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Early-Stage Startups: Should you outsource your marketing?

It's the perennial question for businesses. How to go about building a marketing function?

Do you hire someone senior to start and build from there?

Or someone more junior first?

Do you hire an agency?

Do you hire freelancers until you figure things out?

We started Rise - Growth Marketing Collective back in 2017 after having each spent a big part of our careers driving growth for a range of startups and small-to-medium businesses.

First things first, we all wanted to go freelance for different reasons - some for family, some for health, some because they just felt they wanted more flexibility or impact.

What we all had in common though is that we were specialists. Real, hardened, proven specialists.

Some of us are channel specialists, focused and passionate about specific marketing channels such as PPC or SEO, and others specialised by sector or business model - from eCommerce to Subscriptions, Marketplaces to SaaS.

Having also built a number of world-class marketing teams, it was also clear that there was a huge gap for earlier stage and high-growth businesses in providing a marketing function without the commitment and with the flexibility to pivot as the business does.

We wanted to combine the best of the freelancing landscape with the ability to offer a full marketing function for our clients, no matter the type of business they are, or the stage that their business is at.

And the makeup of that marketing function really can vary across every business. The way Rise works means that we have specialists across pretty much every niche, every vertical, and every business lifestage.

That's pretty much impossible to do in reality for agencies because they need to specialise, to create a niche for themselves, a USP, which means that they need to specialise in certain areas of marketing. But as a collective of over 30 marketing specialists, we can do it.

Business that work with Rise get the cream of marketing talent that varies depending on the needs of the business. Everything that we do is 100% bespoke to your business, while we are always solution-agnostic, so you can be sure that everything we ever recommend is only designed to further your business.

If some marketing channels are driving results over others, doubling down while removing the channels not working isn't a problem. The team working on your business will change to suit. The benefit of having a collective of over 30 channel specialists from different niches and verticals. If you pivot, so do we.

Businesses often have to decide whether to recruit in-house or work with agencies or consultants to fill the gaps. Those choices are typically determined by money or the stage that the business is in. It's hard to decide who to recruit if you haven't yet figured out your key channels right!

The Pros and Cons of Marketing Agencies

Marketing agencies are great for many reasons. Firstly, you get access to channel expertise to give you a wealth of insight and strategy at the proposal and planning stage.

You then get the benefit of tactical experts who will manage your channels and provide regular reports.

They will have established processes that are designed to make the onboarding and management of your marketing as smooth as possible.

If they're well established, they will also likely have relationships with advertising platforms and tools that will result in getting either better rates, or at least better support when things go wrong.

And all of that is filtered through a personable Account Manager who will be your point of contact during the process and in your work with the agency.

If you're lucky, and you've found an agency with both a focus on all of the channels that are relevant for your business and they can deliver results, they can become long-term partners for growth.

However, all of that comes at a cost.

Disadvantages of working with a marketing agency

  • You will be locked into a contract that ties you to the agency. At the lower end, this will be for a minimum of 3 months but will often include long notice periods of 3 months or longer.

  • You will pay their retainer and probably a percentage of the media spend. If you're smart, part of their fee will be performance based - for example, if they achieve specified milestones.

  • You will not get a say over who works on your business. If they move people around because of promotions, staff turnover or any other reason - you will not get a say over who takes charge or is doing the day-to-day management of your channels. You'll often not have direct line of contact with the people running your marketing activity, only the Account Manager.

  • The agency will be the gatekeepers of knowledge of how to grow your business. That's huge. A vital cog in any business is getting to the point of keeping expertise and knowledge in-house, which is a valuable commodity, especially for potential investors.

  • Rigid processes. This is one of the advantages listed above but this can also be a huge disadvantage. In order to scale, agencies need to have processes to apply to all of their clients. These processes apply to how they onboard new clients but also in how they manage your marketing. This can become burdonsome, particularly if you're at a stage of trying to learn and fail fast.

  • They lose interest. Assuming you've picked a good, growing agency, the danger is that, as they get more clients, your account becomes less important unless your spending is increasing proportionally. That's not often the case. You will have to work harder to get their attention as time goes on.

  • They specialise in certain channels or activities. In most cases, agencies will have specialisms in certain channels, such as Paid Search & Paid Social Advertising, and even then, often specialising in specific high-demand channels such as Google Ads and Meta Ads rather than newer channels such as TikTok Ads. On the plus side, this is a positive - they should be better at getting results via those channels. However, most businesses aim for a diversified channel mix in order to not be reliant on 1-2 channels. This means that you will then need to either, be patient while they cut their teeth in new channels with your business (and budgets), or find a additional partners to manage other channels.

The alternatives to working with marketing agencies

Build Your In-House Team

Advantages of Building an In-House Marketing Team

One major advantage of building an in-house marketing team is control. With an in-house team, you have more control over your marketing efforts, including branding, messaging, and target audience. Your in-house marketing team understands your business's needs and goals, making them well-positioned to develop and execute a marketing strategy that aligns with your business objectives. You can also be actively involved in the marketing process, thus ensuring the marketing campaign fits your business’s values.

Another advantage is cost-effectiveness. Long term engagement with a marketing agency may be expensive, and in some cases, you might be paying for services you don't need. Building an in-house marketing team can be more cost-effective in this regard. You can hire people when you need and train them, saving you money in the long term.

Disadvantages of Building an In-House Marketing Team

One notable disadvantage of building an in-house marketing team is lack of expertise diversity. Your in-house team will have a skillset that is confined to its employees, and you may not be able to get a specialist in every aspect of your marketing needs. An agency, on the other hand, has a broader pool of professionals, each with unique specialties and proven experience.

Hiring an in-house marketing team also takes time and resources you might not have. Recruiting, interviewing, and training employees will take a lot of time away from your core business activities, reducing operational efficiency. This could ultimately affect the growth of your startup negatively.

However, the above is only possible if you know what expertise you need. The biggest danger for any newer business is hiring the wrong people based on early assumptions about what you believe will best suit your business. It can be very costly and time consuming to fix that, whether you train your existing employees in new skills or try to replace them.

A lack of suitable candidates can also hinder the idea of building your in-house team. In today's landscape, many of the best and brightest aren't looking for full-time, permanent roles in-house, leaving a smaller pool of high-calibre candidates.

Working with Marketing Freelancers

Working with good marketing freelancers can be an excellent and cost-effective alternative to using an agency.

A professional freelancer can take on many different roles from building a social media strategy, creating content and visuals, and managing AdWords campaigns to email marketing and SEO optimisation.

With a broad range of skills and experience, they can help your business achieve specific goals that will ultimately lead to its growth. Additionally, they offer a fresh, outsider perspective, which can be valuable in identifying new opportunities for your business.

Advantages of Hiring Marketing Freelancers

  1. Expertise. Marketing freelancers have a wealth of experience working with different businesses, meaning they have a wealth of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to marketing. They have a mastery of the latest trends, tactics, and strategies in the market, and can apply these to your brand to create a competitive edge that could set you apart.

  2. Cost-effective. Hiring in-house talent can be expensive, especially for a small startup. Marketing freelancers offer a flexible solution that gives you access to highly skilled professionals at a fraction of the cost of hiring someone full-time.

  3. Scalability. When you hire marketing freelancers, you can easily scale up or down your marketing efforts as needed. If you have a specific campaign in mind, you can hire a freelancer for a limited period of time to help you execute it. If you need more long-term support, you can always add more freelancers to your team.

  4. Flexibility. You might have a hunch that certain channels or activities will work for your business and using freelancers will enable you to test out these channels without the committment of hiring in-house or engaging an agency. If results dont come, you can easily stop the activity and cut the freelancer quite quickly.

  5. Transparency. Typically freelancers will charge by the hour or on a day-rate, which also means that they can report on how their time is being spent. This means that you get full visibility on their time and the value that they're bringing to your business.

Disadvantages of Hiring Marketing Freelancers

  1. Communication. Communication can be tricky when you’re working with freelancers. You may have different time zones or schedules, which could lead to missed deadlines or delays. You may also have to contend with language barriers or cultural differences that can affect your ability to collaborate effectively. However, by restricting your recruitment to your own time zone and language it can of course mitigate these issues.

  2. Lack of investment in your business. Unlike your in-house employees, freelancers aren’t invested in your business’s long-term goals. They may not be as dedicated to your brand’s success as your employees are, and may not have the same level of loyalty that comes with being part of your team.

  3. Time-Consuming Recruitment. Hiring freelancers can be a lot of work. While there are a number of platforms now to find freelancers, these can sometimes make things even harder to find the right people. You will be inundated with unvetted, unqualified applications and it can often be just as time consuming as hiring in-house to find a good freelancer. And you might need to find multiple freelancers at the same time. It's exhausting.

Working with a Marketing Freelancer Collective

There is another alternative to all of the above options, which combines the best of all worlds, while eliminating almost all of the downsides - working with a freelance collective like Rise - Growth Marketing Collective.

The advantages of working with a marketing freelance collective

We could just copy & paste the list of advantages of working with marketing freelancers from above, so instead, let's just include the added advantages specific to a freelance collective rather than hiring individual freelancers:

  1. Expertise aligned perfectly with your marketing needs. A freelance marketing collective means you get the talent that you need, when you need it.

  2. Access to pre-vetted freelancers without needing to recruit them. You don't need to use the likes of Upwork or Fiverr as we've done the hard work for you.

  3. Managed by a marketer. Rather than having to manage the process yourself (if hiring freelancers directly), or let it be managed by a non-marketing Account Manager (if working with an agency), your marketing will be managed by a senior marketer with the experience of a CMO or Head of Marketing. They'll be responsible for the marketing strategy and planning as well as being responsible for implementing those plans, whether that will be handled by Rise collective members or others.

  4. Synergy with your team. Just like hiring your own freelancers, collective freelancers fit around your existing personel. If you already have members in-house or existing agencies, you only need collective members to fill the gaps in implementing your plans.

  5. Fast results and learnings. With an agile, flexible team of freelancers working alongside your team, particularly when they're well-versed in lean methodologies, they'll get things live quickly, learning fast, and get you to the next stages of your business growth sooner.

Having worked in marketing for 20+ years (15+ at the time of starting Rise), we had first-hand experience of the disadvantages of all 3 options - hiring in-house, agencies and hiring freelancers directly - for building your marketing function, particularly for early-stage startups.

So, while Rise was started primarily as a vehicle for our founder, Barri Coen, to freelance and contract, it quickly grew to become more of a "collective" of the highly experienced and very trusted freelance channel specialists that he had worked with over the years.

This meant that he could start working with businesses and provide the marketing function that they needed, while not committing the business concerned to onerous processes, unecessary risks and a lack of flexibility by having to hire their own freelancers, work with agencies or hire in-house too soon.

He could provide the extra resources required to deliver on the marketing plans that he devised, without any delays and risks.

That collective has now (as of 2023) grown to over 30 marketing specialists.

A freelance collective such as Rise, gives all the benefits of working with a marketing agency - the depth of experience and economies of scale, but with the flexibility and transparency of working with freelancers.


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