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Beware the Empty Chair


Hire the right marketer before you build the right product

By Lynn B. Upshaw

Dozens of MBA students have come to me over the years to discuss their start-up plans.  When I meet with them I frequently ask, “So, which one of you is the marketer?” The common reply: “Hiring a marketer is definitely on our ‘To Do’ list.”  Great instinct; not-so-great timing.

Start-ups may fail for any number of reasons but one of the most common is also one of the most avoidable.  According to Quora crowdsourcing research reported a couple of years ago in Inc. magazine (, a common reason that start-ups fail is because they do not fully understand or act on marketing challenges.  It’s not all that surprising, really.  After all, why would entrepreneurs need a marketer until they have something to market?  The answer is: because the right marketer can help them decide what to market, not to mention how to succeed at marketing it. Here’s why:

  1. The right marketers know how to objectively analyze markets before you jump into them. You may believe that your initial partners and supporters know what they are talking about when they evaluate the size and trending in your future marketplace, but they are likely very subjective in their analysis and lacking sufficient market data to back up their frequently Pollyannaish forecasting. A seasoned marketer knows where to get the best data and how to analyze it with an objective POV.  You need that kind of steely-eyed assessment before you even think about getting funding, to say nothing of making product decisions.
  1. The right marketers know how to find prospects who will become customers. Every successful company on this planet employs some form of STP – segmenting, targeting, and positioning.  Even megabrands like Coke and Toyota have long ago abandoned so-called mass marketing in favor of laser-like targeting efforts.  Start-ups especially must develop targeting skills before they build their products or services because those offerings must be built with the proper targets in mind.  In some cases that information can come from A/B testing and other on-the-fly field research, but it takes a veteran marketer to set up that research to yield the answers you need.  Any start-up team that believes they can do without the help of a targeting pro significantly increases its probability of failure.
  1. The right marketers can help founders craft the optimum value proposition. A value proposition is the fundamental reason-for-being of any venture because it crystallizes why prospects should pay good money for whatever you offer.  Experienced marketers reflexively know how to design and support value propositions and, once that proposition becomes clear, they know how to weave it into all aspects of a business, from product development to marketing communications and even into hiring practices.  A compelling value proposition is difficult to ascertain but, once identified, can serve as a true north compass for the life of the enterprise.
  1. The right marketers can help entrepreneurs shape their product so channel members will support it. There’s not much point coming up with an exceptional product only to have members of a potential channel balk for financial reasons or skepticism about how well it will sell.  Marketers don’t only know about building consumer or business demand, they also know how to build online and offline channel relationships so the product will be there when the demand kicks in.
  1. The right marketers will start to build your brand precisely when that brand should be born – on Day One. Tony Hsieh, the pioneering CEO of Zappos tells the story of a very early meeting with Zappos founder, Nick Swinmurn. “We all sat around one day talking about what we wanted the Zappos brand to represent.  We decided to be about providing the best service; we said, ‘We’re a service company that just happens to sell shoes.’” There were many other critical issues for Swinmurn and Hsieh to tackle that day, but Hsieh – who, like Steve Jobs, is a natural marketer – knew that the Zappos brand’s meaning was one decision that had to be made before many others.

Note that each of the benefits listed above starts with a call for “the right marketer.”  You should be looking for an experienced, proven marketer – and also someone who fits in well with your team, is passionate about his or her trade, and is ready to provide a uniquely marketer’s view on the key issues you will face.

So, just about the time that the idea for a great new app or a revolutionary new device begins to form in your mind, get the right marketer in the room to make sure that you make the most of those formative months when your business is first taking shape.  You’ll always be glad that you filled that empty chair before you made your most important decisions.