Doing the thing right in startup marketing

When you’re a startup founder, every decision has opportunity cost. It’s one of the reasons that running an early-stage business can be so stressful because even if you make the ‘right’ decision, there are consequences.

Finite resources mean every decision necessitates sacrifices, but how do you know which decision is the right one?

When I’m working with founding teams or marketing leaders within early-stage businesses, I always reiterate that there are rarely right and wrong decisions in binary. Thinking in terms of optimal and sub-optimal is far more valuable.

After working with dozens of early-stage businesses, I have plenty of experience seeing what sub-optimal decisions look like.

The following guidance may help to avoid some common ‘mistakes’ when building a growth function.

1.  Complex omni-channel campaigns should be avoided

Marketing can be complicated. Building a startup is complicated. When a business layers complexity on top of complexity, the outcome is rarely good.

High performing teams have a clear roll-out plan for their early marketing strategy. They know what channels they want to launch and – crucially – when. Focusing on too many channels, audience or products too early is detrimental. A team that can scale marketing at the right speed will perform better due to laser-sharp focus.

For a startup, especially a pre-product-market fit (PMF), proving a single channel is far more valuable than building a broad marketing mix. One channel is easier to deploy and easier to optimise, meaning you can test this acquisition channel far quicker than if it were part of a multi-channel campaign.

If the unit economics prove favourable (or tolerable), scale up gradually. If not, change gears and test another channel until you find one which delivers results. Only then should you look to diversify.

2.  Attribution isn’t the Holy Grail (at least not yet)

Successful growth-stage businesses often have a relentless focus on attribution modelling. When you’re talking about big budgets, it’s important to have robust data on which to base your decision making.

But for early-stage businesses, do you know what’s more important than attributing revenue? Generating revenue. When every decision has opportunity cost, prioritise the one that has potential to extend your runway.

Knowing where your customers are coming from is important, obviously. But building and executing an effective marketing strategy should take priority, especially when campaign budgets can still be modest.

3.  You don’t need to hire a specialist

Startups change shape rapidly. You don’t yet know what marketing strategies or tactics are going to deliver value in the short to mid-term. There is a temptation to hire specialists to execute on channels that the company founder may not understand in-depth, but this can be a costly mistake:

  • The budget (and budget allocation data) isn’t mature enough yet to get value from a specialist.
  • Tech stack and marketing infrastructure may not be in place to support a specialist’s goals.
  • Hiring is expensive and therefore high-risk when testing channels.
  • Hiring is time-consuming and there is always opportunity cost.

Hiring a marketing generalist is a safer option for early-stage businesses. They can pivot more readily and test rapidly, so they are, generally, more adaptable than a specialist (when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail).

 4.  Don’t let decision paralysis hinder your progress

When is doing nothing higher risk than choosing a path forward? When you’re burning through runway with no clear path to revenue.

Perceiving ‘let’s wait and see’ as the lowest risk decision is flawed logic. Instead, consider building a framework that allows for fast, iterative decision making. Whilst no one should advocate making flippant decisions, in startup marketing there should be a bias towards action and outcomes (test and learn).

 5.  Prepare to systemise, but not at the expense of agility

To scale up marketing efforts (and wider startup operations), it’s prudent to document and systemise your processes early on. When one marketer becomes three, it’s easier to maintain the same velocity when there’s a shared playbook.

However, it’s important not to become less reactive or agile because your activities are stifled by a framework.