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VCs to startup founders: Invest in a team first — and don’t forget marketing

"A marketing hire should be the first one as soon as your product is real," writes marketing pro Shashi Bellamkonda after a recent Big Idea CONNECTpreneur pitch event at Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business.

Investor panel at the Big Idea CONNECTpreneur Baltimore event, Feb. 2020. (Photo by Shashi Bellamkonda)
This is a guest post Shashi Bellamkonda, an adjunct professor in digital marketing at Georgetown University and McDonough School of Management.

If you follow Apple cofounder Steve Jobs’ talks, you will notice that he was a big proponent of creating good products and spreading awareness using sales and marketing. He acknowledged that introducing new technology and products needed an element of the education for partners and reseller employees, and invested in building marketing teams.

I have been fascinated with the pitch concepts of startups at events like the Big Idea CONNECTpreneur event at Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business on Feb. 19. A part of the program included six startups pitching VCs and the community. The VCs were:

  • Alexander Triantis — Dean of Johns Hopkins Carey Business School
  • Christy Wyskiel — Executive director of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures and senior advisor to the president at Johns Hopkins University
  • Jeff Cherry — Managing partner of Conscious Venture Fund and CEO of SHIFT Ventures
  • Elizabeth Cho-Fertikh — Cofounder and managing director of MEDA Angels and founder of ECF Biosolutions
  • Chris College — Managing partner of TCP Venture Capital
  • Michael Avon — Partner at ABS Capital Partners, and founder and executive chairman of ICX Media

One theme that emerged from this event is the importance of the team to the success of a company.

From research and watching many startups pitch VCs, I know that a good pitch presentation should these components:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. How is your company going to solve this problem?
  3. Validation of the product by the market
  4. Competition
  5. Product differentiation from the market
  6. How will you make money and how much
  7. Team
  8. Funding you need and why

The investor panel discussion that took place after the startup pitches were in agreement that VCs will invest not just in ideas but in the teams that the founders created. While good ideas get funded, investors are assessing the execution of the good ideas by the teams that will execute.

One solution suggested by the panel was — after the validation of the product by the market — to hire experienced team members who have done it before. Cho-Fertickh recommended that if companies are not funded to hire experienced people, to use advisory boards and have functional experts on these boards. The panelists also agreed that they invest in companies where the board and team is diverse and would definitely look to see the percentage of women board members and would stay away from companies without a woman on the board.

Of the startup pitches at the event, I was happy that over 80% of the pitches had a team slide and they emphasized being proud of their teams. That said, I am a bit puzzled by the absence of marketing hires at startups at the beginning.

There are differing opinions on when to make your marketing hire. When the product needs FDA approval, such as CarrTech’s Filter Removal of Glass (FROG) needle or market validation like Greentec-USA’s data protection solution — both of which were pitched at the event — it makes sense that they would seek funding to make their marketing hires and scale. Jim Keeny of pitched company Dapt did not have a marketing executive on his team but had an advisor in Columbia-based Attila’s VP of marketing, Kathleen Slattery Booth. (Five other companies pitched: Community Data Platforms, Vivos Therapeutics, FireBot Suppression, NowSecure Mobile and Onclave Networks.)

As an experienced marketer, I have seen startup entrepreneurs do a fantastic job of moving their idea or concept to a product. At the next stage when they try to scale beyond the initial trial customers, they face hurdles. Many look at other successful growth companies’ growth and try to replicate the same model, quickly hiring large sales teams to evangelize the wonderful features the founders think are important for the market to know. If they hire a marketer with experience they would have a well-defined go-to-market approach:

  • First, identify the customer pain point that the startup solves.
  • Talk about the benefits that tie into the customer’s goals and objectives.
  • Identify a specific market first and testing the go-to-market approach before investing more and contributing to the profitability of the company.

Another important reason to have a team that includes marketing early is that your leadership team needs to be aligned from the start. It may be challenging for a change in direction midway if the marketing team has to readjust the strategy.

In my opinion, a marketing hire should be the first one as soon as your product is real.

If you are a founder with a new idea, get people with experience to help you succeed. Make sure your team is diverse so you have different thoughts and ideas instead of groupthink — and make sure you have someone on board who can educate other stakeholders about the value of your work, too.


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