CMO Interview Series: Karen Tam

Eliza Jaskolski
Talent Manager at HireCMO

During our journey of creating HireCMO, I've had the privilege to meet and work with many chief marketing officers who have worked closely with founders/executives to build very interesting products. Today, I'm joined by Karen, who is a Fractional CMO for technology startups.

I truly hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. She has loads to share about building and growing tech startups! :)

Karen Tam - Fractional CMO for tech startups


Karen, it's truly an honour doing this interview with you. I’ve been looking forward to it for a while!

Q1 - Maybe we can get started with you telling the audience a little about yourself and what makes your CMO journey unique compared to others :)


For 30 years my career focused on working for large well-known corporate brands as their senior marketer where I led their brand strategy, digital marketing, customer acquisition, communications planning, product marketing and UX/CX experience which resulted in exponential growth in revenue, customers and brand affinity.   

During covid, I started thinking about where the world of remote work was heading.  It was at this time that I came upon this concept of Fractional Leadership. As I learned about the burgeoning industry, I realized that all of my corporate experience could be repackaged to serve smaller companies or startup founders who needed that expertise while also providing me with the freedom and flexibility I wanted in my life at this stage to pursue other personal interests.

My journey to becoming a Fractional CMO is unique in the sense that this isn’t a “job” so much as it’s a way for me to fulfill my purpose in life. And that purpose is to help founders solve interesting problems with their companies. I see my role as being their sounding board and business partner, by helping them see their blindspots through the lens of their customer, so that together we can lead the team to achieve growth and success.


Q2 - Wow, that's such a unique way to start our conversation. Love it. So Karen, you led brand marketing at OLG, which is a notable organization here in Canada. What did you enjoy the most about that role and how did those 4 years at OLG change your outlook on marketing?


What I loved about that role is the fact that I was part of a leadership team that built something from scratch. We functioned like a startup within a large organization, which was both very rewarding but also not without its challenges.

While I’d been involved in many new product launches over the course of my career, what was unique about my role at OLG was that we were breaking new ground in so many different ways. We had to build out all of the foundations required to successfully build a company within a large entity, and so it meant I had to really stretch myself mentally and professionally. 

The opportunity for personal and professional growth was immensely enjoyable. It’s actually BECAUSE I did this for 4 years at OLG that has led me to choose startups to focus my Fractional CMO practice on.


That's pretty fascinating. I've heard that some innovative companies do exactly what you just described - have parts of the organization solely focused on bringing new ideas to the table, amongst other such roles.

Q3 - Karen, as a fractional CMO now, you love working with tech startups. That’s quite a shift from the traditional marketing roles that you’ve had in the past - how come you made this bold move to work with founders? What gets you excited about startups in particular?


As mentioned above, my experience at OLG was the catalyst.

While working with world class brands was interesting as it gave me great experience and helped me build my own personal brand, it lacked the excitement of creating something from scratch.

As mentioned earlier, my focus now is on executing my purpose, and tech startups help me achieve this. Getting involved in the innovation ecosystem has been very rewarding because I am now able to give back by providing my expertise while also being able to stretch myself in terms of personal and professional growth. I’m learning new things about entrepreneurship that I hadn’t been exposed to before because I was working for large corporate brands.


Q4 - Good point there. When did you know you were ready to transition to being a fractional CMO? What was that journey like for you? And did you have mentors / role models to guide you through it?


I had always planned to transition into being a strategy consultant/advisor for a company at this stage of my career.  Covid and the trend towards remote work helped accelerate the transition for me.  I think the concept of fractional leadership has existed forever but it’s never been called this until recently. 

I’ve spent the last 2 years networking remotely with people from all over the world, and while some have found the Zoom calls tiring, I actually thrive with this way of working. I don’t really have a “mentor” but I have built a new network of solopreneurs, fractional leaders and SMBs/founders and collectively we share a common mindset which is to be generous with each other and to focus on their success first.

The clients I’ve had are located in the GTA but the extended team lives all over the world. It’s been an amazing journey meeting people this way as prior to covid, it would never have crossed my mind to work like this.


Not to pull a cliche, but your network is your net worth haha. And it sounds like you've been slowly building a "team" of friends and colleagues around you over the years, which helped you get to where you are today. That, and of course your awesome skillsets as a CMO!

Q5 - As an FCMO, you put a lot of focus on the word “branding”. Talk to us about why it is critical to a startup’s marketing strategy and how you advise companies on strengthening their brand.


Brand and marketing are 2 different things but I think a lot of founders confuse the two.  

I always advise founders to focus on creating their brand strategy first. Your brand IS your business. Marketing is the way in which you attract people to your brand.  

Without clearly defining things like your purpose, vision, mission, positioning, your target customers, your visual identity, etc, your ideal customers can’t identify with you/your company.

Too often founders think what they need after coming up with the product idea is that they need a website. But the website shouldn’t be created until you define your brand because what you say on the website will be confusing, along with whatever other content you put out there.


I'm totally guilty of confusing the two myself haha. Great call out there, Karen.

Q6 - One thing I'm super eager to pick your brain on is this. There’s so many marketers who are anxious about upgrading their careers from being a tactical marketer to a strategic leader. What solid advice do you have for marketers who want to make that transition? I’m asking because you seemed to have done it quite smoothly.


I’d first help them understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.   The order always has to be:

  1. What’s the problem you are solving (most don’t spend enough time really thinking about articulating their problem)?
  2. What’s your strategy for solving that problem?
  3. What are the best tactics to execute on your strategy?

So for someone who wants to move away from being a tactical marketer, they need to go deeper into understanding the business, the problem that business has, and think about the strategies they can deploy to solve the problem.

When you focus on tactics first (e.g.:  build a website, run a paid search campaign, create a content plan on social media), the results from those efforts could be hit and miss.  It’s hit and miss because you haven’t defined the problem and strategy so it’s all trial and error.


Thanks so much for coming on, Karen. This was very fascinating!!

I've been waiting to invite Karen on for the longest time because (a) she has a lot of experience to back what she says about the marketing space and (b) she's helped startups and mature organizations legitimately accomplish growth. I remember the first time I spoke with her on the phone and she had such great questions to ask about what we're doing at HireCMO, and then dropping some insights on the topic of fractional CMOs as a whole.

After having interviewed and spoken with 100+ founders and marketers as part of building HireCMO, I’ve realized that the most competent individuals are those who have a strong analytical mindset and are able to clearly define the impact that their actions will have. And to me, Karen is one of the few who do this very well :)

And btw, if you would like to work with talented CMOs like Karen, feel free to have a chat with me and I’ll personally take care of you. You can always use the search function on our site if you're looking for something specific! Until next time!!

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