Your Marketing Strategy Will Make Your Startup Go Up in Flames

Focusing on marketing rather than sales will kill your business

Here’s the deal — I want you to get ahead in your startup. But time and again many startups make the rookie mistake of mimicking a big company. That definitely is enough to get them killed.

Don’t market your product. Sell it.

Learning. Not Copying.

A lot of startup founders take inspiration from the companies they look up to — Apple, Uber, Airbnb, Google, Dropbox, Amazon and the likes. They all are great companies, but none of them is an early stage startup. So, if you are copying them, you are not learning.

Apple’s method of making great products and fiercely marketing them won’t necessarily work for you. What you need is to drive sales. Build your product and get people to use it. Sell your product — that is your only priority. It is quite important to understand that sales and marketing are pretty different from each other. They are two ends of a continuum. At the sales end, your outreach is narrow and deep. At the marketing end, it is broad and shallow.

Selling is more like sniping — highly focused and narrow in approach, whereas marketing is dropping a grenade — broad coverage with high collateral impact where you don’t need it.

And for an early stage startup, narrow and deep is what you want — not just in the way you appeal to users, but in the type of product you build. You should be building the essential features and talking to a small number of users who are seriously interested in what you’re making; not a broad audience who are on the whole indifferent.

Your initial product is going to be mediocre. All too often founders build a landing page, and announce it to the world, expecting that large amount of users would show up because they had done some “growth hacking”. But after they find that users never showed up in spite of their marketing tactics, they do not know what to do next. As well as not getting any users, the startup never gets the feedback it needs to improve the product.

Going Deep.

Successful startups almost always start narrow and deep. Because they don’t have the power to reach a big audience, they have to choose a small group of interested ones. And also because the product is still being defined, the conversation with initial users is equal to market research.

Apple started with a computer Steve Wozniak made to impress his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club. There weren’t a lot of them, but they were really interested.

Facebook started out just for Harvard University students. Again, not a lot of potential users, but they really wanted it.

Amazon started with only books, before becoming the “Everything Store.”

Begin by seeking out some core group of early adopters and then engaging with individual users to persuade them to sign up.

In the early days, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia flew to New York City every week to meet with hosts — teaching them how to price their listings, take better photos, and so on. They also asked hosts for introductions to potential new hosts, who they then met in person. To grow, Airbnb needed to get more hosts and also help existing hosts convert better.

MixPanel’s Suhail Doshi would manually tweet to handpicked startup founders and try convincing them to try his new analytics app. He would then ping them after every few days to ask them how is it going.

Ben Silberman would literally walk into cafes in Palo Alto and ask random people to try out Pinterest and gather feedback from them. He would get into Apple stores and fire up Pinterest in the MacBooks and see if people use it. He would continue doing that until he’ll be kicked out.

Early Feedback.

The early feedbacks define your product. You don’t know what your product is until you talk to your initial set of users. Focusing on the wrong things can be dangerous, because you not only fail to grow, but you remain in denial about your product’s lameness. Your early adopters help your product to evolve.

The primary reason why founders resist going out and recruiting users individually is a combination of shyness and laziness. They’d rather sit at home writing code than go out and talk to a bunch of strangers and probably be rejected by most of them. But for a startup to succeed, at least one founder will have to spend a lot of time meeting users.

It can be hard and demoralising. Chances are that the initial feedback might not be as good as you expect. You try to persuade someone to use what you’ve built, and they won’t. These conversations are painful, but necessary.

What You Should Do.

You should do two things: Make a really good product and go out and get users manually. The two work hand-in-hand — you need to talk individually to early adopters to make a really good product. So going narrow and deep is not just the most effective way to get users, your startup will die if you don’t. I had to kill off my previous startup because I made this classic mistake, but you don’t necessarily have to. Don’t live in denial.

How should you measure if your manual efforts are effective? The absolute numbers seem small at first, but don’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of compounded growth. Focus on growth rate rather than absolute numbers. Then you won’t be dismayed if the absolute numbers are small at first. If you have 20 users, you only need two more this week to grow 10%. And while two users is a small number for most products, 10% a week is a great growth rate. If you keep growing at 10% a week, the absolute numbers will eventually become impressive. Grow slowly.


Founders who want to be in denial about the inadequacy of their product and/or the difficulty of starting up subconsciously prefer the broad and shallow “marketing” approach precisely because they can’t face the work and unpleasant truths they’ll find if they talk to users. Don’t be one of them.

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