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  • Writer's pictureDeJuan Wright

Most CMOs of A Startup Make These Mistakes

Updated: Jan 27

So, you finally landed your dream job as a chief marketing officer (CMO) at a startup. After years of studying and working your tail off—you finally have the opportunity that you’ve fantasized about—to work at an ambitious startup that’s primed for your marketing mastery.

You’re extremely excited (and a little nervous) about implementing your ideas—ideas which will play a huge role determining the success or failure of the startup. And you certainly don't want to let the founders down after they took the chance of hiring you.

To give you the best chance to succeed and ensure that you won’t make some of the most common mistakes that almost seem inevitable for startup CMOs—these are four of the most common marketing landmines to avoid that will not only help prevent you from disappointing those that hired you—but will make them absolutely thrilled that they did.

1. Not interfusing their brand with culture

One of the more common mistakes made by CMOs in general, especially at startups, is failing to interfuse their brand with the culture of the consumers for which they seek to serve.

The reason this is such a major mistake is because a consumer’s culture has much more of an influence over their purchasing decisions than just about every other factor that CMOs emphasize ahead of culture. Therefore, it is imperative that a CMO prioritizes having a total understanding of every culture that their brand aims to appeal towards and interfuse their brand with those cultures.

A classic example of just how costly not understanding culture could be is the infamous Gap ad blunder.

Back in 1997, in an effort to appeal to consumers within hip-hop culture—the clothing brand Gap—hired hip-hop icon LL Cool J as a spokesman to appear in their ads. On the surface—the deal seemed like a no-brainer for Gap due to the fact that LL Cool J was one of the hottest and most recognizable artists in hip-hop at the time.

To Gap’s marketing team, the plan seemed perfect. Have LL appear in a commercial for the brand; say a few raps, show the Gap logo at the end of the ad, and voilà—the kids will flock to the stores in droves to purchase Gap gear. However, in his rap for the commercial, LL created a moment that’ll go down in advertising history.

In the commercial, LL wore an “FB” hat and shouted these infamous words, “For us by us on the low.”

The $30 million ad aired for three weeks before the brand realized exactly what LL had done. Unbeknownst to anyone inside Gap—the “FB” hat in the ad stood for the clothing brand FUBU. And the “For us by us on the low” line was code to those in the hip-hop community for, “I'm representing FUBU in this ad—but keep it low-key.”

By not having someone in their marketing department that understood the culture for which they sought to serve—Gap essentially paid $30 million in ad spend to help one of their competitors gain market share (FUBU reportedly generated over $350 million the year after the ad aired).

2. Budget irresponsibly

This is probably one of the mistakes you expected to be listed. That’s because it’s not only one of the most common mistakes that CMOs make—it’s also the most vital. In fact—I believe one of the top three reasons most startups fail is due to the failure of budgeting responsibly.

“Unfortunately, too many startup business plans look more like they are planning to launch a rocket ship than drive a car. They prescribe the steps to take and the results to expect in excruciating detail, and as in planning to launch a rocket, they are set up in such a way that even tiny errors in assumptions can lead to catastrophic results.” Says author Eric Ries, in his book, The Lean Startup.

As a CMO of a startup—when it comes to allocating your budget—always remember that, “If it doesn’t contribute towards a clear path to sales—it doesn’t require marketing dollars to be devoted towards it.” In other words—don't spend precious marketing dollars on building a brand the size of a rocket ship—when a startup is simply the car driving you to the launch site.

3. Not reaching across the aisle

In both the private and public sector—great things get accomplished much sooner and smoothly when people reach across the aisle and work in concert towards a common goal.

Unfortunately, far too often—CMOs of startups make the mistake of working independently instead of in a cross-functional capacity with other departments within the company. Which makes achieving goals more arduous than need be.

To optimize efficiency—every division of a startup should work together (I know that's not always easy). Which means you—as CMO—should constantly be working harmoniously in conjunction with the company’s sales department, as well as its finance and accounting departments to share data; discuss benchmarks, troubleshoot any problems, as well as conduct a SWOT analysis at least twice a year.

In her book SWAY, author and marketing executive, Christina Del Villar, expressed, “Data should be at the forefront of every decision you make as a marketing professional.” As CMO, in order to have the most pertinent data at your discretion—it’s best to reach across the aisle (or cubicle) and work closely with others.

4. Failing to foresee the future

A huge part of being a good CMO consists of being cognizant of trends; events, and also have an extensive understanding of past events that had an effect on your brand’s industry.

But to be a great CMO—you have to be able to foresee the future—and better it!

Sadly, due to the incertitude of job security—many CMOs of startups view the responsibilities of their position through a peripheral purview and only focus on ideas that could produce immediate results in order to keep their CEOs and investors satisfied.

But it’s the great CMOs that risk present day job security to look towards the future and devise sagacious strategies that put innovation at the forefront so they could take the brand to incredible new heights.


Apple co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

I hope that by looking back at some of the mistakes that most CMOs of startups have made—you’ll be able to connect the dots in order to avoid making them yourself in the future.


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