Hum Capital CMO Scott Brown on Why Taking a ‘Slow Is Smooth and Smooth Is Fast’ Approach to Startup Marketing Pays Off

At its core, marketing is a conversation starter rather than a deal-closer, according to longtime marketer Scott Brown. From his time at large enterprises including Cisco, Facebook and Google, plus venture firm Sapphire Ventures, and now in his current position as CMO at fundraising startup Hum Capital, Scott has always approached marketing as a long game.

“If you go in assuming that you can close the deal, that becomes a sales pitch. People's defenses will go up, and they won't listen. So they'll never hear or buy into your narrative on how you’ll change the world,” he says.

This is an important conviction to have in the fast-moving world of startup marketing, especially in emerging sectors undergoing competitive land grabs. A case in point is the alternative financing space, where companies like Hum Capital are drawing in founders and entrepreneurs who are beginning to look beyond venture capital dollars and bank loans to grow their businesses, or could not access those options to begin with. 

Scott likes to describe Hum Capital as “the Kayak.com of fundraising,” a platform that offers founders the ability to see and evaluate their full range of available financing options, empowering them to make the best choice for their circumstances. This leveling of the playing field between investors and founders is at the core of Hum’s own world-changing vision.

We recently spoke with Scott to get his advice for CMOs who are new to startups, tips for building trust in the market and staying the course in fast-paced environments. What follows is an edited version of our discussion:

What advice do you have for first-time startup CMOs?

First and foremost, you have to establish your vision for why the company exists. That’s especially true in the early days when you don't have enough substance for people to get behind you simply based on tangible value. So, you have to set that context. 

As the business gains momentum, you can start building out proof points, and then the marketing becomes more of a traditional demand generation and educational tool. But in the early days, you need to be able to outline a vision for where the company's going and bring your customers and the market on that journey with you.

To do this well, you need to think about the role of company versus executive story-telling in your marketing strategy. Executives can do and say things that the company never can – since company positioning requires substance and is grounded in reality. Companies can still be aspirational, but an executive is the one who can get on stage and say something that may seem outlandish, but paints the picture for where the market is going over the next five to 10 years. The company then serves as a proof point of the vision that the executive has laid out.

<split-lines>"The company serves as a proof point of the vision that the executive has laid out."<split-lines>

How do you adapt your approach to this vision-setting exercise around an executive’s particular strengths or personality? 

To have a compelling vision, executives don’t necessarily need to have a radical, industry redefining insight. They could be passionate about the sector, or customer empathy, or focused on the sheer joy of operationalizing new solutions. One of my favorite economic essays, “Hail the Maintainers,” focuses on the notion that innovators aren't always where the full economic value is created. The full value is realized by a second wave of people who come in to operationalize and maintain things like the U.S. highway system or air travel. It’s not the inventor of the train who drove all the value for society, it was those who came in and made them safer and faster and run on time. So sometimes, translating great ideas into operational reality is the manifestation of true leadership.

How can a startup establish trust in the market and among prospective customers?

My marketing philosophy is around building momentum for a company or a concept just as you would for a political campaign. You're going to have a stump speech. You're going to be on the road for the next two years. And you should be telling the same consistent and compelling story. You're going to be swapping out anecdotes and proof points, and tailoring your speech toward specific audiences, but it's critical to operate within a long-term framework.

One mistake I've seen a lot of companies make is simply chasing the next shiny thing. They’re changing their position or changing their messaging every two months, which erodes the trust they’re trying to build in the market.

Ironically, right around the time you become sick and tired of repeating the same message, you’ll have some customers say, “Wow, I've never heard that before. That's really interesting.” Because they don't live in your world, they are not following every single thing you say, so it takes time for your message to propagate. If you're not consistent in your delivery, you're not giving the market enough time to pick up your message.

Of course, your stump speech and positioning can gradually evolve, but changing it overnight or at the root level can signal that you did not have a firm “reason for being” in the first place. Your North Star and 20-year vision shouldn’t change.

<split-lines>"My marketing philosophy is around building momentum for a company or a concept just as you would for a political campaign."<split-lines>

What are the common challenges you share with other startup marketers?

About two weeks into a new role, every startup marketing leader feels like they’re on an island. But when you talk to other startup CMOs, you discover that we're all effectively wrestling with the same challenge, which is how to build a team and marketing infrastructure that reflects your current size but can also scale as the company grows.

This load balancing of the marketing function is important. You want to make sure you’re not hiring too boldly or too narrowly. Early on, you really need more generalists than specialists.

One area that’s often overlooked, and where I tend to spend a lot of time initially, is marketing operations. You need to ensure that you have measurement systems in place as well as basics such as creative briefs. And you’ll have to decide what KPIs show you’re building momentum and how you’ll merchandise that progress to the rest of the organization. Setting up these fundamentals from the beginning helps eliminate the perception that marketing is simply “spending money.” Instead, it highlights the fact that marketing drives value through new leads and revenue. That can be a stressful challenge and adds pressure on marketing, since we’re at the nexus of product and sales.

<split-lines>"Setting up the fundamentals from the beginning helps eliminate the perception that marketing is simply 'spending money.'"<split-lines>

How can startup CMOs build their teams and execute deliberately in what is typically a frantic, fast-paced environment?

This goes back to one of my favorite phrases: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” It’s this notion of being intentional, taking the time to break down the problem, understanding all the components, and then building the system back up. Amazingly, when you start to operate against this, it looks as though things magically fall into place and work more smoothly.

Firstly, no matter what we’re doing, I always make my team write down a plan – even if it’s just a few bullet points on what they’re doing and the results we expect. This builds accountability and, even if we fail – since we’re starting with small, rational experiments – we can learn. I don’t want to fail and not know it, I want to learn from that experience and use it to form the basis of the next effort.

Another helpful tip is carving out a dedicated time each week to work on the basics. For example, we launched our new website in tandem with our rebrand to Hum Capital. Because we were on a fixed timeline, we accepted that the site would launch with some technical issues but, every Friday, our team set aside 30 minutes to work through them. Six months later, everything was cleaned up and running smoothly.

While the phrase “moving at a glacial pace” has negative connotations, glaciers also grind things down over time and progress. In the startup environment, it’s critical to balance speed with intentionality and grind down the rough edges.

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