Startup marketing- how soon is too soon?

In every startup lives comes a moment when it needs to let the world know what awesome product its developing, how cool a company it is and why it’s would make a great investment for VCs. But most startups fail to get the timing right and miss a lot of potential market grab and attention by starting at the wrong time.

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I used to think that there’s simply no such thing as starting too soon.  Given that digital marketing costs today are near zero and that with minor resource allocation startups can create great traction, it seemed foolish not to start early. I’ve witnessed firsthand the alternative- companies who started too late into the marketing game had to fight an uphill battle- they had no social media followership, no Google/ SEO visibility so generate little traffic to their website, their (by-now) established competitors already had the public and media attention and they controlled the discourse. But many startup founders I’ve spoken too were reluctant to begin marketing activities too early, mainly since they were afraid their idea will be stolen and replicated by others. But other than this fear (which could be purely irrational) – what could startups or lose by starting early? This was my view until yesterday, when I met a brilliant CEO of a promising cybersecurity startup (I will not name him since he’s company is still in stealth mode). We talked about marketing for startups and timing. He was very clear he wasn’t going to hire me (or anyone else) for the next 6 months. I told him I respected him but was curios why. He replied that in his eyes startup marketing has 3 goals – employ recruitment (and later, retention), generating leads which will be converted to sales and attracting investors. He said that he was fully manned (reaching 8 people in his team) and is not interested in hiring anytime soon- so attracting employees was not a priority (anyway, in startups in this early phase most recruiting is done using the social network of the founders, and they don’t lack talents to recruit from). Customer acquisition was also not a priority he said. How come, I queried? He said that the product was still in development, and that he was already committed to several proof of concept projects. There is no way he could handle more projects at this point in time, so what’s the use of piquing the interest of potential customers if he can’t follow up?

And lastly, he raised a sizeable seed round not too long ago, and had some 6-8 moths of runway ahead of him, so he wasn’t worried about attracting the attention of VCs. It was way more important for him to complete the initial product, to deploy and test it and have the some customers before reaching out and kicking off the next funding round. All in all, he concluded, it felt too early for him to actively engage in marketing activities. I agreed, and even added that on top of everything he mentioned there was the additional matter of allocating resources to support these activities, and more importantly, attention. I’ve seen many startup CEOs spend countless hours debating (rather meaningless) marketing issues such  website design, specific phrases in the company brochure and color scheme of the presentation, that they both waste their most precious of resources- their time. I now believe their time should be spent elsewhere, at least until there’s a solid product and some initial sales.

So what should startups do at this stage then?

1.      Mark their turf
You may not be ready to begin with social media activities, but it’s crucial that you grab the right twitter handle, LinkedIn company page and Site URL. You don’t have to use these right away, just to hold on to them (much better than finding your precious name being used by some grocery deliveries service).

2.      Build a basic marketing kit
Before you start blogging, before you even have a website, before you even raise money, you need to have a basic marketing kit. You know- a one- pager, a basic presentation, maybe a product page. These are materials you’ll be sending to investors, potential customers and media from the onset. If you have some money to spend don’t hesitate and bring a professional marketing writer and graphic designer to create these for you.

3.      Check what the competition is doing
This is really an ongoing commitment, but make it a habit to check what your competitors are doing online. You might be “inspired” by them, or at least understand what’s working and what’s not.

4.      Prepare and record
There will be a time when you will need to push forward with your marketing. The more materials and ideas you have by then- the better. Just keep a shared folder and dump everything there- ideas for posts, brochures and designs you like, links to industry research. It will serve you well one day.

Basically- do whatever you can do to build the infrastructure to your grand launch. If you do so you are guaranteed a more significant impact than if you choose to wait and start marketing activities only then.  

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