At a startup, every employee needs to think of themselves as an entrepreneur in their business area. With constant growth, an individual’s role may morph over time as the work increases in both volume and complexity, and every employee must be prepared to think about how they will scale out their portion of the business. In my case, I made the transition from an individual contributor (and only marketing employee) to Director of Community Marketing. Every day I am learning new things about building marketing programs, and I’ve found that having an entrepreneurial mindset is one of the critical ingredients for success.
When I joined 10gen in December 2009, I was a “doer” completely focused on tactical activities. For almost a year, I managed all of our marketing programs by myself, including interacting with community members, coordinating meetups, mailing swag to contributors, organizing conferences, facilitating technical posts on the blog, running our newsletter, managing our CRM tools, and more.
As the company has grown, it’s become impossible for me to continue to do everything myself. Not only has the volume of activities exploded, but the standards of quality have risen and complexity increased. A simple example of this is our newsletter. Two and a half years ago when I started the newsletter, it was a single list with a few thousand names, all of which received the same email blast. Today, we have tens of thousands of subscribers, we issue over a dozen versions of the newsletter segmented by geography and interest, and we translate it into several languages.
Moving from a tactical to a more strategic role means that I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to scale our activities by creating processes and systems. Given the complexity of the newsletter and the number of subscribers, we couldn’t rely on an ad hoc mailing every month. We had to build and document a process for developing content and rules for segmenting lists, all while staying on a strict schedule to ensure that we have sufficient lead time to translate content and run tests. Similarly, for our MongoDB conferences, we built extensive documentation, checklists, budgeting templates, and speaker feedback processes to start to “templatize” our events. While each MongoDB conference brings a unique set of speakers and attendees together, from a logistical standpoint the process is repeatable so that we can execute dozens of these events every year.
I recently finished a book called The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, which strongly resonated with me. The book explains that many small businesses fail because each business owner has three competing personalities: the Technician, the Entrepreneur, and the Manager. The Technician is the skilled individual contributor, such as a software engineer or baker or in my case, marketer. The Entrepreneur is the person who becomes excited by new ideas, who sees what might be possible. The Manager strives to find order in the chaos, to maintain the status quo. When I joined 10gen, I was the quintessential Technician. In order to build a successful marketing team, I had to balance the Technician inside of me with an Entrepreneur, who could see the possibilities of an organized, well-run marketing machine, and a Manager that could maintain structure and process.
In the E-Myth book, the author explains that in order to build a successful business, you need to stop thinking about the item that you are producing – for example, the newsletter or a MongoDB conference – and start thinking about the overall process. With a structured process, your customers get a consistent, positive experience. Once you’ve documented the process you become freed from the tactical work and can focus on the next innovative strategy.
We don’t have systems for everything, but it’s something that (I hope!) I can motivate the whole team to build. In this way, everyone on my team gets to be an entrepreneur building a certain aspect of the business: Melia building our conferences, Meg building our email marketing and online events, Francesca and James building our user groups, Justin building our web infrastructure, Katie building our design / branding, and so on. This is challenging work but it’s what makes working at a startup so much fun!
Special thanks to Andrew Erlichson for recommending the E-Myth book!