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Trends in B2B Marketing for Early Stage Startups

Part 1 of our interview with Rachel Kim, VP of Marketing at Wonolo, and Emily Kramer, former Head of Marketing at Carta and Asana

We recently sat down with marketing experts Rachel Kim, VP of Marketing at Wonolo, and Emily Kramer, former Head of Marketing at Carta and Asana. Here is a summary of our conversation.

We got so many insights that we decided to split this interview in five parts. You can find them here:

Q: What are the trends you’ve seen in B2B marketing in the past 5 years? Are the tactics converging with consumer marketing?

Rachel: In the past few years, brands on the B2B side are taking more risks. Your target persona can be everywhere, so you don’t have to go through the usual channels to reach them — go where they are.

Emily: Consumer experience is becoming more and more important in B2B marketing. We are seeing more freemium companies that have pioneered creating a great consumer experience. Many different business models can work, but we’re seeing more products that start from the bottom of the organization first and grow from there.

Across both B2B and B2C, personalization is increasing because the technology has come a long way. So we’re seeing a huge shift. This is great because highly targeted is better — I’d rather see things that are highly relevant to me.

Q. What does this mean for early-stage B2B startups?

Rachel: Marketing is marketing. Even when you’re selling B2B, the end person is still a human being. So there is no need to completely change your approach when you’re a B2B business and make your marketing stiff and boring.

If you’re an early stage company, see where the incumbents are doing their marketing. And then find a path that is less conventional.

Emily: The most important thing is to make sure your marketing adds value. It needs to be a value exchange. And remember you are marketing to a human.

Q. If you’re a small startup, you need to appeal to the person but there’s also a bit of a game to play to look bigger than you are to appear credible. How do you strike that balance?

Emily: Every company is different and it’s going to depend on your product. How do you develop credibility is two-fold. The biggest thing you can do is show what your customers are doing with your product. Obviously it’s great to have well-known logos using your product, but if you don’t have them, then you want to go the highly personal track. Tell a compelling story of how your customers are using your product and the advantages they’re getting from it. You don’t necessarily have to have a logo wall to have customers approval and build credibility with customers.

Rachel: If you’re early stage, you might not have a case study or a customer logo yet. In that case, when it comes to credibility, the most important thing that you can do is understand your target buyer’s pain points better than anyone else. That means spending time in the early days talking to your target buyer and understanding their pain. Understand that persona better than anyone else in your space. Once you’ve understood that pain, then tailor your message and your tagline. You may be able to build your credibility if you know exactly what the customer needs. Incumbents may not be able to do that.

At Gusto, which was disrupting payroll companies, the tagline we came up with after talking to a lot of buyers in deep pain was: we give HR people one place to go. We chose this because after lots of research. We realized the customers we spoke to had this pain point: they had all this different software to use. So our value proposition was simple, but it articulated the deep pain the buyer was in. It was really effective. Gusto has grown to be a massive company but at the time we were really early.

Emily: To your point Rachel, If you know your customers better than everyone else, that’s an area you can win on credibility. Larger companies just aren’t necessarily as honed in on talking to customers everyday. So use that to your advantage.

Q: On the subject of knowing your audience, what if you have multiple target audiences? What’s the best way to approach these different audiences so that your message resonates?

Emily: When I was at Asana, we had a problem. Asana can be used by everyone, but at the time people didn’t think about project management products being for everyone. We had to do segmentation early on to speak to individual groups. So it wasn’t only about figuring out the biggest pain points for everyone, but it was about figuring out the biggest pain points for marketers who might need Asana, for product people, HR and recruiting people. We found segments that were adopting Asana and really sticking with it. Then we went back and asked how we can get more of these people.

We weren’t afraid to start in certain niches. We weren’t trying to go after everyone at once, because we would have spread ourselves too thin and our messaging would have fallen flat if we were trying to go after all target audiences.

I see early stage companies make this mistake — they try to go too broad too early. Making a few strategic bets in some areas with some niche audiences can help you reach an audience earlier.

Rachel: I agree. You can’t be everything to everyone. Creating a startup is all about those trade-offs. But when you’re early stage — selecting one buyer or one segment that you can feel you can get in front of, may be one of the ways to unlock growth, especially if some of your customers become evangelists.

Q. When building a marketplace targeting two separate audiences, how do you speak to them at the same time?

Rachel: There’s a chicken and egg problem with marketplaces. In the early days figuring out the growth engine to get supply is critical. If you don’t have supply, you have nothing to sell to the other side. But it’s complicated. One of the challenges is you spend time/money getting supply, and then they churn because you have nothing to give them. You need to find a way to keep them engaged. One way is to create a community for them while you’re still building up demand. You could even enlist them to make calls to prospective customers.

Emily: When building marketplaces, but also in general, make sure you set expectations properly. Make it intentional to keep your focus small. It comes down to personalization. You might not have the biggest supply versus your competitor but you might have the most experienced, vetted supply. Figure out what you’re great at and focus your efforts on marketing that.

Q. What are your key mantras when it comes to B2B marketing?

Rachel: Mine would be Know your audience, cater to that audience, be obsessed with that audience. Everything you do should be about solving the pain for the persona who will pay for your product. If you have revenue then plenty of things become easier. So your marketing should be tailored about how you speak to that specific pain and your product should be specific enough to cater to that. You might not have the broadest product, but you can have the most specific product suited for a small group of people. It’s great to have a bigger vision, but year one of building a startup is not glamorous.

Emily: Lots of people do marketing things just to do them. Instead of doing lots of things, instead focus on things that will have high impact and value. Don’t match what your competitor is doing. Be intentional about what marketing tactics you focus on and make sure they add value. And don’t be afraid to ask for help in marketing. It seems easy, but in reality it’s complicated and nuanced.

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Thank you to our partners Oracle for Startups and WSGR for making this event possible.

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