MKT1: Developer marketing is what startup marketing should look like

MKT1 is a strategic marketing firm founded by experienced startup executives that is everything but a marketing agency. It advises startups on marketing approaches, recruiting and mentoring workshops, with some angel syndicate investing as well. It also provides a job board, a newsletter and workshops for marketers.

Founders Kathleen Estreich and Emily Kramer say they are responding to a few big trends in the startup world. These days, young companies are raising more capital than ever and facing increased pressure to maintain rapid growth, but founders are typically focused on technology and product problems. The result, as they have sometimes seen firsthand, is marketing coming in too early or too late to truly help a startup grow. Instead, Kramer and Estreich help companies make marketing a core part of how they execute from their early days.

Estreich, previously at Facebook, Box, Intercom and Scalyr, and Kramer, previously Ticketfly, Asana, Astro and Carta, were recommended to us through our survey seeking recommendations for top growth marketers in the startup industry. (If you have your own recommendation, please fill out the survey.)

In the interview below, they share more about how they recruit startup marketers and advise founders to approach marketing based on needs and several other issues that are critical for early-stage startups.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

TC: You’re both accomplished marketers and have worked at big-name companies. What made you decide to leave that career and open your own marketing firm?

Estreich: It was different for both of us. I was working at Scalyr and I left actually and had a baby. COVID hit and we were uncertain … Emily and I have known each other for several years, so she and I started talking over a year ago about what we were up to and what we were thinking about. One of the trends that we were seeing was a lot of the companies when we started were typical founders [focused on technology and product], and there was a gap around helping them go to market and helping them with marketing.

We started talking and realized that we love working with founders; we love working with early-stage companies. We wanted to do that full time. So we started doing that fall of last year and it’s been awesome. We’ve gotten to work with a lot of interesting companies and we’re starting to see a lot of trends. Hiring is a huge, huge thing, and it’s figuring out who’s the right person, when do you hire them, how do you find them, and how do you hire them.

Kramer: It’s somewhat similar for me. I had been the first, or first-ish, marketer at TicketFly and then at Asana — I was a marketer there and built up a team to about 25 people. I really love building teams, and I like them at scale too. I love the puzzle that is building a marketing team with all of the different functions, whether its hiring or figuring out what to do strategically.

Then I joined a seed-funded company — again, because I love building — a company called Astro. I actually had this experience where they hired too senior, too early on the marketing side, which is also a mistake I see people making. While we were trying to find product-market fit, I realized I was probably too senior coming off my experience at Asana. I then went to Carta — but Carta was 300 people. We didn’t have marketing at all. They had stops and starts and had a large-scale organization, so I built that marketing team up — just much later [stage].

I ended up filing a lawsuit alleging claims for gender discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination. [Ed. TechCrunch coverage here]. After an experience like that, you start to reevaluate things. So Kathleen and I started advising companies together and it’s become more than just advising. We help early companies build their marketing functions across the board.

TC: You focus on SaaS companies. Is there a reason that you have that focus versus going broader?

Estreich: That’s been our experience. Since leaving Facebook, I worked at B2B SaaS companies, with different audiences and different stages, so that’s been my experience. I think there’s a huge opportunity for marketing and it is changing in the B2B SaaS world.

Kramer: While we do focus on SaaS marketing, I think our sweet spot is in modern marketing, and significantly, self-serve as well as a lot of developer marketing. We actually think that developer marketing is how all of our things should be. It focuses on adding value, and it focuses on treating people like humans.

TC: You’ve written extensively about how to think about marketing in the earliest stages of a company. So what are the biggest mistakes that you see founders still making in 2021?

Estreich: I would say either they go too early or too late with who they’re hiring. Or one of the things that we talked about is that your first marketers are actually your founders. They’re the ones who help tell your story and do your early marketing.

I think a big part of it is finding that right team early on, and one of the key insights that we’ve written about is that the first marketer should be really a pi-shaped marketer. It’s someone who has breadth and depth, who has experience with product marketing and growth marketing. It is your first marketing hire. Regardless of what you’re hiring them for, they do everything since you don’t have anyone else. They are the default of every aspect of marketing.

Kramer: It’s not necessarily that you’re an expert in two areas instead of all the areas — product marketing, growth marketing, content marketing. So two of those areas, and normally, that is growth marketing and product marketing, based on what they need.

Estreich: When you’re thinking about going to market, some companies think that content is going to be the most important thing, so your first marketer should be pretty competent in it.

Kramer: I think the No. 1 thing that we look for, when we help companies with job descriptions and planning, is someone that is strategic and scrappy. But they also need to be able to set their own goals and figure out what to do, because the other trend that we see in marketing and marketing hires, is that founders will give marketers goals like “write 10 blog posts.”

That’s not the goal. What are you trying to drive? Are you trying to drive web traffic, because it actually just disincentivizes me as a content person or as a marketer to write good content if I have to write 10 pieces. It instead drives 50,000 page views. I could go write one really amazing data study or well-researched piece that does all of that that drives way more than 10 shitty posts.

Estreich: You could do a smaller number of things better and get the same outcomes. So it’s really that balance of a bunch of things you could do. And one of the most common conversations Emily and I have with marketers right now is, “How do I prioritize? What should I do?”

Kramer: “How do I set goals really about prioritization and how do I have my goals set in a way that is focused on these different activities?” Find that sweet spot of someone who still wants to get their hands dirty and wants to go early but can think strategically about what we are doing uniquely and how are we going to have an impact.

Estreich: People who have experience with your business model is another thing that we look at. So if you’re a top-down enterprise sales company, the marketing function in various fields are very different than if you’re bottom, inbound-driven. So hiring someone that matches what you think your go-to-market is going to look like, I think, is an important thing. It’s a different way of viewing the world, and if you compare companies, they might hire someone who has done one or the other. But you want someone who actually is new because that’s more important than almost the industry experience.

Kramer: Sometimes consumer stuff might be more similar to your business model. To amplify what Kathleen was saying about the industry, I think a lot of times I work with tech companies and they’re like we need people that have done fintech or finance. Now, you’re narrowing an already small pool for an early-stage marketing role to an even smaller pool. Getting a person that’s not too senior in their career, that’s full of ambition and can learn quickly is worth it versus them having the experience. Your company should have other people that are experts in the areas.

Estreich: So I think part of that, too, is a willingness and excitement around the audience. Similar to Emily, I’ve worked in marketing for very different audiences in my career. And part of it is like, am I excited about diving in and learning about this space?

TC: What are the major trends that you’re seeing in marketer hiring right now?

Kramer: Companies are going to marketers early on. One reason is that companies are in the larger rounds earlier than ever before. When you have more money to spend on go-to-market and marketing earlier, you’re bringing on marketers while earlier on.

Now some founders still aren’t. And they’re like, “Oh, we don’t need marketing.” But founders that really know that they need to differentiate how they’re doing distribution — which in my opinion would be a company that’s successful — are like, “Oh, we have more money to hire earlier on.” So there’s a shortage [of marketers], I think. I imagine that we will start to see turnover right after Labor Day, when some companies make people go back to the office.

Estreich: Yeah, we’re keeping a very close eye on going back to the office.

Kramer: I think it’s harder than ever with early-stage marketing goals.

Estreich: There are many more companies that are starting earlier and getting funding, and then when you get that funding earlier, there’s pressure to grow earlier. You’re like, “OK, we need marketing help sooner.” And then the bigger companies are doing great, people are like, “I’m sitting on this large exit package — what’s my incentive to go?”

Kramer: I think there is starting to be a little less stigma on the job bouncing; people are like, “This isn’t great, I’m super lonely and I’m at home, I’m not being treated great. … I’m going to go somewhere else.” I think there’s also just more attrition in marketing roles than in other roles. Because to be the head of marketing you typically need to understand these different areas of marketing, and if you’re at a large company then you’re going to get siloed and you’re not going to learn these things and you’re going to stifle your career.

Estreich: Yeah, being clear about the benefits and the downsides of a big job is important. I’ve always appreciated this about companies that I’ve talked to, or about joining, that tell me everything so that when I get there, I’m not surprised. Because if you try and surprise me, I’m gonna find out anyway. To the extent that, you know, you could learn as much as you can without joining.

I think that’s important. And that’s what we’re trying to do on both sides, like help companies, set these jobs up for success. And then on the marketer side, help them know what it’s actually going to be like and to the extent that we can do some sort of matching to help find good people for these companies that we think are good fits.

In one of your Substack posts, you said that “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.” How do you work with companies to ensure that their goals are appropriate for the stage that they’re at?

Kramer: There are things that we say “keep the lights on,” like traffic numbers, conversion numbers.

Estreich: The steady state of marketing.

Kramer: And then there are things that can cause step-change growth, if you measure to find them. If you’re measuring everything against the same measures/metrics, you’re never going to get there, because the tests are never going to perform as well as the stuff that has already been up and running.

So it’s also about breaking up your goals. “Here are the big steps we’re taking and here are the step-change drivers that we hypothesize are a good idea and here’s how we’re going to test these things.” It’s the balancing of these quick wins and things that keep the lights on and long-term projects and how to bite off a little bit to test it.

Estreich: “What are we trying to do?” And then, “What’s the action plan we need to put together?” Other than that, “What can we do in the next three months?” And then, “What do we need to do and invest in the next several months?”

Kramer: You know, this is why I always say there’s so many different things that you can do. And I don’t think founders realize how many things there are to do, because founders often think of marketing in a couple of pockets. They’re like, “Oh, it’s ads, PR.” But it’s a lot more than that; it’s many things that are going to drive growth, both short term and long term. That’s a very fast definition of marketing, but that’s basically what it is. But there’s so many different things to do.

You’re more than most agencies, you’re angel investors and advisers. Is that how you think about yourselves, are you an operator rather than a growth marketing agency?

Kramer: We’re not a marketing agency; we are strategic marketers. We’re going to recommend agencies that you should work with. Part of this is like, “Could we go be operator VCs? Could we go raise a fund?” Yeah, probably … we’re doing this as advising and investing. We actually treat a lot of what we’re doing like you would at a SaaS company. We realized everybody wants help with recruiting. So we iterated on some stuff [and] launched a new job board.

And then we do angel investing. We’re always interested in iterating on what we’re doing there. So yes, there’s a huge switch toward people raising money from operators who are definitely part of that shift. We want to help as many companies as [we can whose] values are mission aligned. And we also want to elevate markers. … I’m a marketer. That’s what I do. It’s marketing.

So it’s a bad word and marketers are/aren’t angel investors, and marketers often get paid less and marketers are often thought of as second-class citizens in the company. So we want to elevate the role of marketing too and help other workers. As much as we want to help companies grow, we also want to help marketers. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to do all of those things.

Estreich: We started off like, “OK, what do we like to do? Where do we see the market?” We like helping founders sort of think through early-stage marketing jobs, as we could do that as advisers then, you know. What are the common themes that we’re seeing? Everyone needs help on recruiting: How can we help not just these companies, but generally as well, which is like the job board that we talked about.

And I think there is a need in the market, like we talked about at the beginning, where there are many companies that started earlier with technical founders dealing with exposure to a lot of the business side. Companies that have good marketing are going to be more successful. That’s why we’re advising them, and that’s why we’re working with those marketers. That’s a main reason we started what we’re doing.