Most mistakes are okay and can be recovered from. But your startup might not be able to survive if you make any of these five mistakes, writes Kenneth Burke.
Mistakes are inevitable when building a startup. That’s okay, so long as you learn from them and bounce back better. But if you make the following startup marketing mistakes, you may not get the chance:
1. Spending money on marketing before you have product-market fit
“Product-market fit” essentially means you’ve proven that buyers in your target market are willing to pay for and use your product.
You absolutely should be marketing your company from the time of launch, or earlier if you can manage it, but you likely won’t have product-market fit yet. Market organically. Do it for free. Talk to as many potential customers in your target market as possible. What do they want and need? How can you help? What are they willing to pay? Crowdsource those answers, and invest in the research and development to create the offers that you know people are willing to buy.
To start those conversations, use your network, ask for referrals, and/or send cold emails. Begin building your audience on social media platforms and having 1:1s with as many potential buyers as possible. Spend a little to attend a conference or two where you can talk to hoards of your ideal customers.
What you should not do, and the mistake too many startups make, is spend chunks of money on paid ads, events, launch parties, branding and more. These are important, but not before you have a product or service people want to buy.
2. Trying too many things at once
You have a lot of challenges when marketing a startup, but your biggest enemy is distraction. There are lots of exciting opportunities, and you desperately need revenue. Why not follow all the possible paths to get it? Because you can’t do everything well. Trying to do it all means you’ll only halfway do any of it, and that’s a sure step towards failure. Instead, focus on one thing you can make progress towards every day. That might be getting feedback from customers or creating content for various purposes in the early days. Later on, it might be distribution, building partnerships or hiring.
Once you have product-market fit, success typically comes from effectively taking your product or service to market through one channel, gaining traction and then layering on another. Progress comes from stacking one thing at a time, not from trying to boil the ocean.
For instance, you might get traction through email. You create the playbook for it, so you can run effective email campaigns consistently, and then add in, let’s say, organic social media (posting and commenting). Then, you layer partnerships on top of that.
3. Cutting off a marketing campaign before it has time to work
Every marketing campaign is a bet that you hope pays off. Where most startups shoot themselves in the feet, though, is stopping a marketing initiative before it even has a chance.
Marketing takes time. It takes time for people to see a message, for that message to resonate and for people to feel a want or need for what you offer. You have to beat that drum loud and often before people hear it and get it. Even paid ads are not a lever you can pull to suddenly start bringing in new business.
If you’re going to commit to a marketing campaign, give it 100% of the time and resources it takes to do it well and at least three months before you make a decision on whether it’s working. Some may show promise quickly. Some may take a year. At Text Request, it was eight months before we could tell if our SEO and blogging work was paying off. A year later, it was the single largest piece of our pipeline.
4. “Scaling” without scalable unit economics
Bootstrapped businesses need to make money on every dollar spent. VC-backed businesses need to make enough money on every dollar spent, so that you have enough revenue coming in to keep the ship afloat when the VC dollars run out.
Once you have product-market fit, you’ll likely need to spend money on distribution. But see if you can gain customers from a marketing channel for free or with minimum spend first. When you find traction with a free channel, it’s easy to pour revenue into it as fuel. You do not want to invest tons of resources into an unproven channel, only to find that your acquisition costs are unsustainable.
If a channel is working with a small investment, pump more fuel into it. And if that works, keep going until it taps out. Even the best marketing channels have their ceiling. Your job is to find out where that ceiling is — but do it in stages.
Too many startups see early traction through one channel, assume there are limitless opportunities and start funneling time and money into it. They staff up and even add more channels. But it’s too soon. They realize the cost to acquire and payback period changes as the spend grows, and they aren’t able to recover. You do not want to experience this.
5. Risking it all on one bet (marketing campaign)
There’s no guarantee any marketing move will pay off. You take your experience, skills and resources, put them to use as best you can, and hope for the best. If you’re doing well, then you can reinvest the profits.
The surprisingly common mistake is betting more than you can afford to lose. Make sure the worst-case scenario to any marketing bet is that you lose money, but everyone still keeps their jobs, the business survives, and your reputation stays mostly intact. Do this, and even your worst mistakes won’t be that bad.
It’s okay to make mistakes, but most are avoidable, and you can still keep the upside opportunity. Go slow at first, so you can go fast later. Do the small things really well in the beginning, and as you gain traction, you’ll be able to do the bigger things faster, with less risk and with higher profits.
Kenneth Burke has written over 1,000 articles on business growth and helped companies from pre-launch startups to billion-dollar businesses achieve their goals. He’s also a champion for Chattanooga, TN and always open to a new book recommendation.