The Full Stack Marketer’s Valley Of Sorrow

I recently read this post entitled The Curse of the Full Stack Marketer. I tweeted a few brief thoughts (a brief rant really) around this post, but now I think it needs a longer treatment. I also realize that there have been a few posts written as follow-ons but I’ve purposefully not read them so as to make this my own thoughts.

I think that there are a few elements at play that make this an interesting and tough topic (especially as someone who feels the tension very personally). Those include:

  1. The rockstar problem
  2. The meritocracy problem
  3. The individual vs manager dilemma
  4. The small vs big company challenges and differences

Let’s unpack each.

The Rockstar Problem

A strong “full stack marketer” is both a blessing and a curse on a team. A young and very good full stack marketer is even more difficult to have, but I would argue even more valuable if you can harness them and their talents for good.

A young and very talented person is often also a very intelligent person. They know what they are worth to your business and know when they are being underpaid. Every time they have to ask for a raise to get what they are worth, they are one step closer to the door and you are one step closer to losing their talents. Part of this is their ego, part of this is companies wanting to hire “rockstars”. I have come to respect companies who do not want “rockstars” or “unicorns” (also known at 10x employees or some other lingo) because they know that usually, unless the person grows with the company, that they will leave in a few years. Sometimes this is expected, but often it ends up hurting the company.

When a full stack marketer is in the marketer trough of sorrow, they often have the skills to execute on very advanced strategies, but they fall down either in managing people or they’ve not had the chance to manage people yet. This is a liability to the marketer who desires to move up yet is still too young to get the gig they want as a Director or higher. Or, they are simply not as good as they think they are.

This also shows a problem with the young and very talented employee – they often have a chip on their shoulder and think that they are more important than they are. If they haven’t had this chip rubbed off yet, promoting them to a leadership position could be a disaster. It’s up to your discretion if they are just young and need a chance or potentially could be a liability.

The Meritocracy Problem

Many businesses work on a hierarchical reward model instead of a meritocracy model. This means that many businesses promote based on how long you have been at the business rather than how well you have performed in your role.

It’s easier to promote based on length of employment or trust built with execs than to set forth how you move to the next level, set goals that people need to hit to get to the next promotion, and then deal with the politics internally when someone who is newer to the company but more effective gets promoted over another longtime employee.

So how do we get around this and start promoting based on value and impact rather than seniority?

First, set forth what it means to get to each level. If a Director at your company needs to be a people manager, set forth what that means in the context of that person’s team and what it might take to get that experience if they don’t have it.

Second, conduct consistent performance reviews. If a person is hitting their numbers consistently and help other teams succeed in the process, you need to recognize this often.
Similarly, if someone is not hitting their numbers and others complain about them, you risk your whole culture of innovation by not addressing that. Of course you must be delicate what you share and don’t about their performance, and you should never engage in the gossip chain, but you should be mindful of what seeming to reward lackluster performance will get you – a lackluster culture full of lackluster people.

Third, only promote someone who they are already performing at the next level. Do not promote based on “potential”, as potential is only as good as itself. Potential turned into actuality is where the magic lies, but most people do not end up reaching their full potential. Keep them in the same role until they have lived up to their potential, yet also tell them what you are doing. Nothing is more frustrating than not getting a promotion that you feel like you deserve, yet not knowing why. People are smart – trust them to be adults.

The Individual Contributor vs Manager Dilemma

Many full stack people got to where they are by being a strong individual contributor. They started at the bottom, were smart enough to get really good at one discipline, then saw an opportunity to take more ownership so they did and learned a new skill because it needed to be done. Now they’ve driven a lot of value but are stretched thin, so the time has come to hire more people onto the team to help out, and who better than to lead them, right?

The problem here is that when someone has been a strong individual contributor, they don’t yet possess the skills needed to be a great manager. And a great manager is what is really needed to take a company’s growth from being a strong one-person show to spanning multiple disciplines (SEO, email, etc) as well as needing consistent planning and support across teams (product and engineering, specifically) as you scale.

Every strong individual contributor eventually needs to ask themselves if they really want to be a manager or not, and then be honest with themselves and their managers. Hopefully the company has already considered this and has a plan in place for people who are seasoned and very good at their job yet do not want to become managers. This is how Moz thinks about it, and you can learn more about it here.


The small vs big company challenges and differences

Generalists are best meant for startups and small companies until they reach high enough of a position that they are able to work across teams and make decisions with the leaders of those other teams. Until then, a generalist is likely to be very frustrated at being pegged as a specialist in their area of core competency when they would like nothing more than to spread their wings. If you see a high performer at your company working on side projects and being more excited about those than their day job, figure out how to set them more free. Otherwise you’ll lose them.

Generalists do well at small companies because everything that a big company does still needs to get done, but you are not at the scale of a large company and thus do not always have someone dedicated. The same is true within small teams – all the things need to get done (in marketing, meaning SEO, content, social, PR, branding, etc) and you don’t have dedicated people.

Generalists do well at small companies because they are willing to learn almost anything. I’ve talked with many marketers who were incredibly valuable to a small company because they could write copy, launch a landing page, drive traffic to it, and prove out a concept that would then scale and drive incremental revenue. When they do this again and again, they become indispensable.

But then the company grows and bureaucracy comes into place. Where they used to be able to launch a landing page themselves to prove out a concept, now they need to pitch to other teams to get buy-in to get the page built, if they can show that it could take priority over other initiatives. Then they have to get an engineering team to work on it, get it into a release schedule, you see where this is going.

Large companies have some great advantages. You have reach, you have monetary resources, you have security, and often you have a larger base salary than a startup. The downsides are more bureaucracy, often slower innovation, and not the huge potential upside of a startup (though, as we all know, this is the exception not the rule).

Dealing With The Valley Of Sorrow

Being in the valley between being a strong individual contributor and being senior and seasoned enough to be trusted to run a team is a hard place to be. I’ve been there myself for the last while, so let me give a few words of advice.

First, play the long game. If you’re anything like me, nothing ever moves fast enough. If you want to work in a large company, things take time. First you need to decide that you are willing to work within the (unfortunately necessary) bureaucracy of a large company. Second, trust that good things come to people who work hard and do well with what they are given. If you’re given one task, do it to the best of your ability and ask for more.

Second, have a side hustle. Some of the best skills I’ve learned have been because of side projects of mine, like HireGun, where I’ve had to do everything. Or, just start a blog. That’s why this blog initially started, as both a creative outlet and to learn how to launch a website, build an audience, and learn how to do things like email marketing.

Finally, advocate for what you need.

Ask keep your teams small. Amazon has a two-pizza rule (if you’re feeding a bunch of engineers, this might need to be 3 pizzas to feed 8 people) for meetings, and you could expand that to teams as well. If you can’t feed the whole team with two pizzas, your team is too big.

Ask for dedicated resources as needed. If you want to innovate, twice-annual weeks of allowing people to work on whatever they want to work on won’t cut it. Some teams need to keep to a roadmap and schedule. Others, like growth and marketing, need to be able to experiment quickly and launch projects to find what will work. Let them do this, and challenge them to learn as they go. If they are as good as you need them to be, they’ll tackle the problems happily.

The Valley of Sorrow is, I am coming to realize, just a phase, just like any other phase. It feels like forever when you’re in it, but in a few years when you look back you’ll laugh because of all the important lessons you learned.

Good luck.

4 thoughts on “The Full Stack Marketer’s Valley Of Sorrow

  1. Great read John – the section on contribution versus manager was eye-opening for me. It’s seriously tough to wrangle those two things effectively, and I’ve noticed over the past year that the best setup for me is to edge towards contributing at the highest level I can. Of course, manger style tasks always pop up, but I’m more effective in working with that now (after some serious growing pains).

    Thanks for writing this – it’s hard to really connect with peers on this topic.

  2. Hello John,
    This is really an interesting read and I agree with all your points.

    Playing the long game is the best way to go because there’s no short cut, things are going to take some time before you start seeing any attachment and just as you mentioned, good things always come to hard workers.

    A very lovely post John, thanks for sharing

  3. The valley is the period when you don t have one, single skill you ve been training to be full stack after all but you also don t have enough history to be hired as a VP of Marketing. Do you know who hires full stack marketers?

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