Pithy Insights On Startup Marketing

Written By: Dharmesh Shah January 12, 2007


This is the next installment in the ongoing “pithy insights” series.  If interested, you might also want to check out “17 Pithy Insights For Startup Founders”. 


Marketing continues to be a challenge that many of the startups I work with struggle with.  I think marketing overall has become even more critical for startups over the past several years.  It is much harder today to differentiate today by having built a “better” product.  Barriers to entry are low and there are at least a handful of other startups doing something similar to what you are doing (if you don’t think so, then you just haven’t looked hard enough yet).  What often separates the successful startup from the not-so-successful startup is marketing.  If you can figure out a way to more efficiently acquire customers than your competition, chances are, you’ll win.  Sure, it helps to have a great product too (it makes marketing so much easier), but it is no longer sufficient.  That’s assuming, of course, that it ever was.


Pithy Insights On Startup Marketing


  1. Most Startups Have A Marketing Problem:  Most startups I know today do not have a technology problem.  It is much more likely that they are capable of building a product than they are marketing that product and finding customers.


  1. Seek Leverage:  Startups need to be efficient about how they go about distributing their product.  Few can afford the expense of a direct sales force.  Instead, startups should seek activities that have leverage (i.e. where a small expenditure of resources can result in disproportional success).  The best way to find leverage is to try lots of small, creative things and figure out what works.


  1. Don’t Look For Customers:  This one’s a little controversial.  I think in today’s world, it’s very expensive and difficult for a startup to go out into the market looking for people or organizations that will be great customers.  Instead, I think it’s much more effective to instead help your best customers find you.  This one’s really important so I’m going to give you a sound bite:


Instead of spending money trying to seek our your best customers, startups should instead focus on helping their best customers find them.


  1. Reduce Time To Enjoyment (TTE):  In most markets today, customers are impatient and demanding.  Try to find ways to reduce the customer’s time to enjoyment for your product.  The time to enjoyment is basically the time it takes from when a customer decides to try/buy your product to when she actually gets some enjoyment/benefit from it.  Many startups focus on increasing the level of enjoyment (i.e. “if you just spend 15 more minutes, you’ll get so much more value…”).  This is the wrong approach.  Don’t increase the level of benefit, but decrease the time it takes to get the minimal benefit.


  1. It’s Easier To Market A Product Customers Like:  This is an obvious one, but still needs to be said.  If customers like the product, they are more likely to tell other people.  This is one of the highest points of leverage there is and the most efficient ways to get distribution.  It’s important to note here that you may not actually know what it is that customers like (what you think makes your product valuable may be very different from what customers actually see as valuable).  When in doubt (which is most of the time), ask the customer.


  1. Non-Dead Products Sell Better:  Potential customers like to see that a product is evolving.  Demonstrate to your market that there are signs of life in your startup.  Don’t go “dark” for months at a time with no updates or news on what you’re doing to improve the product.  A product that is not changing is a dead product.  Nobody wants to buy a dead product (however good it might be).


  1. Be Transparent:  We live in an age of abundant options and lots of “noise” in the market.  Customers have become skeptical and cynical.  Most startups don’t give their customers enough credit.  They’re smarter than you think they are.  Be honest.  Be transparent.  Trying to lure customers into buying something by misleading them may work in the short-term and get you a few customers, but almost always fails in the long term.  


  1. Your Customers Should Be Selling:  Everyone knows that customer referrals (where a customer refers another customer) is a great way to market a product.  In this case, everyone would be right.  Referrals are a great way to market a product.  I’d go so far as to say if at least some of your sales are not happening as a result of customer referrals, there’s something wrong.  If you’re doing things right (and being transparent and not misleading), then customer referrals should be a natural outcome of your activities.


  1. Be Objective and Empathetic:  It amazes me how exceptionally brilliant people can often delude themselves about their product offering.  Sometime today, take some quiet time when you’re all alone and ask yourself the question:  “If I were a potential customer, knowing everything I know about the company and product, would I buy?”.  Stated differently, if you left your startup tomorrow and knowing everything you know, would you buy your own product?    When selling something, empathy is often the most underrated skill.  If you can be honest with yourself and truly put yourself in shoes of the customer, amazing things start to happen.


I just noticed that my “pithy insights” articles are getting less pithy over time.  I’ll need to work on that.  In the meantime, what ideas do you have on how startups can improve their marketing?  Is this an issue you struggle with, or do you have it all figured out?  Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.




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