Why the zero marketing bullshit is killing your startup

A silhouetted billboard.

By Gavin Heaton

It’s almost like a badge of honour for a startup to claim that they have achieved success without a marketing budget.

You hear it in speeches, in conversation and when talking with startup founders and entrepreneurs about their business and plans for the future.

A simple Google search will turn up dozens of articles explaining how marketing can be done without marketing, relying instead on guerrilla techniques or growth hacking.

But almost every technique, tip or trick suggested by these articles is actually marketing.

And from a marketer’s perspective, there are two ways to do marketing:

  • You can buy it
  • You can spend the time and do it yourself.

But either way it is an investment. And if you have never done marketing before, there’s plenty to learn. One of the first things to learn is to understand ROI.

When speaking with one of IBM’s business leaders recently, he laughed about studying marketing as an undergraduate. He thought as a young student that it was all about advertising and brand, that there would be glamour, bright lights and long lunches. To his shock and ever-lasting dismay, he found himself locked into hours of spreadsheet analysis, statistics and number crunching. There wasn’t a dry martini to be found.

Little wonder that for startup founders, ROI for marketing is often confused – or confusing. Even if you commit to a minimal marketing spend – on say Facebook advertising or Google AdWords – you are still going to want to spend something.

And you want your results to validate or refute a hypothesis, so you’ll need to test it against a statistically significant sample population, so you’ll really need to spend five times something. This means:

  • Working the creative – yes, this means your time or your money)
  • Split testing variations of copy
  • Split testing variations of imagery and creative
  • Ensuring you don’t contravene Facebook’s policy limiting the amount of text in an ad
  • Defining and managing audience segments and targeting
  • Analysing the results (either real-time or at the end of the week)
  • Building, optimising and tweaking landing pages, sign-up forms or ecommerce offerings
  • Aligning messaging across channels
  • Measuring conversion ratios and monitoring cart abandonment
  • And let’s not even get into customer acquisition, retention and reactivation.

But these are just a series of marketing tactics. It’s not a strategy. It’s not connected to a vision for your business. It’s not driving a deeper connection with your customers.

More importantly for time-poor founders – much of this is a time sink. Most founders are learning on the go – literally flying by the seat of their pants, basing their next decision on their last best decision.

As a founder you have months not years

One of the harsh realities of startup life is that startups fail. Six months in the life of a startup can be a complete lifecycle.

From the time you kick-off your startup, the clock is ticking and the money is burning – yours or someone else’s. What can you do to make the most of that time and energy?

The importance of building your market while building your product

So many startups make massive investments in their product. They build a platform, integrate services and APIs and thankfully create fun to use, elegant apps and websites. They set a date for launch and rush headlong for it, praying that the funding they have scraped together will see them through.

And then the launch happens, the site is pushed live and bottles of bubbly are shared around. It’s a huge milestone.

Often there’s a spike in traffic as friends, family and supporters pile in. There will be sign-ups and maybe even a few sales.

And this may last a few days or weeks – but then what?

Many startup founders complain about lack of press coverage, support, or downloads. The rosy post-launch glow fades quickly as reality sets in, the list of bugs and requests grows and the social media channels go silent.

You may have built the most amazing customer experience since Uber. You may have a new social network that could  out Facebook Facebook. But it won’t matter if no one knows about you or your startup. It won’t matter if no one cares. And it won’t matter if no one bothers to open your cold call email.

When you build out an MVP, you are supposed to be building something that is “viable”. And that means “buyable”. And that puts marketing at the centre of all you are doing, not on the fringe of your prioritisation meetings.

It’s often useful to go back to basics. Without the correct foundations in place, your business will struggle.

Too often, marketing is activated late in the game. For many startups, it’s all innovation and no marketing. But marketing done right will:

  • Accelerate product-market fit
  • Clarify your messaging and brand architecture in line with your product experience and roadmap
  • Help you make customer focused product decisions
  • Build your market engagement and customer community
  • Direct you towards influencers and networks to help drive traction
  • Position your business to scale

The main game is to take a market-product fit – not the other way around. By developing your market, employing growth hacking techniques and closely working the three metrics that matter, you can literally change your business trajectory.

Product development is expensive. It takes time and resources and in most startups there are precious little of both. Market development is expensive too. Often by the time a startup is ready to launch much of the cash has been burned and there’s precious little left.

The reality is, at launch, you’re really just at the starting line – you’ve got a seat at the customer’s table and the hard work is all ahead of you.

Gavin Heaton is the founder of the Disruptor’s Handbook and a marketing technologist, strategist and advisor.

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Since 2010 StartupSmart has been Australia’s no.1 publication for the startup community and those interested in the startup movement globally. Publishing news, information and advice daily, and placing itself squarely at the centre of the government’s national innovation agenda, StartupSmart is a leading participant in the momentum that surrounds the world’s focus on technology, creativity and entrepreneurialism.
  • Lee Wei

    As much as I agree with this, I think that the way to evaluate your campaign has greatly evolved over the years from “hours of spreadsheet analysis, statistics and number crunching.” Even Facebook themselves offers you a ways to analyse your campaign without you having to so much break a sweat. We’ve come a long way from ‘knowing how to google’. These days, it’s more of what you can do with the results that Google provides that matters.