Why working at a startup (at least once) is good for every marketer

by Laurie Heller

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I’m guilty of having a resume mostly full of household names. Yes, it’s helped open doors, career-wise. But the most valuable experience I gained was working at a startup. And contrary to what most would expect, not at the beginning of my career, either.

For those of us who have made careers out of being a small cog in a big engine, at one point or another, we usually experience some level of complacency. The need to have 17 conference calls to make a small decision becomes normal . We don't even begin to question why we don't talk to (or even know the names of) some of the folks in the departments making and selling what we market. And despite that, we spend hours making the perfect deck to tabulate the biggest and best vanity metrics for a conference call to an audience of 200.

Those with a voice and who question things make more waves than others. And not always in a good way. Ultimately what you end up with are lots of people who stick around for upwards of 10+ years, those who continue find new opportunities within the company every few years, and then some who take what they've learned move on.

People often ask me how or why I went to work at a startup. The answer for me was easy: I wanted more ownership of decision making, more accountability, to build a collaborative team, and to *actually* get hands-on experience. Relying on assembly lines of people I barely interacted with and adhering to timelines I had no control over was infuriating. Even still, I worked with some of the smartest people I've ever met at those big companies and what I learned from them afforded me an amazing foundation.

Startups are generally the complete opposite. Instead of managing SEO agencies, I learned it. Rather than passing marketing automation tasks to another department, I hired the team and collaborated with them on how to do it directly. I basically got my hands dirty and I loved every second of it. I'm a much stronger marketer because of it.

True story: last year I hired an email developer to help with a task I was pretty sure was possible, but she insisted for hours it wasn't. Had I not had my startup experience, I would have trusted what she told and moved on. Of course people aren't perfect, we all make mistakes. But sometimes you can't afford to when there's a lot at risk. Not knowing your craft as well as you think you do can be dangerous.

What I do know is the term entrepreneurial spirit meant nothing to me until I worked at a startup.

People often ask me what type of marketers they should hire if they're an early or mid-stage startup. The thing is, it's not always black or white. You have to ask the right questions. For some, coming from a massive enterprise and arriving at a startup can be daunting. For others, it's like a get out of jail free card. Personality is key and so is how hungry they/you are to learn. When I speak to big company marketers who are considering working at a startup, I always say the same thing: you can't hide.

Sometimes you're the head of, and sometimes the doer. When you're both, you end up learning and knowing more in the long run and being a better manager because of it.



Dec 16.2020

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