I have spent 30 years marketing for startups in industries ranging from B2B tech and early desktop publishing to all range of consumer goods. My core focus is sorting out strategy and making sure it’s executed. But I have been involved with all range of product choices, financial analysis, forecasting, general business, retail sell-in, pricing, sales, PR and advertising. I even directed a few highly successful national TV commercials along the way
The key thing I’ve learned is this:
Startups struggle more with marketing than any other area.
Let’s look further. And let me apologize in advance because the following is long. It’s long because this is a complex topic. One liners, short, snappy blog posts, and numbered lists cannot substitute for understanding this topic. To promise otherwise is misleading.
Good Marketing Makes Startup Founders Uncomfortable
If marketing makes a founder comfortable, they’re not doing it right. Yet given all the other risks founders are taking, founders seem to run for comfort when the topic shifts to marketing.
But marketing shouldn’t be a comfortable area. Even experienced marketers founding a startup must explore outside their market comfort zones. And my many marketing friends who have started successful companies all tell stories of fundamental discomfort sorting out their own marketing.
Many startup founders minimize marketing in their search to find comfort by deciding it is only about “communication”. The result is they never confront difficult questions about how their product, service, company, and business plan fit with the market — questions critical to success.
Marketing Errors Cause Failure More Often than Reported
In my experience, more than half of startups suffer severe marketing problems — and my conclusion is that well over half of outright failures are due to marketing. Sadly, the errors are usually the same ones:
- Customers don’t know the product exists or why they should care.
- Customers don’t agree with the company — that the product gives them important value.
- When customers DO find value, the product is often missing important things.
- Customers don’t see value to justify the cost or hassle or conversion.
- All of these combined.
If anyone is surprised that these issues are all about the customer, remember that’s what marketing is all about.
My guess is that analysts would categorize many of these as “product failures” or “product/market match failures”. That’s exactly what a major portion of marketing work is all about: sorting out how to ensure the product being created will be embraced by the market.
Most Product Failures are Marketing Failures
Many of the issues I note above might be attributed by observers to “product mistakes”. But dig deeper and I find the errors in the product are those caused by weak, or non-existent, marketing. Product oriented founders too often wall themselves away from marketing — resisting changes to their baby that would make it better received by the market.
Once when I was a VP of Marketing at a software company, I was accosted by the founder/engineer who, hoping to keep me from discussing product/market needs, claimed:
I don’t understand going to the market before deciding what product changes should be. That’s crazy. I only build what I want to build and tough shit if the market doesn’t like it.
I soon left the company and watched them spend 5 years completing a short list of simple changes which I had spec’d before leaving. It was quite sad. And the company faded into the dust.
It’s not just engineers who struggle, though. Many marketing oriented founders believe that they can market “any product”. Unfortunately, by “market” they either mean “pitch” or “engineer”. Mostly these are just salesmen who rely on hype and hubris to their detriment. In these startups serious marketing never happens.
Marketing is NOT something that happens “later”. It is key from the very beginning.
Product IS part of marketing (and also part of engineering, design, and manufacturing). This means:
- Marketing needs to be involved when determining product features.
- Marketing needs to be involved trading off features.
- Marketing needs to be involved in any research conducted by engineering/design.
- Other team members need to be involved in marketing’s research (and there should be marketing specific research).
- Marketing needs to figure out WHO might buy before any market size estimating.
- Considerable thought needs to be put into a go-to-market strategy which then evolves as the company matures.
If a startup team doesn’t respect marketers enough, the company might need a new team or new marketers. Most likely, though, the founders haven’t modeled the respect for marketing which is critical to success. Teams follow the executive lead.
That said, don’t demand peace among teams. There are tough choices involved — choices which demand that the entire team care deeply about making them well. That always results in some tension.
Raising Money, Making a Product & Setting up a Company Are NOT Success — Only Important Steps Along the Way
Many startups come to me well after they’re started. Despite having closed investment and mostly built a product, I find it unclear why anyone would want their product.
Challenged about this, the startup founders usually just give me their “elevator pitch”. (I have come to hate elevator pitches. You might want to read what Bruce McTague says in his post titled “brevity, powerpoint, and making no points”.)
This pitch usually includes hip, fashionable, and over-hyped words. Or it’s a complicated string of big words that deliver no meaning. Listened to through my 30 years of startup experience, what I don’t find is anything important to customers.
Having told this to the founder, their response is usually “I know the pitch sells — the investors bought it!”
Huh. Raising money, creating a product, building a team are all tremendously important activities. Yet succeeding at those efforts is not sufficient to create company success — in fact they’re misleading. None are as complex, tricky, or exploratory as marketing for a startup. And they can all succeed without ever setting foot in the market.
The only determiner of success comes when customers part with (enough of) their hard earned cash to buy what the startup is selling. Customers don’t buy an investor pitch.
Startups Underestimate How Hard it is to Get People to Buy
Many startups believe that driving sales will be easy.
- “I’ll just get it on store shelves and it’ll fly out!”
- “We’ve made a product we love! We know it’ll sell.”
- “All my friends tell me it’s a great product… they’d buy it!”
- “We are disrupting an old market. That means we’ll have huge success!”
- “I succeeded once before. Can’t fail second time!”
Look. One company in 10,000 companies will have that magic product that takes them to the moon immediately — “virally” we’d say these days. The other 9,999 don’t. It’s unlikely any given startup is the one in 10,000. And all that means is startups need to double down on the challenge of finding marketing success.
Marketing for a Startup Isn’t Like Any Other Marketing Challenge
There are millions of marketing books. There are none I’ve found that help with the complexity and vagueness of marketing challenges for a startup. None respect the caution needed before making irreversible decisions — nor the quick, direct, firm action needed once choices are clear.
Here are a few keys to marketing for a startup:
- It’s exploratory. Much startup work is fairly clear and direct. Marketing isn’t — it’s exploratory. And that’s different from other marketing work where we already know a tremendous amount about what works in the market. In a startup we have to create a product that rocks the market, then distribute that product and communicate about it so that enough people will spend hard earned money with an upstart company. There are no formulas for this.
- It requires tremendous sensitivity to people. A marketer working with a startup must be very in touch with their own instincts — and sensitive to sort out unspoken messages from potential customers. We need to learn which things will pay off (deliver real value to customers). A great many marketers I’ve worked with don’t have that sensitivity.
- Neither founders nor marketers can afford a “master of the universe” complex. This complex curses companies everywhere — and it closes down the inherent curiosity needed to succeed with complex problems. Yet too often startups believe they’ll succeed “because we want to and we are masters!” That’s silly, of course. But it’s incredible how often this is underlies poor startup choices.
- It requires understanding that marketing is complex — not complicated. My friend Rick Nason wrote a book titled “It’s Not Complicated! It’s Complex”. His distinction is that we are often heavily focused on complicated things — things which are linear in nature and can be conquered with lists. Business school teaches every discipline as it if is complicated. His observations are even more critical in marketing. Some marketing actions are complicated but the most important ones aren’t. Unfortunately, the tendency among startup founders is to assume marketing issues can be taken apart and solved with lists — with “reductionist” approaches. They can’t. Even worse, doing that is the fastest way to fail.
Empathy is Needed for Startups as They Sort Out Their Marketing
Founding a startup and guiding it to success is, perhaps, the single most challenging project anyone in business can take on.
In fact, my vet practice owning sister-in-law suggests that “There are two things we wouldn’t do in life if we knew what we were getting into — starting a family and starting a business”. (Um… Have to admit that I did both at the same time. Sigh.)
Katelyn Bourgoin recently suggested we need more empathy for founders.
Telling founders simply to “build something people want” is at best unhelpful… and at worst condescending.
Founders are trying. Hard.
Of course they WANT to build great products.
Let’s stop spouting platitudes and start giving more actionable guidance, please.
— Katelyn Bourgoin 👓 (@KateBour) April 30, 2019
She is entirely correct.
And through my decades of working with startups I’ve become even more sympathetic to these challenges. Nothing pains me more than to like a founder and believe in their goals only to see marketing choices kill success.
Sometimes uncomfortable straight talk is the only way to help.
Get the Marketing You Need — Not the Marketing People You Can Afford
Marketing success certainly starts with people. So startups must make better personnel choices. But while years ago I might have talked about “hiring” I don’t any more.
- An affordable hire for an early startup is too young and green to anticipate the impact of decisions made today on business 2 to 5 years downstream. They also only know one or two ways to communicate (at best). And few have the savvy for the hard product choices. Decisions made today must be the right ones to have made 5 years from now.
- Hiring an experienced senior marketer in early stages, though, is too expensive. And even if hired, the startup wouldn’t have enough work to keep them busy.
- Think of it this way (based on an idea Bruce McTague suggested after I first published this post). In the earlier phases of a startup, marketing needs to influence almost everything you do, but marketing shouldn’t be in the lead on those things. And that’s tricky. Because if you hire a “marketing guy”, they’ll want to be in charge of something.
- My recommendation is that startups find marketing advisers (more on “who” below) who have been through a lot of BOTH success and failure. Remember that an adviser who hasn’t failed won’t be worth the money.
- Start working with the marketing adviser BEFORE founding the company — perhaps spending only 2-5 hours a month with them in the beginning. Those will be very productive hours.
- Put off hiring ANYONE with a marketing title until what your need are clear. Startups tend to dash off to hire a “social media manager”. It’s a big, but common, mistake. First, it commits them to social media no matter what they learn later. Second, social media focused folks don’t bring a broad understanding of opportunities outside social. Third, they aren’t going to help you do the whole of marketing — only communication. Finally, if the company needs to go somewhere other than social, they can’t because they only have social media staff. So… Don’t. Do. That.
I’ll write more in a future post about the modern caricatures of marketing folks. It’s a serious problem that founders think of marketing people in caricatures — caricatures they’ve seen at conferences, on airplanes, among fancy consultants, or in movies/TV shows. (Sadly, some marketing experienced founders even model their own dress and actions on these caricatures.)
What startups need are marketing and sales geeks. These people have dedicated their careers to all range of marketing. They tend to be fascinated by what it takes to build success and they brings a vast range of experience and capability — not just simple (silly) ideas like the Silicon Valley’s “Conjoined Triangles of Success”. They also love the excitement of exploring new things. And they understand that each and every situation is different. (There are no formulas.)
Critically, they need to have a lot of experience outside the industry. Marketers within an industry make a priori assumptions about “what works”. That means they really only know “what worked before” not what might be best NOW. Remember — expect to be a bit uncomfortable.
That said, marketing geeks will probably also confuse others in the startup — partly because they aren’t one-dimensional hero-performers. Some might even be flat-out unusual at times. And that may be a good thing.
Startup Marketers Need to Bring a Wide Range of Knowledge and Skills
Here are specific skills I’d look for:
- Research: Great sense of executing qualitative, exploratory research at an advanced level. Excellent knowledge of quantitative research as well as skepticism about it. The key is to gather what’s needed but not waste money on impotent surveys.
- Product Marketing: Ability to geek out for hours with engineering or design while arguing effectively for what the customer needs (yes, argue).
- Analysis: The quantitative savvy to evaluate (or create) market size estimates and forecasts.
- Communication: Thorough understanding of communication. Product choices need to be seen for their impact on communication. Research needs to be heard with thought for communication.
- Market Strategy: Excellent skills sorting out the complexities of potential targets, potential messages, potential product features, and potential market positions to take.
And Now the Fun
Startups embracing marketing’s complexity will discover exciting new territory for success. By embracing that discomfort, they lead their industry to incredible places and succeed because others don’t see what they see.
Remember. The competition will keep going to the same dull places because they think marketing is a caricature of a discipline.
While competitors do the marketing ordinary, successful startup marketing must be extraordinary.
©2019 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved
Through my company Protonik, LLC based in Portland Oregon, I advise a select group of clients to drive success with better marketing of new and innovative products. I also work with clients attempting to bring new life to Shelf Potatoes or take their existing products to new markets. You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at www.Protonik.net.