Startup Marketing: Tactical Tips From The Trenches

By Dharmesh Shah on April 7, 2009

I’m speaking at the Inbound Marketing Summit later this month in San Francisco.  There are some really great speakers lined up (David Meerman Scott, Chris Brogan, Charlene Li, Paul Gillin and others).  If you’re looking to learn more about inbound marketing and how to get found in Google, social media and blogs, this should be a great event.  If you decide to attend, use the code HUB200 for a special $200 discount.  Drop me a note if you’re going to be there, would love to meet-up.inbound marketing magnet

My session’s going to be called “Startup Marketing:  Tips From The Trenches”.  As I get my thoughts together for this, I started making a list of all of the things I’d advise a new startup to do to get things kicked off with a limited budget.  As it turns out, there are a lot of tactical steps that individually don’t do much, but in aggregate start laying the foundation for much bigger things.  So, I thought I’d share some of these things with you.  This list is not intended to be a comprehensive “here are all the things you should do”, but more of a “if I were starting a company today, here’s what I would do in the first 10 days…”  It’s written in a short, punchy style.  I’ll likely revise it in the future as I add more things, but I wanted to get “Version 1.0” out there for you and see what you think.

Tactical Tips for Startup Marketing

1.  Pick a name that works.  Needs to be simple, memorable and unambiguous.  The “.com” domain should be available without playing tricks with the name (like dropping vowels or adding dashes).  Also, just because there’s no website on a domain doesn’t mean it’s “available”.  Available means something you can register immediately, or that has a price that you’re willing to pay attached to it.  Don’t wander down the rabbit hole of finding the perfect name if you have no indication that it’s for sale.  This will waste a bunch of your time.

2.  Put a simple website up.  Doesn’t have to be fancy.  The goal is to put enough content on the site to start the Google sandbox clock.  Don’t worry about the site not saying much (nobody’s going to be looking at it anyways).  Make sure to use a decent content management system (CMS) and not Dreamweaver or (shudder) FrontPage.  Just because you can hand-craft HTML doesn’t mean you should for your startup website.  The structure and features of a CMS are going to be important someday.  Trust me.

3.  Get some links into the new startup website.  If you have a personal website, link to it from there.  If you have friends/associates/family with websites, cash in some favor chips and get them to link to it.  The goal is to get the Google crawler to start indexing your site.  You only need one decent link to get things going.  To check whether your site is being indexed by Google, do a search like site:yoursite.com (not perfect, but good enough).

4.  Setup a twitter account.  Name of the account should match your company/domain name.  Link to your twitter account from your main site and to your main site from your twitter account.  (Note:  If you have a natural skepticism of the value of twitter, you are welcome to this skepticism.  But, go ahead and grab your twitter account anyways.  You can resume your skepticism after you do that).

5.  Add e-mail subscription.  Let people sign-up to get an email when you’re ready to show them the product.  A simple email signup form is sufficient. 

6.  Get a nice logo.  Run a quick contest on CrowdSpring or 99Designs and you’ll wind up with something decent enough.  Make sure you get the vector file (Illustrator or EPS file) as part of the final deliverable.  If you've got design skills yourself, or know somebody really good that can do it, even better.

7.  Setup a Facebook business page (known as a “fan” page) for your startup.  You’re not going to get many fans in the early days.  That’s OK.  Just get something out there.  Add a simple description of your startup, link back to your main website.  The usual stuff.

8.  Create a clean Facebook URL.  Facebook doesn’t allow simple/vanity URLs (unless you're big and established).  So, to make things easier on yourself (and your users), setup a sub-domain and redirect it to your Facebook page.  For example, here’s what I did:  facebook.hubspot.com (notice that when you visit this link, it takes you automatically to the ugly Facebook URL).  Setting up this sub-domain is free and usually pretty easy (it’s done through whoever your registrar is for your domain).

9.  Kick off a blog.  You can use one of the free hosting tools (like WordPress.com), but don’t use their domain name.  Put your blog on blog.yourcompany.com — or if you’re proficient and can install WP locally, make it yourcompany.com/blog.  Do NOT make it yourcompany.wordpress.com.  The reason is that you want to control all the SEO authority for your blog and channel it towards your main website.  And, chances are, WordPress.com doesn’t need your help on the SEO front.

10.  Write a blog article that describes how you got to this point.  What problem you’re hoping to solve.  Why you picked this problem.  It should feel a little uncomfortable revealing what you’re revealing.  If you have tendencies towards being in “Stealth Mode”, read “Stealth Mode, Schmealth Mode”.  With inbound marketing, you’re going to need to get used to revealing things that might be uncomfortable.  Get over it.

11.  Setup Google Alerts for at least the following:  Your company name, link:yourdomain.com and “industry term”.  Try to find a good balance for your industry term so you don’t get flooded with alerts that you simply will start ignoring.  This may take some iteration and refining.  (Oh, and use the “As It Happens” option in Google Alerts so you’re not waiting around for new alerts to show up).

12.  Find three closest competitors.  Pretend like someone is paying you $10,000 for locating each competitor.  Really try hard.  Barely managed to find three?  Take a lot of effort?  Great.  Now find 3 more.  Of these 6, pick the two that you think are the most marketing savvy.  They should have a Website Grade > 90, a blog with some readers, a website that you can envision people using, a twitter account that they actually post to, etc.  These are the competitors that you’re going to start “tracking”.  Add their names and websites to your Google Alerts.

13.  Update your LinkedIn profile (you do have a LinkedIn profile, right)?  Mention your new startup, and add a link to your startup website to one of the three slots for this purpose.  Make sure you specify the anchor text.  Don’t go with the default of “My Website”.  The anchor text should be your startup name and maybe a couple of words of what it does.  You can look at my profile to get a sense: http://www.linkedin.com/in/dharmesh (note: I don't accept LinkedIn invites from people I don't know.  If you're looking to get to know me, follow me on twitter @dharmesh).

14.  Get business cards printed.  Don’t go overboard, but don’t use a “free” option (because it’s not really free, it’s just subsidized).  I don’t believe much in business cards, but you need them to simply avoid the 30 seconds of discussion as to why you don’t have a card when people ask you for one at conferences and meetings and such.  They’re worth the price to avoid that uncomfortableness.

15.  Use the Twitter Grader search feature to find high-impact twitter users in your industry.  Start following them.  You want to start forging relationships.  Start building your twitter network.  Resist the temptation to mass-follow a bunch of random people or play other games just to get your follower count up.  That’s not going to matter.  Get some high quality relationships going.  If you’re really serious, start using an app like TweetDeck so you can more easily monitor the needed conversations.

16.  Create a StumbleUpon account.  Specify your areas of interest (part of registration).  Spend 10 minutes a day (no more!) stumbling and voting things up/down.  Start befriending those that are submitting sites that are relevant and interesting for your startup.  Don’t submit your own stuff — just start contributing.

17.  Subscribe to the LinkedIn Answers category that best fits your area of interest.  Answer one question a day that you feel like you’ve got some expertise in.  Don’t self-promote.  You’re seeking to build credibility and trust — not sell anything.

18.  Find the bloggers that are writing about your topic area.  Subscribe to their feed, and read their stuff regularly.  Leave valuable comments and participate in the conversation.  (Do not spam them or write “fluff” comments.  If you don’t have something useful to add to the conversation, don’t comment).

19.  Start building some contacts on Facebook.  Organize your users into groups (one for your business and another for friends/family).  This will come in handy later.  Don’t spam people and ask them to visit your website.  At this point, your website is still probably not worth visiting. 

20.  Grade your website on Website Grader.  Fix the basic things.  You should be able to get a 50+ just by doing the simple things it suggests.  [Disclaimer:  I wrote Website Grader].

21.  Get Some Analytics:  Install some web analytics software and start watching your traffic.  Where is it coming from?  How is it growing?  What keywords are people using to find you?  What content are they looking at?  It's ok to get a bit maniacal and obssessed about it at first.  Many of us do that (and some of us never get over it).  

If you liked this article, you'll probably love the Inbound Marketing book that I co-authored.  It includes similar practical advice for getting found in Google, social media and blogs.

If you’re interested in startups, you can follow me on twitter @dharmesh.

What have I missed?  What ideas do you have on tactical things for startup marketing?  What do you do?

Update: Oh, and by the way, if you liked this article, you will love my recently released book, Inbound Marketing: Getting Found Using Google, Social Media and Blogs. The book is a practical guide to marketing on the web and has been an Amazon Top 100 book since the day of it's release.     
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Startup Conversations With Myself: What Should I Work On?

By Dharmesh Shah on March 23, 2009

Entrepreneurs (particularly bootstrapped ones) have a tough life.  In the early days, things can get lonely.  So many decisions, so many challenges, so much to do — and very little by way of clear answers.

This is a somewhat light-hearted episode in perhaps a series of articles that I’m calling “Conversations With Myself”.  I’d like to think that I’m not alone in my strangeness in that I actually have these kinds of debates going on inside my head (often after 3:00 a.m.).  My guess is that some of you have variations of these kinds of conversations yourself.  If not, then I guess I’m just weird.long list

Conversations With Myself:  What Should I Work On?

Me:  Self, I’ve been thinking a bit about things.

My Self:  Are you you sure you’re not just procrastinating?  Don’t you have bugs to fix in the product or some other real work to do?  Thinking is for smart people.  Get back to work.

Me:  That’s just it, there’s just way too much work, and the list of things to get done seems to get bigger every day — even though I’m staying up later and working harder.

My Self:  So, what’s your point?  It’s a startup, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  If you don’t have 10X as many ideas as you have time to do them, you don’t have enough ideas.  Quit being a whiny-assed pansy.  Nobody said it would be easy.

Me:  Yes, yes, I get that.  I know startups are hard with the 80–hour weeks and all that.  What I’m saying is that there are several items in the backlog that must get done.  And, as the product gets bigger and more users come on board, more and more time is taken up keeping the system running, responding to user issues and a bunch of other stuff.  When will the new stuff ever get done?

My Self:  Ok, so define “MUST get done”.  What happens if you don’t do some of those things?  The planet stops spinning?  You lose some users?  Your ego gets bruised?  You watch one more episode of “The Office”?

Me:  Ok, fair point.  I guess not all of those things are technically “must-dos”.

My Self:  Well, it actually goes beyond that.  Not only are most of the things on your list not “must-dos”, a lot of them are probably “shouldn’t dos” .

Me:  So, how do I go about figuring out what I should get done? 

My Self:  That’s a great question.  Unfortunately, we share the same brain, so I don’t have a great answer.  But, here are some things to consider.

Simple Tips For Deciding What To Work On

1.  Are you tracking all of the bugs and enhancement ideas (however crazy) somewhere?  If not, that’s step 1.  You need a central list.  Not this list and that list, but THE list  The One True List.

2.  Decide on a simple and semi-objective approach to classifying each item on the list.  Scales of 1–10 work reasonably well.  Some high level dimensions could be: 

a) This will help make customers happy (0–10)

b) This will help me sell more customers (0–10)

c) This will reduce costs of keeping customers happy (0–10)

d) This will give me and my team joy and happiness (0–10)

e) How much effort will this take (0=Several lifetimes.  10=Hardly any work at all.)

Of course you don’t need to have those specific attributes, but you get the idea.  Here’s why this is more useful than simply trying to assign a “priority” to an item.  First off, many items in the backlog often have more or less the same priority.  It’s hard to decide between them.  Second, priorities change as things happen.  You might wake up one month and need to focus as much as possible on getting new customers.  Another month the priority might be to take your existing customers and make them happier (so they stay customers).  By assigning the above attributes to each backlog item, you can “sub-sort”.  The key is to remain flexible, while remaining mindful of the costs of task-switching  when you change your mind.  Maintain a steady velocity and keep cranking away at the items that are important.

Item (d) above is interesting.  Why should you care whether a given task on the backlog will create internal joy and happiness.  Shouldn’t we all be maniacally focused on customers and make money?  Sure.  But, startups are hard work and trying to continuously perfectly optimize is sub-optimal.  Every now and then, you need to do some things that might not make sense, but might delight users or delight yourself or just plain allow you to sleep better at night.  It’s worth the investment simply to keep spirits and energy up.

3.  Try to build a rhythm for getting stuff done.  It’s a great feeling when you can “feel” the forward progress (however small).  If you get stuck on some project, put it aside and crank some of the other ones out.  Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole for any particular project or task.

4.  You should try to balance the kinds of tasks and projects that you select.  Don’t work just on new features that will help sell the product.  Or just work on things that make the UI/UX better.  Or just work on system optimizations that make your costs lower.  It’s important to pick a variety of tasks (with emphasis on whatever seems to be the bottleneck in the business right now).

So, what are your clever little tips and tricks to make sure you’re working on the right things?  Do you struggle with trying to decide what to do?

Topics: strategy
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