SaaS startup Founders & CEOs: How to hire the right

The individual you hire to head marketing for your software-as-a-service or mobile app startup must hit the ground running in a mission-critical role, and that’s a problem, because if you yourself aren’t a marketing professional, how are you supposed to hire the best one you can find?

How to determine which applicants have the marketing operations, brand strategy, campaign planning, marketing analytics, and team leadership chops to crush it, and which ones are recounting stories and taking credit for things their more outstanding colleagues actually did? How do you know if a candidate’s eight years of SaaS startup experience is fit to this task, or if they essentially have two years of experience four times over? Exactly what experience profile is best?

And what questions will effectively plumb the depths of their marketing knowledge and reveal the top performers? This article—written by a startup marketer with nine years of agency and seven years of in-house marketing experience—will teach you how to identify the top marketing leadership candidates: those that will set you up for success.

Pre-Seed startups that have already launched often hire a growth marketer to attract a steady stream of users to the platform. This person may be full- or part-time, and is often (but not always) a contractor. They are not typically expected to act as a marketing head nor do they usually have the skills/experience to do so.

A full-time Head of Marketing, typically with a demand generation and marketing operations profile will typically be hired after a startup takes on Seed Round funding, because qualified candidates start at around $120,000 per year plus equity and can go as high as $200,000 or more (especially in expensive cities like San Francisco).

If you’re bootstrapped, I recommend following SaaStr founder Jason Lemkin’s advice and hire a Head of Marketing when you hit $20,000 MRR.

If you are planning for your Head of Marketing (which may be a Director, a VP, or a “Marketing Lead”—a title I’ve observed that tends to be conferred on the first marketing hire of Y Combinator startups who may or may not grow into a scaling and leading a marketing team) to begin as a one-person marketing department (or two if you already have a growth marketer) that scales as revenue increases, be advised it is my belief that often startups need a product marketer before hiring a Head of Marketing, and the linked article (by yours truly) will explain why in plain language.

However, if you’ve decided a Head of Marketing is what you need, look for the following experience profile:

1. Vendor selection and management experience

Your new marketing head will use freelancers and/or agencies to fill in the gaps when there’s not enough time to perform every marketing task themself, yet there’s not enough revenue to hire permanent staff. A marketing head should know how to source, vet, select, and manage vendors and have experience negotiating their contracts/deals.

Relevant interview questions to ask:

  • Can you tell me about your experience selecting and managing vendors? What do you look for in a vendor and what are some red flags?
  • Can you recount a time when a vendor you oversaw failed in some way, and how you handled it?
  • How do you discover/source vendors? Do you have any go-to favorites or are there any you would not use again? Why?
  • Do you have experience writing or reviewing service agreements? If so, what are things you like to see included in service contracts and what are the most common red flags?

2. Experience creating and executing marketing campaign plans

A successful candidate for the Director or VP of Marketing position should be able to talk in detail about past marketing campaigns they have planned and executed—whether they be B2C (direct to consumer campaigns) or B2B (demand generation). They should cover both the marketing operations (activities/channels) as well as the creative (compelling brand stories) developed from data-driven insights that they or their department or agency have surfaced.

Marketing operations are an important part of a campaign plan, but success of any campaign hinges on the ability of its brand stories to connect, eliciting an emotion from the audience that will compel them to notice, remember, share, and/or buy.

Relevant interview questions to ask:

  • Of all the marketing campaigns you’ve planned and executed over your career, which one was your favorite? Please describe it in detail. How long did it take to develop, including required research and data gathering? How did it perform?
  • Which was your least favorite, and why?
  • What are some of the best brand stories you’ve come up with for campaigns you’ve planned? (The candidate should be able to give brief summaries of two or three brand stories off the top of their head)

3. Experience developing brand strategy and a strong grasp of how it guides content and messaging

The person you ultimately hire to run marketing must understand how your brand purpose (which is replacing mission and vision statements at some companies) and your brand’s core values influence the selection of brand archetype(s), which shapes the brand personality, which is expressed through the brand voice, which is typically outlined via a style guide for your copywriters and graphic designers so that the brand voice is present in all content and creative assets produced across all channels, which will make your brand’s personality more three-dimensional.

Find out if your candidates know how to develop a brand purpose statement (or alternatively, write effective mission and vision statements); choose brand values; select the most advantageous brand archetype; and develop a brand voice; as there is a different process and set of considerations for each of them.

Relevant interview questions to ask:

  • If you are hired into this position, how big a priority is reviewing and potentially revising our brand strategy? Why?
    Answer:
    It’s a high priority and needs to be done right away if it is going to be done at all, because 1) we won’t have time to do it later; and 2) the brand strategy affects all the various branding elements (i.e it is seen by everyone), which in turn determines how the brand voice articulates all marketing communications, so reviewing it should be one of the first things your new marketing head does. Even if your new Head of Marketing decides they have to develop or revise some branding elements, if they are competent they will be able to get it done quickly. Once brand strategy is dialed in, it doesn’t need to be fussed with daily, weekly, or even monthly.
  • How has the brand strategy of your former employer evolved over time? What role have you played in that evolution?

4. Marketing analytics experience, preferably developing marketing measurement models

What gets measured gets managed—even if it’s something that is pointless to manage. Thus your new Head of Marketing should have experience developing effective Digital Marketing & Measurement Models like this one by Avinash Kaushik, Digital Marketing Evangelist for Google—so they don’t managing metrics just because Google happens to measure them.

Kaushik’s model cuts through the “measurement noise” generated by products like Google Analytics—which tracks more than 200 different metrics, a dizzying number that crowd more useful and actionable metrics, making them harder to find. This is why the best marketing leaders focus on what Kaushik terms a “critical few” metrics that tell them what they need to know.

Relevant interview questions to ask:

  • Can you help me understand your approach to marketing measurement? What marketing metrics do you find it useful to track?
  • Are there particular product marketing metrics that you track, such as app downloads, monthly active users, or churn?

5. Considerable leadership experience and highly refined soft skills

Your new marketing head is going to stand up a new marketing department, and scale it from the ground up. they should have experience fostering a strong sense of belonging among team members because they know it makes for a stronger, more effective team. Confirm that they’ve led teams comprised of at least four different marketing roles (such as a copywriter, graphic designer, digital marketing manager, community manager, SEO specialist, or digital analyst).

Relevant interview questions to ask:

  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • In what roles have you led teams?
  • How do you develop the capabilities of your direct reports?
  • What lessons have you learned from mistakes you have made leading others? (all experienced leaders have made mistakes and learned valuable lessons as a result)

Bonus: Working knowledge of SaaS product marketing fundamentals

You probably won’t be able to afford a product marketer when you hire your first Head of Marketing, so it would be amazing if you surfaced candidates that are familiar SaaS product marketing concepts, such as research on how the user experience (UX) impacts the user retention rate and how it can be optimized. For example, app abandonment after initial use generally represents a failure to successfully onboard the user, and in medium- to high-touch product categories like software-as-a-service, renewal rates are directly tied to the quality of onboarding.

Customers who are quickly oriented to effective use of the tools are much less likely to abandon the software and much more likely to renew. This is just one of many principles of SaaS product marketing that it would be ideal for your new marketing head to be familiar with.

Relevant interview questions to ask:

  • Do you have a background in or familiarity with SaaS product marketing? (If yes, test their knowledge with the following two questions)
  • How would you say that retention strategies vary in early-stage SaaS startups compared to growth-stage?
    Answer: Early-stage SaaS startups don’t often have solid benchmarks for successful customer Lifetime Value (LTV) or a consistent Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) yet, so it’s key to start establishing them by ensuring that: 1) new users go through primary onboarding as quickly as possible; 2) they experience value fast (i.e. that they Activate with a minimal Time To First Value); 3) they return after their first visit; and 4) by comparing acquisition campaigns and channels against early churn – to see where “good” and “bad” users are coming from. Once you’re in the growth stage, you’ll have those benchmarks and the priority is ensuring that users continue to realize value in repeated use of the app by driving new feature adoption to add sources of value, and by creating opportunities for customer expansion (upsells, cross-sells, etc).
  • Are you familiar with LTV-to-CAC? If so, what is a good LTV-to-CAC ratio?
    Answer: The ideal LTV:CAC ratio is 3:1, which posits that the value of a customer should be three times more than the cost of acquiring them. If the ratio is closer, like 1:1, you are spending too much. If it’s 5:1, you’re not spending enough on new customer acquisition, especially if you are an early-stage SaaS, where revenue and user growth is far more important than reducing costs.

Your new Head of Marketing head must have (or quickly acquire) an empathic understanding of your target market personas as well as an exhaustive knowledge of what leads and customers are thinking, feeling, or doing at every stage of the buyer journey. They must be excellent at translating product features into compelling value propositions for potential customers.

While your Go-to-Market (GTM) strategy may already be in place by the time you hire a marketing head, you should expect your new marketing head to review and optimize it informed by insights surfaced from analyzing market research data. Look for candidates that have developed and executed GTM strategies and led product launches specifically at SaaS startups and can discuss their process for developing a go-to-market strategy.

Relevant interview questions to ask:

  • How much research do you like to conduct / data do you like to gather before developing a go-to-market strategy?
  • When conceptualizing the buyer’s journey, do you prefer the sales funnel methodology or HubSpot’s 2018 flywheel methodology, which they designed to replace the funnel?
  • What can you say about our current GTM strategy? (Furnish the candidate an outline of it) Do you see any weaknesses in it? Is there room for improvement?

Tony Ahn is an agency-trained marketing head with over 15 years of experience. He specializes in leading the marketing function at tech startups offering Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or mobile apps, and is highly skilled at both standing up new marketing departments and scaling growing ones quickly. Rogue Magazine reported in 2015 that “Tony Ahn has established himself as a driving force in the industry…This digital pioneer [is] the unseen hand that shapes public perception of some of the biggest names in the Philippines.” He returned to the US in 2019. When not working, he can be found hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or volunteering with disaster relief organizations.

This article was originally publsihed on LinkedIn and was submitted to TechNode global INSIDER as a contribution. TechNode Global INSIDER publishes contributions relevant to entrepreneurship and innovation. You may submit your own original or published contributions subject to editorial discretion.

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