I Am an Early-Stage Startup Marketer – Here’s What It really Means

Early-stage-startup-marketing-here-is what-it-really-means
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A few weeks back I attended a startup branding event which got me thinking and eventually drove me to share my thoughts in this article. While the event was tailored to global startups, it wasn’t specifically targeted to the early stage.

In fact, I realized that many of the discussions were irrelevant for Seed to Round-A stage startups, and if there were such in the audience, they would probably be confused or feel incompetent—like, sure I want to create brand awareness and generate leads, but who can spend $20K a month on media, right? (I am referring to one of the case studies featured in the event). 

No doubt I want my new brand (my new baby, really) to shine and stand out in the crowded competitive landscape, but who can afford to go through a long (over 6 months!!!) and extremely expensive branding process?

I can go on and on with other examples, but you get the idea…

While it didn’t help me gain concrete insights I can implement, the event did remind me of why I so strongly believe that early-stage startup marketing is completely different from any other form of tech marketing. 

After filling various marketing roles in large-scale companies (yes, I was enjoying the luxury of having humongous marketing budgets), and recently in multiple early-stage startups here at G2Mteam (yes, I learned how to do a lot of marketing hands-on activities with very little budget), I want to share my first-hand experience. 

Specifically, I want to explain why and how early-stage startup marketing is so different, and why founders and marketers alike should understand it as early as possible to avoid disappointments later on. After all, startup entrepreneurs and C-level executives are hunting for the right employees or vendors to help them on their journey. Hopefully, this article can help those in the early stages make the right decision.

In the Beginning, There Was Nothing…

 

In the beginning there was nothing

At some point, a startup raises a significant amount of money but has little to no foundations—just a few odds and ends created in someone’s garage. The marketer must know how to act in this situation: how to build the first foundations and prioritize the critical elements first while keeping as Agile and lean as possible during the execution. 

Clearly, when that’s the situation I am getting into, I start with the very basic foundations such as strategy, messaging, competitive research, minisite creation, a few pieces of collateral, the initial social media channels, basic training for the team, etc. But Sprint Mode is a whole different battlefield… Think about Agile dev. Cycles are built on Sprints, right? Sprinting is designed for short bursts of intense speed, while marathons require long-lasting endurance. I build the marketing for the long run (marathon) but still, I split it into Sprints, as otherwise I can’t create the needed value in the early stage.

For example, when I need to manage an out-of-stealth project, I know that I’ll need approximately 3 months to complete all of these tasks: 

  • Go to market strategy and planning 
  • Marketing research of the competitive landscape 
  • Messaging and storytelling 
  • Visual branding and brand identity 
  • The initial website (or minisite) 
  • Initial collateral such as the company deck, one pager, and (if possible) 1-2 customer (design partners) stories 
  • Company social pages 
  • PR release 

 I also know the costs that should be taken into account for the early stage. For instance, I would never agree to a costly branding process that will take 3 months. 

My point here is that only in the early stage is this really a challenge; when you start with nothing at all and need to build the infrastructure from scratch and match it to the startup landscape, i.e., budget, industry, competitors, audience, regions, etc. 

An experienced early-stage startup marketer won’t be paralyzed in fear and will know the drill. 

Marketing an anonymous brand 

Another unique challenge in the early stage is the need to execute in multiple arenas without having a known brand. Of course, it means that gaining the trust of potential customers or partners is much more challenging. We all trust brands that we know. 

As an early-stage startup marketer, I understand what to expect and can train the startup team accordingly. I know that for us it will take longer to close deals compared to competitors with known and established brands; it will be more expensive to gain inbound leads, we will have to work harder on building elements that can help customers gain trust, we will need to find ways to reduce their perceived risk, and so forth. 

I also know that I don’t have time to wait until the brand is established, and I can’t take only brand-building, awareness-provoking actions. I must take care of both brand-building and sales-enabling activities and prioritize the ones that manage to achieve both. 

I wish I could enjoy branding processes like in my old days in corporates when I hired a known branding agency and invested in creativity, colors, brand differentiation, and values… That was fun. 

But it’s a luxury I simply do not have in the early stage, as neither the budget nor the KPIs justify such brand-building investment. 

Things I do that help build the brand: 

 

Content

First, I invest in great content—thought leadership, product related, and more. 

I make sure to promote the content in industry magazines and outlets as well as communities and professional groups. I develop relationships with industry influencers and top leaders. This allows me to publish content in top-tier industry outlets, which support both brand building and sales enablement. 

** People ask me about ChatGPT or Google Bard. Here are my two cents: You can’t use it to create content A2Z. Forget about it. The data is unreliable and many times you will get rubbish. But it does boost efficiency, it helps me get going, and overall, it helps me scale up delivery. So my conclusion: use it with caution. 

Social

I leverage social media, and LinkedIn specifically, to ensure that the team is connected to potential customers, partners, and investors at scale. I also make sure to share valuable content with relevant people, through 1-on-1 direct messages. 

I publicly share other forms of content, and I make sure that communications are shared mainly by the people on the team rather than just the company page. People tend to prefer social content coming from other people, rather than formal brands, so this helps us gain prospects’ trust, as we are not hiding behind the brand. 

Even if my ICP is made of telecom engineers, I will have a much higher chance of getting their attention by making things more personal. 

Social media allows early-stage startups to shine as well, as it is publicly accessible. I know that LinkedIn would help me gain exposure if I get likes, comments, and shares from the relevant network, within a given timeframe from posting. That’s why I run LinkedIn algorithm campaigns to amplify the impact and make sure to measure the effectiveness (impressions, clicks, referral traffic to the website, and so forth). 

In order to ensure that social efforts are not going to waste, I add remarketing campaigns (low-budget ones) as they ensure that my brand is repeatedly seen by the prospect, which is very effective in building brand perception. 

Industry conferences 

I do vote for industry events even in the early stage, but I limit the spending. I know that my early-stage startup can’t afford an outstanding booth, so I need to find other ways to make sure that the calendar is full of valuable meetings throughout the event. For instance, many conferences include a dedicated pavilion for startups. There are associations that support startups by organizing meetings based on their relationships, such as the Israeli Export Institution, or the IMA. There are many others. 

When we have a close and strategic partnership with a big player, we may ask to be included in their booth, which allows us to present at events without paying the high fees as well as to leverage their foot traffic. 

PR announcements 

PR can be a great tool to attract investors, and in some industries, a great reason to engage with potential customers. 

As an early-stage startup marketer, I almost never have the budget to hire a dedicated PR agency, nor do I have a big enough story to justify it. 

But running PRs is not always on my initial list of activities. For instance, when I am running dev-tech marketing and the goal is to get developers to sign up for a PLG product, PR isn’t my first priority. 

However, in enterprise sales, when there’s an opportunity to publish an announcement about closing an important deal, I know that it will be worthwhile as it will allow me to build communication campaigns around the announcement. 

This type of PR activity helps me build my brand and support the sales team at the same time. I promote it in multiple channels and share it in direct messages with target prospects. 

Being an early-stage startup marketer, I run all this on a tight budget;I write the announcement, I pitch to reporters, I release to the wire and I promote it all by myself. 

I can go on and on with more ideas and initiatives that would help you “get out there” and build your brand, and some of them are coming next. But at the end of the day, it’s really about constantly examining what the sufficient initiatives you need to tackle are when looking to build your brand awareness and establish yourself as a trustworthy and reliable solution provider.

 

Stone Soup Marketing Comes to Life

 

stone soup marketing

Remember the Stone Soup folk story? Here, in the reality of early-stage startups, unlike in the tale, there’s very little to work with: A small budget, very few resources, and small teams.

But I can’t stress enough how satisfying it is to create something out of nothing. It delights me every time. With all the early-stage startups I worked with, we built cost-effective and efficient marketing plans that we can execute on our own, without relying on costly tools or media budgets. 

As I mentioned, limited resources mean a quick creation of foundations and a quick dive into the deep water. The 80/20 rule is key in this game. No point in conducting intensive market research, surveys, endless strategic meetings, discussions, and so forth. 

But, and that’s a big but: Some steps cannot be skipped and a certain standard must be met. 

Start with becoming an expert in the ecosystem

For example, you do need to run minimal market research that would help you understand your competitive landscape. I mean a competitive landscape analysis from a marketing perspective, not a product perspective. And here it is very important to look at other companies, similar in maturity as well. We always want to look up at competitors and aspire to beat them, but when you focus on the gigantic competitors you may gain insights that you can’t use. Their strategies reflect their maturity, resources, and budgets. I find it much more fruitful to closely examine competitors that are just slightly more mature, and analyze their successful marketing strategies. In short, aim high enough but not too high. For your convenience, you can use this marketing competitive analysis checklist.

Agile marketing stack and operations 

One more element that you can’t afford to skip is kicking off marketing operations in a methodical manner that fits the startup stage. 

Rather than starting with a shopping list of tools and activities, I always start by taking the actions that will actually serve my KPIs in the upcoming months. Too many times I’ve seen companies and marketers run to set up a complex implementation of their marketing automation solution before they even have leads, while they could start with a basic one instead. That’s just one example. 

Stick with short-term KPIs 

While I build the infrastructure for the long term, I focus on the KPIs that fit the early stage (XX ARR, YY deals with paying customers, ZZZ proof for product adoption, etc.). These are the KPIs that are needed to show signs of market fit and close the next round. Many founders I’ve worked with had trouble setting up short-term, feasible KPIs. As an early-stage marketer, I am usually the owner of the entire marketing unit. As such, I make sure that we are aligned with the KPIs that match our situation and stage on an ongoing basis. 

 

Agile Marketing Is Really a Thing

 

Agile marketing is the only way to succeed in an early-stage startup. But it’s really not and shouldn’t just stay a buzzword, but rather be translated into real actions. 

The marketing operations of a young startup should be split into short cycles, and deliveries must be quick and precise. The challenge is much different compared to mature companies that must invest their guts in every piece of content as they are fighting to keep their leadership and positioning. Early-stage startups have no brand they should fanatically guard. 

That means quick turnaround, quick initial results, and a dynamic and iterative approach that emphasizes adaptability, collaboration, and rapid response to change. 

As I mentioned before, I split my work into phases of 3–4 months. That’s the time it takes to build the first foundations, the demand-gen machine, or a B2B prospect meetings machine.

How is it done? By following Agile marketing methods. For instance, we run messaging Sprints that take no more than 1–2 weeks. We are not busy cracking the ultimate brand positioning and visualization for eternity; it simply can’t and shouldn’t be done at this stage. The goal is to get the initial messages and differentiation, reflect the main values that answer prospects’ pains, ensure that the messages across all communication channels are consistent, and allow us to start iterating and improving as we go. See below an example of hierarchical messages following one of our messaging Sprints. 

Messaging architecture example

 Above: An example of messaging architecture

Another example relates to building the first or second company website. While mature companies allow themselves to invest in the project until perfection, an early-stage startup with the right setup can build and publish a website very quickly. The trick is to build a full detailed website specification document, with all granular requirements from the design and dev, and to work parallel rather than sequential with regards to writing the website content and approving each content page. 

One last component of Agile marketing that I keep experiencing is the fast shifting between priorities. Just like Sprints in software delivery, the same here, priorities quickly change and that’s ok; that’s the dynamic nature of an early-stage startup. I find myself constantly reassessing priorities based on data insights, the competitive landscape, and the need to raise more money. 

 

The main KPIs of an early-stage startup marketer 

 

When I was working in mature companies, a lot was already known: Like who are the buyers, what messages are optimal for each persona and use case, how much time, resources, and money (translated to touchpoints) it takes to close an opportunity, what content is needed for each step in the customer journey, and so forth. I followed specific KPIs related to my role within the (big) marketing unit and my KPIs were around the quality of deliverables and specific results. 

But with early-stage startups, I find myself chasing completely different KPIs and facing 180° different challenges:  

  • Market fit validation—I am usually busy finding and refining a solid product-market fit proof, provided by marketing results. I am constantly busy trying to understand the target audience, ensure that I am indeed pointing in the right direction, and make sure that the product or service is indeed perceived as one that solves critical pains. I am always trying to reach KPIs that will help secure the next funding round. It’s less about profit growth, scale, margins, etc., and more about the deals that are needed, and the ARR… Call it marketing, call it sales, I am eventually a co-owner of the business KPIs.

 

  • Unlike mature companies, where business objectives and KPIs usually translate to an increase in marketing budget, early-stage startups are fighting against the burn rate. Therefore, I often find myself needing to cut off the budget at the same time that I need to increase the volume of achievements. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

 

Final Words: “Changing Hats” Best Describes an Early-Stage Startup Marketer

 

Changing hats - via Midjourney

 

I love using this metaphor. I am the CMO, the project manager, the content writer, the SDR, and the intern 🙂

I have to be able to do everything on my own or closely supervise everything (meaning I must know how the hands-on work is done), from paid campaigns to SEO to outbound, PR, content writing, product marketing, social media marketing, sales enablement tools, Hubspot, you name it. 

For me, it’s the best and I would never give up hands-on work, but it’s not for everyone. 

Being just the boss will not work here, for all the reasons described above. 

If there are any other out-of-stealth marketers in the audience, happy to hear your two cents 🙂 

 

Lilach Bar-Tal

Lilach is all about marketing. With over 15 years of experience under her belt, she dealt with all aspects of marketing work and has the rare combination of both high-level strategic marketing and hands-on operational work. Oh, and she’s passionate about her work!