Startup Marketing and Sales
by April Dunford

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A Value Proposition Worksheet


Creating a great value proposition is a critical step in building good marketing messages but writing effective value propositions isn’t easy. Marketing schools still teach the standard for creating value propositions from Crossing the Chasm that looks like this:

For (bulls-eye customer)Who (purchase motivation)Our product is a (customer language)That (benefit)Unlike (competitors)Ours (differentiators)At a price (vs. competitors).

I wrote a post on this style of value proposition a while back and another on how you might craft a set of simple value statements. Lately however I’ve been thinking that there’s a step missing from the way we traditionally create these, namely the step that shows how you got to the value proposition in the first place.

Why a Value Proposition Worksheet?

Your value propositions will be based on a set of facts and assumptions. The assumptions will shift or become facts as you run experiments and execute on marketing programs. The facts will change too, as you evolve who your ideal target customers are, as new competitors enter the market, and as your own product changes with additional releases.

I’ve been using variations on the template (I sometimes refer to this an “offering template”) for a while and I think it works:


What Do You Do? – this is the simple statement that describes what you offering does. This isn’t the value you provide (that comes later) but rather the starting point of how you would frame what you do for someone you have never pitched before.

Competitive Alternatives – this is what a prospect would see as an alternative to using your offering. It could be “do nothing” or “hire someone” or “use Excel” or it could include an actual competing offering in some cases.

Target Customer 1, 2, 3,… – This section is for capturing a high-level description of who you are trying to market to. For B2B companies you need to think both about what types of businesses you are trying to reach along with the purchasers inside those businesses. For B2C you are focused here on segments of target consumers.

Key Differentiated Points of Value and Proof Points – For each target customer this section captures what the key differentiated (meaning clearly different from the competitive alternatives) points of value are and what proof points you have to back up that claim. For example if you say you are the fastest, best designed, most intuitive, etc. solution on the market, you need to think about how you can prove that using performance statistics, customer testimonials, 3rd party reviews, etc.

One Line Value Propositions – Lastly the template captures the value propositions. I like to have one over-arching one that applies across all of the target segments and then another set for each target segment.

What do you think? Is it missing anything?


Be Your Authentic Self…no, not THAT Authentic Self!


Marketers talk a lot about how companies can form deeper connections with customers through social media. Part of building this connection, the thinking goes, is demonstrating what the company stands for and showing that those values are similar to the values of their customers. I’ve seen this referred to as “Authenticity.”  One of the ways that companies show off their authentic selves is by having representatives on sites like Twitter share information about the brand, interact with people and show people through a constant stream of comments and interactions, what the brand is all about at a very human scale. That sounds good right?

Then you get stuff like this:

pabst tweet no fat chicks


Looking at the stream for Pabst Canada you can see that the person managing this account is clearly enthusiastic about beer and seems to be joyfully interacting with folks in a very non-corporate way that I think some folks would describe as “Authentic.” But somewhere along the way he forgot that he couldn’t be COMPLETELY authentic because he’s representing the point of view and values and attitudes and beliefs of his employer. Needless to say, the above Tweet doesn’t represent the values of Pabst Blue Ribbon or PabstCanada, just the point of view of the (stupid jackass, sorry) that runs (or used to run) their Twitter account.

Authentic, but in an Corporate kind of a way?

But as you might imagine, folks were offended and they weren’t just mad at the guy that posted the Tweet. They were pissed off at Pabst. Which just goes to show you that all of this authenticity stuff is fine as long as you aren’t an offensive jerk.

Oh and don’t forget that most of us are offensive jerks occasionally when we’re not at work yet we manage to stay out of trouble because we understand that when we’re on the job we are held to a higher standard, authenticity be damned.

The Bar is Much Higher than Authenticity

That’s where I have a problem with the term “authenticity.”  I worry that it can be interpreted as “just being yourself.” Except for the boatload of times where being yourself would put you completely at odds with the goals of your company. So you can’t really be yourself at all. You have to be your Pabst Representative self. Is that authentic? What do companies want their representatives to be like? They want them to be trustworthy, nice, respected, engaging, knowledgeable, human, and a bunch of other inarguably positive things. Companies might say they want authenticity but what they really mean is they want you to be the best possible representation of what they stand for. They want you to be less corporate in a likeable, relate-able sort of way, not in a regular I’m-human-therefore-I-come-with-my-own-unique-baggage-and-potentially-offensive-biases kind of way. Which of course isn’t the tiniest bit authentic.

Maybe companies would see fewer screw-ups like the Pabst Canada situation if they were more open and direct in admitting that the bar is much, much higher than just acting in an authentic way. The goal is for company representatives to be nothing less than the best they can possibly be.


How Should You Market Your Startup? The Definitive Answer


The most common question I get from early-stage startup founders is “How do I market my startup?”

Experts are full of answers to this question telling startups that for great marketing all they need to do is social media, inbound marketing, SEO, hire a better sales team, build a better website, build a better product, do better media relations, get more customer advocates, or be more likable/remarkable/authentic. Every day I read a blog post telling startups there’s a simple key to revenue growth and oh by the way that simple key is different from the previous 20 simple keys I just read about.

You don’t have the resources to follow all this advice and even if you did not all of it applies to your business. But what if you’re not a marketing expert – how the heck are you supposed to know what pieces DO apply to you? So you call someone like me who’s run marketing at a bunch of startups and you ask me the question “How do I market my startup?”

To which I respond – “I don’t know.”

Yeah, that sucks. It’s not the answer you want to hear. But it’s the answer you need to hear.

The reason I don’t know is not because I’m an idiot (at least not all the time) so stick with me and I’ll explain.

Tactics are just Tactics

Most of what we talk about in marketing is tactical and there are many folks that are experts in certain tactics. I’ve got some experienced opinions about content, email, inside/outside sales support, strategic relationships, messaging, and some other stuff. If you need help with SEO I can recommend a book to read and a couple of experts to talk to. The same goes for PR, website design, events, affiliate marketing, channels, AR, advertising, bus. dev., community, blogging, and a bunch of other tactics.

Not All Tactics are Right for Your Business

What I CAN’T tell you is which of those things you should be focusing on to maximize your revenue growth. I can’t because I don’t know your customers, their buying process, your market landscape, or your offering. This is what makes your business different from every other business. Your customers aren’t the same as other people’s customers, your offering is different, the market landscape you’re in is different, how your customers decide to buy your solution looks nothing like how other customers buy other solutions. Your business is different therefore your marketing will be different. You need to understand this FIRST before you start thinking tactically.

You’re marketing to IT managers at mid-sized businesses that are looking for a better way to manage their budgets? Maybe blogging and PR isn’t the best way to reach these folks and email marketing might work very well. Your early adopters are Mom’s in New York buying baby stuff – you might focus your energy on existing places where those mom’s hang out. You’re selling high-end services to Fortune 1000 CMO’s – I’d be over-rotating on target account planning and spending less time on email marketing. Maybe. Or maybe not because those single sentences don’t really capture enough detail about your prospects to really understand them.

Doing the Work

If you don’t know how to market your startup yet it’s because you’ve still got work to do to understand:

  • Your target customers – who they are, where they hang out, how they find out about offerings like yours
  • The customer’s perception of your offering – what market are you in, how do they describe the value you deliver, what are the competitive alternatives
  • The customer buying process – what stages does a prospect move through on the way to a purchase and what can slow this process down or speed it up

Once you understand these things the question will change from “How do I market my startup?” to “How do I make it easier to be found on Google because I know that’s how prospects find solutions like mine?” or “How do I coverage in publication X, Y, Z because my prospects read them?” or “How to I expand my email list?”

Instead of asking “How should I market my startup?” you should be asking “How do I get to a point where I know how to market my startup?”


6 Elements of a Startup Marketing Plan


I recently wrote an updated version of this post – check out Components of a Startup Marketing Plan

Most startup marketing plans are useless static documents. A great startup marketing plan is a dynamic operational blueprint that drives everything marketing is doing. It won’t be a single document but rather a set of documents used to actively manage marketing projects as well as acting as the current record of inputs, assumptions, metrics and results related to the work the marketing team is doing.

In my opinion a great startup marketing plan has these key elements

1/ A Detailed Target Customer Description  – the definition of the current target prospects, and a detailed description of their relevant characteristics (i.e. education, habits, goals, or other things that make them special), a list of places they gather (social networks, forums, clubs, events, associations) and anything you know or are assuming about how they make purchase decisions related to offerings like yours (where they go for information, who they ask, who they read/listen to, how they do research).

2/ A Detailed Offering Worksheet – this will describe from the point of view of your target prospects, what the offering is, the market the offering is in, what they key value points of the offering are, and what the competitive alternatives are in the minds of prospects. Again any assumptions here must be highlighted.

3/ A Documented Customer Buying Process – This documents your understanding of the stages a prospect goes through from understanding they have a need for your offering, evaluating offerings, purchase and renewal. For each stage there will be factors that will move the prospect to the next stage more quickly and factors that will cause the prospect to slow down or drop out of the buying process altogether.

4/ Tactical Project Plans for each Major set of Marketing Tactics – For each set of tactics (for example email marketing, content marketing, SEO/SEM, events, media relations) you will need a schedule and project plans. For example for email marketing you will need a project schedule that outlines the tasks that need to get done (copywriting, landing page development, content creation, list purchases, graphics, etc.) and what the deadlines are.

5/ Metrics Tracking Dashboard/Spreadsheet – the plan will include what metrics you will track, targets and goals and a definition of “good” vs. “bad” results.

6/ Marketing Analysis/Review Schedule – Metrics and results need to be analyzed and reviewed on a regular basis with a broader set of stakeholders (usually other member of the exec team including the CEO, Sales, Support, Product Management). The purpose of this review is to decide how to adjust the plan based on the results and what conclusions can be drawn with respect to any assumptions that were made about the customers, offering or buying process.

That might sound like a lot of work but it isn’t really. I usually can cover the first 3 in a single page each, for metrics I usually have a dashboard and a spreadsheet and the tactical project plans are things you probably have in some form already. And hey, the payoff is you’re now running a well-oiled marketing machine that improves with age rather than wasting your precious time periodically creating a document that didn’t help you get your job done.


The Difference Between Good and Bad Marketing


Marketing is such a misunderstood term because it can be defined so many different ways. Marketing can mean branding, PR, lead generation, inbound, advertising, SEO, Product Marketing and a dozen other things. In larger companies all of these functions are done by separate people in separate groups and when you split them all apart it can be easy to forget why the overall marketing plan existed in the first place. For startup marketers, the biggest problem is staying focused on the things that matter and forgetting about the million things you could be working on that don’t matter to the business.

What is the difference between good and bad marketing? Good marketing drives revenue. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.

You would think this is obvious to everyone, particularly cash-starved startups but I still see marketing plans going completely off the rails where marketers have lost sight of the real prize. Examples? I’ve seen marketing plans with a large amount of budget dedicated to participating in trade shows that have consistently produced few if any opportunities (“…but it will send a bad message if we don’t show up”). I’ve seen teams dedicate large amounts of time and effort into building social media followings without any plan to drive revenue from that (“…our competitors are doing it”). I’ve seen large amounts of money spent on PR that doesn’t reach the company’s target market (“…but all of our friends read TechCrunch”, “…my mom was so proud when I was in the newspaper”).

I’ve found that focus on revenue is also a good benchmark to use when hiring marketing folks. When they talk about tactics and results does it come back to revenue? Can they describe how they measured and tracked that? If yes, you’ve got a good marketer. Are they talking a lot about “branding” and “awareness” and “reach” without ever connecting the dots back to revenue? That’s a sign of trouble.

Tracking and Adjusting Startup Marketing Assumptions


A good marketing plan is based on deep customer understanding – who they are, how they view solutions and how they buy. That said, I’ve never built a marketing plan that wasn’t based on at least a dozen different things that I didn’t know and simply had to assume were true. Early in my career I didn’t worry too much about those assumptions as long as I had marketing tactics that seemed to be working. Until they stopped working. Then I worried about them a lot. Now I find I spend a lot more time exploring what my key assumptions are up front and then looking at what clues my metrics give me about how those assumptions might be refined or shifted.

Here are some examples:

Target buyer assumptions – You might have assumptions about who your target buyers are. For example, I’ve built programs aimed at business buyers where we made an assumption that IT would be largely in charge of the purchase and would be the budget holder, while line of business folks were merely influencing the purchase. One of my campaigns – a combination email and inside sales call-out campaign showed that business buyers were increasingly becoming the budget holders and we needed to shift our list building efforts, programs and tactics. At another company we assumed that buyer persona’s in one vertical were similar to those in another. After a couple of fairly unsuccessful campaigns was discovered that smaller companies in the new vertical used completely different job titles and we were often targeting the wrong person in the organization.

Messaging/Offering assumptions – You will often have assumptions about what customers think are the most important features of your offering and how they describe the value of those features. These are likely to shift over time as not only your product evolves but also your competitive landscape evolves. For example I was once marketing a graphing tool for developers where our biggest advantage was the large number of different types of charts we supported. However at one point our largest competitor got close to us in terms of the number of charts they supported and what we assumed was our key differentiator didn’t seem all that different any more. Going back to our customers however revealed that our assumption wasn’t exactly correct and that they were interested in having many different kinds of charts but the flexibility in being able to customize them was really where the value was.

Buying cycle assumptions – you might assume that a purchase goes through a certain process and then later your sales data might indicate something else is happening. For example at one B2B startup I worked at we mapped a sales process that included approval by purchasing as the final step to a deal. Legal teams might be involved but we assumed that they were largely driven by purchasing and weren’t a significant step in the buying process on their own. This was true – but only for smaller companies. As we pushed into larger companies we were seeing increasing legal involvement and started creating materials to address the common concerns that came up when our contract when to a prospect’s legal group.

StartupFest logo

Startup Marketing: A Systems Approach


I gave a talk last week at The International Startup Festival on startup marketing. I’ve been thinking a lot about how many startups I see that are extremely tactics-oriented in their approach to marketing. My worry with many of them is that rather than starting with an exploration of their target customers (who they are, how they view offerings, how they buy), many marketers are jumping straight into tactics (i.e. choosing to focus heavily on social media or inbound marketing and excluding other potential tactics).

It’s not a bad approach per se, particularly if you are measuring results and culling out the bad tactics and doubling down on the good ones. That approach does however lead to a few bigger problems in the longer term. First, the tactics tend to run independently and as a result lack consistency. Secondly assumptions are often not tracked across tactics and when they are, the measured results of the tactics are rarely used to re-asses those assumptions. Thirdly, because tactics were somewhat randomly chosen rather than chosen based on where the friction or best potential accelerators are in the buying cycle, any new tactic suggested is just as good as any other until you test it.

Here are the slides

I had an amazing time at the conference. The speakers were great and I literally lost my voice chatting with startup folks in various tents including the speaker tent, the FounderFeul Mentor tent and the Women in Tech tent. If you didn’t go this year and get a chance to next year, you should.

Lastly if any of you reading this saw my talk and has some feedback on it – I would love to hear what you think.



Modelling the Customer Buying Process


Startup marketers need to develop a deep understanding how prospects move through the buying cycle when structuring a marketing plan that drives customer acquisition. Mapping this process requires an understanding of the stages that a customer moves through from not understanding that they have a problem through to purchase, and renewal as well as what will either speed up or slow down the customer as they move through the process.

The explicit stages will differ somewhat from company to company but in general, the process looks like this:

For each of these stages you have Accelerators and Friction points. Accelerators are things that help move people from one stage to the next. Friction point are things that can delay a prospect from going from their current stage to the next one.

For example, if I was looking at purchasing CRM software for my business here’s the stages I would pass through:

No Need – I am managing my contacts on a spreadsheet and I think that works just fine. To get to the next stage I need to understand what a CRM tool could do that I can’t do in a spreadsheet.

Need – I now understand that I have a need. That may have happened because my customer base got bigger and dealing with a large spreadsheet is getting hard. It may be that I am looking to capture transactional information about customer interactions and storing that in notes is hard. It could be my sales team is growing and sharing a spreadsheet is hard and impractical. I’m not actively looking at different solutions yet – maybe because I think the spreadsheet is good enough, because I’m worried CRM tools are too expensive or that there will be a lot of work involved in getting my spreadsheet into a CRM tool.

Evaluation – I’m now looking at solutions. The pain has become acute enough that I’ve started thinking about how I might address it. At this stage I will be making a short list of solutions (maybe) and thinking about what I specific things I need that solution to do. I may never make it past this stage if I don’t come across solutions that seem to work for my business or if I can’t figure out how I might decide which CRM tools should make my short list.

Buy – At this stage I’ve decided which CRM solution I am going to purchase and I’m executing the transaction. I might not move past this phase with a specific vendor if I keep delaying the purchase either because I don’t have the budget to buy right now or I think I might be able to get it cheaper at another time or if purchasing it is a hassle in some way.

Enjoy – At this stage I’ve purchased and trying to use the product. I may or may not end up actually using it in my company depending on the user experience, customer service, or how hard it is to get my sales reps to start actively using the product.

Renew – This is where I am signing up for the next term to use the product or renewing my maintenance agreement. I may not decide to do this if I never ended up using the product or haven’t really seen the value I hoped to see out of using it.

Once you have the buying cycle modeled you need to figure out the metrics that will track how prospects are flowing through the process. Those metrics will give you an idea of where prospects are getting stuck and where you might want to focus some effort.

Startup Marketing Plan

3 Reasons to Build a Startup Marketing Plan


Startup Marketing PlanMany startups aren’t executing against a documented marketing plan. I’ve heard loads of excuses for why a plan doesn’t exist. The 2 most common ones are that things are changing too rapidly to plan or the marketing plan is so simple everyone can track it in their heads.

I’m not a fan of overly complex, long-term (i.e. more than 3 months) plans for anything in a startup. I am however a big fan of having the assumptions and inputs to a marketing plan written down and an rolling monthly operational plan that the team (even if it’s just me) is working against.

There are a bunch of good reasons to create a marketing plan, work against it and maintain it.  Here are three:

  1. Documenting assumptions/expectations– There are a set of inputs to any marketing plan: known information about the segment/buyers, how the buyers see the value of your offering versus alternatives, and the steps in the buying process. There are assumptions around each of those inputs based on things that are very likely to change over time such as the competitive landscape, the current capabilities of the product, and buyer behavior. You, and the other members of the team may not be in agreement on those (or even conscious of them). Getting those documented will both reduce the risk of incorrect or mis-aligned assumptions and will allow the team to recognize and react to changes that impact the assumptionHere’s an example: A few years back I inherited a marketing plan for an enterprise software application that was sold through a direct sales force. Until that time that type of software was purchased by IT departments with only minor input from the department that would ultimately be the end users of the product so the marketing had always been aimed squarely at IT buyers. What I was hearing from customers however was that budgets were shifting and business users were getting more of a say in the purchase process.  I added a “target buyers” section to the plan that sparked a discussion around whom we should be marketing to that started with the head of sales saying “What the *&% – I assumed we were already marketing to business buyers!!” Clearly, there were assumptions in the plan the team weren’t in alignment on.
  2. Keeping folks focused – Some people are naturally organized and very good at working through a plan kept only in their heads. The rest of us however, are easily distracted by the daily crises that form the regular pattern of how most startups operate.  Responding quickly to opportunities and threats is strength of smaller companies but some things in marketing take time to produce results and if you aren’t working against a schedule they won’t get done. Inbound and Content Marketing programs are often the first things to go out the window. It’s easy to skip a blog post, delay an article, not get around to responding to folks on Twitter, etc. when there are events to run and sales folks to respond to and a folks pounding the table asking why are there fewer leads this week than there were last week and FIXTHATRIGHTNOOOOWWWWW! This is the reason you see so many company blogs with only a handful of posts. Working against a schedule with regular checkpoints not only lets you assign tasks and hold people (including yourself) to deadlines, it also helps keep everyone focused on the longer-term (meaning this month rather than this minute) goals.
  3. Visibility into what you aren’t doing – One of the most important inputs to a marketing plan is documenting the customer buying process. Getting your arms around that helps you understand where prospects are getting stuck and what you can do to take the friction out of the funnel. It’s easy to be working on a set of tactics that are all focused on getting buyers from one particular point to another in the path when the sticky point in the process could be up or down stream and requires a different set of tactics to move folks along.

I usually end up having a set of short documents – a customer worksheet, an offering worksheet, a buying process chart, a leadgen spreadsheet, a media relations and speaking calendar, and a content calendar (depending on the tactics of course). Then there’s a spreadsheet and some dashboard tracking metrics.

What are you doing to track your marketing plan? I’d love to hear it in the comments.


Available now

Should Only Startups with Products Get Funded?


The “trend” of startups without a well-defined product idea getting funding was discussed in a recent Forbes blog post. Here’s an excerpt:

Having some kind of notion what line of business your fledgling company might want to pursue used to be a prerequisite to raising capital. Now, it’s a mark of hubris. You don’t tell the market what it needs; you gently offer it a series of options, which are less viable concepts than ritual sacrifices aimed at cultivating the favor of the start-up gods. It’s called “iterating.”

The gist of the post is essentially this: if there’s no product, there’s nothing to invest in, yet people seem to be investing anyway and OMGITSABUBBLEWE’REALLGONNADIE!! (ok, I’ll admit my version has extra drama).

The post doesn’t offer up much to back up the thesis that startups with no specific product idea are getting funded left and right (positioning Instagram as a typical startup is, in my opinion, bonkers) but it raises an interesting question – is there really value in a company that doesn’t have an offering? Suppose you invested in a company with a product, that later changes the offering significantly – does that mean you screwed up?

Pivots aren’t new. Admitting we do them is.

I’ve been involved in loads of version 1 product concept/development/launch exercises I’ve yet to see one where the offering didn’t significantly change after initial customer feedback. At what point in the product life-cycle these “pivots” occur however is shifting earlier and earlier as most self-respecting entrepreneurs have read Steve Blank and are now embracing the concept of early customer feedback and “customer development”. If anything, I think we are seeing less iteration post-investment than we ever have before because many startups are getting it done earlier.

I’d make the argument that previously startups were embarrassed to talk openly about pivoting precisely because we did it after investments (and investment cases based on selling a set product in a well-defined market) were made. We often pivoted, but we were sneaky about it. A shift in target market for a later-stage startup was an “expansion to serve a new customer set” or a “refined market focus” and a major product shift was a “next-generation solution”. Unlike their later-stage peers, early stage startups can more freely come out of the pivot closet because their shifts put less money (if any) at risk and often serve to demonstrate a growing understanding of the market, making them more attractive to future investment, not less.

Just because you have a product, doesn’t mean anyone wants it.

But hey, just because folks have been investing in pre-pivot companies all along doesn’t make it smart (VC returns on average DO kinda stink). Coming back to the question – Is your startup really worth anything before you’ve settled on your exact offering?

Leaving aside the issue of the skill of the team (which is difficult to assess and there’s an argument to be made that previous success doesn’t necessarily predict future success), it still takes two to tango. There are markets/desires on one side and there are offerings on the other. The money only comes when both are viable and a match for each other.

I know there are cases of companies that have developed/launched solutions without knowing what problem they would solve or what market they would eventually serve that were later successful but I think doing it that way requires a lot more luck and effort than doing it the other way around. If you get what customers are trying to get done, why they want to do it, who they are, how they make decisions, how they want to buy and how much they are willing to pay, then you essentially have the basis for a solution because you understand the requirements and the constraints.

On the other hand, simply building and releasing an offering doesn’t prove that your company knows anything about the market or that anyone wants it. You might have that knowledge but you can certainly build stuff without it. And by “stuff” I mean crap nobody wants or will pay for.

So if both have no customers, why on earth would a company with an offering necessarily be more valuable than one without? There is absolutely no inherent value in effort put toward something nobody will buy. The value comes with market knowledge that informs the development of the offering, which in turn, increases the chances of market success.

Is a startup with deep market knowledge but without a well-defined solution yet worth investing in? I don’t think anyone can know for sure but if I were a gambler I would bet my money on the folks that were certain about demand but uncertain about the way to meet it over the folks that had a solution they weren’t sure anyone wanted.

(thanks to Mike McCarrell @mmccarrell for pointing me the Forbes post :)

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