How To Transition From Blue-Chip CMO To Smaller Firm CMO

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There is a typical way in which careers flow. Generally, marketers tend to move from a larger firm to a smaller firm. Consequently, it’s common for marketers to grow up in big firms (e.g., Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola, etc.) and then to migrate to smaller firms—even to startups. However, going from a well-resourced, highly structured environment to one that is likely less structured and resourced has its challenges. To better understand how to navigate the transition from large to small firm CMO, I turned to Matt Hirst, Managing Partner at West, a venture studio that specializes in designing, building, and launching brands.
Kimberly A. Whitler: You’ve worked at a number of bigger firms, like Red Bull and Google, and now work with smaller firms. What are the biggest challenges you see marketers struggle with as they migrate from the blue chips to smaller, often less resourced, firms?
Matt Hirst: One of the first things that many marketers will notice is the access and attention that they get seems to shrink. You no longer have the business card with the such and such brand on it. For me that was a cool, cleansing experience to really understand what was “me” and my reputation vs the brand(s) I previously worked for. It’s humbling to shed that layer––for me in a positive way––but it’s not for everyone. 

On the other hand, there is huge freedom that comes with realizing that so many of the tasks you had to check off in your previous life were not mission-critical but simply part of working and surviving as part of a bigger company. 
A simple exercise is to start with a blank sheet of paper and make a list of what is truly important and then go out and do the top 3 things. Be disciplined. Anyone who has been through this transition knows that it can take a while to start seeing the forest from the trees, essentially unlearning behaviors that have been part of your work world since forever. But as long as you keep executing on the most important initiatives, the result will be a better, smarter, leaner and more focused marketer. And that’s a great thing.

Whitler: That’s an interesting point. Not only are you unlearning certain behaviors, but you’re also assessing and possibly rebuilding your own reputation. One that is now almost solely reliant on your inputs and outputs versus the collective sheen of whichever blue chip you were minted at. 
Hirst: Exactly. That experience is not for everyone and that’s OK. But for those who are excited by the opportunity to build and grind a bit, the experience can be incredibly rewarding.
Whitler: Knowing what you now know, if you were to take a role as CMO of a smaller firm, possibly a startup, what would you do to give yourself the best chance of success? What steps would enable a more successful transition from big to small?
Hirst: First, I strongly recommend that every marketer takes time to become proficient in the funding environment and how companies finance their growth. It’s easy for marketers to avoid the whole topic of money at a big company, but at a startup it rules everything…runway, burn…and is 90% of what your CEO is and should be thinking about. It’s why at West, we approach our work with an investor mindset, looking at everything from your funding roadmap to upcoming key hires, so we can make informed decisions about the brand’s trajectory and where it makes the most sense to dedicate time and resources.
If you don’t lean into the finance side, as marketer, there will always be a disconnect between you, senior leadership and the board. And if you fail to frame your activities and goals within this context, and it won’t matter how great your ideas are because they won’t be actionable.
Second, it’s about your ability to discern what the business really needs and to do it effectively. That sounds obvious, but I’ve seen so many people from really fantastic brands fail because they tried to implement a big strategic overhaul without getting involved in the daily hand-to-hand combat of the business; or worse, default to whatever it was that made them successful in their last company. Sadly, this only gets worse with seniority. If you were a great manager at your previous firm, you need to be honest with yourself about whether or not you have the fitness to still be a “doer”. Not everyone does. As I said earlier, part of the reason you go to a smaller company is to challenge yourself to unlearn as well as learn. 
Whitler: Ok, so taking a step back before you even arrive at a new job. What are the right questions for an experienced blue-chip marketer to consider to make sure incentives are aligned? 
Hirst: So much of a CEOs job of leading a startup is the ability to sell a dream that is in the process of being realised. It’s not currently true or real, but there is an opportunity for the taking. The first question you need to ask is, “Is this a dream I care about?” Shelve all notions of valuations, hype and potential exits – they don’t matter. The most important thing to ask is whether or not you want to spend your precious time on that dream.
Assuming the answer is mostly “yes”, the second question is more sober and analytical. Essentially, “Do I believe the team and product as it stands today have hope in realising the big vision and can I be instrumental in helping it happen?” Take the time to gather the right data points to answer that question. Does this startup have the right backing? Do you believe in the founder’s ability to execute as well as trust her team for feedback, even when the going is tough? Can you get tangible examples of that from the people you speak to? You need to look beyond the fancy offices and sales pitch and figure out whether or not they have the right team and culture to make it happen.
Whitler: Anything else a future startup CMO should expect or consider?
Hirst: We could spend hours on this, but a big one for any marketer thinking about making the jump to a startup is adjusting to the speed of decision making. Big companies spend a lot of their time in planning mode, using data and various inputs to justify and legitimize their decisions. This, in turn, informs a certain cadence to decision making and with it people’s perception and tolerance of risk. Start-ups require you to trust your gut and ask for forgiveness, not permission. This can be pretty daunting for more analytical marketers or those who aren’t used to getting things wrong or are worried about the consequences of making the wrong move. It certainly gets easier over time – you start to notice and trust different signals. For ideas to work, you are much better off with a test-and-learn mentality. Be bold and act with conviction.
Join the Discussion: @KimWhitler

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