Why Every Start-up Needs Marketing

Why Every Start-up Needs Marketing

So, you want to tell me about your company or why every start-up needs marketing

I recently reviewed several dozen start-up websites, some for competitions, others for advisory work, and a few as part of an initial introduction. In all cases, I was asked to give the companies feedback on their products, not their websites.

What I saw on most websites disconcerted me. The follow-up conversations with founders did nothing to comfort me. I found a near-universal recognition of the need for marketing, but later—and the overwhelming belief the product would prove itself on its own.

According to the late Clayton Christensen, upwards of 95-percent of new products fail. That is an overwhelming number that should make any entrepreneur think twice about any product idea. What I found in my discussions was an equally overwhelming belief that they, those people on the other end of the video conference, were part of the 5-percent that would win.

One look at the websites told me most were not part of the 5-percent, principally because they did know how to tell their story or did not think telling their story was important.

Keep in mind founders only have two primary jobs. First, they need to create the semblance of a product that proves their vision (this includes all of the activities like hiring and building the company). Second, they need to tell the story of their vision to raise money. Those founders either tell their story directly to the market in hopes of an organic marketing miracle, or they tell their story to investors to unleash enough temporal rope to incorporate more of their vision into the product before it goes to market.

In either case, they need to tell their story—and ideally, that story gets codified in content, including on their website.

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Marketing should always be done well, even if not extensively. If you can only afford one really good piece of marketing collateral, make it a one- or two-page document that nails your vision and your market promise. Make the document look professional and read well. This document will represent your vision when you aren’t around. It will be perhaps the only thing that people who don’t meet you get to see about your vision. If you don’t spend the time to make it intriguing, then they won’t spend the time to read it.

And yes, that piece of collateral is probably a website, not a flyer. I however work with clients on one-pagers, even if they don’t plan to use it much, as a way to hone the story. It’s easier to gain consensus on a well-told one-page story than on a twenty-page white paper. (In truth, it is actually easier to gain consensus on the white paper because most people will nod in agreement without having read it).

Why every start-up needs marketing

The following bullets outline why every start-up needs marketing. 

  • Marketing communicates your market promise. It tells the market and potential customers and investors what you intend to do.
  • Marketing helps establish credibility. If you don’t have a product people can see and test beyond limited demos, you need marketing to make the case as to why you and your company can deliver on your promise. Good marketing—authentic, sincere marketing— makes an organization look professional and helps build trust with potential customers and investors. That initial credibility becomes part of a long-term identity for the organization.
  • Differentiates you from the competition. It doesn’t matter if you think you are in a blue ocean or a white space, you probably aren’t. And even if you are, you have to explain why you think that. And most likely, you will be asked by potential customers how you are different that this product or that service. If you can’t answer those questions well, you will appear too insular—too inwardly focused. Good marketing forces organizations to look outward through the eyes of customers. Don’t dismiss customer questions as uninformed, because that likely means you are uninformed about where the customer is coming from. Meet the customer where they live, not where you want them to live. As much as investors may encourage you to build a new platform that creates a new market space, in the crowded modern world, you will butt up against someone who already owns, or wants to own, some corner of your idea. If you don’t take the time to recognize and create your position, you will look naïve—as much as customers want their suppliers to continuously learn, they don’t want to teach them the realities of life.
  • Why you? It isn’t enough to print out your resume or C.V., lay it on a table and say, there you go…No, you need to make the case as to why you can build a company, not just a product. Buyers will not invest in products from sources they don’t trust. If they don’t think you can run a business, they can’t afford to bet on the technology. They can afford to wait because there is a high likelihood that someone else will figure out the idea too, and they may be a better businessperson—or that they never see the idea again, and so it probably wasn’t that good an idea.

Marketing failures lead to, well, failure

Start-ups don’t only fail because they don’t understand the need for marketing. They fail because they don’t solve real problems, take too many risks in development, deviate from their vision driven by unsubstantiated data or beliefs, find themselves micromanaged by choice or assertion, refuse to learn from what the market tells them, and other more operational items like not managing time or money well.

But first among failures is the failure to tell the story in a credible way that intrigues people. Telling a good story well is hard. Marketing is worthy of spending money and time to figure out precisely what to say. Then test your story the same way you test products. Ask: Does it do what it was designed to do? Does it reflect the brand in a quality way?

Marketing is also a good test of a market vision. If a leadership team can’t come up with a concise way to articulate a market promise, then your vision is probably not as clear as it needs to be. Take time to fix that. (Even worse are organizations who think they have a good story but don’t tell it often enough to see if they are right).

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Marketing ultimately reflects strategy. If the strategy is good, and the execution takes place, the marketing should elevate reality, not try to create one that doesn’t exist. Marketing IS hard. It IS hard to tell a good story. But if you have an actual good story, it gets easier, but it doesn’t remove the obligation to eloquence and professionalism.

If you have a terrible website, and you know it, fix it immediately. Put off meetings with investors and with customers. If their first action after talking to you is going to your weak website, then the time you just spent talking to them will be wasted because your website does not mirror what you just said. You want those discussions about purchases or investments to be enhanced by the next action—you want your website to reinforce your value proposition, your professionalism, and your brand promise. Again, if it doesn’t do that—then take the time to make sure it does before your next call.

And if you can only invest in a small way on marketing, invest in the ideas, not the representation. A basic website that says the right things is better than a wonderous website that doesn’t say anything. Get the story right and tell it well.

Every start-up needs marketing because if you want to succeed, people need to know about you, and believe in you before you run out of money.


For more advice like “Why every start-up needs marketing” see Developing a Winning Thought Leadership Strategy.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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