You're reading this. Which means you know that according to WSJ and Forbes, the average tenure of a chief marketing officer has fallen to 40 months, which is the lowest in a decade.
This is worrisome particularly because when you have someone leading your startup's marketing strategy, you expect them to lead your marketing team, manage and spend your marketing budget, optimize your marketing campaigns and so on. But when they disappear, it becomes tremendously difficult to find a replacement for (a) their high marketing caliber and more importantly (b) their level of context into your organization.
I've written this article solely with the intention of walking you through some key drivers which we at HireCMO keep in mind when bringing you your next big CMO hire on a silver platter. Regardless of where you find your next SaaS chief marketing officer, these will save you hours of headaches. Let's dig right in.
LAW I: Get your house in order!
This is key because when you're hiring a chief marketing officer, you're not just interviewing them, they're also gauging you as an organization! This is extremely important. This hire isn't the equivalent of an analyst. This is a man or woman who'll have tremendous impact on your SaaS company, and you want to make sure you land an A+ impression from the get-go. No exceptions.
Please don't let your ego get in the way here. What matters more - cash on cash returns, or your emotions?
Your approach for Law 1 will vary depending on what phase your startup is in i.e., before product market fit, post Series A, etc. When you want to onboard a SaaS CMO, you need to fully grasp the current state of affairs across Product, Sales, Operations and finally Marketing.
I say this because without you having a complete picture of what works, what breaks and what's urgent to fix across your organization, it's tough for any SaaS chief marketing officer to build a defensible marketing strategy, let alone scale your customer acquisition. We'll get into the weeds in a bit but here's a few Qs you can think of.
Feel free to copy paste them into your team's Slack chat. Just be sure to give credit :P
What are our leading/lagging KPIs that we measure and how are we measuring against where our investors expect us to be? Examples include Monthly Active Users (MAUs), Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), Customer Lifetime Value (LTV), Net Promoter Score (NPS), Churn rate, etc.
Have we reviewed our activation metrics? What is our activation rate, and are we close to the industry average?
What is our average cohort retention over the last quarter? What steps have we taken to improve these results?
How do we conduct market research and stay updated on competitive trends? How do we act on this information?
People (often overlooked)
Do we know what roles our employees have across Marketing, Growth, Product and Sales? And do we understand how their day-to-day responsibilities tie in with our marketing efforts?
What level of digital marketing expertise do our teams have? Have any employees shown interest in taking marketing certifications or growth classes? What's our annual budget for employee education on marketing?
Are we tracking our growth KPIs? Are they above or under the industry average?
Are we all fully aligned on the gaps in our marketing function? Do we understand what channel(s) drives most of our demand generation?
Are there overdue checklists from our last SaaS CMO that we have yet to execute? If so, what is our action plan for them and what has stopped us from executing in the past?
Are we on track to hit our quarter's growth goals? What's been our showstoppers and where in our funnel are we seeing the most friction/least results? Have we dug into this?
What does our marketing team lack today in terms of strategy (e.g., lowering CAC and optimizing Google Ads) and tactics (e.g., measuring landing page CRO using Google Analytics)
If we could only have 3 top priority goals with our current marketing budget, what would they be and can we provide all necessary resources to the chief marketing officer to execute them?
What are the key areas of improvement that our marketing department unanimously believes we should work on as a team?
There's obviously a lot more that ties into marketing strategies at a SaaS company, but these (in my opinion) are some that can get the conversation started. Some of you reading this might scoff at the list above, but I've spoken with enough CMOs and read 50+ CMO job descriptions to know that ultimately their success is determined by how well the rest of the functions of the SaaS company tie in together.
Without the insights into user traction, analytics from your website traffic and social media ads, data from user interviews and sales calls, etc. it just adds more friction/time on SaaS CMO shoulders. Let's make their lives easier so they can help you grow quicker.
LAW II: Now, be crystal clear about your requirements
There's been so many SaaS CMO job postings I've scourged through and almost 50% of them talk about the role like it's a catch-all for anything and everything growth-related. I would even argue that a few sounded like the CEO and founder's roles wrapped into one, with some intern-level duties sprinkled on top. Insane. And an instant turn-off for a level-headed CMO.
Caveat here being that if you are an early-stage startup like the ones our CMOs have led results at, it's natural that you'd expect your SaaS chief marketing officer to be a silver bullet for anything growth/marketing-related. My advice is that if you're in this stage, look for someone who has an entrepreneurial mindset and has grown their own product from scratch. One SaaS CMO we have has launched and scaled his own eCommerce and SaaS brands, which goes to show that success leaves traces. But I digress.
Once you have done your homework from Law 1, you’re now able to understand the gaps within your organization. This means you can now be precise about the high-level and tactical areas you require your SaaS CMO to weigh in on. Trust me when I tell you that having an honest job description can help you filter out the unfit candidates much quicker from the get-go. You want to make sure the top of your funnel attracts the most qualified candidates to avoid wasting hours interviewing the wrong people.
One thing to note is that depending on what company you're hiring for, the skills you need on your SaaS CMO will differ. That is, corporate marketing vs. early-stage SaaS marketing. And the marketing team surrounding the CMO will also need to be structured differently.
How to write a SaaS CMO Job Description
To be intellectually honest, this shouldn’t be that much different from making any other job description for a c-suite position. That being said, here’s a template I extracted from the jobs I’ve been looking at.
I recommend sticking to the sequence most job seekers are used to:
Overview of your company & application deadline
High-level overview of CMO role
Specific responsibilities on the job & exceptions
Required skills and experience
Here’s some pointers you should keep in mind as you’re populating your first SaaS CMO job description:
Be honest, direct and do not sugarcoat. Avoid long-winded ways of stating the obvious or the harder parts of the job. And for the love of God, please do not include corporate jargon. More often than not, job seekers stop paying attention when they come across such words because it’s terribly hard to understand what the heck they mean.
Get inspiration from your peers. HireCMO.io will soon become the #1 place that CMOs come to look for jobs, and companies come to hunt for CMOs. But that doesn’t mean we’re the only ones in the space who do this. Search up “CMO jobs” and look through 2-3 examples of such job postings - particularly in your industry and from companies at a similar revenue range/growth phase as yours.
Make the next steps as simple and straightforward as you can. What should the CMO expect one they’ve applied for your role? Will they get an email? Maybe they’ll get a call on their phone within 5 business days? Most fractional CMOs or interim CMOs who do good work have their client pipeline filled for months. And so if you’re lousy with getting back to your applicant, they may receive their well-deserved attention elsewhere - don’t make this mistake. Be clear on what they should expect after they apply to your role. You owe it to them.
There’s other websites which provide sentences you can copy paste for job descriptions, but I’m very much against this. In our industry, we need to stop creating robot-like job postings which all look the same, because this is what throws off your next chief marketing officer. Think about it - if all posts look the same, do you really think your applicant will know what’s unique/genuine about your company?
If you’re a recruiter at your company and need to know specifics to create a complete job posting, try to secure 15-mins on the hiring manager’s calendar to gain a good picture of what they’re looking for! This is a critical c-suite role. You can’t mess this up.
LAW III: Let's get grounded
What you have to realize as the recruiter / employer / founder of your business is that you may not know all the answers, especially if it’s your first time hiring a CMO. This can mean you:
Do not know how to execute a C-suite interview
Do not know the right marketing questions to filter out a CMO
If you ring the bell at HireCMO, I’m happy to jump in and help you figure some of these pieces out. But let me provide you with some pointers for the meantime:
Conducting the interview
There’s plenty of guides online on how to conduct c-suite interviews. And I’m not going to re-iterate any of them. Waste of your time.
Here’s some un-intuitive things you’ll need to keep in mind as you conduct your interview:
Don’t get lost in the weeds - Sometimes the interviewer can become overly fixated on specifics. Not every candidate is trying to dupe you, so try to not scare them off by being too obsessed over minute details. One example could be asking the candidate for the exact changes they made to Meta marketing campaigns to increase their CTR. Marketing efforts can vary across the different teams and products that your candidate worked on in the past - so my advice is to prioritize understanding the "Why" and "How" of their decision-making.
Have an objective in mind - The structure of your interview and the questions you ask must have thought put into them. You want to design your 1:1 time with your candidate with an end-goal in mind for each important section of your interview. Generally, I've seen interviews generally start off with ice breakers, interviewers offering beverages and just really kicking things off on a cooler tone. As the interview progresses, you touch upon the following in sequence for one/both parties: professional background, company culture, personality traits, emotional intelligence, team specifics and then finally job specifics. Have a reason for asking your questions, and try to not make them feel intimated so you can get an ego trip. Not a good look.
Have the right stakeholders in attendance - SaaS marketing is multi-faceted territory. And that means more than one person at your company (not just the hiring manager) needing to assess the candidate's demand generation skills and emotional intelligence. Without the right interviewers in the room, this c-suite hiring journey can quickly become a political nightmare (as you may know lol) so my advice is to think through this piece very carefully. Don't sleep on it. Better to err on the side of caution and do an extra round of phone/in-person interviews with that CXO so that everyone is "aligned".
Be a good listener, he's not your ex-boyfriend - Yeah, I've seen enough times when an interviewer will zone out or quite obviously stop asking intelligent questions because they're not actively listening. Don't be that girl. Be attentive. Be respectful. You didn't ask them to come in for an interview just to waste time, did you? I've also seen some candidates appreciate when the interviewer takes physical notes on a piece of paper. Too saucy? Maybe.
Be critically honest about next steps - "The last impression is the lasting impression." - Chris Voss, Hostage Negotiator. Regardless of what you think about their past marketing efforts or their personality, you cannot end the interview on a sour note. You are in the power chair, which gives you the liberty (and obligation really) to steer the interview in a positive direction. Let them know that you appreciate their time and be open about the next potential steps for them - will they be brought in for a third round of interviews? Will they receive a phone call with the final decision in 2 weeks? Made a promise? Good. Now stick to it. Besides, word gets around. CMOs have tight knit circles and you don't want them telling each other how cold/rude you seemed.
Gaining insight into the role
I’ve spoken with enough founding teams at startups to know hiring a fractional cmo or part-time cmo or interm cmo (however you put it) can be daunting because you don’t know, what you don’t know. It’s hard to hire for a role you have no clue about it, yet is so instrumental to the growth of your startup.
Here’s something you can do to hack your way through this piece. This is mainly targeted towards early-stage startups under $1M annual revenue:
Reach out to marketing experts -Whether it’s your existing network or you personally spending 30 mins searching for and messaging folks with “growth marketer” on their LinkedIn tagline/bio, it’s important you get them in your circle and start talking to them.
Because you can ask them what qualities, traits or skills you’ll require in someone (your future CMO) in order to accomplish your startup’s marketing goals. This might seem unrealistic but think about it. Should you really go out and hire someone for $10K a month, if you’re not fully confident what skillsets to look for in them? Not a good look.
Personally, because of my consistent chat with marketers, I know a few of them I can always call (let me know if you want help).
Conduct mock interviews - No one is too “high up” for practicing how to interview. Skip this and you’ll look like a fool to someone you’re trying to hire. If a CMO feels like they’re being tested by someone who hasn’t done this before, there is a chance they might make a split-second judgement about what it might feel like working with/for you. A negative judgement.
My tip here is to call up your entrepreneur friends (or if you’re a recruiter, then your recruiting colleagues) and ask them for pointers on how to conduct a c-suite interview. Once you prepare a bit, call them up at a later time and a 10-min spitfire interview round where you ask them the exact questions you’d ask your chief marketing officer candidates. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t keep a straight face with a friend for a mock interview, but I could probably pull it off over an audio-only phone call.
LAW IV: Multi-rounded interview is never a bad thing
Ensuring emotional and professional (notice what comes first) compatibility with your existing C-suite team and marketing department is an underrated item that needs your attention. Often times, I've seen some teams prioritize marketing efforts / demand generation tactics so much that they forget that they're hiring someone who is likely to become a permanent person in their day-to-day.
Apparently the slowest time it takes (on average) to hire someone is 85 days. Man, that's 3 whole months. And then don't forget those onboarding videos they're forced to watch, adding another 2 weeks of no-work to their schedule. Yeah, it's a long time till they hit the ground running and doing actual digital marketing for your company.
As it turns out, you can fast forward this process by ensuring buy-in from the stakeholders/managers/directors/CXOs at the table, who'll either be interfacing with your CMO on a frequent basis OR will be providing the funding/resources/people to further the CMO's mission in the company. Please read this twice, it took me a long time to think through (lol) but it's critical to remember this.
I've seen so, so many people get hired and then within 2-3 weeks begin hitting roadblocks with members on the team because they don't fully like their personality. My process mentioned above won't make your team love any CMO that comes through the door, but it'll most certainly help you filter out the bad apples very fast in your hiring process. It works! :)
LAW V: Rushed hiring is never a good thing
Build on the points I made above, it's better to not have someone for a certain role than to rush through it and get someone (anyone really) appointed as CMO. One thing I've heard is that some early-stage founders will bring on a fractional CMO (at $12K a month) from a place like HireCMO and start ramping up their marketing until their revenues/funding justifies bringing on a full-time CMO.
You also have to consider the recession we're in. Most startups are being asked to extend their runway until Q1 2025 and slow down their monthly burn (e.g., cash spent on SaaS marketing). Having an on-demand CMO or interim CMO in the meantime to keep moving your demand generation needle forward is highly, highly recommended.
You can just email me directly at hey[at]hirecmo.io and I'll do my best to help if you need someone like this.
And so, it is okay to add in an additional 10-15 days to your hiring process if you need to get approvals from certain authoritative parties, introduce your candidates to certain investors in your startup, etc. Do your best to arrange phone or in-person interviews with all individuals in the picture.
LAW VI: Reference checks are a must - no exceptions
Always, always, always do reference checks for c-suite executive roles. This person isn't just the SaaS marketing person you needed, it's someone who'll ultimately have a significant impact on your company's mission, culture and overall success. Doing reference checks also helps you retain sanity and not let your hiring process be completely contaminated with political influence within your organization.
Don't be a robot when asking your candidate's references for feedback. Some things you should keep in mind here are as follows:
LinkedIn - Look at the reviews left on their LinkedIn profiles. Make sure the ones leaving behind the reviews are individuals with solid backgrounds themselves - this'll help you add weight to their words. Also, LinkedIn research will also help you draw the connection/relation between the candidate and their reference.
Give the reference the full context - Before you begin asking your questions, let the reference know the reason, intent and context behind your call. Describe the job requirements (at a high-level) and explain to them what's expected from the candidate. This will help the reference understand the relevancy (or lack of it) to the work they did with your candidate at their previous company together, and help frame their responses better! Congratulations, you just set the stage for a high level of accurate responses.
Ask about emotional intelligence - Don't be shy to ask about their soft skills, social and emotional-intelligence-based capabilities at their previous jobs. Goes unnoticed sometimes.
Don't let bias take over - Sure, the job interview may have made you think X or Y about how they might be. But don't let your prejudice get the best of you when you're on the phone with their references. Stick to the facts that they speak, and don't sneakily coerce them into re-stating your assumptions.
Open-ended but specific questions - Avoid asking general questions like, "Can you tell me about Chu's job performance?" Instead, stick to questions which target the candidate's specific skillset/personality traits but be sure to let their reference speak their mind. You're here to listen actively.
I sincerely hope this piece helps you think more clearly about hiring your next chief marketing officer for your startup/company. I do my best to be as honest as possible, and do the research so you don't have to. Drop a line anytime at hey[at]hirecmo.io and I'd be happy to grab a coffee with you! Lots of good content coming your way in 2024!! Lastly, you can always use the search function on our site if you're looking for something specific.
And btw, if you're a recruiter, let's partner up ;)