“Fractional CMO” (fCMO) has been a term exploding in the growth world in the last year. In short, an fCMO is a marketing executive who provides marketing advisory to startups on a temporary basis.
Every recent article you will read on fCMOs tells you all the reasons why you should hire one. However, in this article I intend to play devil’s advocate and share with you the other side of the coin.
I will cover why certain startups shouldn’t hire a fractional CMO, alternative options and how to interview a prospective fCMO if your startup is ultimately a good fit.
If you’re currently trying to find product-market-fit and/or have potentially just raised a Seed round, you are going to need someone to be in the trenches experimenting with you. However, if you’re on your third round of funding with a growth team in place and in need of some leadership, an fCMO could represent a great addition to your team.
Hiring a fCMO should be dictated by your startup’s stage. Image courtesy of Jonathan Martinez.
To make the distinction clear on why a fractional CMO is not the best fit for an early-stage startup, I’ve created a shortlist of tasks they typically take on versus not.
A fractional CMO will typically do the following:
A fractional CMO will typically not do the following:
At pre-Seed to Series B, having someone that can heavily experiment on growth pillars is the most beneficial use of time, enabling you to expedite learnings and unlock growth opportunities. By contrast, if you already have a team in place that is executing and are solely in need of someone to temporarily steer the ship, an fCMO can easily perform that role.
The one time I’d recommend bringing on an fCMO prior to Series B would be for monthly advisory calls to make sure that strategy is heading in the right direction:
fCMO advising a growth hire who manages two agencies. Image courtesy of Jonathan Martinez.
I have seen the above structure work well for startups that aren’t dependent on an fCMO for everything, and instead are strictly there to oversee monthly advisory calls. As growth efforts ramp up, the full-time growth hire can lean on agencies to manage 1-2 growth pillars while they focus on testing new pillars and other various growth initiatives, such as CRO or budget allocation. The monthly calls with the growth hire and fCMO should be focused on reporting out recent performance, next experiments and ideation on future testing.
While I dissuade most early-stage startups from hiring an fCMO, I also come bearing alternatives that I strongly believe are better suited:
If you know the exact growth pillar and channel you’d like to unlock (ex: Meta paid acquisition), then an agency who is up to date on channel best practices would be an excellent fit. Instead of hiring a generalist growth agency, seek out those agencies that specialize in the channel that you’d like to unlock. They will typically be working across tens of other clients and will share their learnings between their various clients which can subsequently accelerate the learning process.
Maybe you aren’t certain on the growth channel to unlock or have a few that you want to test, usually pre-Seed or Seed. In such circumstances, a generalist growth consultant would be most helpful. These individuals are typically knowledgeable in running more than one single growth pillar. To gain any needed additional insight, you can look for those generalists who have worked at competing companies who can help you avoid wasted time testing things they already know don’t work.
Junior growth hire
There’s more commitment needed to bring on a junior growth hire with 1-2 years of experience who will be embedded and learn as they go. I don’t usually recommend this until your startup is at Series A minimum, with slight exceptions for Seed startups. The exception for Seed startups would be if the Seed has significant funding or if there’s a strategic growth hire you’ve found who is the perfect match. At Series A you’ve more than likely unlocked a growth lever and have an understanding on what the next steps are. Knowing this will help you make the decision on committing to a growth hire who has the experience your startup necessitates.
If you are in Series C+ land, which is the sweet spot for hiring an fCMO, and are making the decision to bring on a marketing executive with 5-10+ years of experience for advisory, below are some questions you will need to have answered:
Your intention with these questions is to get into the mind of this marketing executive and how they fundamentally think about growth. It’s less important to understand how they’d tweak certain campaigns at this level of experience, as they will have moved beyond campaign management long ago. Instead, focus your questions on how they approach growth as that will demonstrate to you how they will steer the individuals responsible for actual growth execution.
In conclusion, I must make clear that this article isn’t intended as a knock against fCMOs, as they can be immensely valuable for some startups. However, when you choose to bring them on is of significant importance. Instead of jumping the gun on a flashy marketing executive with a decade plus of experience, first you must think about where your startup is at and what your most immediate growth needs are.
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