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Keep Your Startup Out Of The Sand

An Article for Startups and Product Based Ventures

Screaming From The Mountain Tops

Screaming From The Mountain Tops - Marketing

Potential Sand Trap #3 — Marketing.

We won’t get too into this because it’s a huge topic, but there are a few sand pits worth mentioning.  Startups tend to do too much marketing (with little results) or not nearly enough (with a lack of results). Either way, marketing becomes a sand pit when the desired results are not there.

Remember this movie?

Marketing Dreams

Field of Dreams is an interesting thesis for fantasy, but not for businesses.  The premise is a terrible marketing approach.  Yet, it’s a perfect description of how marketing happens for many entrepreneurs.

When I say this people often respond with some sort of “Duh” — like it’s a stupid statement of the obvious.  But if it’s so stupidly obvious, Why do so many startups do it?

Mostly, I think it’s a lack of planning coupled with a lack of knowledge.  Several times I have seen startups dwell so strongly on getting the product made that they forget where it is going, or how it’s going to get there.  They make the widget, they put in on a website, and wonder why it doesn’t sell.

How can you sell something . . . if no one knows it exists?

I’m not a marketing expert, so I’m not going to pretend I know what to do, but I’ve seen several new products fail because the entrepreneurs didn’t know either, and weren’t willing to find out.

The important piece is “weren’t willing to find out.” I don’t knock someone for not knowing, because we are learning as we go.  However, I don’t think too highly of intentional ignorance.

The Marketing Sand Pit

Marketing becomes a Sand Pit when you get bogged down because of it. Here are some clues:

  • The company gets bogged down in slow sales.
  • Your marketing drains resources without effective results — ROI.
  • Your company’s path keeps you up at night because you don’t know what to do.

OK, let’s take a step back here.  All the above (and below) assumes some basic knowledge of marketing and a product worth promoting.  Obviously, if the product is not desirable, or if your competitor has one superior already popular, then even a lot of great marketing will not yield great results.  You must first have a product than can differentiate itself in the marketplace — some reason people can want it more.  Lower price, better function, smaller, faster, more portable, or whatever.  Do the homework first.

Ways to Get Out of the Sand
  • Analyze your product to find reasons for slow sales, then adjust.  (“Pivot” is the new buzz word.)  (See The Start-up Owner’s Manual.)
  • Do Market Research to be sure you have the right message for the right audience.
  • Build a multi-pronged approach (plan) to broaden the appeal and to experiment.  You never know just what will work best.
  • Do SOMETHING!!  Don’t be afraid to fail.  And if you don’t have the time or can’t find an approach that works with your resources, get out of business now and save yourself a lot of stress.

The best business venture idea I have been involved with had a prolonged substandard existence because the owner was afraid to sell what he had.  There were boxes and boxes of product because the owner loved spending money on new parts and new development, but spent relatively little (time or money) on marketing.  So the product trickled out, but mostly it just sat.  He truly thought he was doing the right thing, hoping (I guess) that since he built it they would come.

It’s easy to sit back and criticize, and you may agree as you read this.  However, I’m guessing several of you are doing some variation of the same thing — without seeing it.  He was afraid to spend money on marketing because there is no guarantee, and he didn’t “know” what will work.  On the other hand, he was not willing to think outside of the traditional box or really seek help, or to experiment — and that’s the key.

Some people are wired to love “selling”.  Other people shake in their boots just thinking about it.  Most are somewhere between.  Unfortunately, for entrepreneurs in product based businesses, marketing is not a choice.  Ignore it at your peril.

A Shoe-String Marketing Example

In a startup, resources, especially money, can be scarce.  If it is, you need to get creative.  Here is an example of a marketing plan we did for a customer.  Yeah, it looks like chicken scratch, but this was the result of a couple brainstorming sessions and a lot of excellent thinking.  And poor penmanship.

Marketing Plan Brainstorm

There are 4 interconnected marketing paths in the plan illustration.  The one we thought would be the super ticket fell totally flat.  If we had gambled everything on that one, we would have failed.  The second panned out OK.  The third, a twisted approach, end up the real winner. The 4th, just so, so.  —  The total spend for execution was less than $1000, and we learned a ton.  We learned about our customers and about how they respond.

Two things worth pointing out:

  • First, Marketing is not science.  You can bring science into marketing, but at it’s core, marketing is not science.
  • Second, it doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective.  However, sometimes you have to get outside the box.

Flash back to Planning:  Please note that this was a marketing plan.  It was deliberate and we tracked the success as well as the failures to do better with the next iteration.  Plan to succeed (or get really lucky, I guess). Those who plan on luck usually end up disappointed.

The take-aways:
  1. If you don’t know how to market, get some help — read books, talk to mentors, experiment.  It doesn’t have to be a full blown marketing firm.
  2. Be creative in your marketing.  They won’t come if you don’t tell them.
  3. If you don’t have unlimited resources, find ways out of the box.
  4. Don’t be afraid.  Start small, and learn as you go.  Quantify results, then adjust.

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