We offer 360 degrees global startup marketing services, from strategy to implementation, tailored to startups in 'post-seed to round-B stage' with none to small internal marketing teams. Our services include CMO services, PR, content marketing, social, lead-gen, ABM, paid media, marcom and a lot more. Learn more
If you come here often, you know that I’ve worked as a startup marketer for the past nine years and that I’ve been lucky enough to support over 100 startups during this time. There have been successes, and also some failures, during this time ﹘ all of which I now count as important lessons learned.
Since our founding, we have focused on young startups in the post-seed or round-A stage. But, from time to time, more mature startups or tech companies snuck in. That helped us gain perspective on the (huge) differences between the early and more mature stages.
‘Our startups’ verticals were (and still are) quite diverse. When we first started, mobile was getting all the hype. Then AI joined the game, and cybersecurity also quickly became popular. After that, it was the cloud, and recently, it’s a lot about DevOps. We also had our share of FinTech, ConstructionTech, MarTech, AgTech, and Industry 4.0, and delved into different business models from enterprise sales to SaaS PLG and even open source.
But no matter how different the verticals, the particular stage the startups were in always came with a common marketing blend, with similar challenges and best practices.
When it comes to running the initial early-stage marketing activities or building the marketing DNA, young startups usually need to fill the same gaps. They have limited budgets and they struggle with the same challenges. True, the content, target audiences, competitive landscape, and KPIs ﹘ all of these are unique. But regardless, all startups need to hunt for the right set of messages, identify clear market-fit indicators, build an initial inbound architecture, trial paid media strategies, build a marketing funnel, kick-start branding activities, and so forth.
When I was looking at even slightly more mature startups or tech companies, it was obvious that the marketing needs at these stages are completely different ﹘ their KPIs, budgets, processes, resources, and the like.
Like I said, we tailor our services to the needs of early-stage startups. That means matching the plans, resources, budget, support areas, and implementation activities to:
- The stage of the company (seed or round A)
- The vertical
- The business model
It also means we have to behave partly as an external vendor and partly as an internal partner to compensate for the gaps. It means several other things as well, but they are beyond the scope of this article.
We’ve learned many things over the years. For instance, we learned how we should manage the production of the first (or second) website ﹘ including the budgets, effort, production constraints, size and number of pages, and more. We learned what’s feasible and what’s not for each startup phase.
The same goes for content, paid media campaigns, analytics, social media, operations, automation, and more.
We held endless discussions with founders, often stopping them from making mistakes resulting from not considering their particular stage, and what actually works during this stage. Some shot way over the top too soon, while others were too late to the game.
This article points just six out of the “oh so many” important dos and don’ts that we learned (through blood, sweat, and tears 🙂 ) along the way.
#1: Don’t kick off marketing activities without a solid, methodological plan.
Nine years ago, we clearly saw how Israeli startups are constantly late running marketing activities and, generally speaking, tend to neglect marketing, thinking: “We have a good product, the rest will follow.” Gladly, this almost never happens anymore, the ecosystem has matured a great deal since then.
But, unfortunately, many are still not methodological enough in how they kick off the marketing operation ﹘ from strategy, to work plans, to execution, to budgeting and KPI definitions.
Many founders and even marketers are listing individual activities as part of their wishlist, but the architecture is missing. “I need a website, a company deck, blog content, paid campaigns.” Sure you do, but how does it all fit in the bigger picture? What’s the priority? Which element should enter when? What are the goals? Where do you want to be in six months from today? A year?
It’s okay to lack the know-how or the expertise. You don’t need to know how to build a marketing strategy, a work plan, or how to design an inbound architecture for your startup ﹘ but you do need to ensure that you start with these in place ﹘ whether set up by an internal marketer or a startup-marketing firm like ours.
Before we engage with a startup company, we go through a process that defines the HL (higher level) strategy for the first 4-5 months, while looking further out into the year ahead. We then create a scope-of-work document that lays the background for a tactical work plan.
We keep the founders and marketers in the loop so rather than starting with a “grocery list” of individual activities, we all see the high-level strategy that the operation is meant to serve, and then also create the operational list.
#2: Don’t focus on tasks alone. Do focus on what you want to achieve and be realistic.
This is very much related to the previous one. No professional service provider expects you to define the strategy, but the work should start with what KPIs you want to achieve, thinking about ballpark timelines, so we can all have a healthy discussion about feasibility. Don’t name plain deliverables without being able to explain why you insist on having them, and how they should contribute to the high-level goals.
Be prepared to hold a smart discussion around subjects such as branding, awareness, sales enablement, business opportunities (including measurable KPIs attached to them), prestige, leadership, etc. Also, you need to have an idea of what is feasible to expect, considering your startup stage.
Then, when everyone in the room agrees on the goals and KPIs, the discussion can move to more granular activities and what’s feasible to expect in terms of timelines, deliverables, budgets, and results.
At this point, we tend to invest a lot in setting the right expectations. We sometimes get requests that are not feasible, simply put. Impossible timelines; requests to know ahead what would be the exact cost per lead, MQL, and SQL; requests to cut corners yet still deliver high-quality work without investing time in critical research; content writing with no solid messaging strategy (storytelling), and so forth.
To conclude this point: Do know what you want to achieve (results, not just deliverables) by when (more or less), and make sure (or we will :-)) that what you are asking for is feasible and realistic (though ambitious, you operate a startup after all).
#3: Don’t bring the wrong internal or external marketing function on board. Do consider the journey ahead.
I’ve written about this so many times, and the disappointment such a mismatch may cause.
We’ve seen cases where a startup was at a stage where it shouldn’t have hired internally just yet, and the opposite situation, where no internal marketer was on board while there was definitely a burning need for one already.
Starting with hiring internally is not at all the only option, and it doesn’t automatically mean you are neglecting the marketing operation. Many of our seed-stage startups start working with us before they hire internally for multiple reasons. To name a few:
- They first want to build an initial infrastructure and phase one of their inbound and lead-gen operations and later on hire someone internally to own the scale (growth) phase. They know these two phases require different skill sets.
- They would rather not compromise on the expertise, and they know hiring a marketing talent takes a lot of effort and time. They don’t want to delay so they start the operation without having an internal marketing stakeholder on board.
- Some startups are planning internal hiring according to their level of fundraising and available budget. They realize that most internal marketers need an agency by their side straight away, so they wait until hiring internally makes sense ﹘ many times this is post-round A.
The most important Do (and accordingly, Don’t) of this section is related to the stakeholder that you appoint to support you. I’ve seen startups hire marketers (or vendors) that are not fit for the job of multi-area early-stage startup marketing and then get disappointed. I’ve talked to startups that brought aboard people who either couldn’t deal with the strategy or the execution or were just clueless regarding data-driven marketing and quantitative measures that come right after the initial communication foundations.
It all boils down to the points raised above. As long as you have a rough idea of the expectations, milestones, and marketing goals in the upcoming year, you have options.
Get a good grasp of what you want ﹘ for example, a goal of setting up foundations and coming out of stealth, then moving quickly to running inbound operations and, within six months, striving to see an increase in market awareness translated to leads and business opportunities, including being able to calculate the costs and analyze a marketing funnel.
Then you can assess the partner that will help you achieve all of this, and who fits in terms of budget, onboarding overhead, and so forth.
#4: Competitive analysis and online research ﹘ don’t examine only companies that are market leaders.
Let’s deep dive into more granular areas. One of the most important tools in a marketer’s toolbox is the ability to run online research and spy on other companies. We all know about the famous keyword research, but almost every single strategy can be spied on through a sophisticated online hunt ﹘ from paid campaigns to content strategy, to PR, to inbound architecture, to demand-gen and so forth ﹘ people leave marks. Marketers too.
The thing is that startup founders love to focus on the giants, while it’s fundamentally wrong in this case. Why? Well, giant companies have changed the way they run marketing multiple times since they were in their early stage. Today their marketing fits their current situation ﹘ think about parameters such as leadership, budgets, resources, brand identity, and so forth. Think about competitors with whom you share these parameters instead of giants with whom you do not share them.
Now, I am not asking you to overlook them altogether, (we love looking at mature companies when we are preparing a messaging session), but you do want to ensure you also focus on companies that are closer to where your startup is. Maybe slightly more mature. You can learn a lot from them, like where they choose to invest their resources and budgets, what channels they choose to leverage, what activities they avoid, which events they attend, what level of PR they have reached, and so forth.
A while ago I made a checklist for making a thorough and realistic competitive analysis you can check it out here: The complete marketing competitive analysis checklist for startups
#5: Be dynamic with your messaging and consider search terms in your storytelling.
Messaging is hard. It’s always a tedious part of marketing, where there’s so much to tell to the world and such little room to fit the essence in. Over the years, we’ve learned how to run accurate and efficient messaging sessions that fit the early stage. Here are some concrete tips:
- Don’t insist on sticking to your own jargon when nobody is searching for these terms or gets them. Lean also on keyword research to see what people are looking for. If possible and there’s data, also explore Google search console. There’s no point in using big words no one understands without offering some explanation﹘ help people find what they are looking for when they explore your website or other materials that include your messaging.
- Don’t enter a messaging project expecting to find the ultimate perfect set of messages, for once and for all. Stick to the “good enough”, “minimum viable” concept and know that as long as you operate a young startup, you will keep iterating and finetuning your messaging based on market feedback, so be dynamic with it.
- A single word isn’t worth getting stuck and wasting too much energy. I never met an early-stage startup that won or lost based on a phrase. Learn to compromise, test and optimize ﹘ that’s the trick.
#6: Do run PR when it makes sense. Don’t do it for the sake of it.
The PR part of marketing has changed a great deal in the past few years. The digital world made it much easier to establish awareness without leaning on the press, and many PR agencies lost their strengths. Still, PR can be a very impactful tool as long as it’s used correctly.
Don’t do PR for the sake of it, ask yourself why you need press coverage and how you plan to leverage on it. For instance, if traffic at scale is your goal, I would argue that a “regular” PR announcement shouldn’t be your first priority. It takes a lot of effort to get coverage in tier-one media (depending on the story) and it many times doesn’t pay off looking at the long-term traffic effect, compared to other non PR marketing activities.
On the other hand, a specific news mention can sometimes be great to use as part of a sales kit, attract investors, or impress potential employees. These are great reasons to prioritize the investment – at the right time, with the right story.
Another tip: Tier-one media isn’t always preferred. Sometimes when I wish to capture the attention of potential customers with a new partnership with a big client, for instance, I tend to prefer industry-specific media, as I know that potential customers follow such channels.
Most startup founders that I’ve met over the years did not have a marketing background. They had to learn some ropes while running and that’s perfectly fine. Many of the marketers I’ve engaged with also were forced to quickly learn how different startup marketing is compared to other forms of marketing.
I’ve seen them learning some of the lessons mentioned above, which I’ve learned so well through my work.
At the end of the day, if you ask me, the stage you are at in your startup sets the stage for many decisions you need to make regarding how to kickstart marketing, what to expect, how much to invest, and which partners to bring on board, how to run specific activities, what blend to choose in each step, and so forth.
If you liked this article and you have a few tips as well, I’d love you to share them ﹘ DM me on LinkedIn.