9 Successful Marketers Answer 1 Simple Question: How'd You Get Started?

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Lindsay Kolowich Cox
Lindsay Kolowich Cox



Not everyone who works in marketing imagined they'd end up here. Sure, some of us started as marketing majors in college, but many marketers have taken really different and interesting career paths to end up in our profession.

Recently, there was a discussion on inbound.org about those interesting, winding career paths. Below are some of our favorite stories. Keep on reading to hear how an investment banker, a middle school teacher, a college dropout, and a computer repair aficionado all got into marketing.

(And hey, if you get inspired by the following stories and want to make the jump into marketing yourself, check out the inbound.org job board.)

Rand Fishkin

Founder, Moz

I was sort of always in marketing. My Mom (Gillian) opened a marketing consultancy in 1980, helping small, local businesses in the Seattle area with things like business cards, logos, letterheads, yellow pages ads, and the like. I spent a lot of days after school in her offices. In high school, I started building websites for fun, then for her clients -- and that continued into college.

When I dropped out of the University of Washington in 2001, I went to work full time with my Mom, who became my cofounder for SEOmoz, now Moz. Moz actually is a direct extension of the company first started by Gillian.

Alec Biedrzycki 

Channel Marketing Associate, HubSpot

I majored in Marketing at Bentley University, but was jobless and discouraged post-graduation due to the 2008 market crash. My career didn't really start until I launched this in 2009:


Connections were made, interviews were set up and I eventually landed a job at an agency later that year. Launching this made me feel like I could pursue a career in marketing, even if the odds were against me.

Mike Volpe

Chief Marketing Officer, HubSpot

I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree (economics and political science), so I wanted a job that would give me a lot of exposure to business in general. I focused on getting a job in either management consulting or investment banking. I thought investment banking would be harder and I had been fascinated with Wall Street (I started an IRA when I turned 18 and traded stocks in college), so I took a job in the San Francisco office doing investment banking, focused on the technology industry.

After two years of investment banking, I didn't feel like I was learning a lot and I did not look up to the senior folks in the department -- I didn't want to grow up to be like them. So I figured I should try something new. I started networking and had lunch with a woman whom I had worked with on a deal and had recently left her job to join a startup.

Through my conversation with her, I realized the part of my job I loved was how to talk about the companies to sell their stock -- thinking about their story, writing their IPO prospectus and positioning the company in the most appealing way to investors, as well as the quantitative part of the job (I found using Excel gratifying and soothing ... weird, I know).

Anyway, she had liked working with me, so I had a job offer by the end of lunch. I joined a 10-person dot-com startup in 1999 as their second marketing person, after the CMO. My first project was building their financial model, but right after that I dove into marketing and built their customer acquisition and lead gen program, started to grow sales, and lower their customer acquisition cost. Because it was the crazy dot-com boom, as a 23-year-old, I got to spend millions (literally) on advertising with companies like AOL and Excite (remember them?). Like a lot of companies back then, we spent tons of money ($26m) in 18 months and were out of business as fast as we got started. I learned a LOT from that experience.

I think some of the lessons in here are: 

  1. Every job has something good about it -- think about what that is and find ways to do more of it.
  2. Your first job is probably not going to be your career. But dive into it and give it a solid two years to learn everything you can. 15+ years later, I still use things I learned in my investment banking job and am glad I did not bail on that job sooner.
  3. Find jobs where you have great people to learn from. Without some good mentors and leaders around me, I would not have learned much in my first couple jobs.

Hiten Shah

Founder at KISSmetrics & Startup Advisor

Prior to 2003, I only knew how to use Kazaa, Napster, and the like but had a computer since I was eight years old. I used to build, break and repair my own computers since 8086's were the hot thing. I first started in marketing when @neilpatel and I founded our consulting company, ACS, in 2003.

The company started because Neil had one customer paying him $3,500 a month for SEO services. He had started doing SEO and got into marketing for his own project, AdviceMonkey.com, a Monster.com competitor. At that point in 2003, I was just out of college and didn't have any specific career path and had been entrepreneurial throughout college.

ACS was a consulting company and we started out doing SEO for dozens of company and then eventually got into other areas such as social media, web design, and more. We really enjoyed working with other marketers while helping them grow their customer bases. We always wanted to build software so we transitioned over to creating software for marketers. Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics were born out of the needs we saw working with marketers at ACS.

At this point, I love the endless learning potential of marketing in today's world.

Sam Mallikarjunan 

Head of Marketing for HubSpot Labs, HubSpot

In 2008, I was hosting a talk radio show about cigars and scotch, and the cigar industry is, obviously, really slow and old school at adopting new technology. I became the de facto "internet guy" for a lot of the cigar industry folks quite simply because I'm a digital native who was raised with tech and I could do a Google search or send a Tweet and understand how websites worked.

I was absurdly under qualified to work at HubSpot. I had no college degree or academic credentials (still don't), and only minimal experience in marketing (in the cigar industry). So I knew that if I just sent in a resume that my application would probably get passed over pretty quickly.

But I had consumed every piece of content HubSpot put out. Read every blog article, watched every webinar. I took the inaugural class of Inbound Marketing University. (That's actually the closest thing I have to an academic credential!) So I knew the basics of lead generation, and I built a landing page at HireMeHubspot.com that told people to "Sign up for the free webinar on why you should hire me". I also put a series of videos on the landing page that I shot with my cell phone and edited with the free Windows Movie Maker.

I then got the free PPC credits you get when you sign up for Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn ads and targeted all employees working at HubSpot. Three hours and 26 minutes later, I got a phone call from HubSpot's recruiter! Over a week or so, I also captured leads for almost a third of the company at the time, including CEO Brian Halligan. I'm really glad that I never had to actually do the webinar, because no one had ever taught me how to use things like GoToWebinar and such -- just how to create landing pages that generate leads -- so, had the campaign not worked so well so fast, things would have gotten interesting.

Three weeks later, I moved to Boston -- where my real learning began. Although I may have "started" in marketing in the cigar industry, when I came to HubSpot I was shocked and terrified at how much everyone here was better than me at things I didn't even know I was supposed to be good at. Marketing contributes to unit economics? Unit economics are a thing? I should calculate the value of a lead and work my promotional efforts back from that? I can create waterfall graphs that track all this on a daily basis?

I wanted a job on the marketing team but the only openings were as Inbound Marketing Consultants, and I'm really glad that I had that opportunity. I got to work on the marketing campaigns of hundreds of companies and learn from countless awesome marketing professionals and constantly test and push limits with marketing campaigns spanning multiple, very different industries.

And that's how a with no marketing education or experience ended up at HubSpot :) and every day I'm learning more!

Nicole Kohler

Web Content Strategist, WebpageFX

Most people don't know this, but I love foreign music, specifically Japanese pop/rock. When I was a teenager, I started a blog about it, and for a solid two years I ranked #1 for "jpop blog" and a handful of other phrases. I had NO clue why -- but I loved it!

A couple years later, I got bumped up from a customer service spot to a social media coordinator position. The COO found out I could write and slowly had me take on copywriting, then blogging, then learning our CMS, and so on. After four years, I was the marketing manager.

I'll never forget that "light bulb moment" when I was reading about SEO for the first time and realized why my blog had been doing so well! (I was an expert link builder at 19 ... who would have thought? Of course the system was easier back then, but I digress.)

Anyway, after four years as a marketing manager I realized my true love was content, and so now here I am. I still take on a healthy dose of SEO and strategy in a strategist role, but ~65% of what I do is write, so I'm on cloud nine over here!

Mark Traphagen

Senior Director of Online Marketing, Stone Temple Consulting

I never had any intention of being a marketer. It sort of happened to me. For many years I was a middle school teacher (better prep for a career in SEO and marketing than I could have known!). Around age 50 I had my midlife crisis. So I went to seminary (a whole other story from a whole other life).

My second year at the seminary. I needed to get a job. I was hired by the school's bookstore. My second day on the job, the manager confided in me that the seminary was thinking about closing the store. Students were buying their books on Amazon and we couldn't compete. The store was losing money faster than the lowest person in a multilevel marketing pyramid. 

My boss tasked me with a Hail Mary: take the store online and see if we could get enough business there to survive. My premiere qualifications for that task were that I a) knew how to get on the Internet and b) had a mildly popular blog.

I was thrown in the deep end of the pool, but long story short, I learned to swim. After setting up our ecommerce site (what a nightmare!), I got the idea of reaching out to popular bloggers who were already writing about books we carried and enticing them to be affiliates, even though at the time I had no idea either "outreach" or "affiliate marketing" were "things" that other people did.

Our Blog Partners program took off and was a wild success. In two years the store broke even, and after that, started returning a growing profit to the school. More importantly for me personally, I found I was bitten by the online marketing bug.

In addition to the blogger outreach and affiliate program, we also did a lot of things to make our site a community, a place where our customers and prospects would actually want to "hang out." 

One of our more successful ideas was to "hire" celebrity reviewers. These were pastors or theologians well known to our readers. We paid them with store credits to write detailed reviews posted on the sales page of each book they reviewed. We also created featured content with them, such as "Rev. So-and-so's Top Ten Reads of 2008." Visitors were allowed to comment on the reviews and content, and as the social media age emerged, we added social share buttons. The reviews became tremendous link bait for our site, and for an increasing number of books, we began to outrank Amazon for a title search!

In the end, we proved that people will overlook price and buy from you if you become a trusted source, provide them with useful information and great customer service, and make them feel part of your community.

And that is how three years later I found myself with a Master of Arts in Religion (Biblical Studies) and working for an agency in the Triangle of North Carolina.

Dharmesh Shah 

Co-founder, HubSpot

I first started "doing" marketing when I founded my first company (Pyramid Digital Solutions). I was 24 at the time.

Back then, my "marketing" was basically picking out the logo, a company name, writing copy for the company and product brochures (yes, we actually had those back then) and preparing for events -- we had a big annual event that we went to every year where we'd do a lot of our deals).

I had no idea at the time that I'd start a marketing software company some day, write a book on inbound marketing, and generally spend more time thinking about marketing than anything else.

It's been a good run. I love the marketing industry. (Though we do have some work to do.)

Josh Gunn

Head of Digital Communications, Statesman Travel Group

I was working in sales but always took an interest in the web, advertising, and marketing. I've been "creative" by most people's standards from a fairly early age and have an educational background in psychology, art, and design -- topics I thought I'd (sadly) left behind in pursuit of a solid job in sales at a growing and successful company.

One day it cropped up that we were getting our company website redesigned and there were a few companies vying for the contract. Anyway, one was appointed and various meetings ensued between the agency and our senior management. The problem was that none of them had a great deal of knowledge when it came to modern web design trends, digital marketing, or social media. Eventually after hassling a few of our directors with suggestions and questions about the website they decided it would be best if I took the lead on the project and would then move from sales to new role heading up our marketing, most of which was web related.

Nine months later and I've learned more than I could ever imagine on all things digital from the likes of HubSpot, Unbounce, KISSmetrics, Moz, and tons of other blogs, tech sites, mentors and events. The crazy thing is that as much as I can explain what I do to non-marketing quite well and sound fairly informed, I still feel like a newb as the whole marketing spectrum is so vast today (and growing!).

That said, I'm absolutely loving it. Pretty certain that I've found my career for life -- lets hope it's a successful one!

Now it's your turn. How did YOU get started in marketing? Tell your story in the comments below!

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