs of the company, the target prospects and what methods will be used to best reach those prospects. 

An expert First Marketer needs to have a high degree of self-awareness to know what she can do on her own and know what she may need to hire or outsource. Having experience in a variety of areas also makes it easier for the First Marketer to oversee the work of others and ensure successful outcomes.

In my experience with SaaS and software companies, product marketing is a valuable skill set for startups, because most often, the product IS the company. A First Marketer with product marketing experience will establish solid foundations for the company to build on. They will create or validate elements like personas, positioning, messaging and USPs that they or others can take and use when developing content, advertising, sales decks and collateral.

I recently attended a session at Denver Startup Week where a panel of members of a local marketing organization who were primarily consultants (with some employees) spoke about free marketing tools available to startups. They promised to talk about “Six areas young startups need to focus on to get started.” I thought, “Ok, let’s see how that lines up with my own ideas about beginning a marketing function to make sure I’m on the right track.” 

The recommendations were good, and the speakers were all experts in their field. They shared ideas for CRM systems and recommended tools for SEO and blogging, design and video, social media and email. 

I came away from that session with a couple of thoughts that were not related to the tools I wanted to test. First was the confirmation that the First Marketer needs to be very flexible and knowledgeable in a lot of areas. I mean, a lot! Each of these speakers focused on the single area they were talking about, which is what they are experts in. However, at a startup, you may not initially have the luxury to have someone in each of these roles. 

It’s up to you, my friend! Welcome to First Marketing!

The other thought I had was that we need to be very cautious of any implicit bias when we are coming up with our marketing plans. It’s easy to default to the things we know; those things we have experience with and have had success with. When you create your strategic plan, you need to think about what should be done, and why, and not what could be done, because you know you can do it and it will probably work.

It’s the old, “When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” mentality, and that doesn’t work in today’s B2B marketing environment.

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