Startup Marketing and Sales
by April Dunford

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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.


Accelerating the B2B Buying Process

6 Ways to Speed Up a B2B Sales Process


I’ve spent my entire career working in or with startups that have sold to businesses. I love B2B. Businesses have burning problems and the money to solve them and I like revenue a lot. However, separating that money from those businesses is often difficult. The process a business goes through to make a decision about a $20K per year investment isn’t the same as the one you went through when you bought your last iPod. There are multiple people involved in making a decision, there are distinct stages in the buying process and hoops to jump through at every step. Closing a sale can take months and that can feel daunting for a startup that needs to drive some revenue fast.

But just because the process is complex doesn’t mean there aren’t things you could do to speed things up. Here are some ideas that I’ve used in the past that have worked for me.

  1. Break bigger deals into chunks – The bigger the purchase the longer it will take for companies to evaluate and make a decision. Breaking a deal into phases (selling the base functionality first and then add-on’s later, rolling out a department and then the whole company, etc.) can help move deals along and get revenue flowing faster.
  2. Simplify your pricing and packages – I’ve seen deals go slow simply because customers couldn’t decide which options they needed to buy. Having fewer options on the price list or making it obvious which options a particular kind of customer needs can make making a decision much, much easier.
  3. Teach prospects how to evaluate solutions like yours – Businesses that have never purchased a solution like yours before will spend some time researching what features are important and why, what offerings are on the market and which might be right for them. Once they have done that they will have to figure out how they will evaluate a solution in order to make a purchase decision. Teaching folks how to buy by publishing a buyer’s guide, publishing feature guides and comparisons, or creating evaluation templates can really help prospects move through the research and evaluation phases faster.
  4. Understand who the stakeholders are and get them involved earlier in the sales process – Many companies make the mistake of letting their internal company champion do all of the work to sell other stakeholders inside the company. Finding out who the other important decision makers are on deals and making sure they understand the value you provide can help you avoid roadblocks later in the sales process. For low-touch sales models this may mean creating content that is tailored to those personas and making sure it gets in front of them as early in the process as possible. Where sales reps are involved in an account this will require understanding the steps in the processes, the gatekeepers for the steps and figuring out how to get them engaged as early as possible.
  5. Understand the buying process and look for hidden friction points – I once sold B2B software where our deals were getting stuck with the purchasing group for weeks and was told “that’s just how long it takes, there is nothing you can do about that.” When I actually sat down with the folks in purchasing I discovered that they were spending time pulling competitive information from my competitor’s websites. When we supplied purchasing with a “competitor overview” with links to what they needed to know that sped the process up by almost 4 weeks.
  6. Offer a time-limited deal – Hey sometimes what works for toilet paper will work for your product too. In general I don’t like having sales or dropping the price on something (I think almost every B2B SaaS product I see right now is priced too low already) but I’ve seen companies throw in extras (customization help or training for example) for certain companies that they know are close but just need a little extra push across the finish line.


Accelerating the B2B Buying Process

Startup Content Marketing Cheatsheet

A Startup Content Marketing Cheatsheet


In the past year we’ve seen a shift in the way startups are thinking about content marketing. Two years ago most of the content marketing conversations I had with startups started out as discussions about SEO, ranking and keywords. Content quality from a prospect point of view was largely an afterthought. A lot of that thinking has changed both because of apparent changes to the Google algorithm, as well as changes in the way buyers behave online where they are increasingly bombarded with not just too much content, but too much crappy, irrelevant and downright useless marketing content.  Getting found by prospects on the internet is (finally) becoming less a matter of sneaky tricks to game Google and more a battle to provide informative, useful content that prospects seek out, enjoy and gleefully share among their peers.

But many startups don’t know where to start. In my experience the best way for a startup to begin building a content library is to put themselves in the minds of their prospects and think about what content is needed at different stages of the buying process.

Understanding the Buyer’s Journey

One of the most common mistakes I see startups make with their content is that they create too much content that focuses only on one particular stage of the buyer’s journey.

For a startup selling to businesses, typically a buyer will move through a set of stages on the way to making a purchase. This is increasingly not a linear journey as a buyer may move back and forth between actively researching solutions, building a short list of possible vendors and actively evaluating a particular solution. At each stage there are factors that may propel a buyer closer to a purchase (I call these accelerators) and others that can slow a buyer down or drive them backward to a previous stage (I call these friction points). Here’s an example of what I mean by that:

startup marketing buyers journey

Increasingly buyers are moving through these stages without direct contact with a vendor. They are researching and consuming content online that comes to them from their friends, colleagues, through internet searches and through their social networks. Your only chance of capturing their attention in these early stages is to make sure that your content is found by your prospects while they are in this process. Creating content that meets their needs at their particular point in their buyer cycle is the key to getting their attention.

Mapping Content to Different Stages of the Buyer’s Journey

For each stage of the journey there are different types of content that prospects will find useful.  In the earliest stages, where a prospect doesn’t understand that they have a problem that needs to be solved yet, your content needs to be focused on highlighting the risk of not solving the problem or the value of solving it.  Next the prospect needs to understand that there are solutions that are appropriate for them in terms of price, complexity, benefits. As the buyer moves toward creating a shortlist of vendors to evaluate they become more interested in consuming content that focuses on specific features and why they might choose your offering over other offerings in the market.


Startup Content Marketing Cheatsheet



Typical Problems: Content Clustered Around the Earliest or Latest Stages of the Buying Process

Typically what we see in startups is that the content that a startup has created is clustered around a particular stage in the purchase process, often with litter consideration about whether or not that is a place where prospects are getting stuck.

Some startups have their content too heavily focused around their own offering. Content such as detailed whitepapers, product feature sheets, competitive comparisons and buyers guides are examples of this type of content that is really only relevant to prospects in the later stages of a buying process. The problem with this approach is that the startup misses out on prospects at earlier stages that don’t yet understand the offering or the value it might provide them. As a result, Prospects never make it to the point in the buying process where they are willing to invest in such meaty, solution-oriented content.

For other startups, the content is too heavily focused on the early stages. Content such as infographics, funny videos and short humorous blog posts are examples of this type of content. The problem with this is that although the early funnel metrics might look good as a result (loads of traffic and social shares), prospects may get stuck later in the funnel when they need meatier content to help them make a purchase.

Now think about your startup – do you have content that is clustered around a single point in the buyer’s journey? Do you have an understanding of where prospects are getting stuck in their journey and are you providing content that helps move them along?

What a startup marketer does

What is Startup Marketing?


Many startup founders don’t fully understand what a startup marketer does or should be doing. When I talk to founders I find they often have a very narrow definition of what startup marketing is and only after they have found a great senior person to run their team do they really understand what a broad role it is.

I put together a presentation that I thought might be useful both for founders that are looking to understand the startup marketing role better as well as marketers that are struggling to explain to the other folks on the team what’s on their plate.

Here’s what startup marketing is NOT:

  • The Cure for a Lousy Product – There are a lot of things that marketers can do but if you have built something that nobody actually wants to buy or something so difficult to use that buyers give up on the product in disgust, well, marketing can’t really help you all that much.
  • Magic – Related to the previous point, we might be good at many things but I don’t believe the tooth fairy leaves money under your pillow and neither should you. Convincing people to part with their hard earned money is difficult to do and there is no simple magic wand that works when we need it to. Like everything else in your startup, it’s hard work.
  • Common Sense –  Just because you are on the receiving end of thousands of marketing messages a day and have an opinion about those, does not mean you understand what goes on behind the curtain.

So what is Startup Marketing?

Lead Generation

  • Inbound Marketing Programs
  • Lead Nurturing
  • Events
  • Sponsorships
  • Paid Advertising
  • SEO
  • Promotions/Contests
  • Email Maketing
  • Webinars
  • Outbound Marketing Programs

Content Production

  • Blogging
  • Case Studies
  • Video
  • Slideshare
  • Articles
  • Data Sheets
  • Feature Guides
  • Checklists
  • eBooks/Whitepapers
  • Newsletters
  • Graphics
  • Interactive Demos
  • Calculators
  • Photos
  • Website
  • Content Curation
  • Podcasts

Message & Brand

  • Messaging
  • Storytelling
  • Identity
  • Brand Guidelines


  • Data Capture
  • Dashboards
  • Key Metrics Tracking
  • Analytics

Media & Influencers

  • PR/Media Relations
  • Influencer Programs
  • Public Speaking
  • Analyst Relations

Customer Success

  • Onboarding
  • Cross/Upsell Programs
  • Customer Advisory Boards
  • Renewals
  • Customer Success Marketing
  • Customer Conferences
  • User Groups
  • Support Programs
  • References


  • Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Others
  • Forums
  • Blogs/Comments
  • Private Communities

Partners & Distribution

  • Strategic Partnerships
  • Distributor Programs
  • Reseller Programs
  • Affiliate Programs
  • App. Store Marketing
  • White Label and OEM Programs

Sales Strategy & Support

  • Sales Training
  • Sales Content Development
  • Call Scripts
  • Marketing/Sales Lead Flow
  • Target Account Programs
  • Lead Nurturing


  • Virality Features
  • In-Product Marketing
  • Pricing Strategy
  • Packages
  • Market Feedback

Market Insight

  • Personas
  • Market Tracking
  • Buying Process Insight
  • Competitive Intelligence

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Even for products where some of these things can be removed (for example where you only sell direct, the “Partnerships and Distribution” things may not apply), it’s still a pretty long and diverse list of things.

Small wonder that great startup marketers are in short supply


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).

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 programmatic approach. Here are a some ideas of how to make talking to customers more of a habit:

  1. Start a Customer Advisory Council or User Group
  2. Make it a habit (or a rule) that travelling employees must visit at least one customer or prospect
  3. Organize customer dinners at tradeshows or events
  4. Institute a Win/Loss program to debrief with prospects/customers
  5. Kick off a Customer Reference program
  6. Assign key accounts to employees and start a program where those accounts must be called/visited at least once a quarter.
  7. Give employees a monthly number of prospects/customers they have to speak to

What types of Questions Should Marketers Ask on Prospect/Customer Calls?

In my experience doing a great customer call is a skill that gets better with practice. There are three key areas that marketers need to explore in these calls: Customer, Market and Buying Process. These question are different from what the Lean Startup folks would call “Customer Discovery” mainly because they are less focused on product feature and function and more focused on how customers communicate, how they describe value, how they view offerings like yours, how they make purchase decisions and what motivates them.

The exact questions will depend on your target market and offering but here are some sample questions:


  1. What does your typical day look like?
  2. What other products do you use?
  3. What do you love? What do you hate?
  4. What kind of person are you?
  5. When do you read your email?
  6. What device do you read email on? What device do you surf on?
  7. What events do you attend?
  8. What sites/publications/ newsletters do you read?
  9. Who do you admire?


  1. Who do you think we compete with?
  2. If you weren’t using our product what would you use?
  3. Describe what we do.
  4. How would you describe the benefit of what we do?
  5. How would you measure the value we provide?
  6. What market are we in?

Buying Process

  1. How did you know you needed something like our solution?
  2. What triggered your search for a solution?
  3. Was there anything that would have stopped you from making a purchase?
  4. Did you talk to anyone before making your decision to buy? Who?
  5. Did you make a short list? Who else was on it?
  6. What was your short list criteria?
  7. Did you do any research before you bought? Where?
  8. Who else was involved in the purchase? How?


5 Things Startup Marketers Can Teach Big Companies


I did a keynote talk last week at Communitech’s Tech Leadership Conference. The audience for this talk was a mix of big company marketers and startup marketers. My goal was to show the folks at the larger companies how small, agile, high-growth startups are managing their marketing operations. At the same time, when I think about the startups that I hang out with not all of them are doing everything that I talk about in this deck.

I decided to post this deck over here to get some feedback from you folks. If you are a startup marketer – does your group operate in the way I’m describing in this deck? If you are at a larger company do you see these types of things being adopted? How do you think this will evolve over time?

Bad Marketing

Addressing the 3 Root Causes of Bad Marketing


I did a workshop at Communitech (where I’m currently serving as an EIR a day or two a week) on startup marketing and in particular how you would design a marketing plan and programs in a more strategic and less tactical way to address the 3 root causes of bad marketing.

If you have been following my presentations over the past year you will recognize some of the content here but are some new additions and refinements from previous decks.


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