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Marketing Operations

5 Dos and Don’ts of Startup Marketing Ops From the Founder of Maven

November 13, 2021
November 16, 2021
Mike Thomas

Gagan Biyani has co-founded three startups in edtech and logistics: Udemy, Sprig, and most recently, Maven. Here are some field-tested marketing strategies at the core of everything he does.

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This post is based on an episode of MarketerHire's marketing operations webinar, MarketerLive. Scroll to the bottom for the full webinar video.

Maven CEO Gagan Biyani is the Mick Jagger of entrepreneurs: Once he started up, he never stopped... starting up.

To date, he’s co-founded three startups. He made his biggest splash as co-founder and president of the online education platform Udemy (recently valued at more than $3 billion).

Then went on to co-found another education platform: Maven, which recently raised a $20 million Series A led by Andreesen Horowitz. 

Biyani also has roots in logistics. After helming supply and demand acquisition for Lyft’s Los Angeles launch, he co-founded food delivery company Sprig, which shuttered in 2017 — the kind of tough call serial entrepreneurs like Biyani know how to make. 

Here are five marketing ops best practices that Biyani picked during his eight years at three startups in two sectors.

DON’T hire marketers before you see organic growth.

At an early-stage startup, the founders should be the marketing team, Biyani said. No one knows the company’s products or services better. 

If you’re a founder and your efforts aren’t paying off in some level of organic growth, you’re not ready to hire a marketing team — no matter how big your ambitions. There’s likely an underlying issue with your positioning, or your product itself, and marketing headcount won’t solve it. 

Biyani knows from experience. He and his co-founder searched for a VP of marketing at Sprig right when growth began to plateau, hoping a new hire could kick it back into gear. 

There was just one hiccup: Marketers “don’t want to join companies that aren’t easy to market,” Biyani said. “Your job as a marketer is to accelerate an existing product that already has product-market fit.”

“Your job as a marketer is to accelerate an existing product that already has product-market fit.”

That’s for good reason. At Sprig, they eventually found an enthusiastic VP of marketing — and had to lay him off within six months.

“He’s a great leader and I loved working with him,” Biyani said. “It just wasn’t fair that we had brought him in and he essentially had no opportunity to really do anything.

DO lean on a CMO friend if you’re building your first marketing org.

If you’ve never hired a marketing team before, ask for help once you achieve product-market fit. 

Biyani recommends asking a friend with CMO experience to oversee your hiring process. Compensate them with advisory shares, so they’re (literally) invested in your company’s success. 

Then have them sit in on interviews, ask interviewees questions, and generally vet the hiring process so it’s as efficient and effective as possible. 

Otherwise, you can end up with unrealistic job descriptions, or an early-career generalist where you really need two part-time, senior channel specialists. 

DO build work simulation into your interview process.

There are two main ways to interview candidates, Biyani explained: retrospective and prospective. 

  • The retrospective approach means asking questions about prior roles and projects.
  • The prospective approach means going through a “work simulation” or test project relevant to their potential role at your company.

At Maven, Biyani blends the two together. A candidate’s first two or three interviews focus on what they did in previous roles, and assess their depth of knowledge and experience.

Then it’s on to real-world scenarios, or the work simulation portion. Determining if someone is truly right for a particular role “is always going to be about seeing them do the work,” Biyani siad.  

This second part could involve a test project — like writing sample copy for a landing page — or a verbal walk-through of their thought process when building a go-to-market plan. 

Biyani might ask a channel specialist to audit his company’s current strategy and spell out what they’d do differently.

“What you’re looking for is a speed of iteration, a breadth of brainstorming,” Biyani said. “Someone who has enough appreciation or understanding that experimentation and evaluation are going to be a big part of what they're doing.”

“What you’re looking for is a speed of iteration, a breadth of brainstorming.”

DON’T chase trendy new channels.

There’s no dearth of marketing channels, and new digital channels emerge all the time. In 2020, Hulu, Spotify and TikTok announced plans for self-serve ad platforms — and Clubhouse launched! (Remember Clubhouse?)

Still, the most effective marketing teams don’t jump on channels just because they’re trendy. In fact, Biyani has a word for that approach: “ridiculous.” 

A channel’s only worthwhile if it helps you reach your target audience. TikTok may work well for a B2C organization, but make minimal impact on a B2B company’s funnel. 

“Every product has a different set of things that are going to matter to that customer base,” Biyani says. “So you need to figure out what’s good for your customer base.”

“You need to figure out what’s good for your customer base.”

DO pick your channels using a “bottoms-up” approach instead.

Before he stands up any marketing channels, Biyani interviews customers himself and asks them to walk him through their customer journey. How did they reach the awareness stage? Acquisition stage? 

That means asking questions like… 

  • Where do you get information about my company’s product category? 
  • How did you previously manage the problem my product solves? 
  • How did you first hear about my product?
  • What convinced you to make your first purchase?

Afterwards, he looks for trends in the responses. He might buy podcast ads if many customers listen to education podcasts, or invest in paid search and SEO if they’re discovering products like his via Google.

“That is where I get all my marketing channels from,” Biyani said —  from actual conversations with customers.

Mike Thomas
about the author

Mike Thomas is a longtime Chicago-based writer. His work has appeared in a variety of local and national publications.

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