When Should You Make Your First Marketing Hire?

This episode of the Marketing Swipe File was inspired by a tweet our CEO David Cancel got tagged in recently. It hits on two big questions about growing a marketing team. Should you wait to hire a marketer until you’ve reached product-market fit? How do you know the right time to bring a marketer on board?


So today DG is sharing the story of his marketing journey at Drift – including his first six months where there was no product for him to market and had to grow an audience from nothing. Want to find out what qualities DG says you should look for in your first marketing hire? Listen to the full episode.

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Full Transcript

Dave Gerhardt: Hey, what’s up everybody? It’s DG. On this episode of The Swipe File I’m going to talk about when it the right time for you to start marketing at your company.

All right. I wanted to do an episode on this topic, because this is something that comes up a lot. I think people ask because in the early days of Drift, Drift started off as nothing, like very early sage company. I do a lot with start ups, talk to a lot of early stage founders, teams, companies, whatever. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to a group of students at Harvard Business School, or leaving a conference, or meeting somebody for a coffee, they all kind of have this one question when it comes to early stage marketing. That is “When is the right time to hire a marketing person?” I actually have always wanted to do a podcast on this topic, but a fellow named Alexander Torrenegra, which is @torrenegra on Twitter, tweeted @DC actually, a couple weeks ago, and said, “Hi, David. I’ve been learning about your work recently. Congrats. Quick question. I was told that you hired a marketing person before reaching product market fit. Is that right? Seems to be an uncommon approach.” DC’s response back was, “I did. His name is @davegerhardt. Check out his podcast, The Swipe File.” That was like, “I should really talk about this on this episode.”

Let’s talk about. Let’s talk about the right time to hire a marketing person. There’s really actually a very quick answer to this, where to me, the right time to hire a marketing person is as soon as possible. The reason why, is because it’s so hard today to get attention. There’s this belief, I think, especially among product-led founders and companies, that, “Hey. If we build a great product, if we have great engineering, great design, we really solve a problem, this thing is going to take off. We don’t need marketing.” The problem is, there’s a bunch of examples of companies that have, at least on paper, that’s what it sounds like they’ve done, which is basically make a great product, people found them … Look at Slack. They made a great product, and they just blew up. They didn’t hire a marketing person until wherever. I don’t know of that’s true or not, but there’s a lot of examples like that. I think the problem is, there’s really only a handful of those examples in a sea of hundreds of thousands of failed companies.

My belief is, I’ve learned this firsthand now, through Drift, is the value of hiring a marketing person in the really early stages of your company. Think about it. Any industry today, there is so much noise, so much competition, you actually do have to do marketing. I think a lot of people have this sense of marketing, especially founders that come from more of the design product background, is marketing is yucky. I don’t actually want to go market. I don’t want to make people feel like I’m marketing to them. My answer to that is, “Okay, but if you spend all this time building your product, why would somebody just magically show up at your door one day and sign up?” It doesn’t happen that way. Real life doesn’t happen that way. It’s not like the movie Field of Dreams, where you build it, and they will come. That doesn’t happen. That’s a dream. The earlier you can invest in marketing, the better chance you have at getting attention, building an audience, and winning customers.

I’ll talk about my experience at Drift, just to give you a real example of this. When I joined Drift, there was between seven and 10 people at the company. All of them were either … There was, like, one product manager, two designers, then the rest were engineers. David and Elias, the founders of Drift, they hired me in the early days, as marketer, but my mission as a marketer was not actually to generate leads, or to generate revenue. It was this one goal of building an audience, because we didn’t launch our product yet. Our product was in a private beta, so there were companies using it, but we were not promoting it. There was no way to sign up from our website, so you couldn’t go to drift.com, Drift with two T’s back then, and actually sign up for the product, get in, and use it. You had to basically be let in by us. We were not doing and public-facing marketing that was like, “Here’s what Drift is.”

People didn’t even know what the company did, so there was no marketing that said, “Hey. Here’s what Drift is. Come to this link, sign up, and go and check it out.” When they hired me, the company, we were still, like, three, four, five months away from a public launch. What do you do? What the hell did I do at Drift, for the first six months, if we had no product to market? Well, there was really one mission that David and Elias gave me. That was to build an audience. Build an audience, meaning build some community, it usually starts with email addresses, because that the currency of online communication today. Build an audience of people that we can market to when we’re actually ready, when we have a product. The goal was, we knew we wanted to sell to marketers. How can we build an audience of marketers? We started a blog, we started a podcast. We started a newsletter. I’m not going to get into the tactics of everything that we did back then. I want to talk about more so in the value of that. We started to build this audience.

What happened was, over the course of … I joined in October. We didn’t launch our product publicly until April, so that is, what, six months, right? Over the course of that six months, behind the scenes, we had built up hundreds and thousands of people who started to build a relationship with us, and they did that through content. They started to read our blog. They started to get our newsletters. They started to listen to our podcast. By the time we were actually ready to launch, we then got to go email that group of people and say, “Psst, hey. I know you’ve been wondering what we’ve been doing. I know you’ve been digging our content, but you’ve been wondering about what we’ve been doing over here. Well, I’m finally ready to tell you. Meet Drift. Drift is the world’s first blah blah blah blah blah.” Then, we already had this built-in audience. Within days, we literally had thousands of people sign up for our Drift product. I will always remember this moment, because it was this amazing feeling. We set a goal that year, it was Q2, April, May, June, of when we launch our product on April 1st, we wanted 1,000 people to sign up for it for free.

That was the goal for Q2. That’s 300 in month one, 300 in month two, 300 in month three, whatever. We got 1,000 people in the first month, so we smashed that goal, in a third of the time. The only reason we were able to do that is because we already had started marketing. People started to know who we are. Think about how much friction there is in this process. Nobody knows you, and you have a brand product, and you’re just going to start going, “Hey, you have no idea who I am, but sign up for my thing.” That’s never going to work. Building marketing in, in the early days, is only going to help you reach your dream customers, reach your target customers, and to actually get people into your product. I think it is absolutely crazy. Feel free to tweet at me @daveguerhart, if you don’t agree with me. I think that it’s a absolutely crazy move to not start marketing the second that you know what your company is. To the point now where whatever happens … Let’s say, if I go start a company in the future, I’m going to start marketing for that company before I even know what we’re building.

As long as you have an audience, the rest of marketing is going to solve itself. Build an audience first, and that is the number one piece of advice that I have for early-stage companies. Really, that was the bet that David and Elias made in hiring me at Drift, was early days, “Hey. Let’s focus on building audience. If we can build a community and audience of people, the rest of it’s going to take care of itself.” By the way, even if you’re not ready to share stuff publicly yet, from a marketing perspective, marketing can sit right with your product team, and engineering team, and product managers, and really understand the market that you’re going after. If you’re still in stealth mode, you’re still talking to customers, you’re doing customer development, customer research. You’re figuring out what to build, who to build it for. All of that stuff can be absolute gold for your early marketing content. You’re already doing the hard work. You’re figuring out who you’re building this thing for. Bring a marketer on, and that person can then turn that into content that you can use to start to build your audience.

I’m sharing that, because one of the other objections is, “Yeah, but what are we going to share? We don’t know anything yet.” Well, yeah you do, because you’re obviously building. You’re building a product. Early days in marketing, my take on it is there is no time too early to start marketing. If you’re thinking about it, if you’re on the fence about hiring your first marketer, go and find someone. The next question from there is, “Who do you go find?” For the first marketing person at your company, I think you always have to be biased toward somebody who can do a little bit of everything. I think the biggest mistake I’ve seen some companies make, is hire somebody that is too specialized for the stage of your company. If you have no marketing people, and you hire one person, and that person is a SEO expert, and that’s all they can do, you’re going to have a tough time getting them to do anything else. Look for somebody who’s more of a generalist, and could do content, events, podcasts, video, blog, paid.

You can basically have somebody that can learn all that stuff, and then scale it. Or, try everything. Have somebody that can do five, six, seven, 10 different things. Basically, you figure what’s working through that person. Then, you also figure out where to double down. Another example from the early days of Drift, were I was our first events person at the company. We found out that events worked, and they were a good channel for us. The following year, we made the decision, “Okay, we’re going to double down on events, and we’re going to bring a full-time events person in-house.” We had already proved out that playbook, and that made it easy. We had already been doing content marketing. I just started blogging. A couple months in, realized that the blog was working, so we wanted to create more content. Boom, let’s go hire a write. Then, over time, I did less and less of those things. Your two, three, et cetera, I’m not running events anymore. I’m not writing as much content anymore. That’s because we figured out that it worked. You hire somebody to replace you in that job.

I love the profile of somebody who can do a little bit of everything. You don’t need to have the most experience in the world, but somebody that can do a little bit of everything, with a bias towards writing. If you can’t write, it’s going to be really tough. If you can write, you can do everything. Email, blog, podcast, video descriptions, scripts, all that stuff. I hope this was helpful, a little quick episode. Thanks to you, Alex, for this great question, and DC for the shout out and push to do this post. I’d love to get your feedback. Tweet at me @davegerhardt. Let me know did you agree? Disagree? When is the right time to hire a marketer for your company? Otherwise, I’ll catch you on the next episode of The Swipe File.

Hey. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Swipe File. I’m having a lot of fun doing this podcast. Because it’s fun for me, I hope it’s fun for you. It would mean the world if you could leave a review. Reviews really help, so go leave a review. Go to Apple Podcasts, leave a review. Let me know what you liked about the show, didn’t like, want to hear more of. Also, if you’re not already subscribed, make sure you go subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify. This show is everywhere that you get your podcasts, probably where you’re listening right now. If you want more content like this, if you want to go a layer deeper, join me on Drift Insider. It’s drift.com/insider. We’re teaching courses, we’re sharing videos, and we have exclusive content for people just like you in marketing, that we do not share publicly. Go and check it out, drift.com/insider.