Top Ten Tips for Startups– Prepping to Launch

As the year winds down to a close, countdowns and “year in review” lists can be found just about anywhere.  The Crowded Ocean blog is no exception, but this one just makes good business sense. We’ve gone back over some of our best received posts from this year and compiled a Top Ten list that any startup preparing to launch in the New Year must review.

  1. Know your audience and what it needs.  It’s not about what you made/can make, it’s solving a customer problem with a better solution.  We call that whiteboard marketing.
  2. Nail your value proposition.  Once you’ve identified those needs, make sure your various audiences (customers, analysts, influencers) can clearly understand the value (solutions, benefits, savings, etc) your technology brings to the market.  Positioning and messaging make up your secret sauce.
  3. Define your elevator pitch.  Everyone associated with your startup needs to be able to articulate your elevator pitch.  Make sure your entire ecosystem of employees, partners, friends of your startup, etc. hears the same consistent description of your company and product/service.  Remember that word-of-mouth can amplify your marketing.
  4. Sequence your marketing spend.  There are smart ways to prioritize your marketing spend to ensure that you’ve got the right stuff for launch (specifically in the areas of design, PR and your website).  And when it comes to your website, remember it takes time to build a clear, uncluttered site.
  5. Content is king.  We can’t say enough about the value of content.  Without it, you have no website and no sales tools.
  6. Establish a unique identity.  Choosing the right name and creating the right logo are top priorities for every startup.  Here we address some common questions regarding naming and logos with real world experience.
  7. Solidify your startup team.  You’ve tried to build the “A team” while founding your startup.  But if there were ever a moment to evaluate the strength and scalability of your team, it’s before launch.  And having the right team extends to your trusted vendors.  One of the “diseases” we caution startups about is something we call “insourcing”.
  8. Choose the right PR team.  PR is a critical component of almost every launch.  When hiring a PR agency, look for a team with domain expertise, capacity, availability, a relevant track record, no conflict of interest, and that all-important but sometimes elusive ingredient: chemistry, with you and your team.
  9. Plan your budget.  Your marketing plan and corresponding budget are as important to your startup as your product schedule and sales plan.  Here are important ways to think about how to structure your marketing budget.
  10. Legal:  Trademarks and Patents.  Our “going to launch” checklist would not be complete if we didn’t remind you to secure your company IP by making appropriate patent/trademark filings.
  11. We hope you’ve found value in these points and are able apply the learnings in your startup. We’ll continue to evaluate this list and update it as needed.  Is there anything you’ve experienced that belongs on this list?  Let us know!

Who Needs a Marketing Budget?

Being a high-tech marketing executive is like being a goalie for a dart team. There are exceptions, of course (you’re a CMO for a hot B2C property with a far-sighted Board), but for the most part your job is to absorb the Board barbs, and the sneering articles by VCs about ‘Is Marketing Necessary?’, and search for the newest measurement tool to justify your programs—and your existence.

Part of this is cultural: In the caste system of the tech world, Marketing ranks far below Products/Engineering and Sales, just above Facilities. Why? Because we’re the easiest target in the company. Because, while most critics of Marketing—especially the VCs—have neither coded nor sold for a living, they all critique Marketing as if they’ve been doing it all their lives.

Before we start sounding too defensive, we acknowledge that Marketing is often the most wasteful part of any organization. Both of us have been VPs of Marketing with $20M+ annual budgets, and we’ve participated in more than our share of programs—especially in the tough-to-quantify fields of branding, PR and advertising (don’t even get us started on sports marketing)—that should always have to justify themselves.

So, if you’re a startup, do you even need a marketing budget (as some recent blogs have posed the question), or should you just have a fund that you dip into as the opportunity arises? To be clear: You need a budget, one based on a plan. But it should be as basic and as bottoms-up as possible. Here are some guidelines:

  • Put as much of your initial budget into programs as possible.  Leave headcount for when you’ve got full-time needs.
  • Your VP of Marketing should wear many hats, but Product Marketing should be the first and biggest.  You don’t need a Corporate Marketing VP for a long time and, if you’re like most startups, you’ve got Product Management coming out your ears.  The key is to have a VP who can make sense of what Product Management is producing and then leverage that into sales-based marketing programs.
  • Sales and Marketing should be joined at the hip; sharing office space, if possible.  And everyone in Marketing should be required to go out on Sales calls– regularly.
  • Leverage your technical folks in the early stages.  They know the technology and who would most benefit from it— and their peers’ companies are your best options for Early Adopter candidates.
  • Outreach campaigns:  Keep them focused and small in early days, using your developers’ and sales reps’ networks as starting points, then radiating out in small, cost-effective circles.
  • Leverage contractors that can be turned on and off as the company grows and makes inevitable strategic pivots.
  • Before you spend marketing program dollars, decide what you’re going to measure.  Our mantra:  What gets measured, gets funded.
  • Invest early in systems that can both track and measure your Sales and Marketing efforts.  You’re going to have to do it anyway, so might as well have them in place early on to measure initial success and justify subsequent investments.

So should you have a Marketing budget?  Only if you’re going to have a Product Development schedule and a Sales plan.  Otherwise, listen to the pundits—who don’t need to meet any schedule, plan or budget—and just make it up as you go along.

Startup Marketing: Budgets and Other Myths

One of the questions we try to ask during the early phase of a startup marketing engagement is “what is your marketing budget?”  Some executives look a bit stricken by the question.  Blank looks are common.  Mostly, we ask this question because all of our experience from both successful startups and large public companies tells us that success depends upon having a plan.  And having a plan means having a budget.

We used to try to have a conversation about an annual marketing budget.  But for many early-stage organizations, it’s unrealistic to expect that an annual program budget of $300,000 to $500,000 will get earmarked for marketing.  After funding baseline programs like PR and the website, it’s a fight for dollars.

Typically, we budget at the initiative or program level on a quarterly basis and we take an incremental view of planning.  It’s very common to turn on a marketing initiative and measure results at the end of three months before deciding to sustain or increase the investment level in the program.  The  focus today is on piloting a new program, measuring and testing results — especially the impact on sales activity — iterating and trying again.  That could be a social media strategy to build followers, community and traffic.  Or, that could be a webinar series for lead generation.  For startups, our advice is to plan at the marketing program level, measure results, iterate, and then scale.  And remember, what gets measured gets funded.

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