In my years doing startup marketing, I’ve come across two philosophies on timing. Both, it turns out, are right – it just depends on what you’re trying to build.
The first philosophy comes from VCs. You’ll hear them say things like “Don’t start marketing until your startup has product-market fit.” What this means is that you have a product, even if it’s a working MVP, and customers are using it the way you intend them to without any major hiccups.
A good indication of this is if your startup is growing, however slowly, without a big push from you or your marketing team. It could be that customers are finding your startup via organic search or that paid traffic to test your service is resulting in referrals or that marketing you’re doing without budget is getting a handful of conversions.
Embedded in this advice is a reliance on the core technology. Product-market fit proves that the core technology speaks to a real need. Once you have this, you’ll have investors knocking on your door at a rate proportional to the size of your market and inversely related to its competitiveness– is it a blue or red ocean?
The second approach comes from, you guessed it, marketers, especially of the technical variety. These marketers believe that you should be marketing from the get-go, and that marketing can be a way of testing channels and starting to build audiences with slower-to-grow strategies like content marketing. Take Mint or Buffer, whose CEOs committed to blogging extensively a year before launch and were able to see traction immediately afterwards
The truth is that both approaches are correct – they just work for different types of startups. Startups that are more tech-driven and innovative, that will to some extent need to educate their market, are better served establishing product-market fit and saving their marketing for the post-round. They should only spend marketing dollars beforehand insofar as they need to test product or market demand.
Partly, there’s an assumption here that these types of startups will be both more expensive to build and more expensive to market, requiring at least a year of development from a team of engineers and programmers and likely sales teams to bring it to market. Think sophisticated B2B SaaS, B2C hardware, and others.
If funding is short, there are alternatives. First, they should test existing solutions and survey users, they should build apps instead of gadgets, they should craft MVPs around one core feature rather than commit upfront to feature soup. Coupled with marketing tests, these can be the startup’s first forays into product marketing. The key benefit is not just confidence – early traction around simple products can be validation enough for investors.
Other startups, or more aptly, “the rest of them,” that have lower barriers to entry, are cheaper to build, and have established markets, will benefit from marketing earlier. This is true even if the startup does have a unique value proposition (“UVP”) but the core technology already exists and is largely available to engineers and programmers.
In this case entrepreneurs should be confident about testing things on a smaller scale because the larger questions of customer need have already been answered in the industry as a whole. As well, there’s an assumption here that the ocean is more red than blue, or on its way, and there will be a bigger reliance on creative marketing to drive sales.
What remains to be seen for these entrepreneurs is how to express the UVP and which marketing channels to focus on. For this I recommend books like “Traction” that ask entrepreneurs and marketers to review every marketing channel and not discount one or the other out of unfamiliarity or assumptions around what’s typically done.
No startup should commit to any one strategy over another before testing messaging and channels. The conventional wisdom is that companies should write strategies–and I don’t disagree–but strategies at startups are usually out-of-date the day they’re written. Things change quickly on the ground in competitive or new markets.
Instead, I suggest that strategies be developed around and expressed in terms of tests. KPIs should be tossed in favor of assumption validation. Marketers should be focused on 2-3 core activities that are agreed to likely be the highest performing – and they should see themselves and organize their time as if they’re programmers. Think “scrum.” If assumptions aren’t validated, there needs to be an analytical assessment on the reasons why not, and a decision to either iterate on or abandon the channel.
This doesn’t mean market research shouldn’t be extensively conducted and prepared. Market research well done will be a permanent fixture of presentations and a continuous resource in developing tests and strategies. And this doesn’t mean you won’t need to write a strategy from the get-go – investors and partners will ask, after all.
But, I am convinced of two things:
- Investors in this case will care most about the bigger questions around marketing that will result from your market research: target market, competition, business model, UVP, and more
- The results of manifold tests since the startup’s founding that speak to product-market fit, messaging, marketing channels, and more will speak volumes more than promises to spend X on digital marketing and Y on PR (just because you think so)
So when should startups start to market themselves? It depends on the startup and it depends on what you mean by “market.” While all startups should run product and market tests up until the day of launch (and forever afterwards), deeper-tech startups should wait until after product-market fit and everybody else should start as soon as they can make educated decisions about what will likely work based on those tests.
Until your marketing across-the-board is stable enough to return predictable results, throw out the strategies with a capital S. They’re not for your startup team.