Try it all until something sticks – plus 3 other tips for startup marketers

There’s almost a weird kind of tension between tech startups and marketing – after all, marketers are focused on promotion, while some startups just want to crank out the best products possible and let the promotion take care of itself.

But startups and marketers really have the same goals – providing great customer experiences and drawing in more customers, meaning getting more sales, according to a panel discussion at Toronto’s Mesh Conference on Wednesday.

For marketers looking to perform their craft in a startup environment, we’ve rounded up a list of four of the panel’s points here (and they’re also relevant to small to mid-sized businesses!)


1. As a marketer for an early-stage startup, try everything until you find what works.

Startups just aren’t the same as bigger companies – anyone who’s ever worked for a startup knows they typically have less employees and smaller budgets.

So for marketers working with a startup in its infancy, it’s important to be open to doing everything – that could include search engine optimization (SEO), video marketing, content marketing, social media marketing, and so on, said Mitch Solway, vice-president of marketing at ClearFit Inc. He’s worked at a range of startups like Vidyard, FreshBooks, and Lavalife.

“When you start, you have to be generalist. You have to be committed to results and to have the flexibility to say, this works, and this doesn’t work,” Solway said. “You have to be prepared for relentlessness, because the work is never done … And you have to be committed to finding the answers.”

However, that being said, it helps to have a technical background when you work at a tech startup, even if you’re in marketing and not a developer or engineer, said Humayun Khan, content marketer at Shopify Inc.

“Everyone’s looking for that unicorn person,” he said. “As a marketer in tech, it does help to be a bit technical in one aspect. It shows you respect tech.”

2. Know who your customers are, and talk to them to find out what they want.

One of the biggest challenges inherent to running a startup is that its founders and employees can often closet themselves away, working day and night on a product they think is brilliant. However, as great as the product may be, what they don’t know is whether it matters to anyone else.

“If you don’t know who your customer is, don’t launch. That’s a moment in time you can’t get back,” said Melissa Shapiro, acting chief marketing officer at Wattpad. “Be sure you’re ready for it.”

A number of years ago, she worked at a startup that was going to be the next YouTube, she said. The idea was great – the company would harness user-generated content and present it via its website, and it was going to be huge, and everyone working for the company was going to be rich.

However, the startup’s premise just came too soon, she said. At the time, people didn’t have smartphones, so the startup just mailed off cameras to filmmakers and hoped they’d return them with some great footage. As you can imagine, that idea didn’t fly too well, and the company folded.

“It’s very dangerous to write messaging before knowing customers’ pain points, and not knowing who you’re targeting,” Khan said. He mentioned one of startup culture’s most popular lines – to “get out of the building” and to just talk to customers and ask what they want.

For example, one small, Toronto-based shopping startup wanted to know what stores thought of its app, he added. So it sent a couple of its employees to the Danforth with an iPad app, asking them to pop into different stores and ask owners what they thought of it. They received a ton of valuable feedback they had never considered.

“I did one startup with no customers,” said Solway. “We just called them on the phone. So talk to them, and be curious.”

And if you’re a startup building mobile apps, it helps to check the app store and see what consumers are saying, Shapiro added. That’s not just limited to whether they like an app – it may be they’re using an app for a more minor feature, showing that’s what they care about. The answers may surprise you, she said.


3. Beyond knowing what your customers want, know what your startup founders expect from you as well.

Before you even join a startup, it’s key to know what they expect from you as a marketer, the three panelists agreed. Many tech startups are made up of – you guessed it – technical people, including engineers and developers. Not all of them are fully aware of marketing’s role.

It’s great to be able to explain marketing to curious people, but the company culture may not be a positive one if people aren’t open to it, Shapiro said.

“If you have to fight to make a case for marketing and to justify your salary, that’s never fun,” she said.

Beyond your own pay, support for marketing also includes budgeting. Some startups genuinely have no money to work with – and then there are others that just don’t want to spend their funding on what they see as promotion. If that’s the case, they may not be ready for marketing.

Still, there are ways to educate co-workers about what the marketing team is working on. At one of Solway’s companies, they held regular “Marketing Minutes” during meetings to tell the rest of the employees about their tasks, and to explain why they needed to exist.

4. Test everything – all of your assumptions and all of your features. And if you have to work cheaply, there are ways around it.

Startup marketing is all about microtesting, Khan said. They constantly try SEO, AdWords, and whatever else is in their reach until they find something that’s working and attracting leads and customers.

“We fire bullets until something hits, and when it does, we put a lot of money behind it and optimize the hell out of it,” Khan said.

But for those whose startups don’t have as much money to pour into marketing, it’s always possible to reach out to the media, Shapiro said. For example, reaching out to journalists and the press is free, if you do it yourself. Some startups will put out quarterly updates about themselves, and that can attract the media, she added.

Solway said there are other options. For example, good old-fashioned referrals can work wonders – if customers have great experiences, they’ll want to tell others about them.

“If you have no money, you can’t test anything. So hustle – find influencers and communicate with them on social,” Solway said. “Attend something like Mesh. A lot of this only costs your time.”

He added if you do spend money, make sure you spend enough to get some kind of testable result – otherwise, it’s just throwing money away.

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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