Whatever you do please don’t waste your time listening to this episode. Unless you want to learn about several marketing-related things that are also a complete waste of time. Don’t act like I didn’t warn you.
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Hello listeners and greetings from wonderful but also very weird Berlin. I am still traveling and getting over my last cold, so apologies again for the less than idea audio quality. I’ll soon be using some better recording equipment and starting to do some video with this podcast so be sure to subscribe to get notified of future episodes. In the spirit of moving fast I’m also doing this podcast much like a startup so testing different types of content formats and topics to see what works. Thanks to all who have given a listen or subscribed thus far.
So this week I’ve been thinking back to marketing activities I’ve done that have proven to be a waste of time. And boy there have been so many. Although really I think that’s one of the best parts of startup growth marketing, all that experimenting and failing and learning and only occasionally finding something that works. When you do, it can be a great feeling not just of relief but that you’re at the start of something big that will put your little startup into hyper growth mode. That feeling is, unfortunately often short lived but you should still enjoy it as the startup journey is long and fraught with so many ups and downs. Well mostly downs but you get my point.
As many first time founders start their own journey I’m often asked things like “uhhh what marketing book do you recommend to read?”. To which is usually reply “Uhhhhh well none of them” That’s because you learn early stage growth marketing by doing not reading about doing. Every business is too unique so really who cares what someone else did at some other startup? You sorta need to find your own way that works, then to complete the cycle I guess you would write you own book about it. Ahhh the circle of life.
Although I guess it is perhaps worth mentioning that you might want to read the book Hooked by Nir Eyal on how to build habit-forming products. If you’re a total marketing noob it is good to think about things beyond just top of funnel and user acquisition. You dont really stand much chance for growth without also creating that sometimes elusive user retention.
As a bit of a side rant I wouldn’t be so seduced by the sneakiest of growth tactics. The dark UI patterns and sometimes nasty tricks we do to make users addicted to our products. You should instead be focused on providing so much value to your users they simply can’t live without it as part of their workflow or daily life. Yes, we use email and notifications and other nudges to help but in many cases the path to growth is laid out more much easily by simply reducing the friction a user needs to go through to discover the value you provide.
As a final side rant to the side rant it seems even Nir has changed his tune as of late on this topic. His more recent book titled Indistractable talks about how to free yourself from all those terrible product marketing techniques and quote growth hacks unqoute that so many software companies use upon us. Many of which were inspired by his previous book! Yikes
Now before you get too distracted by what some VC is humblebragging about on Twitter or some mind-numbing Tiktok algorithm there are two main points I would try to help you understand as you embark on your marketing endeavors my brave founders.
The first is that much like venture capital, marketing follows the 80/20 rule aka only 20% of what you do actually makes an impact. So what this really means is that if you put all your marketing eggs in one basket you are certain to fail. I mean I’ve been marketing startups for over a decade and even I can’t nail it with a singular strategy. Instead, you’ll need to test and experiment with many different growth strategies to actually find a few that work, and ideally, a few that complement each other or to use other silly startup phrases, create a flywheel, or a growth engine. This is why in the early stages of any startup you want to move through your growth experiments quickly. If a campaign or tactic takes months to launch and learn from you’ll likely find you have run out of your most precious resource, time.
Oh, and since supposed marketing experts love to make up silly sayings and analogies I’m also going to give you my own to make the second point. That is that when it comes to building growth for your startup it really is like a big band concert with you being the conductor. You’re managing a wide variety of instruments and you succeed when they all play at the right time and with a pleasing melody. Unfortunately, we all know that in the early stages things are more often than not, very much out of tune. So if anything I might recommend looking at your marketing stack and focusing on the noisiest of your instruments. Start to bring that in tune and then the next instrument, and then next, and before you know it a beautiful melody of growth might emerge.
So now that I have regaled you with silly analogies and fluffy thoughts let’s get to the meat of things. To the marketing activities that I have in general found to be a waste of time for early-stage startups. Maybe you save yourself some time by avoiding these and in future podcasts we’ll delve a bit into things you should try instead.
First, User Personas. I’m not sure who made these up, but let’s blame academia or perhaps the big consulting firms. Generally, I see young startups make 4 very vague user personas, proudly display them to the team, and then file them away never to look at them again. In the early days your user persona is whoever will pay you. Focus on talking to them, learning from them, making them super happy, and then finding more of them. From my experience, the primarily user personal or user demographic or whatever you want to call it is never who you expect it to be. You can only learn who that is with some trial and error and of course a bit of both qualitative and quantitative data to parse through.
Next Marketing Conferences, and spoiler alert I have a whole rant coming on how useless tech events are in general for early start startups. When it comes to marketing conferences specifically I suppose it’s no surprise that marketers like to market themselves to other marketers at marketing conferences (phew). Sure, I’ve spoken at many of these venues at least during pre-covid times, but I now think they are such a waste I don’t blame to going forward. If you’re a newbie founder or marketer I can see the appeal of hearing the CMO of blah blah blah talk, but their advice is usually not very tactical. Often is the case that these CMOs work at super well-funded startups and therefore have about a million more times the resources than you do. So that in itself should make it clear on why they really have nothing to offer to you, the early stage company with limited funding. The truth is you need to find your own strategy. Replicating what some very senior marketer did at some super well-funded company will probably not help you. I mean aren’t we all bored of hearing the 15th version of how Dropbox grew its business?
Moving on let’s talk about launching small one-time campaigns. Or said another way, Let’s test that new channel but not spend too much time or money on it! With that statement, you have pretty much sealed the fate of this new channel. Any new channel or tactic takes time and several iterations to validate. Throwing $100 and a few hours of your time at it will almost guarantee you don’t see results and therefore don’t pursue it further. While it’s good to kill bad ideas quickly, it’s also bad to make assumptions on very limited effort and of course limited data. Real growth can only be achieved through repeatable growth tactics and channels. Doing a bunch of small one offs will probably not get you there.
How about all those Fancy Analytics and marketing Tools? Well how many SaaS marketing tools should a sassy SaaS startup use? You have so many to choose from and they all look so shiny! I don’t think you actually need any of them until hitting a certain amount of scale (like millions of monthly events or significant annual revenue). Up and to that point you just need Google Analytics which is you guess it free! and a lot of Google Spreadsheets which is also free! I think you’ll also find your developers hate to integrate/instrument all of these fancy marketing tools and who can blame them? Better to save their energy to work on your core product and you do some extra number crunching in spreadsheets instead. I have also find this brings you much closer to the data as you have to quite literally touch it. That can be a lot more effective in uncovering the needles in the data haystack that you can then leverage further.
And last, but not least of course is getting too much startup marketing advice from social media sites like LinkedIn, blogs, and cough cough podcasts from supposed experts. Oh no! It’s already too late if you’re listening to this! Better take out those earbuds and start working on your own growth experiments and optimizations. I am being a bit tongue and cheek but there’s some half truth to this as well. Today there is probably too much advice for founders online and yes I acknowledge that I’m part of the problem. Although I do try to at least tell things to you straight without ulterior motives or things to sell you. Nothing else I’d rather try to sell you some confidence that you can figure this out on your own. And hey if you don’t and totally screw up your growth marketing there’s even some value there. Because I’m sure you’ll screw up things much less in your next startup.
Until then, I wish you much success and many charts that go, up and to the right.