Category Archives: marketing

How to Get What You Need

I have many conversations with founders that start with “I need…”. “I need to raise money.” “I need to hire more people.” “I need to find some more customers.”

It is very easy to develop tunnel vision when building your company, as you are tackling difficult problems everyday. Your world consists of aggressive (maybe impossible) goals and you evaluate all the things you need to be able to achieve those goals. Those needs become your entire focus.

The problem with focusing on your needs is that no one else cares.

When prospective investors, employees or customers look at your company they don’t care about your needs, they care about what you can do for them. Investors don’t care that you need to raise money, they care about whether you can produce a return on their investment. Employees don’t care that you need to hire more people, they care that you offer unique and valuable opportunities. Customers don’t care that you need their business, they care about whether you help them solve a problem.

When you think about the world this way, you realize why many first time founders struggle. They focus too much on their needs and not on how to create enough value so that people will want to fulfill those needs.

Getting What You Need

In order to get what you need, you need to make the opportunity to give it to you such a great deal that no one would ever pass it by. So, if you need..

  • To Raise Funding: Make your company an amazingly attractive investment. This should be a combination of traction, team and vision (and perhaps revenue). Make the terms of investment friendly to both you and the investors so they don’t feel you are trying to take advantage of them.
  • To Hire People: Make your company an amazingly attractive place to work. Empower new hires to learn and expand their roles, giving them the freedom to be creative while holding the responsibility of delivering important parts of your strategy. Hire for passion as much as skills.
  • To Sell Customers: Make your product an amazingly attractive solution to a problem they have. Not only should your product be easy to use, it should be easy to get set up and priced to make it a clear decision for the customer.

Remember, when an investor, candidate or customer is considering whether or not to choose your company they are not deciding if you are a good company. They are deciding if you are better than the hundreds (or thousands) of other companies in the market, some of which may be in entirely different industries or businesses. You are competing with everyone to stand out, not just yourself.

So, next time you find yourself saying “I need” try to rephrase it as “Here is what I can offer”. It will greatly improve the chances that you get what you want.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need

– The Rolling Stones

The $0 Marketing Budget Lie

It has become popular recently to brag about burningmoneyhow large your business has become without spending a single dollar on marketing. If true, such a statement paints a powerful story about how your product resonates with customers. If you don’t spend on marketing, they must be finding you and telling their friends about you! Everyone wants that kind of free marketing.

Unfortunately, when you dig deeper it is almost never true. When someone claims they have never spent on marketing, what they typically mean is that they have never spent on paid advertising. They have likely spent on one of the following marketing channels:

  • Referral programs. Companies like Dropbox and Wealthfront will offer you free service upgrades in return for referring other customers. In some cases they will actually pay you cash. In all cases, these incentives are lost revenue and hence a cost of marketing.
  • PR. If you frequently read about a company in the news, they likely have some kind of public relations help. The best PR firms are very expensive and, even though they position themselves as consultants, those news articles come at a steep price.
  • SEO. Getting a high search rank seems like a great alternative to paying for search ads, right? Yes, but it is hard to do when starting from scratch. Many companies hire SEO experts and firms to help boost their organic ranking, which makes that “free” placement less than free.

There are countless more examples which are not paid advertising, but are still marketing spend. In fact, many companies will spend on paid advertising and still claim they have never spent on marketing. The narrative of “no marketing” is so powerful companies will lie to have it.

In reality, there are remarkably few companies that have grown to substantial size without spending anything on marketing. Almost all of them are communications tools like Skype, Hotmail and Snapchat. Truly viral growth is something that is very elusive in the real world.

Marketing is Not Free

The irony is that spending on marketing is a natural part of doing business. Everyone spends on marketing, because if you didn’t your customers would never learn about your product in the first place. There is no reason to be ashamed of it.

Google is a great example. Google is a household brand and if anyone has “word of mouth” working for them, it is Google. Regardless, one of the largest costs Google incurs is its Traffic Acquisition Cost (TAC), which is jargon for paid marketing. Google pays over $3B in TAC every year which includes over $1B to Apple alone. If Google spends that much for their business, why can’t you?

The only danger in using paid marketing channels, including paid advertising, is if you are paying more to acquire users than you make from them (see The Most Important Equation). If a customer is worth $20 to you, why not spend $5 to acquire them? You still make $15 from that customer and can likely grow much more quickly than if you try to grow without spending.

Advertising exists for a reason: Customers need to learn about your product before they can consider using it. If you are starting a new business how will they learn about it? You should pursue any and all channels to get the attention of potential customers, even if that means spending some money.

Don’t be afraid of paid marketing. Instead, be afraid of having no customers.

Image made available via Creative Commons by Flickr user Purple Slog, although there seems to be some confusion over whether he/she had permission to assign that license. 

Tell Your Own Story

One of the most effective ways to explain book-97709_640something is to use a story. Humans are story telling creatures, we consume stories (both real and fiction) in every part of our lives for both work and entertainment.

When people try to understand your new company, they will use stories. The story might be as simple as “they are horrible” or as detailed as “let me give you an example of how they helped me…” or as soaring as “they are changing the world, let me tell you how…”. The story may include metaphors (e.g. “they are Google for Sheep Herding”) or use personal anecdotes. Stories come in all shapes and sizes.

If you are very lucky, you will be the one telling telling your story and explaining it in a way that you think captures the entirety of your vision. Unfortunately, most of the time your story will be told by someone else. Hence, it’s important to craft a positive story that others will tell on your behalf.


Everyone who interacts with your company will have a story to tell. That includes customers who had a great experience and investors who believe in your vision. It also includes customers that demanded their money back and investors that decided to invest in your competitors. Depending on their experience with your company, the story someone tells might be great or very, very bad.

The best way to combat this uncertainty is to realize that everyone you touch is a storyteller, so you should give them every reasons to tell a great story about you. While you can’t control what they say, you can make sure their experience with your company is as positive as possible. Specifically:

  • Treat all potential customers as well. Regardless of whether they become customers, you want them to know that your company cares about them and is focused on delivering quality. Even if they choose to work with another provider, they should walk away feeling good about having contacted your company. You should also be sure that they remember your differentiation very well, so if someone asks them they will relay that as part of their story.
  • Sell hard to everyone you interview. Anyone who interviews for a position at your company should walk out the door thinking your company is something special, regardless if you plan to hire them or not. This means you need to spend time during the interview selling yourself (See Recruiting is a Form of Sales) even if the candidate is weak. You never know who they might talk to about their interview.
  • Build relationships with all investors. Even if an investor passes on your company, you should make sure they know how passionate you are and why you believe it will succeed. You may end up raising more money in the future and these investors might realize their mistake and come back again.

Customers, candidates and investors all talk to each other and you cannot know who they will talk to about your company. Treating everyone extremely well will put you in the best position to ensure their stories as as positive as possible.

Providing a Narrative

It’s not enough to treat people well, you need to give them an easy story to remember. The story of your company encompasses your vision, your differentiation (See The Only Thing That Matters ) and your people in a narrative that ties them all together. Often, the best way to do this is to talk about how your market is changing and how your company is at the center of that change. A successful narrative describes your company as more than a company – it describes it as a movement.

Crafting that narrative is something that is a critical responsibility for you as a founder. But once you have it, what do you do with it? It’s not enough to blog/tweet/post about your company narrative, as no one will read it. You need to broadcast it far and wide so people will see it multiple times and become familiar with it. Some examples:

  • Public Speaking. When you speak in public about your market, you are telling your story. While you might not talk about your company specifically, the tone and content of what you say reflects on your company. If your knowledge and passion come through clearly, people will want to learn more about what you do.
  • Public Relations. PR has a bad name since many companies use it for the wrong reasons (customer acquisition, etc.). One great use of PR is to start telling your story to the world. Your goal is not customer acquisition, but customer familiarity, which is achieved by talking about the movement that is your company.
  • Social Media. While simply posting to social media is not enough, engaging in conversations can be very important. People will watch how you behave, who you talk to and how you do it. That will reinforce your story and encourage them to learn more.

Conveying your narrative in the way I describe here is hard, as it requires you to tell your story through actions instead of directly through advertisements. However, you will find that people would much rather hear you talk about a topic that interests them instead of talking about yourself. Use that to your advantage.

Stories Evolve

Your story will not be a book you print and store on a shelf, it will be constantly changing. Embrace that and allow your story to grow, while being sure that it stays true to your vision. If others begin telling your story in a slightly different way, that is a good sign that they believe your story and are building on it themselves.

If you are successful, you may eventually have someone tell you the story of your company without realizing it is your story. That is the most fulfilling feeling a founder can have, since it means you have succeeded in spreading the story you are building.

Image made available on Pixabay to the public domain via Creative Commons.

The Snowball Effect

I spend a lot of my time advising 113026147_9ce84baa38_zand mentoring entrepreneurs, including coaching at three awesome accelerators. Since almost all the companies I work with are at the pre-Seed stage (translation: very very early), I end up hearing the same questions quite a lot. They are, in order of frequency:

  1. How do I convince my co-founder to quit their job and join full time?
  2. How do I close my first customer?
  3. How do I raise my first seed financing?

These are very fundamental questions for building your business, so it’s no surprise they come up so often. The good news is that the first step towards answering any of them is exactly the same: build up your snowball effect.

The Fear of Being First

If you turn around each of those questions, you realize that the person on the other end represents a first for your company. You are trying to convince the first employee, the first customer or the first investor to believe in you. Being first, while exciting, brings with it the most risk since you clearly have not proven your business if they are the first. Most people have a very justifiable fear of being first which makes it hard to convince them to take that first step.

However, you need to have a first because if you don’t then you will never have a second, a third and so on. So how do you overcome that fear?

The Power of Momentum

One of the best ways to overcome the fear of being first is to use an even more powerful force: the fear of missing out. The more momentum you build up for your company and the more progress you make before asking someone to be the first, the more likely that they won’t want to miss the opportunity. You want to make your company move as far as you can as fast as you can to make it an attractive bandwagon for people to jump on.

Having a brilliant idea is not enough. If you have a brilliant idea and nothing else, nothing separates you from the hordes of other dreamers whose dreams will never see reality. An idea has little value itself, you need to turn it into reality or at least as real as you can make it.

So, how do you get that momentum going in the early days? You don’t need to build a finished product (although that works well), there are many ways to build momentum without a product:

  • Invest In Yourself. You should be investing in your own company, using your own money. The more you invest, the more you will show commitment to your vision and building your business. You cannot ask others to invest or believe in you if you cannot demonstrate that you believe in yourself. It only costs a few hundred dollars to form a legal corporation – how much more than that do you believe in yourself?
  • Prove Demand. One of the most important things you can do in the early days of your company is prove that your idea has customer demand. Building a product can come later, but you can start by talking to prospective customers, industry experts and investors about a product and how much demand exists. The more you can quantify and prove there is demand, the more likely you are to convince others that your idea has value. Along the way, you’ve also lined up a list of prospective customers that make your company seem a little less risky for employees and investors.
  • Sell Your Friends. There is no rule that says your first customer(s) need to be strangers that you cold call. In fact, almost all successful companies start out by selling to friendly customers whom they knew well before they got started. YCombinator, one of the best accelerators, goes to great lengths to get their companies to become customers of each other to overcome the first customer problem. This strategy won’t scale, but it will get you started.
  • Spread Your Message. While your idea might not have value, communicating about the problem you are solving and building a voice in the community does. Set up a blog, join Twitter and start a mailing list to talk about the industry, market or problem. The more you participate in the discussion the more you can start to build your company’s brand even before you get started.

Most of all, be creative. I know non-technical founders that hired people to stand in front of conferences wearing sandwich boards to raise awareness of their company which had no product. I’ve seen founders hire armies of people on oDesk to gather hard to find data on the web to create valuable industry blogs. Even Mattermark, a great market data start up, got started from a blog post.

Accelerators are in the business of helping you build this momentum, at the cost of a small amount of equity. Many accelerators require that you have a working prototype, but if you do have a prototype they can give you a big boost of momentum and help you get past a lot of these early hurdles.

The Snowball Effect

So, what is the snowball effect? The great thing about building up your momentum is that it becomes a virtuous cycle if you can maintain it. You are more likely to raise your first investment if you can close your first employee, which in turn makes it more likely to close that first customer. Then it becomes easier to hire that second employee, close the second customer and so on. Eventually, making progress on all fronts makes it easier to make more progress on all fronts.

That is the snowball effect. Just like a snowball rolling down a hill, the more momentum you have the larger you can get and the more momentum you will get.

All you need to do is start the ball rolling.

Image made available via Creative Commons by redjar.

The Science of Creating Demand

If you gave a random person your product for the first time, do you think they will immediately become a loyal customer? Maybe not for most products but definitely for your product, right?


Creating demand for your product is more than just building a great product. People have to know about it, understand what it does and have a problem that it fixes. Every year thousands of fantastic products fail because no one (or not enough people) knew they exist.

Whether you are building a physical product, writing a new blog or starting a consulting company you start with an audience of zero. Building an audience for your product starts on the same day you start working on the product. In fact, building demand for your product is often more important than building the product itself.

So, how do you build demand?

Step 1. Recruit Your Customers

Even before your product is ready for use, you should start recruiting customers. In fact, whether or not you can recruit customers for your not-yet-existent product is a great way to test market demand (the Lean Startup methodology is built around this). If you have a hard time convincing people that they need the product then it might not be very valuable, but if people can’t wait for it to be ready you might be on to something.

Initially, you should have a guess as to what kinds of customers are most likely to love your product. You should test that hypothesis by going after a wide variety of customers, including the ones you guess will be your target segment, and using the feedback you gather to narrow your focus.

How do you recruit customers? Here are some examples:

  • If you are starting a new blog you should try to build relationships with other bloggers and readers by commenting on similar blogs, joining topical conversations on Twitter and answering questions on Quora. Watch for who engages with you and what topics they are interested in.
  • If you are building a new mobile application, you can easily set up a beta test where you distribute early builds to a few hundred people and watch their behavior using the app. You can also set up a landing page using LaunchRock ( and run some test advertising campaigns to measure interest by how many email addresses you collect.
  • If you are building a new physical product you can easily recruit people on Craigslist (example) for $20 or less to meet with you for 30 mins to test a prototype. I have even seen people set up tables at Farmer’s Markets or Flea Markets to do product testing live with strangers.

An important trap to avoid is recruiting customers only from your personal network. If you cannot convince strangers that your product will be valuable then your business will not succeed.

At the end of your customer recruitment you should have a list of dozens or hundreds of customers who are eager for you to launch your product, and a very detailed understanding of your target customer.

Step 2. Go Where They Go

Now that you know who your customers are, it’s time to figure out where they congregate. Yes, you could try to contact all of them individually but you will go out of business very quickly. Instead, you want to understand where and when your customers will be in the same place so that you can reach them all in that place.

The easiest way to figure out where they congregate is to become one of them (if you aren’t already) and go through all the motions they go through. Some common places customers congregate:

  • Enterprise Customers (big companies) frequent trade shows and conventions. You need to understand what conventions are important for your target customers.
  • Developers (engineers) love learning new things and will frequent topical Meetups and Hackathons. They also use forums like Stack Overflow.
  • Consumers spend their time on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) and reading the news. However, standing out against the noise will be tough so try to find interest-specific forums and outlets where your potential customers are more likely to hear you.

Some customer segments, like small businesses, never congregate in the same place which makes reaching them very difficult. That is why Groupon spends so much on a tele-sales force to call them all directly. Knowing that up front will help you plan effectively.

Each congregation point you can find represents a channel for you to reach your customers. The more specific the better, so choose a popular topical blog over Facebook in your early days until you feel you have refined your message.

Step 3. Train Evangelists

Now that you have narrowed down your initial target customers and know how to reach them, you still have time before your product launches to make sure you increase your chances of reaching those customers. The most powerful channel for marketing your product will be word of mouth from customers who love what you do. You can’t be everywhere that potential customers will talk about you, but your existing customers can. The customers that will spread that word of mouth are your evangelists and you want to help them in every way you can.

Instead of just sitting back and hoping your customers will love you and spread the word, you want to create an environment where they feel rewarded for helping you. Since you can’t afford to pay them, the reward will have to be something else. Some common reward programs for evangelists:

  • Let Them Inside the Velvet Rope – Setting up a preferred customer or early access program where you test new features and gather feedback from customers is not only useful for you, it’s a great reward for customers. They will not only have access to features not generally available but feel that they have a say in shaping the product.
  • Make Them Look Smart – Everyone wants to look smart, and there is no better way to be smart than to know something interesting that no one else knows. Make sure your evangelists are up to date on your product, new innovations and upcoming events. Having an “insiders” newsletter that goes only to evangelists can not only help them feel smart, but encourage them to spread the news. Likewise, limiting access to invitation-only and giving your evangelists invites makes them the gatekeepers and the perceived insiders.
  • Recognize Them – Evangelists are volunteering their time and reputation to spread the word about your product, the least you can do is recognize them for the effort. Always respond to them quickly and gracious when they contact you in whatever method they prefer. Give them chances to guest blog or cite their comments when you talk about your product.
  • Give Them a Discount – In some cases it can make sense to provide a discount to your early evangelists. Be careful with this as it creates a strange dynamic to pay someone to spread the word on your behalf.

Identifying potential evangelists is easy, since they are the customers that are the most enthusiastic about your product and are the most active during your test period. Sometimes the best evangelists start out as detractors that you turn into evangelists through superior customer service and listening to their concerns.

Setting up your evangelists before you launch will give you a great network of people who will help you spread the word about your product.

Step 4. Measure, Measure, Measure

You still have not yet launched your product, but you have identified who your customers will be, how to reach them and how to incentivize them to spread the word. In the remaining time you have, be sure that you set up the right analytics to help you measure your customers when you launch your product. Everything prior to launch is a hypothesis and you want to be able to verify or disprove that hypothesis as quickly as possible.

Even after you have launched, you never want to assume that your customers are static entities that will be the same tomorrow that they are today. They will change over time, just like you will, and you need to be able to measure and adjust when that happens.

Step 5. Launch!

And then, after all that, you launch!

Yes, you did a lot of work to recruit, study and grow your customers before you even had a product. That work will pay dividends for the life of your product by giving it a much higher likelihood of success in the market.

You can reach more about running a successful launch in Go To Market To Win and how to grow pre- and post-launch in Growth Hacking.

There Is No Such Thing As Content

“Bad conversationalists talk about themselves. Good conversationalists will talk about a common interest. Great conversationalists talk about the other person.” -Anonymous

When you need to bring attention to your new product, there are many tools in your marketing arsenal. You can pay others to promote your product (advertising), encourage existing customers to invite other customers (growth hacking) or have the press write about you (PR). Another option is called Content Marketing, where you write a blog, post on Twitter and try to start conversations that will catch on in social media to raise your profile.

In Content Marketing, unlike PR or advertising, you are not talking about yourself but instead on a related topic or field. For example, if you are running a tractor company you might write a blog about pricing trends in the farm industry. While you don’t talk about your tractors directly, you might attract a large number of readers in the farming industry that will then know your brand and explore your product line.

Content marketing is not complicated (or new). It generates leads in the same way as other forms of marketing, but with the potential to be cheaper than advertising and higher volume than PR. To be successful at it, you need to realize one thing:

There is no such thing as content.

Content is a word which is increasingly overused to refer to everything from movies to news articles to tweets. Today, content can refer to anything that was created in electronic format to be distributed (usually in a video, image or text). That makes the definition so broad as to be completely meaningless.

So, how do you launch a content marketing strategy if there is no such thing as content?

The key to content marketing is talking about something that interests people with a unique perspective. Your potential customers will not read your blog unless you are providing them with new information, providing an opinion on the news that they find insightful, teaching them some new skills or in some other way making their life easier. It might be easier to think of content marketing as “Information Marketing” or “Instruction Marketing” or “Analysis Marketing” depending on the approach you take and how you benefit your customers.

Most content marketing falls into one of the following categories:

  • Business Analysis. Analyzing a market, business or products can help attract an audience trying to understand those things themselves (analysts, reporters, etc.). If you are building a company you are naturally an expert on your industry so it’s likely that you can provide good, in depth analysis.
  • Tutorials or Instructions. Teaching is a great way to build relationships with your customers, or potential customers. You can teach them how to do something new, understand a complex topic or use product. If you go down this route, try to avoid only teaching about your own products since that will not appeal to the widest possible audience.
  • Opinions. You might offer your opinion on the news, products or other companies. Opinions differ from analysis in that you are not looking to use data to draw conclusions, but provide your own perspective. Many people have built entire careers off of their opinion, just make sure yours is interesting enough to stand out.
  • News. Breaking the news is a great way to get everyone’s attention. Good or bad, news attracts the full range of people from customers to analysts and reporters. Remember that even though you consider your new product launch news, no one else might.
  • Humor. People love humor, just make sure you are actually funny.

Some examples of very successful content marketing strategies:

  • Flurry (News/Analysis): Uses its unique market data to report on trends and changes in the mobile market.
  • Hubspot (Tutorials): Teaches people how to effectively use social media and content marketing to grow their audience.
  • Buffer (News/Tutorials): Runs their company completely transparency, allowing outsiders to see (and learn from) everything from their salaries to revenues.

Whatever you choose, the most important thing is to be unique. If you are analyzing a market, start from a new angle. If you are breaking news, make sure you have it first. You want to stand out from the crowd as well as giving your audience a reason to come back again in the future.

Content marketing requires time and patience. Even if your content is brilliant, there is no guarantee that your audience will find you right away. However, if you are unique, persistent,  and focused on quality, you can augment your marketing efforts and help grow your business.

Go To Market To Win

There are only four kinds of events in the life of your company that are likely to get covered by the press:

  1. Acquisition
  2. New Funding
  3. Product Launch
  4. Partnership

Incidentally, those are also in the order of the likelihood of the press covering the event. These events are newsworthy because they are also the most important points of your company history.

Of the four, the one you have the most control over is the Product Launch. This is the point where your new product will be unveiled to the world and is your best chance to spread the word. A product is, of course, new only once.

Many companies will put together a launch plan, complete with a blow out launch party. Fewer will put together a comprehensive Go-To-Market strategy that includes the launch as part of the plan. While a good launch plan may make a splash, a good go-to-market strategy can position you to be successful.

So, what makes a good go-to-market strategy?

1. Plan for the Future

A good go-to-market strategy will start well before the launch and end at the first milestone after your launch. An example of the Go-to-market timeline for a company is below:


In this diagram the grey boxes are company milestones and the green circles are activities to help reach those milestones. The phases of the Go-To-Market timeline are broken down into three parts:

  • Pre-launch. Leading up to the launch, these are activities designed to help make the launch a success. The Alpha test is a small number of potential customers who help you refine your product. The Beta test is a larger number of potential customers who help you refine your business model. Coming out of the pre-launch phase you should feel confident in your product, first time experience and marketing strategy.
  • Launch. This is when your product is available to the general public. You will kick off your marketing strategy (see Marketing for Engineers) and hopefully get press coverage. You should have a party to celebrate this milestone with your team, but don’t count on your party to help your business.
  • Post-Launch. After the launch, you are now operating your business. At the least you want to maintain whatever momentum was provided by your launch, but ideally you begin growing and operating your business. This is where measuring your LTV and CAC become critical (see The Most Important Equation for Your Business).

By mapping out your full go-to-market timeline you will be able to think of the launch as a part of your strategy, not an end in itself.

2. Use the Launch to your Advantage

Since the launch is only part of your strategy, it is important that it helps you achieve your goals and is not a goal itself. Depending on the milestone you are trying to achieve, your launch may take on different forms:

  • Customer Growth. If your goal is customer growth, you want to reach as many potential customers as possible and let them know your product exists (raising awareness). This will vary depending on your business but remember that very few customers will read industry press (unless they are in your industry). Getting covered in TechCrunch might make you feel great but if you are offering a new service to kindergarden teachers you will not find many customers that way.
  • Fundraising. If your goal is to raise more funding, then your launch should expose you to as many potential investors as possible. This can mean speaking at conferences, participating in launch competitions or being covered in industry press (this is where TechCrunch can help). However, fundraising is rarely a goal on its own so don’t lose this opportunity to grow your customers as well.
  • Recruiting. If your goal is recruiting, you should try to reach as many potential employees as possible and make it clear why your company is a great place to work. This usually means talking about what and how you do things in detail. For example, you might open source software, publish design plans and give tours of your production facilities. Industry press can help here as well.

You might have more than one of these as goals and if so, your launch will have many different dimensions. The more you try to achieve with your launch, the longer you will need to prepare so begin the planning early.

To ensure that you can measure success after the launch, be sure to set some quantitative goals for the launch. How many customers do you want to have one week after launch? How many articles do you want written? How many inbound job requests? Having numeric goals makes it much easier for you to prioritize and measure success later.

Whatever your goal, make sure your launch helps move you towards it. You only get to launch once and it is a powerful weapon so get the most out of it.

3. Have booster rockets ready

Many companies execute well in the Pre-launch phase, execute their launch well but fail to plan for the post-launch. When that happens the business will stall and the company will scramble trying to regain its momentum.

To avoid that, you should have your booster rockets ready before you launch. Booster rockets are activities and plans that will help you continue to grow after your launch.

Examples of common booster rockets are:

  • Paid Marketing Campaigns. These are part of your marketing strategy already and will allow you to continue to acquire customers even after the free marketing from the press coverage of your launch ends.
  • Partnerships. Partnerships with other companies can open up new customer acquisition channels and help validate your business.
  • Product Updates. Improvements to your product, including new features, keep the product fresh and attract new customers. For example, mobile applications may plan out updates every few weeks after the launch so that the app continuously improves (and increase the chances that users tell their friends).

Just like your launch is not a goal, you should not fire all of your booster rockets at the same time. Ideally you can pace them out so that they fuel sustainable and ongoing growth instead of a single spike.

Getting To Market is Hard

It might seem like this is more effort than most companies put into their launch strategy. You read about companies launching every day who seem to just open up their product to the world and sit back as customers flock to them. If that were the case then many more start up companies would survive.

Most of the successful start up companies you read about today have struggled during the go-to-market phase including AirBnB, Dropbox and even WhatsApp. When you struggle, you will be in good company.

If struggling is part of the journey, then the best thing you can do is plan ahead to give yourself every advantage possible. Your go-to-market strategy can’t guarantee success but it can help you increase the chances of success.

Besides, if you’re going to play why not play to win?

Marketing for Engineers (aka Growth Hacking)

So you are building a new product. Great! However, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to wait for it to be done before thinking about how you are going to market it. You should be thinking about how you will reach users and convert them into customers at every step of your development process.

The following is a basic framework you can use to think about marketing your product that you can consider at every step along the way.

1. Practice Telling Your Story

The first thing you should do, before even starting to build your product, is to understand how you will explain it to your customers. What problem does it solve? How does it work? Why is it the best option? Amazon takes this even farther, asking product managers to write the press release for the product before they start building it. Working backwards forces you to think about the product from the perspective of customers, instead of building a product just for the sake of building.

You should test this story by telling it to potential customers continuously during development. When you have wireframes, show them. When you have a prototype, demonstrate it. Do not wait until the product is “done”, because by then it might be too late to learn how it needs to change to match the story that customers want to hear.

You will know that you have mastered the storytelling for your product when describing it to potential customers comes naturally and the product tells most of the story for you.

2. Model Customer Conversions

It is easy to fall into the trap of optimizing your user interface for expert users of your product. You are an expert user of your own product, after all, and it is natural to want to optimize it for yourself. However, the most important feature of any product is the first time user experience  (which is how the customer becomes a customer in the first place). If you don’t obsess over the initial experience, customers may give up and never make it to the the point where your expert user interface has a chance to shine.

You can think about your first time experience as a sequence of events. For example:


This example sequence is simple, with the blue circles representing the actions we want the user to take and the gray circles representing alternatives. For this product, the ideal first time experience is as follows: the user clicks on a link, signups up for the service, stays active for one week (is retained) and eventually makes a purchase. At each step the user could have failed to complete your preferred action (instead of signing up for the service they abandon the registration page) and this represents a lost opportunity. By understanding this flow you can understand how you expect customers to progress from prospects to ideal customers and where you might lose them along the way.

Of course the first time user experience for your application will be different, but it is composed of some number of steps that you can set up in the same way. There are some great examples of first time user experiences on FirstTimeUX. Your goal is to figure out these steps and make sure you can measure them effectively using your analytics solution.

The very last step should be the ideal behavior of an ideal customer (full purchase, invite 10 friends, etc.) such that a user that completes all the steps in your flow is your ideal customer. By measuring how many users achieve each step you will understand how effectively you convert prospects (clicks) into ideal customers. If you are losing customers along the way you should know quickly and be able to plug that hole.

3. Plan Your Marketing Channels

When you were mapping out the customer conversion flow in Step 2 you likely thought a lot about where the customer might be coming from. Where did they see the link that lead to that click? You have many options for getting users to that first step in the conversion flow including:

  • Content marketing (blogging, tweeting, press)
  • Social Sharing (Facebook, Pinterest)
  • Invites from friends
  • Paid advertising

The conversion flow for a customer coming from all of your channels may be the same, or they may all be different. You should model conversions based on the experience you think is most likely to convert a prospect from a given channel into an ideal customer.

Many people will dismiss paid advertising and believe that your product is so great that it will succeed through word of mouth and virality alone. Alas that is rarely the case. Even Google spent $12B in traffic acquisition costs in 2013, and their product is nearly ubiquitous. It is important that you do not overspend using paid advertising (see The Most Important Equation for Your Business) but it almost always a part of a successful marketing campaign.

Be as creative as possible in identifying possible marketing channels and how your conversion flow might differ based on the source of the click. Many of the channels you identify will not be effective and you will discard them, so you want to cast a wide net.

4. Measure, Rinse, Repeat

As early as possible, you should begin testing your story, conversion model and marketing channels. It is almost impossible to be sure which channels will be the most cost effective, how users will convert or what story will resonate the most. Do not wait for your launch to start figuring out how best to attract customers. Some of the best companies will test their marketing channels during their Alpha or Beta tests, while others will “soft launch” their product in other countries to test their assumptions.

When you do start testing, be sure to track performance very closely so you can make decisions later. One way to do this is by compiling your marketing channel performance in a spreadsheet. An example template for such tracking is below.

Marketing Channel Tracking Template

This particular template ties channel performance directly back to cost. This may seem strange, especially for non-paid promotional channels, but it is important to remember that nothing is free. Writing blog posts and soliciting the press for articles seems free, but takes up your time which can be expensive. Building social channels within your product can lead to word of mouth but takes away from other features. In the end, everything you do costs money and you need to understand the return you get for that investment.

When you are running at full stream, you will not track your marketing through a spreadsheet and instead will likely use one of the many advertising tracking services available. However, in the early days it can be helpful to do it yourself by hand so that you really understand what works and why.

Conclusion: Hire a Marketer

While this is a great start, none of this is a replacement for hiring an experienced marketer. Software engineers tend to discount the value of marketing because it is so different from the hard skills of computer science. However, a great marketer will help you explain to your customers how amazing the product is that you have built. Marketing is the act of understanding your customers and communicating with them in a way they understand. Without strong marketing, a great product may die in obscurity.

During your product development, always consider how the product and marketing strategy work together. In the end, they really are the same thing.

You Need 10 Times More Customers

As an engineer, one of the first things you are taught is how to break down a problem into smaller and more manageable problems. Want to build a bridge? First, you’ll need to design the supports and the connections with existing roads, then the external structure. Building a house? You start with the foundation, then the frame, then the plumbing.

Building a company is no different. Billion dollar companies are not built overnight, they are built through a progressive series of steps. If you attempted to envision a billion dollar company from day zero, you would be overwhelmed by the challenge.

Take the following example of a high growth company’s life cycle:

Growth Stage Company

This is an intimidating chart. The number of customers grows slowly at first and then hits an inflection point where it begins to grow exponentially. How in the world do you design a company that can grow this way? How can you plan for that kind of growth?

The short answer is that you can’t. You can get lucky and have it just happen, but that is so unlikely that you would be better off playing the lottery.

What you can do, is break down the problem into manageable phases:

Growth Stage Company - Milestones

Here the growth path is broken into four stages: Series A, B, C and D. These might correspond to your funding rounds or they might just be milestones that you set for your company. At each stage, you have acquired 10 times the customers that you had at the previous stage. While these are still aggressive goals, they are goals that you can achieve.

The key lesson here is not that you should plan out the entire lifetime of your company on day one. The lesson is that, whatever stage you might be at now, your next goal should be 10 times the customers you have today. Setting such a goal will force you to take a hard look at your company and think about what will need to change to achieve that next level. When passing from one level the next, the following are typically true:

  • You will need to start doing things you have not done before.
  • You will need to stop doing some things that helped get you this far, as they will start to become liabilities.
  • You will need to continue doing what makes your company unique, the core of your identity.

What those things are will depend on the business and the level you are at today, but asking the questions will help you position the company for success. Even if you fail to achieve 10 times customer growth, you will have positioned the company well for growth and increased the overall value of your company.

Why should you aspire to being a high growth company and plan this way? It is true that slow growth companies can be very successful and often feel much more comfortable. However, the vast majority of wealth created in entrepreneurship comes from the high growth stages of business. It is during that high growth stage that your capital efficiency will be at its highest and hence the value of your company appreciate the most for the shareholders. For publicly traded companies, this is why high growth companies command a premium on their share price.

So, even if you are just starting your company today, think about how you will reach the next level of growth. Before you know it, you might have achieve that milestone and be thinking about how you grow by another 10 times.

How to Avoid Naming Your Company “Brain Rocket”

Naming something is very, very hard. Not only is it hard to choose a distinctive name that describes your product or company, almost all of the good names are already taken. There are naming firms who charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to help large companies choose new names, and even then they often end in disaster. So, how should you pick a name?

While there is no silver bullet, it helps to have a process. In addition to reviewing the process, we will practice on a fictitious company and try to give it a name. For this exercise, let us assume we are starting a new consulting company that will help set up IT infrastructure for small businesses. 

Step 1. Metaphor
All of the best names are based on metaphors that describe what the product or company does. Literal names (such as The IT Company) are rarely distinctive enough to be remembered and easily confused with other, similar companies. The more creative your metaphors the more distinctive your name and the easier the naming process will be in the future.

For our example IT consulting company, what metaphors work? Since IT touches almost all aspects of business these days, the company will provide a wide range of services to help smaller businesses grow. Any metaphor that involves getting bigger over time would work well here, including construction and stacking. The word “grow” is interesting and seems to fit well with gardening or farming so let us choose the metaphor of gardening.

Step 2. Word Association

It’s time to exercise your creative muscles and play word association with the metaphors you chose in Step 1. The goal is to create a large list of words that relate to your metaphor, as many as you can. If your creative muscles are out of shape you can use online tools to help generate a list of source words related to your metaphor.

Based on our gardening metaphor you might come up with the following list:

  • Seeds
  • Sprouting
  • Green
  • Watering
  • Harvest

Some companies choose to include more descriptive words in their name to avoid customer confusion. It also makes finding a domain name significantly easier since all single words are taken. Some words that describe IT infrastructure:

  • Technology
  • Infrastructure
  • Hardware
  • Networking
  • Installation

Step 3. Try some names

It’s time to combine the words from our word association exercise, creating a list of potential names. It is okay if they are horrible since we’ll filter them out later. Note that combining the words into new names can take any form you like and sometimes the best names come from combining two words into one. For this exercise we won’t invent new words, just create compound names:

  • Seed Technology
  • Harvest Installations
  • Sprout Networking
  • Green Hardware

Of those, “Green Hardware” and “Seed Technology” sound like biotech companies so let’s throw that out. That leaves us with two potential names:

  • Sprout Networking
  • Harvest Installations

At this point you need to be practical. Check available domain names to make sure they are available and/or affordable. Use a service like 99 Designs to have some example logos created for your names to see how it looks. Talk to your friends and associates about the names and get some input.

It is possible that after all of this you end up with no good names, forcing you to start over again. For a given product I typically find I have to repeat this process 2-3 times before I end up with some really good candidates. If you are lucky you will find a name you really love, but often you will find a name you can learn to love.

I hope that helps. You could always just fall back on naming it after yourself (it worked for Bloomberg) and there isn’t really anything wrong with that. In the end if you have a great product or service, treat your customers well and deliver on your promises it won’t matter what your name is – people will remember it.

NOTE: This post is adapted from an answer I posted on Quora in Startup Advice and Strategy.