What is Marketing?

Becoming a full-stack marketer

Last week @HarryAlford3 wrote a good summary on a YC Podcast “How Should Business Schools Prepare Students for Startups?” and went further by asking (and I paraphrase here): should you skip the MBA if you want to work in startups?

Harry got me thinking about my own time at business school and the disconnect I felt with my career in entrepreneurship, specifically in the area of marketing.

Having never studied marketing before business school, and having worked almost exclusively with engineers during my career as an entrepreneur, I have been blessed with a very different perspective than many of my MBA peers. I was lucky enough to attend Katz Business School when @AndrewTSteven started the Digital Marketing certificate, and I learned an immense amount from his classes in digital marketing analytics & social media strategy. But apart from those two classes, the experience I’ve had and what I’ve seen from business school students around the country (both graduate and undergraduate levels) are woefully behind in what I’ll call a “practical” marketing skill set. Like Jeff Bussgang said in the YC podcast:

[startups move] so fast, if you’re out of the game for five years, you’re old. You’re out of touch. And the models that might’ve worked 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago when some of these professors themselves might’ve been startup entrepreneurs, like me, or worse, academics who never had an operating job in startup land and … they’re teaching a class with no actual experience building product and building companies, that’s really dangerous.

Technology is changing the way many industries run their marketing operations, with new tools coming out every single day. Most businesses haven’t been able to keep pace with the these technological changes, but startups have. This is because, in general, startups’ main competitive advantages against large industry incumbents are a deep understanding of technology and the ability to move faster than large enterprises.

The problem is, startups have a hard time finding talent that has enough of a skillset in marketing to be useful. During my time managing the program at AlphaLab Gear I was inundated by job requests for those looking for a position at a startup, and also startups looking for key early hires. Jenn Van Dam and I created a common job application that allowed for quick connections to be made. When I left a little over a year later, there had been over 1,000 applicants and 61% were looking for a marketing role. Of those 600+ applicants maybe 1% were hired. I don’t know enough about HR to know if that percentage differs greatly from the baseline, but I felt even students graduating from the top universities in the region with entrepreneurial educational tracks were not equipped with the skills to be effective marketers for startups.

What does it mean to be a marketer in 2017?

I often hear my MBA friends say they “work in marketing” which has always struck me as a bit odd. I can’t imagine a developer ever saying they “work in programming.” When you think about it, that sentence sounds awkward because it’s an incredibly broad and not a very useful descriptor.

Are you a frontend developer? A backend developer? Do you work on mobile apps? Web apps? Do you use Ruby on Rails? Python? Swift? Javascript? HTML/CSS? Php? C++? Though many of the underlying principles are the same, engineers and developers usually divide themselves by programming language and function.

So why doesn’t anyone do this with marketing? Part of it might be the nature of the work; engineering tends to be narrowly focused and require hard technical skills, whereas marketing tends to be a softer skill set and encompass a broader view of the business.

….or at least, that used to be the case.

In my view there are three main pillars of marketing: Design, Communications, and Analytics. You can’t truly understand how to communicate with your customers or design materials for them unless you have a highly analytical understanding of the data you can collect around their behavior and preferences (especially in a software business). This takes hard skills in statistics, database management, and even data mining.

That’s not to say that even in the “softer” pillars of design and communication there aren’t hard skills a novice marketer needs to develop. I’ve spoken to dozens of undergraduate and graduate students who don’t have good grasp on SEO. They’ve never run a social campaign, or used adwords, or even been exposed to the adobe creative suite. They haven’t used mailchimp or constant contact to design, send, and analyze an email campaign. They can’t build a basic landing page using one of the many free and/or cheap website builders available, let alone tweak the layout or color using a bit of basic CSS.

These are core fundamental skills that everyone I know in marketing and entrepreneurship has some experience with, if not deep expertise. But none of them learned it in school. They either learned it on the job, watched enough youtube videos, or took an online course.

Becoming a full-stack marketer

Based on my experience over the past 5 years this is what I think a full-stack marketer looks like. If you’re looking for an entry level marketing position at a large company it probably makes sense to focus on one of these areas and get narrow but deep expertise. However, if you’re looking for a job at small to mid-size startup, it pays to be a full-stack marketer.

The Catch-22

I’m one of those Millennials grumpy Boomers keep writing about and I understand your dilemma, young graduate.


You need experience to get a job, you need a job to get experience. So what are you supposed to do?


Well, that’s one of the great things about working in startups: people are more likely to hire off personality, work ethic, and portfolio rather than what’s listed on your resume.

Don’t think of applying with a resume. Walk in with a portfolio. Show you can make things in photoshop, make a website for yourself, get a Google Analytics or Hubspot certification. Take a MySQL workbench course online. They are all much cheaper than a semesters worth of classes and likely much more useful.

When learning new skills, I’ve found the best way to really understand a new platform is to do a real project. Find a startup you want to work for and offer to create some landing pages for them. Make a flyer. Analyze their keywords and SEO strategy. These are bite-sized projects that you can do on the side while you do your retail / service industry / full-time job, and it limits the Startup’s time having to manage you, which will likely increase the chance they will go for it.

Do it once for free, list them as a reference, and charge the next company. Once you’ve got 3–4 happy customers you will have good experience, you look a lot more hirable, and you can start charging market rate for your freelance work.