Why It's Hard for Startups In The Northern Powerhouse To Find Effective Marketers

You’ve built a good product, good enough for someone to invest some money into it. Not a huge round, but enough for you consider to think about hiring your next person. With investment comes expectations, especially around your businesses growth. The sensible decision of course is to hire someone with a marketing background. After all, it’s their responsibility to get new customers, isn’t it?

But your round isn’t huge, and you’re in the technology industry, so experienced marketers are in demand. They’re expensive. You can’t afford one of those. Instead, you hire a junior. You’re busy, so you can’t mentor them. But it’s marketing, how hard can it be?

12 months later, you haven’t hit your goals. You’ve spent a fortune on AdWords, Facebook Ads, events, anything. You look at your marketer but they’re out of answers. Sack the marketer. Desperately try and raise a smaller, sideways round or a round from investors who will hold your business back even further.

Sound familiar?

This is the situation that many technology businesses are falling into, in the North of the UK as well as across the globe. The reality is the few marketers that are experienced aren’t available or affordable, and founders just don’t have the time to train a junior marketer.

What’s holding the UK startup environment back when it comes to marketing?

Good Marketing Is a Big Investment

Nobody starts a startup with the intention of training employees how to do marketing. Perceived as a luxury department or an indulgence, as opposed to a core part of business infrastructure. The idea of investing too much of your limited resources into marketing just doesn’t make sense. So you invest just enough to have it, but never enough to make it work.

If you have a small team, your marketer is going to have to wear a few hats. Most startups don’t have an obvious go to market, so you need someone who can execute everything from SEO, PR, paid media etc, and then the data skills to evaluate whether what they’ve done is actually working. There’s not a marketer in the world who will do everything you need justice, let alone one without experience or guidance from someone who does.

And even if you do have the time to train them, your focus is always going to get pulled into building the product a lot more than taking that product to market.

Experienced, effective marketers are expensive. And hard to find

Neither Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle or any other major northern cities are considered to be in the upper-echelon in any index of startup cities. Whereas San Francisco, Berlin and London have communities seeded by ex-employees of established startups, the North West is still treading new ground.

The skills gap is very real. According to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, employers consider the skills gap the inhibitor of growth and investment. Included in their document Greater Manchester Work & Skills - Strategy and Priorities 2016 to 2019, skill gaps in industries including Digital, “holds GM[Greater Manchester] back”.

Employees who have some experience delivering on soft metrics like awareness, brand and traffic may look attractive on paper, but the skills and mindset needed to deliver true business growth is completely different.

Marketing for technology companies has different expectations

To start with, steady and consistent growth isn’t enough. Tech startups require exponential growth. This can rarely be achieved with just customer acquisition, and this is a mindset that first time tech founders struggle to comprehend.

Exponential growth will only happen when acquisition, engagement and retention are all working in complete harmony. Whilst acquisition is a skillset most people are familiar with, engagement and retention aren’t. In fact, I find it a rarity they’re even spoken of in the same sentence of growth.

This requires a marketer who can execute over the entire user journey. A marketer who can understand product and deep user analysis too. You are unlikely to acquire this type of thinking through hiring someone whose goal has been to deliver marketing associated deliverables, not drive growth in core business KPIs.

Driving growth for technology companies requires efforts across acquisition, engagement and retention. Every project should be prioritised by its ability to contribute positively towards one of these areas, and not just projects within the marketing department.

The skills required to effectively grow a software business are different

For a startup, soft goals like press mentions, awareness, brand or buzz are nice, but it’s hard metrics like users, active users and revenue that really decide it’s fate.

Delivering on these goals needs a different marketing toolkit.

There’s perhaps no better explanation of this conundrum than that provided by Jason Lemkin. There are two types of marketers and the one that’s most commonly found and hired will be more likely to deliver you “a bunch of Blue Pens with your logo on” rather than customers.

Marketers tend to fall into two categories: those focussed on brand/corporate marketing, and those focussed on user acquisition/demand generation. Before the Internet established itself as a channel able to deliver as a true acquisition engine, Corporate Marketing was king. And that’s why many of these types of marketers exist in the job market today.

I’m not downplaying the importance of corporate and brand marketing. Corporate Marketing is vital AFTER you have reached scale. “It’s all about reinforcing positive images on the brand and product before a buying decision (to accelerate it and increase the odds of closing), and post-buying, so that you’ll buy more” extends Lemkin.

But brand marketing is very expensive, and in the early days, it very rarely delivers results.

What early stage technology businesses need is someone who understands lead generation, web nurturing, scaling acquisition channels and operating within strict unit economics (am I paying more for my users than they’re worth in revenue?). Brand marketers don’t work within these remits.

Demand generation and acquisition marketers are more about numbers than they are about brand stories. They spend £X and getY number of new users. Their work might not be as pretty or inspirational as that of a brand marketer, but without those early results, there’ll be no business on which to grow a brand out of.

Don’t Rush Into It

It’s so tempting to go out into the market and hire someone with a strong corporate resume. Maybe they’ve worked in a huge business you admire and have strong leadership skills. But if their only experience with fire is tending to one, chances are they’ll not know how to light an ember.

But don’t make the mistake. Be patient. Wait for the right one to come along, and when you do, do everything you can to get them to be part of your business because they should always be able to demonstrate their worthiness as an investment for you.

If you’re reading this and you’re a startup in the UK who wants more clarity on how they’ll find acquisition, please reach out to me. I’ve made it my life’s work figuring this out, and the conversations are just as valuable to me whether they turn into a sale or not. I’ve got no qualms in sharing the insights I’ve spent 8 years learning. Or, subscribe to our blog below. I’ll be sharing what I think the solution to this is in the future.

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