Five Reasons Startups Are Afraid of Marketing

five tipsEarlier this week, I did a post that asked: Where are Canada’s startup marketers? It spawned a flurry of insightful comments, suggestions and thoughts on the startup marketing landscape and what needs to be done to develop more talent.

Among the comments, two jumped out because they nailed key issues:

Stuart MacDonald: “The broader issue is that 99% of startups don’t know what marketing *is* so they don’t value it.”

Francis Moran: “I do agree that the biggest problem with startup marketing is that too many startups don’t understand how marketing is mission critical.”

To run with this theme, here are five reasons why startups are afraid of marketing:

1. They don’t understand it. As Stuart and Francis make abundantly clear, most startups don’t understand marketing. It’s not part of their skill-set, experience or DNA. In other words, they don’t know what they don’t know. This makes it difficult to understand the role and value of marketing. It has nothing to do with knowledge or expertise but, rather, a grasp on a different, but important, topic.

2. It costs money. Let’s face it, marketing costs money to make happen – whether you’re doing it in-house, through freelancers or via consultants. When given the choice between hiring a salesperson, who generates revenue, and a marketing person, who eats revenue, it is easy to understand why it’s easier for startups to pick the former. The key thing startups need to understand is marketing works when the amount of new business coming in outweighs the amount being spent on marketing. Of course, it is impossible to see how this would work if you don’t do any marketing.

3. They don’t see it as a priority. To many startups, the most important priorities are product development and sales, followed by hiring talent and raising money. Somewhere down the line, comes marketing. In many cases, the need for marketing only arises after a point of pain emerges such as a Website that doesn’t convert, rivals getting more media/blog coverage, messaging that potential customers don’t understand, or the need for more marketing collateral.

4. It’s hard to measure success. It’s not really, particularly digitally, but there is a perception that marketing campaigns are sent into the ether in the hope they will generate some kind of return such as Website visits, in-bound emails, telephone calls, leads and sales. Again, it goes back to not understanding how marketing works and why it needs to be done.

5. Marketers are strange creatures. Marketers talk differently, they use strange words (KPIs, anyone?), they’re slick, always trying to sell you something or get you to do something, and they’re into creative concepts and brainstorming sessions. In other words, marketers are different, in many ways, from developers or, for that matter, salespeople. Yes, we can be a bit slick and we like to talk fast but we have good intentions and a focus on helping startups succeed.

Bonus: Another challenge for startups is not knowing who they should exactly hire to do marketing. What skills and experience should that person have? How do they measure this person’s performance? How do they decide between different candidates?

The key message here is marketing has a definite role to play within a startup, along with programming, sales, HR, customer service, etc. It needs to be part of the mix for a startup to have a shot at success.

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  • Mark Evans


  • Michael Coulson

    hi Mark – great discussion on startup marketing. Loved the thread with Amrita, April, Stuart chiming in etc.

    I’ve been mktg startups for nearly 20 years – except for a stint at Bell – and would agree that it is undervalued or misunderstood. Or rather, people understand now that they need it, but aren’t entirely sure what this black magic is supposed to do for them.

    I think that the reason it is not understood is similar to the reason I keep coming back to startups: it’s exciting because of the urgency. The possibility of cash running out at any time cuts through bureaucracy, drives decisions and makes people focus on what really matters.

    And what really matters is the next sale. And in startups, what often happens is that this emphasis means that the most influential person in the room is the heavyweight sales person with the rolodex, years of experience, and frankly, the ability to spin tales that makes them persuasive.

    So we in startup marketing often have to fight to make our voices heard on the stuff that Stuart so rightly points out – price, product, placement, promotion.

    Everyone knows intuitively that they need market presence and brand building so they bear advertising buys and tradeshow spending through gritted teeth, and full-out resist spending the money (or opening the rolodexes) on the exercises that we know matter – surveys, research, “content marketing” – to glean the insights that will let us do a better job of making the 4P decisions.

    In the past 10 years marketing (esp digital) has gotten a lot better at drawing a direct line between spend and results. But for startups, justifying marketing is a constant battle.