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...

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: 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:...

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...

Extreme Customer Insights: A Startup Marketing Secret Weapon

In my first startup marketing job I was given the task of attempting to call a couple hundred customers to try to rustle up a dozen or so customer references. That task opened my eyes to how important customer insight was for our startup’s marketing efforts. I quickly learned that there we things things we spent a lot of time talking about in our messages that customers simply didn’t care about. I learned that some of our assumptions about how customers made purchase decisions was deeply flawed. And I learned that there were a host of smaller improvements that I could make to our marketing as a result of the insight I gained on those calls. Since then, in every company I worked in, I’ve tried to create programs that helped us as a marketing team develop a “talking to customers” habit. This week I did a talk at Communitech’s Strategic Marketing Peer2Peer meeting and my topic was how to develop this habit, what questions I think marketers should focus on in these interviews and how you can use what you’ve learned in ways that go way beyond the traditional customer case study. Here are the slides (and scroll down for a summary of some of the key points). Extreme Customer Insight: Mastering the Marketing Secret Weapon from April Dunford How Do You Make Talking to Customers a Habit? Startup Marketers are busy folk dealing with shifting deadlines and priorities. Setting aside time to interact with customers and prospects can easily get pushed to the bottom of our priority list. Making customer interaction a habit often involves taking a...
Startup Storytelling and Media Coverage

Startup Storytelling and Media Coverage

Mark Suster had a great post recently on whether or not a startup should announce their funding that was really more about what are considered “newsworthy” stories for modern blogs and media outlets. Mark makes a good point that it used to be that funding was not really a story in its own right and today it is. This week I also had a related set of conversations with startups that went like this: “We know media coverage works for us because when we first announced we got a bunch of media coverage resulting in a slew of new signups. Now we have nothing to talk about. What should we do?” The solution to this problem is in changing the way you think about what is a newsworthy story versus what isn’t. Audience First, Story Second The first step is to list the blogs/media outlets that your target prospects read and pay attention to. Next you can categorize them into the types of stories they cover. For example you might have a small business payments solution and your media list includes sites that cover startup news, sites that cover news related to small businesses in general and others that cover e-commerce related things. The stories for these sites may have some overlap but there are probably big differences too. For example the startup site might be interested in a story about how you assembled an advisory board for your startup and your lessons learned from that. The Small Business site might like a story about what your customer data tells you about how different small businesses are doing payments. The...

Startup Branding and Selling to Martians

This week I read a couple of blog posts on the topic of Branding for startups that bothered me. Both posts tried to make the same 2 points about startup marketing: Branding is THE most important facet of startup marketing Branding is about how your offering resonates EMOTIONALLY with the buyer NOT the benefit you provide. The example used was home cleaning products where the benefit was “cleaning the house” where the “branding” focus should have been “creating more family time”. This a classic example of advice that would be very good for a company in an established market but disastrous for a startup. Positioning in an established market is very different from positioning in one that isn’t. Startup prospects are starting at a different spot on the purchase path. If you are selling soap, you don’t have to worry about defining what soap is, what it does or why you might want to buy some. The biggest worry the soap seller has is differentiating themselves from the other soaps out there. Since soap is all pretty much the same it’s going to be hard to do on technical merits (although there are loads consumer products that attempt to do just that such as dishwasher soap with “breakthrough multi-chamber technology” and  toilet paper that doesn’t leave little bits behind) so getting to the intangible stuff right away might be your only hope. Most startups don’t operate in established markets – they are either breaking ground in new markets, operating at the intersection of markets, or trying to re-define a market. Selling in markets like these is a bit like...
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