8 aha moments you need to have before marketing your startup

“If you build it, they will come.”

It’s a famous saying that’s both misquoted and misguided.

The “If you build it, they will come” mindset doesn’t hold true in a world where attention spans are decreasing, alternatives are increasing, and up to $582 is spent on advertising to each person, every year.

Marketing your startup is hard, especially if you’re a solopreneur or a small team. If this is your first time around or are still early on in your startup journey you probably have some basic assumptions that you use to guide your marketing decisions.

But before you jump in, I’ve identified 8 ‘aha moments’, aka paradigm shifts, you need to have to maximize your efforts. A paradigm shift is “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions” – Oxford Dictionary.

I’ve focused on these specific points because they are common assumptions that can cost you wasted time and effort.

The first line is what you would normally focus on.
The second line is what you should focus on instead.

I need an MVP: Minimum Viable Product
I need an MDP: Minimum Desirable Product

If you’re familiar with Eric Ries Lean Startup methodology, he suggests you start by building an MVP; a product with just enough features to solve the core problem and start getting customer feedback.

An MVP focuses on the business perspective – what’s the bare minimum I have to build in order to figure out whether or not I have a business?

From a marketing perspective, Andrew Chen suggests we aim at building a Minimum Desirable Product instead.

Whats the difference?

Simply, a minimum desirable product is one that focuses on the customer perspective – what’s the minimum product I have to build to provide a great experience that creates enough value for the user to come back.

His definition:

“Minimum Desirable Product is the simplest experience necessary to prove out a high-value, satisfying product experience for users (independent of business viability).” – Andrew Chen

An MDP offers enough value for a customer to come back to. You need to aim past the scope of an MVP. It’s a slight change of perspective, but it’s an important one if you want to build a great product.

For example, when it comes to products like mobile apps you only get 1 shot in the customers eyes. It’s extremely hard to get someone to re-download your app once they’ve deleted it.

If you don’t treat your customer with enough respect by building something they desire enough to come back to, you’ll lose their trust. Just like the app, it’s extremely hard to get them to trust you again. In situations like this, it’s not worth releasing an MVP – persevere until you can deliver an MDP.

It doesn’t mean waiting until you’ve build the best product on the market. It means building until you’ve got a product customers are going to desire.

But what about the feedback loop? ‘Measure’ and ‘learn’ are the other 2 key parts of the Lean Startup methodology, so you can continually iterate and improve:

The Lean Startup Methodology

Instead, do as Ryan Hoover advocates and build in public.

By showing what you’re building before its ready you can:

  • Build an audience
  • Get feedback early
  • Increase buy-in
  • Excite the people

Building in public is also great for team morale. It’s easy to find motivation when you have interest and audience excitement to fuel you.

Designer Nathan Barry took this approach when he announced he was working on a new book. For the next 6 months, he shared his progress through a series of blog posts. He continually interacted with his audience, gaining valuable feedback to find out what they wanted to see. By the time the book was ready to launch, he had customers with their credit card in hand ready and waiting. On the first day of launch he sold $12,000 worth of books.

For his next book, he took everything he learned from the first one and cut his development time down by half to 3 months. He followed the same launch process, building in public and sharing his progress with his audience. When he finally launched the second book, he made $26,000 on launch day.

Takeaway: Build an MDP, and build it in public.

My first 100 customers come from scaling up
My first 100 customers come from hand-to-hand combat

Your first customers come from doing things that don’t scale. What does this mean?

It means reaching out and engaging with each customer personally.
It means putting in the work to find, understand, win and keep them. One-by-one.
Whether that’s online, on the phone, or face-to-face.

It’s hand-to-hand combat.

If you want to get to a point where you can scale, you have to spend time in the trenches with your customers to make sure you refine your offer to the point where it fits with their needs.

Use these interactions to uncover how your product or service can provide value to their life. As a marketer or entrepreneur, if you don’t know exactly why those people should buy from you and exactly why they’d want to buy it, then you’re not going to scale.

Once you’ve been able to offer enough value for a customer that they’re delighted and come back for more – go out and find more of those customers.

Focus on making 100 people happy, not 10,000. Why would 10,000 people use your product if you can’t get 100 to use it repeatedly?

Every single company, no matter how big or successful today, started this way. One customer at a time.

This process is slow work. But its slow, purposeful work.

Takeaway: Get in the trenches.

I need to focus on marketing from day one
I need to focus on marketing once I find
product/market fit

According to Marc Andreesen:

“The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit.
Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.”

Before this point, it’s likely that you haven’t found a product or service worth pushing.

You haven’t found something worth marketing.

Fit occurs at the point where the balance starts to move from you ‘pushing’ the product, to the market ‘pulling’ the product. Customer adoption has to started to happen organically.

Marketing only turns on the jets and accelerates this process. There’s no point spending money getting more customers if they’re not going to stick around. You’re just throwing money down the drain.

What you should be focusing on is customer development: spending time with your customers and target market to uncover the critical information needed to build something that adds a high level of value to their life.

Of course, there is some level of preliminary marketing needed to present and position your product to achieve product/market fit (e.g. defining a good value proposition).

There are also times when you might spend some money to get some customers at an early stage e.g. gathering customer development data, to test and get feedback, or get some numbers to establish a baseline.

But marketing should not be your point of focus.

Takeaway: Don’t think about marketing and growth until you have a product you know customers love. Everything else comes after that.

Success comes from a string of wins
Success comes from finding out what works after
a string of failures

The idea that success comes from perseverance is nothing new, but in the world of marketing it holds true more than ever.

My friend Luke Thomas said this a while ago now, but it’s something I still think about often:

The best marketers are humble.

Of course they’re only human and we all have ego’s. But they’re humble where it counts – their experiments. They aren’t afraid to fail. They don’t get defensive when one of their experiments isn’t working. They consider all failures as learnings to direct their future efforts and find what works. Likewise, they don’t get big-headed when something works. That’s just more data to pull insights from to direct the next round of experiments.

On average, 8 out of 10 marketing experiments will fail. What does that mean?

It means if you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough.

If you want 2 good wins a month, you have to fail 8 other times. If you let those 8 failures get to you, you’re going to have a hard time persevering until you find what works.

Takeaway: Stay hungry, stay foolish, stay humble.

Who is my target market
Who isn’t my target market

Through customer research and development you can narrow down whom your ideal customer is. Why is this important?

Because if you try to talk to everyone, your message doesn’t get through to anyone.

You need to speak to your customers in a way that resonates with them. Find out the way they talk, use their words and repeat them back to them.

In almost every market there are so many alternatives that if people see something and they don’t think is aimed at them personally, they’ll keep looking until they find something that is.

For example: if you say your target market is women 25 – 60 who are single and looking for love, you’re going to have a hard time talking to them. Why? Because the way a 25 year old woman thinks and talks about love is completely different to the way a 60 year old woman does. If you try to speak to both of them at the same time – your message won’t get through to either.

To refine your messaging and it’s effectiveness even further you need to answer:

“Who isn’t in my target market?”

Make sure your messaging isn’t accidently aimed at them too.

For example, If you take $20 into Chanel and ask to buy a handbag, they’ll laugh you out of the store. Similarly, if you take $10,000 into Walmart and ask to buy a handbag, they’ll do exactly the same. They both know who their customer is and they target their messaging and product specifically at them unapologetically.

Entrepreneur Ramit Sethi practices this to an extent that costs him over $1m in sales every year, by design. He offers courses on setting up a business, getting a raise, or saving more money.

For his flagship courses, he doesn’t let anyone join who has credit card debt. He specifically excludes people by telling them “if you have credit card debt you aren’t allowed to join this course”. If you ignore this rule and he finds out, not only will he will withdraw you from the course and refund your money, he’ll also ban you from taking any of his courses again in the future.

Why would he tell people “even if you wanted to, I won’t let you give me money”?

Because he wants all his customers to complete the course successfully. That is his idea customer. To do that, he knows they need to have the right mindset. Through extensive testing and research he knows if someone isn’t disciplined enough to pay off their credit card debt, they aren’t likely to be disciplined enough to successfully complete his course.

Patrick McKenzie advocates exclusion with pricing. If you price your product low or freemium, you’ll attract a lot of ‘tire kickers’: customers who ask for more, complain the most, and take up the most time in support. By pricing your product at a premium, you’ll have less customers, but more quality customers that actually pay you, and pay you well.

Takeaway: Make sure you know who your ideal customer isn’t and avoid attracting them.

Your product/marketing must be revolutionary
Borrow as much as possible

Achieving startup success is hard enough, don’t make it harder on yourself by starting from scratch. It does have to be disruptive, but it doesn’t have to be revolutionary. Sometimes the most successful startups come from well thought out but slight changes to existing solutions.

Take Uber for example, they took an existing formula and changed it just slightly:

Call a taxi from your phone to your location > taxi arrives
Use an app to order a car to your location > car arrives

Of course I’m simplifying things here, but my point is: disruption doesn’t have to be revolutionary. This is called incremental innovation.

Eric Siu says “be creative by copying others first”.

Bryan Harris call this the “Picasso Formula“. Find what has been successful for others, take the best parts and apply it to your own needs.

I’m not saying you should steal. Reading case studies or examples from others are great for inspiration, but you must realise that you’re reading about somebody else’s solution to somebody else’s problems, not your problems. Stealing won’t work for you the way it worked for them.

Whenever you read something you find interesting, save it into your organiser of choice. Then when you need to create your own version of that later, the first place you’ll go for ideas is this swipe file.

If you’ve saved more than a few articles on the same topic, you can take parts from each of them to create something entirely new. Whether that’s someone’s marketing strategy, design, product, or even their business model.

We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.

Takeaway: Take inspiration from different sources, piece them together to create something entirely new.

I need a strategy for social, content, advertising, PR, SEO, partnerships, email marketing, etc…
Find out what works and double-down. Discard the rest.

In 2014 there are so many channels available to us, it can be overwhelming. If you try to do everything at once, you won’t make a dent in any of them. Diversification is a trap.

To quote customer acquisition expert Brian Balfour when talking about marketing channels:

“we have been lucky to have enough resources to test two channels at once. But even with close to $10M in funding, we won’t go beyond testing and optimizing two channels for awhile. Don’t underestimate what it takes to properly test and optimize a single customer acquisition channel.”

Many companies achieved huge success by just focusing on one channel: Groupon with email marketing, Zynga with Facebook, and Hubspot with Content Marketing.

How do you know which channels to focus on?

The best way to I’ve seen figure this out, comes from this article on choosing your customer acquisition channel. But, to summarise it here:

  1. Figure out what you’re optimizing for: Is it to learn something about customers? Is it to achieve volume? Is it to to reduce cost and CPA?
  2. Figure out your constraints: Time, money, target audience availability (can you reach them?), and legal.
  3. Set up a channel matrix and fill in the chart with values: low, medium and highStartup Channel Matrix
  4. Choose the best 1 – 2 channels to start focusing on

This is where the full-stack marketer shines. A full-stack marketer is someone with a broad range of experience across all channels. They have enough knowhow across channels to test them and figure out which ones give the most return, then start focusing more resources on those channels.

This isn’t a case of putting all your eggs in one basket. I’m not saying to limit yourself forever, but in a resource poor startup, spreading yourself thin is suicide. Once you’ve found success in a channel and the incremental gains to be had from continued input of resources begins to diminish, then you can start testing elsewhere.

Takeaway: Find out where the signal is strongest and focus your efforts on that channel.

We need this new amazing tool
We need a system: tools just help you execute and automate what you already have

I know the feeling: A new tool comes out that looks slick, the value proposition is on point, and you start to imagine it solving all your problems.

Don’t jump in and try/buy the new shiny thing.

Your problem isn’t that you don’t have the right tool. The problem is that you don’t have the right system in place.

Take productivity for example, it’s a big pain point for many people. So many startups come out each week with a new tool that promises to solve this problem with their to-do list/organisation/time management solution. Evernote is a great product, syncing seamlessly across your devices to give you access to your notes and ideas when and where you need them. It’s a great value proposition. But many people struggle to use it properly, because they haven’t developed a system. A Google search for the exact phrase “how to use Evernote” returns 1,360,000 results.

Before you worry about a tool, you need to establish a system.

There’s no point in buying marketing automation software if you don’t already have a process to automate. There’s no point in buying time tracking tools if you’re already in the habit of tracking your time.

The most successful people aren’t successful because of their tools. They’re successful because they built out and stuck to a system that works.

It’s a similar concept to why they say startup founders should perform the task first before hiring someone to own that role completely.

Takeaway: Tools make our lives and jobs easier, but only once you’ve built out a system to base it from.

Bonus paradigm shift:

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this article and you plan on using some points from it one day when you start your own company, I’ll leave you with the only paradigm shift you need to hear right now:

It’s not the right time to start.
There’s never going to be a ‘right time’, start anyway.

  • http://brettthoreson.com Brett Thoreson

    Fantastic post, Ryan… one of the better articles I’ve read in awhile! Number two is my life right now. Scraping and clawing for those first 100 clients is “the dip” for most startups. If you come out of that phase alive you will have learned a ton and probably have a few bucks to work with :)

    • https://ryangum.com/ Ryan Gum @ Postify

      Nice work Brett, keep at it – it’s a hard slog in the trenches but you’ll come out the other side battle hardened 😉

  • Inge Eivind Henriksen

    Love this, good stuff!

  • TT TY

    Good advice (:

  • BrentO

    “For example, if you take $20 into Channel” – I think you meant Chanel.

    • https://ryangum.com/ Ryan Gum @ Postify

      Ah of course, thanks Brent.

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  • Matt Farley

    Good stuff. Very timely in fact, as I’m working on achieving product/market fit and spending time in the trenches getting to know my potential customers and what their needs are. It’s hard work, but worth every minute spent doing it, because you learn so much.

  • luisgdelafuente

    Excellent insights…

  • http://www.quantosobra.com.br/ Stéfano Willig

    Man. AWESOME article. We read so many things in the internet about startups. They’re always sying this bullshits you passed a risk on. Thanks for this article, veeery gooooodddd article!!!
    I totally agree with all you wrote. We’re in the 80’s client mark, almost in 100. And I know and talk to every single one of them. And we sold our solution to every single one of them. None came through marketing and that’s helping us a lot in our product development.

    • https://ryangum.com/ Ryan Gum @ Postify

      Congrats Stéfano sounds like your on the right track and well on the way.

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  • http://matthewcoco.com Matthew Coco

    Sending to my partner! The CTO vs CEO war continues! Thanks for the post.

  • brbordallo

    Hi Ryan,
    Great post, I love number 2. You are absolutely right. How can we think in reach tons of customers if we didn’t sell personally to anyone? Also it is very motivating to the team to know that a user want to become paid user. I’m in this phase too in my startup.

    • https://ryangum.com/ Ryan Gum @ Postify

      Thanks Bartolomé, it’s not a new concept but I just wanted to reinforce what it means for those in the early stages. Jooicer.com looks interesting btw, good luck with it :)

      • brbordallo

        Thanks for the support Ryan 😉

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  • http://www.grandpic.es Ángel Ortiz

    Great post Ryan! I like how you dismount typical sentences about Lean Startup with a more reliable approach

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  • Jane Spierer Boutelle

    Great perspective and perfect timing (for me). I can use it all, but 1,3,7&8 grabbed me today!

  • AnnieSlatts

    Awesome article as I prepare to gain my first 100 customers with an MDP! Thank Ryan!

    • https://ryangum.com/ Ryan Gum @ Postify

      Good luck Annie :)

  • Sudhir Mantena

    Building in public seems interesting until you think deeper and realize it’s the landing page concept. Founders have been advocating this theory for a while – build landing pages with single call to action to collect early birds interested in your product.

    But of course your book author example goes one step further and makes it more collaborative. Worth thinking deeper nevertheless.

  • NickNYC242

    Great rundown on how to get started (and when – via the bonus!) with building a business.

    One of the things that we learned in launching Simplist is that the most easily accessible pre-built audience for your product or business is your network – you just need to know who to spend your time on personally (read: mail merge) contacting to drive great conversions. Simplist helps you find those people by searching for CTOs, Heads of HR, Founders, Engineers, whoever your potential market hypothesis is. Hand-to-hand combat is tough, but using your network can make it much easier.

  • Roxanne_Y

    Excellent Post and great insights! I really liked the way you set out the article by first stating the things that you would normally focus on and then crossing it out and stating the things that you should be focusing on. I find number 5 very interesting because I have never thought of looking at a businesses target market from that view before. Its very helpful! How would you suggest finding out who your isn’t your target market?

    • https://ryangum.com/ Ryan Gum

      Thanks Roxanne, glad you liked it.

      I think you’ll naturally identify this as you do customer development interviews, talk to your prospects or churned customers. You’ll notice a certain type of customer segment is more likely to churn because the product doesn’t do exactly what they need it to do. And that’s fine. It’s just about going that extra step to make sure you write down who you don’t want to target. You even see some marketing sites list out “This isn’t for you if…” and I really like that clear communication approach.

  • Monica

    Thank you for the article Ryan, this was great! All 8 of your moments described are on point,
    and portrays the value of building an initial strong foundation for any start
    up to be successful. My question may be
    unrelated to this article, but any suggestions as to how you would recommend building
    personal and professional credibility towards a start-up/new initiative that
    one may not necessarily have a lot of experience in, but a LOT of passion? Thanks!!

    • https://ryangum.com/ Ryan Gum

      Good question, this article by Crew comes to mind: http://blog.pickcrew.com/teaching-what-you-know/. It’s definitely worth the read, but the gist is – start sharing what you know.
      There’s always people that know more than you on a topic, but there’s also always people that know less. Teach to them. It’s great that you have the passion – as you gain experience, show it by sharing what you learn… in turn building your credibility. Hope that helps.

      • Monica

        Oh this is awesome- answers my question
        completely. Thanks so much for sharing the
        Crew article Ryan!

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  • Ivan Kurniawan

    Just landed on this page, and I LOVE IT!
    Nice post!
    Gonna share it to others too :)

  • Santa Fred

    Nice piece of work you’ve got going here.

    For everything fun and local, you can find it on Fonolive, http://fonolive.com

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  • sidgy

    this is great, ive subscribed ryan.

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  • Bram Alkema

    Nice counterintuitive stuff. Err… Marketing and promotion are not the same thing (marketing includes pricing, lock-ins, distribution, servicing, value propostions, too). May I bother to ask why you do that? i am not an essentialist but words matter. If you are a Drucker fan you might even say that developing customers and finding a fit itself is marketing.

  • http://www.leadgibbon.com Shamaila Zahid

    Awesome advice! In my company, we also found out what was working, doubled-down on that and discarded what wasn’t. The result was that we weren’t focusing on everything at the same time, just the things hat mattered.

  • http://centrosnab.com.ua Олег Фарионов

    If you are a Drucker fan you might even say that developing customers and finding a fit itself is marketing. Nice counterintuitive stuff. Err… Marketing and promotion are not the same thing (marketing includes pricing, lock-ins, distribution, servicing, value propostions, too)