Marketing for startups. 3 reasons why you need to change your approach

"My 12 year old nephew built our website last week"

"Come to my office: Starbucks on 4th ave"

"We're on our third dev team. The last one just stopped answering emails!"

"We need a brand, website and campaign and we're launching in 3 weeks"

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, chances are you're in start-up mode. A mad, exciting scramble to get to the finish line before someone else does. Deadlines are yesterday and money is whatever people will give you. You depend heavily on friends and family to the point of breaking, you wear 20 hats and sleep is something you did when you were younger.

After having worked with many start-ups over the years, I have gained a new respect and admiration for the entrepreneur. What I once found frustrating to work with, has turned into some of the best, most challenging work in my career.

It’s been interesting to see the differences in the approach to marketing. We work with all sizes of clients from government and big national companies to one-person start-ups. We’ve had to change how we work together as the original agency model just doesn’t fit.

Here are 3 reasons why working with start-ups is different:

1. Money is personal

When you are in start-up mode, everything is either coming out of your pocket or from your friends and family. Because of this, every dollar counts. Finding ways to stretch your money isn’t about being cheap. It is about surviving as expenses come from all angles. Here are some ways to claw some of it back:

Be smart with tools

It’s easy to get sucked into expensive tools as they make our lives so much easier. However, $20 here and $40 there all adds up and, before you know it, your monthly net is out of control. There are industry standard tools like Slack, Mailchimp, Survey Monkey, Hubspot CRM, etc. that are all free. Why not start there and either grow with the tool or swap out later? Stitching a report together can be a pain but whenever I look at an expense, I wonder how many units of whatever I sell would it be to cover that cost. If you are selling doughnuts for instance, $50/month is a lot of doughnuts.

Get free money

There is a lot of funding out there. Especially in Alberta. The sad thing is that the money tends to go to professional grant writers because people are either unaware of them or daunted by the process. No matter what project you're starting, it’s at least worth a search to see if there are grants that would be applicable to you. There are funds for all stages – even if you are at the idea stage. Here are a few to get your started:


2. Time is critical

We are always out of time it seems but as an Entrepreneur, it’s even more so. You are always on. Constantly thinking about the business even in the shower because if you don’t, who will? It’s no wonder it can feel like a house of cards some days. One slip and it all falls down.

Go Lean

Because of this, you need others to work at the same speed. Waiting for a logo for eight weeks just doesn’t work as the other balls you have in the air will come tumbling down. Look for partners that have worked with start-ups before and are used to the pace. "Lean", "agile" and "iterative" should be part of their lexicon.

Research also doesn't have to take forever. Some projects never see the light of day as they get hung up on exhaustive research and analysis spending both time and money that you simply don't have. Lean research is essentially the act of going out with your best guess based on minimal research and then testing and iterating as quick as you can. There is a great article on Medium on Lean UX and research here

Fast Prototypes

Often, you don't have to build out the final product to get going. Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is exactly that - the minimal requirements to get the job done. For example if you are building an app, you don't need to have it fully functional to show it to investors or focus groups. Now days with the sophistication of new prototyping tools like Figma, Sketch, FramerX or Adobe XD, you can create beautiful, fully-interactive prototypes that look and feel like the finished product for a fraction of the cost.

3. Trust is a commodity

It's not uncommon for relationships and partners to become volatile at the beginning of building a company. Why is that? It's because everything is on the line. Emotions are high and expectations are high too. You have to deal with flaky contractors, in-laws asking for their money, calling in favors from friends, maxing credit limits etc. It's no wonder some owners end up wading in debt and on the brink of divorce.

Working long hours and being under so much pressure make it vital to surround yourself with people you trust. People who have your back when time are tough and are in it for the long haul.

'Great people can make a bad product great but, just as easily, terrible people can make a great product bad.'

Invest in your partnerships

One great way to ensure everyone is rowing in the right direction is to put their profit at risk. Essentially, get key partners to invest rather than paying them off. Easier said than done but if they are absolutely critical to the success of the project then tying motivations together is a great way to align. If you don't trust them to be true partners then perhaps they aren't the right fit anyways.

Trust is a two way street

Trust goes both ways. One of the thing I've noticed is that entrepreneurs have a hard time letting go. Understandably as it's their livelihood on the line but in doing so they take away the thing that is most precious to them - time. Empowering those around you to make decisions not only allows them to do what they do best, it will strengthen the relationship and at the end of the day, deliver a better product. Again, if you don't trust them to do that, why are they there in the first place?

Finally, entrepreneurs are awesome

Don't get me wrong, if it sounds like I'm complaining about working with start-up folk, I'm not. I love them. Nothing is more invigorating than being in a room full of entrepreneurs. You can almost see the energy pouring out of them as they look at the world as a chance for endless possibilities. They are the life-blood of the next business community and if you are one of the brave few, my hat is off to you.

All 20 of them.


If you would like to talk further about marketing or start-ups or marketing for start-ups, hit me up. I'd love to chat.

View all posts

Want more stuff like this?