Hiring for high growth tech companies: the changing role of the CMO

What does marketing mean in the today’s tech-driven, consumer-savvy world? In a constantly changing landscape, where start-ups succeed or fail at pace and the role of marketing is dramatically different in each stage of a business’s growth, it’s time to re-evaluate the role and profile of the senior marketer.

Start-ups have been delivering to increasingly discerning audiences for longer than we tend to realise, but as the talent market remains immature, VC-backed portfolio companies must answer this question before they make these critical hires.

Understanding what you plan to achieve – and the broader vision for the business – is vital to pitch the role’s brief, given current and future needs, to a prospective candidate. And ultimately, it is critical to put the emphasis on attributes and potential ahead of traditional expectations of job title and background.


The role of a CMO: breaking it down

In all sectors, the requirements of the CMO will change as the business grows and its needs develop. This may seem obvious, but it leads to an important choice: either the business will need to re-hire at every pivotal growth stage, or it must hire someone initially who has the experience to ride the wave of the business from early stage to maturity.

At any milestone, the CMO’s key responsibility will always be to employ the best strategy for the business in order to increase its customer base. But for many VC-backed businesses there is an important step that comes earlier, and is often forgotten. That is the importance of the CMO’s contribution to the product definition and roadmap, given that they will ultimately be the individual selling the proposition to the outside world. It needs constant redefinition and development by the senior management team. Where this is the case, the PPC expert might not be the right person to help define this.

While it might not be necessary for a CMO to have econometric modelling in their core skillset, some of the best people we’ve hired into these roles have insight, CRM and analyst backgrounds. Following a recent search in fintech, once we had assessed the talent across our initial target list of companies, we found a mere 15% were of the calibre and experience required for a two year old start-up. Among these were engineering and science professionals, MBAs with product strategy experience, strategy consultants and strategic marketing professionals.


When to hire

When it’s done right, hiring a CMO can be pivotal, and as businesses scale it’s paramount that someone steps into this role. A CMO is a transformative leader who can help pivot an organisation in a direction in which it can grow. But, before a start-up begins pouring time and resources into recruiting, it’s prudent to consider first whether a CMO is really what’s needed at that stage.

When you’re entering a phase of rapid scale or preparing to raise your business’ profile, an astute CMO will take the lead in analysing data and identifying and leveraging opportunities to maximise revenue streams. They’ll take on the role of ‘the outsider’, helping to define what story the consumer wants to be told. To do all of this, they’ll have to bring in teams: content to boost the SEO profile, a data and insights team for analysis, and a good bolt on CRM function, media buying and so on.

For businesses at an earlier stage of growth, hiring an experienced CMO may be a step beyond what is needed; a more junior hire could be a fitting solution. But this should always be approached with caution as a smaller salary outlay in the short term could mean higher losses should the individual’s scope be too narrow for mid- and long-term strategy. This is all too apparent judging by the number of marketing profiles with sporadic, short-lived young experiences making up their CVs.


Whom to hire

Finding a candidate with sector knowledge, plus experience in product, consumer marketing and data analysis is the ideal scenario, but the dearth of talent means we need to be creative.

Businesses approaching a round of series A/B funding may consider hiring a smart individual with a range of experience, from product to marketing, to be a wise investment. But this is not as simple as it sounds as individuals focus careers on developing specific skillsets rather than broadening, adding more strings to their bows.

Companies that take this route should look for a CMO that will add value quickly and boost the brand’s profile, demonstrating a prompt ROI. For a start-up in the first round of funding, the financial investment may be prohibitively high, but those at a more advanced stage of scale with required levels of financing might consider it a necessary investment for continued growth. More experience also brings more value to board discussions about further investments required across the business – not only in marketing.

Another option is to hire an enthusiastic step-up candidate as head of marketing – someone who is skilled in most, if not all, of the required capabilities of a CMO, but who may lack the top-level strategy experience and commercial acumen of a long-established business leader. After all, the CMO is the defacto commercial director as well. This could mean, for the mid-term, making the additional temporary hire of an experienced marketer in a non-executive role to act as a mentor. This isn’t common practice, but in order to close the experience gap, perhaps it’s something businesses should do more.

Although this is less time-efficient than hiring a ready-made CMO, it has several key advantages, including being more cost-effective for an early-stage start-up. The head of department should be someone who is eager and committed to their own development, ready to be moulded into a new role. They’ll grow with the business, shaping strategy and direction from early on; this level of investment and training should produce a talented CMO with a good understanding of all of the business’ functions, and dedicated enough to stay on board long-term.

Additionally, for an early-stage company, over-hiring can be as bad as under-hiring. Hands-on and wanting to roll sleeves up is vital to success in this role. A CMO who has been working with the industry’s giants for several years may not be quite so well placed to define strategy and direction for a young, agile start-up. There is much less focus on landmark campaigns, and a less glamorous but more challenging need to squeeze every last sale out of a limited marketing budget, but with huge creative freedom.



The tidal shift to digital paired with the rise of dynamic start-up culture has caused a fundamental change in the way marketing is approached. More is expected of CMOs, and there’s a lack of mid- to senior-level talent as a result.

The three key characteristics to identify in a candidate are smarts, leadership qualities and a head for strategy and data.

For an early-stage start-up, hiring a talented but inexperienced head of marketing may be enough to take the company forward. On-boarding an experienced non-executive to train them in leadership and strategy will help to mould the candidate into an astute CMO, ready when your company needs one. However, for businesses in series A/B funding and beyond, hiring an experienced CMO, though not necessarily a corporate candidate, may be a preferable option.

It’s important for a potential tech CMO to have an understanding of the industry, but a candidate doesn’t need to be from a tech background to qualify. As Steve Jobs once said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Candidates grounded in these fields may bring exactly the kind of critical thinking, eye for design and fresh perspective that’s required, provided they possess the key skills outlined above.


Kate Zatland leads the digital practice at The MBS Group