Inbound Marketing for Startups: How to Keep Your Plan from Failing

“The world is becoming more inbound. It’s growing more authentic, less interruptive.” — Brian Halligan, CEO Hubspot

A special thank you to the InboundLabs team for helping me edit and polish this article!

Over the past 10 years, the term ‘Inbound Marketing’ has been one of most-hyped phrases in the sphere of online business. Coined by Brian Halligan in 2005, the term has pretty much redefined how an ever increasing number of people approach digital marketing and has created an entire industry aimed at capitalizing on its success.

While there is no shortage of skeptics when it comes to the concept, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. Case in point: more than 67% of the marketers interviewed for the “State of Inbound” said that “Inbound practices provide higher quality leads,” and 73% of them declared that they “use an inbound marketing approach in their companies.” Time and again Inbound Marketing has proven to be the new best practice in online marketing.

However, even with all the support, praise, and cult-like followers, why do so many startups fail to implement a successful inbound marketing strategy? Where is the disconnect?

What Is Inbound Marketing?

Before we can even attempt to solve the why, we need to explain the what, meaning what is this “magic-solution-to-every-marketing-problem-ever” and how does it work?

In a nutshell, inbound marketing is using pull methodologies to attract and convert customers compared to push (aka: outbound).

While push uses techniques like paid advertising, pull techniques revolve around using things like high-quality content to build relationships with your customers before driving them through your funnel.

Rather than spending resources on creating ads, which are designed to interrupt and manipulate people, Inbound aspires to offer and educate. In a word, Inbound is the logical consequence of the net(work) society by having created and continuously refining a topical, holistic marketing methodology.

Why Do People Love It?

“Companies are 3X as likely to see higher ROI on inbound marketing campaigns than outbound.” —Hubspot, State of Inbound 2015

By using content as the backbone of their strategy, marketers are able to tell a story and better align their brand with their desired audience. The result of this is bringing the customers to you, which is dramatically different than going to the customers with paid advertising.

Besides a higher ROI, an inbound marketing strategy is usually less expensive and will generate a higher rate of growth in the long term. If you’re a startup, then you’re likely hearing the familiar ‘ca-ching’ of cash registers going off in your head about now.

What could be better than a cheap way to not only bring customers to you, but also improve your brand in the process?

The Challenges of Inbound Marketing for Startups

Founders of early-stage companies are in a constant struggle to find the right path to success regardless of whether success is defined as funding, growth, or a buy out.

Usually devoid of a proper marketing team, startups are forced to develop and execute inbound strategies that will (hopefully) guide the next 6–12 months of their business.

It’s hardly surprising, then, to see so many companies opting for a little-bit-of-everything approach, maybe starting a blog while putting up some guest posts and trying to grow their social media followers. After all, why wouldn’t you want to test out a few ideas before choosing the best one?

However, this is a mistake for a variety of reasons. Namely, most startups have neither the time nor the money to do extensive testing on marketing. They need measurable, consistent, and scalable growth sooner than later. To achieve this, CEO of InboundLabs, Tim Delhaes, states that, “You want to look at inbound marketing as a growth engineering process.”

What this means is that you should treat inbound marketing like a product, something that needs to be researched, engineered, and deployed strategically.

For him, there are four common challenges that early-stage startups run into when trying to create a sustainable and scalable inbound marketing strategy.

1. Understanding Your Users

Contrary to popular belief, coming up with ideas is not the most difficult part about creating content. The hardest part is understanding your users well enough so that you create things that are meaningful to them.

According to Tim, “Creating content is not a trivial thing, it’s extremely hard, and not everyone can do it. Creating content for the sake of creating content can have a negative effect on the company reputation in the long run.”

This then begs the question —who is your audience?

90% of startups fail, says Forbes’ Neil Patel, and the 10% who don’t invest in finding out exactly who wants their product.

  • They’ve researched their competition.
  • They’ve interviewed their target customers.
  • They’ve validated their idea and message through PPC or other means.

What they haven’t done is start throwing topics up on a blog and seeing what sticks, because they know that is a waste of time and resources.

If you want to protect yourself from being the next failed startup, you need to follow in their steps. Start by reading reviews about your competition, what are their pain points? What do they love? What are they just so-so about?

Take this information and create buyer personas (if you don’t know what those are, read this brief but comprehensive post). Use these personas as a jumping off point to find people to interview. Speak to your friends, family, and network to see if they identify with any of your research and how they respond to your proposed solution.

The idea is to produce the most well-rounded view of your target customers as possible. This information will serve as the basis for almost all of the inbound marketing decisions that come next so spending time on this step is crucial.

2. Finding a Strategy that Fits Your Long-Term Goals

inbound marketing for startups is not a sprint. It’s very much a marathon and the decisions you make should be designed with the future in mind.

While this might not seem like such a big deal, it is when you consider that startups are pretty fluid, meaning they can change and pivot at a moment’s notice. Even if you have a solid understanding of your users, plenty of startups fail to merge flexible strategies with their long-term goals.

With typically fewer resources available than established companies, startups face unique challenges in regards to how to design and roll out a long-term inbound marketing strategy.

When it comes to content marketing, studies have shown that it takes at least six months of creating and publishing quality content for a business to to see measurable benefits.

“Startups usually don’t have half a year to gamble on a marketing strategy,” Tim declares, “Especially if they haven’t achieved PMF (Product Market Fit). It’s very likely that their market or product will iterate during their growth process.”

For Tim, the challenge for founders is to understand the best practices of inbound marketing for startups and take only the ones they fit their audience, goals, and timeline.

3. Maximizing Your Budget

“If you have more money than brains, you should focus on outbound marketing. If you have more brains than money, you should focus on inbound marketing.” — Guy Kawasaki

At InboundLabs, Tim has helped over 150 companies, most of them startups, incorporate inbound marketing into their overall strategy. One of the most common things he sees is that many startups don’t know how to best spend their limited marketing budget.

Due to sheer number of tactics and channels available for testing, it’s easy to lose a lot of money if you don’t first identify your key metric. The key metric is different for every company, but the easiest way to describe it is that it’s whatever helps you reach your finish line. If you’re an app, it could be DAU; if you’re a service, it could be reducing churn.

Tim explained that knowing your one key metric is an incredibly useful thing. It enables the founders to not only understand where they are today, but to have a baseline when tracking how the inbound campaign is actually working. Without it, your budget is useless because you have no way to tell how it’s helping or hurting your progress.

Once you know how you are going to measure success, don’t put your marketing money into anything that isn’t geared toward growing that one specific metric.

4. Getting People to Actually Consume Your Content

If 1000 words were written but nobody reads them, do they matter?

The answer is no — even if you do all your interviews, find an incredible topic, and hire the best writer to bring it all together, it’s a waste of time unless you can get people to read it.

So how do you do that?

“Don’t build links. Build relationships.” — Rand Fishkin, Moz

An entire book can be written about content marketing, but it’s worth mentioning here briefly because it’s a crucial part of the inbound process. To use a crude analogy: if you’re trying to attract bears, then your content is the honey and your content marketing is where you put the honey pots so that they can be found.

All too often startups don’t know where to put their honey (content) and that not only affects their strategy’s performance, but it also brings everything to a halt until it’s figured out.

As Rand said, focus on building and leveraging relationships to help you get your message out. Reach out to your network, appeal to influencers, do whatever you can to make sure your awesome content gets in front of your target users.

How Startups Can Succeed at Inbound Marketing

Now that we have gone over some of the common inbound marketing for startup pitfalls, it’s important that we go over two ways to avoid them.

Start with Your Company

This might seem counter intuitive with everything that we’ve said about getting to know your customers, but hear me out. A startup, no matter how well-funded or how popular they may be, is not going to be able to move the needle if they don’t have their house in order. This goes beyond knowing who is doing what and into making sure your values and mission is conveyed in everything you do.

In case you haven’t seen this, is a must see for every founder.

“Startups are usually really good at listening to their customers and understanding their needs and problems. The mistake they often make is that during the process they often lose focus on the reason behind why they started in the first place.”

Tim believes that any startup that doesn’t consider its core values in their actions is more likely to see their inbound strategy falter in the long run due to a lack of purpose and quality.

If you need more proof, this concept of ‘starting with why’ has had tremendous success for companies like Buffer, HubSpot or even Dollar Shave Club.

Know and Respect Your Limitations

Starting a company is a beautiful, stressful, and exciting process. While it might seem like human nature to take moon shots and try to knock out the top competitors in your industry, the reality is that usually you need to stay in your lane for a bit. Traction takes time and while dreaming of overtaking Moz or Snapchat might serve as motivation, that’s where it needs to stay for more early-stage startups.

Call it a healthy dose of reality, but companies that identify opportunities they can capitalize on immediately tend to move the needle much sooner than those that adopt a go-big-or-go-home mentality.

What this means for you is that you should not only pick a metric that’s both aggressive and doable, but also design a strategy that doesn’t depend on a highly-saturated channel or technique.

No, this does not mean you can’t write about SEO, retargeting, or any of the other buzzwords, it simple means your need to be selective with your angle. If you are up against stiff competition, focus on taking the road less traveled and go after the small wins. If you go after unrealistic sales channels or customer groups you risk spending a lot of money and accomplishing very little. Compare this to easy wins that you can use to validate and perfect your product and pitch and the choice should be clear.


Inbound Marketing for startups has proven that is one of the most cost/effective ways for companies to reach their target customers, and turn them into leads by offering value in return.

But Startups must be careful enough to understand that this requires commitment, time and resources which in many cases are not available in early stages.

An Inbound Marketing Strategy for your Startup must be something born from the core values of the company, and thought as long-term efforts that will drive a competitive edge and high returns over time.

Have a clear idea of your resources to conquer this process, adjust and refine the approach along the way, and you will be in the right track to take your marketing efforts to the next level.

Again, a special thank you to the InboundLabs team for helping me edit and polish this article!


I would love to catch up with you and know about your experience! Feel free to reach me out at Matias Honorato.

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