The MKT1 interview: Growth marketing in 2021, hiring versus outsourcing and more

Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich are the founders of of MKT1, a strategic marketing firm that does much more than just marketing. As we mentioned the last time we spoke with the company, it offers a plethora of services ranging from marketing consulting and organizing recruiting and mentoring workshops to angel syndicate investing.

The two founders took to Twitter Spaces on July 20 with TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton to talk about about the growth marketing industry. They offered some new perspectives, like thinking of growth marketing as an engine and other subdivisions of marketing that make up growth marketing, as the fuel.

After talking about what they were seeing in marketing, we opened the floor for a Q&A session that founders took advantage of to ask how to know when to hire a marketer and when is it good to outsource.

Below is an excerpt from the Twitter Spaces event, edited for length and clarity.

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What is growth marketing?

Emily Kramer: I think the easiest way to think about it is: Marketing consists of the fuel and an engine. Growth marketing is the engine and content marketing, product marketing, comms, events — all of that are your fuel. It’s building that engine: Everything from building marketing ops and making sure that you’re tracking and can get everything out the door, to what you’re doing with email, ads, SEO and on your website. All of these things that are used to drive your audience throughout your funnel.

“Marketing consists of the fuel and an engine. Growth marketing is the engine and content marketing, product marketing, comms, events — all of that are your fuel.”

It’s not just getting someone to sign up or getting someone to be a qualified lead to pass over to sales. It’s also supporting the customer success team and the product team. Anything that is communicating with your audience in a one-to-many way is how I think about the marketing function. Specifically growth marketing in general — it’s a full funnel, it’s the engine, and it’s ever changing.

We in marketing have 5,000 names for everything, including growth marketing. You’ll often hear in top-down sales organizations it is called demand gen, but I really think of demand gen as a subset of growth marketing focused specifically on driving leads to sales. That’s kind of what it is and how I define it. Every marketer you talk to would define it a little bit differently.

What does the landscape of growth marketing look like in 2021? What are you seeing in summer 2021?

Kramer: We’re seeing two major shifts. One is thinking about how community is a part of this, or at least throwing around the word “community” for things that have always been done. “Community-led growth” is obviously a big buzzword; that’s basically getting people in conversation to drive growth. The phrase “product-led growth” is another, and that is really just another way to describe self-serve.

Having growth marketers who can collaborate with product growth roles and product growth teams and having one centralized team has been a trend over the past 10 years. But now the term product-led growth is what we use for all of that. Marketers love to rebrand even their own functions.

Kathleen Estreich: A lot of companies are starting to think about growth marketing earlier. We’re seeing a lot of companies thinking about hiring their first marketer. It used to be you’d hire at Series A, but because all the funding rounds are sort of being moved up a level, a lot of seed-stage companies are thinking about growth earlier.

The skill sets of growth marketers are in high demand. They always have been, but it feels pretty acute right now. Given that a lot of the companies are raising money earlier and starting to try and build that traction faster to grow into the valuations, we’re starting to see a huge need. Pretty much every company we talked to is wanting to hire and thinking about growth levers they should be using earlier.

Where is there an oversupply of folks? Where is there an undersupply? Where’s the demand today? What’s underutilized today?

Estreich: In general, marketers are in pretty high demand. Product marketing in particular has been pretty interesting. We’re seeing a lot of folks in product marketing roles, because typically, the first marketer at a startup is someone who has product marketing experience and there are many companies being started and they’re looking for product marketers. And finding someone who has the experience in product marketing, who’s not just coming from a big company.

I think product marketing at a larger organization, you’re very much tied to a product line; you’re doing just product marketing. But at an early-stage company, you’re not doing just product marketing; you also need someone who understands distribution. So we encourage a lot of companies to hire someone that is what we call a pi-shaped marketer: Someone who has depth and competence in two areas of marketing.

Usually it’s product marketing and growth marketing, and finding that person is really challenging in a normal market. I would say in this market in particular, it’s a pretty tough role to fill. But if you can find the right person, you might have to make some trade-offs on either the level or the experience that you’re bringing someone in. But if you can find a person who has competence in product and growth marketing, I think that’s someone a lot of companies can benefit from in the early days of building their marketing teams.

Kramer: I’ve had a couple of startups that I’ve talked to, even in recent weeks, and I’ve heard, “Oh, our first marketer is going to be a community marketer.” That role is evolving and changing a lot. Back when I started doing startup marketing, about 10 years ago, community really meant social media, and it doesn’t mean that at all anymore. So finding people that have had that exact role before is really difficult.

In some cases, when people say community marketing, they mean they’ve done a lot of content, virtual events or customer success. I think when people post that role, it’s kind of like square peg, round hole or not knowing if it’s square peg, round hole. I sometimes see this mismatch on roles that are posted and the talent that is actually available.

I think my advice to marketers based on that is: Really read the job description, and maybe the title — does it match exactly what you’ve done, or does the title even match what you think you should be doing? Maybe there’s an opportunity there to kind of educate on what you can do and also educate on how to define roles in really early-stage companies.

When is a good time to start working with a growth marketer?

Estreich: A question we hear quite often is, “When do I know is the right time to hire my first marketer?” One of the things that Emily and I often tell founders is, the founding team is the first marketing team. You’re doing a lot of the early messaging and positioning. Usually kind of the early vision — that’s probably how you raised money. I think the way to think about it is to take a step back and ask, “Okay, what are the needs? What are the things that we’re trying to get done?” And thinking about product-market fit.

I think a product marketer, growth marketer or pi-shaped marketer is generally the first person that you would bring on. You want to make sure before you bring your first marketer that you actually have a product that’s ready to go to market. And if not, then it’s probably worth waiting until you have the product out there with some semblance of a handful of customers. Once you have that, then it might be time to start thinking about who that first marketer is.

I think the first marketer then is usually some combination of a product marketer with growth experience or a growth marketer with product marketing experience. Someone who, like Emily said at the beginning of the call, has experience with your business model and is ready to roll up their sleeves, because the first marketing job when you’re an early-stage company involves wearing a lot of hats, testing a lot of hypotheses and doing a lot of the work.

So you want to make sure that you don’t hire someone too senior who is not going to want to do the work. They’re just going to want to hire a team, which you’re probably not ready for. You also want to make sure they’re not too junior and they don’t even know what to do yet. Finding that balance, a midlevel person, is also going to be important.

Kramer: You mentioned that a product marketer can help you find the right niche to focus on. I think you should have some customers and a starting place. A better way to describe product marketers is actually audience marketers — they are figuring out how to communicate what you do to a specific audience. You probably have some idea, but they’re going to help you continue to explore within your team, like, “Should we expand to other audiences? Should we stay within this niche? What do those different audiences need? Are we talking to customers? What are they saying?”

They are responsible for knowing everything about your audience and also helping you grow into and test new audiences. That’s a huge part of the product marketing role. But again, it can be really risky to bring that person on too early at the sacrifice of building product and getting things out the door.

Is MKT1 seeing any trends with B2B and growth-stage businesses around the balance between hiring FTEs and outsourcing certain marketing functions?

Kramer: Early on, I think founders think, “I don’t need to hire a marketer. I’m spending so much time on marketing, but I don’t need to hire a marketer, or I’ll just hire a contractor or agency for content. I’ll hire a contractor or agency for paid or for SEM or even for SEO.” Then you end up with all of these contractors. But contractors, even the best of contractors, are only good when they have a contact or someone to help them review things, and when they have clear instructions on what they need to do. Because you’re working with so many clients, you can’t get up to speed on all of that quickly.

The management overhead of a contractor agency is sometimes just as much as doing the work yourself, especially if you are not experienced in that area, because of all the back and forth. Many times, marketing is more iterative than some other areas of the business where you can hand over some things, especially when it comes to the creative aspects, because you’re figuring out what your brand is. There’s just going to be a lot of back and forth.

I think there are a couple of areas where agencies and contractors are better to hire. One of those areas is paid searches. You won’t need to hire an SEM specialist for a while. And it is definitely a specialty; it is a unique beast and kind of changes a lot, what’s working and what’s not. Having someone who understands how that works and is inside AdWords all day is really helpful, so that’s a good area to bring someone on. So no matter the size of my marketing team, I think I’ve always had a search agency to augment. Even when I’ve had a dedicated search person on my team, I’ve still had an agency to augment them. That’s something you’ll always need; you’ll need different agencies as you scale to do different things.

I think another area where it makes sense is on the content side, to augment the content people or your product marketer. Again, you need to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to write about, what you’re trying to say, what your unique perspective is, what your brand is, before you start paying a contractor to write a bunch of content. Because what you’re going to end up with if you do that, is just a bunch of content that doesn’t really say anything; it doesn’t really drive a goal.

So content, paid search, always really good areas. And then as you scale — not at the beginning, most likely there are some exceptions depending on what type of business you are — but PR is the other area where media relationships, I mean, we’re talking to TechCrunch here, but like they can probably speak more to this. But media relationships are something where economies of scale really come into play. So having an agency that is a master in media or has a bunch of media relationships makes a lot of sense. That’s more later on. PR, content and paid search, but make sure you have people internally to manage them or it can become more detrimental than helpful.