The Anti-Silicon Valley Business Plan for Years 1–3 (Part 2)

What startups that don’t get funded by VCs and angel investors should focus on.

Sophia Sunwoo
Feb 26 · 6 min read
Matt Collamer

This is Part II of a two-parter. If you missed what you *shouldn’t* be doing in years 1–3, find that post here.

It’s all so numbers and data-heavy, and you rarely see these founders having deep discussions about how their audience feels about them, or how to get their audience to fall in love with them. They talk about numbers way more than talking about the human emotions that ride behind user acquisition.

It’s all CPA, attrition, burn rate, and not as much consistent, recurring conversations about — how do our customers feel about us right now? Do they like or love us? Are we even doing a good job showing up as an authentic brand for our customers? Are we connecting and resonating with them?

If more startup teams did a better job at asking these more human-focused questions around their business’ sales, maybe they wouldn’t have to worry so much about attrition and CPA because their customers would actually stick around.

Asking and acting on the right questions to keep your customers engaged on a human level is a proactive measure to prevent your attrition and acquisition costs from rising.

I harp on this point because I know that the major startup publications out there use the playbooks of Silicon Valley startups to inform you on how you should approach user acquisition. This approach won’t really work for you though if you’re a startup that isn’t financially backed and only has its own resources to make the business fly.

Trailing off from last week’s piece on what not to do in years 1–3 of your startup, here’s a list of what you should be doing in years 1–3 of your startup.

An Anchored Audience

A lot of new businesses spend years thinking that they know who their target customer is, but never arrive on a target that I’d classify as a clear bullseye. They circle around a broad customer base, but never get potent enough in that target to stir a love for their brand amongst their audience.

When you’re a new brand being pushed out into the big scary world of numerous, competing brands that are older than you and have more resources than you, you want to be anchored in with an audience who are in love with you. An audience that loves you is going to buy from you no matter what, an audience that just likes you is fair game to competing offers.

So many new businesses struggle here because finding your target audience isn’t as easy as an afternoon journal exercise. It requires a lot of listening, intuition, and keen observations to lead you to the right answer.

Selling to a misaligned audience sprouts a lot of problems for a new business — in some cases, it creates a false perception that other areas of the business aren’t working, like the product, or marketing and sales plan, when in actuality, it’s the target audience that’s at the root of all their woes.

If you don’t possess awareness around how much your audience loves you, and if they’re not the most potent audience opportunity for your business, you will constantly find yourself thrown back to square one due to a lack of revenue stability, failed launches, and more.

Get this piece right by working with the right experts. If you find your target customer bullseye, creating the perfect product and marketing and sales plan will flow to you with ease. Nailing this piece truly helps your business anchor into the stability it needs to steward sound business strategies moving forward.

Don’t Compete, Abandon Norms

Do you know how you stand out amongst an ocean of your competitors? You don’t. Trying to stand out in the same ocean everyone’s swimming in isn’t strategic, it’s a waste of time and energy. Playing that comparison game won’t get you anywhere.

If you focus instead on how you can put yourself in a position of not being compared, and appeal to one type of customer who will only look for you — that’s a strategy that’ll push you forward.

This means that you’re going to have to dig into what constitutes your brand’s unique fingerprint and figure out a way to authentically amplify that through a megaphone.

You’re going to have to abandon all the norms that you see other competitors latching on to and define a brand, voice, message, and product that feels uniquely like you and your customer. This requires immense sensitivity and a dismantling of what you believe to be requirements of showing up as a startup in your industry.

For example, can you imagine trying to take market share away from a near-perfect product like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? What would compel someone to click on an ad from a startup that sells peanut butter cups over a Reese’s ad?

A couple of things: branding, messaging, copy, and positioning that speaks specifically to a segment of chocolate peanut butter cup fans that like Reese’s, but aren’t in love with them. For example, there are probably a ton of consumers out there that love chocolate peanut butter cups but prefer organic ingredients instead.

This is what Justin’s, a peanut butter startup out of Colorado figured out and focused on this segmented audience in the like-not-love Reese’s camp. Justin’s is now the go-to peanut butter cup alternative in organic marketplaces like Whole Foods and more.

To replicate this audience segment domination strategy, get your mind out of competition mode and get creative about which norms you want to challenge and the opportunities present in doing that. If you don’t know what makes your business potent and to whom, your audience won’t care to figure it out for you.

A No-Objection Product Or Service

An important discovery of the experimentation phase of your startup is figuring out what product or service of yours will be the driving force to help you hit traction in your business. This has to be a product that your target customers will buy with no objections if they’re on the market to purchase.

This product has to be perfectly packaged, priced, and marketed so that all you need to do is expose it to as many eyes as possible within your target market in order to make sales.

To get to this level of product nirvana, I recommend experimenting with a couple of product variations during your pilot, and then choosing one to become the face of your brand. This one product should be the one you end up perfecting through constant feedback loops and refinement from your team.

I know that I just made some of you sweat a little bit when I said to just focus on one product. You are probably worried that by having only one option, you will drive away customers if that option isn’t for them.

Your sole responsibility right now is to figure out what product can be sold like hotcakes so that you can learn more about your audience and their purchasing habits through those efforts.

Once you’ve perfected this one product, you should be giving it the full weight of your resources to make it as visible as possible. This is your ticket to hitting traction so that you’re eligible to think about scaling.

Tackle this and you’ll build a business that brings in recurring sales, not recurring investment raises — a business built on its own foundation and not the foundation of others.

Once you’ve nailed this down, you are going to have all the data you need to replicate your success and sell additional products, but without the mistakes and financial losses you incurred in the first product launch. Rolling out only one product first is not only a learning opportunity for the business, but it also minimizes the risk by reducing the potential losses of multiple products failing at the first go around.

I love writing thoughtful, personal Friday morning emails called The Crux to help entrepreneurs turn their startup chase into a victory lap. Join here to get my best musings in your inbox.

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Sophia Sunwoo

Written by

I create moneymaking brands with womxn entrepreneurs who refuse to settle for mediocre. www.ascent-strategy.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Sophia Sunwoo

Written by

I create moneymaking brands with womxn entrepreneurs who refuse to settle for mediocre. www.ascent-strategy.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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