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This article was published on May 20, 2018

6 things I learned marketing for startups (and early stage companies)

6 things I learned marketing for startups (and early stage companies) Image by: Icons8
John LaMarca
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John LaMarca

John spent the majority of his career in New York where he held senior marketing positions at AOL, Ad Age and Variety, and led successful co John spent the majority of his career in New York where he held senior marketing positions at AOL, Ad Age and Variety, and led successful consumer marketing campaigns whilst at AOL with brands such as Sony, Walt Disney, eBay and Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. In London, John built and led the marketing team at a startup called 6Tribes, which was acquired by the former Top Gear hosts and re-branded as DriveTribe. His most recent position in London was as Consumer Strategy Director at Haymarket Automotive, where he led consumer strategy and propositions for its three brands: What Car?, PistonHeads and Autocar.

The other day as I was putting new strings on my guitar, something interesting happened. As the sixth and final string slid up into tune, the other strings came alive; it’s a fairly normal occurrence called sympathetic resonance, and it made me think of the successful marketing teams that I’ve led or been on — those times when the team and marketing channels were working together in harmony, and the brand and product were resonating with consumers.

This is especially important to get right quickly when you’re a startup — it’s about finding the right people with the right mindset.

So with six strings in mind, here are six things that I’ve learned marketing for startups and early stage companies:

1. If you’re not marketing, then you’re building

The goal of brand marketing is to make your potential customers aware of your products or services, and in performance marketing the goal is to get someone to take an action, such as download an app, subscribe, or make a purchase. There’s another added benefit of marketing though, and that’s to help inform UX and product development — and in a startup, that can have equal importance to the other two more traditional goals.

Let’s say you launch your marketing campaign, you get the targeting right, you nail the messaging, and the proposition seem to be resonating with your audience, but they simply aren’t taking that final action you want them to take. Your CPA is astronomical and you’re now considering a career change.

Not so fast.

Use this as an opportunity to determine where the blockers are. Put mechanisms in place to gather this insight each step of the way along the customer journey, whether it’s a quick survey or chat. Use this insight to feed back into UX and product development to build a better, or different, product.

So while it’s not an efficient use of your marketing budget, sometimes the product isn’t yet where it needs to be, and if you’ve ended up spending a little bit of money to shine a light on where the problems exist, then that has tremendous value.

And that leads me to the second thing I’ve learned…

2. Sometimes you can’t spend all of your marketing budget wisely

So don’t. At least not right away.

If some of it could go to better use elsewhere, like hiring a part-time developer or UX designer to get the product where it needs to be, then do that.

As marketers, we’re always told if you don’t spend the money, you won’t get it next year — in a startup, if your product doesn’t get off the ground quickly, there might not be a next year…

3. Be prepared to get your hands dirty and have your responsibilities change day-to-day

One of the most exhilarating things about working in a start-up or entrepreneurial environment is the rapid speed at which innovation happens. Often this can mean more fluidity in your role and responsibilities. You’ll have to be strategic one day and hands-on the next, or more likely both in the same day. I’ve created marketing plans in the morning, launched Facebook campaigns in the afternoon, and then checked (and stressed over) the results at night so I could optimize the campaign.

With fewer people around to tackle any given challenge, you’ll find yourself picking up new responsibilities all the time. Embrace it — it’s how you grow. If it goes wrong, you’ll be held accountable because there’s nowhere to hide — and that’s a good thing, because it means you’ll be making an impact.

Which takes us to the next thing I’ve learned…

4. Step outside of your comfort zone

Rapid growth is vital to any startup. In the early stages of product marketing, it’s important to test as many marketing channels as possible, quickly and inexpensively. Few of us are experts in every marketing channel, especially when a new one emerges, such as influencer marketing. In a previous startup, my team and I launched an influencer campaign with no prior experience in having done so.

Now in this case the campaign was very successful in driving growth and retention, and a big factor in the startup’s successful exit. Had we not ventured outside our comfort zone with this (at the time) new marketing channel, we wouldn’t have had the success that we did.

5. Marketing generalists are key first hires

I’ve worked in larger organizations and not surprisingly, larger organizations have larger marketing teams with more specialists: those responsible for SEO, social media, or email marketing for example. Marketing generalists can do well in larger organizations, provided they’re number one or two in the pecking order, but that’s about it.

At startups however, marketing generalists are vital to early success. When a new product is launched, it’s often tricky to know which marketing channels will perform the best. And with smaller budgets, it’s easy to spread your spend too thinly across channels to be effective. There needs to be rapid testing of various marketing channels and quick decisions made about which to use, which to abandon, and which to test further.

Once you’ve get a few channels humming along and contributing to growth, then you can use this knowledge to make smarter decisions about which specialist skills you’ll need to add to the team as it grows.

And finally, on to the last thing that I’ve learned…

6. Growth hacking really is a thing

Ok, I can’t believe I’m saying that. I was an early skeptic. I thought it was just another buzzword. After all, what a startup really means is that they need someone who can create marketing strategies and implement them quickly, innovatively and inexpensively, right? Isn’t that just what a good marketer does? Well, Neil Patel explains it more thoroughly and eloquently than I could in this excellent step-by-step guide Growth Hacking Made Simple but in general, he concludes that growth hacking isn’t a strategy, but instead a mindset.

I’ve learned that successful startups have this mindset throughout the organization, not just on the marketing team. I had daily growth hacking conversations with colleagues responsible for UX, data science, front end, back end, and business development. In corporate environments, roles are more clearly delineated and colleagues might not feel comfortable approaching you with an idea, so as not to “step on your toes.” There’s no room for that type of thinking within a startup.

So that’s it. Whether you’re a startup or early stage company looking to build a marketing team, or a marketer looking to succeed in a startup environment, I hope this article is useful and strikes a chord with you.