When a B2B SaaS startup begins its journey, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future. However, one thing that often remains consistent is the evolving role of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) or Head of Marketing at the early stages. As the company matures and scales, the CMO’s responsibilities shift significantly, but does the person wearing the CMO hat need to change too? In today’s environment, the average tenure of a CMO today is less than 18 months, a trend partly due to the rise of fractional executives. But does a startup always need different leaders at various stages? Let’s examine this.
Pre-Seed/Seed Stage (pre-revenue to <$1M ARR): At this early stage, the startup is often still defining its product-market fit and understanding its target audience. The Head of Marketing here should be extremely hands-on and versatile, often involved in both strategy and execution. This includes branding, positioning, customer segmentation, crafting marketing messages, and sometimes even product development. At this point, they may need to directly interact with early customers and possibly handle social media, PR, and content creation themselves. The main goal at this stage is to validate the startup’s product/service, gain some initial traction, and attract seed investment.
Series A Stage ($1M to $10M ARR): By Series A, startups typically have some proof of concept and market validation, and are now looking to scale their product and market presence. Should they hire a full-stack CMO at this stage? Or continue with the Head of or VP of Marketing? That depends on the capabilities of their current Marketing leader, other executives on the leadership team, funding availability, company’s business model and other factors. Regardless of the title, the Marketing leader should still be a “doer” but also start building a small, focused marketing team. They should work on setting up scalable marketing strategies, creating growth and demand generation plans, working closely with the sales team, and optimizing the product-market fit based on customer feedback. They should be skilled at lean marketing techniques and make data-driven decisions to optimize ROI from the marketing budget. They also start focusing on establishing strong brand identity and messaging.
Series B/C Stage ($10M to $100M ARR): At this stage, the company is looking to further scale and grow market share. The CMO now needs to be adept at managing a larger team and complex marketing campaigns across multiple channels. The role often becomes more strategic, but still with a strong understanding of tactical execution. Key areas of focus include market expansion, customer retention, brand development, and demand generation. It’s also important at this stage to align marketing with the sales and product teams to ensure a consistent customer journey and messaging.
As the company scales, it becomes crucial for leaders to build on successful go-to-market strategies, establish repeatable processes, and focus on operational efficiencies and automation.
Late-Stage Pre-IPO and Post-IPO: As the company moves towards an IPO, the CMO’s role becomes increasingly strategic and focused on managing relationships with investors, stakeholders, analysts, and the media. The CMO will oversee multiple teams responsible for various marketing functions (like corporate communications/PR, branding, growth, customer marketing, product/segment marketing, digital marketing, etc.) and should have strong leadership skills. The CMO should guide the marketing strategy to ensure it supports business objectives, such as expanding into new markets or segments, improving brand reputation, and ensuring consistent growth. They should also foster a strong marketing culture and values within their teams.
Post-IPO: Once the company is publicly traded, the CMO’s role involves a considerable amount of investor relations and public-facing communication. They play a significant role in maintaining the company’s public image, crafting messages for shareholders, and managing the company’s reputation. They should have a strong understanding of the company’s business model and be able to articulate this to external stakeholders. Strategic planning, leadership, and the ability to navigate the complexities of a large, public company become paramount.
Just as the role of the marketing leader transforms, so does the role of the Head of Sales or Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) throughout the startup journey, transitioning from hands-on sales tasks to a more strategic focus, echoing the evolution seen in the CMO’s journey. Investors and directors of the board often assume that as a startup grows, it would need different marketing and Sales leaders for different stages of its lifecycle. However, there are compelling examples that illustrate it’s not always the case.
Growth Champions: Elissa Fink at Tableau and Bill Binch at Marketo
Elissa Fink < (23) Elissa (Pellizzon) Fink | LinkedIn>, the former CMO at Tableau, joined the company when it was generating $5 million in revenue. She stayed for 11 years, navigating through various stages of growth, leading the marketing team and strategies that grew the company to $1B+ in revenue.
Similarly, Bill Binch < (23) Bill Binch | LinkedIn>, a former Sales leader at Marketo, and currently an operating partner at Battery, started when the company was earning under $1 million in revenue. He stayed for a decade, leading the Sales organization through Marketo’s IPO and beyond, a testament to a leader growing alongside the company.
These examples underscore an important lesson for startups: the value of hiring a leader who can evolve with the company.
Why Continuity and Adaptability Matter
Long-term leaders bring a continuity that is hard to replicate. They help foster a consistent culture, maintain strategic goals, and build a deep understanding of the company’s ethos, product, and audience. Additionally, such leaders are incredibly adaptable and carry a wealth of cumulative knowledge that they can apply to tackle new challenges.
The Rising Trend of Fractional Leadership
The current economic climate has seen a trend towards hiring Fractional CMOs or CROs, seasoned professionals who offer their expertise on a part-time or contract basis, serving multiple companies at the same time. This approach has its advantages – it’s cost-effective, flexible, and allows access to leaders with specific skills and experiences.
While the stories of Elissa Fink and Bill Binch are inspiring, they might not represent the most practical or affordable model for most startups today. In today’s economic climate, it could be more strategic and cost-effective to hire Fractional CMOs and CROs. The key is not whether the leader is full-time or fractional, but whether they possess the right skills and experience to guide the startup at its current stage and instill the team with the knowledge and confidence to carry the vision forward.
Regardless of the changing face of leadership in today’s startup world, the need for effective leadership remains as critical as ever. Whether full-time or fractional, leaders who can steer a startup’s vision and navigate the challenges of growth are the true champions of its journey. So, if you find a leader who can traverse this journey with you, hold onto them. Their continuity and understanding can be an invaluable asset in your startup’s road to success.