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Developer's Guide to Launching a Startup: Marketing 101

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Marketing couldn’t be any more different than software development. Development is relatively predictable, logical and the outcome depends on your knowledge and the time you put in. Marketing is a bit of a wild card. It’s unpredictable. It’s counter-intuitive at times. It has no clear correlation between the amount of time and effort you put in and the outcome (assuming you are doing something).

People buy expensive wine they know nothing about. They won’t shell out $2 for a useful app, but they’ll take a $30 Uber ride to get to work.

Go figure.

To makes things worse, a solution to this madness does not exist. Every product is unique and what has historically worked out for other products in your market space might turn out to be a complete failure for you. In other words, it’s basically a voodoo science.

Thomas Edison once said of his many failed experiments: I have learned fifty thousand ways it cannot be done and therefore I am fifty thousand times nearer the final successful experiment.

Which means that you have to try different strategies until you find exactly what works for you and what doesn’t. But don’t go experiment completely blindly! While voodoo might have no logic, there are some basics to marketing that startups can’t afford to skip.

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Your startup is only as good as its marketing plan

Here is an extract from 116 insights startup founders wish they knew before they launched.

The bottom line of them is that your startup is only as good as its marketing plan.

Out of every theme those guys saw from startup founders, marketing was the most challenging and most frequently mentioned one. Launching.io received submissions from hundreds of startup founders who’d spent months, even years, building their products but neglected to put together a marketing plan.

Here are a few quotes from fellow founders for your reference, so you can’t say you haven’t been forewarned!

It is fun and entertaining creating the product. But the life of a startup starts when the product is done and you need to push it out, get traction, get noticed, get funded,… Most of the startups fail right here. They have the expertise in building/making the product but a product is nothing without customers. Jaka Verbič Miklič, Shareline

Planning a strategy about how to grow from 10-100 customers is useless. All you need to think about is getting your first customer, then your second, then your third, and so on. We all underestimate how difficult it is to get the first customer.
Gideon Baldridge, Attribution

Actually building the software is only a fraction of the work required to launch a product – you need to pour so much effort into writing, marketing, measuring and speaking to potential and existing customers.
James Adam Harmonia

It is no longer “build a better mousetrap and people will beat a path to your door”. You need to have the best door, the best walkway, a nice mailbox, and a “free money” sign to get people to come to your door. Demand generation is key. Jason Maloney, Diffr3nt.

As you can see, marketing actually DOES matter. If you are only beginning your venture, get started on marketing today so you won’t be sorry down the line.

And if you are already a couple of months in but still haven’t done much in this aspect, don’t get discouraged! Remind yourself of this wise Chinese saying:

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now

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Everybody has to start somewhere. I would recommend taking a look at the ultimate guide to start up marketing by Kissmetrics. If it’s your first adventure with marketing, it will give you a good overview of the subject. If you’ve gotten your hands dirty with hands-on marketing before, it will make for a solid refresher and hopefully give you a few new things to think about.

Regardless of what you’re marketing and where you’re marketing, there are some basic things you need to figure out first or you will not succeed. And those apply to any startup, regardless of the industry.

  1. What is your product?
  2. How is your product making your potential customer’s lives better?
  3. Who are your competitors?
  4. What are your competitors’ products’ greatest strengths?
  5. Where do your competitors fall short?
  6. How can you capitalize on your competitors’ shortcomings?
  7. What is the weakest aspect of your product?
  8. Can you improve it? If not, how can you fill the gap?
  9. Who would be your perfect customer?
  10. Where do you find customers who meet that profile?
  11. What free marketing channels do you have access to?
  12. How much are you willing/able to spend on marketing?
  13. What are your goals? More sales? Higher user engagement? VC’s attention?

Now that you have answered those questions, let’s take a look at some common pitfalls of start-up marketing and ways you can avoid them.

First and foremost- do NOT launch

Yes, you read it right! DO NOT LAUNCH. Do not make huge announcements, do not throw an official launch party, and do not hire a PR team.


Because 99/100 startups are not ready to launch when they do. Launching prematurely is an expensive mistake that takes a lot of time and money to clean up. You never get a second chance to launch. Unlike a lot of other startup activities, PR is not one where you can try it, iterate, learn, and try again.

The word “launch” actually has two meanings, which frequently get confused or mixed up together.

Here is how Eric Ries (Lean Startup) defines and differentiates them:

what does it mean to launch? Generally, we conflate two unrelated concepts into the term, which is important to clarify right up front.

  1. Announce a new product, start its PR campaign, and engage in buzz marketing activities. (Marketing launch)

  2. Make a new product available to customers in the general public. (Product launch)

In today’s world, there is no reason you have to do these two things at the same time. In fact, in most situations it’s a bad idea for startups to synchronize these events.

If you don’t get as many customers from the launch it’s a disaster. If you do get the volume you wanted, but it turns out you were not ready for it, it’s a disaster.

If there is a hidden bug somewhere in the product, you just made a fool of yourself in front of the whole world, and it’s a disaster.

If your product isn’t yet fully optimized for conversion (which applies to most startups as they might not have more than a couple dozen customers prior to the launch), it’s a disaster.

If your product doesn’t retain customers past the initial free-trial period, it’s a waste of a launch… and a disaster.

As you can see, it’s a risky business. So instead or doing a big marketing launch, focus on launching your product first. Get real feedback, from real clients, who are actually willing to or already are paying for your product. Offering people free products for their feedback is a common practice, but it won’t give you the real feedback you need. Your product might be cool enough if you’re giving it out for free, but if the same people had to spend their own money on it, would they?

Here is what you can do instead.

Do a soft-launch. Get a few beta customers, and then slowly roll out your products. Based in LA? Great, start in your own backyard! Once the product is up to your standards, go out there, chat with real potential customers. Run some demos. Get feedback. Get a few people on board, and keep track of their experience. Check on your retention rate. Ask for referrals/ introduce a small referral program. Analyze it. Iterate when needed. Take over San Diego and a couple of other California cities next. Pick a new state and replicate the successful tactics you have learned.

Take an example from the team at Gleam App. Here is what they had to say about their launch:

“Launching is an activity that can be split up into many different parts. For example, Gleam has never actually done a marketing launch, we simply launched silently after beta & just built up organically. Technically we could still do a marketing launch if we wanted to. You don’t have to launch with fireworks, just launch with something that meets a need”

Run an actual marketing launch only when you know you are absolutely ready for it (by which point you might not need an actual marketing launch, anyways).

If you want to read up more on this subject, check out Eric Ries’s post on why startups should not launch.

Don’t throw your money down the drain

Marketing (especially at the beginning) shouldn’t cost you much. Get on Twitter, create a Facebook page, a Pinterest board or business Linkedin account. Just don’t do it all!

Pick one and stick with it. Doing social media right takes time and effort. Big companies have designated teams for each platform they use, so don’t try to do it all by yourself. You will be spreading yourself too thin. “Yeah Mary, but EVERY business has a facebook page, I can’t not have one” .

  • A) not EVERY business has one.
  • B) even if they did, you don’t have to have one.

If you absolutely hate social media, but are doing great running demos and closing sales, by all means- don’t spend time on Facebook (or any other social media page for that matter) for now. Just make sure your customers have a way to get in touch and be heard!

Oh, and DO NOT hire a marketing guy just yet!

First and foremost, marketing strategy done right is a long play, so you might be better off spending that money on a salary for an extra developer or a sales guy that will make an immediate impact on your day-to-day bottom line.

Two, it’s ridiculously difficult to find a good marketing person, and once you do find one, they cost a TON. It’s well worth it though! While it’s tempting to hire a junior person (or an intern) because you’re short on cash, it’s probably the worst you can do. You won’t have the resources (training, management, time) to groom them, and most junior guys won’t be able to deliver without proper guidance.
Wait it out until you can afford a proper marketing person, and it will pay off!

But do spend at least a 1$ a day on google ads.

It’s the cheapest marketing campaign you can pull off, and the results might just blow your mind. Just don’t bid on the most popular keywords that all your competitors do! At this point, $20 per click can’t be justified! Be creative and don’t spend much. Bid on your competitors’ solutions keyword. Turn your own features into keywords. If you want more control over your spending, set up a max bid per click and relax… let the numbers roll in.

From there, analyze and iterate. Think of it in this simple way that anybody in your company would be able to understand. All the traffic that comes into your landing page is 100%. What happens next? Where do those guys go after they have landed? How many of them makes it into your features page? Pricing? How many go to the checkout? What percentage of them actually complete a checkout?

Get your numbers straight,and then iterate until you get it right. Once you are happy with your customer’s flow and have confidence in the numbers from your results, increase your daily bid and continue checking on the stats. Soon, you’ll find that the right flow is a scalable process and can be a game changer at a fraction of a cost of hiring a marketing person, consultant, or an agency.

Do not throw a party at an event/conference and do not buy swag

In two words- don’t bother.

Detailed explanation- I am not saying do not attend events or conferences, but do not blow your marketing budget on them. Let’s assume here that you somehow have $10,000 to spend on a party- that’s a lot of money. Whether it’s cash in hand or credit cards, for the startup reality 10Gs is considered a TON.

Spoiler alert: your $10,000 will be pale in comparison to the budgets of bigger tech startups and public companies, and anything you do will feel small in comparison. And even if your attendance isn’t too bad, you will be left with a half empty room when another party where “everybody will be” starts at midnight.

Go to those events, network, be part of the fun. Meet other founders, enjoy open bars and guest performances, run into drunken VCs at 2am next to a fried chicken waffles stand. Just don’t waste your money on a launch party there- that’s one thing that doesn’t make sense.

When it comes to swag, it’s a similar story. It’s pricey, and do you think people will really care that their pen/notepads/coffee mug reads the name of your company? Another spoiler alert- they won’t. Swag even made it to Mark Cuban’s 12 rules for startups. Put your money to a better use.

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And finally, don’t stop looking for the best way to run your marketing.

“It worked for us before, it will work again this time” is not the winning attitude.

To quote Will Rogers, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

Don’t get too comfy after running a successful experiment or campaign.

Keep on doing your research and adjust what has worked before to the next circumstances. Get hungry for more marketing knowledge and inspiration. This post barely scratched the surface of marketing. It’s the beginning of your journey, and it is up to you to continue from here.

Here is a great read that will fit your start-up founders bookshelf- The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win by Steve Blank.

Want to get a little bit deeper into customer base development? Check out this post on how to Build Your User Base with These Human Behavior Hacks.

Be creative. Run an online competition with Gleam.io.. Gleam has made amazing things happened to startups before. Here is an example of how they helped other startups grow.

The sky is the limit.

But first and foremost, do not get discouraged ☺ Try, try and try again. You will fail miserably in the process. But once you get it down, it will be all worth it. Best of luck!

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Mary Goldspink
Mary Goldspink
Startups Coach //Software Engineer
Startups coach, a passionate optimist and an engineer. Enterprenuer, a former COO at Unbits ( iOT start-up, acquired by Wearable World).
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Josh David Miller
Josh David Miller
startup advisor, speaker, CEO. More than mildly obsessed in seeing founders succeed. I only use my powers for good.
Every day, I get to work with startup founders as passionate as I am about building great products. I'm the CEO of Mindbox Studios, a custom...
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Marek Publicewicz
Marek Publicewicz
Full-stack developer with 18 years of experience, helping US startups full-time since 2005. Refactoring & code simplicity master.
Deep expertise in: frontend javascript (14 years), C, Java (12 years), PHP, perl, (8 years), Scala, Ruby, Rails (5 years), Objective-C & iOS...
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