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The Real Challenges of Startup Marketing

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Startup marketing is challenging. If you’ve come from larger or more established company background as many of you will, you may be used to relatively stable working environments. Startup marketing doesn’t operate in this, comfortable, fixed, luxurious environment. This is not only with respect to burn rates and cash runways, but also in the way you will have to work to develop your understanding of your customer, your available marketing channels and everything in between. The level of unknown and the flux between all these unknowns is huge, sometimes overwhelming. However, by being systematic and having a process in place you can win, and win big.

Status quo? What status quo?

Startups are highly dynamic environments so many aspects of the business are rapidly changeable. Tech startups can now make changes to their product in real time, changing pricing structures manually or programmatically, turn advertising off here, on there and so forth. Never before has the status quo been so non-existent.

Couple all of this combined  with low volumes of customer data and you have a potential cacophony of information from which to make decisions.

Decision making is just your best guess

Low volumes of customer data terrify me. When you have small sample sizes, outliers carry disproportionate amounts of weight. You won’t even know which data points are the outliers yet, exacerbating the problem. Companies have the ability to make terrible decisions based on outliers.

One question that regularly gets raised is: “how do I know when I have enough data to make this decision?”. It’s a tricky one to answer. The statistician in me wants to delay the response until I’ve got a significance level of 95%. However, startups rarely can wait this long.

It is time to get comfortable with the fact that the decision you’re going to make is really just your best guess. There is a subtle nuance between allowing data to guide you (relying on 95%+ significance), and making decisions that can be justified using the data available. The first one is easy. It is achievable by anyone with the required sample size and a deft hand at Excel. The second one less so. Justifying your decision making requires you to ask the right question of your limited data, get a result, perhaps test the significance (although a lot of the time this might freak you out). Accept the potential for it to be wrong. Regardless of outcome, use the result to further inform your inherent knowledge about the question to make a decision one way or another. When you have low data you need to gather all the information about a scenario possible and use your judgement to make a call.

This is a tough gig by the way – as a startup marketer you’re being asked to make decision based off limited data in a highly dynamic environment. Lots of the time you’re going to make a ‘wrong’ decision. Paradoxically this is where the dynamic nature of startups will help you as it will allow you to correct your course and avoid that Titanic sized iceberg before it is too late.

A section about metaphorical escalators (bear with me…)

One mistake I often see is a company resting on its marketing laurels. It’s a moment when the company has typically found a marketing channel that has sufficient scope to grow the business and the CPA is in line with expectations. At this point there is sometimes a process of optimisation of the channel in question, and in other cases the channel is just left to itself. This is bad.

Visualise this scenario by thinking of two escalators side-by-side going at slightly different speeds. You’re on the faster one and your friend is ahead of you on the slower one. You get on the escalator and immediately start making ground on your friend. You represent your marketing efforts and your friend represents a marketing channel (i.e. Facebook ads, Adwords etc). Importantly, both are moving independently of each other.

When you and your friend align next to each other on the escalator you have a channel that is working efficiently. Now, knowing that you’re moving at different speeds you are aware that you need to optimise this channel. You can do this by taking a step backwards every so often to maintain your alignment next to each other. You can keep doing this for a while, and until you reach the end of the escalator otherwise known as your marketing channel efficiency inflection point, that’s a great scalable channel.

Now what happens if you speed up the escalators? When you do this you’re effectively pushing the channel harder, driving more from it at an accelerated rate. All seems good if you can optimise yourself at the same rate (although there will be a point where you can’t and fall over backwards – don’t try this at home). However, the end of the escalator approaches faster, meaning you have less time in this channel until you reach your maximum scale whilst maintaining efficiency.

If you only have one channel, this looks fairly simple. However, in reality you’re going to need to spool up some more escalators in case one escalator breaks down. Bringing more escalators online is akin to performing marketing channel diversification. Similar to financial portfolio diversification this aims to act as a bit of an insurance policy if one channel decides to stop working effectively. Another way of saying this is “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.

Framework for escalator maintenance contiguous marketing

The steps below should ensure that your marketing never reaches the end of the escalator, and that if your escalator malfunctions you’ve got some backups in play.

These first two steps, A & B, are crucial to perform before you go to market.

  1. Establish your personas
  2. Find pockets of high audience density

The next 6 steps should cycle, to ensure you’re adding to your list of channels before any stop working.

  1. Channel test – using the rapid-fire technique
  2. Establish a first channel
  3. Begin optimising that channel (to prove it can indeed be optimised)
  4. Channel test – using the rapid-fire technique
  5. Watch out for scalability issues in your first channel
  6. Launch new channel

 

  • Repeat 1-6 (forever, and ever, and ever-ever…)

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About the Author

This article was written by Thomas MacThomas of the Path Forward. The Path Forward was developed by Forward Partners, a VC platform that invests in the best ideas and brilliant people. Forward Partners devised The Path Forward to help their founders validate their ideas, build a product, achieve traction, hire a team and raise follow on funding all in the space of 12 months. The Path Forward is a fantastic startup framework for you to utilise as an early stage founder or operator. The framework clearly defines startup creation as being comprised of three steps. The first step of this framework involves understanding customer’s needs.Tom is Head of Marketing at Forward Partners. He is an award winning growth marketer, having gained experience heading up the marketing function at high growth daily deals site Wowcher, online gaming firm William Hill Online and more recently the mobile app Bizzby. Tom helps our startups with marketing strategy and support, everything from PPC all the way through to TV.

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings

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Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@malcolmABM

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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