Enterprise Marketing vs Startup Marketing: Which Is Right For You?
First, there was ‘the great resignation’ – then came the war for talent. High performers in a whole range of roles, from sales and engineering to marketing and product, are in huge demand in 2022, creating a power imbalance in hiring.
The net result is that it’s a candidate’s market, and for marketers at various career stages, the choice before us often comes down to the kind of company we want to work for. If you’re looking for your next career move in marketing, should you land at an enterprise or a startup? Let’s take a look at the key marketing differences, and the pros and the cons of each.
Enterprise Marketing: What Does It Involve?
Source: Get Lift Agency
Working in the marketing team at a huge, established company – perhaps a public one – usually involves delivering long-term objectives through complex and long-running campaigns and initiatives.
Planning and strategy in enterprise marketing are usually based on yearly models, which are in turn based on financial models tied back to shareholder-facing growth targets.
Explosive revenue growth of the kind that start-ups deliver usually isn’t the goal. Instead, marketing will focus its big bets and brand initiatives on a mixture of existing accounts, new business, and new products.
To achieve this, marketing departments become larger and feature heavily specialized roles, in teams like brand, product marketing, acquisition, data, customer marketing, paid marketing, content & thought leadership, and so on. There will likely be dedicated campaign teams to deliver the company’s message to particular audiences (e.g. by territory or by customer profile).
In terms of structure, marketing will probably have C-suite leadership in the form of a Chief Marketing Officer. That person’s remit will be strategy, vision, and storytelling, and primarily choosing and partnering with dedicated outside agencies. It’s also a fact of life that enterprise marketing functions face restructures every few years, as new leaders in the business reshape the department to better fit their medium-term strategy.
Advantages Of Working As An Enterprise Marketer
Enterprise marketing roles offer lots of benefits. One is security – you can be fairly certain the company will still exist a year from now, unlike a startup. Enterprises usually have more mature HR functions, with established benefits like pensions and healthcare.
Enterprises offer scale – they probably have thousands or even millions of customers – which means you have lots of data to play with, and an established brand, which can be rewarding to be worth with.
The specialization I mentioned earlier means you might find an enjoyable role that fits your unique niche – titles like ‘brand manager’ or ‘SEO strategist’, or ‘campaign executive’ for the youngest fresh grads. These roles probably don’t exist in early-stage companies.
Another advantage is the leverage available to you through having a big brand to play with. As a marketer, playing at this level gives you access to high-impact and high-cost activities that small companies couldn’t afford or pull off – things like sporting sponsorships, broadcast campaigns, large real-world advertising, and so on.
Internal mobility is an advantage of large companies – by virtue of having much bigger headcounts, enterprises have a much greater variety of roles available for internal moves into other departments. Conversely, startups have fewer options and fewer mature teams willing to accept internal candidates. On the other hand, once they do, they can use candidate management software to plan and execute all processes properly.
Finally – and this may sound crude – enterprises probably have more money. Startup marketing budgets take time to ramp up, while teams work out which channels work and merit investment and scale. But enterprises probably have seven-figure annual marketing budgets and a history of spending them consistently.
Disadvantages Of Working As An Enterprise Marketer
The most obvious difference you’ll see if you move from a startup to an enterprise is that decision-making is much, much slower. Enterprises employ lots of people, which means that any significant decisions (and even the insignificant ones) will likely have lots of stakeholders.
That means decision-making by committee, which slows everything down to quite a stark degree, making it harder to execute quickly. This goes not just for decisions but also for budgets too – while they might be bigger, the scrutiny placed on them will be bigger too.
Another fact of life in enterprise marketing departments is that every few years, without fail, there will be a restructure that moves some people up, some people down, some people out, and some people into new roles. This is because when new leaders join – and leaders turn over every few years, just like any other marketing role – they usually have a mandate to reshape the function in their image, and that means moving the pieces around the board.
You’ll have limited exposure at an enterprise compared to a startup, in two key ways. Firstly, as your role and remit will be narrower and better defined, you’ll probably learn less about marketing, because you aren’t going through the growth journey where you experiment with new channels and change tactics often.
Secondly, you’ll have limited exposure beyond marketing – unlike at a startup, you won’t be working with product and customer success and executive teams every day, which makes the learning curve limited too. Your commercial exposure – being responsible for revenue, and understanding how it’s captured – will be lower.
Finally, your career progression options at an enterprise broadly reflect the pace of growth: perhaps a little slower than at early-stage companies. New roles or promotion opportunities might open up less often, salary bands will be strictly defined, and huge jumps in compensation over a short period are probably not up for grabs.
Startup Marketing: What Does It Involve?
At the other end of the scale, in terms of headcount, is working for a startup. This kind of company is usually creating and selling some kind of technology product, and funded by venture capital, rather than only its profits, in order to grow recurring revenue and headcount really quickly – ideally, exponentially.
Marketing is a really important ingredient in making that happen. A large proportion of startups fail, so the goal in marketing is firstly to create all the basics from scratch – the brand, the tech stack, the marketing database, the handover to the deal desk, and so on – and secondly to find out which channels are the right ones for finding leads and customers and scaling them to drive growth.
To do this, startup marketing involves a mixture of taking a generalist approach (i.e. with the same person looking after the website, content, events, social media, email marketing, etc) and using a data-driven process of experimentation to make channels successful. This approach to digital marketing skills is sometimes called ‘growth hacking’ as it helps professionals adopt emerging trends to stay ahead in the game.
Startups likely have no significant marketing structure at all. If you’re the first marketer in, you’re likely to report to the CEO or similar, as there’s probably no mature marketing leadership (and won’t be for quite some time).
Advantages Of Working As A Startup Marketer
Speed of decision-making and execution are two of the key differentiators for startup marketers. If you have an idea that you want to pursue, then the number of people who need to sign off will be one or two, and the only limiting factor in making it happen will be your time and skill.
That means everything happens fast. ‘Action bias’ is the buzzword when it comes to high-performers at early-stage companies at the moment, meaning simply people who default to getting stuff done. Bureaucratic blockers that could get in your way probably don’t exist yet, so if you are the kind of person who likes to get shit done, then this could be the role for you.
It’s not an overstatement to say that you might well ship projects five or ten times faster than at a larger and more complex company, and as a result, you will deliver much more end-product and output than you would in an environment where more stakeholders need to be consulted.
The pace of execution, coupled with the need for marketers to work across lots of different specialisms, means the learning curve for marketing is incomparable at a startup. You’ll get exposure to everything, really quickly, and become competent in multiple areas in a short space of time. You’ll become data-driven because you’ll have to, and you’ll also have the experience of creating a brand and a company from nothing and building it in real-time.
Every other team at a startup is working in this way too, so the learning curve for everything beyond marketing is also incomparable. You’ll learn much more about sales, customer success, operations, product management process, and business strategy from working at a high-growth early-stage company than would be possible to learn at an established enterprise.
Startups are extremely target- and number-driven. Success and failure are defined numerically, by objectives and key results that you’ll work towards relentlessly each quarter. This approach can be really rewarding in terms of both how you feel (it’s great to win together as a team), and also in terms of your compensation. Bonuses are common, tied to performance against targets; you’ll probably also receive share options, giving you an ownership stake in the company that helps to incentivize you to drive growth.
If you’re successful, the team will grow around you from a handful of people to dozens. This means that, again, if you’re successful, career progression can be much faster – roles are created frequently, with the opportunity to ascend in terms of title and responsibility if you’re good at your job.
Finally, this also has implications for your career. Growing a tech startup is really hard. So if you gain that experience, and can show that you’re able to help a company increase its revenue and market valuation quickly through inbound marketing, then your career options when you leave will be better, with startups and enterprises being interested in your profile. Everybody loves a growth-minded marketer with a proven track record.
Disadvantages Of Working As A Startup Marketer
Proportionally, the majority of early-stage startups fail. That means your job security is less certain – if the company runs out of venture capital cash reserves before hitting key revenue milestones, it might be unable to raise more money and forced to lay off some or all of its headcount.
Moving to a startup from an enterprise would also likely involve a pay cut, or at least a reduced overall package, possibly offset by share options and a variable component like a bonus. The current war for talent is challenging this though, with starting salaries for some roles creeping up significantly.
The sink-or-swim culture in the early days at a startup isn’t for everyone either. At first, you’ll be armed with almost no information about your value proposition, best channels, most valuable keywords, and so on – you’ll need to figure everything out yourself and you won’t have many or any senior marketers around to tell you what to do.
Resources are likely to be constrained when you’re a tiny startup. This means smaller or non-existent budgets for agencies and vendors, and no useful internal resources like design teams, web teams, and IT support.
Finally, internal mobility is likely to be limited to non-existent – headcount is so precious that it’s difficult to move it from one team to another when almost everyone is stretched and doing lots with very little.
So Which Is Right For You?
The answer to whether startup or enterprise marketing is right for you depends on what you want in your career. Each environment has pros that the other can’t match, and cons that the other doesn’t offer.
For what it’s worth, in my experience, unless you’re already quite senior in your career, the learning environment at a startup is something I believe to be worth prizing above almost everything else. The progress and development you can make in a short period of time if you’re prepared to put in the work is an investment in yourself that will pay off for the rest of your career. With the caveat that you need to find the right company with the right founding team, this is the reason that I give startup marketing the edge.