You just launched a startup. Congratulations! πŸ‘β€β€

But now comes the hard part - getting customers. You likely only have 6-12 months of runway. You need to nail down product-market fit, build an audience, hit growth milestones - and do it fast before the money runs out.

It's an intimidating task, especially if you don't have strong marketing chops on your founding team. You know you need marketing help but aren't sure where to start.

Should you hire an in-house marketer? Bring on an agency? Do it all yourself? What's the best move when resources are so constrained yet the stakes are sky-high?

In this essay, we'll analyze the pros and cons of various marketing options for resource-strapped startups. We'll specifically look at:

  • Doing all marketing in-house
  • Hiring a marketing agency
  • Hiring a fractional CMO
  • Doing it yourself as a founder

We'll evaluate each option across factors like:

  • Cost
  • Execution speed
  • Specialization
  • Risk

By the end, you'll know why an agency is often the right starting point for maximizing traction with limited dollars and time.

Doing All Marketing In-House

πŸš€ Audit which marketing skills your team currently has and identify any gaps where you lack expertise
🀝 Brainstorm outsourcer partners like freelancers or agencies who could temporarily fill those skillset gaps
πŸ’Έ Create a 12-month cost projection for hiring needed in-house marketing talent

The ideal long-term plan for many startups is hiring a full in-house marketing team. This gives you:

  • Alignement - In-house marketers focus exclusively on your product and business goals.
  • Control - You dictate marketing projects, timelines, strategies etc.
  • Institutional knowledge - Long-term team members understand nuances of product and customers.

However, for most early-stage startups, a full in-house marketing team is unrealistic. Reasons why include:

Significant cost

To build a well-rounded marketing team, you likely need at least 3-5 specialists:

  • Head of Growth
  • Content Marketing Manager
  • Social Media Manager
  • Paid Acquisition Manager
  • Email Marketing Manager
  • Partnerships Manager
  • Designers
  • etc.

Minimum salary expectations for these roles would be $80-120k each in a major metro area.

That's an annual cost of $500k+ to have an in-house marketing team that can effectively run growth channels, create content, and build an audience.

Slow ramp up time

It takes significant time to fill all those seats - easily 2-3 months per role for recruiting and onboarding.

As a startup racing against runway, you likely don't have 6+ months to build out a marketing machine. You need traction beginning day 1.

Execution risks

There's performance risk whenever you hire. What if that rockstar growth marketing hire you just made turns out to be average? Or they don't harmonize with your culture? What if your content manager is consistently late on deliverables?

Early stage products especially need a strong continuous flow of experiments across diverse growth levers. You may not have a large enough talent pipeline yet to execute well.

Hiring a Marketing Agency

πŸ“ Make a list of your startup’s most pressing marketing needs and desired outcomes
πŸ”Ž Research agencies with proven experience around those specific needs
βœ… Ask for case study examples reflecting results with startups similar to yours

Marketing agencies help SaaS startups quickly nail the exhausting task of user acquisition. Rather than building an entire in-house staff, startups can "rent" the marketing talent and bandwidth as needed.

An experienced marketing agency gives startups instant access to benefits like:

A readied arsenal of growth marketers with years of launching and scaling SaaS product experience. No recruiting headaches.

Big diversity in marketing skillsets from setting up oriented sales funnels to fine-tuning paid media budgets to building organic ambassador programs and more. You can tap experts across a wealth of areas.

Proven processes and playbooks developed over years of running digital marketing campaigns for SaaS clients. You benefit from the refined expertise.

Objectivity & Unbiased Expertise: Third-party agencies do not have intrinsic bias toward a specific marketing channel or P&L ownership. They can evaluate and recommend what’s objectively best for the client based on campaign data and performance benchmarks.

Cost and time effectiveness:

  • Agency fees can be 50-75% cheaper than hiring full time specialists
  • No recruiting timelines. Fire up campaigns on day 1.
  • Flex up or down on bandwidth as needed

For resource and cash-strapped startups, marketing agencies are an attractive partner for fueling acquisition and proving traction in a short timeline. They offer speed, scale, and flexibility.

Hiring a Fractional CMO

πŸ‘₯ Ask your network for CMO referrals who have worked specifically with startups before
πŸ—“οΈ Define what days per week you’d need the fractional CMO’s time
πŸ’° Compare fractional CMO rate structures to understand total costs

A fractional Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) sits in between hiring a marketing agency and a full in-house team.

Usually, a fractional CMO will work 2-4 days per week steering an early-stage startup's marketing strategy and experiments. Benefits include:

  • Executive-level marketing leadership and experience
  • Ongoing strategic guidance tailored for your startup
  • Help vetting and managing external agencies
  • Scaling marketing experiment velocity
  • More affordable than a full-time CMO

The part-time model creates alignment, continuity, and startup-specific customization. However, fractional CMOs still have limitations around:

  • Partial availability - Usually only engaged part-time
  • Narrower skill sets - An individual CMO won't have the breadth of tactical specialists an agency does
  • Cost - Can be just as expensive hourly as hiring specialists

So while fractional CMOs are useful for setting vision and pruning external partners, they may not solve acute needs around execution bandwidth. Startups still need boots on the ground to run campaigns and own deliverables.

Doing All Marketing Yourself

πŸ“š Block 2 hours each week to level up your digital marketing knowledge
⏱️ Audit how much time founders currently spend on marketing tasks each week
πŸ€” Calculate opportunity cost value if you focused that time on product or fundraising instead

Perhaps the riskiest route is not hiring any marketing help and completely relying on founders and early employees to drive all acquisition.

Upsides to an internally-owned marketing approach include:

  • Really low costs
  • Institutional knowledge
  • Complete creative control

However, the risks and downsides often overshadow young startups:

  • Extremely slow velocity as founders split focus
  • Missed optimizations from lack of experience
  • No systemization or best practices
  • Wheel re-invention syndrome

While tempting early on, DIY startup marketing typically won't cut it for efficiently finding PMF. Founders should focus the bulk of energy on vision, product, and funding - not running the tactical marketing machine.

There simply aren't enough hours in the day as a founder or early employee. Trade-offs have to be made.

When Should Startups Consider a Marketing Agency?

Given limited resources and the value of speed, partnering with a marketing agency is often the right opening play for startups.

Agencies alleviate acute needs around:

  • Lacking marketing experience on founding teams
  • Needing to hit the ground running day 1
  • Accessing marketing talent without big recruiting and hiring costs
  • Running rigorous testing across different growth levers simultaneously

Once you start gaining momentum and have funding to build out an in-house machine, you can gradually shift work internally. The agency has already paved the way.

Marketers-for-hire let you accelerate the repetitive grunt of growth experiments...while founders focus more on vision, product design, and raising capital.

Key Traits to Evaluate in a Startup Marketing Agency

However, agencies come in all shapes and sizes. Not every shop out there is equipped to address fast-moving tech startups.

When evaluating "startup marketing" agencies, analyze if prospects truly have:

True specialization in launching early-stage SaaS. Ask how many seed and Series A tech clients they currently serve. What % of revenue do startups represent across their client base? The agency should live and breathe your stage to correctly advise strategies.

Technical marketing DNA. Can they just run generic "social media" campaigns? Or do they understand SaaS funnels, product-led growth, value prop optimization, and other pillars actually driving expansion? Probe their expertise specifically in digital marketing stacks to scale ventures.

Lean but mighty team that punches above its weight class despite being leaner than traditional agencies. Look for structures tactfully blending account strategy, media buying, and creation under one house. The operability will enable moving faster.

Scope and onions to be a true partner, not just a freelancer outlet. Ask if they steer strategy and vision or just supply mercenary hands to produce. Does counsel escalate to senior, seasoned members or just junior staffers? Real partners should have breadth and depth.

Aggressive goal-setting, optimization, and rigor around campaign performance from Day 1. You need an agency obsessed with outcomes and ready to challenge assumptions...not just going through the motions on delivery logistics. Probe their optimization culture - it should be baked into the DNA beyond just checking boxes on campaign creation.

Specialization matters when selecting marketing partners. The needs, context, and objectives of a fledgling SaaS startup differ greatly from a mature enterprise company. Find collaborators who live your stage of market to most effectively hype growth.

The Takeaway

Earning traction quickly is everything for early-stage startups racing against dwindling runway.

Rather than betting startup viability on unproven team members or strapped founders, consider hiring experience. Marketing agencies remove pressure by offering specialized growth talent to hit the ground running - all for a fraction of hiring costs.

Vet agency abilities directly serving seed and Series A companies to ensure the right strategic fit. With the right partner, you can move at the speed required during volatile early chapters...while still keeping control of steering the vision.


1. What exactly does a startup marketing agency do?

A startup marketing agency helps businesses create and implement marketing strategies to achieve their goals. These agencies can assist with a variety of marketing services, including brand development, content marketing, social media marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), email marketing, advertising, and more. A startup marketing agency can also provide market research, data analysis, and performance tracking to help businesses understand how their marketing efforts are performing and make adjustments accordingly.

2. Why can't I handle my startup's marketing in-house?

While it's certainly possible to handle your startup's marketing in-house, there are several reasons why working with a startup marketing agency can be beneficial. First, a marketing agency has the expertise and resources to create and execute a comprehensive marketing strategy that may be beyond the scope of your in-house team's abilities. Additionally, working with a marketing agency can help free up your time and resources, allowing you to focus on other aspects of your business.

3. What are the benefits of hiring a startup marketing agency?

The benefits of hiring a startup marketing agency are numerous. A marketing agency can help you develop a clear and effective marketing strategy, create high-quality content that resonates with your target audience, and provide valuable insights into your audience's behavior and preferences. Additionally, a marketing agency can help you stay up-to-date with the latest marketing trends and technologies, giving you a competitive edge in your industry.

4. How much does it cost to work with a startup marketing agency?

The cost of working with a startup marketing agency can vary depending on a number of factors, including the agency's experience and expertise, the scope of your marketing needs, and the amount of time and resources required to execute your marketing strategy. Some agencies may charge a flat fee for their services, while others may charge by the hour or project. It's important to discuss pricing and budget upfront with any agency you're considering working with to ensure that their services align with your budget and expectations.

5. What should I look for in a startup marketing agency?

When selecting a startup marketing agency, it's important to consider their experience, expertise, and track record of success. Look for an agency that has experience working with businesses similar to yours, and that can provide case studies or references that demonstrate their ability to deliver results. Additionally, you should look for an agency that communicates clearly and frequently, and that has a collaborative approach to working with clients.

6. How long does it take to see results when working with a marketing agency?

The timeline for seeing results when working with a marketing agency can vary depending on the nature of your marketing needs and the scope of the strategy being implemented. However, it's important to remember that marketing is a long-term game, and it can take several months to see significant results. A good marketing agency will work with you to establish realistic goals and expectations upfront, and will provide regular updates on progress and performance.

7. Can I work with a marketing agency on a short-term basis?

Yes, many marketing agencies offer short-term engagements to meet specific marketing needs. For example, you may work with an agency on a short-term project, such as launching a new product or service, or creating a specific piece of content. Alternatively, you may work with an agency on a retainer basis, where they provide ongoing marketing services on a month-to-month basis.

8. How involved do I need to be in the marketing process when working with an agency?

The level of involvement you have in the marketing process when working with an agency can vary depending on your needs and preferences. Some businesses prefer to be very hands-on and involved in the process, while others prefer to delegate most of the responsibilities to the agency. Ultimately, the level of involvement you have will depend on your goals, resources, and the specific services you're receiving from the agency. It's important to communicate your preferences and expectations upfront to ensure that you're on the same page with the agency.

9. How do I measure the success of my marketing efforts?

Measuring the success of your marketing efforts is critical to understanding what's working and what's not. A good startup marketing agency will help you establish clear metrics and goals upfront, and will provide regular performance reports to track progress. Some common metrics that may be used to measure marketing success include website traffic, lead generation, customer engagement, conversion rates, and revenue growth. By regularly measuring and analyzing these metrics, you can gain valuable insights into your marketing strategy and make data-driven decisions to improve performance.

10. How can a marketing agency help me reach my target audience?

A marketing agency can help you reach your target audience by developing and executing a comprehensive marketing strategy that's tailored to your specific audience and goals. This may include creating high-quality content that resonates with your audience, leveraging social media and other digital channels to reach your audience where they spend their time, and using data analysis and market research to gain insights into your audience's behavior and preferences. By understanding your audience and tailoring your marketing strategy to their needs, you can improve engagement, generate more leads, and ultimately drive revenue growth for your startup.