How to Adopt Honest Value Over Image in Product Marketing
The No-Frills, Value-Oriented Startup: Bootstrapped startups can be sexy too, but like in a “next-door neighbor” kinda way
When we started UX Power Tools, we felt compelled to really dress up our product and product marketing so people would take us seriously.
We danced around the fact that our entire team was just two human beings, and we felt pressure to make our brand look super polished so that people would take us seriously (we’re serving designers, after all).
Like the rest of you, our inspiration was taken directly from Dribbble and DesignerNews and all of those places that show off the hottest designs and products across the Internet. As a result, we spent too much time acting like the inspiration, and not enough just owning who we were.
As we grew more confident in our product, we started getting more bold about stripping down our brand. This allowed us to focus more on providing value and content and less time on dressing up our site and marketing emails to appease some lofty standard we had set for ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. I 😍❤️ sites like stripe.com. If we had the resources (and, uh, revenue), we’d be doing the same thing. The struggle for a lot of bootstrapped startups is that you absolutely need to be professional and consistent in your brand and marketing. But it’s hard to figure out how to be just polished enough that you aren’t killing yourself to maintain your brand.
The No-Frills, Value-Oriented Startup (NFVOS for short?) is one that embraces simplicity with an emphasis on value. These startups take image seriously, but in a way that ensures they emphasize the values they offer.
Their site favicon is an emoji, and there are zero images on the site (except for a flaming unicorn head — which has a meaning). The concept of Indie.vc perfectly exemplifies the no-frills startup: they invest in businesses, and aren’t interested in 10x returns.
Their brand comes through 100% in how they talk on their Medium publication, Strong Words, edited by Indie.vc and Bryce Roberts. When you look at the nature of their articles, they are completely tied to their mission to fund quality businesses. I came across them from an article linking to their site, and I immediately understood what they did. They are unique in the field of investing and chose to convey that to people through content and straightforward copy. Brilliant.
A bit of a cheat here because Extra.ai is still in development, but they’ve taken this text-based and pain/value-oriented approach right down to email. They effectively distilled their entire brand down to gradients of purple with free icons overlaid on top. It’s cohesive and polished enough to allow them to spend their time on the copy behind their emails and content marketing on Medium.
The voice on this site is impossible to ignore. But what I want to show here is that this is an iOS app product side with ZERO SCREENSHOTS. They’ve focused their product marketing site exclusively around text describing the service.
They are making a bet that they’ll better sell their product through words than they would with images. This is more true today than ever before — the bar for UI is incredibly high, and most apps look halfway decent from the start anyway — so Peek is hitches their wagon to their messaging in order to stand out from the crowd. It’s provocative and head-turning, fun and new, and certainly different from what everyone else is doing.
This is the most stylized of the bunch, and it gets by with quite a bit of pseudo-brutalist design. But, just like the others, the site is focused on communicating exactly what this site is to be used for. You’re diving in to use it before you even realized that you don’t know how to code.
And, like a few of the others on this list, Anil Dash, Gareth Wilson, Jenn Schiffer and Jess Moy heavily utilize Medium to keep their community active and engaged. They also use it for product demos to continue teaching users how to use Glitch (which is perfect for their audience of people wanting to learn how to code for practical use).
Each example above is different, and I’ve certainly made some assumptions as to the intentions behind their product and marketing.
That said, I think they espouse a certain trend toward a more honest and straightforward interaction with their customers, as opposed to dazzling them with beautiful imagery.
This is by no means an argument for “Craiglistifying” your site.
As products and companies mature and expand, the brand and product do as well. Over time, the no-frills approach might not work.
But for those of us working on side projects or bootstrapping our way to glory, these examples provide another path to take. One that relieves us from the pressure of having to make a gorgeous site like stripe.com, and allowing us to focus on what we need to be doing during the early stages of building a product: Understanding your market and what works, while connecting honestly with potential customers.
So I end this article with an extremely-scientific-and-by-no-means-created-off-the-top-of-my-head manifesto…
The No-Frills Manifesto
The NFVOS manifesto (sorry, couldn’t think of a better term) goes a little bit like this:
- Polished, But Not Sloppy: “Bootstrapping” is not an excuse to be sloppy, but your polish can be minimal. You can make a 600 sq ft. studio apartment look as nice as a 6,000 sq ft. mansion, but one requires much less effort than the other.
- Content over decoration: If you have a 4-hr block of time to spend on marketing your startup, do you want to spend it on making sweet Dribbble-worthy graphics, or would you rather spend it writing something that explains exactly what you’re doing?
- Education over sales: We learned ourselves that when you have a new way of doing things, you bear the responsibility of educating the market. If you do a good job teaching, then people will be ready to buy. If they don’t, then you might have a problem with your product, or your messaging needs more polish.
- Communication over image: Worry less about how big you want to seem and more about how you are connecting with your audience. This is particularly true for the NFVOS that is not seeking funding. Believe it or not, customers care more about customer service and solving their problems than they do wondering how big your company is.
- One useful product over tons of products: This one gets covered in a dozen “What is MVP” articles written every 5 minutes (I read that last one on a Snapple cap), but I only mention it here because when you’re in this domain as a little guy, you will always battle the urge to increase your product offering and feature set before you’ve maxed out your base.
- Unique TLD’s over made-up domains: Ok, I made this up, but it’s interesting to see this growing trend of uncommon TLD’s (top-level domains like uxpower.tools) in this group. In some cases, it simply helps a “non-brand” standout. In others, it helps hint at what the product does. It’s just nice to see startups don’t just have to misspell their service just to get a domain like Gryzzl.