Last September, I was perusing AngelList looking for an interesting new project for my digital marketing consulting company when I happened across a Springboard job posting. The role was a bit different from the work I typically do helping startups implement marketing-led growth strategies; Springboard was looking for someone to help them develop the curriculum for an online digital marketing course and serve as a marketing mentor.
As I read the company description in the job posting, the words mentor led jumped off the page to me. While I was familiar with many of the online course offerings for digital marketers, I hadn’t come across any that employed Springboard’s model of pairing students with both a carefully curated online curriculum and weekly meetings with a professional marketing mentor.
The Path of a Marketing Mentor
“This is something I haven’t seen,” I thought to myself. “I could get behind this… there’s a real need for this type of offering.”
Excited, I applied for the job.
I never set out to be a marketer
Like many, I didn’t plan to become a marketer. I went to a small liberal arts school and majored in English, despite many subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that I was earning a somewhat-to-completely-useless degree. A sports and travel nut, I envisioned a career penning articles for “Sports Illustrated,” “The Boston Globe,” and “National Geographic.”
But as I neared graduation, many of my English teachers who had spent time as journalists offered sobering warnings; newspapers across the country were folding and magazine subscriptions were on the decline. Best-case scenario, I was looking at putting in 10 or 15 years at a local newspaper or second-tier publication earning $30,000 year before I’d ever get my first shot at a place I wanted to be. Or maybe I could be a professional blogger.
I graduated and then a funny thing happened: the economy crashed. The already challenging career path I’d chosen to pursue now looked downright dismal.
Unsure of what to do, I went back to school for an MBA—not so much because I was interested in business, but more because I was told it would increase my employability. I soon discovered that my writing background was beneficial to me, particularly in my marketing courses, so I decided to focus my MBA in that direction.
I knew I didn’t want to do sales, and it sure beat accounting.
How I got my first digital marketing job
When I finished my MBA, I started looking for marketing or public relations jobs in the Boston area. The economy was still in the proverbial toilet and it was a slog—while the average starting salary for graduates from my MBA program the year before had been close to $90,000, it was in the $50,000s for my graduating class. To make matters worse, I had a good education, but very little real-world experience.
I moved to Boston and did what all recent MBA graduates dream of doing: took a job waiting tables at Legal Seafoods in Kendall Square. I went on countless interviews, but nothing came together.
Then, after the better part of a year, I got a call back from a startup software company I had barely remembered even applying to. They invited me in for an interview.
“Software?” I thought to myself. “Total snoozefest. Sounds like something my dad would do.”
While I was admittedly naive, I knew I could only serve so many more bowls of clam chowder. I took the interview, and I can honestly say it changed the course of my life.
The company was Buildium, at the time a small business of 7-8 people in a shared office space in what’s become known as Boston’s Innovation District. The company was looking to make its first full-time marketing hire, and the interview was going pretty well until the co-founder, Michael, asked me, “So what do you know about SEO?”
He stared across the table at me, his steel blue eyes unflinching.
Time stopped for a moment as I considered my options. The truth was I had just a vague sense of what it was. We had never once, during the course of my MBA program focused on marketing, talked about SEO in any detail.
“Do I bullshit this guy?” I asked myself.
In one of the few moments of semi-brilliance in my young life, I decided this dude sitting across from me was probably smart enough to call my bluff if I fudged an answer.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know much,” I replied. “But I’ll do my research and if you bring me back in for a second interview, I’ll talk you through what my SEO strategy would be for your company.”
That was good enough for Michael. I ordered a couple of SEO books on Amazon, read them cover to cover, and shared what I had learned in my second interview. I got the job with a title of marketing associate and proudly negotiated a starting salary of $38,400.
Just like that, I was a marketer.
The role of marketing mentorship in my early career
The first few weeks at Buildium went pretty much like this:
Sit over there. Do some marketing. Meet with us once a week to tell us what you’re up to and how it’s going.
I was given a lot of freedom to try new things, the company was growing, and before I knew it I was actually enjoying myself. I had no idea the good fortune I’d had walking into this completely unknown company, one that I would call home for the next five years and that would accelerate my career in every way imaginable.
But all of that, without question, started with mentorship.
I was extremely lucky throughout my time at Buildium to have a host of fabulous mentors. Michael’s mentorship has had the biggest impact on my career to this day; he taught me about leadership, managing and motivating people, and hiring. He had me work closely with Coryndon Luxmoore, who taught me about the intersection of marketing, design, and user experience. Buildium’s other co-founder, Dimitris, taught me to always question the status quo, to frame work in a healthy way, and to strive for ways to make work more enjoyable.
I think I did a pretty decent job in my first few months and the team saw some potential in me. But ultimately, it was Michael’s own self-awareness that would lead to my growth as a marketer—he wasn’t a marketer himself, so how the heck was he supposed to turn me into one?
Michael told me during one of our weekly meetings that he was going to hire me a mentor, a career marketer who could help develop my skills, make me aware of my gaps, and act as a sounding board as we considered all of the ways marketing could help grow Buildium. Pretty soon, Peter Cohen signed on to play that role.
Peter had 25-plus years of marketing experience. I had 24 years of life. He’d been in the trenches, I had just started. Over the next few years, Peter would meet with me at regular intervals. He taught me the importance of win/loss analysis (and how to conduct it properly), customer retention in a SaaS business, and marketing’s role in bringing into the conversion funnel customers who would not “churn and burn.” He taught me about metrics like customer acquisition cost (CAC) and challenged me to maintain a healthy ratio of CAC to customer lifetime value.
I knew by now how lucky I’d been to find Buildium, an employer willing to make these types of investments in me. And what we were doing in marketing was starting to pay off; our customer base and revenue were really starting to soar and I was beginning to build a marketing team around me.
One day, Michael called me into his office again.
“We’re bringing in another marketing mentor for you,” he said.
The following week, I sat down for the first time with Nancie Freitas. Nancie had been the chief marketing officer at Constant Contact, taking the company from $15M in revenue to more than $200M over the course of five years while pioneering all sorts of acquisition marketing strategies that are still employed by SaaS businesses today.
I was ecstatic. To me, it was as if Michael Jordan had been hired to teach me to shoot free throws.
Around this time, Buildium raised its first round of funding to accelerate growth. My marketing budget and team swelled significantly. So did the goals I was accountable for. Nancie was instrumental in teaching me how to build a marketing team, how to identify blockage points in our conversion funnel, and how to use metrics and data to build credibility with the executive team, despite my age and experience.
Buildium would even go so far as to have me meet regularly with an executive coach, Beth Harrison, who taught me how to communicate both up and down the organization, how to have difficult conversations, how to be myself at work, and how to manage my career.
I was stupidly lucky to have these opportunities, but that’s not the point of this post.
Why mentorship is so important for digital marketers
Few people would argue against the benefits of mentorship or coaching; show me any successful athlete, artist, business person, or lion tamer and most are quick to point out the mentors and coaches who were responsible for developing them. But I would argue that there are few roles in the business world that can benefit more from mentorship than digital marketers, for a few reasons.
First, digital marketing changes incredibly quickly—so quickly, in fact, that you can graduate with a marketing-focused MBA and have no idea about SEO when you’re asked about it in a job interview just a few months later. Nobody really Googled anything until around 2000. Facebook advertising didn’t even exist until 2007. Today’s marketers are just beginning to make sense of how they can leverage podcasts, chatbots, and artificial intelligence.
New marketing channels come and go, and how buyers evaluate and make decisions is changing too. But believe it or not, the role of a marketing mentor is not to teach mentees which channels to use, which technologies to adapt, or how to set up an A/B test in Hubspot. Digital marketers are, to a large extent, self-educators. You can learn these tactical skills by Googling, reading blogs, or taking on online course.
The role of the mentor is to help aspiring marketers figure out how to make sense of all these new channels, trends, and technologies. To help their mentees figure out what they need to learn, and what they don’t. To make sure they don’t get caught up in their day-to-day work and lose sight of the bigger picture. To give their mentees the mindset and outlook needed to be a successful marketer in a profession that experiences significant changes weekly.
Anyone can learn to conduct keyword research, but the skills needed to deal with this rapid change can only be learned through experience and can be greatly accelerated with the help of mentors who have been there themselves.
Second, digital marketers have to deal with a massive amount of ambiguity. A salesperson either makes a sale and hits their quota, or they don’t. An accountant balances the books or they don’t. These may sound like over-simplifications, and to an extent they are, but put yourselves in a marketer’s shoes. How do you explain to your boss the value of your company’s brand?
The good news is: with the rise of digital marketing, there’s less ambiguity than ever before. Marketers can now embrace the data left by digital interactions to prove the impact of their campaigns. Of course, this change has led to the role of the marketer evolving dramatically, which itself creates ambiguity when others in the organization don’t fully understand the new role of marketing at their company or the challenges today’s digital marketers face. CEOs often say that the job of the CMO is the toughest in the C-suite; in my industry, the CMO role is often referred to as the toughest job in tech.
For all of these reasons, the opportunity to work with and learn from a mentor is not just valuable for an aspiring digital marketer; in my eyes, it should be a requirement.
Why employers need to wake up and invest in their marketing team
The reason I got so excited to help develop Springboard’s Digital Marketing Career Track was that I saw an opportunity to work with a company that was offering to others the type of mentorship that was provided to me. I knew how beneficial my relationship with mentors like Peter and Nancie were not only to me but also to Buildium. I am positive that both the company’s growth and my own were accelerated because of these relationships.
Most businesses are still terrible at delivering professional development opportunities to their employees. So many marketing leaders look at what their teams don’t have, instead of what they do. They feel they need to add a technical resource to their team, or a designer, or just another entry-level marketer to add bandwidth and help the team accomplish more. They are always a role or two away from having the pieces they feel they really need to deliver.
In my experience, bringing in a world-class marketer to mentor your existing team members is almost always more valuable and dramatically cheaper than adding another full-time hire to your marketing team. The mentorship they’ll receive will help them make smarter decisions, and by not adding additional bandwidth, your team will become better at prioritizing the most important work.
To me, that sounds like increased efficiency and a financial win.
I’m well aware of how lucky I’ve been to learn from the people who have mentored me; certainly, not everyone has the opportunities I’ve been afforded. But if there’s a hallmark of great digital marketers, it’s investing in yourself. Springboard’s digital marketing programs provide aspiring digital marketers with an important opportunity to do that, while reaping the myriad benefits of mentorship.
It’s why I’ve continued to work with Springboard as a marketing mentor to students like James, Vanessa, Elina, Sheldon, and Muhammad. So if you’re considering a career in digital marketing, the ball’s in your court—enroll yourself, or forward this article along to your employer. Will you be the next student to join us?
Geoff Roberts is a Springboard mentor, a digital marketer, and co-founder of Outseta, a software startup that provides a suite of tools to other early-stage SaaS companies. He also wrote about becoming a customer acquisition expert.