We've interviewed startup founders to find out who does marketing on their teams and the lessons they learned along the way.
Marketing is an integral part of running a business. It’s impossible to neglect it completely whether you are opening a Kickstarter campaign, refining a pitch deck, building a website landing page, or participating in a promising tech event.
The question is – do you need to hire someone to do this full-time at day one?
Let’s find out. We decided to ask a few startup founders their opinion on this matter and share their story. Here’s what we’ve got.
Growing for 5 years with a team of 4
Recommerce CEO, Igor Kuryanovich: We founded Recommerce in 2012. We didn’t know then how hard it would be to build a SaaS solution from the ground up and market it successfully.
1. Ask and listen. Don’t pretend to know what your customers need
We initially marketed ourselves as a ecommerce solution. Our customers, on the other hand, wanted to receive literally everything in one package. They were not very tech-savvy and didn't understand they had to go somewhere else for other services. So we ended up providing hosting, SSL certificates for payment security, integration with payment systems, and even registration with the local State Supervisory Department for Telecommunications.
This is how marketing led us to an unexpected pivot. We had no choice but to implement all this with a single button. Otherwise that would be too difficult for the users.
But even though we do a lot of things our clients ask, we don't implement everything they ask for. We know they don't need it. A small vocal minority may want that, true. But not the majority of users. We still concentrate on working on features that bring the biggest value.
Talking about features. An interesting thing happened. Our customers defined our advantages for us. We had it all wrong! They valued us for simplicity, good tech support, and little downtime while we concentrated on marketing new features we developed.
2. If you can’t afford to hire – do the marketing yourself
We have been in the market for almost 5 years now. I don't even think of Recommerce as a startup anymore. We are still a very small team. There are 4 cofounders and just recently we hired 2 sales specialists. So basically we still do all the marketing ourselves.
One of our cofounders has been writing texts, designing landing pages, fine-tuning Google ads for us since 2012. I should mention I didn't decide who does what.
This is the way it happened. People volunteered to do stuff. I was the business guy so I became CEO. Dmitry decided to manage customer requests. Slava said he wants to do marketing.
3. Shoestring budget marketing can work. Give it a try
We decided to focus our marketing efforts on SEO, email campaigns, and sign up forms. We've done a lot of A/B testing. When the leads get into the sales funnel they start to receive regular automated emails throughout the lifetime of their shop.
We've been focusing heavily on SEO from the very beginning. I still think this is our most effective channel. We've tried a lot of different ones but SEO is by far the best.
With marketing, we are still on a shoestring budget. Even now we invest only a really small amount of money into paid search focusing instead on SEO, emails, and registration forms.
For example, we've been approached by a large website with 8 million visitors a month. A publication there would cost $1700. Well let's say 10 000 people read the article and one or two convert to paying customers. That's too expensive. It would mean we paid $1700 for a single new user. So we decided we should only publish with the media that wants to write about us and our expertise.
A single marketer for a business with a global presence
Elena Shkarubo, founder: MeetnGreetMe is a platform where tourists from other countries can find a personal assistant and order any concierge services they need during their visit. We’ve successfully launched the platform in May 2016. MeetnGreetMe has been in development since August 2015. In 2017 we won a UN prize for Global Innovation in Culture & Tourism.
MeetnGreetMe invited a marketing expert to the team early on. Yulya was one of my friends who was passionate about the idea from the very beginning so it was only natural that I decided to hire her. As a marketer she is mostly involved in SMM, SEO, and content creation. We share the effort, of course. As a founder I am involved in most of our marketing activities.
4. Doing your homework really pays off
We’ve done a lot of pitching and travel, looked at customer feedback closely and noted what interested them and what not. During our stay in New York we’ve met investors interested in what we were developing at the time and willing to invest.
The first most important marketing step for us was Product Hunt. There we received a ton of feedback which helped us shape our ideas further and improve the startup.
Product Hunt is a great opportunity to meet your audience, get constructive and detailed feedback from real users, and receive exposure and publicity from interested reporters and industry influencers. Maybe even some endorsements!
5. Help a reporter out and see where it gets you
Product Hunt was a big step for us. Other popular business media noticed us, too. For example, we got an interview from Business Insider, USA Today, and VC.ru. We got noticed in other media that compiles interesting startup projects into lists and so on. How did we do that? HARO helped a lot.
I can’t recommend HARO enough. By presenting ourselves as experts HARO got us interviews with USA Today and other big media. So basically free publicity!
I don’t remember any occasion when we would not receive relevant traffic from HARO publications.
So the most effective way of marketing for us right now is collaborating with bloggers and journalists.
6. Try a lot of channels and stick with those that work
We tried a lot of marketing channels. Conferences worked for us. Although it’s highly dependent on the type of conference, some of them can bring in potential partners or customers.
Social media marketing was a thing, sure. But as a startup we don’t have enough resources or budget to invest in SMM. Since we only had a single landing page we didn’t expect anything fancy from it.
Compared to HARO social networks are colder. Even though we get potential customers from social media, we also invest a lot of effort into keeping the users subscribed and interested in MeetnGreetMe.
Social media works better when you already have some brand awareness. People know you and your product. So try as many marketing channels as you can and see what brings the most value to the table.
7. Don’t skip on the “hard” channels completely
Some channels require significant time investment to become effective enough. SEO is a good example. We’ve invested a lot of time and resources into it.
There were no immediate results. But after a few years we now have a steady growth of organic and relevant traffic that converts into leads and customers.
Content marketing is another example. We launched our blog in the summer of 2015 and only now we started to receive partners and leads from it. I can’t say any specific channel was a completely bad investment. Some just take longer to ripen than the others.
With startups it’s hard to paint the big picture since you can’t try a lot of channels. The resources you can commit are extremely limited.
A lean team with a sole founder
Richard Murray is a CEO and sole founder of Tutify, a platform that connects tutors with students. Richard started Tutify in June 2016. An MVP was ready in January 2017.
8. Look at SEO from a different angle
Unfortunately, I think SEO works best so we’ve decided to focus on that channel the most. But the problem is that takes a long time. I said "unfortunately" because when your website is young it’s hard to rank high.
So the main things I’ve been doing recently is optimizing keywords. And I also was trying to find some hacks because a lot of the competition in my niche have been around for a very long time and they have a huge number of pages just entrenched in Google. They have a lot of traffic.
One of the areas we are closely looking at is taking advantage of voice search because it’s relatively young and none of the existing competitors are doing a lot there.
Voice is actually growing really fast. A lot of people are getting accustomed to speaking sentences and forming questions instead of stuffing keywords into the search bar. The marketer we have right now is a growth hacker, he’s experienced in generating leads from unconventional sources. This is our focus at the moment.
9. Starting lean and staying lean
I bootstrapped the company and I follow the principles of lean startup fairly closely.
I believe in delaying outsourcing marketing for as long as possible. Or until you at least validated your product and you want to start growing.
The main reason for that – you want to understand your problem and your customers as much as possible.
If you get someone else to do it then yes, maybe as a professional they will offer some advice but they will probably lose some of that in translation, in communication.
I think that the founders who are looking to bootstrap, test, and validate their idea as cheaply as possible should not hire a marketer right away.
10. The takeaway: do it yourself!
While living in survival mode could make a dedicated marketing team an afterthought, I hope we’ve shown you enough evidence that marketing is an important part of launching a software product.
We recommend you to actually learn how to do marketing yourself or find a team member who has already shown they can do it. As a founder or a cofounder you are already doing at least some of it anyway.
You should be doing the marketing yourself. I'd only resort to a marketing company if you have received sufficient investment, but even then, you still should be doing marketing. Learn marketing yourself or find a cofounder that is passionate about your product and can market it.