What to expect in an early-ish stage marketing role

We recently hosted a panel with 4 of the best early-ish stage marketers we know. This newsletter covers what we talked about.

I know a (not-literal) million companies looking for early and growth-stage marketers. It’s a candidate’s market right now and these roles can really accelerate your career.

We chatted with 4 of the best early-stage marketers we know about their roles in a recent panel. Kathleen and I have also been in these roles multiple times ourselves (at Asana, Intercom, Box, Carta, Astro - acq by Slack, and Scalyr).

What’s in this newsletter

  • If you’re a marketer considering your next move, this newsletter will help you know what to expect in an early-ish stage role and how to be successful.

  • If you’re a marketer looking for a new Seed-Series B role now, jump down to the bottom of this newsletter and check out open roles on our site.

  • If you’re a founder or leader hiring marketers, this newsletter will put you in a marketer's shoes and teach you how to help ensure their success. We also wrote another newsletter on how to hire early-stage marketers. And we promise our next post will be more founder-focused (it’s on positioning).

  • If you’re wondering how to prioritize marketing activities, we cover that too.

What to expect in a Seed-Series B marketing role

1. Forget the job description

The first thing to know about joining a company as an early marketer: no matter what role you’re hired for—product marketing, content marketing, growth marketing—you’ll have to do things that are outside of your “job description.” In fact, the job description doesn’t really matter at all. You’ll be doing a little of everything:

“I love being at the stage of just being able to wear a bunch of different hats and context switch constantly, with things changing all the time. I find that really exciting and valuable, and Afresh is moving super quickly.”

-Michelle Arguelles, on her role as Marketing Director at Afresh

“That's what I love about marketing too is that one minute I can be writing and the next, I'm doing math and in Excel. And then I'm literally in Figma myself. I think to take an early-stage marketing role, you really need to love that context switching.”

-Emily Kramer (I know it’s kind of awkward to quote yourself, but I did it anyway)

Watch a video from our panel about the best parts of an early-stage marketing role, including context switching >>

2. You’ll need to become a π-shaped marketer 

We recommend that startups hire π-shaped marketers when building out their team. π-shaped marketers are like T-shaped marketers, but instead of having depth in 1 area, they have depth in 2. For example, you could be an expert in product marketing and proficient in growth marketing.

If you aren’t a π-shaped marketer now, joining an early-stage startup will force you to become one. If this doesn’t sound fun and you want to stay in your area of expertise, going super early is likely not a good fit for you.

“Prior to Vanta, I had been at Google for about seven years. I had joined the APMM Program there and came up through that program. And then I felt as though I was getting more and more specialized and growing as a product marketer, but not necessarily expanding into other areas. And as I got more senior, I was realizing that the things that I really liked doing—the actual work—I was outsourcing to the agencies or other people on my team. So, I was becoming less adept at doing those things myself and that’s why I wanted to take the leap back to being at a startup.”

-Sarah Scharf, on joining Vanta from Google

3. Prioritization is the hardest part

As an early marketer, you’ll have a mix of strategic AND tactical responsibilities—from writing web copy, to mastering Hubspot and doing customer interviews. You will typically need to set the roadmap for what you will do, and then actually do it.

Marketing strategy needs to be a healthy mix of testing new things, scaling what works, and optimizing what’s already working. Setting goals is critical here. Not just KPI goals (i.e drive this number of leads), but also goals that encourage taking chances and learning from them. 

After you set goals, you need to communicate what you are planning to do to founders and the rest of the company—and what you aren’t going to do. If tasks come up that don’t ladder up to the goals you’ve set, deprioritize them or swap out another priority that is not as important.

Here are some things to consider when prioritizing:

  • Impact: Do things that have the potential to drive step-change growth. Do what’s important, not urgent.

  • Balance: Create the fuel and build the engine. i.e. If you are focused on getting paid ads working, but don’t have good content to promote or drive to, it’s not going to be successful.

  • The reason why: Know the why before you do something and the why should never be “our competitors do it”

  • Setting the right goals: Don’t set goals on quantity, set them on impact.
    i.e. Don’t write 10 blog posts just because, try to drive towards a goal for blog web traffic or leads from blog forms.

“I think it's really important for people to know where I'm focused. But also, do they know where I'm not focused? I think the secret, especially in early-stage marketing, is what you say no to is as important as what you commit to…

[That said] sometimes I think people will come into an early marketing role and they'll only focus on demand without thinking about the fundamentals. And you need to have a good story that you can scale through demand channels. You can then get signal as to whether that story is working for you, and go back and refine positioning and messaging.”

-Reigan Combs on prioritizing as VPM at Humu

Watch a video from our panel on prioritizing >>

4. Business models lead to very different marketing responsibilities—choose wisely

Marketing is very different at B2C and B2B companies, but even within B2B it’s really different. Understanding your preference is important.

  • If a company has a top-down sales model, marketing enables the sales team and drives qualified leads that an account executive then closes. 

  • In a self-serve, freemium/free trial, product-led growth model (these are all similar things, people just keep renaming it), you’ll be working closely with the product team to drive users into the product, drive them to purchase, and drive engagement and expansion from there. Sales is often still involved, but typically selling into customers who are often successful in the product already.

“The steepest learning curve...it was a completely different industry. I was working in gaming direct to consumer. So to go into B2B, first of all, and then to not understand who our customer was at all, I really had to take many steps back and understand, "What are their motivations? What are they doing day-to-day?" That was a big adjustment for me.”

-Abby Barsky on transitioning from NBA Top Shot to Cord

In a self-serve, bottom-up model, you're trying to pull people in, get them to your website, capture their information, and then maybe pass them off to sales or straight into a self-serve model. On the enterprise side, you're figuring out, "Okay, our sales team already knows that we want to sell into these 50 or 100 accounts." We're gonna go after those accounts directly versus casting a super wide net.

-Reigan Combs, on business models

5. You’re choosing learning & career growth over salary (usually)

When you join an early-stage company, your cash salary will likely be lower than at later-stage companies or public companies. Sometimes as much as 20-30% lower. But you’ll get equity. Plus, your career can accelerate a lot faster due to all the things mentioned above and your ability to grow with the company. 

A way to think about this: what do I want my next, next job to be? If you are a content marketer now, and you want to lead content marketing at a public company at some point, it might not make sense to join an early-stage startup where you’ll have to gain breadth too. If you want to be a head of marketing at a late-stage startup and have only done growth marketing, this is probably the way to go.

“Reporting directly to the founder was an adjustment. I reported to a VP of marketing and partnerships before, and I think when you report to a founder, there's just different expectations. I was lucky that Nimrod, our CEO, is super interested in marketing and I got that [sense] in the interview. So they're really looking to you to be an expert. And so you have to look to other experts too, to keep learning.”

-Abby Barsky, on working directly with the founder at Cord

Watch the full video from our panel >>

How to succeed in a startup marketing role

Here are some quick notes on how to do well in these marketing roles. The most successful startup marketers I’ve hired:

  1. Choose the right startup for them. This means believing in the founders, making sure the founders value marketing, and being interested in the problem and product.

  2. Ruthlessly prioritize by setting and measuring goals (and understanding urgent vs important).

  3. Deeply understand the audience and the product

  4. Dedicate themselves to becoming an expert in 2 areas of marketing (aka a π-shaped marketer)

  5. Communicate well in writing and verbally both internally and externally.

“When it comes to evaluating, the first thing I look for is the problem. Is it interesting? And is it essential? Clearly, Afresh found a problem that needs to be solved. The second part of my framework is the product. Does the product that the company is building actually solve that problem? And how well does it do it? And then my final 'P’: the people. Are these people that I can work with and who I think have what it takes to execute against their vision and their mission?”

-Michelle Arguelles on the “3 Ps of joining a startup”

Watch the video from our panel


We can help you find marketing roles

  • If you are looking for a role at a Seed-Series B startup, check out our page for marketers that includes open roles at startups where we know the hiring manager personally. Apply through our site. More roles coming soon.

  • If you don't see any roles that are a fit, but want us to reach out if something comes up, just fill out our form and let us know.

  • We are also happy to have a conversation with you about what you are looking for. We set aside a couple hours every week for these conversations. Just fill out the form for that too.

  • Full disclosure: Sometimes we work with startups on recruiting efforts, we will always disclose our relationship and do our best to bring an unbiased approach to what startup is the best fit for you.

If you’re already in an early-stage marketing role or are a founder looking for a mentor for your marketers, we offer a mentorship program. Check that out on our site too.

Note: I edited this video super easily with Reduct. I uploaded my video, got a transcript, and highlighted the text to edit and make this reel. Try it, I highly recommend it.

View open startup marketing roles


Here’s everyone who participated in our panel and we quoted in this newsletter. None are looking for new roles at the moment so please don’t try to recruit them, but yes they’re all incredible. Thank you for joining the panel and saying so many helpful things.