Startup founders and their VC sponsors need a reality check when it comes to finding and hiring their VP of Marketing. They’re looking for a rock star with skills in all major marketing specialties—from HTML to Marketo to analyst relations to writing their own ad copy. And then they’re surprised when their search takes 6 months and still yields a less than perfect candidate.
What we see, therefore, is the need for clarity on the charter of a successful VP of Marketing. In the age of manifestos, we’ve dubbed this our own Startup Marketing Manifesto:
- Own the plan; rent the deliverables: The mix, orchestration and sequence of the marketing deliverables is what an experienced head of marketing can make happen. You can hire specialists – e.g., SEO, video, writing – on demand. But the marketing plan must come from the leader.
- Sales first; brand second: Even in the age of UX-centered startups passionate about delivering a consistent and unified user experience, it’s an almost rabid focus on customer development that drives early market traction.
- Content is your website: The ability to drive conversions on your website, to nurture leads to sales, and to equip the sales team with the right tools starts with compelling, consistent, quality content.
- Iterate on your use case, not your message: Listen to your early customers to inform your message but don’t over-react to feedback from a handful of early wins.
- Study, pilot and test: There is no “single tool” approach that will accelerate customer acquisition and shorten time to revenue. It’s the job of the VP of Marketing to bring a toolkit approach, a knowledge of “best practices,” and a willingness to pilot new ideas and measure the results to figure out what works.
We’ve written about manifestos before here. And here’s more on the startup marketing toolkit approach.
Most of our postings for ‘Shit CEOs Say” come from startups, who are creating a company for the first time and can be, in part at least, forgiven for their naivete.This week’s startup marketing gem comes from someone who should have known better: a long-time CEO for a billion-dollar software company.
Years ago, when I was running Corporate Marketing at this juggernaut, we were in the process of changing our advertising agencies. The incoming agency, at that time regarded as the best advertising agency by a long shot, wanted to do some pre/post testing to see how our company was regarded in the market—and what we could do to leverage the strengths and obviate the weaknesses. But the CEO vetoed the project, saying: “Research only tells you what you already know.”
Years later, we finally did the market research. And the company fared extremely poorly in market perception. I’ll always wonder if we could have changed that had we gone ahead with the research and acted on what we found.
When a leader writes passionately about what drives him – whether they’re principles, design tenets or “religious beliefs” – the crowd takes note. Sometimes those principles are articulated in a powerful declaration that’s been dubbed a manifesto. Politics is a great breeding ground for manifestos, from Karl Marx to the 36-page manifesto from terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed to the Unabomber.
Recently high-tech companies have gotten into the manifesto game. Currently the crowd is marveling at the “radical purity” of the principles that gave birth to the wildly popular texting app called WhatsApp, purchased by Facebook last week for $19 billion. Those principles are articulated in a handwritten manifesto of the two WhatsApp co-founders.
We favor manifestos over vision statements because they capture the passion that a startup team has for over-turning the status quo. While vision statements have their place, and crafting a vision statement can be a powerful process for a leadership team to undertake, we think a manifesto can really capture the disruptive spirit of a team.
Manifestos are often more genuine because they’re written in the early days of a startup, when the founders have far fewer stakeholders to satisfy. Written from the heart, they capture the zeal of the founding team and make the company feel less like a commercial venture and more like a cause.
As an example, here is the manifesto from Contently.
And here is the manifesto “Revolution: Data + People” from our big data client Trifacta that launched their new data transformation product last week.
And in keeping with the annual tradeshow for security professionals known as RSA that opens this week, here is the notorious hacker manifesto that is a call-to-arms for hackers worldwide.
So consider adding a manifesto to your startup toolkit. You’ll be surprised who joins the cause.
The mainstream culture has embraced the “post-PC” era in which computing is on the go and the desktop is no longer the center of computing for mobile workers. With 2014 forecast to be the year in which the number of smartphones and tablets outnumber desktop computers, one could argue the post-PC era is now.
And in case you missed it, global brands like Gucci have embraced a “post-logo” era in which their brand values are more experiential and infused in their products rather than imprinted on them.
All of this “post” era talk got us thinking about how startup launches are changing and asking whether startup marketing has entered into a “post-launch” era?
- Company vs. product launch: Depending on a startup’s goals, there is value in a one-two punch of launching the company first, and product second. This timeline can enable a startup to “look real” to risk-averse enterprise buyers during the early days when a startup is nurturing a handful of early customers, iterating on product features based upon early customer feedback, and defining its market focus.
- Staying stealthy: However, some startups – particularly those led by serial entrepreneurs with brand-name investors in market sectors like security or big data – see no need for the one-two punch. These teams are satisfied to stay stealthy and to work out their product and market focus out of the glare of the media and market. Often, we work with these startups to define their positioning, build their story, content and sales tools and to take a much slower ramp to launch.
- Risk-taking CIOs: More and more, VC firms help their startups to directly cultivate early-adopter enterprise customers. In so doing, it turns out there’s less dependency on launch to deliver the market validation that startups need to build their sales momentum and scale their company.
- Talent wars: The downside of the stealthy approach means it’s harder for a startup to look established to would-be employees, partners and customers. Some say that there’s always been a shortage of talent and that the idea that you have to launch to attract “A” players is false. But experienced startup marketers know that a launch can be a catalyzing event in the life of a company that drives critical decisions and focus.
- Freeze the sale: If a startup is trying to disrupt the market with a new approach that challenges the status quo but finds itself trailing another new entrant, that could be a reason to push for an early company launch. The focus of the launch becomes to blunt the competitor and buy time for the product development team to deliver. In this case, if the startup’s product is behind, it’s essential to build a website and PR strategy that is strong on ‘Vision’ and differentiates the company and product from the competition.
The bottom line, when it comes to launching a company, is that the big-time ‘Launch’ died a natural death a while ago. There are multiple flavors of launches—the key is to find the one that fits your product, timing and market.
We’re big fans of PR and PR firms, but it seems like the phrase ‘PR’ doesn’t sit right with many of our partner firms anymore. They re-marketed—or repositioned themselves—as a number of things, from ‘Digital Marketing Agencies’ to ‘Global Marketing Agencies.’
And while PR is still what they do, it’s only one offering on the menu. Which is their right. Except that we recommend that our startup clients use them for what they do best: PR.
In the old days, firms would call themselves “Advertising and PR”. And, as a client, we’d ask, ‘Which one is it, because they’re not that related?’ (That’s “paid” versus “earned” media in the new world.) The same logic applies today: we’re not convinced that the firm that does your PR should logically do your website—or your SEO strategy.
The firms that, in our opinion, are doing it right are the PR firms that still focus on PR but have spun other entities (Video, Content, Web Design) out as separate P&Ls. We work on a ‘best-of-breed’ philosophy when it comes to picking firms for our startup clients and haven’t seen a significant benefit—financial or in single-butt-to-kick focus—from using more than one service from our partners. Over time we may find benefits to this arrangement (perhaps all the teams come together for a single training or share ideas across boundaries), but for now it’s an open market. And we still pick our PR firms for what they can do for our clients with press, analysts and influencers.
Congratulations to the startup team at Trifacta on the launch of their product, the Data Transformation Platform, powered by Predictive Interaction technology. The new product enables data analysts to be ten times more productive and, for the first time, gives business analysts direct access to big data for faster decision making.
You can read the news coverage here, or watch a video that explains the power of the Platform here or see the Trifacta technology in use here.
The team at Trifacta, backed by Accel and Greylock, are pioneering a new way for enterprises to be more competitive using all of their big data. Hear from their customers, follow their progress @trifacta or see Joe, Jeff, Sean and team next week at Strata in Santa Clara. Go, team!
1. More T-shirts than customers – without hoodies and T-shirts, what would startup employees wear to work every day? When we meet a startup team, it’s always cool to see the company T-shirts that have been issued to the team to mark a major milestone like a major product release. But when the number of different types of T-shirts is greater than the number of beta customers, we take that as a serious warning sign that maybe the competitive and market focus necessary for startup success is missing from the team.
2. A brand style guide before beta product – a lot of our clients are enterprise startups. Typically, we are engaged by a startup when it is transitioning from alpha to beta product. What’s alarming to discover is a team that has taken precious time and money during that pivotal early phase to define their “brand essence.” We’ve actually seen enterprise startups that have produced a logo style guide before they are shipping beta product. Make no mistake – we salute the differentiation of investing in user interaction design. But, before beta product, we find focusing on a logo style guide is an exercise with limited (and perhaps detrimental) value to your team.
No enterprise startup should be spending a dime on defining their “brand essence” before achieving beta product and/or Series B funding. It’s money—and time—better spent hiring and getting the product right. And part of that process is focusing outward—on the user—rather than inward navel-gazing.
Defining and creating the ultimate user experience will play a greater role in your long-term success than trying to define your brand essence up front. In fact, the growing importance of design is evidenced in Silicon Valley in everything from celebrated VC firm KPCB adding a design partner to the formation of the NEA studio to the juggernaut of the Stanford D School .
But that’s different than visual identity and logo. If a startup’s focus on “brand” (not UX) extends to investing in the development of “brand guidelines,” or the publishing of a media kit or, generally speaking, to any investment in pixel polishing to get the logo mark “just right,” we sound an alarm.
Brand definition is important but it is evolving in the formative days of a startup. When we see a young startup team placing a lot of emphasis, time and money on the visual identity of their brand, we gently recommend that they reset and refocus much of that energy on customer and product. The brand guidelines for your logo can wait.
If you speak startup, you know about the concept of an MVP, or the “minimum viable product” which is about a process for product and customer development to shorten time to market. The MVP focuses a startup team on identifying the minimal set of product features that they can test with customers and then revise, iterate and expand based upon feedback.
Thank you, Eric Ries of The Lean Startup fame for making the MVP a fixture in startup-land.
But the question we are often asked is whether the concept of MVP can be extended to startup marketing?
In other words, is there minimum viable marketing to launch your startup?
The answer is – yes and no.
For the foundation of your marketing, like positioning and brand, we quote InterWest partner Doug Pepper’s phrase : “nail it before you scale it”. It’s critical to take the time to develop and validate your decisions before you invest. Iterating will confuse your customers and the market—even your internal team.
For other marketing priorities we say “you have to tweak it ‘til it’s right.” For these elements of your marketing plan, by all means, test, test, and test. Check out our list below:
|Foundation: Nail it before you scale it
||Content : Tweak it ‘til it’s right
||Site conversion strategies: headlines, button, forms
||Calls to action
||Content types, length, structure
||Define it, don’t let it ‘evolve’
|Website structure, navigation
‘Premature’ is one of those words you usually don’t want to hear: sentences that include it rarely end well. Which is true for startups as well.
So it’s not surprising that one of the top reasons that startups fail is ‘premature scaling.’ Also known as ‘getting too far out over your skis.’ In startup terms, it means committing too many of your resources too early in the process.
The problem is that some founders equate financial investment with a statement of confidence with their technology/product. That if they double down with a strong investment (advertising, PR, events) it sends a strong message to the market—and to the internal team.
But Early Stage is normally not the place for significant marketing investments. It’s the province of Early Adopters (or Pioneers), who are rarely influenced by the same vehicles that move the mass market. Save your marketing resources (and budget) for the next stage, when—using Crossing the Chasm lingo (and that book is still timely today)—you start marketing in broader terms and programs to the Early Majority
In short, use your marketing and financial resources sparingly in the early days, wait for initial market traction from the Early Adopters and Influencers. Then, when you’re confident that you’ve got the right solution, turn on the tap.