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This article was published on December 15, 2020

4 marketing mistakes early-stage startups make — and how to avoid them

Has your startup already made these?

4 marketing mistakes early-stage startups make — and how to avoid them
Svetlana Stotskaya
Story by

Svetlana Stotskaya

Marketing consultant

Svetlana has deep expertise in strategic marketing and brand management. She has helped launch and scale brands while building cross-functio Svetlana has deep expertise in strategic marketing and brand management. She has helped launch and scale brands while building cross-functional teams and driving business results. She is highly enthusiastic about the combination of digital technologies, data, and creativity in innovative solutions for companies across the globe.

You have just raised your first funding round and you have to spend a part of it on marketing. Defining the right marketing strategy, identifying the most effective tactical activities and communication channels is not easy, but the choices you make will have a crucial impact on the future of your startup. 

As a marketing professional with a hands-on experience in B2B and B2C, I have observed many startups that make a lot of marketing mistakes right from the start. While these companies were from various industries, ranging from ecommerce to digital health, they often share common pitfalls.

Learning about these missteps can help you better navigate your business activity and guide your team during the uncertainty associated with the early days of the startup’s scaling — so let’s take a closer look.

1. Not defining marketing goals clearly 

It is crucial to set well-defined business goals that you want to accomplish by implementing certain marketing activities. These goals should be specific to a particular startup, with an explicitly-stated timeline, and have achievable metrics. 

Some founders, especially those coming from an engineering background, are often confused about connecting the dots between the precise features of a technical product and intangible creative ideas.

They spend the majority of their time building a product, launch it by putting a significant budget into multiple promotional activities, and realize that they don’t know how to evaluate their effectiveness.

That’s why getting marketing advice in advance becomes tremendously important. 

As a founder, discuss the value offering with a marketing expert, identify the way you will communicate this value to your target audience, and prepare an actionable plan to deliver it. While it may seem a bit challenging to do at first, the derived plan will give your startup colossal leverage in the long run.     

2. Narrowing focus on a few tactics

One mistake I often see in early-stage startups is zeroing in on two or three marketing activities. For example, promoting a startup on social media and obsessing over SEO.

While digital communication channels are important, especially with the soaring importance of digital marketing accelerated by lockdowns and social distancing measures, you should keep in mind that marketing is a combination of many aspects — advertising, PR, sponsorships, just to name a few — so don’t fixate on a couple of them.

Overall, the reasons for this mistake are diverse. Sometimes, chosen activities are the most familiar and/or the easiest to implement if a startup doesn’t have a full-time marketing employee. Another explanation is that some founders rush to repeat the activities which are successfully pursued by their competitors. Either way, becoming attached to a limited set of actions is not the best approach. 

To avoid this and to make sure that you aren’t wasting your marketing budget on irrelevant activities, try to conduct profound research beforehand, and get a diverse set of opinions relevant to your unique situation.     

3. Hiring misfit marketing professionals

I often hear from entrepreneurs that they just “need help with marketing” but can’t state precisely what exactly they need help with.

Is it writing an annual marketing plan with a detailed description of all activities throughout the year? Or is it running digital marketing campaigns? Or maybe, it’s overseeing the whole marketing function: from brand building to performance in digital channels? 

That’s why identifying the underlying goal and writing a job description for a marketing position with regards to this goal is vital. For example, hiring a social media manager and expecting them to do everything related to marketing is destined to fail.

On the flip side, hiring a huge team of marketing professionals can be too costly for an early-stage company with a limited budget. Startups can mitigate this either by recruiting an experienced marketer with a diverse experience or by outsourcing particular marketing activities to external contractors. 

I often witness two diametrically opposed situations. In the first case, founders do not want to hire young people with little experience, but can’t afford prominent experts. In this case, I recommend looking not only at the resume but also at the potential of an applicant. Sometimes young marketers strive to grow and can bring fresh ideas to the company that is not visible from the inside. 

In the second case, founders hire very qualified and well-known marketers, often from international corporations who are used to working in a completely different environment.

Diverse functionality in marketing, lack of clear guidelines, myriads of challenges that a startup encounters — all of this can cause a panic for people who are used to corporate processes. In this situation, you should discuss with the candidate whether she or he is ready for a radical change in their working rhythm and functionality. 

In fact, if you want to work with a particular marketer, you can try to invite her or him as an external expert and advisor.

4. Not including marketers in the decision-making process 

Some founders are strongly convinced that they understand what is needed to be done by marketing people. As a result, they state the required plans and metrics without an objective assessment and a preliminary discussion with marketers. 

However, marketing professionals should be involved as early as possible and actively participate during every stage of the startup lifestyle. Ideally, contact marketers even before building an MVP because they can help better understand the needs and wants of your potential customers, identify the strengths of a product or service, and point out its weaknesses. 

By conducting market research, in-depth interviews, and customer surveys, marketers can find possible ways to enhance a prototype, prepare a set of best-suited measures to launch a product or service, as well as provide active support in subsequent promotion, aligning the latter with a business development strategy.

I’ve encountered situations when there is a ready-to-launch product and founders want to “advertise it,” so they hire a marketer. However, when they start to analyze the situation, hidden drawbacks become visible. They can be diverse: from identifying the wrong target market, to the unclear positioning and value proposition. 

Well, a marketer can deliver a project they were hired for, but the underlying issue will remain untreated and eventually negate the short-term gains from the project implementation. So, in order to save resources, time, and energy, you should talk to marketers early on.

Finally, it is vital to put marketing as one of the core functions, not merely a supporting one. The stakes and expectations are high for early-stage companies. Every wrong step can make a drastic negative consequence on your business.

By avoiding these mistakes and putting time and effort into building the right marketing, you can leverage the level up in the playing field and streamline startup growth.

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