The Death Spiral of Startup CMOs
Casey Winters

I interviewed 30 CMOs for my book Chief Marketing Officers at Work, most of whom came from the larger, corporate world, as opposed to working at startups, although some had prior startup experience, and a handful of those I interviewed were working at smaller companies.

As Casey points out, through the interviews I performed I learned that the skills required for a Fortune 500 CMO to be successful differ substantially from those needed at a startup because the circumstances are different, the scale is different, the teams are different, the dynamics are different, the customers are different…I could go on, but you get the idea.

When I was first starting my own company, I met with a VC and he told how running a < $1M company is different than running a $1–3M company, and running a $1–3M company is different than running a $5M company, and so on. He said it’s rare to see a founder remain CEO of her company through these stages of growth. When I asked him why, he said “One word — arrogance.” The founder started the company, and she can’t accept that she may not be the best one to run it at later stages. Ironically, it’s the inability to confront this fact that makes the founder unable to learn the skills that might actually allow her to stay around longer, if not permanently.

When a Fortune 500 CMO is invited to head up marketing at a startup he often makes the same mistake as that of so many founding CEOs — he assumes he already knows what he needs to know about the job to be done. He then applies what worked at a company with 50,000 employees, and can’t figure out why it’s not working at a company with 50 employees, and why everyone is rushing around so much trying to get things done so fast and why there isn’t the support he’s used to (“Why can’t I get a solid budget? What do you mean I can’t hire these 10 people for my team?”).

It’s probably a mistake for a startup to hire a CMO whose experience is only ,or mostly, from the world of large corporations. It’s definitely a mistake to hire a CMO with this background if that experience comes paired with pride — the debilitating kind that prevents learning and progression.

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