Hey Startup Founder, Your Messaging Sucks

July 17, 2011 •

I have some good news and some bad news for startup founders and CEOs.

The bad news is that your messaging does in fact suck, and it may suck for a long, long time.

The good news is that if you follow the rest of this post, you may be able to turn that suckitude into not only revenue, but that elusive next round of funding.

Before I go into storytelling mode, I have a confession to make. I don’t really know what messaging is anymore. I know what it means to me, but recent experience tells me that others think it’s some magical mix of things like value props, mission statements and boilerplates.

Mission statements were covered in my Marketing 101 class…in 1993.

Here’s my definition of what messaging is today: it describes what you are, and what you’re about. That holds for both individuals and companies.

For example, let’s me try this with my company, Right Source Marketing.

We’re a marketing consulting firm. We’re heavily focused on two areas: marketing strategy, because eventually even the best marketing tactics fail without a strategy; and content marketing, because social media is nothing without content marketing.

How did I do?  My guess is that Will Davis, Tracy Gold, Alecia Farley and Allison Novak are questioning my leadership right now, because that may not be the story they’d tell.

And that’s ok, because while messaging is necessary, it’s not only going to change, it may change many times. Sure, companies like Nike or GM or Exxon may be able to track the rise and fall of shareholder value based on certain “messaging” campaigns, but you are a startup. Spend too much time trying to nail messaging, and you’re out of money.

Here’s how we’ve found this work for startups: not too long ago, we started working with a startup company with a great CEO, a few great senior staffers, a little bit of money, but no product, messaging, or marketing. We helped create the product, we knew what we needed to do with the promotion piece, but we got stuck on messaging.

Value props, then redlines. Boilerplates, then redlines. Tag lines, then redlines. Blog posts, then redlines.

And then, we just stopped. We just reached some type of happy place where I think both our staff and the client realized that we were NOT going to nail it together, and we moved on.

And then an interesting thing happened. We executed the hell out of the marketing strategy. Met and exceeded every goal.

8 months later, the client received a significant round of funding. Even with messaging that sucked.

Some concrete advice for startup founders and CEOs. Do NOT ignore messaging, but consider these 4 ideas:

1. Get outside help. You don’t have to hire a giant ad agency or public relations firm. You don’t even need to pay anyone. But you do need perspective outside the founding team. Your story may sound great to a bunch of engineers who have been working 16 hour days for equity, but that does not mean the story will make any sense to the outside world.

2. Don’t let your investors help. VCs, and to a lesser extent angels, tend to always compare you to one of their previous portfolio successes. That means your message will always have a “me too” feel to it. Be the next you, not the next Dropbox, or Zynga, or Groupon.

3. Test and adjust your messaging. You’re going to test customer acquisition campaigns, your social media programs and your telemarketing process. Why wouldn’t you take the same approach to messaging?

4. Just move on when you’re stuck. Your prospective customers, investors and partners are waiting, so stop messing with your messaging and execute.

About the Author

As managing partner and chief strategy officer for Right Source, Mike Sweeney is responsible for all content marketing initiatives, including growing the company’s content marketing practice, guiding all client content marketing strategy, and recruiting and growing a team of modern marketers. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame. You can find Mike on Twitter and Google+, connect with him on LinkedIn, or read his other posts.

  • Mike –

    This is a thoughtful post and right on. I’ve seen plenty of founders get stuck in ongoing, never-ending strategic planning (and been guilty of this myself.) I’ve seen others respond to that threat by doing NO planning at all, with the attitude they should just do stuff.

    But like most things in life, the most success comes from a proper balance. Do some planning, don’t get caught up in trying to be perfect, and then execute. See what works. Tweak and adjust.

    – Scott Paley

  • Mike Sweeney

    Scott – Everything in moderation, right? When my dad gave me that advice, I had no idea he was talking about time spent on messaging!

    Seriously, thanks for the comment. You are absolutely right – it’s about striking a balance between planning and doing.

    – Mike

  • Human thought processes may be measurable by scientific means, but there are no scientific plays when it comes to understanding differentiation. Start with Why your prospect needs your solution stated from their perspective. Are they aware they of the need or is this a want / nice-to-have? There are only a few ways to catch mice, and frankly the mice get caught if the trap is cheap metal or platinum.

    The next time someone walks into your office and asks for a marketing plan, ask them for their four second sales pitch. It will speak volumes.

  • Mike Sweeney

    Tobias – Thanks for the comment. Why 4 seconds? Most people can’t give a sales pitch in 30 seconds, let alone 4.

    Like the mice line, may have to reuse that one.

    – Mike

  • I find this post interesting and the case study you provide while short does spawn thought. An excellent product will receive attention even in the absence of great messaging. Is the same true for a service firm? I think I know the answer but then again I may not. I’d be interested to hear your opinion.

    I certainly embrace the deploy, tweak and track strategy. I hope to see some more posts in the future and I’d love to see more specifics about marketing from this blog without giving away the farm.

    Look forward to the next one!

    • Mike Sweeney

      Mike – Product and service firms are definitely different animals with regards to the importance of messaging and the actual output of a messaging exercise. That being said, the lesson in this post holds for both: spend too much time on trying to get your messaging perfect, and you may miss out on opportunities to grow your business. Working on strategy/messaging vs. execution will always require a delicate balance of time and resources.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Mike

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