Pithy Insights On Startup Marketing

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Pithy Insights On Startup Marketing



This is the next installment in the ongoing “pithy insights” series.  If interested, you might also want to check out “17 Pithy Insights For Startup Founders”. 


Marketing continues to be a challenge that many of the startups I work with struggle with.  I think marketing overall has become even more critical for startups over the past several years.  It is much harder today to differentiate today by having built a “better” product.  Barriers to entry are low and there are at least a handful of other startups doing something similar to what you are doing (if you don’t think so, then you just haven’t looked hard enough yet).  What often separates the successful startup from the not-so-successful startup is marketing.  If you can figure out a way to more efficiently acquire customers than your competition, chances are, you’ll win.  Sure, it helps to have a great product too (it makes marketing so much easier), but it is no longer sufficient.  That’s assuming, of course, that it ever was.


Pithy Insights On Startup Marketing


  1. Most Startups Have A Marketing Problem:  Most startups I know today do not have a technology problem.  It is much more likely that they are capable of building a product than they are marketing that product and finding customers.


  1. Seek Leverage:  Startups need to be efficient about how they go about distributing their product.  Few can afford the expense of a direct sales force.  Instead, startups should seek activities that have leverage (i.e. where a small expenditure of resources can result in disproportional success).  The best way to find leverage is to try lots of small, creative things and figure out what works.


  1. Don’t Look For Customers:  This one’s a little controversial.  I think in today’s world, it’s very expensive and difficult for a startup to go out into the market looking for people or organizations that will be great customers.  Instead, I think it’s much more effective to instead help your best customers find you.  This one’s really important so I’m going to give you a sound bite:


Instead of spending money trying to seek our your best customers, startups should instead focus on helping their best customers find them.


  1. Reduce Time To Enjoyment (TTE):  In most markets today, customers are impatient and demanding.  Try to find ways to reduce the customer’s time to enjoyment for your product.  The time to enjoyment is basically the time it takes from when a customer decides to try/buy your product to when she actually gets some enjoyment/benefit from it.  Many startups focus on increasing the level of enjoyment (i.e. “if you just spend 15 more minutes, you’ll get so much more value…”).  This is the wrong approach.  Don’t increase the level of benefit, but decrease the time it takes to get the minimal benefit.


  1. It’s Easier To Market A Product Customers Like:  This is an obvious one, but still needs to be said.  If customers like the product, they are more likely to tell other people.  This is one of the highest points of leverage there is and the most efficient ways to get distribution.  It’s important to note here that you may not actually know what it is that customers like (what you think makes your product valuable may be very different from what customers actually see as valuable).  When in doubt (which is most of the time), ask the customer.


  1. Non-Dead Products Sell Better:  Potential customers like to see that a product is evolving.  Demonstrate to your market that there are signs of life in your startup.  Don’t go “dark” for months at a time with no updates or news on what you’re doing to improve the product.  A product that is not changing is a dead product.  Nobody wants to buy a dead product (however good it might be).


  1. Be Transparent:  We live in an age of abundant options and lots of “noise” in the market.  Customers have become skeptical and cynical.  Most startups don’t give their customers enough credit.  They’re smarter than you think they are.  Be honest.  Be transparent.  Trying to lure customers into buying something by misleading them may work in the short-term and get you a few customers, but almost always fails in the long term.  


  1. Your Customers Should Be Selling:  Everyone knows that customer referrals (where a customer refers another customer) is a great way to market a product.  In this case, everyone would be right.  Referrals are a great way to market a product.  I’d go so far as to say if at least some of your sales are not happening as a result of customer referrals, there’s something wrong.  If you’re doing things right (and being transparent and not misleading), then customer referrals should be a natural outcome of your activities.


  1. Be Objective and Empathetic:  It amazes me how exceptionally brilliant people can often delude themselves about their product offering.  Sometime today, take some quiet time when you’re all alone and ask yourself the question:  “If I were a potential customer, knowing everything I know about the company and product, would I buy?”.  Stated differently, if you left your startup tomorrow and knowing everything you know, would you buy your own product?    When selling something, empathy is often the most underrated skill.  If you can be honest with yourself and truly put yourself in shoes of the customer, amazing things start to happen.


I just noticed that my “pithy insights” articles are getting less pithy over time.  I’ll need to work on that.  In the meantime, what ideas do you have on how startups can improve their marketing?  Is this an issue you struggle with, or do you have it all figured out?  Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.




Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Jan 12, 2007


I think that the biggest issue that startups have with marketing is treating it is something that you bolt on after all the technology development is done.

This is not the way it works if you want to create a successful company. Marketing is not a department!

Marketing starts with the product concept and continues with product development. It is the creation of a whole product that solves a customer need in a way that makes them want to tell their friends about it.

You can't find customers for your technology after you created the product. You have to know who they are beforehand and use technology to build a soltiuon that addresses their need.

You do that and you do not have a marketing problem.

posted on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 1:41 PM by Lance Weatherby

Lance: Excellent points. I totally agree that startups would be best served if they *start* with a marketing strategy and a clear understanding of the customer need.

Unfortunately, I see few startups that have the discipline to do this in the early stages. Particularly those started by founders with primarily technical backgrounds.

posted on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 1:53 PM by

As a marketer who works in the technology space, it's been an ongoing source of frustration in my career to see so many companies treat marketing as little more than a necessary evil.

All other things being equal, a company with good integrated marketing will do better than one without it. Just because we're not 'technical' doesn't mean we're useless.

posted on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 2:12 PM by fiat lux

re; Dharmesh


I recently started working at the Advanced Technology Development Center @ Georiga Tech. I see what you are talking about every day in the company's at the incubator. A few weeks ago a give a little presentation to try and demsytify marketing for them. When I get it on the Internet I will pop it your way.

posted on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 4:26 PM by Lance Weatherby

This post resonates wth me more than I'd have liked.:)

" Most Startups Have A Marketing Problem". We certainly do :) With a little more broader take, I'd say that the biggest problem for (enterprise) software startups is to get the opportunity to prove it's worth, which requires effective marketing so that customers can find us, and willing to invest resources (time) to find out more about our product.
As stated in the post, we have technical background so development of the product is in our comfort zone. We are confident that our product addresses real needs, as our product embodies what we have implemented as custom solutions for customers in the past. We do have descent success rate once we get the opportunity to access talk to potential customers, but finding the customers and getting the opportunity to make the case has been the challenge.

IMHO, "don't look for customers, help them find you" is the most valuable advice in this post. Traditional methods of marketing is beyond the reach of most startups (too expensive with little ROI), we must make the best use of the tools available to us to enable customers who are looking for a solution to find us. There are several post on this site that provide guidance on how one can accomplish just that...

posted on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 11:05 PM by Berkay Mollamustafaoglu

Fiat, one problem is that, historically, it's been very difficult to confidently match up cause and effect in marketing, due to a lack of data. So the process involved a lot of voodoo and BS -- which are inherently turn-offs to logic-heavy, empathy-challenged technical folk. As the process becomes more and more data-driven on the internet, I think you'll hear us techies change our tune. =)

In the meantime, here's a pithy insight for the technologist who turns his nose up at marketers and marketing:

"Hackers hack software. Marketers hack people."

Dharmesh, can you elaborate a little on #3 ("Don't look for customers")? Are you talking about SEO, or does it go beyond that?

posted on Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 12:22 PM by Altay Guvench

For those wondering,


Good post. TTE has got to be one of the biggest problems with web startups, because as you said, most founders don't approach their product objectively, distanced, to see how long it takes them to get convinced or "sold."

Anything that's demo-able on the web should have a big fat demo link right on the front page.

Sometimes a web product will make you get an account before you can play with it. While an extra (signup) page before gratification is bad enough, a lot of times they'll make you _confirm_ your email (forcing you to shift focus away from the site to check your inbox), and ask you to paste some funny password into a login form. I don't know how people can secure new signups that way. We can do better.

posted on Monday, January 15, 2007 at 3:17 AM by Phil Crosby

Excellent post..The first one is a biggie..That's where the most education and should be a major topic in any conference. Not just looking at each others technology. Its getting real experience on how to sell and market your cool stuff we are all smart people but not everyone has that marketing sales background and just assume the internet will do it all the work.

posted on Monday, January 15, 2007 at 10:49 AM by Bernie Aho

Number 4 "Reduce Time To Enjoyment" has been a great lesson to contemplate. Consider MyBlogLog; it was so easy to become a member and start enjoying it. I received an email, clicked on a link, and started using it. A MyBlogLog team member kicked things off in the Contact arena, and communities were automatically added with 10 visits. It was simple and almost immediate. The results - MyBlogLog grew quickly and was acquired by yahoo. Lesson learned.

posted on Monday, January 15, 2007 at 4:49 PM by Chicago Business Broker

I feel that it depends on the type of company and how it may evolve in the future to see if you need to do go after your customers. I think that in marketing that if you do not apporach a certain amount of your customers than your product should be more sought after than a Nintendo Wii.
I feel that although many companies can have passive marketing to retrieve more customers, I feel a face-to-face approach brings a sense of "honesty" that can't be reproduced on a phone, a conference, or in a brochure.

Although expensive and time consuming, this approach can also lead to a better understanding of the conditions of the customer. This information could be vital in evolving the product or changing the language by which one appraches a prospective buyer. All the knowledge of marketing cannot teach what you may learn in speaking to people about your product.

posted on Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 1:27 PM by Marquis Hunt

Great post - as a marketing guy at a start-up, your points resonate. Leverage has been the cornerstone of my marketing efforts. What that means for us is: - Partner marketing: If you're an enterprise software startup, you *have to* work on those alliances with IBM, BMC, HP. You're dead without them. - Channel Marketing: Identify your ideal reseller criteria, find them, and empower them to succeed. Less is more. Many startups are happy to sign on as many resellers as they can, and then lack the capability to follow through with marketing support. - Customer marketing: Use your customers wherever possible. Have them present at conferences, sign them up for awards, do joint webinars. In fact, if I don't have a customer available, I simply don't do webinars any more - as a startup its hard to gain credibility without a customer speaking on your behalf.

posted on Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 12:29 PM by Rahul Roy-Chowdhury


It all starts with the notion 'If I build a great product, customers will just come calling'. Product development presupposes 'clarity of customer' but that is often sorely missing.

'Market-readiness' as defined by your product's readiness to the market rather than expecting the market to be ready for you, is key to success. But easier said than done! because it is all internal to the organization.

Ad that is my anguish!

posted on Thursday, February 01, 2007 at 12:16 PM by Badri

This is a great article. I am currently looking at ways to "leverage" in our marketing initiatives - in line with point #2 in the article. Over the past 6 months, we have completed our market research, conceptualized the solution and filed for a patent, are 50% through building a demo product and are 90% through with the marketing material (presentations and brochures). The solution is in the area of Two Factor Authentication focused towards small regional banks across the US. Any ideas how I can obtain leverage in my marketing strategies? Thoughts? How can a startup like ours find our way into Banks and that too in a critical area like e-banking security using Two Factor Authentication?

posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 at 9:51 PM by Tarun Makhija

I am in charge of marketing in our company. I'd appreciate some comments on when is the right time to invest in product branding. We already have a product which is working and we are now starting to meet clients.

posted on Saturday, February 16, 2008 at 3:51 PM by Ettie

One more to add to the list:
- No matter how fantastic marketing your have it all can be ruined in seconds by offering bad support.
There are endless of companies that simply underestimate the support side, but I can promise you a customer that have once been treated bad by the support department will never buy from you again - no matter how great marketing you got. But for startups this is great news because this is the single easiest way to steal customers from much bigger competitors. It is also a great sales argument for why your price is higher. And when words get around that you offer great service customers will start coming from everywhere.
So remember as a startup you have to position yourself a fantastic support/service.

posted on Friday, April 25, 2008 at 12:28 PM by Kristian

The best thing to do is not look for your customers but let them find you. Seeding your start-up with the right people can be very effective. Get core users who will spread the word and let the crowd come your way.

posted on Sunday, July 27, 2008 at 1:01 AM by Jared

Two words: viral marketing 
If you have an innovative product, that's definitely the way to go. The internet is an amazing marketing tool, but only if mastered. 

posted on Saturday, November 08, 2008 at 12:11 PM by Ahmed

Customer's needs are ever changing.A product idea is developed based on the customer's needs, but by the time the product is in the market, his needs change. Its very important to design a product keeping the customer's likeability/satisfaction in mind, not his needs. Startups should also focus on this strategy of marketing such that it distinguishes itself from others. Marketing tactics should be developed on how the customer thinks beyond the product.

posted on Wednesday, April 08, 2009 at 1:10 AM by Manasa Battula

Great article and equally great comments. I recently launched Swapster.com and am seeking ways to get the word out. Ideally, a nice article on CNET would do the trick, but then, so would winning the lottery ;) 
For my site, liquidity will be the main draw for people that happen to find the site, but until I get that liquidity I need to slug away at blogs, review sites, and keep updating the site so the customers I do get will stick around. Swap, Trade, Barter.

posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 1:41 PM by Don Henning

Nice typo... Swap, Trade, Barter

posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 1:44 PM by Don Henning

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