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Why Your Startup Shouldn’t Hire a Marketer from Microsoft

I’ve heard tons of horror stories from startups that hired someone from a large company who was “very senior and qualified” but turned out to be horrible.  There are lots of talented marketers working at places like Mircosoft, IBM, and Apple.   The problem is that if that’s the ONLY place that person has ever worked, you might be in for big trouble.  Here’s why you shouldn’t hire a big company marketer for your startup:

1/ The big company marketing silo problem – Big company marketing groups are organized in a matrix. PR folks do PR, comms does comms, product marketing folks do product marketing.  Your startup needs someone that knows all of those things.  Sure, branding might be the big problem you have right now and a kick-ass person from a big company might be able to tackle that, but the minute you need them to work on lead generation you’re toast. Startup marketing folks have done it all – they write, do lead gen, talk to the press, do competitive intelligence and manage leadgen programs.  They might have no clue how to scale all of that to $100M in revenue but chances are your CEO doesn’t know how to run a $100M company either.  Hire the right person for the stage you are at right now and when (if!!) you make it to the next level you can figure out what do to then.

2/ They will never get over the fact that you have no budget – Big company marketing departments spend  huge amounts of energy fighting for budget.  In a more established market, the more money you pour into your sales and marketing engine, the more good stuff comes out.  A good startup marketer rarely complains about the budget, in fact she’ll just assume there isn’t one and go about her business until she can present a funding request for something that even a moron would have to approve it’s so clearly the right thing to do.  Hire that big company guy and I guarantee you will never hear the end of complaining that there’s not enough money.

3/ They don’t know much about early traction and market development – I launched a product at IBM and the cool part about that was that we hadn’t launched a product in years. Most big company products are well established and new products are likely to be add-ons or upgrades.  New products require a totally different set of activities around messaging and positioning, working with influencers, getting visibility in a market, etc.  Startup marketing folks get this.

4/ They need help to get stuff done – one of the things I found really frustrating at IBM was how many people it took to get one simple thing done.  If I wanted to create a whitepaper for example I would have to work with a writer on the draft, someone in comms to make sure my messaging aligned with corporate, someone in branding to do the layout and make sure I was using copyright properly and then I would have to go back to comms to get it produced.  It took a village to create a whitepaper.  Even if a person is great at their part of that job, they might not know how to do the whole job without a lot of help.  Good startup marketing folks can lay stuff out themselves, know what legal stuff they really need to worry about and can just plain work their way through getting it done.  It might not be perfect but they will deliver dozens of these non-perfect whitepapers in the time it takes a big company marketing person to deliver one perfect one.

5/ Some of their skills are deadly (and I mean that in a bad way) – One of the key skills you need to master to be successful in a big company is to be able to sell your ideas to management and other departments so that you can get budget and permission to do stuff you want to get done.  What if you hired someone who was really good at that but whose ideas about what should get done didn’t really make a ton of sense for your business?  You will need some strong management to make sure you stay out of trouble and if you don’t have that, you could end up going in a direction you shouldn’t be.

P. S. What if the person went to the big company and realized they are really a startup person at heart?  What can they do to prove to you they can do the job? Here are some things I like to see on resumes:

1/ The are actively participating in social media outside of their job function – I find folks that are actively blogging and maintain a presence on Twitter (as long as it isn’t filled with profanity or overly focused on getting dates) are generally thinking of their career as being something bigger than the big company they work in now.

2/ They are an active part of the local startup community – in Toronto I can name a handful of people that did stints at big companies but you could tell they were startup folks at heart because they spent all the time they could hanging out with startup people and learning about startups.  Beware the big company person that interviews at your startup that nobody has ever heard of before.

3/ They can clearly, thoughtfully articulate why they want to work for your company (and it isn’t about the options) – There is a strange bit of folklore that goes around big companies that there is more money to be made at startups.  Nothing could be further from the truth of course but if you are watching for those folks you will be able to spot them.  People have to be in it for the work, period.

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  1. April,
    Great post as usual, and I agree with all you said. One other thing to note is that a lot of startups or smallish companies seem to have a love affair with refugees from giant tech companies. A lot of the folks in VP roles (marketing included) at Cisco during the boom time have trashed many promising companies by leveraging their ‘superior skills’.

    But time and again, I see my senior management select people because of this “clubby” environment, and cringe, knowing that it will be a fiasco.

    The sad thing is that I am batting a thousand on these predictions.

    • Hi Geoffrey,
      Thanks for the comment. The first job I landed at a startup right out of school was because I had done and internship at IBM and the hiring manager liked people from IBM. I’ve worked with a LOT of amazing people at big companies and I get a bit mad when startup people describe folks from big companies as less smart or less motivated because that wasn’t my experience at all. However, there is a radically different skill set that is required to run marketing at a smaller company. At least in my opinion there is 🙂

      • You make great points above. I didn’t mean to imply that big company people (in and out of marketing) were not smart, what I was trying to get across was that while it is possible for them to crossover and act entrepreneurial, moving into a startup or a smaller, less well resourced organization, the skills that served them in the juggernaut often fail to lead to success in the altered venue.

        The problem I have is that in my past, there has been this reverence for an ex Cisco (or in my case, ex KLA-Tencor) mid level executive to come in and completely revamp/improve/lead us to the promised land. Invariably, this reverence, and repeated recruitment of these mid level execs fails to deliver the goods.

        On your blog, and related to marketing, the “silo” mentality, and the fighting for budget (and headcount) is a real problem in smaller organizations, alienates your peers in the senior team, and at the end of the day, just doesn’t deliver results that matter. Spot on observations and analysis.


        • Oh no, I didn’t think you were saying that at all! That was actually just me thinking out loud. I actually hear a lot of kind of mindless bad-mouthing of people from big companies and I don’t think it’s fair because the skill sets are pretty different.
          I totally agree that there is often great reverance for folks from big companies by startup folks but they don’t always understand the differences.
          And you are spot on that fighting for budget and headcount in a large company is an essential skill but in a smaller company will just make people annoyed 🙂

  2. Great read. Well done April.

    So true about the start-up marketer wearing many hats. He/she has to be versatile. A marketer working at a start-up in today’s digital age typically writes, works on the website, handles social media, tackles branding and communications, does some design work, analyses marketing/sales metrics, and brings ideas for lead gen and creative, cost-effective marketing campaigns to the table. This is all in a day’s work for the start-up marketer.

    I have been in both – start-up and large – and can say start-ups generally use your full array of skills, whereas large companies segment and break it up.

  3. Couldn’t be more right on. Big company specialization creates marketing silos, where you get very good, specific talents, but overall pool of skills is very limited, so they can’t handle the 100 things a start up has to deal with.

    The other problem I’ve seen in my career is if you hire a senior marketing manager from a big company, they get the big picture and understand many different aspects of marketing (lead gen, collateral, generating revenue, etc…) but aren’t capable of executing it themselves. They are too used to managing people who do the work, not actually doing it themselves. And then they run into your other point – why is there no budget?!? 🙂

    • Right – that’s exactly the problem! The hardest part of getting something done in a larger company as a senior person is influencing a large number of people (who generally don’t report to you) to get stuff done for you. It’s hard work for sure but very different work than what you will do at a startup.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. April,

    To look at this in another light, I grew up on a farm with not a lot of money. We had to fix things ourselves or just make do. As a consequence, I’ve done a whole lot better at smaller companies than larger ones. I get frustrated as all get out with all the procedure and policy at big companies. I’m used to just getting on with it.

    So something for startup execs to look for in a marketing person’s background is how self-sufficient they are. Have they ever changed the oil on their car, fixed plumbing or repaired a dishwasher? (or done other things that show self-sufficiency, initiative and creative thinking under pressure). Folks who’ve never gotten dirt under their fingernails probably won’t do well in a startup situation.


    • Hi Tim,
      Those are really good points. I like to ask people about how they would do things in a situation they haven’t encountered before and didn’t have any help with. The answers are telling.
      The other thing I like to ask about when I’m hiring is how much focus the person has on the end results. Because things are so split up at a big company, often the supporting players don’t have any idea what the end result is all about.

  5. Hi April,

    You’ve certainly described the way big IT companies’ marketing departments work (or don’t work more likely). However, its all about mindset and aptitude; marketers with an open mind, focused clearly on the customer and keeping up to date with latest trends will be good what ever type of company they are in, so don’t dismiss the big company people out of hand. However I will concede that in the 20 months I have been out of the big corporate world I have learned more than if I had stayed put…and it made me smile that I was able to tick those boxes you said people should look out for!

    • Hey Paul,
      Thanks for the comment! I agree that customer focus is a big thing. But at the same time I’ve seen cases where that’s not enough. But like I said in the post there are always closet startup folks out there if you look hard enough. 🙂

  6. Hi April,

    Just a short note on the fourth point: they always need help…

    One of the bad things in big comapnies is that they have difficulities in believing that you can do a lot more tha what they hired you for. One of the nice things of startups is they cannot afford to keep you inside a cage doing what you were trained for.

    • Hi Rudolf
      Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure why they don’t let folks do stuff outside of what they were hired to do. It probably has to do with efficiency or comething but it’s clear they like specialists more than generalists. Startups don’t have the luxury of that – there just simply aren’t enough people around to have the work split like that.

  7. Dead on as usual, April. I’m a startup guy with plenty of big company experience as well, and couldn’t agree more. When I hire for startup positions I always have personality test questions as part of the interview process to identify what I call cowboy/cowgirl characteristics (as opposed to soldier characteristics). Makes a big difference in finding startup-compatible people.

  8. I’ve worked at lots of start up companies and have seen a few of the companies grow in to larger more corporate types of companies. I enjoyed this post and see myself as a Start Up employee that wears many hats.

  9. Uh, April isn’t this post kind of hypocritical since on this very blog you claim “I’ve held senior positions at large global companies including IBM, Nortel, Siebel Systems (the world’s leading provider of CRM solutions acquired by Oracle), and Sybase.”? This seems the pot calling the kettle black, and maybe even a little sour grapes since Microsoft specifically has competed with these very companies competently.

    … The next time you try to whip up Silicon Valley prejudice (and it is prejudice just like any other) about Microsoft, you should try to be a little less overtly self-serving.

    • Hi Susan,
      Thanks for the comment. I’m not saying that all big company experience is bad (I’ve got tons which isn’t a secret, the post is full of examples from my experience). What I’m saying is that the skills don’t transfer as directly as many startup hiring managers would think (for the reasons above). I’ve worked at both big and small so I’ve got an opinion on that. At the start of the post I said that someone that only has big company experience often doesn’t perform that well. The same goes the other way around too. I saw great startup folks totally flounder at IBM.

  10. And for the record in case you don’t know me. I’ve been through 4 startups that have exited to large companies (I ran product marketing at Janna Systems which exited for over a billion dollars to Siebel for example, which is how I landed there). Right now I am the vp marketing of Solarsoft, a rollup with around 100M revenue which makes is certainly not a startup (but in my opinion has startuppy marketing things we need to get done). This post is about my experience and opinion (and I hope most of you read it as such).

    • If you read the post I’m talking about the differences in the work (and therefore the work experience), not the people and why the experience in one place might not translate well into a very different environment.

  11. As I was reading this post quite a few things hit home. I am not a marketeer but I lead a team at IBM that is charged with bringing new customers to our database (DB2) products and to cloud computing database offerings. In more ways then one we operate as a startup within a large company. So, I am more than familiar with the reasons listed and I think you are right on the dot. Silos and “they need help get stuff done” is a huge hinderance. So we have our own end-to-end way of doing things. The only thing we have not been able to get done ourselves is press releases as these need to be coordinated up and down and sideways. I have no time or patience for this. So, we only get a couple of press releases a year. Frankly, our audience does not care much for PR; we do it because our partners value having a joint press release.
    Budgets, what budgets! We don’t have one and there is no way I am going to spend as you pointed out “huge amount of energy” getting one. We do everything through social media and, I think, are hugely successful. One of the things that you have not mentioned is that in many large organizations it is next to impossible to do “product marketing” as marketing efforts are often focused on corporate programs and not on individual products. Startups don’t have “corporate programs” and neither does my team. Don’t take me wrong, I am happy to get a ride on a well funded corporate program; I just can’t afford the effort that would be required.
    So, what is my point? I think you have written another great post. Congratulations! I’d just add one tiny point – it is not just the company that the person came from that matters but how they operated in that company. While I freely admit that my team does is not very common it does happen even in companies like IBM and Microsoft.

    • Hey Leon,
      Thanks so much for the comment. I remember how hard it was to try to get something done at a product level at IBM – it just wasn’t the way things worked. And press releases, don’t even get me started on that. You might remember when we were releasing DB2 on Linux and I was told I couldn’t announce it because we had reached our press release “quota” for the quarter. I wasn’t about to go back to the dev team and tell them that we weren’t releasing the product for another 3 months because of some silly quota and we ended up doing the release like many startups do it – we posted it everywhere except the newswire (including someone taking a briefcase full of them to comdex for face to face press interviews). The hilarious thing was that we ended up generating more press than any other IBM announcement that quarter but I also remember getting into a bit of trouble from corporate so I don’t think I would have gotten away with that more than once.
      You make a good point about resourcefulness – that’s something that exists in big and small companies alike.

  12. […] This blog was inspired by a couple of separate recent events.  I have been working with a client that hired a Director of Sales from an established company.  He recently left the company and as they looked back in hindsight, they realized he was not a good fit.  The other was an excellent blog from April Dunford titled ‘Why your start-up shouldn’t hire a Marketer from Microsoft’.  […]

  13. Reading back through this a few times reminds me of some interesting behaviors at both big and small companies. First off, I agree with Leon wholeheartedly regarding it being important to understand how someone behaved at a large company prior to dismissing them.

    Then there is another side. A startup should be a startup for a defined period of time, not forever. I have been there when a company could not scale because of the startup mentality and everyone wanting to wear multiple hats. they couldn’t get out of their own way, and there was no accountability. It is all really a balance of working towards a defined goal, with a clear strategy and the willingness to not take no as an option. I have, and have also seen VPs and CMOs that would roll up their sleeves and write, or who wanted to be in the loop for the direction setting of the piece. I think it is a bigger win long term to find that individual that has a mix of experience that knows when to just go get it done, and when to start turning the wheel for growth and scalability.

    They are out there, they are just a bit harder to find.

    • Your point about “a startup should be a startup for a defined period of time” is a great one and that’s in many ways what this post is about. The marketing stuff you do when you are trying to get traction is different from the stuff you do when you are trying to scale. Very often the folks (for many roles, not just marketing) that get you to 10M aren’t the ones that will take you beyond that. And that’s OK in my books because the roles change and the required skills are different.

  14. […] This blog was inspired by a couple of separate recent events.  I have been working with a client that hired a Director of Sales from an established company.  He recently left the company and as they looked back in hindsight, they realized he was not a good fit.  The other was an excellent blog from April Dunford titled ‘Why your start-up shouldn’t hire a Marketer from Microsoft’.  […]

  15. Hi April,

    thanks for the blog post. Honestly I must say I don’t fully agree with your first point on The big company marketing silo problem. I work for Microsoft as Customer Marketer Manager in a subsidiary in Western Europe. And I do lead gen, manage lead gen, drive campaigns, do competitive intelligence, etc… I understand your point but I feel you’re generalizing too much.

    My 2 cents.
    — Tom

    • Hi Tom,
      Thanks for the comment. It is a generalization and I know there will always be exceptions. For example, when I worked at IBM, the types of leadgen that someone in your position would do would be nothing like what you would do at a startup. For example, at IBM, corporate would dictate what the overall look and feel of the content should be, what the campaign themes should be, what targets to focus on, what products to market together, etc., while the folks in the field would be responsible for localizing that content, working with local partners, doing local events, etc. At a startup the types of lead gen that gets done is very different and the tasks are different in that the marketing folks need to come up with everything from scratch. You might be doing everything from scratch in your subsidiary but I would guess you are more the exception than that rule.

  16. Hi April,

    just found you through the coffee shop story in Scott’s book. I’ve experienced what you spoke about in your post a number of times.

    One was with a project manager who couldn’t wrap their brain around the tiny budget we had (and so couldn’t function) and the other was a conversation with an intimate of BG of MS who complained that progress was so slow because of the “siloing” that is so prevalent at the company.

    Thanks again for your posts and I look forward to reading more (can’t wait to see you one-up Scott ; )

  17. Hi April,

    Thanks for the great post. I am a founder of an early stage startup called We have a SaaS IT Servicement Management tool geared towards small and medium businesses.

    We want to roll out our SaaS in the next few months but the marketing strategy is almost non existant. I agree with your point 2 that there is no marketing budget. It seems that the only option is to offer equity for the help from marketer? Is this a common practice in your opinion?


    • Hi Sam (sorry I’m late to respond, your comment got trapped in my spam filter).
      You can try to get some marketing help in exchange for equity but it’s not going to be easy. Getting marketing help is no different from hiring a developer – you will get what you pay for a good ones will want to get paid.
      With respect to the budget you have to think about how you are going to acquire customers. How much are you willing to spend and how much will you make off of a customer after you get them. Understanding that will help you understand how much you should be spending on marketing. You will definitely want to run some experiments to make sure you are not making any false assumptions around that.
      You don’t have a business without customers so figuring out how you get them is important.
      Good luck!


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