The changing role of marketing in startups - reflections and insights from startup pro Craig Zingerline

Profile picture for user barb.mosher By Barb Mosher Zinck October 29, 2019
Startup failures come down to... marketing. That's the view of Craig Zingerline, who has founded multiple startups and seen the growth - and failures - firsthand. Here's his view on how startup marketing has evolved.



Craig Zingerline is a multi-time founder, well-versed in growth and product strategies. I spoke with Zingerline about his experiences, and the role marketing plays in the startup world. We also talked about being an entrepreneur, including where ideas come from. Here are the highlights of that discussion.

Coming from an entrepreneurial family

You don’t have to have a family who is entrepreneurial to be one yourself, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. In Zingerline’s case, on his mother’s side of the family, his grandfather was an inventor, his grandmother, a hairdresser who worked out of her home. On his dad’s side, family members owned construction companies and ran other businesses. His parents, however, held traditional jobs. Zingerline:

So we just flooded the backyard, we build these river systems, we built a water wheel and all sorts of little things that were fun, and I think looking back really entrepreneurial. So I think just getting exposed to that from an early age. […] I think I always had all these ideas, and I was kind of tinkering with things, but never really put into practice until kind of most of the way through college.

Zingerline attended college with plans to become a teacher, but it didn’t work out that way. He switched his major several times before eventually settling on information management, which he referred to as a mix of business and technology. This was pre dot com crash when things were getting started, so he felt he was in the right place at the right time.

His first product was a CMS

After taking a programming class, Zinglerline built his first website. He said it wasn’t pretty, but it resulted in others asking him to build websites for them. It also led to an opportunity to work with an in-house development team the summer before his senior year at college and gave him more exposure to computer and web-based programming. He started his first micro agency when he finished college.

The first product Zingerline built was a proprietary content management system. Before WordPress, before Drupal, before open-source, he built a CMS that enabled businesses to right-click and edit content directly in the browser to update their websites. This was the early 2000’s.

Unfortunately, the timing could not have been worse. So I think it was 2004 might have been 2005, the first, early versions of the open-source movement really started coming out. And frankly, they had better products. I mean, WordPress and Drupal. And I think there was one called Joomla at the time. They came out, and we couldn't compete with free. So even though we had these really interesting innovative things we're doing on the product, we just couldn't sell it anymore. And so we had to pivot that business into more of a consulting business. So yeah, that was, it was a cool product, but ultimately, the model failed, but it was a really good set of learnings.

The path from developer to marketer

It wasn’t a straight path. Zingerline was a software engineer for a few years, although he said he didn’t think he was good at it.

I was just much more interested in the opportunities that understanding the technical side gave me. So for example, I could look at a problem and think through a solution and actually think about it in a, in a technical manner, and not just, you know, take a guess at what it would actually take to build something I actually knew, you know, at least to some degree, how to how to build stuff.

And so he shifted from development to product strategy. He looked at not just how to build a product, but also how to sell it. “How do we think about the things that we're going to build, not just from a technical standpoint, but also at that intersection of how we're going to sell it, it was a lot of digital strategy.”

From there, Zingerline did more digital and tech strategy; he even did some work as a Product Manager before finding himself on the growth strategy side.

There’s definitely still a huge demand for engineering talent. But all of a sudden you had these ‘winner take all’ markets, and you had these much more competitive spaces where you had to really understand the nuances of how to go to market and how to talk to customers, and how to leverage all those different sets of inputs to build a better product. It wasn’t just about the tech anymore.

The difference between product, content, and growth marketing

Zinglerine said there is a convergence happening between product, marketing, and activation (getting users to do the thing you want them to do). But they are also distinct disciplines, each playing a specific role. He sees content marketing as part of what he called an “organic toolkit” to build awareness and acquire or activate leads. People in content marketing have to be good at creating content.

Product marketers, on the other hand, are good at messaging, branding. Zingerline said there is overlap, and there are marketers who are good at both, but as a product grows in complexity, you need to have separate roles.

So in the early days of a startup, a full-stack marketer, somebody like me that's got a bunch of experience across the board, is probably going to be a really powerful ally in that business. But over time, the downside of that type of person, and I've actually had to deal with this in my own career, is that you don't give yourself a chance to go deep in one particular area.

And then you have the growth marketer who has broad experience across the full lifecycle of the customer and is talking to the customer and the product team. A growth marketer is an older term, but it’s still widely used in the startup space. These marketers seem to do everything from content marketing to product marketing, customer retention and more. Zingerline talked about a growth marketer as the bridge between marketing and product. They often run experiments to figure out how to convert a lead to a customer, or focus on improving retention.

If you're smart about it, it all kind of works together. And you've got a cross-functional team of people that have, they might have different goals, but they all roll up to the same set of core metrics that are kind of company-wide. So you don't get that sabotaging metrics just to win in your little silo.

Marketing is rarely a front-filled role in a startup

Another interesting thing about the startup world is that you don’t often see the marketing role in the first phases of a startup. Zingerline agreed and said that companies that tend to do well out of the gate have a marketer as a co-founder.

When you look at the reasons why startups fail, almost universally, the issues come back to the market, market timing, marketing or sales related things it almost never has to do with, you've built the wrong product, or you built the wrong thing. And sometimes it's you've got the wrong team.

Zingerline referred to research that showed that a large percentage of startup failures come down to not having the marketing components in place. If you want to succeed, he said, you have to come out of the gate with an acquisition or activation or a revenue plan. Things are starting to change, Zingerline said; it’s just taking some time.

The shift to product-led growth

There is a lot of conversation around the idea of “product-led growth” or PLG, particularly with SaaS-based products, and I wondered what Zingerline thought about this approach. He admitted that he didn’t fully understand what it meant and felt that it’s something that may go down as a buzzword. However, the concept isn’t wrong.

He said that the term accurately describes what growth teams do now, which is to bridge the gap between marketing and product and figure out how to get people to use a product and have the product do what it’s supposed to do. PLG aligns well with SaaS solutions, but it’s also an approach for consumer apps as well.

That's why I think it's kind of buzzy. I actually think it's a strategic process that has a term put on it now, but it's the same stuff that growth teams and digital marketers and product teams have been doing for years. It's just a fancier way of saying, you know, you're driving the intent that you want the user to do. And that's leading to growth.

Giving back to the startup community

Zingerline has a broad set of skills from marketing, to product, and more. He keeps up with everything through reading, podcasts and actually doing the work.

I think part of it is just being tactical enough where I'm still involved in actual like campaign creation and getting in and doing the work, not just theorizing, what the work should be or delegating what the work is.

Zingerline hasn’t always been successful in his twenty years of working at startups (he has founded about half a dozen companies, including two agencies), and he’s taken that knowledge of what works and doesn’t work, and he helps others. He answers questions on Quora, his blog Pocketnote, in the Product School Community. He also has a boot camp for startups, does advisory work and seems to give back to the startup community continually.

I think practitioners, like me, have a duty to actually give something back to the community.

Image credit - Cropped shot of businessman putting his ideas on white board during a presentation in conference room. by @JacobLund, from