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The Real Challenges of Startup Marketing



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…)


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.


Women on Top in Tech – Dr. Sanna Gaspard, Founder and CEO of Rubitection



(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.)

Dr. Sanna Gaspard is the Founder and CEO of Rubitection, a medical device start-up developing a diagnostic tool for early stage pressure detection, assessment, and management. She is an Entrepreneur, inventor, and biomedical engineer with a passion for innovation, entrepreneurship, healthcare and medical devices. She has received recognition and awards including being selected as a finalist for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards(’13), a semi-finalist for the Big C competition (’14), a finalist for the Mass Challenge Business accelerator in Boston, and taking 1st place at the 3 Rivers Investment Venture Fair’s Technology showcase (‘11). Her vision is to make the Rubitect Assessment System the global standard solution for early bedsore detection and management.

What makes you do what you do? 
I am driven to have impact and improve healthcare as I have a strong drive to problem solve, comes up with new ideas, and see them come to life.

How did you rise in the industry you are in? 
I first focused on getting the educational background and then I pursued the goals I have for myself. I got my PhD in Biomedical Engineering with a specialization in medical device development. Having the educational background is important as a woman and minority to assist people in taking your seriously.  After completing my PhD, I focused on bringing my invention for a medical device for early bedsore detection and prevention called the Rubitect Assessment System to market to help save lives and improve care.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
I started my startup, Rubitection , because I felt it was the best way to bring the technology to market. I knew that if I did not try to commercialize the technology, it would not make it to the doctors and nurses. I also have confidence that I could manage developing the technology since I had taken classes on entrepreneurship and had my PhD in biomedical engineering with a specialization in medical devices.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
No, I don’t have a specific mentor in my field. I am looking for one at the moment. However, I do look up to Steve Jobs and Oprah as examples of how one can start with nothing and work their way up and build a successful, global, and reputable business and brand.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?  
I first try to find people who have fundamental technical or work experience to be competent to complete the work. I then evaluate the person for intangible skills like independent thinking, reliability, leadership, resilience, organizational skills, strong work ethic, open mindedness/flexibility, and good communication skills.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why? 
I consciously make an effort as a minority woman in tech, I intimately understand the need to promote diversity within my business and outside my business. I first hire the best people for the job and also make a point to hire women and minorities qualified for the position.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?  
It takes resilience, vision, being a team player, an ability to inspire others and delegate work, knowing your weakness, and knowing when to put your business or yourself first.

Advice for others?
My advice to others is to take calculated risks, pursue every opportunity, surround yourself with supporters, build your team with smart dedicated people, and stay focused on your vision. I am striving to implement this advice myself as I work towards commercializing my technology for early bedsore detection, grow my team, and recruit clinical partners to address an $11 billion US healthcare problem which affects millions around the world.

If anyone is interested in learning more about our work or company, please contact us at [email protected].

To learn more about Dr. Sanna Gaspard, CEO of Rubitection visit:

If you’d like to get in touch with Dr. Sanna Gaspard, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about Rubitection, please click here.

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Women on Top in Tech – Suzanne Wisse-Huiskes, Founder of MatchBox Consultancy and an Advocate at the Global Tech Advocates Network



(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.)

Suzanne Wisse-Huiskes is a Strategic Consultant and Founder at MatchBox Consultancy with offices in the United Kingdom and Nigeria. MatchBox provides expert advise in Impact Investing, Alternative Finance, Venture Capital, Fundraising, Women Leadership, Business Development, and Economic Empowerment. She is also an Advocate at the Global Tech Advocates Network. Dedicated to challenging talented entrepreneurs, Suzanne is an official mentor at startup/accelerator programs in Africa, Europe, and Asia. She was awarded top 400 most successful women in the Netherlands for two years in a row.

What makes you do what you do?
My drive is to enable entrepreneurs to grow their businesses by improving their access to funding. This can elevate an entire community. I believe that Alternative Finance can potentially be a powerful catalyst for shifting the way our financial markets work.

I love the ingredients of the alternative finance market: the innovative nature of the industry; the global playing field; the turbo speed of change. The market is booming and shows little sign of slowing down.

I founded MatchBox to support highly motivated entrepreneurs and investors in their mission to create profitable businesses with impact. MatchBox has become a trusted partner to these clients: they value our strategic and operational expertise, as well as our strong global network used to consult and connect. The requests vary from developing large investing programs to ensure access to capital for SME’s, to developing funding strategies for entrepreneurs. What works in one country may not work in others. We understand the local players and the local markets. This work is fully aligned with what is important to me.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I’ve been in the crowdfunding industry since 2008. Back then, Facebook only had a 100 million active users as opposed to the 2.000 million users today. Kickstarter, one of the world’s largest funding platforms, was yet to launch. Joining the industry that early in the game, allowed me to rise with it. I was fortunate to be part of initiatives that pushed the Alternative Finance ecosystem, first in Amsterdam, then on a broader European level.

Then later on other emerging markets began to interest me. I moved to Nigeria, to work in Africa’s fastest growing economy and home to exciting trends in capital and fintech. I familiarized myself with the investing ecosystems in African countries. Today, I work in alternative finance ecosystems in Asia, Africa and Europe. Being able to learn, share and compare best practices from different economies to me is key in the rise of the industry. Currently, the crowdfunding market in Asia alone is worth over 200 billion Euros. That’s huge!

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
I’ve always followed my heart in my professional life. I focus on work that I am passionate about and am not afraid to take the path less travelled. So leadership, demographics never held me back. With my experience and skills I am well positioned to successfully get the job done. For me it doesn’t feel like it’s a stretch.

Even more so, my clients see it as a big advantage to have women on the job. I recently worked on an impact investing program in West Africa focussing on women-led SME’s and experienced the benefits of a diverse team. Women entrepreneurs see the world through a different lens and, in turn, do things differently.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
The industry was completely new when I started, with no seniors to learn from. As a strong believer in mentorship, I do reach out to people in other industries for feedback and to bounce ideas.

I also learn a lot from working with various entrepreneurs. Collaborating with Sir Richard Branson in the beginning of my career was encouraging. We did a successful Crowdfunding Campaign for the elephants in Botswana. But I’m equally impressed by entrepreneurs that make a huge impact on their community no matter the circumstances. I’ve seen exceptional people grow businesses in the poorest regions of Nigeria. One can only admire their leadership.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
For me, mentoring young entrepreneurs is a great way to develop and grow talent. My focus is usually on two mentees at a time to ensure there is enough time to discuss ideas and challenges. I worked at fintech startups for almost 10 years before founding MatchBox. So there are plenty of stories to share and learn from, both on failures as well as on successes.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I’m very vocal on the need for diversity. I’ve always found myself in the male dominated groups. First at University, then in my first corporate position, and later as a Board Member. At some of my MBA Finance classes, I was the only woman in a room of 50 men. It never bothered or intimidated me. It just made me work a little harder.

Nonetheless, diversity is much needed. I strongly believe the industry is missing out on many brilliant women. That is why I dedicate a great deal of time mentoring female entrepreneurs. We discuss the tools their businesses require to grow and attract the right type of capital. Investors still have a different approach towards female founders. This year, we are launching an initiative called ‘the Republic of Female Founders’, to provide practical tools and guidelines that are specific for this group.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
My general rule of thumb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. For me, it’s all about collaborative leadership. My industry is becoming increasingly complex, so sharing best practices will bring us far. That’s why I became an Advocate of the Tech Shanghai Advocates, part of the Global Tech Advocates. This group of senior leaders in the tech community is created to champion and accelerate the growth of the local technology sector.

I am also a fan of the CrowdfundingHub and Crowddialog in Europe, and Ingressive in Africa for similar reasons: Ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they believe in the positive impact of innovation in finance. My peers are all trailblazers in the alternative finance industry, I consider myself to be in great company.

Advice for others?
I strongly believe in collaboration, so building business relationships is key. I truly foster my relations. To me it doesn’t feel like work, but rather like building bonds. Seek opportunities to connect and reach out. It really pays off to have a strong network. At MatchBox, I work with a network of exceptional local experts. If you need advice and consulting on your funding strategy, impact investing program or crowdfunding strategy, we will gladly work with you. Contact us at MatchBox.

If you’d like to get in touch with Suzanne Wisse – Huiskes, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about MatchBox Consultancy, please click here.

To learn more about  Global Tech Advocates Network, please click here.

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