Marketing The Start-Ups: 7 Insights On The Go

I have been through quite a bit - big companies, small companies, failed start-ups and successful ones, big companies pretending to be start-ups and start-ups pretending to be big companies - and despite my sincere efforts, I am yet to discover how to market a start-up.

One could indeed say that about Marketing itself: John Wanamaker's "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half" has been embraced as the justification of the marketing practise. However, while this may sound playful or funny in a big company, such an approach is plain fatal. The company could easily die, and mostly die, before ever reaching the useful part of marketing.

But, then, this is perhaps a starting point to talk about marketing a start-up. That there is no money to waste, and therefore, no money to spend on marketing without knowing what works. Which is basically to say that start-ups must market itself differently from the big companies, which creates its own problems because every conversation, case study or formula in the Marketing profession is either for the big companies with budget, or hyper-funded start-ups with unlimited money.

When I asked a famous Marketing Professor why there is so little on marketing of start-ups, his answer was, "because they do not think!" But, as I know, they think, think hard and almost think so much that they die - but that was another matter. My intuitive answer, which was gained through the years in the front-line including the years of running my own start-ups is that it is because there is no commercial reason for anyone, consultants or professors, to think about start-up marketing. So, while it is urgent and important - do we not talk about enterprise economy all the time - there is little conversation out there about how start-ups market themselves.

While thinking about it - and the trigger perhaps was a two-day branding workshop that I recently attended, which was all about applying the big company branding principles to start-ups - I have cobbled together a set of insights that may help a start-up owner to think about Marketing. Insights they are, as I wanted to present them as they came, not as Rules with claims to 'science' or a Manifesto with world-changing ambition. But, even without claims to any authority, I think this is just right for the personal, less definitive world of the start-ups that I live in.

1. Start-ups are NOT Small versions of Big Companies

I am quoting Steven Gary Blank, and I think he is spot on. Too many teams think this way, and they are always building small versions of big companies, hiring people who spent life in big companies, throwing money at fancy branding and campaigns, and doing other things as big companies will do as a way of life. The point, of course, is that much of it is not just wasteful, it is plain subversive, because big company thinking destroys the key reason why start-ups exist: To explore and to learn. 

Essentially, that is Steve Blank's point: Start-ups are learning entities, it is an entity in search of a business model. The big companies are just the opposite - it is about execution of a working business model. And, marketing, accordingly, for start-ups is about generating the insights and learning from the market, and not like big companies which is about educating the marketing.

2. Start-ups Learn from Data, But Unexpected Things

One of the perils of Big Company thinking in Start-ups is how they use data. The big company culture of many start-up owners and investors insist on a data-driven culture. However, the problem in data-driven culture in a start-up is that they do not often know what they are looking for or they are looking at. They would often mimic big companies and create models as they do, using the little data they have. But, as anyone sane would know, little data often misleads, making one extrapolate trends when there isn't one, and labelling important insights as outliers because the frame of reference may be misdirected.

I have seen this play out with hilarious, if tragic, effect, with start-up teams celebrating meaningless achievements, and discarding useful suggestions because they did not want noise in their data models. But, my beef is not with the data itself, as learning requires feedback: It is that many start-up owners tend to look for patterns too early and with shallow data, and by doing so, they close themselves off alternative possibilities. The start-ups relationship with data is often a quest, rather than a decision exercise. It is about generating and participating in conversations, than creating the pretence of knowing everything beforehand. Unfortunately, the VCs like that, and this is how people live in big companies where these pretences are highly valued, but this has a disastrous effect on Start-up decision making.

3. Start-ups seek Scale, but only those who Connect get it

Start-ups seek scale: This is natural because scale makes them real. However, too many start-ups build for Scale, and scale alone. All the conversations centre around this obsession, and anything not scalable is not considered unworthy of trouble. But this is where big company thinking is in action again, as Connections make a start-up successful in scaling. 

The objective of the Start-up Marketing is to establish this connection. And, in a way, premature quest for scale gets on the way, as connection requires humility and commitment that run counter to building scale. Too many start-ups want to be Facebook, and miss the whole story about Facebook being created dorm-by-dorm, being a personal thing with a limited context.

4. The Authoritative Start-Up is A Myth

When a company is a start-up, it is best to admit it. Many start-ups want to claim history, mostly of their Founders', or of some supposedly famous invention (which, in today's start-up scene, is mostly about graduate papers written in business schools), and come to market as authoritative ones. However, without the hyperfunding of silicon Valley type, it is far easier to go for authenticity, and define oneself not by history but by desire! I know the merits of faux authority, but it is often unsupported by reality, so these start-ups face the problem of 'not wanting to be the member of any club that will take them as a member'. All those brand consultants hung up on archetypes and narratives would readily concede that it is hard to be something one is not; and yet, the start-up scene is littered with false claims of authority and businesses that are so patronising that no one wants them.

5. The Inauthentic Authentic should be Resisted

Authenticity is a much abused word, particularly in big company marketing. In fact, of late, marketing function has taken upon itself the task of manufacturing authenticity. Despite its implausibility, fake autheticity is a real thing, therefore.

Once they have fallen into the branding trap, Start-ups often forget why they exist. Big companies have more money and can attract better staff, and hence, should be able to, in theory, solve all the big problems. Yet, they do not, and often Start-ups do, because people often wants start-ups to do this for them. This is primarily because the start-ups are more authentic - they can engage and do things differently from a bureaucratic machinery of a big corporation. One of these endearing attributes of a start-up is that they are authentic, even in their failings. And, hence, authenticity is one of the last things that a start-up should give up. 

In practical terms, any Start-up Founder who is unwilling to maintain a Twitter feed (or, in an ideal world, a blog) should not be a start-up founder. If they are not finding time to converse or connect, they are in a wrong place.

6. Social Responsiveness is the Default

Social responsiveness is like Authenticity for a start-up: This is one of the reasons start-ups exist. The handicap for big companies is that they are too distant from any society: They do not belong anywhere anymore. in contrast, Start-ups are, and have to be, fully embedded in their surrounding, drawing people, ideas and often funding from it. Social Responsiveness for a start-up is not a slogan, but just its way of being. So, that Start-Up Founder who can sincerely and unshamedly talk about a local/ social issue on their Twitter feed, or believe in a cause (Anita Roddick comes to mind), has more chance of success than the others bleached clean of controversies by PR professionals. Social passion is the best PR for a start-up.

7. First Customers Are Co-Creators

For a Start-up, its first customers are partners, at least in most cases. They help build the solutions, they contribute in the conversations, they establish the models. Too many start-ups overlook this, particularly those seeking scale and try to sweep the first customers rather like embarrassing uncles whose money one craves but not company. Sometimes, these custmers are treated as useful trophies, but no sense of acknowledgement. But customers make the brand, even for big companies (the suggestion that Facebook should give one share to each member is more than just a ridiculous slogan), and start-ups can only ignore this at their peril.

Indeed, my broad point is simple: Start-Ups are a business form that can harness the power of enterprise to solve problems, but not until they are self-aware and do things differently from the big companies. And, the best approach to marketing for start-ups is based on a quest for authentic conversations, based on real human connections and social responsiveness, and in partnership with its customers. Any start-up that pretend to be a big company, one that treats itself as God's gift to humanity, or one that try to read insights that were not or create illusions of certainty through fragments of data are dangerously missing the mark.


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