From the Trenches

Startup Marketing Requires Constant Expertise

Mike Sweeney | June 1, 2009

Everyone loves startups.  We love the passion displayed by the founders.  We love the seemingly irrational loyalty demonstrated by the first few employees.  We love when the media declares startup X as the “next big thing”.  We love when angel investors or venture capitalists make bold predictions about the company’s potential share of a given market.  Simply put, we love the underdog.

Yet startups fail – often.  We rarely get to hear the failure stories directly from the founders.  I completely understand.  Very few want to admit failure, and even less want to discuss their failure publicly.  That’s why I appreciate this blog post from Mark Goldenson on VentureBeat.

There are a lot of great nuggets included in this post, but for the sake of brevity (and relevancy to this blog) I’ll include one excerpt:

5. Marketing requires constant expertise. The main failure of PlayCafe was marketing. Dev and I came from PayPal, a strongly viral product at a company almost hostile to marketing. Our efforts in SEO, SEM, virality, platforms, PR, and partnerships weren’t terrible, but drawing users to a live event requires constant, skillful work.

Like creating content, I no longer think marketing is something smart novices can figure out part-time. As the web gets super-saturated, marketing is the difference-maker, and it’s too deep a skill to leave to amateurs.

An exception is inherently viral ideas, especially one-to-many virality, where normal use of your product reaches new users, not “word-of-mouth” viral that requires users to advocate you. With inherent virality, a barely adequate product might suffice, though even then marketing should accelerate growth. Next time we’ll raise enough to hire a marketing expert early.

Hallelujah!  I’ve always found some irony in the fact that the average startup lacks marketing talent or expertise, and yet that is often the category that the founders and first employees try to learn and execute on their own.

A little bit of advice for startups with regards to marketing:

  • Spend less time trying to learn marketing.
  • Spend more time evaluating and hiring the appropriate employees, contractors or agencies to help you execute your marketing programs.
  • Spend the time and money to make sure you get some marketing strategy advice, not just advice on building advertising campaigns.
  • Ask the person that helps you build marketing strategy to identify experts – not generalists – for each component of the marketing strategy.
  • Don’t take flyers on “can’t miss” advertising programs without consulting someone with marketing expertise that can provide realistic expectations for any marketing program.

Inherently viral concepts that grow largely based on word-of-mouth are extremely rare.  I’ve seen 4-5 in my career.  Follow Mark’s advice.  Find a marketing expert to help you out, but do spend the time to find the right marketing expert.

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