The following is a guest post by Moran Barnea, COO at Ion Asset Management.
CMOs often play a major role in a young startup’s evolution, so it’s especially important when it comes to hiring one, to get an idea of how well-suited they are to your startup before they even join. Happily, there a few key questions that a CMO candidate is likely to ask you during the interview that you can prepare for in advance, which will shed some light fairly quickly on whether you are a good fit for one another.
Working at a startup usually involves risk for potential employees, whether it’s taking risks to move forward or the inherent risk of working for a company whose future isn’t entirely certain. Obviously startups aren’t as stable as large companies or corporations so they tend to be more affected by business changes and market swings, and people often fail to understand how this might affect their day-to-day work as a startup employee. From sudden budget downsizing to ongoing changes in the team, “ups and downs” are a natural part of startup life. Nevertheless, many choose to work at startups because of the fast pace, the ability to influence a company’s growth and the possibility of winning the coveted trophy at the end of the trying obstacle course – an exit.
Unlike developers, programmers and other employees who are more involved in the product and roadmap, business roles such as marketing, sales and business development come with greater risk. They may have little impact on the technology and the product, but they are responsible for the company’s bottom line, exposure, leads and sales.
Personally, I do not believe that you can successfully market a product unless you have a real connection to the product itself.
Excellent marketing requires a lot of passion and dedication, and if a CMO doesn’t feel that passion, their attitude will be reflected accordingly and it will show both internally as well as to people outside of the company.
Keeping this in mind, it’s very important to ensure that there’s a good connection between whoever is doing the hiring for this senior position (usually you, the founder) and the CMO candidate. But perhaps even more importantly, the expectations associated with the role should be absolutely clear to everyone involved right from the start, because this could spare a tremendous amount of heartache down the road.
Here are 6 questions that a CMO is likely to ask you at their job interview to get a deeper understanding of the role, your vision as the founder, and any potential red flags. If you don’t have answers for some of these, you’d do well to give them some thought and prepare accordingly in order to make the most of the interview and of your (and the CMO candidate’s) time:
1. What is the company’s marketing budget?
Even if you’re not able to give a precise number, an approximate monthly or annual budget should tell an experienced CMO a lot about how they will need to go about achieving the marketing goals or whether it is even feasible to achieve them with such a budget.
Usually when startups hire to fill their first marketing role, the budget for the upcoming year is based on a predetermined forecast, often before the CMO joins. Marketing professionals are able to estimate whether or not a certain budget fits specific goals and therefore whether it’s possible to meet your expectations.
If you’re a founder who doesn’t have a marketing background, it’s possible that you will have set expectations based on a budged that isn’t realistic, and a professional CMO would know this, so it would be wise to either change the budget based on the CMOs recommendation or amend your expectations so that the CMO isn’t turned off by a role that is seemingly “asking the impossible”. Or perhaps you can work together to come up with a set of priorities that is achievable with your set budget, and set the expectations accordingly.
2. Are you planning to hire sales or business development professionals?
The nature of the CMO’s role varies from company to company in terms of responsibility, leadership capacity, decision-making and influence over other departments. It may often include responsibility for collaborations and supporting the sales effort, so the question of whether you are planning such functions will help the CMO understand what responsibilities are likely to fall under the marketing role and how it will affect the nature of their work as CMO at the startup.
3. Are you planning to recruit other marketers?
If you are interviewing for the first marketing role in the company, this is an important question for a prospective CMO to ask. Although many startups have a limited budget, the answer to this question will help them understand whether it will be possible to recruit additional people for their team or hire freelancers. Aside from understanding if this is a managerial role too, marketing in startups is intense and requires hands-on involvement. But sometimes, to make their work efficient, it may be necessary to hire more people, whether it’s as permanent in-house staff or external providers.
4. What are your expectations for the coming year from the marketing activities?
One of the best things about entrepreneurs is their enthusiasm. I personally enjoy meeting entrepreneurs with a spark in their eyes, and love talking to them about how to raise their marketing to the next level. But enthusiasm can be a double-edged sword, leading to blind optimism in the face of real issues that need to be addressed. Asking about the company’s marketing expectations for the coming year can help a CMO figure out whether your plan can realistically work with the allocated budget or in the given timeframe. If the CMO raises some concerns about your expectations based on your proposed budget or the stage that the product or company is at, then you should discuss it now and aim to resolve it so that you are all on the same page.
5. Which marketing channels do you want to focus on?
Do you intend to go to various conferences and tradeshows? Are you looking to focus on PPC activities? Do you want to build vibrant and active social communities? Are you more interested in exposure or getting leads? A brief discussion on this subject during the interview process can help the CMO to better understand the direction of the company and whether there is a match between their skills and what is required from the CMO role. If Facebook advertising is a major priority for you but not the prospective CMO’s area expertise, this may not be the right fit.
Also, if you’re looking for an outgoing CMO who will host events and bring potential clients to the company’s booth by hiring dancers and the CMO you are interviewing comes across as a more conservative sort of marketer, the fit is probably not there.
6. How do you envisage that the company will evolve in the coming years?
This is another question that can shed light for the CMO on the bigger picture and your vision as the founder. An experienced marketer should be able to distinguish between various companies and founders and understand that not all are potential unicorns, so if you describe your startup as such at a very early stage, this can come across as a “red flag” for a prospective CMO. Also, not answering this question may indicate a possible lack of direction or purpose on your part, so you should really be ready to answer this question (not just in this job interview scenario, but in general) and have a realistic vision for your startup, both for the short and long term.
At the end of the day, the CMO is one of the most important roles in the management team of a startup. A good CMO who wants to influence is a pillar of the company. Marketers should be on the same wavelength as the founders and understand the big picture, so the interview process is an opportunity for both of you: For them, it’s a chance to get an idea of what you are like as a founder and to be introduced to the people they will be working with during the long days and nights ahead in an effort to build a successful company; and for you, it’s a chance to assess whether the person in front of you is the kind of CMO who will be able to take your startup to new heights based on your vision and priorities.
It’s therefore prudent for both the CMO and for you to ask each other the right questions even at this preliminary stage in order to avoid being surprised by critical differences that might only become apparent later on.