generalists are the key to startup success
(you can't change my mind)
Hello! Welcome back. It’s the week after the super bowl which means #MarketingTwitter is still hogging the internet spotlight. I’m so proud of us.
Did you have a favorite ad? An ad you truly hated? Let me know!
I think mine was the coinbase ad but there were some pretty good ones this year. Doritos did its thing, Salesforce continued running its #TeamEarth ad which I love, and the new trailer for Dr. Strange dropped.
The super bowl commercials are basically the super bowl for marketers. Twitter was aflame and it was a good time!
Now, onto the ‘sletter.
Today’s topic is one I am quite passionate about and don’t think it gets enough attention in the marketing universe. If you stick around long enough, you’ll probably hear me talk about it a few more times: Being a marketing generalist.
Speaking of hearing: I’ve been thinking about using the Substack podcast feature to add an audio option for each newsletter. It would basically be the same exact copy since I write all these like I talk, for the most part. Let me know how you feel - either way - by replying to this email.
What is a generalist + why do they exist
A generalist is anyone who has a broad understanding of the topics within their field. They can speak to, and execute on, pretty much anything with varying degrees of expertise. Every generalist will have their own specialties (ironically) and areas they prefer but overall, they have at least a surface-level understanding of everything.
Generalists are pretty common in marketing. A big reason, I think, is because of how universities teach marketing. Your standard marketing degree will give you a broad understanding - The 4 P’s, building a strategy, doing audience research, social media, etc.
But in my experience, universities don’t do a great job at:
helping undergrads get a marketing focus
providing curricula that matches the latest industry dynamics and how real people actually do their job.
#2 applies to every field. Academia is only so fast and even then, they are very selective about what gets taught in the classroom. This is challenging in a field like marketing where new things seem to come up every day.
Point 1 really hits on my experience. I got a degree in marketing at DePaul University under the “Standard Marketing” concentration. When I was there, the only other concentration they had under the marketing degree was, funny enough, “Sales Leadership”. So I wasn’t going for that. They have since launched a Digital Marketing concentration that now updates a lot of their teachings to 2013 😬
To be fair, they do have the Integrated Marketing Education track which is for a select group of students (exclusive access at an already expensive school is fun!!) where you learn more about strategic planning and tactical decision-making.
I’ve talked to a lot of marketing students out of DePaul and other universities and they all had a ton of questions about where they should start in marketing and that seems to - at least partially - reflect the university’s focus on preparing marketers for the workplace. Okay, that’s enough talking about DePaul (it IS a good school though), back to generalists.
What does a marketing generalist look like? Well, I’ll describe myself:
Started doing social media marketing in college
My first job had me doing social media, linkedin ads, 3rd party email campaigns, strategic planning, project management, display ads, CRM data entry + management, marketing attribution, SDR strategy and metrics
I was the one they put on to support or lead any new initiative or if they just need help with something. We were a fairly small team (about 10).
This was the ideal first job for me. I got extensive experience across the entire marketing umbrella.
Second job was the same thing: email, events, social media, website management, operations, etc. etc.
Then I went into freelancing and this was basically my pitch: Startups need to activate yesterday, I have the experience to execute on what you need to do now while putting in systems that will replace me and help you scale. I got a lot of business!
I signed on full-time with a client to be their marketing director where I was a one person team for about 10 months and then built the team to 4 people in 2 years, helping grow the company about 1000x in that time period.
Now I’m doing my own thing again. I’m a bit more specialized, focusing on email marketing and marketing operations + reporting but I still do a few different things at once because that’s what I’m good at!
I never really wanted to go down a specific marketing path like email, programmatic, or branding. I enjoy all of it and honing my skills across everything has proven extremely valuable for my career.
Something to consider: It’s possible hiring a non-marketing generalist at a startup is not a good idea (but could be down the road). Take episode 2, season 1 of Silicon Valley where Jared convinces Richard they need to fire Big Head.
Jared needs to justify everyone’s equity in the company. The main reason he gives for firing Big Head is that he is a “master of none” despite Richard wanting to keep him as a “jack of all trades.”
And to you marketers, I want to resurface this golden tweet from my friend Aditi that should give some reassurance.
The value of a marketing generalist
I want to touch on point 5 as it was the original inspiration for this edition. Being a one person team at a startup AND a marketing generalist gave me everything I needed to succeed. Was it hard? Obvi. Did I make mistakes? Oh you betcha.
But I had the ability to execute on everything we needed to do. And being in a director position, I was running the show and could get a much better understanding of how systems work together to help drive attention and revenue.
The biggest value a generalist provides is understanding how different channels, systems, and strategies can work together. They’ve experienced more areas of marketing than your average specialist and are likely better at connecting the dots across an entire marketing org.
At a startup, you don’t know what works. You need to test out different channels, strategies, and tactics to see what sticks. If something is working really well, then hire the specialist to continue to build out that channel and scale it. But you will only find that out by trying a lot of different things.
There’s always conversations on twitter and linkedin about who the ideal first marketing hire should be. Many people will say someone brand-focused, others will say performance. For me, hire a generalist. It’s the most cost-effective and efficient option to starting your marketing function.
Lots of startups also go the agency route when starting because they want a team to do many different things. Generalists are great alternatives:
some startups (and honestly all kinds of businesses) simply don’t want to work with agencies
One-person teams offer the company more oversight and closer collaboration with the marketer
No billable hours. Hiring a marketing generalist contractor is way easier for everyone at a fixed rate (and cheaper for the client).
A closing Fun Fact: This whole topic is why the newsletter is named Catch All! Startup marketers wear a lot of hats, do a lot different things, however you want to say it, and need to have a broad understanding of all things marketing. This newsletter is a marketing catch-all, if you will
Hope this edition made you appreciate the generalists a bit more. And if you’re a marketing generalist, a one person team, or just love marketing and trying out all different things, I appreciate you.
See you in 2 weeks.
Some big things have been happening!
I bought a company on Microacquire! I wanted to incorporate a SaaS element into my business so I can get more predictable revenue. So lots of my time will now be dedicated to scaling this really good product. 🚀
If you work with UTM tracking links and want to get better at knowing the exact channel and content that is driving conversions, this tool will literally save you hours of time.
My friends Ibrahim and Sid invited me on their podcast and now the episode is out! I actually talk a bit about being a generalist so if today’s edition was interesting to you, highly recommend you check it out.