Pounding the Pavement: How to Survive on a $0 Marketing Budget

Matt Rubenstein is the Founder of Kibitz- an iOS app that lets people crowdsource on-demand creative help.

For all who are unaware, in a two-person startup you do one of two things:

a: coding

b: everything else

This post about one aspect of the second category: marketing.

Like many before me, I had no intention of getting into the startup world. The first draft of my grand life plan had me moving to San Francisco to pursue a job as an advertising copywriter- a job where I expected to harness my creative mojo to come up with clever taglines or ideas for the next big viral social media campaign for Brand X; flitting from one project to the next in a cloud of efficient ideation.

Of course, things don’t always turn out like you plan™ and I instead found myself here in startup land. I got the idea for Kibitz while studying at Miami Ad School- far and away the most creatively competitive environment I have ever experienced. In other words, it was the perfect place to learn the skills I would need to come up with marketing ideas on a $0 budget.

Doing the marketing for your own startup is unique, because not only are you are the entire creative department, you are also the client. In other words, it doesn’t matter how awesome and clever your marketing ideas are- if they don’t solve your problems they are useless to you.

The idea for my latest marketing endeavor came about after reading about another startup that found success passing out minimalist flyers that focused on the “local boys make good” angle- a group of plucky entrepreneurs who quit their jobs, put in the sleepless nights, etc to make something that they sincerely hope will add value to peoples’ lives.

I was struck by the blend of genuineness and honesty in the flyers, so I sought to emulate that with Kibitz. I also had the idea to have a giant poster-sized version of the app printed up and mounted on a sandwich board just to be a little more visible.

I actually started the day with the screenshot on the front and the text on the back, but I decided to switch it after the first half an hour because I realized that the text side moved the needle more. As far as the text on the sign, I was heavily influenced by my Reddit career, where I have learned that the perfect mix of honesty and self-deprecating humor is usually quite effective.

The plan was simple- walk around the conference all day wearing the sign and pass out flyers- telling a little bit of my story and inviting people to download the app. I figured that displaying our URL and twitter handle would provide people with two additional avenues by which to connect with us online, aside from just doing a search in the app store.

Going into this, my game plan was something like:

Step 1: Clever marketing idea

Step 2: ????????

Step 3: Downloads!

To my credit, step one was solid. I got lots of smiles, laughs, and picture requests. But unfortunately that’s not always enough. I had spent so much time thinking about step one that I forgot about step two. I was basically assuming that if I made an ad that succeeded in adding value to peoples’ lives by being clever and memorable, the only logical outcome would be for them to return the favor and download my app. It turns out that it’s not quite that simple. After thinking about this experience in the days that followed, I identified two main problems:

Problem #1: Passing out flyers is harder than you think.

As everyone who has lived in a big city knows, peoples’ natural instinct is to filter out the promotional “noise” that seems to appear wherever there is a dense concentration of people. Even though the whole plucky-entrepreneur-making-it-in-the-big-world narrative that I have is a good one, at first glance I am just another annoying guy passing out flyers. And although the sign was effective at making people laugh, nobody would remember what I was promoting if I didn’t succeed in getting a flyer in their hand. So in other words, I had to build peoples’ trust in me enough to convince them to let me be the 17th person to hand them a piece of paper promoting my business all in the span of about 5 seconds. You don’t realize how hard this is until you try it yourself.

At one point I realized that I was letting my fear of rejection get in the way; and as every sales training book will tell you this is something that I need to learn to ignore. I have too much at stake here to let myself be stopped by the threat of momentary embarrassment.

Problem #2: The distance between the physical world and the digital world.

A mobile app is completely different from physical products, or even websites. When your business is a mobile app, the only metric that matters (initially) is how many people actually download your app. It’s all-or-nothing in the truest sense of the word. You’re either in someone’s pocket at all times or you’re invisible.

Our hyperconnected smartphone world is both a blessing and a curse for an app maker. On the plus side, your product is available for anyone with a smartphone to download at any time. But on the other hand, so is everything else. Peoples’ attention spans are shorter than they have ever been, so any extra steps between the initial spark of interest and turning that spark into someone downloading your app are greatly magnified. Every extra second is another opportunity to be distracted by a text or email or any of the hundreds of other digital distractions out there.

As I broke it down, I realized that my end goal of a given person downloading the app could be accomplished in one of three ways:

As I went through these three paths in detail, I realized that there were many different points where something could prevent a given person from ending up with my app on their phone. What if they forget to do it? What if they are busy talking to their colleague and don’t want to pull out their phone at that moment? What if they get distracted between any of the steps listed above? When I compared the difficulty of the IRL process to how much easier it is for someone to just click a link online I began to understand the true differences between online and offline marketing.


From a pure time-efficiency perspective, IRL advertising is probably not the best fit for a smartphone app. However, I am really glad I made myself do it. For one, I haven’t completely abandoned the flyer idea, and I can tell that every opportunity to practice will make me that much better at it.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this experience was the amount of attention I got during the moments when I wasn’t seeking it. While I was on my way to and from the conference, on the bus, walking down the street with the sign under my arm…people kept starting conversations with me, and almost all of them turned out to be super meaningful. There was the guy on the bus who ended up tweeting out a link to the app; the veteran “tech-preneur” guy who introduced himself to me at lunch; and the guy I exchanged business cards with on Market St. after he told me about the app that he launched a few months back. Ironically enough this whole thing would have been worth it just from the people I met during my commute.

Even though I’ve learned that there are easier and more efficient ways of getting the word out about getting people to download your mobile app, this experience proved that when you have the guts to put yourself out there, the universe has a funny way of reciprocating.

Tech trend enthusiast. Social media whiz-kid. http://mattrubenstein.com

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