Career Stories

How to Break Into Startup Marketing with No Experience: Morgan Von Gunten’s Story

Morgan Von Gunten
November 2019

Several months ago, I got an offer for an entry-level digital marketing position.

A startup was looking for someone to manage communities, run social media, and write blog posts.

I was excited.

I was ready.

Actually, I was terrified.

I had never done digital marketing. I wasn’t a marketing professional. I had no idea how to do the things they wanted me to do effectively.

Before, I’d only worked a few summers at a camp and was a team-member at Chick-fil-A. I’d run a month-long campaign on MailChimp and taught myself how to automate those emails. Made some videos, put them on YouTube. Blogged. Tried to share my writing and work publicly. 

I took the job.

During my first month, I dived into both research and practice. I read about how to tweet, but I also began tweeting for the brand. I wrote a few drafts for blog posts and tried to wrap my brain around SEO. I got to know the team. I asked a lot of questions.

The tasks I did wouldn’t always work. A post on social media would fail. I wouldn’t drive as much traffic to our site as my team asked. I couldn’t get the words on paper. And what were Facebook pixels again?

But then things started to stick.

By the end of my first month, I was handed full control of the startup’s social media. I did more research and watched more videos and followed more brands, and I used new tools. Over the next few months, I experimented, tried ideas, failed, and found avenues that worked.

I broke into marketing with no experience.

I’m not the only one.

I hear often from other young people who land their first professional job in the marketing industry without meeting the requirements of the job posting. I see stories on LinkedIn or blogs about former farmers doing online marketing in Atlanta.

In this post, I’m going to tell you exactly how to break into entry-level marketing.

I don’t know everything. But I’ll show what’s worked for me and others, and I’ll give you some insights, tools, and tips along the way.

But first, I know what you’re thinking…

I don’t have experience.

Entry-level marketing is still too advanced for me.

But my only job was babysitting my friend’s kids.

No company in their right mind would hire me because I don’t match what’s on the job posting.

I tried applying for a marketing job, but I never heard back.

Stay with me. Because I need you to know something: you don’t have to have experience.

No one’s got it when they start. Not even Gary Vee.

You don’t have to have done anything crazy amazing to start down a new career path.

It’s sad to me how many people forget the world we live in is different than the resume-stacking, credential-buying, experience-requiring world of just a few years ago. We can build our own personal brands. There are millions of ways to learn a skill and show you have a skill and show you’re worth hiring for it. 

You can create your own experience. You can win your first job by teaching yourself tools. By writing publicly. By documenting what you’re learning and how you’ve failed and what you’re going to do with what you learned about your failure.

This post isn’t about how to get good at marketing. 

It’s about how to get into marketing. No experience required. 

Let’s go!


“Study what motivates people. Everyone is motivated by the same things. When you start a new campaign, figure out what motivates that person. They’re people, regardless of what their job is. Enjoyment, freedom, comfortable living, social approval. You have to hit one or more things.” 

Dave Gerhardt, VP of Marketing at Drift

This is Marketing

There is a problem.

The problem: Christmas trees have bugs. Kids are upset their parents bring spiders and beetles into the house every year. But parents don’t want to buy fake trees–they like the smell of real trees. Arguments ensue.

Now let’s say you get hired on as a marketer at a brand-new startup that makes fake Christmas trees. Only, these trees smell like real Douglas Firs.

People need to know about these trees. Specific people–the parents of those kids who don’t want the real tree with bugs in their house.

You have a limited budget. You don’t know where your customers hang out. You don’t have a social media following, you don’t have a lot of traffic coming to your website.

You have to:

  • Drive traffic
  • Build the audience
  • Find the customer
  • Show the customer how your solution solves their problem–without shoving it down their throat
  • Get them all the way from never-heard-of-it to happy fake-Christmas-tree-that-smells-like-a-Douglas-Fir owners.

This is what marketers do best. They figure out how to get a product seen by telling the story of how that product creates the end result the customer wants.

The Types of Marketing


“It’s always about them.”

Dave Gerhardt

Marketing can be done through many different avenues. What those avenues are usually depends on the type of business you do marketing for.

Some of the main marketing avenues you should be aware of as you get ready to break into the marketing world are:

  • Email marketing
  • Social media marketing
  • Content marketing
  • Online and offline advertising
  • Search engine marketing (SEM)
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Offline and online events
  • Community building

To make those types of marketing happen, most marketing roles are boiled down to two types of roles: technical or creative.

Technical marketers are often called marketing analysts or marketing associates. Their job is to untangle all the messy variables involved in tracking human behavior on websites, apps, in emails, or on social media.

Broadly, analytics professionals quantify the actual impact of marketing efforts and help everyone working on marketing strategy get a clear picture of what’s working and what needs to be improved.

On the other side, people who work on the creative side of marketing do graphic design, video, audio, social media content, or written content. 

You might imagine an artististic type sitting alone in a dark attic, surrounded by obscure paintings and books, spending hours writing tweets and the next best ad slogan. They go all in and only emerge for tea, mumbling randomly about landing page anatomy and if the word to be used should be “further” or “farther”.

While that may happen, most of a marketer’s work involves talking to other people, truly understanding what they want to accomplish or convey, and translating that into images and text, getting feedback, and making changes. It’s not easy–ideas conflict, there are deadlines, and budgets will constrain what’s possible.

Sometimes it is a complete slog: you try fifty variations of ad copy in a day and none of them stick. Then you try again the next day. And the next. Marketers keep experimenting until they find a solution or system that works.

As an entry-level marketer, you might spend time writing or editing a lot of emails or website copy, making ads on Facebook or Google, creating images and diagrams, or maybe editing videos or podcasts. Your work will most likely be a draft or starting point and could get changed later by those with more experience. You’ve got to be okay with this.

At their core, marketers are the tellers of stories, the finders of why. They locate people, and they try to tell their product’s story in such a way those people see that product as the solution to a problem.

The Soft Skills Digital Marketers are Fluent In


“We don’t want to be marketed to. So make it human.” 

Dave Gerhardt

  • Listening well
  • Learning fast
  • Taking action on ideas
  • Excitement for trying new things
  • Eye for detail
  • Scrappy
  • Can communicate a vision or idea in a way that gets other people excited about it
  • Can set and keep goals
  • Tester
  • Good, fast communicator
  • Can work on your own and with others
  • Independent yet teachable
  • Consistent
  • Adaptable
  • Big- and small-picture thinker
  • Analytical thinker, yet in tune with emotion and the way people feel
  • Can show your work
  • Can receive and give feedback
  • Can take responsibility for your actions, good and bad
  • Can make things
  • Persuasive
  • Problem-solver
  • Researcher
  • Result-driven

You don’t have to have every skill listed. But having a good amount of these will help you as you get ready to become a successful marketer.

Hard Skills for Technical Marketers

  • The technical understanding needed to use web analytics tools that collect data
  • Data analysis skills (a fancy way of saying you can crunch numbers) to learn more about the data

Hard Skills for Creative Marketers

  • Eye for good design–and an ability to design and ship creative collateral
  • Ear for stories
  • Video-editing
  • Storytelling

The Hard Skill for Both Types of Marketers

One of the main things you do as a marketer is write. 

Marketers write:

  • Emails
  • Headlines
  • Ad copy
  • Blog posts
  • Slogans
  • Mission statements
  • Stories
  • Reports
  • Bios
  • White papers
  • Tweets

If you’re not a writer, I encourage you to start writing, even a sentence a day. It’ll be an incredibly useful skill in a marketing career.

Real-World Software Skills

These soft and hard skills can be built by trying out some real-world software skills. 

These tools fall into the categories of:

Keep reading to see a quick breakdown of each!

Analytics

Analytics tools help you visualize and understand data from your customers. They may look complicated, but each are grounded in logic (which is fun for technical types) and are actually quite simple to learn. I recommend checking out Metabase and Google Analytics for starters.

Design

Good design is the skin of good marketing. If you go into creative marketing, you’ll probably be asked to create graphic designs or social media posts or featured images for blog posts. So here are a couple tools you can use to create marketing collateral–they’re easy to learn, and each have tutorials to get you started in understanding design.

I recommend trying out Adobe XD and Photoshop to start.

Email and Outreach

Marketers have to talk to people. How do we do that? Often, it’s through email. We use tools like MailChimp to send messages or call-to-actions to our subscribers, or we use tools like Intercom to track and automate messages to existing users. Take a look at the tools below. Maybe start by creating a free MailChimp account and creating a test campaign.

Automation

In a time-consuming, tech-centered world, marketers need tools that make their workflow faster and more efficient. Tools like Zapier link other tools together (think sending a form result from Typeform to an email marketing tool like MailChimp so you can send a follow-up sequence), which saves you, the marketer, valuable time. While these may look complicated, take one for a spin and see what you can learn. Most have great tutorials I like using.

Ads

You’ll hear about ads a lot when you get your first marketing job. (And your second, and your third.) Ads are how most audiences are found (think finding those parents in my Christmas tree example). Some companies have huge marketing budgets, and some are limited. Knowing the basics of ad platforms will be incredibly valuable to you as you go on the hunt for a marketing job. Try Facebook ads (it’s an incredible ad platform) and see if you can figure out how to get all the way to the confirmation stage. Or spend $5 and try running your own test– it will give you a huge advantage when interviewing because you’ll get to give real evidence of skill.

Websites

The company you get hired at will probably already have a system for their website and web designs. But it’s still good to know how to navigate a CMS (content management system–the back-end place for blog posts, articles, and more) like WordPress or design a landing page in a tool like Webflow. I recommend taking both for a quick spin and seeing what you can create.

Video and Audio

Creative marketers will often be asked to create marketing videos, edit podcasts, add subtitles, or turn a testimonial recording into something the team can publish on YouTube. While there are many easy tools out there for video- and audio-editing, like iMovie, you’ll have an advantage over other candidates if you know how to use Premiere Pro to create a video, Descript to edit a podcast, or After Effects to animate a title. (They look complicated, but they’re incredibly intuitive and simple to learn.)

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets. When I started marketing, I did not like spreadsheets. I thought they were ugly, hard to understand, and boring. But spreadsheets are important and helpful, and a marketer needs spreadsheets under their belt. There are many possibilities with spreadsheets, but knowing how to create a simple formula or layout will be incredibly helpful during your first few days (and months) on the job.

Social Media

If you get hired in a social media marketing role (or become an online marketer at a smaller company), you may become the person who writes and publishes on social media. I highly recommend getting comfortable with the basics of each platform. Try testing different types of content (video, images, text, links) and use each platform’s analytics tools to see what worked better. This will be a great asset to the company you work for. Also, try using a scheduling tool like CoSchedule or Buffer. You’ll want to know how to navigate scheduling platforms so you can write tweets, schedule them, and have more time for other marketing tasks on your plate.

Hint: you can see which scheduling tools companies use by clicking on a tweet, then seeing the details below. 

Writing

I’ve included a few of my favorite writing tools, since, as a marketer, I can guarantee you will be writing. I used Bear to outline this article, then Google Docs to finish the first draft. Notion is handy for public-facing documents, and Google Keep is my favorite tool for random notes and marketing ideas. And always be sure to proofread and check your grammar (if it’s a weak spot, try using Grammarly. It helps).

Communication

If you get a remote job, you’ll need to know how to use communication tools like Slack or Zoom. Even if you get an in-person role, knowing how to communicate effectively online is incredibly important and will build trust with your new team.

Time Management/Task Tracking

Time management sounds pretty boring, but it’s useful. Your employer may want you to track your time, or maybe you need to easily set reminders for tasks on your plate (because it’s hard to keep it all in your brain once you really get started). 

I currently use Trello to plan out my day’s schedule (I call it a Time System), Todoist to remind me of tasks, and Google Calendar for meetings. 

Other Tools

Here are a few tools that don’t fit into the other categories but are really useful as a marketer. These are popular form, presentation, and mind-mapping tools that help you visualize your work and reach more people.

Some Tips on Learning Marketing Tools

Please don’t become overwhelmed and think you have to stop reading this article and all of a sudden become an expert in Facebook ads or Zapier in order to get the job you want. You don’t. I am not an expert in Facebook ads or Zapier. I did not try to become an expert in them to get my job.

Instead, pick one or two tools in each category, and go Google them. Learn them. Download them and build something with each. Test MailChimp campaigns on a few friends. Learn to connect Typeform and Google Sheets in Zapier. Schedule a tweet on Buffer about what you learned while trying Webflow for the first time. 

Small things add up. They give you an ever-growing body of proof to point to in an interview or when applying to that company you want to work for.

Here’s the trick, though: if you can learn fast, you can pick most of these tools up within days. I learned several in a matter of hours. Try to have a base understanding of each category (i.e. social media, ads, automation) as you head onto the job hunt for an entry-level marketing role. Document what you’re learning–even if it’s just a tweet or a folder of screenshots. Then, if someone asks you in an interview, “Have you done [insert marketing thing]?”, you can give them real-world proof of your skill in that tool or area. Most people can’t give proof. You’ll have the advantage.

Most marketing roles, especially entry-level roles at startups, are going to ask for a mixture of both creative and technical marketing. You’ll probably have a strength in one or the other (which is where your team is important). 

But if you have a weakness in one area, strengthen it by teaching yourself a new tool or skill in that area to be better at your weakness. I’m a creative marketer who loves to write and build a brand and tell a story, but I also have learned or taught myself a basic understanding of SQL and analytics and math and Facebook ad test-results. Both sides are important.

Try learning the tools that don’t come naturally to you. You’ll grow. And you’ll be an incredibly-valuable marketer.

Most of the tools I listed above are free to use or free to test. So you’re hereby challenged to go create a Buffer account and schedule out your social media posts. Or to go create a Typeform and get people on a mailing list so you can start sending out a weekly newsletter with your latest writings. 

Go do it. Learn some tools. Research and learn about the ones less interesting to you–they may become your favorite.

Digital marketing is easy to try–so try it!

Jobs are scary. If you get a job in marketing, what happens if you realize you don’t like it? People are counting on me, you realize. I can’t let them down. But what if I really can’t do this?

Actually, marketing is easy to try. Write every day. Run a Facebook ad over the weekend. Blog publicly. Market a blog post for a week to see how much organic (free) traffic you can drive.

Just try it.

How to Get Started

Here’s how you can get started in marketing (no experience required, promise). And I broke it down to six simple steps.

1. Write daily.

Even if it’s just a sentence. Even if it means you have to sacrifice Netflix. Even if it means you do it on a napkin you got in the drive-through. Write. Daily. Don’t stop, even when it gets hard (because it will). 

“Writing is like running. It never gets easier. You just get better at it. So write every day. Publish every week. And learn to love the process.”

– David Perell, writer

2. Start writing publicly.

Maybe this looks like writing a 2,000-word essay and sharing it on a blog. Maybe you need to write an ebook or a short story. Perhaps you make a habit of tweeting what you learn. 

Marketers have to be okay with showing their work.

People who show–publish–their work have a huge chance of getting hired–even if they don’t have work experience. I know it, ‘cause it’s my story.

To give you some ideas on how to publish your writing right now, here are a couple routes you could take to get your writing onto other people’s screens:

  1. Post three times daily on social media. Share valuable content you’ve created, valuable content others have created. Write your thoughts. Talk about what you’re learning and doing. Talk to other people. Write good, quality content. Not only will you sharpen your craft (being able to write a good tweet is a skill in itself), but you’ll gain knowledge of how social media works (valuable as a marketer), and you’ll learn how to build an audience of people who want to hear what you have to say (also valuable). This practice will translate real nicely to a full-time marketing role. You could even set a goal of reaching X amount of followers in X amount of time while you’re at it.
  2. Write a blog post every day for thirty days. Choose what you want to write about, then write about it. Get a friend to keep you accountable. Try to get your best posts published on third party blogs. The only rule: you have to make this blog public. This will build your confidence–continually putting something out into the world other people can read will help you ship and show your work easier when you get hired. WordPress, Medium, and Substack are great platforms you can use to get started blogging. (You’ll also get to really develop your writing skills doing this.)
  3. If you want to get better at writing publicly, do both. In fact, I encourage you to choose this option. Blog for thirty days, then try to drive traffic to your posts by sharing them on social media.

3. Make a list of ten companies you want to work for.

Now’s the time to begin showing your work and skill set to specific companies vs. just anyone on the internet.

  1. Hop on Google and find ten companies you’d be happy to work for. Put them into a spreadsheet (if you haven’t yet used Airtable, this is a great time to learn it).
  2. Rank each company in order of most-excited-about to least-excited-about. Even though they’re all companies you want to work for, you’ll probably have a few favorites. 
  3. Once you have your companies ranked, start at the bottom. Do an hour’s worth of research on that company–check out their website, their social media, what shows up on Google when you search for them. What do they do? Who are their customers? What problem are they solving? Who works for them? Can you tell which tools they have in their tech stack? Do they have any job openings? If they do have an opening, find one you want to apply for. If they don’t have any, it’s okay–you can still move forward on pitching them for an entry-level marketing role.

4. Teach yourself some of the marketing tools I shared above by creating a project for that tenth company on your list.

If you’re going into technical marketing, you could teach yourself Zapier, create some formulas in Excel, run a MailChimp campaign, and document your results (be sure to show your numbers and share what you learned, what you could repeat). 

If you’re going for a creative marketing role, design a landing page or write attention-grabbing email copy or come up with some brand collateral. Teach yourself the tools needed while you do it. Write up a blog post showing what you made and why it’s valuable to that specific company.

What you want to focus on with this project is two things:

  1. Learning the tools valuable to the position
  2. Creating a project valuable to the company

With number one, your research on this company will really come in handy. If you know they use a certain chat tool or website builder or social media scheduling tool, build a project using (i.e. teaching yourself) those tools. This will help you be a great addition to their marketing team from day one.

On number two, your research should show you who the company’s customers are and what problem they’re trying to solve for their customers. When you create a project to show your skills, try to center it on helping them solve the same problem. 

For example, if the company you want to work for sells Christmas trees that smell like real trees to parents, and maybe that company doesn’t have a landing page that shows why their fake Christmas trees are helping families have better relationships with their kids because there’s no more arguing about the bugs on the ceiling, you could create that page to show your design skills and your excitement and understanding of their mission.

5. Create a pitch.

This is how companies see your work and request an interview with you. Simple, yeah?

Actually, it is.

(And if you follow these steps for every company on your ten-company list, I bet you’ll get offers before you reach the top.)

Here’s how to make a tailored pitch:

  1. Put together a pitch using Crash’s pitch creator.
  2. Record a short (ideally under a minute) pitch video that shows your excitement (and your face!).
  3. Email the video to the hiring manager at the company you made it for (here’s how to find the right person).

6. Repeat until hired.

Yep. 😉

Some Final Tips on Breaking Into Marketing

“Our job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of our product into their terms.”

– Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack

Go learn from others.

I don’t know everything. The people I’ve learned from don’t know everything. But that’s the best excuse to go out and learn from those who’ve learned more. 

You don’t have to like everything marketing leaders or books tell you to do, but try to notice patterns. Keep track of what you do like. Then do those things.

Here are some of my favorite marketing books, leaders, doers, and brands.

Don’t just apply.

Everyone else is gonna do that.

But not you.

You don’t have to wait for the company to read your resume and see your accomplishments for them to get so excited about you they have to interview you.

Make the company excited about you by being fast on emails. Don’t wait for them to see if you’re worth hiring–prove it with links to your work and a video of yourself explaining why you’d be a perfect fit.

Show you’ll be a good marketer by marketing yourself.

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