What Every Early-Stage Startup Must Know About Marketing
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked the question.
And I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last time, either.
“I’m an early-stage startup with no full-time marketing resources. What should I be doing first?”
My mind immediately burst into a million different directions.
What was he selling?
What problem was he trying to solve?
Why? What draws him to this problem and his solution?
What’s his ACV? MRR? Does he have a sales team? What round of funding is he on?
And I completely understood why he was asking it.
Founders of early-stage SaaS startups have an interesting challenge: build a great product, grow fast with virtually nothing, and somehow stay sane.
After reflecting on my own experiences, here’s exactly what I wish I could have said:
Master the Engineering Process and Build a Great Product
Honestly — all of the time spent on marketing right now could just be spent on building a faster, better, stronger engineering process and ultimately, a better product.
High-quality, valuable products are the ones that stick.
It’s not really “Build it and they will come”, but more like “Build it really well and they will stay — for a long time.”
I’ll talk in a later post about minimum viable product (MVP) and the role it plays here, but ultimately, customers that don’t churn means more MRR and month-month growth.
If anything, that’s your marketing strategy.
Build great products and ship new releases regularly. If you can hack your product and engineering team to push quality new releases (and therefore, features) every one to two weeks, you’re already an outlier.
Don’t Spend a Dime on Marketing Before You Master This Simple Thing
The last thing you need to be doing is spending anything on marketing until you have this one simple concept nailed: your Ideal Customer Profile aka ICP.
The Ideal Customer Profile essentially states exactly what it implies: who is your ideal customer? What do they look like? Where do you draw the line in the sand for those who fit the ICP and those who don’t?
ICP can potentially look at attributes like:
– Number of Employees
– Revenue – Funding Rounds
– Size of XYZ Department
– Technology Stack
– Industry / Vertical
– Geographic Region / Location
But ultimately, it completely depends on your most profitable customers.
How do you define your ideal customer profile? Pop open your CRM or the Excel spreadsheet where you keep your customers and see if you notice any specific similarities (or dissimilarities).
Be ruthless throughout this process. It’s the best advice anyone’s ever given me in regards to building out an ICP. If they’re not paying you money now, there’s a good chance they won’t be your most profitable customer (yet).
Eventually, you’ll revisit your ICP when you start to experience churn and you’ll decide if the churn warrants a change to your ICP. That means putting your science and data cap on and eliminating the chaff and the distractions.
So be ruthless.
Focus Your Message and Your USP
Just about every founder oozes with ambition when asked about their target market.
“Well right now, we’re just selling B2C, but eventually our product could be used for XYZ industry!”
“We don’t have any customers in the exact size company we want, but in the future, we want to sell to enterprise!”
Founders must be careful not to spread their message too thin across too many ICPs and personas at once. You have neither the time nor the resources to be everything to everyone — so focus that ICP and your messaging to repeat the customers you’ve got.
Always keep the future in mind and take steps to get there, but keep the people who signed the SLA or swiped their credit card closest to you.
Remember: the future cannot pay your bills today. It can only serve as a reminder of the glory to come.
A focused message, through research and testing, will help founders also focus their marketing efforts before they ever even put forth a penny. That means campaigns that will yield the results they want.
Know Your Channels
Some of the most common questions for panels at SaaS conferences are almost always related to marketing channels:
- Which marketing channel should I prioritize first for my startup?
- What campaigns should I be running?
- How did XYZ company achieve growth through marketing?
- What’s a Saas startup marketing playbook look like?
The answer is…
The most common channels found in these SaaS startup marketing playbooks and demand generation strategies will almost always highlight the following:
- SEM / Paid search
- Display ads / PPC
- Inbound marketing and content creation efforts
- Paid social media
- Email / Nurturing
- Outbound plays (usually with Sales
- Can include a mix of phone, video, email, and social
- Partnerships / Co-marketing
- Conferences and events
- Influencer marketing
- Social media
- Direct mail
- Communities like Quora, StackExchange, Inbound, etc.
- On-site chat (think Drift, Intercom, etc.)
- Review sites like Capterra, G2 Crowd, etc.
- Content distribution networks (like Taboola and Storyful)
The secret to all of these channels?
Not a single one of them matters if your ICP isn’t present in them.
If you sell to game developers, you need to go figure out where they hang out, what they read, where they go for information, and who they listen to or trust.
These will eventually become channels you’ll need to harness — because it doesn’t make sense to spend energy and resources on a channel where your target market doesn’t reside.
Double-Down When It Works
There’s a ton of channels to try, but there’s a few important things to remember:
- If it doesn’t have my ICP, then it’s not for me
- Start with just one channel, master it, and build an audience around it
- When you’re ready, add the next channel, and the next, and so on
If you keep your ears close to your customer, you’ll identify the channels to prioritize, and when it works, double-down on it until it starts choking.
When it stops working, re-visit your campaign and channel strategy. Chances are your messaging has gone stale and you need to refresh what you’re putting out there.
If that still doesn’t work, pause it for a while and focus on your other channels.
Don’t Forget That You’re Selling To People
It’s really easy as a marketer to just say “go after channels!”, “go after your ICP!” — but the truth is that it does go deeper than that.
Don’t make the mistake of forgetting that those channels and campaigns are still made of up people. It’s the biggest mistake you can make. Never forget.
It doesn’t have to be perfect when you first start, but it does have to mold into something that will still drive demand for your product while also building trust and relationships.
You Will Fail — A Lot
Don’t let fear deter you from trying things in those early stages. Your goal is to get that initial traction — and if you’re past initial traction, mastering the growth stage.
If you get burned by a channel, keep it moving. If you make mistakes, learn from it (because you absolutely will make mistakes), and then keep it coming.
Your favorite phrase should be “Bye, Felicia!” when something crashes and burns.
But as soon as something starts working and you get the results you want for a reasonable cost, you know what to do.
But most importantly, embrace the failure. You don’t have time to hem and haw.