You’re the founder of an early-stage startup. This is how you start marketing.
By: Martina Lauchengco, Operating Partner, & Rachel Quon, Marketing Manager at Costanoa Ventures
Marketing seems pretty straightforward, right?
Figure out who your customer is, where they are, throw some money at targeted ads, be clever on social, and boom! Just add water. There you go. The customers — and the money — just come pouring in.
And yet, we all know it’s not quite that simple.
We’ve had early-stage portfolio companies that initially struggled with marketing. From a deep-tech company targeting the 200 or so to fish farmers of the world to well-known founders of a security business that, well, wasn’t so well known, we’ve seen marketing be a tough nut to crack.
Particularly in the very beginning, it’s really difficult for founders — especially first-time founders — to determine if it’s (a) the right time for marketing and (b) what that marketing effort should look like.
It’s tempting for all companies to move right to “turn on demand gen” and feel like they’re doing marketing. But using marketing in a more foundational, data-driven way at the earliest stages moves you that much closer to the goal: a company that’s scaling well because it’s taken the time to get the product fit, market understanding, customer insights, and sales process exactly right.
Here are the basics every early-stage founder should know.
If you’re at the “founder selling” phase, you have a marketing “team” of one (if you’re lucky). That’s fine because this earliest of stages is focused on really listening and being entirely open to discovery. Who are your customers? What does this market look like? You’re doing customer interviews, putting up a basic website, starting some basic social streams, and really exploring how your point of view resonates (or not). You’re measuring this in terms of meeting acceptances, website basics like CTA clicks, organic/direct/referral traffic, plus baseline social metrics (e.g., likes).
If you’re validating the market and product market fit, your marketing team has probably doubled to two-three people strong. Now you’re adding a messaging framework, developing an ideal customer profile, training sales staff with a playbook, producing content and trying on some email marketing. You’re bringing in NPS for a read on customer sentiment and evaluating your sales cycle time.
Then you might move to go-to-market fit, potentially with a marketing team that’s added another resource or two. Now you can actually do “demand gen” because you have a foundation from which to generate demand. Anything in advance of this is simply generating junky pipeline and lots of activity. Without that other groundwork in place, you risk adding water to something that won’t grow and scale over time. This is when you make everything better: refine that playbook, go after qualified leads, develop a targeted account list. And you’re able to measure through MQL and SQL conversions.
When you transition to scaling sales, it’s a good day. The marketing engine you’re building is very much turned on. You’re ready for more sophisticated outbound prospecting campaigns that align with marketing and quarterly sales training — plus measuring your close rate to see if all that effort is finally paying off. You might even be edging toward a Series B or C at this point.
Here’s a more detailed frame we share with our portfolio companies:
But perhaps the most important marketing takeaway is this: be realistic and be authentic.
Companies go through these steps, hit goals, but don’t achieve escape velocity. Why? They look, feel and sound like everyone else. Every technology field is crowded by companies that do good-enough marketing. You really have to hone in on what it sounds like to be real to your audience and stick with it even as you grow.
So what happened to the fish-farming technology and the people-powered security business? In each case, they had to be realistic about what was possible and authentic to who they were.
The founder of Aquabyte understood that fish-farming technology was incredible niche, relevant to only a relative handful of customers. But the journey of building technology, and a company with longevity, had broad appeal. Entrepreneurship is a big dream many share. Think about superheroes and their origin stories: how something comes to be — the guts of it — is absolutely fascinating. He used social to share the behind-the-scenes insights and bring people along on the journey of creation with him. And when the technology was ready, it had a ton of credibility (and demand) as a result.
Meanwhile, Elevate Security slowly transitioned public understanding of the founders as people into knowledge about the product. They used both standard techniques — like leading talks at important conferences — and more creative ones — for example, a provocative teaser campaign on social that diverged from the typical fear-mongering cybersecurity companies normally employed. Instead, it asked short, sit-up-and-take-notice questions to grab attention. And it worked: they developed an inbound pipeline that was just enough to test market engagement. As a result of these learnings, they were able to accelerate the sales cycle and fund a healthy Series A.
Founders, what’s worked for you?
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