Marketing is key for a start-up. No ifs or buts. Whether you look at it over the top of product design or through its lens, marketing is one of only two directly result-driving activities in any organization not being a first-line cost. Defining your brand to test, campaign and re-evaluate outwards from it will affect your customer base and revenue – unfailingly, one way or another.
Here is the approach I have taken in start-up settings to break the early stage stalemate between limited resource and business idea potential. Partly very different from what is my usual advice in scaling, mid-market or corporate stages, these are my
Basic Startup Marketing Rules:
- Be aware
- Think across
- Listen to the music
- Price down and product up
- Engage, don’t roll over
1. Be aware
Be acutely aware that, other than the innovative edge of your start-up’s product, only marketing through sales will get people to buy, keep buying and promoting what you create with your co-workers. It may often seem that discussions with investors are much more comfortable. Which is natural, given that in doing so you (normally) talk to professionals, who are motivated to understand you.
But in the end, only permanent and unguarded exposure to the market and the seemingly cruel, objective or helpful questions of your customers can safeguard any measure of success. Reach out to them on any channel you possibly can and capture their feedback in a way that makes it sustainably re-usable whenever you dive into work on the product, or with investors, again.
You don’t need fancy tools to do this if making sure that you capture learnings in the way that later reads the least comfortably but the most constructively. This way, you will make sure your marketing stays in reality and doesn’t start re-inventing wheels when there are still way too few co-workers around to help you crafting them.
2. Think across
Think across your entire company’s operations as a marketer, rather than entrenching yourself in subject-matter expertise and reactive internal servicing. While your marketing as such may not, your company’s brand will be defined by things usually outside of your direct responsibility, like finance, service, recruiting or technology.
Speaking up around these topics from a marketing point of view is a no-brainer. Yet, you should also make it a habit to learn about the basics of these roles. To be able to think above and beyond your immediate marketing goals. And, most of all, in view of the entire company P&L.
Zero in on how to calculate, for example, not only a proper Return on Invest (ROI) but also things like average response times or service levels. To stay effective and relevant as a marketer, in a start-up like in any other type of company, understanding its workings overall is a must. And it won’t need to take up all of your time.
3. Listen to the music
Listen to the music the market and your company’s size play. It is important to have a vision for your company and product. It can also be a thrill to execute a well-crafted marketing strategy by the book. But in most cases in early-stage startups, you will find people’s expectations around what they get for their money or how much you can achieve to be very different from the purist entrepreneurial or academic starting point.
This is when, as a marketer, you should not flush your models and assumptions or start buying promising data tools and agency support – even if you can afford them from a nice invest. Instead, rally your co-workers in technology, product or finance. Have a reliable partner and helpful customer call in. And then have the courage to laterally or boldly think around what you thought of as your “baby”.
This is not to say that you should instantly pivot upon the slightest suggestion of a non-fit or can’t-do. Rather, don’t mix up an intact strategy with locking yourself in around how you thought it was most readily executable.
4. Price down and product up
Price simply and product neatly is a motto of mine. This can help you commercially by pushing demand and offering added value that is easily understood. But it is also a helpful marketing instrument to make it as easy as possible for people to come back to you with feedback that captures not only reactions but also ideas regarding your offering.
It is an inextinguishable myth of marketing that intransparent pricing and pouring a bucketful of product information over your prospects will get you even short term success. Most start-ups advocate so but still fall back to this ancient corporate practice for any variety of reasons.
I am not saying that you should simplify your offering at all cost. Just try to accommodate the complexity of what you do “backstage” on product, technology or service to uncover clarity in the way you take it to the people (never “consumers” or “companies”) that you are actually talking to.
5. Engage, don’t roll over
…when you rally support for (in effect: sell and lobby) your marketing’s effectiveness internally. In a start-up, this mostly means with a fast and far forward-thinking CEO and visionary technologist. Both of which are blessings to have in a founder or start-up team, because they allow you to focus the market and business.
A great way to engage, rather than try to instantly “win” them over, is to get attention by disentangling facts, opportunity and proposal: No matter if you fancy a focused brand-explore, want to float a market-driven product expansion idea or fear for branding-integrity, based on someone’s quick take on social: Pass on the plain reaction of others and reasonable points of view taken. Maybe give an idea of how this could affect the mental availability of your brand.
Leaving the proposal regarding how to achieve, facilitate or avoid one or the other purposely open on the bi-weekly’s or daily’s table. No matter how relevant marketing is, the pathfinder and visionary in every CEO and CTO enjoys self-discovery or -transformation over little else. Allow them to follow you, on their own but well-equipped, into a marketing point of view.
If you liked this post and want to support our Mahina Project: Follow us on social media + we have a Paypal account where all proceeds go directly to our founders in the program.
Hanns Schempp is co-founder & COO of Estonian cybersecurity-as-a-service provider Cyttraction plus founder and CEO of German strategic marketing advisory Miota, both servicing clients globally. As an early digital age startup founder and seasoned corporate executive he is today also advisor to leading scalers and company builders, among them cdt.digital group‘s emoticomms and Proof Analytics. He also shares his experience in international events, lectures and trainings on the practice and innovation of digital marketing, business development and communication. Without the least respect for industry myths.