The Growth Hiring Matrix
A Guide for Early Stage Startup Growth
In the last post we saw how the current digital marketing agency model is not suited for early stage startups.
Summary of that article:
- Marketing agencies lack a user-first approach and often assume product-market fit (PMF) without independent exploration of user needs
- Agencies focus on short-term tactics and are detached from the startup's long-term success
- The use of a fixed playbook approach to digital marketing doesn't adapt to the ever-changing needs of startups
- Agencies are not strategic partners for early-stage founders, who seek understanding of the "why" behind results
- Agencies are incentivized for scale, not depth, as they aim to acquire more clients rather than deeply understanding and solving one client's problems
Read the full article here.
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So, if agencies are not the best option then what should early-stage startups do?
Two other popular options are:
- Full-time Resource (FT)
Now instead of just diving into the pros and cons of each, we want to approach this from a different angle.
One thing I have learnt from working with over 200 Founders is that every startup and every Founder is different.
The stage of a startup and the Founders skill sets play a significant role in determining who to hire for growth marketing.
- Pre-PMF Stage: Unclear on Ideal customer & Value proposition
- GTM Stage: Executing Go-to-Market strategy and acquiring the initial set of users
- Growth Stage: All set to scale acquisition and drive revenue growth
Growth marketing Skills & Experience of the Founders:
- High: Former Head of Growth | Performance Marketing Lead | Brand Head
- Low: Very limited exposure to Growth or traditional marketing
Based on these factors we built the Growth Hiring Matrix to help Founders hire as per the above mentioned metrics.
The Growth Hiring Matrix
Let’s start with Marketing Agencies
We covered the cons in detail in our last article (here)
Cons of Digital Marketing Agencies:
- Lack of a User first Approach
- Short-Term Thinking leading to wasteful tactics, hence need constant supervision and guidance
- Fixed Growth Playbook not suitable to startup environment
- Not a Strategic Partner, essential for early stage startups
- Incentivised to scale fast vs. go deep on one problem/client
But digital marketing agencies are not all bad:
- They come with an efficient team structure
- Most of them are quick to launch campaigns
- They bring diverse channel experience and wide skill-set
- Lower costs vs. a full-time team
- Can easily scale up or down based on requirements
- The really good ones have exceptional creative talent
- Can be an expert in one type of business or sector
Startups derive more value from specialized agencies (creative, media, content, brand) once they enter the growth stage.
That is where we see them fit in the Growth Hiring Matrix:
Pro Tip: Founders with low growth marketing understanding need to be aware of some agencies who take advantage of their lack of experience. We recommend having a growth advisor to fill the strategic gap and question the agencies on their approach.
A Popular Alternative: Freelancers
Pros of hiring a Freelancer:
- Expertise: They specialize in 1-2 marketing channels or strategies and have decent exposure
- Flexibility in project scope and duration, workload - all good signs for an early stage startup
- Cost effective: Charge lower rates than full-time resources and agencies
Limitations of a Freelancer:
- Limited availability due to multiple on-going projects an urgent task from the Founder might not take priority
- Long-term commitment: Many freelancers are part-time freelancers or just doing it between jobs, so there is a risk of them leaving mid-project
- Capacity: They usually work alone and have a limited bandwidth. Hence, difficult for them to handle any sudden changes in workload
- Constant guidance and management is needed at an early stage startup, which takes away time from the Founders
Freelancers occupy a large area in the Growth hiring matrix.
We can sense this in the market as well.
There is rising demand for freelancers and hence, a number of people are choosing to do freelance vs full time jobs.
For early stage startups it makes sense to hire a Freelancer with specific skills if the Founders are not experienced in growth marketing themselves.
However, for Founders with low Growth exposure, Freelancers can be a challenge to manage.
Freelancers are more tactical in nature, hence rarely bring a strategic lens to marketing. This causes a disconnect between the Founders’ and Freelancers expectations from the project.
We recommend Freelancers to Founders who have some level of understanding of growth marketing and are confident with their PMF.
Full-time Resource (FT)
This should be every startup's ultimate goal: Hire a strong growth marketing full-time talent.
But the ground reality is that it is very tough to find and hire the right person, especially at an early stage startup.
Clear benefits of a Full-time Employee:
- Dedicated resource: Full attention on the growth of your startup, can rapidly learn and adapt to the startup needs
- Deep understanding: Unlike an agency or Freelancer, a FT can go deep into specific problems to solve them
- Collaboration: Easy collaboration with other teams to understanding product, business, operations and align growth marketing goals with all these functions
- Knowledge base: The real benefit of a FT is seen down the line, in the growth stage, where their knowledge of running experiments and interacting with customers helps the startup scale up more efficiently
There are some cons for an early stage startup:
- Cost: The biggest hurdle for any startup. Depending on your business model and funding status, you might be restricted to hire a junior resource or a fresher. The ROI from a junior resource is very poor and they take up more time for training and supervision
- Limited Skills: Again as a junior resource the skills and experience they bring to the table are limited vs. an agency or freelancer
- Onboarding time: Hiring and onboarding a FT is costly and time consuming. Even then the risk of them leaving is high due to the nature of early stage startups (high workload, uncertain roadmap)
The ideal FT for an early stage startup is a generalist, someone who can solve multiple problems while maintaining a perspective from a marketing lens. However, as the startup scales, these generalists feel lost and find it difficult to specialize in one area.
If hired, a FT works best with Founders with solid growth marketing skills who can guide them and make them focus on the most important growth challenges.
At any other skill level, the Founder will also be learning growth along with their hire. This slows down growth and also limits the talented FT’s learning which ultimately might lead to churn.
Same goes for the Pre-PMF stage, Founders are still exploring and establishing a market understanding. Keeping a junior resource motivated and guiding them at the same time is a challenge very few Founders can handle.
Hence, we see FTs as a good option for high-skilled Founders and beyond the GTM stage.
As we move beyond the Growth stage, the role of FTs (specially senior & experienced folks) becomes more prominent and startups derive more value from them.
The Zone of No Hiring
However, there is one area on this matrix where we believe the Founders should NOT hire anyone.
That is the high-skill Founder in the pre-PMF stage.
A Founder with strong growth marketing skills and a deep understanding of the business does not need anyone to do growth. Yes, they can always hire an intern or freelancer to help with specific execution capabilities, but nothing beyond that.
The Market Gap
Now there’s a LOT of white space left!
How do these Founders hire for growth?
I have seen some Founders deploy a combination of the above discussed strategies. But they require more budget than hiring them individually.
Adding an experienced Growth Advisor is something which works for many Founders and can also be a model which can last longer up till the Growth stage.
There are few challenges with hiring a pure Growth advisor and they are significant:
- They provide guidance on the strategic direction, but may not go deep on tactical advice
- Coordination between the Advisors input and actual execution still comes down to the Founder
- Advisors take up a certain amount of equity (0.5%-5%) only for the advice and guidance
- A FT or freelancer will still be needed to execute on the growth plan
These are my learnings from working with early-stage Founders over the last 2.5 years.
These insights are primarily from B2C/D2C Founders, hence you will feel a lot of B2C growth terminology and examples.
For B2B, this Growth role can be taken up by a Product Marketing Manager or a Growth Product Manager - depending on the business model and GTM.
In my experience, early stage B2B or SaaS growth is driven heavily by referrals, product-led growth and Founder-led growth (Founder driving sales and brand awareness).
Where Do We Fit
I’ll end with a short plug-in of Curio Revelio.
We talked about these early stages of the startup journey as this is what we are solving for.
We found this huge gap in the market: A need for in-depth strategy + professional execution capabilities for early stage startups.
So we built a solution.
Curio Revelio brings growth marketing experts (with 10+ years experience) together with strong execution capabilities (full-time and freelance) in a structured, end-to-end managed solution for early-stage Founders.
Early stage startups benefit from our strong global growth experience across 7 countries and our proprietary growth marketing frameworks built specially for the 0-1 growth stage.
For us Growth is not just digital marketing, it covers all challenges that a Founder goes through:
- Idea Validation
- In-depth Consumer Research
- Establishing Product Market Fit
- Running 100X Growth Experiments
- Finding Channel-Market Fit
- Scaling up while Optimizing CAC
This is where we fit in the Growth Hiring Matrix:
Here’s what our clients say about us:
We hope this article acts as a guide for early-stage Founders to navigate their startup journey with the right growth marketing support.
Disclaimer: Views and opinions shared in this article are based on the author's personal experience. This does not portray the official policy of the company or its partners, clients, and employees. We are and will continue to keep working with agencies, freelancers, growth advisors and other stakeholders in the startup ecosystem.
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