It would be a lot easier if startups were like a football game.
Each new venture would have four evenly divided quarters and, at the end, a startup would know definitively whether it had won or lost. Unfortunately, there isn’t a giant, well-branded Jumbotron that lights up to signal that the founder should pack up her cleats and exit the Superdome.
In a marketing context, entrepreneurial success has less to do with a definitive beginning or ending than a series of customer-focused activities that either succeed or fail to gain traction and momentum. I recently shared my expertise on an entrepreneurial marketing series through the Kauffman Founders School that covered the spectrum from strategy to execution to optimization. In lieu of a scoreboard, here are three main reasons startups sputter and stall.
1. Marketing to everyone, appealing to no one. I recently met with two founders who had launched a very cool vitamin company targeting millennial-minded consumers. Their well-designed website, content strategy and social channels had pictures, stories, posts of pregnant mothers, women in business suits and men bodybuilding. And did I mention the kids from Africa who were benefiting from company donations? Startups are not Verizon. They don’t have the budgets or bandwidth to appeal to the Mall of America. If you try to appeal to everyone, you will resonate with no one.
Pick one target and focus. Start by choosing the one that’s most likely to be crushed if your product had never been invented. Startup growth expert Sean Ellis asks users how they would feel if they could no longer use the startup’s product. If 40 percent of users say they would be “very disappointed” if a startup’s product or service were no longer available, the founder has achieved good product/market fit.
2. Marketing channel execution on steroids. Like performance-enhancing drugs, marketing channel overload should be banned from the sport. There are so many marketing tactics that are cheap and easy, it’s natural to start posting, tweeting, pinning, blogging and pitching through as many channels as possible.
This isn’t all that effective. Focusing on multiple platforms makes it difficult to really learn what gets you traction. If you don’t get traction, you will sputter, stall and eventually fail. Instead, pick one or two marketing channels where your target customer hangs out and market relevant messages in those places.
In the early stages of growth, slowdown happens when startups spend more time scheduling tweets, posts, decks and blogs than figuring out what truly resonates with their potential target. The reality is, the more you grow, the more you must be prepared to listen.
The first customers are critical. If you listen well, these users will offer invaluable feedback and help spread the word about your product. Ben Rendo, the founder of Mighty Handle, writes a personal thank you to every single customer who purchases his product on Amazon. The feedback has helped him make changes to his existing and future consumer product line up.
3. Practicing Hail Mary marketing. In 1975, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw a game-winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings. The talented quarterback later said of his low-probability, lucky play “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”
The marketing equivalent is the Dollar Shave Club viral video that made the company (and founder) famous. The company found a winning formula and grew it to a multi-million dollar company. Startups are rarely that lucky. A super sharable post, a mention in the USA Today or review by a prominent blogger can certainly help raise awareness and spike sales for a short time. But these notable marketing milestones rarely create a path to long-term, sustainable growth.
A game-winning pass is always possible, and exciting, but ishould never be a replacement for the fundamentals. Winning is more about doing the hard work and figuring things out every single day.
Most startups sputter because they are not testing enough. The optimal new venture should be testing as many different messages, landing pages and offers as possible. The goal is to track your results. Once a marketer finds something that works, double down and put more money into the budget to acquire more customers.
37 signals tests multiple landing pages to improve conversions. Upworthy tests 25 headlines per post to improve sharability. Adparlor tests thousands of Facebook messages to optimize positive ROI. If you don’t have the bandwidth to test that many concepts, digital expert Neil Patel says simple A/B tests can yield big results. As a general rule, a startup should plan on running 10 to 15 tests weekly to see incremental improvements that, over time, will yield big improvements.
The modern day marketing scoreboard has less to do with a definitive “win” or “loss” and more to do with listening, learning, testing, evaluating and constantly improving over time.