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When I talk to founders and marketing teams, there’s one question I get asked more than any other: what are the latest hacks to grow faster? And I always give the same answer –– tactics don’t matter, moving fast does. A marketing org that moves fast eventually gets to all the things that matter: results, quality, accelerated growth.
I know, that sounds great if I were trying to get you to click on a TED Talk on YouTube. But what does focusing on speed in a marketing org actually mean and what steps are needed to move fast?
I recently sat down with the First Round Review to talk about my framework for fundamentally speeding up marketing. The article covers how to set goals, identify hidden assumptions in your marketing ideas, how to set up dashboards that drive speed and more. You can read it here.
But if you’re short on time, below is a quick overview of the main points I cover in the article.
When I started in marketing, like many I was obsessed with channels and tactics. But I’ve learned that marketing leaders need to spend less time obsessing over tactics, and instead focus on developing a winning culture.
A lot of product orgs are good at optimizing for speed. Instead of spending months building a product without getting it out into the market to test, they build MVPs, and validate hypotheses with their users. But marketers are more campaign driven, and it’s harder for them to adopt his ‘move fast and break things’ mindset.
But speed is about more than just executing quickly. Cranking out blog posts and email marketing campaigns isn’t enough. Marketers also need to be nimble enough to turn the ship around rather than get stuck in a sandbar. To find the one program that might be a real game-changer, you may have to sift through 10 other ideas. An idea that sounded brilliant on paper may fizzle in execution because you realize many assumptions were incorrect.
The programs that end up having a sizeable impact on the company are typically massive and can take one or two years to build, with plenty of micro-iterations along the way. The faster you make those iterations, the faster you’ll course-correct to a truly impactful program. Real speed is moving fast towards impact and learning. It’s moving as fast as possible towards the most important thing, based on clear directives.
It’s easy to think you're moving fast by putting a plan in motion and getting things out the door, but wasting time on initiatives that don't pan out is actually the biggest drag on startup marketing teams. For example, in my early days as CMO at Gusto, we built a new content marketing program and made a big bet on content about how small businesses could create a strong company culture. We spent months building out the blog and writing articles, but we weren’t really getting the traction that we wanted. So, we started talking to customers and what we heard was an emphatic: “I’m just running a small cupcake shop and I don’t know anything about HR — I want to find answers to my questions and to avoid big mistakes.” It became clear that we had wasted a whole year on the wrong content strategy. From that point forward, we started incorporating more short, Q&A-style tactical HR topics that could rank high for SEO.
So instead of simply speeding to get things out the door, pay attention to these trouble signs that mean you’re moving too slow.
If it’s been two weeks since you talked about a program and nothing’s live yet, that’s a bad sign. If you talk about launching an event program, you should have an MVP event within two weeks — something’s got to be live.
If the metrics for your program all say, ‘At the end of the quarter we’ll have this,’ that’s a red flag. Long-term business goals are important, but they need to be complemented with short-term goals, such as ‘In two weeks, we’ll have 10 new demos.’ I learned this the hard way when building bigger programs at Gusto. My impact goals were too far into the future, preventing me from driving the program at the right velocity week-over-week and surfacing problems faster.
If you ask, ‘What do we know this week that we didn’t know last week?’ there should be a new answer to that question. Put another way, if it’s been two months and you’re still struggling with the same challenges, you’re not prioritizing your marketing efforts correctly. Fast teams are always solving new problems.
Many leaders accept limitations that can actually be removed, especially when it comes to cross-functional dependencies. How often do you hear something like, ‘Well, it takes engineering a month to build us a landing page’? Earlier in my career I accepted these as facts. With experience I learned it was my responsibility to voice, even demand, what marketing needed to succeed.
And now that you understand what could be slowing you down, let’s look at the steps that you can take to build a speedy marketing team.
1. Put on your black hat to break down large problems
The first step is a 90-minute meeting with the core team to define the program and the unknowns that stand in your way. Start with defining one big, inspiring statement. For example, ‘In one year we will have 5,000 partners that are selling our product to their customers.’
At this stage, everyone will jump in and immediately ask, ‘How do we make this happen?’ But the right move is to check that instinct. In reality, this inspiring statement is just a composite of hypotheses — there are things you’re right about, and others that may miss the mark.
So to uncover the hidden assumptions that might steer you wrong, use the “black hat" technique. This means you ask yourself one really tough question: “Let’s assume that it’s one year from now and we’ve failed at our goal. What went wrong?” This approach might seem counterintuitive at first, but what it’s doing is creating a subtle shift from a very optimistic mindset to a problem-solving one. It points your team in the direction of trying to articulate the things that you don’t know yet. The aim should be to get to a list of five to ten major assumptions implicit in achieving the long term goal.
For example, if you were launching a partner program, some of those assumptions might be:
‘There aren’t enough partners in the market.’
‘We can’t come up with a pricing and packaging model that is attractive to these partners from an economic standpoint.’
‘The partners don’t have enough customers in our ideal customer profile.’
And so on.
The next step is flip the negative statements into positive ones and reframe them to include the key levers that will make the program work. These are your core assumptions that must be true for you to hit your long-term goal. Instead of: ‘There weren’t enough partners in the market,’ you would say, ‘The market is large enough, with enough partners of our ideal profile that we can go after’. To make this statement even more crystal-clear, attach a metric: “There are at least 50,000 partners in the market––if we think we can get a 10% penetration rate––to hit the goal of 5,000 partners.
Instead of spending all your time building the perfect plan, the best thing you can do now is to try to ship something within one to two weeks.
Here’s why. If you’ve ever tried to push a really big box, when you first try to push it, it’s really difficult. But as soon as it starts to move, it gets significantly easier to push. This is not an illusion — static friction is a lot higher than kinetic friction. Once it’s set in motion, everything is easier.
To jump-start that kinetic friction, set motion goals to get everyone moving. For example, going back to the idea of a partner program, a good motion goal could be to sell the program to one partner this week. Your first instinct might be to cringe a bit. You think, ‘We just came up with this program, we haven’t done any analysis, we haven’t built anything around it. How could we possibly start selling it? We need to do research first.’ But it actually doesn’t matter if you hit that goal of selling it to one partner in a week; what matters is that it sets you in motion and helps you get real data.
Think about it — if you want to try to sell the program to one partner, you have to figure out which partners to start with. So you find a list of partners. You have to reach out to them, so you create your pitch for the outreach. You have to talk to those partners, so you outline your value proposition at a high level. This gets you moving and testing the mechanics–– ‘Where am I experiencing the most friction? What seems to be the hardest thing that we need to figure out?’
When we tried this at Mutiny with our own partner program, we had 10 conversations with potential partners in the first week––no slides, just an initial 30-minute conversation.
We outlined what we were looking to do with the program, asked questions about the profile of companies they sold to, and tried to validate if they had at least three companies they could approach about Mutiny today. Within one week, we were able to confirm that there was a lot of interest in the program, and started unearthing the types of partners that would be a natural extension, versus others that weren’t a good fit.
One of the biggest light-bulb moments for me was switching to weekly goals in every single program, no matter how new it was. Quarterly goals are important, but they also leave a lot of whitespace, and you have no way of knowing if you are on track. What can you do every single week to move the needle? Pick the goal that's the furthest down the funnel that can still be impacted every week and create a consistent execution rhythm for your team. If you have a quarterly goal to lock in 12 new partners, you should be signing one new partner a week, not 12 partners in the last week.
A marketer with weekly goals has 12x more at-bats than someone who is only lifting their head up and evaluating quarterly.
One important thing is to create a dashboard that’s shared beyond the immediate marketing team. You might not want to invite too many questions when you’re still validating hypotheses and excavating the unknowns. But that protectiveness can be really detrimental — it just keeps you in the basement longer, where you’re tinkering without any results or new insights.
Below is an example of a dashboard the Mutiny marketing team sends to our cross-functional partners. The key is that your dashboards are incredibly simple and easy to digest so that anyone can pick up on the most critical information, even if they’re not sitting in the meetings.
It’s also worth noting that tracking the difference between ‘actual’ and ‘target’ is a critical part of your dashboarding process. My team jokingly calls this delta ‘the shame,’ because that’s what drives them to reflect and iterate.
I borrowed this idea from an awesome growth product leader, and it works really well for marketing. Every two weeks host a meeting where you try to codify learnings across the team. You articulate what people have learned that they didn’t know two weeks ago.
The learnings don't always have to come from a statistically significant A/B test — qualitative directional learnings are just as important.
If you aren’t sure where to start here, try this construct as a prompt.
Hypothesis: We believed that a revenue sharing model would create a meaningful economic incentive for partners to join our program.
Test: We created a 50% discount, which is the maximum that we could offer, and we ran it by five partners, but they told us that amount of money was nominal relative to the revenue they make per customer.
Learning: We learned that revenue share is actually not going to be a major driver, but we also learned that the partners are really interested in building their own services model on top of our product, so they can monetize a lot higher and pass a discount directly to their customers.
To give an example of how this has worked for us at Mutiny, we can use again our own partner program. We had KPIs around acquiring a certain number of customers. And we were doing a great job of signing partners, but we weren't selling to their customers. The team was tripling their top of funnel partner acquisition activity to make up the gap on the low customer conversion rate in the timeframe we had set.
What we learned was that the partners felt like they needed time with our product before they felt comfortable recommending it to lots of customers. This learning helped our team pause their top of funnel goals and shift focus from partner acquisition, to going deep with two to three key partners to uncover what they needed to successfully recommend Mutiny to more customers. This transformed our post-acquisition partner onboarding.
Technology is a hugely important, yet underrated, aspect of being fast. It’s the biggest enabler for speed once you hit scale.
But think twice before you start looking for shiny new toys. At the beginning of any new program, keep it low-tech because otherwise you risk contributing to the sunk cost fallacy — if you’ve already spent a ton of money on a tool specifically for a new program, it's going to be much harder to divest later.
Before you start taking demos, decide on your program's goals and the top five workflows you need to speed up. Any one tool is only as valuable as it is simple and enables quickness. When adding to your marketing stack, prioritize technology that has ease-of-use and removes repetitive workflows for your team, not old school enterprise tools that technically can enable a workflow if you bring on an army to operate them.
If after one quarter of iterating, you keep missing goals and just can’t get it right, honestly consider if you should abandon the program. Can you problem-solve your way out of it, or is it a waste of time? It takes gumption to pull the plug.
Our goal by the end of that first quarter after launching a new program is to make a decision on whether what we’re building is going to scale, as opposed to spending six months tinkering — otherwise, you have to live with that inertia as a company.
When I’ve needed to pull the plug on a program, it usually comes down to having the wrong assumptions about the customer’s desires and capabilities. We want them to be one way, and it would be really convenient for us if they were good at X, but they’re not. Maybe they have less time than we thought they did, or we’re less important to them than we thought.
Sometimes you can validate it with research — such as market size — but sometimes you have to start getting out there and trying to make it work before you realize you’re facing a dead-end and have to cut your losses. That’s okay — that’s what moving fast is all about.
For an even deeper dive on speed in marketing, check out the article on the First Round Review here.
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