Why Startup Marketing is Like the Denny’s Menu

marketingLast week, April Dunford had a great post, “What is Startup Marketing?” that spelled out how startup marketing encompasses so many angles – everything from lead generation and partnerships to product strategy.

Here’s another way to think about it: startup marketing is like the Denny’s menu. There are lots of choices, which is a good thing, so it’s a matter of deciding what meets your specific needs and interests.

As a startup marketer, I was happy to see April’s post because it should give entrepreneurs a better idea of what a startup marketer does and, as important, how marketing can drive a startup’s growth.

One of the biggest challenges facing startup entrepreneurs is many of them aren’t marketers or even that familiar with what marketing involves. As a result, marketing is regarded as a mystery and more art/magic than science.

The other thing about marketing is it often costs money, which is a difficult pill to swallow when you’re not even sure what’s involved. It’s not like hiring a salesperson who is going to bring money in the door by selling your product.

For startups, however, marketing is an important pillar of their growth, along with product development and sales. Truth be told, marketing touches so many areas  it shouldn’t be ignored or brushed aside until a startup has enough traction. It needs to be  part of the strategic and tactical mix from the beginning.

Entrepreneurs need to understand that startup marketing is not evil, expensive or not as important as product or sales. Simply because marketing is not something they know doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or a waste of time and money.

So how should a startup entrepreneur approach marketing?

Probably the most important consideration is determining what you want marketing to achieve. What are the goals and objectives? Is it creating messaging and brand? It is media outreach? It is community building or product development? Given marketing can help with so many areas, having a focus is crucial.

Once a startup knows what it wants to do, it needs a strategic and tactical plan. As my business has evolved, I have learned  strategy-lite and tactical heavy is the right mix. Given many startups want to move quickly, strategy often involves getting a  solid roadmap so the tactical work is focused.

Third, a startup should establish benchmarks for its marketing efforts. Whether it’s brand building, Website traffic or sales, a startup has to measure how well its marketing efforts are doing to determine ROI and whether strategic or tactical changes are needed.

Truth be told, startup marketing should not be a scary or intimidating proposition. Like any business activity, marketing should be embraced with the right approach,  expectations and plan of attack.

If you’re a startup, you need to do marketing because it can deliver many positive benefits, as well as support and drive growth. Once marketing is accepted a good thing, it comes down to being in control and having a strong grasp on what you want to do.

If you’re interested in learning more about how I do strategy and tactical marketing for startups, drop me a line.  

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The 40 Leading Startup Bloggers

When I pivoted my business two years ago to focus on startup marketing, I did a couple of things to drive brand awareness: write two blogs posts a week, and publish a weekly newsletter featuring a variety of startup content.

In the process, I started to track bloggers who wrote about startups on a regular basis – people such as April Dunford, Ben Yoskovitz, Mark Suster, Fred Wilson and Tomasz Tunguz.

For whatever reason, it seemed like a good idea to create a list of startup bloggers. It seemed like a pretty easy assignment but it took several weeks of research, which involved looking at dozens of Websites.

What I surprisingly discovered is there aren’t many individual bloggers who blog exclusively about startups on a regular basis – I’m talking about on a weekly or even bi-weekly basis. Some of the startup bloggers mentioned on lists such as this one from OnStartups have either stopped writing or do so infrequently.

In the end, I came up with 40 blogs that fit the bill. Keep in mind, it does not include large blogs such as VentureBeat, TechCrunch, The Next Web, et al because I wanted to focus on individuals. If you know a blog that should be on the list, leave a comment.

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Sometimes, Startups Need to Say “No”

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 9.49.16 PMOne of the most difficult words to say is “no”.

No means you don’t agree, not willing or able to cooperate or strike a deal, or simply don’t want to do something. It oozes with negativity, which is probably why many people say “yes” or “maybe” when they should really say “no”.

For startups, “no” is particularly hard because they’re always looking for a lucky break or lightning to strike. Saying “no” closes doors, ends discussions, kills potential and gets in the way of traction and growth.

So rather than saying “no”, startups sometimes say “yes”…and that’s when the trouble starts. When “yes” jump the queue in front of “no”, it happens for the wrong reasons or it happens at an inappropriate time.

The desire to succeed, grow or live to see another day makes startups jump into the fray when they should stay on the sidelines. It makes them agree to develop new features, enter into partnerships, hire people or take on investors. While it may seem right to say “yes”, the harsh reality is “no” is the better decision.

Perhaps one of the best reasons to say “no” is it helps to keep a startup focused rather than chasing things that don’t fit with the big picture plan.

It allows a startup to keep their collective eyes on long-term vision rather than short-term wins.

Truth be told, it’s easy for a startup to be seduced by requests from different stakeholders. Everyone has a good idea, a great opportunity or interesting wrinkle they want you to embrace. It is important to keep in mind all these may have benefits for them but not so much for you.

The next time you, the startup entrepreneur, get approach to do something, it’s important to think through what “yes” and “no” means.

What are the implications of saying “yes”, and what are the benefits of saying “no”? Look at saying “no” as the positive, and “yes” as the negative. It may provide a different and valuable perspective.

For some other takes on saying “no”, check out:

- Keith Ashton on why creative people say “no”.

- “Become your best gatekeeper” by Dorie Clark

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The Slow and Focused Startup vs. The Fast and Furious

slowA couple of weeks ago, I hurt my knee.

Aside from putting a summer of hockey (yes, the season never really ends) and tennis in jeopardy, it forced me to move slower.

Rather than running around trying to get multiple things done, I had to focus on getting one thing accomplished before moving on to the next task. For someone who multi-tasks, it was a dramatic change in behaviour.

The upside is got me thinking about many startups do business. In an effort to become successful, they madly run off in multiple directions as quickly as possible. By working on many things at the same time, the idea, in theory, is lots of stuff will get accomplished – hopefully, all good.

One of the big reasons for this modus operandi is fear of failure and running out of time. If startups are not working on a variety of goals, they think they’re putting themselves at risk, particularly if they’re operating in a competitive marketplace.

The problem, however, is taking a fast and furious approach often increases risk and increases the possibility of failing.

What happens is many of a startup’s goals aren’t successfully completed because they don’t receive enough attention. Instead, many things are done in a mediocre way.

The most blatant example of a startup trying to do too much, too quickly is the feature flurry. Rather than making sure each feature performs well and meets the needs of users, too many startups pump out feature after feature in the hope that some of them will stick.

From the outside looking in, it appears a lot is happening but little or none of it is any good because the startups has emphasized quantity over quality.

Maybe the best approach for startups is slow and focused, rather than fast and furious.

It means a startup has the appetite to move forward pragmatically and thoughtfully rather than being a tactical machine. It means taking a slow, methodical approach that involves making decisions after healthy a healthy amount of discussion and consideration.

It could see a startup act differently than many rivals, who may appear to be more active and aggressive.

But don’t confuse being slow to being uncompetitive. Startups that decide it makes no sense to move at a break-neck speed have, instead, determined that being focused is a better and smarter approach.

It takes courage to be slow and focused because it can be like going against the flow. The upside is startups can spend their time and energy on making the right decisions at the right time for the right reasons.

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Startups: Don’t Use Exclusives and Embargos

embargoesFor early-stage startups, one of the most over-rated marketing exercises is the pursuit of media coverage.

The goal (dream?) of getting covered by reporters and bloggers is, in theory, seen as valuable because it has the potential to do so many awesome things: build brand awareness, attract new users, establish credibility and provide a competitive edge.

Given the importance placed by startups on media coverage, it isn’t surprising to see creativity, somersaulting and horse-trading. Some of the techniques involved trying to “play” the media include things such as exclusives and embargos.

The problem is startups spend as much, if not more, time on tricks and games as they do developing interesting and unique stories. In many ways, it’s a lack of confidence or creativity, or the fact what they’re doing isn’t that interesting.

I’ve always had a problem with startups that play games because it comes across as inauthentic and, frankly, cheesy.

I was reminded about this kind of behaviour recently when I was approached by a PR person about a private beta. The pitch included details about their performance on Apple’s app store. This was a startup I had already heard about on Twitter, and had started using after getting an invite to the beta through the Website.

The PR person said the details about the Apple store were embargoed for two weeks. It was surprising to discover a story about the startup on a major tech blog. It was explained that a “few select media” had received access while the rest of us had to wait two weeks until the embargo is lifted. It made me feel like a second-class citizen.

The problem with embargos and exclusives is they’re nothing more than short-cuts disguised as a media outreach strategy.

They try to create false sense of urgency or specialness in the absence of something fundamentally better and more effective: real relationships with reporters and bloggers.

While an embargo or exclusive may get a startup coverage, the gains are often short-lived. An exclusive story published by TechCrunch, for example, may generate a spike in traffic but is it really worth the reality that many other blogs won’t provide coverage?

My advice to startups is forget about embargos and exclusive, and quickly dismiss advice from PR people trying to sell you on their merits.

Instead, you have three options:

1. Establish and nurture real relationships with reporters and bloggers. Comment on their articles and blogs, meet them for coffee, offer them valuable insight and context without any expectations of coverage, follow them on social media and share their content, approach them at conferences, or provide them with story ideas. The goal: rise above the crowd by being personal, helpful, interesting and different from all the other startups battling for their attention.

2. Be creative rather than pitching how your startup is the greatest thing since sliced bread – something nearly every startups believes and declares. Instead, think big picture or out of the box. How is your startup part of a larger and more interesting story that involves other players? How is your startup unique or different from everyone else claiming they are unique and different?

3. Be honest and insightful about what you’re trying to do. When your product launches, for example, talk about the problem you’re trying to solve, why you decided to take a specific approach and some of the challenges encountered along the way. By being authentic and open rather than promotional, your story becomes better and more real.

Both of the above take time, effort and energy – a lot more than simply deciding to use an embargo or exclusive. At the end of the day, however, they’re far more effective in the long-run by establishing a solid foundation for additional coverage.

The bottom line: Attracting and getting media and blog coverage needs to be part of a long-term plan that should start long before a startup begins to seek coverage. It should not be seen a short-term exercise that will suddenly ignite an explosion of never-ending coverage, new users and brand awareness. And, finally, avoid using embargos and exclusives.

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This Week in Canadian Startups (June 15, 2013)

This Week in Canadian StartupsWhat do you do with a Zombie startup? Kill it? Pivot? This newest edition of “This Week in Canadian Startups” kicks off with two explorations of how Zombie startups should be handled.

The newsletter also includes a look at whether startups should use social media, how entrepreneurs can be smarter about raising money, why raising venture capital may not be a good thing for some startups, and the spotlight on Yoleo, a cool alternative to Google Reader.

To get the newsletter delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning, all you need to do is subscribe.

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