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A Geek's Guide To Hiring Marketing People

Posted by Jason Cohen on Tue, Jan 26, 2010

The following is a guest post by Jason Cohen.

Interviewing developers is easy.

OK, not easy. You have to generate resumes, you have to sift through the deluge of candidates, you have to pound your network continuously, you have to develop a phone-screen, you have to schedule interviews, you have to ask them questions and get them to write code and be fair.jobs hirint classified

But still, you're a great developer and you've worked with enough other developers that you can tell pretty quickly whether someone else is also a great developer. Do they say the right things? Do they make reasonable mistakes? Do they solve easy problems quickly? Do they give up? You can figure that out.

Not so with marketing folks. What do you ask someone in an interview to determine whether they have the ability to spread the word about your still-v0.9-quality product? How do you determine whether they can not just pull in potential customers but make them truly successful and thrilled with v0.9 while digging up the new features that will actually result in more sales?

For an engineer like me, interviewing marketing people is like interviewing a lawyer: You know there are vast differences in skill level but you don't know how to probe them to determine their skill.

But there's hope. Although you can't ask them to "solve" marketing problems as you would programming questions, there's certainly something you can detect: Do they have the attitude and skillset needed to succeed in a startup environment?

So here's a list of important qualities. Some of these you can ask about directly, others you'll have to intuit from your conversation.

  • Social Media doer. Everyone says social media is important, but does the candidate actually do it? Does she have a sizable Twitter following? Does he have experience getting 20,000 fans for a Facebook page? Does she have a quality blog about marketing? Did he devise and execute a blogger outreach campaign that actually worked?
  • Frugality. Traditional, big-company mantra is "You have to spend money to make money." It's no longer true. Now it's "You can spend money and you might make money." Of course spending money isn't automatically bad either; what's bad is if you don't measure whether the money is getting a return.
  • Customer-lover. A startup lives and dies by its customers. Not some marketer's initial conception of who the customer should be and what the customer should want, or even the developer's conception of which features should be useful, but what actually works in practice. That means the marketing person should be spending as much time as possible talking to customers. If you don't have many customers, it's their job to reach out and start the conversation. It's even their job to find potential customers who didn't buy and talk to them too. Make sure they drive everything from customers, not the other way around.
  • Humility. Startup marketing means working with unknowns. The product changes daily, the definition of the perfect customer changes as new data appears, marketing messages are invented and discarded, and just when you think you've got the right combination the world changes around you. Anyone who thinks they have the answers isn't paying attention. Anyone who thinks something that worked five years ago will automatically work again is wrong. So you need someone willing to admit what he doesn't know.
  • Domain Knowledge. This isn't a requirement, but it sure helps. If you yourself don't have good domain expertise (i.e. you're your own customer, or you worked in the industry), then this becomes more useful.
  • Can distinguish pain from feature. Customers often ask for features, and that's good. But you can't just implement everything they want, how they want it, because they don't have the big picture, they don't have to support everyone else's user-cases, they don't know what's difficult to implement, and they don't know what's idiosyncratic. So the marketer's job is to dig past the surface level "feature request" into the real information: What is the customer really trying to do? What pain is the customer trying to address? That information is critical, and bringing that back to development is one of the most valuable things she can do for the company.
  • Willingness to learn detail. It's a huge red flag whenever someone says "Every company is essentially the same -- we're selling widgets." This is a sign the person isn't interested in understanding your market, your customers, or your product. Fatal Fail.
  • Devotion to measurement. Few people truly embrace measurement. After all, if you don't measure a marketing campaign or a sales funnel, it's easy to explain away any problems and take credit for any successes. If you're measuring, though, you get credit for the successes but the losses are just on you. But you're a startup, so "failure" is only a failure if you refuse to recognize it and do something about it. Of course most marketing efforts won't be super-successful! That's OK -- what's not OK is to blindly forge ahead instead of identifying which ones to keep and which to cancel.
  • A/B tests and similar. A corollary to measurement is a desire for continuous testing like A/B splits for advertisements and web pages. If this people loves "strategy meetings" more than just "trying stuff and seeing what sticks," that's a problem. The goal isn't to be the one who came up with the best idea, it's to find the best idea through any means necessary.
  • Respected by developers. Traditionally developers and marketing/sales have an unhealthy mutual disrespect. Perhaps rightly so, often. But there's no room for that nonsense in a startup. If the marketer isn't a culture-match with the developers, it's not going to work. That doesn't mean they need to be able to write code, but for example someone who loves metrics and wants to talk about statistical significance as it applies to advertisement is probably going to fit in with engineers.
  • Branding is irrelevant. This often comes in the form of "We didn't know whether the magazine ad / tradeshow resulted in sales, but it was good branding / it got our name out there / people will remember us." Coca-Cola needs people to have a warm-fuzzy when staring at a shelfful of sugar water; you just need sales. "Branding" cannot be measured, so it has no place for you. The only branding you need is a strong culture that leeks into everything from the web site to follow-up emails to tech support. A culture, not a "corporate image." A marketer who ascribes value to branding isn't spending time on what's important to you.

P.S. This article was inspired by this question and these answers from Answers.OnStartups.com -- the Q&A forum associated with this blog. Come check it out! We solve problems like these every day.

What do you think? Are these effective in finding good marketing people? What other attributes or questions can you ask? Please leave a comment and join the conversation.

Oh, and if you're interested in more on this topic, there's a chapter in the wildly popular book "Inbound Marketing" from Dharmesh (host of this blog).  Might be worth checking out.

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Why Startups Should ALWAYS Compromise When Hiring

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, Apr 23, 2009

There’s a non-zero chance that you’re reading this because you were thinking:  “What the heck is he talking about?  Shouldn't startups be hiring the best people possible?  What's this about comprimising?”

And, if you were thinking that, you’d be right.  Startups should hire the best people possible.  But, if you re-read the title, you’ll notice that I’m saying you should always compromise.  Why?  Because there’s no such thing as the absolutely perfect hire along every possible dimension.  If you recruit people that you think were a “no-compromise” hire, you’re deluding yourself with unrealistic expectations.  Nobody’s perfect (and if they are, you probably couldn’t recruit or afford them anyways).diamond startup hiring

Everyone you bring on is a compromise.  The trick is to compromise on the right things.

Let me explain.  Here are several different attributes or “dimensions of awesomeness” you might seek for your startup recruit:

1.  Passion:  Are they fired-up?

2.  Experience:  Have they done this particular job before?  Did they succeed at it?

3.  Intelligence:  Are they smart?

4.  Academics:  Do they have the right degree?  From the right place?

5.  Hunger:  Are they motivated?  Are they ambitious?

6.  Risk-Tolerance:  Can they share the risk?  Or, are they looking to make fair market value?

7.  Scrappiness:  Can they get by with little?  Are they resourceful?

8.  Loyalty:  Can you get them to commit to your cause?  Will they be fiercely loyal?

Those are just a few I thought of off the top of my head.  It’s by no means a complete list.  I intentionally left out things like “integrity”, because it’s hard to argue in favor of compromising on integrity.  That’s just plain stupid.

But just about all of the attributes listed above could be compromised a little in exchange for something else.  For example, if you were somehow able to grade a recruit along all these dimensions, you might find that someone scores “average” in the academics dimension — but is off-the-charts smart (happens all the time).  So, you might decide that it’s OK for them not to have an ivy league degree.  Or, someone might be so smart, passionate and entrepreneurial — but lacking in experience.  Perhaps that’s OK too.  Or, maybe you really do have to have the absolutely perfect person along every possible dimension, but they’re so good, you’re just not sure you’re going to be able to keep them engaged.  Perhaps you’ll have to compromise on the loyalty front.

The point is, like with just about everything related to startups (and lots of things in life), there are tradeoffs.  You need to figure out which dimensions are absolutely critical (where you will not give), and which ones you’re willing to compromise a little on.  There’s no right answer — it depends on your business, your culture, your values and your instincts. 

What do you think?  Which attributes of people do you value the most?  What would you be willing to compromise on, if you could get almost everything else?  What things do you hold inviolate — that you would never compromise on?  Please leave a comment.

Or, if you'd prefer, you can take the conversation to twitter.  You can find me @dharmesh on twitter.

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Startup Hiring: An Entrepreneur Disagrees With Entrepreneur Magazine

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jul 14, 2008


I recently came across an article in Entrepreneur magazine that talks about startup hiring mistakes.  I don't know Brad Sugars (the author), but he's a columnist at Entrepreneur magazine and has written 14 books.  Though I'm impressed by the fact that he's a published author, I disagree with several points from the article. 

I also was a bit put-off by the statement "the good thing is that there are some hard and fast rules startups should follow".  I may not know a lot about startups, but one thing I do know is that there are very few "hard and fast" rules.  And, those rules that are hard and fast are rarely interesting enough to talk about.

So, here are my tips for startup hiring startups.  In some instances, these conflict directly with the Entrepreneur article -- in others, they're just different.

1.  Don't Hire Based Solely On Intelligence/Brilliance:  You interview the candidate and she has a PhD from MIT and is off-the-charts smart.  That's great.  Intelligence is an important factor in recruiting for most startups.  But, hiring just on intelligence is usually a mistake.  You need at least two more things:  A passion for getting things done and cohesion with your culture.  (That's a fancy way of saying that they agree with what you stand for and "fit in").

2.  It's Ok To Hire The Inexperienced:  If you find super-smart people that fit the culture and are able to get things done they may be a great recruit -- even if they lack experience.  At my startup HubSpot, we call this hiring people that "haven't seen the movie before" (this is our way of saying:  They don't have experience in the specific role/function).  We've had great success with this. 

3.  It's ok to hire for an undefined role:  In an ideal world, you have a nice clear job description and a role in mind for the person you're trying to hire.  And, your network is so strong and your luck so good that precisely the perfect candidates start dropping into your lap just as you need them.  Unfortunately, most startups are not so lucky.  Sometimes you get the wrong people for the right role (the one you're recruiting for).  Other times, you get the absolute "right" people, but just have no current openings.  Sometimes, it's ok to hire these "superstars" even though they may not fit the job description you are hiring for.

4.  It's Ok To Recruit For The Job You Hate:  You might be good at a lot of things (developing code, designing things, selling, accounting, etc.).  But chances are, you may dislike some of these activities even though you could be good at them.  The good news is that there are smart people out there who love the very stuff you hate.  There's nothing wrong with recruiting people for stuff you're either bad at or just plain don't like to do.

If you're interested in more tips on startup hiring, I kind of like some of my points in "5 Quick Pointers On Startup Hiring".

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Startup Hiring: 6 Subtle Signs You Might Have A Winner

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, May 18, 2007


Many startups that I'm advising, invested in or otherwise involved in, including my own startup, HubSpot, are hiring.  This is a good sign (generally), because growth is usually a sign of success  -- or at least optimism.
As I've written before, hiring for a startup is hard.  Of all the things startups need to do, finding exceptionally talented people that are a good "fit" is likely the hardest.
I've had several meetings in the last couple of weeks with potential recruits. Interestingly, I find that it's usually easy to tell when I'm impressed with someone and think the opportunity is worth exploring further.  What's harder to figure out is why.  So, I gave this some thought and thought about the attributes of some of these recent conversations that signalled to me that I might have a winner.
6 Subtle Signs Your Startup Recruit Might Be A Winner
1.  Strong Opinions, Well Defended:  Just about all of the great people I've ever recruited in my professional career have had opinions.  Strong opinions.  But, it's not enough just to have a strong opinion (lots of people have those).  I like to see people that have strong opinions that are good at explaining why they hold those opinions and defend them well.  On the other hand, people with strong opinions that are weakly defended are not interesting -- they're just stubborn or inarticulate.
2.  Intersecting Disciplines:  My favorite conversations with recruits (I don't really do interviews, I have conversations), are those where we can talk about things other than startups and software development, but still find these conversations somehow "intersecting" (or converging) on some common passions.  I had dinner last night with someone I met for the first time.  Here are some of the things that came up during the course of the dinner conversation: quantum mechanics, degrees in history vs. economics, the quadratic equation and how much math we actually remember, Flex and Silverlight, why Lisp doesn't really provide the startup advantage any more that Paul Graham might think it does, San Diego, the issue with lack of UI abstractions for client-side development, YUI, C# and LINQ.  (That's just what I can remember).  The point is, lots of interesting things happen when non-software discussions intersect software discussions.
3.  Doesn't Feel Like Either Party Is Selling Too Hard:  One thing I hate about "classic" hiring is that it feels too transactional where one or the other side is selling.  My best recruitment efforts were more explorations were neither side was really "selling" and instead the discussion was more collaborative.  If you find yourself having to sell too hard, there's something wrong.  If you find that you are being sold to too hard, there's something wrong.
4.  You Learn Something You Can Use:  For the technical part of the discussion, a good sign that you might have a good recruit on your hands is if you actually, truly learn something that you can use.  It's amazing how many meetings you can have with people that have been working in software for a while, and you don't really learn anything.
5.  Proclivity For Change:  Thinking back on my history, there's a disproportionate number of people I've recruited, that worked out really well, that were already looking to make a big change in their lives.  I'm not talking about job hoppers, but those that are simply not satisified with the status quo and are looking shake things up a bit.  This signals to me folks that have some risk tolerance, don't need to have everything all figured out and are basically willing to "experiment".  Startups, as it turns out, are a series of experiments.  She that can experiment the most often and the most efficiently, wins.
6.  A Palpatable Absence Of The Temptation To Run Screaming:  There are often times when you figure out in the first 10-15 minutes of conversation that the likelihood the person you are talking to is going to work out.  That happens  The right (in a business sense and a politeness sense) to do is to not pass judgement too early because.  They've spent the time to meet with you, you saw something there that warranted the meeting.  Make the most of it.  But, there are times when you not only want the meeting to be over, but you want to run screaming.  For those wondering where the sub-title for this bullet came from, I have to give a head nod to Douglas Adams:  "...the ships float in the air the way that bricks don't..."
Apologies if this particular thread of reasoning is a bit disjointed.  I was up until 4:00 a.m. in the morning last night working on stuff and I'm not feeling energetic enough to actually weave a well-constructed article.  That's the great thing about blogging.  I don't have to.
Let me know if you have any signs or signals of your own that you've found are highly correleated with exceptional talent. 

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5 Quick Pointers On Startup Hiring

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Mar 09, 2007


I’ve been in the startup business for a pretty long time now.  One of the things that I’ve found hardest to do is find and recruit exceptionally talented individuals.  This is not particularly surprising, I think all businesses (big and small, young and old) have this challenge.  However, I think this challenge is particularly acute for startups.

5 Quick Pointers On Startup Hiring

Here are some of my thoughts and ideas on the whole startup recruiting process.  [Side note: I prefer the word “recruiting” instead of “hiring”, but hiring is more widely used and I’m ranked #1 on Google for the term startup hiring and want to maintain that].

  1. The Idea Will Change:  You probably don’t want to recruit people based too strongly on the idea you are pursuing now.  As passionate as you may be about the idea, chances are, it’s going to change.  The right individual will continue to be the right individual even when this change happens.
  1. Help The Best Find YouI’m not a particularly big fan of the classic recruiting channels for one simple reason:  they are not that effective. It’s very inefficient to go out into the world “looking” for that perfect new person for your startup.  The odds of you finding them and convincing them to join you are slim to none.  Instead, I prefer the reverse.  Instead of spending a lot of time going out there looking for the perfect person, invest in activities to help that perfect person find you.  For example, for my current startup, HubSpot, I haven’t been particularly good at going out and finding people.  I have been good and having great people find me.  This is a result of a limited set of activities:  this blog, the HubSpot blog on Internet Marketing, and local startup activities I participate in.  In short, in order to get the best people, you have to help them find you.  This is particularly challenging, because many of the best people are not looking.
  1. What Can You Do For Them?  Too many companies hire based mostly on what they think the new recruit can bring to them.  This is the “what can they do for me” line of thinking.  This is not totally wrong because part of the goal of bringing new people on is clearly to “create value” for the company.  But, I think this is short-sighted.  In addition to asking yourself “what can they do for me?”, also ask:  “What can my startup bring to them?”   Now, many of you may jump to the conclusion that this is “big company thinking”.  Only big companies can afford things like career paths, training programs and other benefits to help develop their employees.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  What I’m driving at is that you need to find ways that the new team member can benefit from your startup that they may not be able to get elsewhere.  Things like greater responsibility, broader use of their capabilities (perhaps they want to do technology and marketing), expanding their personal network should they want to start their own company some day, etc.  At some level, you are playing a passion arbitrage game.  You don’t have the resources to give new hires all the benefits of a larger company.  You shouldn’t try to.  Instead, find people that are passionately looking to get an experience that only you can deliver.  Then, deliver it.
  1. Specialists vs. Generalists:  My co-founder and I have this ongoing debate/discussion on whether it is better for startups to hire specialists (i.e. people that are exceptionally good at one thing) or generalists (i.e. people that are pretty good at lots of things).  I don’t have a good answer for this because a lot depends on the stage of the company and the specific circumstances.  All things being equal (which they never are), I tend to lean towards really smart generalists in the early days because they can wear multiple hats and “specialize” in whatever the company needs at that time.  As the team grows, specialists tend to be more necessary as roles start to crystallize.
  1. Skill vs. Talent:  I generally don’t advocate hiring for skills (which seems to be the way 95% of companies approach the problem).  Instead, I prefer leaning towards talent.  So, although the HubSpot platform is based on ASP.NET and C#, I don’t necessarily look for people that have those skills.  I’d prefer finding developers that have talent whereby the actual language/platform is incidental.  The best people are problem solvers and like to build elegant solutions and are not hung up on specific languages or technologies.  Of course, there’s a line in the sand somewhere.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone work for a company that is writing consumer Internet applications in COBOL.  But, as long as the underlying platform is reasonable for the problem at hand, you should be able to find great people.  In HubSpot’s case, I’m sure there will be people that will refuse to join us based solely on the fact that we are using ASP.NET (instead of Ruby On Rails, Java or whatever their learning is).  That’s ok.  My guess is that most (not all) of these people would not have been a particularly good fit for us anyways.  I’m looking for talent, not skills.

If you’re a startup that is recruiting, would love to hear your thoughts on what has worked for you (and what hasn’t).  On the other hand, if you’re an exceptionally talented and passionate individual that happens to be in the Boston area, I’m always looking.  What I desperately need right now is a devigner (part developer, part designer) that is passionate about building great web applications that delight users and makes them happy. Just send an email to passionatepeople [at] hubspot.com and let me know what I can do for you.

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Can Baseball Strategy Help Your Startup Hire Better?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Feb 06, 2007

For those of you that are regular readers, you may know that in addition to this blog, I also co-author http://www.smallbusinesshub.com with Brian Halligan.

Brian has a very thought-provoking article on SBH titled “Secrets Of Success:  What Baseball Can Teach You About Your Business”.  It’s well worth the read.  If you only have time to read this article or Brian’s, read Brian’s.  Every four to six weeks, Brian really hits one “out of the park” (pun intended), and this is one of those.

For the record, I’m not an avid baseball fan.  I live within walking distance of Boston’s Fenway and have only been to a single game.  Despite this lack of any knowledge about baseball, I found this article extremely interesting because it looks at some of the numbers and statistics behind the game – and how that influences strategy and outcome.

I’m always intrigued by looking for patterns in business.  I think the companies that often succeed are the ones that are able to detect interesting and high-impact patterns that others do not see.  Brian cites the example of hedge-fund managers, which I think is a great example for this “pattern matching” model.  But, I think this applies to all sorts of businesses – including startups.

As a startup founder, one of your biggest challenges is finding the “right” people.  Unfortunately, just like baseball, the “right” person is not necessarily the one with the highest IQ, the most relevant experience, the one with the most degrees or the one that happens to live in the same town as you.  In fact, if you “solve” for one or more of these particular variables, you’re likely going to end up over-paying because you are sub-optimizing at some level.  If you hire the “smartest person you can find”, you are overpaying because your particular need may not necessarily need the “smartest person you can find”.  In essence, you are paying a premium for a trait that is not likely to give you a return.

In any case, I just wanted to share Brian’s article and possibly spark some discussion around how a more analytical approach might be applied to startup hiring.  Any thoughts?


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17 Pithy Insights for Startup Employees

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Sep 29, 2006

For some reason, one of my articles titled “Startup Hiring:  Why You Should Date Before Getting Married”  continues to be ranked #1 on Google when searching for startup hiring.  As such, it seems there is some interest in this topic and there isn’t nearly enough written about it.  Many people write about starting companies and being a founder – much fewer write about going to work for a startup.

So, along the lines of my also popular “17 Pithy Insights For Startup Founders”, I thought I’d write one of my “pithy” articles for startup employees – or those thinking about joining a startup.

17 Pithy Insights For Startup Employees
  1. If you’re just looking for a job, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.  

  1. Seeks signs of potential future success early.  Working for a growing, thriving startup is much more fun.

  1. If the value of the education does not exceed the value of the salary, you’re doing something wrong.  

  1. Working long, hard hours is not mandatory, because working for a startup is not mandatory.

  1. You probably won’t have a boss.  If you want or need a boss, work for a big company.

  1. Learn to balance risk.  Working for all equity or all cash is not likely the right answer.

  1. If you’re not building something you think you’ll be proud of, it’s not worth it.  Life is short.

  1. Be informed.  Learn the basics of things like shares, options, vesting schedules and dilution.

  1. Remember that the number of shares/options you get means nothing.  Think percentages

  1. Be passionate about building a product, not building your resume.  If you do it right, an exceptional product will become your resume.

  1.  Startup founders are usually quirky people.  Get used to it.

  1.  Wear as many hats as possible.  Help out where you can. 

  1.  Don’t worry too much about being fired.  Most startups need their employees more than the employees need their startup.

  1.  Go beyond just equity ownership, take emotional ownership.  

  1.  Take lots of photos and keep all memorabilia.  You’ll probably want these someday.

  1.  If you’re not having fun, you’re in the wrong place.

  1.  Try to make the experience a success, even if the startup isn’t.

Which of the above is your favorite?  Do you have any of your own to add?  If I get enough, I’ll post a follow-up article with reader contributions.

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