The Five Marketing Mistakes that May Kill Your Startup

I meet a lot of startup founders here in Silicon Valley, with all kinds of great ideas to revolutionize the world. They range from those who just started to get their startup going to those who have raised significant amount of VC money. Since my background is Marketing, I am always interested in learning how other startups are getting the word out about their products and how they are structuring their marketing processes.

Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the majority of startups that have tech-heavy founders end up ignoring Marketing, thinking that having a website, creating a Twitter and Facebook accounts, and doing some PR is enough. As I thought about the common mistakes most startups make when it comes to Marketing, I came up with the list of the five most common themes I see out there. So here you go:

1. Waiting to start marketing until you are ready to launch

This is the most common mistake I see tech founders make. They focus so much on building the product that they forget that Marketing should start way, way before you are ready to launch. This means getting your website up, starting a blog, doing some active listening on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social platforms, and crafting your ‘buyer personas’. If you start creating content from day 1 and generating interest, your battle for the minds of your potential customers will already be on its way. Thinking that once you launch you can just send out a press release and do some email blasts will get you nowhere and may kill your chances at surviving.

2. Mimicking marketing tactics of your competitors and other players

Typical of those who came from large organizations and are building a killer application to go head-to-head with the incumbent, I usually see this with B2B enterprise apps. The reasoning is usually something like: “Well, Microsoft goes to these 15 trade shows and so we have to be there”, or “At SAP we used to do [A] and [B] all the time!”. Just because something worked for a Fortune 500 company doesn’t mean it will have the same effect at your startup. Their budgets are different, their positioning is different, they whole go-to-market strategy is different. Spend your marketing dollars wisely, don’t simply copy what others have done.

3. Leaving marketing to the marketing team

David Packard, the “P” in Hewlett-Packard, once said “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department“. What this means is that if you think that by hiring a Marketing Manager at some point in your startup life, marketing will be taken care of, then you will fail. Get everyone on Twitter, ask people to blog, make sure everyone in your startup knows exactly what you are building, to whom, and why. Marketing is a job that starts with the sales person and goes all the way to technical support. There’s a lot we could talk about here, but just leave with one thought: Marketing is more than a function.

4. Placing all your bets on outbound marketing

You may not be familiar with the term “outbound marketing”, so let me explain. Advertising, cold-calls, trade shows, email blasts and many other marketing activities that push content and interrupt customers are the ‘outbound’ tactics. It used to be that you just had to have a great PR team, place great ads on selected magazines, and send a few direct mail campaigns to generate leads. Now, that doesn’t work. If you have only a limited marketing budget, then you should invest in “inbound marketing”, which means creating great content and works pulling customers towards your company by publishing content they are interested in. A combination of inbound and outbound is necessary for most businesses, and 80% of it should be inbound marketing, even before you start coding.

5. Thinking that your product is your brand

This is something brand strategists call “the product-attribution fixation trap”, or in other words “focusing on features of your products and ignoring everything else”. You see this all the time. Most websites talk about how great the features of the product are, and you can’t even understand what the product does. Or a company becomes known for one product they created and can’t make people realize they have other products as well. In some cases, people don’t even know the name of the company, they just remember the name of the product. If you have built your company around a product, then you may fail. Focusing only on product attributes will devalue your startup’s brand image, will  lock your efforts in the product and make you lose opportunities. It will also damage your company if you have to pivot and change the direction of your startup.

Where to Go from Here

Even if you don’t agree that these five key marketing mistakes may kill your startup, I beg you to at least think differently about the marketing role at your startup or company. A great way to understand some of these typical problems are expertly presented by Seth Godin in this presentation he gave at the Business of Software Conference back in 2008.

Seth Godin at BOS 2008

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