Founders predictably underestimate the importance of hiring marketers. Here’s why many startups don’t get round to marketing their product until it’s too late.
As CEO of my last company, I was on a mission to build an outstanding product. I wanted it to be like something fresh out of Apple — simple and elegant, with every detail carefully considered. I dreamt of users talking about it with their friends, and writing to us with thanks for improving their lives.
So I set about building the product right. I read everything I could about product management. I spent hundreds of hours interviewing customers to understand their motivations, pain points, and routines. I prototyped throughout our agile development lifecycle. And I measured acquisition funnels, user activation goals, retention cohorts, and user journeys to understand how the product performed.
Finally, my dream came true. Our app was stickier than any other in its category. Users recommended it to their friends . . . and they even emailed us to thank us for building it. There was just one tiny problem.
User growth was still too slow.
We never got to Series A. Eventually, the money ran out.
Growth is a big deal in early-stage tech. Surprisingly, when I ask founders whether they’ve hired a marketer, the answer is all-too-often, ‘Not yet.’ And for over a year, I gave the same answer. It was a massive mistake. Worse still, even at the time, I think I knew it was a mistake — but I didn’t fix it.
It’s much easier to spot your own mistakes when you see other people making them, so here is why I didn’t hire a marketer. I hope it inspires you to make marketing an early priority . . . and to avoid the typical fate of most startups.
I believed that if you had a great product, it would market itself.
It would be awesome if that were true. But it’s not.
Great products deserve great marketing.
Vincent Dignam, a London-based growth hacker, says, ‘The first rule of growth hacking is, do not talk about growth hacking.’
Successful companies have every reason to hide what actually drives their growth, and they are better off simply saying, ‘We just focus on building awesome products for our users.’ This is the lie we all buy into. But not anymore.
How much can a marketer achieve before having a product to market? The whole premise sounded inefficient to me, futile, even. Looking back, the list of critical activities that I postponed unnecessarily makes me cringe.
And it’s a long list: activities like creating and promoting content for future customers, capturing leads in a mailing list, keeping them warm with a newsletter, building an online following, forming distribution partnerships, building relationships with influencers, speaking at events, setting up an evangelist program, and testing communications on different segments.
‘Marketing development’ activities don’t require a product to be launched at all.
During the first year, I interviewed dozens of marketers. I got them to draft a marketing plan for my company and walk me through it. I was waiting for someone to tell me how to generate a huge amount of high-quality traffic to my website, for free, almost immediately.
To me, most of the marketing plans looked boring. One marketer told me: ‘A brand isn’t created overnight — it takes many months of messaging to build a reputation.’ Many months? I wanted growth immediately! I didn’t have funding for ‘many months’. There had to be a hack.
There is a hack . . . but it’s not what most founders think. Hire a marketer months before product launch and begin marketing development activities early.
What if users signed up early but the launch was delayed? What if they came to the website and it crashed? What if everyone in the world laughed at me and said, ‘Dave, you quit your $150,000 job to build that piece of shit?’
I never said any of this out loud. But this fear of not being good enough stopped me from trying to attract too much attention. In retrospect, the product was good enough and it would have helped so many more people had they actually known about it.
Have you ever tried to clarify what a product actually does, only to hear a founder say, ‘Well, that’s part of it, but it can do so much more.’
I used to believe that effectively communicating a product required comprehensive knowledge of all the product’s features — and the entire business. I figured that, since only I knew everything about my company, it would demand a lot of my time to transfer this knowledge to someone else.
This is a flawed assumption. Someone with less understanding of how a product actually works is often better equipped to communicate what it does than someone stuck in the weeds.
It takes just a few hours to sit with a marketer and answer their questions, and that’s enough to get started.
After parking the venture, I spent a couple of weeks writing essays based on everything I’d learned from the experience. I challenged myself to promote each essay as best I could, to maximise their impact for other founders.
After countless hours of marketing each essay, I realised that growth marketing is a process, not a magic bullet.
Every day, I look for new partner publications that can take my ideas to a larger, more relevant audience. I keep working out ways to test which title is most effective. I keep making it easier to tweet, favourite and share each piece. I keep promoting essays in relevant online communities. I keep engaging the right people on social media. And I continue to build up my mailing list.
The list of ways to get traction never ends. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, something changes, or you come up with a new idea.
Someone needs to be looking after marketing at your startup from Day One. Not after launch. Not during some PR campaign. But from the beginning, and every day. Building a great product is hard. Great marketing is hard too. And you absolutely need both in order to win.
It takes smarts, endless persistence, a knack for communication, an ability to close partnerships, and of course, a product that adds value. Like product development and customer development, marketing development takes longer than you think. Hire the smartest people you know, because you need all the help you can get.
Thoughtful essays on growing teams, building products and raising money by Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, David Bailey.