A Short List For Ass-Kicking CMOs
Last month I was talking with a recently-hired CMO at a well-funded startup. She told me the most dangerous thing an incoming CMO could do is redesign the company logo. Why? Because logos are totally subjective. There’s no quantifiable metric for success, except for how the CEO feels about it, and that’s risky.
It got me thinking, what should you do as a startup’s new CMO? Here’s my advice, in four essential steps. I call it a Short List for Ass-Kicking CMOs.
#1: Set your goals.
Sit down with your CEO and agree on the following three goals:
• Valuation at exit.
• Revenue Growth—next 12 to 18 months.
• Purpose—why do you exist beyond money?
Note that these goals sit outside the category you’re creating because they are more foundational than category. If your company decided to change categories entirely, these three goals would still exist. That’s exactly what you want—the kind of goals that will ground future category design decisions in objective criteria.
It’s likely you learned these goals during the interview process. But whenever it happens, write them down and lock them in. Once you’ve got agreement from your CEO, try to keep the language the same. And socialize it. In planning meetings with executives and your team, restate these goals often. In doing so you’re teaching those around you that you plan to tie every idea, decision and initiative back to them.
#2: Know the customer.
There’s nothing like becoming your company’s foremost expert on the customer. It will give you credibility and authority inside your company. Here’s how to get there:
When you start, somebody's going to give you a deck called something like “Customer Insights.” Read it, but don’t treat it as the gospel.
Instead, conduct customer interviews yourself. Ask four open-ended questions:
• Why change? Why did you buy a product or solution in this space?
• Why then? Why did you make a purchase when you did? What was it about the timing that
• Why us? What was it about our solution that stood out compared to competitors?
• How’s it going so far?
Make sure to get transcripts of those conversations. We use a service called Rev.com. From your transcripts, make a document with direct customer quotes organized by question. So for example, you should be able to look at every direct quote from customers that answered the question “Why us?”
Go through and edit them down, keeping the most meaningful quotes. Keep an eye out for short quotes that convey feeling over intellect. If it comes from the gut, it’s far more likely to drive decision-making.
Good. Now you understand what's actually important to your customers, in their own words.
If your company is like many we have worked with, you are now its foremost customer service expert. The whole exercise took a few weeks. How could that be? Sadly, because most people in most companies are shockingly distant from the customer, relying on research that treats them as rational, emotionless buyers. (Perhaps that’s because most people are shockingly distant from themselves. But that's another topic.)
#3: Define your category.
If your new startup dreams of transforming their industry then they are, by definition, aspiring category creators. Most startups sort of back into category creation. But why not go at it directly instead?
To do so, you’ll need to work closely with the CEO and the rest of the executive team. They must understand that category design is not marketing or brand strategy. Rather, it's a whole company strategy that requires every department to be engaged and on board.
Yes, your category strategy will guide all things marketing: your story, messaging, and brand creative. But in order to work, Product, Sales, HR/People—everyone—must believe the mission to create and lead a new market category is the CEO’s highest priority.
If you go to all the trouble of defining a category—and it’s a lot of work—you might as well throw it all out if your Chief Product Officer doesn’t use that strategy to inform and guide the product roadmap. In fact, I’ve found that’s the best criteria for the whole-companyness of your strategy: is it something the product folks take seriously? If not, you’ve landed on a strategy you’ll BS your way through. 80% of a category strategy is as useful as 80% of a car. At some point your customers, realizing the product doesn’t walk the walk, will figure things out and leave.
You don’t need to hire a partner like Gold Front to help you. It is possible to do it yourself. But if you’re unsure what a great strategic narrative looks like or how to get there, I recommend you leave it to people like us who specialize in category design.
#4: Tell the world.
If you’re moving fast, you’re about three months in. You have a newly approved category POV, and have achieved executive alignment. Now it’s time to redirect marketing and company efforts so they are in line with your category POV and growth goals. We call it a Category Launch. It consists of two areas of work:
Inside the Company. In an all-hands meeting, your CEO will present your category POV as your company’s North Star, energizing staff and letting them know what role they play in manifesting the category.
Out in the World. In a public launch, you’ll take a giant step toward helping customers move from the terrible-no-good state they’re in, to the promised land of your category. Include everything from marketing initiatives to updated sales decks to new product features that further prove your category POV.
So yeah, let’s talk about that logo redesign. If it would serve the business, this is the time to go for it. But now it’s way more than a logo. It’s about you and your department realizing the category POV, which was designed to achieve the company’s three essential goals: Valuation, Revenue Growth and Purpose. When everything you do ties back to those business goals, you’re as close to bulletproof as it gets in the marketing profession.
Driving toward Category Launch, there are four things our category creating clients do at this point:
1. Marketing Plan Update
2. Brand Redesign
3. Website & Messaging Update
4. Orchestrated Launch
Whether and how much you redesign your brand depends on the state of the existing brand. Do it if the current brand is out of sync with your new category strategy or the current brand has historically been neglected. As a category creator, you need your brand to look and feel like a market leader.
As launch day gets closer, you’ll want to make sure everyone on the revenue team is aligned so they're ready to drive (and respond to) a surge in demand. Performance marketing, brand, sales, partnerships, everyone.
Of course the details of your specific Ass-Kicking List may vary, but the broad strokes apply to everyone: Set your goals. Know the customer. Define your category. Tell the world.
It’s going to take herculean focus to drive the outcomes you’re looking for. People in your new company will try to pull you in every direction. They’ll ask you to be reasonable, to accommodate their needs. That’s where the Short List for Ass-Kicking CMOs comes in. Print it out and put it on your desk where you’ll always see it. It’s not just a list, it’s a constant reminder that the best way to make new friends is to create and dominate your category.