The following is a guest post by Jason Cohen.
Interviewing developers is easy.
OK, not easy. You have to generate resumes, you have to sift through the deluge of candidates, you have to pound your network continuously, you have to develop a phone-screen, you have to schedule interviews, you have to ask them questions and get them to write code and be fair.
But still, you're a great developer and you've worked with enough other developers that you can tell pretty quickly whether someone else is also a great developer. Do they say the right things? Do they make reasonable mistakes? Do they solve easy problems quickly? Do they give up? You can figure that out.
Not so with marketing folks. What do you ask someone in an interview to determine whether they have the ability to spread the word about your still-v0.9-quality product? How do you determine whether they can not just pull in potential customers but make them truly successful and thrilled with v0.9 while digging up the new features that will actually result in more sales?
For an engineer like me, interviewing marketing people is like interviewing a lawyer: You know there are vast differences in skill level but you don't know how to probe them to determine their skill.
But there's hope. Although you can't ask them to "solve" marketing problems as you would programming questions, there's certainly something you can detect: Do they have the attitude and skillset needed to succeed in a startup environment?
So here's a list of important qualities. Some of these you can ask about directly, others you'll have to intuit from your conversation.
- Social Media doer. Everyone says social media is important, but does the candidate actually do it? Does she have a sizable Twitter following? Does he have experience getting 20,000 fans for a Facebook page? Does she have a quality blog about marketing? Did he devise and execute a blogger outreach campaign that actually worked?
- Frugality. Traditional, big-company mantra is "You have to spend money to make money." It's no longer true. Now it's "You can spend money and you might make money." Of course spending money isn't automatically bad either; what's bad is if you don't measure whether the money is getting a return.
- Customer-lover. A startup lives and dies by its customers. Not some marketer's initial conception of who the customer should be and what the customer should want, or even the developer's conception of which features should be useful, but what actually works in practice. That means the marketing person should be spending as much time as possible talking to customers. If you don't have many customers, it's their job to reach out and start the conversation. It's even their job to find potential customers who didn't buy and talk to them too. Make sure they drive everything from customers, not the other way around.
- Humility. Startup marketing means working with unknowns. The product changes daily, the definition of the perfect customer changes as new data appears, marketing messages are invented and discarded, and just when you think you've got the right combination the world changes around you. Anyone who thinks they have the answers isn't paying attention. Anyone who thinks something that worked five years ago will automatically work again is wrong. So you need someone willing to admit what he doesn't know.
- Domain Knowledge. This isn't a requirement, but it sure helps. If you yourself don't have good domain expertise (i.e. you're your own customer, or you worked in the industry), then this becomes more useful.
- Can distinguish pain from feature. Customers often ask for features, and that's good. But you can't just implement everything they want, how they want it, because they don't have the big picture, they don't have to support everyone else's user-cases, they don't know what's difficult to implement, and they don't know what's idiosyncratic. So the marketer's job is to dig past the surface level "feature request" into the real information: What is the customer really trying to do? What pain is the customer trying to address? That information is critical, and bringing that back to development is one of the most valuable things she can do for the company.
- Willingness to learn detail. It's a huge red flag whenever someone says "Every company is essentially the same -- we're selling widgets." This is a sign the person isn't interested in understanding your market, your customers, or your product. Fatal Fail.
- Devotion to measurement. Few people truly embrace measurement. After all, if you don't measure a marketing campaign or a sales funnel, it's easy to explain away any problems and take credit for any successes. If you're measuring, though, you get credit for the successes but the losses are just on you. But you're a startup, so "failure" is only a failure if you refuse to recognize it and do something about it. Of course most marketing efforts won't be super-successful! That's OK -- what's not OK is to blindly forge ahead instead of identifying which ones to keep and which to cancel.
- A/B tests and similar. A corollary to measurement is a desire for continuous testing like A/B splits for advertisements and web pages. If this people loves "strategy meetings" more than just "trying stuff and seeing what sticks," that's a problem. The goal isn't to be the one who came up with the best idea, it's to find the best idea through any means necessary.
- Respected by developers. Traditionally developers and marketing/sales have an unhealthy mutual disrespect. Perhaps rightly so, often. But there's no room for that nonsense in a startup. If the marketer isn't a culture-match with the developers, it's not going to work. That doesn't mean they need to be able to write code, but for example someone who loves metrics and wants to talk about statistical significance as it applies to advertisement is probably going to fit in with engineers.
- Branding is irrelevant. This often comes in the form of "We didn't know whether the magazine ad / tradeshow resulted in sales, but it was good branding / it got our name out there / people will remember us." Coca-Cola needs people to have a warm-fuzzy when staring at a shelfful of sugar water; you just need sales. "Branding" cannot be measured, so it has no place for you. The only branding you need is a strong culture that leeks into everything from the web site to follow-up emails to tech support. A culture, not a "corporate image." A marketer who ascribes value to branding isn't spending time on what's important to you.
P.S. This article was inspired by this question and these answers from Answers.OnStartups.com -- the Q&A forum associated with this blog. Come check it out! We solve problems like these every day.
What do you think? Are these effective in finding good marketing people? What other attributes or questions can you ask? Please leave a comment and join the conversation.
Oh, and if you're interested in more on this topic, there's a chapter in the wildly popular book "Inbound Marketing" from Dharmesh (host of this blog). Might be worth checking out.