The Generalist’s Guide to Thriving in the Startup Industry
January 12, 2023
CEO | MEHRHOFF DIGITAL
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As a startup leader, you may find yourself at a career crossroads if your path follows a different trajectory, such as progressing from an SDR to a Sales Manager or a Marketing Manager to a CMO. Instead, you may be a versatile generalist with a diverse skillset, capable of excelling in roles such as product management, operations, business development, or even dipping your toes into data science or developer advocacy. In this case, it can be challenging to chart a clear course for your career.
On the other side, founders may face a similar challenge when hiring these individuals. Bringing on non-engineering hires, often referred to as “business” professionals, signifies a significant shift in the startup’s journey — the focus shifts from developing the early product solely to building the company that produces it. The organisational chart starts to take shape as founders find themselves interviewing and managing teams outside their expertise. As an aspiring startup leader, don’t let your diverse skillset hold you back.
Embrace your versatility and consider opportunities outside of your comfort zone. And for founders, don’t underestimate the value that generalists can bring to your team as you work towards building a successful company. Whether navigating your career path or building a team, the ability to adapt and thrive in diverse roles is crucial to the success of any startup.
As the CEO and Founder of MEHRHOFF DIGITAL, I have a unique perspective on founders’ challenges as they build, market, and develop their companies. With experience establishing marketing departments for two of Switzerland’s most successful FinTech startups, MoneyPark and Crypto Finance, I have firsthand knowledge of what it takes to drive success in the industry. These companies achieved an exit value exceeding 400 million, with a valuation of over two billion.
My background and expertise make me exceptionally qualified to advise and guide founders facing the formidable challenges of company building. Whether you’re just starting out or well into your journey, I can help you navigate the complexities of marketing, business development, and more. Together, we can work towards building a thriving company.
What follows is a collection of my lessons on building and scaling startups as an assembly line. Whether you’re a founder looking to assemble your team and navigate the complexities of growth, or an operator eager to craft a meaningful and impactful career, I have been in your shoes. I’ve learned many valuable lessons along the way, and I’d like to share some of them with you today. I share many practical learnings worth bookmarking for later, from advice for levelling up your marketing and business development expertise to getting product management right and hiring for roles you’ve never personally held.
As a seasoned entrepreneur with experience in building and scaling startups, I understand the unique challenges that founders and operators face regarding the growth and team assembly. That’s why I’ve compiled a collection of my hard-won lessons and practical tips for navigating the complexities of startup life.
Whether you’re a founder striving to understand the keys to growth or an operator looking to impact your career significantly, these insights are for you. From advice on mastering marketing and business development to hiring for roles outside your expertise, I have plenty of valuable lessons to share.
Think of this as an “assembly line” of wisdom, carefully curated to help you level up your skills and succeed in the startup world. So go ahead, bookmark this page and return to it whenever you need inspiration and practical advice.
The Versatility Advantage: The Case for Being a Specialist in being a Generalist.
One of my greatest strengths is bridging the gap between marketing and sales. As a non-technical person working on a product, it’s essential to communicate complex ideas in simple terms creating concise and consistent marketing and product messaging so that anyone can understand. This can be intimidating for Engineer founders at first, but it’s important to remember that everyone has their areas of expertise, and nothing is fundamentally unlearnable.
Early in my career, I disliked the divide between marketing and sales. I loved being in a room where people would ask, “Which team are you on again?” This quality has been invaluable in my work in business development.
As a self-taught designer at a startup company of one of Germany’s most successful company builders, I quickly learned the importance of creating engaging content to drive customer acquisition. I became the go-to person for UX and customer experience design, using my SEO and content marketing skills to propel the success of all the companies websites.
But my journey didn’t stop there. I saw firsthand how others at our company builder, starting in roles such as support or sales, could climb the ranks and eventually become CEOs or take on C-level positions at other portfolio companies.
This experience taught me the value of adaptability and the ability to learn new skills in the fast-paced world of startups. By embracing my diverse abilities and constantly seeking out new challenges, I was able to carve out a successful career path that took me beyond my initial focus in marketing and sales.
Another helpful trick is to focus less on your skillset and more on achieving results. As a young company builder graduate starting my career in Hamburg, Germany, I was eager to help startups succeed in any way possible. But I quickly realised that some founders wanted to spend less time teaching me the ins and outs of their business models.
Instead of dwelling on my lack of knowledge or skills, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I offered to sit down with these founders over lunch and have them whiteboard their business models for me to better understand them on my own. This proactive approach allowed me to learn and grow without relying on others to hold my hand every step of the way.
Focusing on results rather than dwelling on my skillset has served me well throughout my career. It’s important to remember that we all have something to learn, and it’s up to us to take the initiative to seek new knowledge and experiences. By embracing this mindset, we can achieve great things and make a meaningful impact on every project.
However, it’s critical to remember that your unique skill set and perspective are an asset, and it’s okay to embrace your diverse abilities and learn new things along the way. As you navigate your career path, focus on being ruthlessly effective and achieving results instead of focusing on what you are not good at.
Don’t Settle: Seek Out Opportunities for Continued Learning and Growth
For over a decade, I’ve been speaking with diverse people navigating their careers and deciding on their next steps. And the number one question I always get asked is, “Where should I go next?” With so many opportunities, it can be overwhelming to make a choice.
To gain a deeper understanding of a potential employer, consider asking yourself the following questions during interviews with the founding team:
Do the founders possess the necessary expertise and knowledge to succeed in this market? Do they have firsthand experience as the customer or a deep understanding of the customer’s needs?
Do the founders have the drive and passion for sustaining their business over the long term?
How skilled are they at effectively communicating the company’s vision and goals? Please pay attention to how they present the opportunity during the interview process.
Do the founders prioritise more than just the product itself? Do they consider factors such as hiring, retention, and company culture when building their business?
Are they downplaying or ignoring potential challenges in the company’s growth? Ask about areas where the business may need to catch up due to its stage in development.
Can I trust the founders to make ethical and fair decisions, even if things don’t go as planned? Will they treat employees respectfully under challenging circumstances, such as layoffs or partial acquisitions?
Can I learn and grow under the guidance of the founders, regardless of their specific area of expertise?
Is the team diverse in knowledge and experience, or am I the most knowledgeable person in the room? Surrounding yourself with colleagues who can challenge and inspire you to learn and grow is essential. Trust your instincts, although you might be biased.
As I tell my friends, the company you choose matters more than any other factor, whether it’s the title, role scope, or salary. While venture capitalists and angel investors can place multiple bets quickly and hope one pays off, employees only get one shot. That’s why in your 20s, it’s crucial to find a company where you can learn as much as possible, take on a lot of responsibility early on, and work like hell to make the most of your potential.
But when you reach a point where you feel like you’re no longer learning as much as you desire, feel free to make a swift decision to move on from that company. It’s important to continue challenging yourself and growing. If you’ve reached a plateau in your current position, it may be time to seek new opportunities that offer more learning and development potential. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, take the leap, and trust your instincts — your career growth is worth it.
You can ask any of my coworkers, even those who didn’t particularly care for me — no one can say that I didn’t give it my all, working 24/7 to learn as much as possible in every company I worked for. My ultimate goal has always been to start my own company, and I knew that to do so, I needed to put in the time and effort to acquire as much knowledge and experience as possible. Whether I was liked or not, I was determined to succeed and make my dream a reality.
As a professional, it’s critical not just to let the company grow around you but to actively work towards your own growth within it.
This means looking for ways to help and contribute rather than just pointing out problems. Try to find new ways to assist your colleagues and managers, even if it means taking on extra responsibilities. These can be great opportunities to build a diverse skillset and make a broader impact within the company.
At one point in my career, I simultaneously managed marketing efforts for multiple (to be precise: the holding and three portfolio companies) companies. This required me to handle website development, marketing, public relations, content marketing and its production, design initiatives, and event organisation across the globe in all time zones. My hard work was recognised, and I was thanked for handling such a significant workload with a full-time hire to manage me.
These experiences allowed me to develop diverse skills and expertise, even if I only sometimes received the recognition I deserved. It would help if you got used to the fact that you are only sometimes getting the respect you deserve while still pushing your limits to achieve greatness by your own means.
Often, promotions require a person to have a broad network across different organisations. Keeping track of all the relationships and responsibilities while working like hell to get promoted can be challenging. Eventually, as the company grew, I pursued new opportunities and challenges.
As you take on more responsibilities outside your main job, you can form new teams, help launch new functions, and even head new company initiatives. These “side gigs” allow you to grow your skill set and significantly impact the organisation. Not to mention, they will be some of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of your career. So, if you’re looking to advance and make a real difference, consider taking on additional projects that are challenging and pushing you out of your comfort zone. You never know what doors it might open for you.
Don’t Get Sucked In by Shiny New Objects: How to Stay on Track
To keep your life balanced, follow the age-old adage: one in, one out OR fuck around and find out.
You’ve got a solid plan in place for the next six months — and then suddenly, a competing company launches something new in your industry. Or a potential customer reaches out with a request for a significant new feature.
How do you decide what to do?
There are two mistakes you could make in this situation. One is ditching your plan entirely and pivoting to focus on the new shiny thing. This could lead you down a path that isn’t worth your time and effort. The other mistake is rigidly sticking to your plan and refusing to consider any “custom work.” The best approach is usually somewhere in the middle.
When life throws you a curveball and your carefully crafted plans are suddenly thrown into disarray, it’s essential to strike a balance. Keep your plan, but don’t be afraid to make adjustments. The key is being flexible and adaptable while staying true to your core goals. Avoid getting sidetracked by shiny new opportunities, but be flexible to take on custom work that could benefit your team. Striking a balance between these two extremes is the key to success.
Patrick Mehrhoff, CEO & Founder, MEHRHOFF DIGITAL
Imagine yourself in a bustling office, surrounded by the hum of computer keyboards and the faint scent of freshly brewed coffee. You’ve spent hours reviewing your product marketing plan, carefully considering every detail and nuance. Just as you’re about to present it to your team, you receive a notification alerting you to a new product launch from a rival company or a request for a feature you weren’t anticipating.
As you contemplate your next move, you can almost feel the weight of the decision on your shoulders. Do you stick to your original plan and risk falling behind, or do you pivot and lose focus? It’s a tough call, but striking a balance between the two is often the best solution.
As you gather your team, you take a deep breath and lay out the ten most important things you’re working on this quarter. You can feel the tension in the room as you outline the potential consequences of not completing each task. Suddenly, a new request lands in your inbox, and you know you must make a choice.
As you weigh the pros and cons, you realise that the request is a game-changer. It could bring in new business and give you an edge over the competition. You decide to take a calculated risk and move some items down on the list to make room for it.
With the new request, you refocus your energy and get to work. As you tackle the challenges your way, you’re reminded of the importance of being flexible and focused. By balancing rigidity and adaptability, you can stay true to your goals while embracing new opportunities.
The Secret to a Successful Product Launch: Quality over Quantity
As you prepare for your go-to-market launch, staying focused on engagement and not just getting more people through the door is essential. While it’s exciting to have a high volume of leads on the first day, tracking how many customers actively engage with your product is critical.
One mistake many early-stage startups make is focusing solely on acquiring leads without considering whether they have the right sales processes, customer relationship tools, and personnel to serve those leads effectively. These resources are necessary to handle a high volume of leads without leading to missed opportunities and frustrated customers.
But it’s about more than just having the proper infrastructure in place; it’s also about launching a product that you know is top-quality. You want to avoid mismanaging expectations by overpromising and underdelivering with an inferior product. Instead, focus on creating a product that you can stand behind and that will genuinely meet your customers’ needs.
Imagine the excitement of your team as you count down the final hours before the launch. The air is charged with anticipation, and you can almost feel the energy of the potential customers waiting on the other side of the virtual door. The floodgates open as the clock strikes midnight, and a stream of leads pour in.
But as you start following up with those leads, you realise that you’ve made the mistake of launching with a product that isn’t up to par. Your messaging was golden, but your product fell short, and your customers are disappointed. It’s a lesson learned the hard way, but it’s one that you won’t make again.
Avoid these common product launch fails and risks.
Focusing solely on acquiring leads without considering the ability to serve them effectively.
Launching a product that is not top-quality or that does not meet customers’ needs.
Overpromising and underdelivering with an inferior product.
Neglecting to conduct thorough testing and quality assurance.
Failing to assemble a customer support team or have processes in place to handle customer inquiries and complaints.
Neglecting to monitor the launch and collect feedback from customers.
Not setting realistic goals for the product launch.
Not having a clear and compelling value proposition for the product.
Not conducting market research to understand the needs and preferences of the target market.
Not having a solid product roadmap in place.
From now on, you’ll focus on launching a product that you know is top-quality and that you can stand behind. It’s the only way to drive sustained engagement and growth truly.
Identify the target market for the product and conduct market research to understand their needs and preferences.
Develop a clear and compelling value proposition for the product.
Set realistic product launch goals, including sales and customer acquisition targets.
Create a marketing plan to effectively communicate the product’s value proposition to the target market.
Build a strong product team and ensure all necessary resources are in place for the launch.
Develop a solid product roadmap outlining the product’s development and release.
Conduct thorough testing and quality assurance to ensure that the product meets the required standards.
Assemble a customer support team with processes to handle customer inquiries and complaints.
Create a launch timeline and plan to coordinate all activities leading up to the launch.
Monitor the launch closely and collect customer feedback to identify improvement areas.
In conclusion, the secret to a successful product launch is simple: quality over quantity. While it may be tempting to focus on acquiring as many leads as possible, it’s important to remember that engaged customers drive growth. To achieve this, launching a top-notch product that meets customer needs and delivers on your promises is crucial. This means investing in the right resources, prioritising quality and customer satisfaction, setting realistic goals, and having a solid roadmap. So, the next time you’re gearing up for a product launch, remember: get clear on what and how you want to achieve it.
Why Early-Stage Partnerships Can Be a Waste of Time
I have made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to. As a startup founder, you may think that partnerships are a no-brainer, a shortcut to success. But in reality, they can be a trap that diverts your focus and resources away from what matters most: finding product/market fit.
Imagine this scenario: you’re working with an early partner, and they get 50% of your business. That’s driving a lot of value, but it can also be risky if you don’t have a strong core business to fall back on. And if you lose that critical partnership, it can be a devastating blow, a terrible signal to the market.
Or consider this: you invest time and energy into a promising partnership, only to discover that it needs to drive a reasonable business. That’s like pouring water into a leaky bucket, a frustrating and costly experiment.
So, how can you avoid these pitfalls and make partnerships work for you? Here are a few tips:
Start at the middle of your target list. Don’t go for the home run right away, and target the biggest and most prestigious partners.
Start with the most important ones, but lower on your list. You can learn from their objections and address them before pitching the top players. Avoid making the amateur mistake of going all-in on a single, high-profile customer — it’s smarter to build a solid base with smaller players first. It’s better to build your case with smaller players for several months than to strike out with the most prominent potential partner because you’re eager to ink your first deal.
Focus on the 80/20 in negotiations. Don’t get bogged down in the details or rush to close a deal at any cost.
Build a framework of principles that guides your negotiation strategy. Outline the top five things for each deal, and aim to get at least four. Look for a win-win, where both companies benefit from the partnership. Minimise the risk of egregious terms by offering contingencies or benchmarks. The goal is not just to release a press release but to create a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship.
Measure the impact of partnerships.
Don’t just count the leads or revenue from a partnership; also, track how many customers engage with your product. That’s the accurate measure of success. And remember to collect feedback from customers and partners to identify areas for improvement.
As you navigate the complex landscape of partnerships, stay true to your vision and values. Refrain from letting the allure of a big name or quick deal distract you from what truly matters to your business. Remember that the most successful partnerships are built on mutual respect and a shared sense of purpose.
From Frustration to Success: My Journey to a More Effective Product Management Approach
When building a successful startup, founders face the age-old question: build or buy/borrow? In Hamburg, at the company builder I graduated from, we took a first principles approach to building but also sought out the advice of other founders and executives to bring in their insights.
That is why I used the same approach working at a B2B software company in Switzerland some years ago. I’ve been chatting with executives at companies like Google and Amazon to see how they do things, as well as graduates from the company builder leading some of the most promising German startups, and how we can adapt those practices to fit their Swiss approach.
One method I particularly enjoyed from Amazon was their “working backwards” approach. I knew that “working backwards” is often associated with Steve Jobs and Apple, as I admire Steve Jobs and his focus on building an exceptional customer experience. He would usually start with the desired experience and work backwards to figure out how to create it.
However, the backwards working process that Amazon uses is a more formalised version of this approach, and it involves a structured process for developing new products or services. One step in Amazon’s ‘working backwards’ approach is writing a press release early on when building new products.
I brought some much-needed focus and direction to this early-on press release by proposing a product plan that outlined the value we would deliver and clearly explained how each feature addressed customer needs. Unfortunately, my approach wasn’t adopted at the software company, where the product development process seemed more ad-hoc and driven by customer requests rather than following a concise and consistent strategy. I understand the company was trying to generate revenue to survive the next few months, but I still needed to see my ideas implemented since they would have been much more effective.
As I sat at my desk at the Swiss B2B software company, staring at the rejected Steve Jobs approach and early-on press release, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and disappointed. My colleagues had yet to embrace my ideas despite my efforts to bring structure and focus to our product management process. My experience at the Swiss B2B software company may have been disappointing. Still, it ultimately led me to discover a more effective and successful approach to product management, although not implemented, and for that, I am grateful.
However, I wasn’t one to give up easily. I decided to try this approach at my own company, MEHRHOFF DIGITAL and implemented a similar process for developing new marketing initiatives for my customers. And let me tell you, the results were nothing short of excellent. I successfully introduced this process to one of my customers, resulting in a highly successful product launch.
The press release for this product served as a summary, helping to communicate these to stakeholders and the public. It was a rich and immersive experience for the reader, filled with carefully crafted problem-solution statements that brought the product to life, directly addressing the target audience’s needs and requirements.
Why wait until the last minute to write a press release for your shiny new product? Writing one early on in the development process has all sorts of benefits. For starters, it keeps the product team laser-focused on the customer experience and the value they’re working to deliver. It also helps them identify gaps or areas for improvement before the product get’s officially launched. Plus, it can generate buzz and interest in the product, building anticipation and excitement for its big debut if you decide to distribute it before the launch date.
The benefits of writing the press release early on include:
It helps the team stay focused on the customer experience and the key benefits that the product or service is designed to deliver.
It allows the team to clearly communicate the product’s or service’s key features and benefits to stakeholders and the public.
It helps the team identify any gaps or areas for improvement in the product or service before it is released.
It can generate buzz and interest in the product or service before it is launched.
In conclusion, the concept of “working backwards”, as practised by companies like Amazon and Apple, can revolutionise how startups approach product management. By starting with the desired customer experience and working backwards to figure out how to create it, founders can ensure that their products are focused on delivering value and solving real customer problems.
Writing a press release early in the development process can also be a powerful tool, helping keep the product team focused on the customer experience and identifying any gaps or areas for improvement before the product is released. It can also generate buzz and excitement around the product, making its launch that much more successful.
While I may have encountered some setbacks in my journey to discover a more effective product development approach, I am grateful for the lessons learned and the successes achieved along the way. By embracing the power of “working backwards” and the benefits of an early-on press release, I have created rich and immersive experiences for my customers that truly address their needs and requirements. And that, in the end, is what it’s all about.
Want to go beyond the surface and truly delve into the Amazon approach to get an in-depth look at their product management? Check out the webinar below.
The Art of Communicating Change: How to Smoothly Integrate New Hires into Your Team
As a startup founder, you know that time and resources are often limited. You may be tempted to prioritise efficiency and minimise overhead costs by keeping your team small, thinking that you can get by with just a few key players and a project manager or two to keep things running smoothly. But when it comes to scaling your business and working towards operational excellence, it’s vital to recognise the value of dedicated product management and marketing functions.
While a manager experienced in managing projects can undoubtedly be a valuable asset, they may have a different level of expertise or perspective than a dedicated product manager with a background in product management. Product managers have experience working alongside experienced marketing managers to develop and launch successful products. By building a team of these experienced professionals, you can tap into a wealth of knowledge and insights to help your startup grow and thrive.
However, introducing new roles or functions to your company can be sensitive. To ensure that your new hires can do their jobs effectively, it’s crucial to communicate their roles’ purpose and expectations to the current team. Take the time to explain how the new hires will fit into the existing team dynamic and how their presence will positively (and potentially negatively) impact the lives of current team members. Addressing these concerns can help you smooth the transition and set your new hires up for success.
As a startup employee, it can be intimidating to have a more senior leader hired above you. I remember feeling that way myself when it happened to me. Understanding the founder’s perspective on the matter took me a while. However, getting to know to be layered by email without prior warning is still disrespectful, which every founder should learn to address before treating their employees that way. Being open and transparent about your hiring process is a matter of respect towards your team.
But here’s the thing: the decision to bring on a more experienced leader has little to do with how great you perform. It has everything to do with how sufficiently the business functions and the need for someone with more experience to help it grow.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, try to view it as an opportunity to learn from a new leader and future manager. Having a terrible manager is the only thing worse than having someone layered above you.
To avoid this, founders must involve their team in the layering process. Too often, founders announce hiring a new head of marketing or another senior role, leaving the team to wonder why they were hired in the first place.
Instead, founders should be transparent about the role they’re looking to fill and seek input from the team. Ask them what they want to learn from someone in this role, what they want to keep doing, and what they’re willing to give up. By opening up this conversation, you can ensure that the new hire is a good fit for the team and set them up for success.
Sweat and Tears: The Dedication and Determination of a Startup Team
Starting a business is like going to war. Your team is of highly trained warriors, each with their own unique set of skills and expertise. Like a well-oiled machine, they work together to achieve a common goal: victory.
As the leader, it’s your job to guide and motivate your team, just as a commanding officer would on the battlefield. You must show them the respect they deserve, for they are the ones who will be facing challenges and obstacles for you head-on.
Imagine the sound of gunfire as you charge into battle, the smell of smoke and sweat in the air. Your team is by your side, their determination and loyalty unwavering. They are the ones who will have your back, no matter what comes your way.
But it’s not just about the fighting. It’s about the camaraderie and the bonds formed in the heat of battle. These people will become your brothers and sisters in arms, your family.
So, as you march forward on your entrepreneurial journey, remember to treat your team with the utmost respect. They are the ones who will help you emerge victorious. Semper Fidelis. Always faithful.