Marketing expert Marelle Ellen on becoming good at marketing, grit and what we can all learn from startups

Marelle Ellen is the CMO of the influencer marketing tool Promoty, marketing mentor, and Co-host of grit. marketing podcast. Over the last few years, she has interviewed over 30 Estonian startups, aiming to understand how successful startups do their marketing. Now, she has created an online course that helps marketers and founders apply the same principles in their companies. We asked Marelle about the story of grit., what it takes to build a strong brand, and how to become good in marketing.

In the marketing community, grit. is a name that does not need an introduction. However, could you share with us the backstory of grit.?

When I graduated from university in 2016, I wrote my Bachelor's thesis on how successful Estonian startups do their marketing. Looking back, it was quite similar to what I'm doing now in my podcast (just with rookie-level questions).

However, I feel that I learned more about marketing while writing my thesis than I did during my three years in university. Over the following years, I was constantly debating in my head if I should start a marketing blog. The only thing holding me back was the required time investment: I was never sure if writing would be worth the time it demands.

In the summer of 2020, I met someone who was running a successful podcast – and it immediately clicked that grit. should be a marketing podcast. We launched it in October 2020, and it took off immediately.

In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't start earlier. As me and my Co-host Andreas Unt are both (former) startup CMOs, we know exactly what our listeners want to know. So we can cut the introduction and dive straight into the details.

By now, we've done 30 episodes with companies such as Bolt, Veriff, MindValley, and Ready Player Me – and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Where does the name come from?

According to the dictionary, grit means "courage and resolve; strength of character". And this is something that I believe in, both in life and in business.

In marketing, you can find occasional silver bullets – but you can't build your marketing strategy on that. Instead, you need to build your way, one little stone at a time. Even if you can't see the results right away. Even if you run out of runway. Keep going.

Building a startup has taught me consistency and resilience. It's a lot of testing, failed tests, pivots, and lessons learned – but this is how you learn and grow.

Being 1% better every day means being 3800% better every year.

sTARTUp Day is a good example of it. When we started in 2016 – and I was part of the team –, it wasn't a well-known brand like it is today. We had to build everything from scratch, prove ourselves with every event, negotiate every partnership, and step-by-step build our way into people's hearts, despite all odds. Pure grit.

So now you've put together a course on cost-effective marketing. What is it about?

Indeed. Together with our most-listened-to podcast guests, we created a practical marketing course – and as far as I know, the course is one of a kind.

The course is structured in an audit format. In the first week, participants will assess their marketing as a whole: goals, priorities, and channels. After that, they will delve deeply into details: branding, messaging, social media, digital ads, and SEO.

It's short, efficient, and practical. No fluff, as we say.

Besides me, there are Karola Karlson, Marek Unt, Liisa Ennuste, Marleen Kubits, and Marten Saar as lecturers – the absolute best of the Estonian startup scene. Truly world-class marketers with backgrounds from Bolt, Wise, and Nike.

As a participant, you will get a clear overview of the current marketing situation, opportunities, and areas for improvement; clear objectives, priorities, and next steps outlined for each marketing channel.
So not only will your marketing budget be invested more effectively but you'll also learn to set priorities and, as a result, work more efficiently.

Why do you believe that there is so much to learn from startups?

The main marketing challenge for startups is achieving rapid growth with limited resources. This means that all marketing efforts need to be well-measured, analytical, and cost-effective – while also requiring a healthy dose of creativity.

In the Spring class, we had nearly 50 participants from startups, corporates, small businesses, and even from the public sector, and the feedback was crushing. People said that they've never had such a clear understanding of their marketing before.

I truly believe that there is so much to learn from startups, and there is a significant economic impact in what I do.

The common perception is that Estonians are skilled at creating excellent products but struggle with selling them. Therefore, increasing marketing knowledge is important for accelerating (or should I say, restoring) economic growth. It makes sense to learn it from startups that represent one of the fastest-growing economic sectors.

In the current economic climate, many startups are forced to reduce their cost base and it seems that often the marketing and communications budget are among the first to take the blow. Do you have any advice for companies in this situation?

Unsurprising answer: focus on the most cost-effective channels.

Invest in the channels that have proved to have a positive ROI – and reduce the budget in those that have not. Of course, you have to have proper measurement mechanisms in place to know that.

Once the cuts are done, you can focus on the channels that don't require significant financial investment: email marketing, SEO, partnerships, content creation, leveraging your personal brand, and encouraging your team and customers to spread the word.

However, I wouldn't fully cut out branding activities. All the latest grit. podcast guests have emphasized the significance of a strong brand – in the long-term perspective, it surely has a substantial impact on sales.

Not to mention that choosing to invest in marketing when others refrain could be a smart move to grow your market share.

How does one become good in marketing?

Looking at my own professional development, there are three things that have helped me to grow the most:

1. Better prioritization:

Understanding which tasks and activities truly bring results and executing them exceptionally well.
Instead of attempting to do 100% of everything, I now focus on the 20% that brings 80% of the results. Letting go of the rest has been the most significant aspect of my development as a marketer.

2. Learning from practitioners:

I've unquestionably learned the most from other people – whether they are more experienced colleagues or conversations with podcast guests.

3. Community of marketing professionals:

Engaging in conversations with other marketing professionals to bounce ideas off of and further develop them. This is particularly essential when you're the only marketing person on your team!

And, of course, continuous learning, practicing, running experiments, measuring, and analyzing the results – these are the fundamentals of professional development.

These are also the reasons why I created grit.: the marketing course helps you set priorities, the podcast disseminates the knowledge of Estonia's top marketers, and the community provides an opportunity for feedback and brainstorming ideas.

What is one thing that you are currently learning or practicing yourself?

I recently started working with a business coach – and this is something that has brought a lot of clarity into my life.

There is so much value in taking time to think. Making sure that I'm filling my calendar with tasks that have the most impact. Setting ambitious goals, and actually getting them done. Saying no. Not letting my fears hold me back.

This is something that is slowly sinking in: instead of struggling on my own, I'm learning and achieving better results faster through the guidance of a coach or mentor.

⚡️ ⚡️ ⚡️

Learn more about grit.:

PS. sTARTUp Day 2024 program will feature a marketing and branding track, including a grit. seminar. Sign up to our newsletter  and be the first to receive news and offers.

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