Startup Marketing and Sales
by April Dunford

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Startup Marketing in New Vs. Established Markets


Established markets and new markets are not the same so the way that you market and sell to them is different. For startups, it’s really important to know the difference. For each type of market are using different marketing tactics, executed in different ways with different expected results.

New versus Established Markets – The Problem Gap

In an established market, there are prospects out there that understand that they have a problem that needs to be solved. There will also be prospects actively in the process of learning about, shopping for and purchasing solutions.

In new markets, prospects are blissfully unaware that they even have a problem. They aren’t researching solutions or shopping for solutions to a problem that they don’t know they have.

If we think about a typical buyer journey we can see that in new markets, the bulk of buyers are starting at a different starting point than the buyers in a more established markets.

buying process in new vs established markets


Creating Demand VS. Capturing Demand

So how are the marketing tactics different for these different markets? For new markets the first job of marketing is to educate your target segment that there is a problem to be solved in the first place. This is counterintuitive for many startup who would rather jump in and talk about why their solution is better than other solutions. Until prospects believe they have a problem to solve, efforts to market solutions will be really ineffective. Why should I care about your solution? I don’t even have that problem!

When there is no demand for your solution, tactics that we typically use to capture existing demand are ineffective. People aren’t searching for solutions so using advertising or SEO to drive people to sign up will have limited success – there simply aren’t enough people ready to buy.

Marketers in new markets have to start by educating the market that there is problem. Many of the tactics you might use here look like tactics you would use later in the buying process but the content used to support them and the “Ask” are different.

For example, let’s say you have a marketing solution for Snapchat. You might decide to create a blog and write a series of blog posts to try to engage with a community of marketers that are likely to use Snapchat as a marketing channel. After talking to marketers however, you learn that most of them aren’t using Snapchat today, nor do they see that as a viable place to do marketing. Your marketing might include blog posts, ebooks, infographics, video, etc. and the content in there will be around demonstrating that marketers are missing the boat on this new platform. You could do this with case studies of how other folks have used it, data that demonstrates the potential of the platform as a channel, examples of content that is already being shared there, etc. You might want to run a snapchat campaign yourself (not to capture marketers who have already demonstrated their cluelessness about the platform) but to gather your own data about how a campaign might potentially work.

If we take the same example but go with the insight that the target segment is already interested in using Snapchat as a marketing channel and might be actively looking for ways to make that easier, you can imagine that some of the tactics would be the same (blog posts, infographics, video) but the content in them would be different. In this case you wouldn’t have to convince your audience that Snapchat is cool, you would have to convince them that your solution is better than whatever they are using today. The content of your marketing content is different because the context is different. In this case there would also be other tactics you could add – paid advertising, email marketing, events, webinars, creating a buyers guide, outbound telemarketing – that are designed to capture folks that are further down the buying process and are already shopping for a solution.

The Ask: Entertainment VS Education VS Selling

If I am marketing into an existing market and there are folks that are already searching for solutions then it makes sense that I can just get out there and sell to those prospects. On the other hand, if my prospects don’t realize they have a problem worth solving yet, I first have to help them understand the cost of not solving the problem before I can try to convince them that my solution is the best out there and they should buy it. The “Ask” (what I am asking my prospects to do) when they click on my link or hit my landing page can’t be “Sign up for a trial” or “Buy now” for folks in these earlier stages. In new markets, frequently the “Ask” is “please allow me to keep talking to you”. That might mean subscribing to a blog or a newsletter or following my updates on social media. Once I have your permission to do that, then later when you are ready to buy, I can ask for permission sell you something.

The other thing to keep in mind is that prospects that don’t know they need your stuff yet aren’t really all that interested in investing the time to learn anything quite yet. If your content can be funny or inspiring or just generally interesting, you have a better chance of getting permission to keep talking to them.

Here’s a chart I have used in workshops to illustrate the differences between tactics that are used at different stages.

startup marketing tactics mapped to buying process


This post was inspired by a post from Boris Wertz over at Version One called How to spark demand when creating a new market space.

When Describing Your Startup as “Uber for X” is a Big Mistake


Describing what your startup does, particularly when that product is something the world has never seen before, is hard. One of the first steps in positioning an offering is to establish a frame of reference for prospects or investors. By describing your offering as being similar to something else, you can build on what prospects already know and use that to help them make the leap to understanding what you’ve got.

The idea of a “High Concept Pitch” for startups has been around for a while. I fist saw this in a Venture Hacks post (from 2008) that outlined it as a way to “describe the company’s vision on the back of a business card”. Some examples given were:

  • Friendster for Dogs (Dogster)
  • Flickr for video (YouTube)
  • The Firefox of media players (Songbird)

While looking back at these specific example is entertaining (who would compare themselves to Friendster? Imagine YouTube positioning itself against Flickr? What does “the Firefox of” mean anyway?), this method for describing a startup continues to be super popular. A MarketWatch study recently analyzed AngelList profiles of startups and determined Airbnb, Uber and LinkedIn were the top 3 companies used to describe a new company.

Startup Comparisons MarketWatch

Data from MarketWatch Shows Top Startup Companisons


As popular as this approach is, there are also some ways that this positioning could be not just ineffective, but downright harmful for your company. Here are some things to consider:

Positioning for a VC pitch is not the same as positioning for a prospect

Whether or not a pitch works depends a lot on the audience and what they are hoping to get out of it. The “Uber for X” pitch works best for a VC audience where you are trying to emphasize the growth potential of your idea by comparing it to other high-growth companies. For prospects however, the value they hope to get from your product could be very different from what Uber, Airbnb or LinkedIn provides. While a VC might be intrigued by the idea of “Uber for kitchen appliances”, a prospect might find “Kitchen appliance rental” easier to understand. If the comparison pitch works with investors, go ahead and use it, but keep in mind that your pitch to potential customers may need to be very different.

It assumes the audience knows the company you are comparing yourself to

This should be obvious but for some of us that spend all day in the startup world, it’s easy to forget that not everyone uses Airbnb and Uber. If my target audience was executives at large companies, the Airbnb comparison might not work at all and I’ve come across buyer segments (CEOs of small manufacturing plants for example) that have never used LinkedIn, nor do they understand why anyone would. Again, for an investor pitch the comparison might work but be careful that it works the same way with a prospect.

The comparison brings both good and bad qualities with it

Comparing your company with Uber could mean you are a business that is growing like crazy by translating online demand to offline fulfillment, but it could also mean that you expect to have loads of regulatory issues, plan on using borderline legal competitive tactics, don’t give a hoot about safety and/or are just kind of crappy human beings all-around. A good example here is Shuddle. When it recently raised a round of financing, it was hailed as “Uber for Kids” in the press. I can imagine this working with investors but I couldn’t imagine a worse comparison for an audience of parents. Go to their website however, and you will see that’s not at all how they describe themselves. “Scheduled rides for busy parents” feels a whole lot better, while still clearly, succinctly explaining what they do.

It may not help answer the question “What is this thing anyway?”

The other problem with the “Uber for X” comparison is that it might make figuring out what you do more confusing. Comparing your company to Uber may be a good shorthand for helping people to understand the model for your business but not the actual business itself. For example if I told you my business was Airbnb for shipping packages, I’m not sure you would understand it. But if I said my business (like PiggyBee) was shipping packages with travellers, you might understand that better. Not every business that is about using unused capacity for something is best described as “Airbnb for…”

It can make you look less innovative

If everyone is comparing themselves to Uber, does the comparison still work, even for VC’s? In some cases investors are getting tired of it. Jeremy Levine, a partner with Bessemer Venture Partners in New York stated that “It’s no longer quite so inspiring” and that when VC’s hear it, it should give them a “nagging reservation” that the company isn’t unique or innovative.

You might find that saying you are LinkedIn for dogs or Airbnb for babies still works but first make sure that you have spent some time thinking about your audience and the company you are comparing yourself to. Also, a “high concept pitch” isn’t the same thing as positioning or a tag line or even messaging. It’s merely a short form way of describing what you are at a high level. You still have to do the hard work of really positioning your startup by defining who your target segments are, what market you play in, what your key value is and how you are different from other alternatives.

Positioning for Advantage


I gave a keynote at East Coast Startup Week this week on Startup Positioning. Think of these slides of the skimmable version of my earlier post on Startup Positioning (read that post if you want some color on what these slides are talking about) with the addition of a couple of examples using the template. Plus motorcycles, monster trucks and racing pigs because I know you secretly love all of those things. Enjoy.

A Startup Positioning Template


As a startup marketing exec that has been through a large number of product launches, I believe that how you position your startup in the market is crucial to early startup success. I’ve also seen that very few startups have a firm grasp of what exactly positioning is, why it’s important and how to do it.

 A Brief History of Positioning

The concept of positioning was first described by Ries and Trout in their marketing classic “Positioning – The Battle for Your Mind”. First published in 1981 this book still frequently shows up on lists of must-read books for marketers. Their idea was that there were two eras that proceeded “The era of positioning”

1/ The Product Era: First we had the product era where simply having a product was enough to ensure that it would be noticed. When there was only one toaster on the market or one vacuum cleaner or one toothpaste – simply putting the product in front of features, explaining the features and functionality of that product was enough to make customers listen.

2/ The Image Era – According to Ries and Trout, that era ended with the “image era”. As more and more competitive “me-too” products flooded into the market, it became harder and harder for customers to tell the difference between providers where there were so many similar products with similar features. Brands discovered that image could be a powerful differentiator, convincing buyers that certain products had “more prestige” than others. This Era is represented by the glory days of TV advertising and Mad Med style agencies that could change the fortunes of companies with a clever tag line, jingle or image.

3/ “The Positioning Era”:  Ries and Trout argued that at some point in the early 80’s image started to become as commodity as the products it was supposed to be rescuing. As consumers were flooded with more and more advertising, it became increasingly difficult to get people to take notice of any marketing at all. Inundated with brand messages, consumers became experts at tuning out. Brands had no choice but to focus their messages on the one or two key things that had a hope of breaking through. These messages had to take into consideration not only the key strengths and weaknesses of the offering but also had to effectively place those against the key strengths and weaknesses of the competition. The positioning era was about establishing a leadership position within the mind of the prospect.

Positioning in the Internet Age

Fast-forward 40 years – is the concept of Positioning still relevant? One could argue that it is more relevant than ever before. When Ries and Trout were stating that we were being bombarded with advertising messages, it turned out we were only getting started. Not only were the number of ads used in traditional media ballooning, the internet hadn’t even happened yet. If it was hard to be heard back then, it is almost impossible now.

What exactly is Positioning?

Here’s what it isn’t – it isn’t a tag line, it isn’t messaging, it isn’t your vision statement, it isn’t an elevator pitch. Although all of those things use Positioning as a foundation, positioning is something different. Here’s my definition:

Positioning describes how you are uniquely qualified to be a leader in something that an identified market segment cares a lot about.

The Traditional Positioning Statement They Teach You In Marketing School

So if positioning is so important, how do we do it? Traditionally marketing schools have taught us to capture positioning in a “positioning statement”. This statement usually comes in a form that looks something like this:

For <Target Market> who <Statement of Need>, the <Product Name> is a <Product Category> that <key benefit> unlike <competitive alternatives> our product <primary differentiation>

Here’s an example that’s been used in almost every marketing class I’ve ever taken that touched on Positioning: the positioning statement for Amazon from 2001:

For World Wide Web users who enjoy books, is a retail bookseller that provides instant access to over 1.1 million books. Unlike traditional book retailers, provides a combination of extraordinary convenience, low prices, and comprehensive selection

This tells us a lot about Amazon’s business (back then). The target market was book readers who are on the net, their competition were traditional book sellers, their differentiating feature was the broad selection of books and the value was giving you easy access to that selection at a low price. That’s a load of info about a business in one simple statement.

A Better Positioning Template for Startups

I always felt we could do better than this, especially for technology startups. I appreciate the idea of bringing together a bunch of really important ideas (what market are you in, what is the key benefit you deliver, what makes your offering different, who are your competitors) in as succinct a way as possible. Bringing that all together into one sentence forces you to be really simplify the things that make up your position in the market. On the other hand, forcing this into one pseudo-grammatically correct phrase (or phrases) often results in a statement that is not only awkward to say (let alone memorize) but forces the key elements into a random order that doesn’t necessarily lead to a path of further exploration. In my opinion, the Positioning Statement although short and sweet, is not helping us figure out positioning.

In my opinion a better way to capture positioning would be to bring the elements together into something that I could stick on the wall and refer to often. I’ve usually used a “canvas” – like structure to capture positioning that looks something like this:

Startup Positioning Template

The boxes are pretty simple. Here’s what I mean by each one:

What is it? – this is the one sentence description of what you are. The key here is to keep it really short and use plain English words. This isn’t about describing the value (we will get to that) or why it’s different from other things (we will get there too) – the idea is just to answer at the most basic level, “What the heck is it?”

Target Segment – This box is the description of the target customers you are going after right now. The trick here is to focus on who you will sell to over the next 6 months (not the ultimate market which is typically much broader). This market should be the folks that you are most likely to close in the short term. For B2B startups you will have a description of the target company and the target buyer within that company.

Market Category – This is the market category that you compete in. It’s important because often startups have a choice of multiple categories that they could compete in but the one you choose will define what the real competitive alternatives will be.

Competitive Alternatives – What are the solutions that compete with your solution? This should take the customer’s perspective and can include things that aren’t necessarily products such as “hire an intern” or “do nothing”.

Primary Differentiation – This is different from the Key Benefit but often the Key Benefit is derived from this.

Key Benefit – This is the single biggest benefit that your target buyers get from your offering. This is the one thing you would talk to customers about if you could only talk about a single benefit.

Pivoting on Positioning Components

Now here’s where this type of positioning exercise gets interesting. If you lay it out this way you can experiment changing something in one box and then watching how it impacts the other boxes. In my experience, changing something as simple as the definition of the market you are in or the segments you are going after can result in a dramatically stronger positioning.

Here’s an example. I worked for a startup that had a database product. The key differentiator for this product was that it allowed companies to very quickly analyze a large amount of data. The result was that queries that used to take hours could be run in minutes. The target market was essentially any company with a large amount of data that needed to be analyzed.

The main problem with this positioning was the market category. When we opened sales meetings with “We are a database” the prospect would immediately say “Ah, sorry, we’re an Oracle shop, we can’t bring in another database platform.” By positioning ourselves in a very established market category, we had essentially set Oracle as our competition in the minds of our prospects and had to spend the first meeting undoing the perception that we were essentially a crappy Oracle.

But we WERE a database. What else could we be? The answer came from a prospect in the end. At the end of a difficult sales call a prospect said to us “Ah! I finally get what you are!” To which I responded, “Um, like what are we?” He says “You aren’t a database at all you’re a data warehouse!”

At the time this technically didn’t seem to be true. Data Warehouses back then were defined by specific features/structures (e.g. star schemas, cubes) designed to speed up analytic queries. We were already a very fast database for analytic queries. So in terms of the value we brought to customers, we were very much a data warehouse. Better yet, by repositioning ourselves as a warehouse, we completely changed the vendors we were compared to. Our new competitors were less established and our technology was clearly different from theirs. By changing our market frame of reference, we went from weak positioning to strong positioning.

At other startups I have been part of we pivoted on the target customer by either focusing down on a smaller niche segment, by focusing on a vertical or by focusing on a different buyer (for example a line of business buyer rather than a technical buyer).

The point here is that once you have the positioning clearly laid out you can see where the weak points potentially are and then experiment to see if there is a way to position yourself more strongly in a different market or to different buyers.

A Startup Marketing Framework (version 3)


Years ago when I was consulting for startups, I created something I called “A Startup Marketing Framework“. I used it mainly as a tool to describe the kinds of things that I could help folks with. Startups found it useful and it is still a popular piece of content on this site. Last week I had a startup pull out a printed version of the framework (from 2011 no less!) and I decided there were a couple of changes I wanted to make to it. Below is the new and improved version 3.

Framework Assumptions

As with previous versions, the framework does not attempt to cover things that I would consider to be more “Product Management” focused (like product roadmap for example). I’m taking a purely marketing point of view here.  The Framework also assumes that you have a product in market, you feel fairly confident that you have a good fit between your market and your offering and you are ready to invest in lead generation. If you aren’t there yet, there are things here you won’t need to (and more importantly, shouldn’t) worry about yet.   Lastly, my background is B2B marketing so like most content on this site, this has a B2B slant to it.  That said, I think most of it applies to a B2C startup.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 3.23.22 PM

Market Knowledge

Market Category and Segments – Based on your interaction with early customers, these are the segments that have the most affinity for your offering and are the target of your marketing efforts.  These need to be well-defined and very specific.  I’ve had folks ask me where buyer/influencer personas fit and I include those here as part of what you need to understand about your segments. In previous versions I’ve called this simply “segments” but lately I find that figuring out what market category you are in is almost as important as knowing what segment you in targeting within it.

Key Points of Value – These are the most critical key differentiated points of value that your product offers.  This is not a long list of features but rather small number of key attributes that customers in your segment love about your product.  This is important for startups in particular to understand the real essence of why people buy your solution and it has a big impact on messaging, campaigns, sales strategy, etc.

Differentiation – This is a new box I have added this time around. I used to say that this was implicit in Key Points of Value but frankly startup generally struggle with coming up with value propositions that are differentiated that I decided this needs a box all its own. This captures how you would describe the key thing that makes you different from all other companies in the market. It is the thing that makes you, you in the minds of customers and prospects.

Competitive Alternatives - These are the alternative ways that prospects in your segments can attempt to address their needs without your product/service.  These may be competitive offerings, features or pieces of solutions in other spaces or the always fearsome “do nothing”.

Buying Process – This is another new box on this version. I used to say this was part of “sales strategy and process” but this is really more about documenting how your customers purchase solutions today. How you chose to sell might be something different. This is a key piece of market knowledge in my opinion.

Business Strategy

Business Model – This describes how the company makes money from the offering.

Sales Process and Strategy – The sales strategy is how the company will sell the product (including the channels if applicable).  The Sales Process is the detailed step by step process that a prospect goes through on the way to becoming a customer.  It’s important to note that this process starts long before a prospect interacts with a sales person and starts in the information gathering phase.

Market Strategy – The market strategy is a higher level view of how the company plans to scale in the market from early adopters to a broader market, including the segments to be targeted and in what order. (If I think of this as it relates to Crossing the Chasm’s “Bowling Alley of Market Development”, this would be the description of your “lead pin” and “adjacent pins”)

Partner Strategy – You could argue that this is part of “Sales Strategy” but there are more reasons to partner than just sales (sometimes it’s a marketing relationship, or to provide services for example) and since Marketing is usually responsible for this at a startup I thought it needed to be included.


Outbound Lead Generation – Outbound Lead Generation is the plan including budgeting and task execution for lead generation tactics that involve “pushing” marketing messages out to an audience.  This includes traditional marketing tactics such as events, paid advertising, telemarketing and traditional email marketing.

Inbound Lead Generation – This box is similar to the above box except that it includes that set of tactics that you are running that are focused on attracting prospects to you (rather than pushing messages out to prospects).  This includes blogging, social media marketing, content marketing, and organic search tactics.

Retention and Engagement – This is the bucket where I would put both tactics that startups would normally call “customer success” as well as tactics focused mainly on renewals. Cross-selling and up-selling tactics would also fall in this bucket in my mind.

Awareness – This is the bucket for all tactics related to ensuring that non-users of the product can observe that others are using it.  This includes product features that encourage people invite their friends or display to a person’s network some facet of using the product, referral incentives, website badges, sharable content, reviews and awards, customer testimonials and success marketing, etc. I previously called this “Visibility” but I think people understand “Awareness” better.


Messaging – This includes the company messaging, product value proposition, company and offering stories, responses to common questions, objection handling and reassurances for perceived risks.

Prospect Content – In the original version of the Framework, I had a single box called “Content Strategy”. I believe that the importance of content is growing to the extent that I think this deserves more attention. Prospect Content is content that is created in support of campaigns aimed at getting new customers (there will be content aimed at existing customers too – see below).  This will include blogs, video, podcasts, white papers and ebooks, research and data analysis, press releases, shared presentations, and anything else that is informative and helpful to prospects and supports both inbound and outbound campaigns you are running.

Customer Content – This is a new box I added that is specifically focused on building a plan for content for customers (as opposed to prospects).  The purpose of this content is customer retention and engagement (and it’s not an accident that this box sits next to that one in the Framework).  Again, for SaaS type businesses, I believe that retention is increasingly important and marketing should be putting more energy and effort into “marketing” to their existing customer base.

Media/influencer Content – This is a bucket of content that is created to help with activities related to working with reporters, analysts, writers, bloggers and other influencers.

Optimization & Market Learning

Funnel Optimization – The ongoing process of tracking and analyzing each stage of the sales funnel with the goal of making incremental improvements.

Results Tracking –  I am almost tempted to include this as implicit in the inbound and outbound lead generation boxes. Marketers used to be terrible at tracking so I wanted to call it out in a separate box. We are better at it now, but I still think this deserves to be a box on its own under “optimization”.

Market Learning – This includes both the ongoing process of meeting with customers and testing the assumptions you have about their needs, behaviors, preferences, etc., as well as the process of testing things in the market and learning from the results.

Laying a Foundation for Startup Growth


I spoke at an awesome startup event this week called Startup Empire. It was a sold-out conference with a great set of speakers including John Baker from Desire2Learn, Dan Debow from Salesforce, Harley Finkelstein from Shopify and Michael Litt from Vidyard and others. You can scroll down for my slides.

I decided to focus on what I think of as the “Foundational Elements” for a successful sales and marketing strategy at a startup. As startup people we’ve heard many, many stories of magic marketing tactics had a big impact on the business. We talk less about the daily grind of testing and discarding failed marketing programs that don’t deliver much of anything. As much as we love stories of specific examples of the hacks that grew successful companies, rarely are those tactics applicable to the business we are trying to run right now.

In my experience, starting with tactics is the wrong way to go about it. That’s because perfectly executed tactics layered over a flawed foundation will fail.

The Foundational Elements are:

Deep customer knowledge – A foundation of customer knowledge is really important. This has to go way beyond “we sell to SMB’s” and should include the unique characteristics of your target customers, their big pain points, where these prospects gather and how they learn about new products and solutions.

Messaging – Every campaign and sales call relies on your ability to communicate what you do in a way that gets prospects excited to hear more. That messaging needs to describe your unique value in ways that your customers can easily understand, articulates how you are different from other alternatives and points to proof that what you claim is actually true.

Understanding the buying process – Every customer segment makes purchase decisions in different ways. How they move along this journey and where they might be getting stuck is really important to understand. Chart 19 and 20 describes this in more depth and talks about the importance of mapping tactics to a buying journey.


Marketing Planning for Startups


I gave a talk a few weeks ago at OneEleven in Toronto. The audience was mainly early stage startups looking to learn a bit more about marketing and sales. I covered some of what I consider to be the bedrock underlying principles of building a revenue or growth engine for an early stage startup. You can scroll down for the slides but I wanted to give some color to the slides here in the blog.

You Can be Awesome At Tactical Execution and Fail

There is no shortage of great resources that explain how best to execute a particular tactic. If you Google “How to run a great adwords campaign” or “Guide to Facebook ads” or “How to market using Twitter” you will see millions of articles, guides and how-to manuals. But flawlessly executed tactics do fail – and they fail often. Sometimes because it’s the wrong tactic for your market, sometimes it’s because the messaging or call to action for the tactic isn’t compelling, sometimes it’s because there are simply better tactics. Sure, we are all smart enough at this stage to be measuring and testing so we know when they fail, but there is a very real cost to endlessly testing and rejecting failing (yet perfectly executed) marketing and sales tactics. Obviously we all need to keep sharp on how best to execute tactics but tactical expertise alone won’t get you to a great marketing and sales engine for your business.  Worse still, starting a marketing plan with a tactical plan can lead you into a spiral of wasted time, money and effort.

Detailed Customer Segmentation Comes First

So what comes before a tactical plan? Firstly you need a segmentation that describes the attributes and assumptions about the immediate target customer. This target customer is the customer you think you can most easily acquire in the next 3 months (not the customer you wish you could acquire 3 years from now). That understanding of who that exact customer is, why they are a great target for you, what is unique about them that makes them love your offering? Lame customer segmentation such as “We target SMB’s” or “Our target is Financial Services companies” will result in a lame set of tactics with lame response rates. Detailed, specific segments such as “Our target market is retailers with more than 30 physical stores, in the United States, that also have a significant online business” or “Small businesses with more than 5 employees in Canada that sell a service, rather than a product, and do not have a full-time office administrator” will lead to very specific tactics to test with a higher probability of success. Figuring out this highly specific customer profile will require you to speak directly to customers. Surveys and data can tell you a lot about what customers are doing but rarely give you insight into why customers do what they do. Customer discovery interviews take some skill to do well, but like any skill, you will improve over time. Importantly, these interviews should not be focused on selling a solution to the customer. The focus of these conversations is to learn more about the pain your solution addresses (and how a segment buys – more on this below). Later, with permission, you can sell the customer something.

Understanding the Buying Process

The next critical piece of information needed to build a better tactical marketing plan is a deep understanding of the target customer’s buying process. Any purchase journey has distinct steps and customers have different needs at different stages in that journey. For example, prospects that don’t understand that a category of solution exists in the market, often need to be educated about what they are missing out on today. On the other hand, in more established existing markets, customers may need less help understanding why they would want a solution at all and more help understand how competing solutions are different. Understanding where the bottlenecks are in the buying process is important because you will want to be able to map your marketing and sales actions to attack those bottlenecks. (Scroll all the way down to see more in the deck on slides 12 and 13 on this).

Mapping Marketing Tactics to the Buying Process

Finding the Root Cause of Failure – Incorrect Assumptions

Lastly, when a marketing tactic is selected and tested, often it will fail. One big mistake that many startups make is they simply move on to new tactics without really digging into the root cause of why the tactic didn’t produce the desired results. For example, you decide to create an email campaign targeting a specific set of prospects. The call to action is to register to download a piece of content. The response was lousy – the open rate was OK but the clickthrough rate was terrible. What have you learned? You made some basic assumptions about your prospects which led you to believe that this tactic would work and it didn’t. That means you have a bad assumption somewhere. What was it about the copy or the offer that didn’t appeal to your target prospects? Did you assume that this content was valuable to them and it turned out it wasn’t? Why not? What did your prospects expect to get when they opened the message? The answers to these questions will quite likely impact every other tactic you are running.

The Strengths of Startups versus Big Companies


I gave a talk recently on startup sales and marketing where I covered some of the ways that startups are naturally stronger than big companies. You can scroll down for the slides from but what follows is a bit of color you can’t get from the deck alone.

The natural strengths of startups aren’t always obvious. Often the idea of going head to head against a company that has much deeper resources than you do, seems counterintuitive, (particularly for marketing folks who are often overly focused on budget size – more on this later). Normally the comparison seems something like this:

Big Company Vs Startup

It seems a bit grim really doesn’t it? But anyone that’s spent some time working at a big company will tell you that the things that look like strengths from the outside are often seen as weaknesses from the inside. Here are some examples:

Team Size: As someone who has managed massive teams and smaller teams, I can say for a fact that smaller groups are much more productive. The first problem you get with big teams at large companies is specialization. There’s a person who does copywriting, a person who writes code for the website, a person who manages the marketing software, a person who owns campaigns, a person who focuses on PR, a person who owns product marketing, and well, you get the picture. Now imagine that you want to react to something that’s happening in the market RIGHT NOW. Small, nimble teams staffed with generalists may not produce at the same quality level or volume of output but they can do it fast.

Budget Size: In my first big company role after my startup had been acquired I inherited a budget that was about 10 times the budget I had at the startup. I was pretty sure I was going to achieve total world domination with that big fat budget. What happened instead was that 30% of my money went to fund overall company branding efforts not specifically related to my product, 10% went to fund a group-level set of campaigns, another 10% went to local geography regions (who could opt-out of focusing their efforts on my product), and 20% went to pay for very expensive outside services companies who made sure my graphics and copywriting were up to big company standards. With the 30% left over I could only choose from a menu of “approved” tactics. Non-menu items required further approval (and a super-human level of patience). “My budget” was big but it wasn’t really mine. At the startup I came from on the other hand, I didn’t have a lot of cash but whatever was there was applied directly to building pipeline for my product, and doing it quickly as well.

Brand Recognition – Yes, sure the bigger companies that have been around a while and have invested a bundle to make sure prospects know they exist will have much more brand recognition than your little startup. But what people believe about a brand is often a snapshot of it’s history and not a view of where the company wants to (or wishes it could) go. I worked at a large company that was attempting to make the switch from premise-based software to SaaS and it wasn’t pretty. Everyone knew who we were. But as we attempted to change, that brand awareness was a ball and chain that anchored us to the past. That experience convinced me that the only thing worse than being unknown was being known for the wrong thing.

Big Customer Base, Big Sales Ecosystem – An interesting side effect of scaling sales and distribution is that executives and marketers become increasingly separated from the customers and prospects they sell to. Startups and smaller teams selling directly into a market will have both a more direct line of communication to prospects and customers as well as deeper relationships with them. This allows a startup to see a change or opportunity in a market long before a bigger company gets a whiff that it’s happening.

Not every small company takes advantage of these startup strengths. Not everyone is listening to their customers and connecting with them. Not every startup is building nimble marketing teams staffed with broadly-skilled folks. Not everyone has their positioning worked out to take advantage of the fact that there are places in the market where the established brands simply don’t have permission from prospects to go. But if you do have some of it figured out, the big guys suddenly seem way less scary.

Awesome Startup Marketing and Sales

Be Awesome at Startup Marketing and Sales: The Only 2 Things You Need to Know


Last night I gave a talk for a group of startup folks focused on startup marketing and sales. Like most of the talks I’ve done over the past year, this one tried to break away from focusing purely on tactics (i.e. tips on optimizing things like SEO, social media, lead generation, etc.) and instead focused on what an early-stage company should do to figure out what tactics they might want to choose in the first place. The slideshare below focuses on the 2 things I believe are the foundation. If you get them right, everything downstream works better. If you get them wrong, everything downstream can be designed and executed perfectly and you will still fail.

A big thanks to Kevin Browne and Software Hamilton for inviting me. It was a large and energetic crowd. I also had the pleasure of watching a great round of demos including: Woof, Walkbug, Eventlyze, Who Wants to be a Nurse?, and Book a Meeting (and hey if any of you have links to your sites – let me know).

I also showed up with laryngitis and I wish I could have taken a photo of the looks on people’s faces as I croaked my way through the first few slides. Thanks for hanging in with me until my voice warmed up – you folks are awesome :) Here are the slides:


7 Steps to Better Startup Value Propositions


Marketing messages and value propositions are notoriously difficult to create for startups. Startup founders have a tendency to focus too much on features and not enough on the value those features deliver. They also often spend too much time talking about features that don’t really differentiate them from their competitors or are simply irrelevant for their target markets. When working on marketing messaging for startups, it’s often harder to get agreement on what NOT to say than it is to decide what should get talked about.

Here’s a method for getting to a simple set of value propositions that has worked for us:

1. List your target market segments. The more detail you can get around this the better – for example “Small Businesses” is not a segment, “Mid-sized law offices in North America” is. The segment should be well-defined with a clear need your solution addresses. For early-stage startups, you will generally only have 1 or at most 2 target segments. If you have more than that, you likely don’t have the resources to really go after them.

2. For each segment identify the primary buyer. For complex deals there will be multiple folks that influence a sale but for a simple value proposition exercise, it helps to start with the most important decision maker (you can come back and worry about messages for other buyers later). Again, this person should be well-defined which means you will likely have more than just general demographic data (i.e. people in their 20’s versus University students in Canada that spend more than $100 a year on games).

3. For each segment list the competitive alternatives. Often for startups these are not competitive products in a traditional sense but things like Word or Excel or cheap manual labour. Often the worst competitive alternative is the dreaded “do nothing”. Each segment might have different competitive alternatives.

4. List your key differentiated points of value. There are 2 key things here: “Points of Value” and “Differentiated”. Points of value are NOT features. Things on this list should look like “Gives network managers visibility to stop a virus before it spreads” or “Let’s you place a call to anyone without having to remember a phone number” or “Lets users create high quality videos they can share with their friends”. It should not say things like “provides layer 4 visibility”, or “includes an identity repository” or “HD support”. You are listing why customers care about the feature, not the feature itself or how it was implemented. The points of value also need to be clearly differentiated from the previously listed competitive alternatives. For example, if you think a key value point is that your solution is “very easy to use” but the competitive alternative is Word, you really don’t have a differentiator. If alternative solutions for your segments provide the same benefit (even if they do it in a different way), leave it off the list.

5. Rank the points of value against your target segments and buyers. Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, rank the importance of that benefit to each of the segments as High, Medium or Low.

6. Pick the top 2 or 3 benefits and craft a value statement. Look at which ones ranked the highest for your segments, pick a couple and write messages around them. Be brutally honest at this step. Customers coming to your site won’t read past bullet point #3 and if your top 3 benefits don’t get the attention of your prospects, the next 5 won’t either. You can hit them with the longer list and the details later. What you are trying to get to is the essence of why people should be interested. You are moving customers from “Why should I spend 10 seconds thinking about this thing?” to “Tell me more.” Craft a value statement that describes the key couple of benefits that your product provides for your most interesting segments and leave the rest out.

7. Refine forever. The simultaneously fantastic and horrifying thing about messaging is that you are never done. Messages can always be improved. The more you interact with customers and see how your product is being used, the more you can refine (and sometimes completely re-write) your value statements. If you haven’t touched your messages in a couple months, I can guarantee you they need an update.


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