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One website that most startups hate to visit is The Startup Graveyard. There, you’ll encounter the ghosts of startup-past, including their different reasons for failure. Business-related reasons, marketing included, appear on this website more often than not.
You’re probably thinking, making mistakes doesn’t always equal failure, and you’d be right. We’ve all read about, and probably even met, entrepreneurs that made it big even though they had ‘strange’ ways of doing things (to put it mildly). I realize that.
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We don’t tend to plan for exceptions though. I could make a wish that you’ll win the lottery, come into an unheard-of amount of money, or return home wearing Olympic gold. Until any (or all) of those happen, we need to be realistic, plan for the long term, and expect success only after endless trials and errors while carefully planning our steps.
Philosophy aside, why do early-stage startups keep making the same marketing mistakes over and over again? Why doesn’t the ecosystem (i.e., the investors, serial entrepreneurs, etc.) help? Well they do their best, but still, many founders win investments while they are relatively very fresh. Also, apparently, learning how business is done isn’t easy.
Well, it doesn’t matter what are the reasons, startup entrepreneurs are left to educate themselves as much as possible, and learn from the mistakes of others. Best ones master this skill.
It took me hundreds of meetings with startup founders and marketers to identify the specific behavioural patterns that led to their success, and by not means I mean IPO or acquisition. Success can be seen as advanced fund resizing rounds that were successful, positive business trends, indications for market fit and alike.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was indeed facing actual ‘sins.’ If I do see actual patterns… Then, I wasn’t sure which sins were the riskiest (that is, the worst). At some point, I even started to wonder if at least some of the (what I believe to be) bad mistakes I had witnessed (and sometimes had to struggle with) weren’t inevitable… We’re only human, after all, and some lessons need to be learned the hard way.
But eventually, I recognized that there are quite a few entrepreneurs that are not only bright but also extremely adaptive (seriously, that makes me jealous), respond well to criticism, are honest with themselves in confronting their own faults (jealous more), and more. I figured this could be learned (hope for us all the rest…), so I was encouraged to share what I’ve seen.
So, without further ado, here are my 7 seed-to-round-B startup marketing sins:
1. Failing to understand the true goals of marketing in the early-stage
I always ask startup founders that want to work with us what they are trying to achieve. And I’m not surprised when they reply, “My partners / investors want to run marketing but I’m not sure”. I’m also used to “We need to create a pitch deck,” We need a website,” or even “We want to release a PR about the round.”
Many founders that have already raised capital don’t really get the gist of marketing, or they confuse deliverables with high-level goals.
On the other hand, I also get answers that I call ‘the end of the road’ goals: “We want our marketing to help us get at least 400 paying customers within 6 months and become profitable” (a request made by a B2B enterprise sales startup after raising a $4 million seed with not even a single paying customer ) or “we aim to be acquired by one of the big guys for a 9 digit number no later than 12 months from today.”
Guys, I don’t know how to kick off the marketing with such goals. Heck, I don’t even know if that’s feasible when I just start working with a startup. Marketers need something in between – Here it comes:
Welcome to early stage startup marketing – nice to meet you too!
The purpose of marketing in the early-stage is not defined by creating ravishing materials (though it is an important and a crucial part of the operation). These are the means, not the needed result. And, no, the purpose of marketing isn’t to achieve the end goal on its own. That’s not really a feasible goal that you should identify, as your marketer can’t really translate it into an action plan.
The goal of marketing differs between companies and stages. But generally speaking, and in a very high level, it is to reach out to your audience, grab their attention, analyse their response (and project insights back internally), win their trust and increase the chances of them converting (to sales opportunities or to active users).
Why do you even need marketing to accomplish those?
Well, first, that’s because you are selling to people. B2B, B2C, whatever, there are still people behind the acronyms. And people are not logical. They make their decisions based on heuristics and psychological predispositions that can be easily identified. They hate loss more than they love profit. They judge a book by its cover, put too much weight on the first impression, and so forth. Some corporations have made a fortune from analyzing the common patterns of the illogical heuristics that people make (insurance companies, please stand up).
And second, you need marketing to outereach your audience at scale. These’s a very (low) limit to the contact points you can create leaning on your sales force alone.
Long story short, you need marketing because you need to win the battle of perception and trust and brand awarenss, and that’s a different game than building a superior product. A whole different game.
That’s done through branding and growth activities that, if done correctly, support AWARENESS and POSITIONING among your target audience in ameasurable ways.
Ignore these objectives and watch your competitors smile as they eliminate your market share!
Inside this big ‘marketing bucket,’ you may define sub-goals such as feeding your sales operations with leads, closing low-touch online buying loops, and many others, based on your audience, product, business model, geo, you get the idea….
BUT, one main goal I wish to hear when the startup is still young is LEARNING. The road to success will be long due to the endless number of adaptations and optimizations you will need to make in order to find your market fit and scale-up. And that includes your marketing activities.
Long Road — Share of startups worldwide in 2018, by age at acquisition:
To summarize, avoid this sin and state the right goals: You should be looking for marketing as you wish to kick off the road trip that you need to take until your brand becomes known and evokes the right perception. You should be most interested in learning what’s working and what’s not (messages, tactics) as much as possible so you will be ready for future phases. You also need to feed your sales team in the meantime. That’s it. From this point on, you should listen to your marketing pro and hear what tools, deliverables, and tactics she wishes to develop in order to meet these goals.
2. Being perfectionists and not following the “good-enough “concept:
One of the biggest job interview clichés is also a major startup sin. To survive as an early-stage startup, you have to embrace a “good-enough” attitude, including in your marketing efforts. In the same way you need an MVP and not a finalized product, focus on creating less-than-perfect materials (stock images are ok. If you found an accidental typo on your social page and that’s not a daily routine, don’t make a fuss. If the design you see is just OK and not amazing to make it a show stopper…. ) and get your message out there. Anything too perfect will cost you time and money you do not have and will become irrelevant a week from now, when your strategy changes for the 40th time.
I have learned to run amazingly strict messaging workshops in order to beat the tendency of founders to hold progress back. I developed ultra-creative work processes just to be able to meet content release deadlines … otherwise, the ping-pong over the tiniest issues wouldn’t stop.
Why is that? I guess it’s the fear of losing control, and sometimes the need to ‘look just as fine as the big guys.’ Guys, corporate strategies are the perfect way to kill a startup. Corporates are busy keeping their position as leaders. They know that every little thing can be used against them, and so they hire endless staff just to maintain perfection. That’s why they move so slowly. Startups, on the other hand, must run much, much faster. They don’t need to imitate the giants.
Of course, I don’t mean to follow a too low standard, but, on the other hand, don’t let yourself be delayed with multiple iterations around little details.
Ask yourself a few questions:
Is that really that critical?
Will the effect be completely different following these iterations (re the KPIs)
Shouldn’t I release it as-is for now and come back to fine-tune it later on?
Does fine-tuning this deliverable now at the expense of releasing it and adding new activities makes sense?
3. Hiring the wrong marketing persona:
I have so much to say about this sin that I’ve even written a dedicated article about it: why founders get disappointed with their internal or external marketers (spoiler, it’s not related to the marketer’s quality). When startups decide to hire someone internal or a vendor to lead their marketing activities, many of them make the same tragic mistake of recruiting a corporate big shot, thinking this person can replicate the effect and also make them a big shot. Why, oh why, would you do that? The last thing you need is someone who has forgotten how to be scrappy and hands-on; who will focus on larger-than-life strategies instead of quick-and-dirty tactics; who relies on budgets and timeframes you can’t afford.
What you really need is a multi-area ‘researcher’ that is used to startups at your scale and with a similar budget. Someone who is never too big and important to get their hands dirty; who knows how to change hats, start from scratch, and test the effect of selected activities.
I am under no circumstances underestimating corporate creatures, but they have developed different skills: How to project-manage activities with endless team members involved; how to comply with the policies, and how to work with the politics; how to pull the right strings…. A bunch of amazing skills that I know zero about and that you DON’T NEED at this stage.
4. Knowing how to ‘step out of the garage’:
You completed your first round. Amazing! Congrats. Well, apparently, changing your perspective overnight is a challenge.
Each phase in a startup’s life calls for specific budgets, activities, and tools that are chosen based on what they provide, what resources they demand, and how much they cost. While in the garage you are expected to use free tools and hacks that will do the work until your company’s and budget grow, when you step out of the garage, you are expected to use the budget that you’ve received in order to reach the predefined milestones. I get to see founders that have a hard time releasing the money, even when it’s clear that they should use it (smartly) to win their KPIs. They know it, I know it but they find hard trouble getting used to the stage shift they are experiencing. On the one hand, overspending isn’t smart as well. For instance, don’t bring in high-end systems and expensive technologies that not only will cost a fortune but won’t really help you either. Pick and use the instruments that fit your specific startup at this specific stage. If you are after concrete examples: Invest in a website that can serve your inbound needs and will make a proper impression. Don’t stay with the amateur landing page you’ve designed yourself thinking there’s no harm. The same goes for your sales deck and one-pager, the people you hire to do the job, and the quality of content you publish.
5. Not prioritizing the ‘right activities’ in the puzzle:
I believe that each stage sets its own prioritization and directs us to focus on different actions. Once we enter a new stage (like when a fundraising round is completed), we usually have to go back and fine-tune a few things, restructure others, smooth off the rough edges…
When you are in the garage and working with a zero budget, it may not be the right time to bring in top-tier professionals and premium tools just yet, but as soon as you step out of the garage and into the seed-stage light, you may want to make sure that your marketing deliverables and foundations are aligned accordingly, as you don’t want to be too late upgrading your marketing.
In the garage phase, most startups present incomplete stories, confusing messages, amateur style materials, one-pager websites, and zero inbound activities. That makes sense.
However, once you’ve secured your seed money and are considering the new milestones needed for the next one, you will need to gain the trust of ‘real’ customers and employees.
Some founders find trouble when they seek to prioritize such activities as professional graphic design, rich website, furnished sales materials, and the like. It takes time for them to understand why they should prioritize (and pay for) these marketing deliverables. Many times they enter the marketing game late and only when they have been struggling with hiring talented employees and capturing the attention of their target audience for too long.
Other entrepreneurs make the opposite mistake, trying to reach from 0 to 100 too quickly…. They would want to prioritize ultra-expensive activities (such as an ongoing, advanced PR strategy; life footage videos; and pricey booths at events) without coordinating with their (still very limited) resources or even their immediate KPIs (that can be achieved with much less extravagant activities)
6. Failing to run a proper competitive analysis and to leverage the learnings of the ecosystem:
The only thing worse than a startup claiming to have no competition is a startup that actually believes it.
If you think you have zero competition, so be it. But, let’s talk about perception. Leave product aside for a moment — can you identify other companies that tell similar stories? These are your ‘perception competitors’. As a marketer, I love these guys. I would always rather identify a couple of them than being completely alone in the field.
I can earn a fortune by analyzing their marketing strategies. Starting from the messages they use in different channels, to traffic data, to the paid media campaigns they choose to invest in, to the channels they prefer, the keywords they focus on, and … you get the idea.
I don’t necessarily imitate others, but knowledge is power. I don’t see founders leverage this endless knowledge enough.
Recently, we had a strategic discussion with two founders of a startup we work with, and the debate concerned the business model, the pricing, and whether to bet on a ‘low-touch’ strategy. They commented that they had been thinking about these challenges for months and just didn’t know what decisions to make. A short online competitive analysis revealed the info they needed in order to make immediate decisions: In this case, most players in the industry didn’t offer low-touch acquisition options. From analyzing their display ads, we quickly realized that they invested in webinars and gated content.
Here are a couple of tools I love using:
Moat (would share with you ad banners that companies use (just search their name) , including campaign date and additional data.
Facebook ad gallery – same concept as Moat, but this time with the post copy as well (Facebook ads only).
SEMrush– just search for a company website and discover traffic data, sources, geos, search ads, keywords, backlinks, and a lot more.
Are you looking to work on your competitive analysis skills?
Click here If you wish to learn more about how I run a competitive analysis for marketing purposes.
7. And finally… are you the type that buries her head in the sand?
I find this one to be the ultimate sin! While EVERYBODY talks, sings, screams, lectures, and writes about the average startup journey and the multiple fails along the way, too many entrepreneurs wouldn’t look bad-signs in the eye, admit something is wrong, and try to overcome the failure. I mean, eventually, they do, but many of them lose precious time before they agree to stop the blindness.
You know what they say, love makes you blind … and there’s no love like the love a founder feels for her startup idea. Believe me, I get it.
But when you hush your marketer and don’t let her bring the ‘bad’ news to the table quickly, and close down an open discussion about what to do (yes, plan B, C, and D), you may be killing your own ‘baby’ with you bare hands….
The Internet is exploding with evidence of what you could call the ‘startup chasm.’
Don’t be blind; expect and embrace the failure that arrives at your front door and encourage your marketer to openly share important signs. Yes, red flags, too.
We all learn from our mistakes, but for startups, the issues listed above can teach an unpleasant lesson. Our competitors are probably just waiting to take advantage of any poor decision that we might make and so take over the market before we do. That’s old news.
Getting the basics of marketing right from the very beginning is critical to get us to the next stage safely, allowing us to adjust, make a few shifts, and then keep going. Learning from the mistakes of others (many of these mistakes I am sharing here I’ve earned with blood) is the natural evolution of humankind, and of the startup industry too.