We see it time and again. One of the last things companies invest in when they’re starting their company is marketing. The developer is hired before the marketer. The product is designed without consideration of who it’s for. The product is tweaked without talking to a customer. Marketing strategy takes a back seat to product strategy, and this is a fatal flaw.
One of the most common marketing myths? Marketing is the same thing as Promotion. In fact, Promotion, which includes PR and advertising, is ONLY one subset of marketing. But this misunderstanding is the reason why companies dismiss the need for marketing. Perhaps you are not ready to talk publicly about your business or products, but this does not mean that you do not need marketing. This is the groundwork a founder needs to establish in order to determine if they have a viable business. The foundations of revenue and building a sustainable business begin here.
We spoke to seasoned experts, Angela Bourne, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Altitude Accelerator, and Kevin M. Smith Smith, Founder of The Story Architect, and marketing instructor for Altitude’s Incubator Program, who broke down some of these myths and made the case for how a proper marketing strategy will help founders build better companies that will endure.
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Hessie JonesHi, everyone. I have a question for Angela and Kevin. Please describe to me one of your marketing pet peeves. So what’s the one thing that people don’t understand about marketing? Angela first.
Angela BourneThanks, Hessie. Great to be here today. I would say my number one pet peeve is when people say I don’t need marketing yet for an early-stage startup.
Hessie Jones Over to you, Kevin.
Kevin SmithYeah, there’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “chase two rabbits, catch none.” And so my pet peeve is when they do start marketing, they just do everything. We market to everybody. We use every channel. Use every tactic. We throw everything against the wall to see what works and then we don’t really understand what actually works.
Hessie JonesThat’s perfect. So I’m going to remove Angela and Kevin right now because I want to dive deeper into this topic with them later on. So, Angela Bourne, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Altitude Accelerator, is joining us today as well as Kevin Smith, who’s the founder of the Story Architect. So, just a little bit background into what we’re going to discuss.
Hessie JonesWe see a lot of this time and time again that one of the last things companies invest in when they’re actually just starting out is marketing. And we see developers and engineers being hired before a marketer. There’s a product that is designed without consideration of who it’s being designed for. We see a product that is tweaked without actually talking to customers. So marketing strategy seems to always take a backseat to product strategy, and that is a fatal flaw.
Hessie Jones Welcome to Tech Uncensored. My name is Hessie Jones and we’re here today to set the record straight. Marketing is not just about advertising. It’s not about just about cool campaigns or PR. What a founder needs to do is some groundwork to actually establish if the business that they’re building is viable. And that means they have to do some work with people who understand customer, who understand go to market strategies.
Hessie Jones The foundations of revenue, and also building a sustainable business actually begin here. This is what we’re going to tackle today. We’re here to say that no matter what size your organization, no matter what stage you’re at, you need a marketing strategy. So I’m going to welcome back Angela as well as Kevin, where we’re going to start tackling some of these issues. So, Angela, let’s start with you. Earlier you said when companies say we don’t need marketing, let’s expand on that. Is it a question of money? Is it because there’s this perception that there’s just too much of investment earlier on when they don’t need it? What is going on?
Angela BourneI think that in my experience, and I’m eager to hear Kevin’s as well, many startups that I’ve worked with over the years have said, “Oh, we’re too, we’re too early for marketing.” You know? Perhaps they’re stealth, very early stage, they’re still locking down their IP. But you know what? They’re still applying for grants and applying for speaking opportunities at conferences. So you still need to be able to apply with your elevator pitch and descriptions of your value proposition and who are your customers and what problem are you solving, which is the biggest piece. And of course, this is all marketing. This is Marketing strategy 101.
Angela Bourne So in my opinion, it is never too early to start thinking about marketing, even if to your point Hessie that you’re not advertising it, you’re not doing a full PR campaign, you’re not on the Today show, you’re not talking about what you’re doing. But it’s really a good idea to get all of your ducks in a row from a branding perspective. Naming your company, coming up with a name that you love, coming up with the photography and the typography and building your website and actually, all of these things that reflect you and your company mission and vision and values and all of these things. These can be done in the inception of a company.
Angela Bourne And they should be. Even as your engineering team and your developers are building your product. So my advice for startup founders who are out there, when you have the time, think about it and think about the brands that you love, think about the founders you admire, whether it’s Apple or Patagonia. Think about the stories that really resonate with you and go for it and just start to build that groundwork because you definitely don’t want to be in a position where you’re caught flat-footed and you’re going to pitch at CES in Las Vegas and you don’t even have a logo yet. So that’s my advice there.
Hessie Jones Now, the one thing that you and I had talked about before, which I think I want you to actually dive deeper into, is the importance of some of the frameworks that people need to understand. So speak to me about the Business Model Canvas and Porter’s Five Forces so that people understand how these things can be pivotal to their business.
Angela Bourne Absolutely. And these classic frameworks that have been around forever. I mean, I think Porter’s Five Forces original article was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1979. It’s an oldie. It’s a classic. It’s still relevant. So when you’re looking at your competition, the threat of new entrants, there are threat of substitutions. All of these things when you’re thinking about your product or service that you’re developing and this cool idea that you have, it’s always a good idea to get right in the ring and look at your competition. Don’t be the proverbial Ostrich with your head in the sand, hiding from who the competition might be. Just rip that band aid off and just dig right into looking at your competitive landscape. There are amazing resources out there. I mean, so much is online.
Angela Bourne The Business Model Canvas, you can find it. You just Google it anywhere and it helps you really delineate what you’re trying to do with your company and your business idea from every perspective, from partners to what’s your value prop. What customers are you going for? Who are your customer segments? The channels. What’s your product going to cost? Kind of all of these things. Put it on paper and it really helps synthesize everything.
Angela Bourne So I encourage entrepreneurs who have minimal or no marketing training or having any full time marketing staff or anyone on their team to find these resources online because they’re all out there. So that’s what I would recommend starting with.
That’s awesome, Angela. Thank you. So, Kevin, what encompasses a marketing strategy? So what are the things that are within the umbrella of marketing that founders actually fail to consider?
Kevin Smith Yeah, I think the thing to kind of keep in mind is most founders, and again, I’m generalizing, but most founders are very product led people. “Oh, I thought of this great idea for a specific problem that I have. Let’s start building something.”
Kevin Smith And what they tend to fail to consider is generally, who is that product going to be for? There are some fundamentals to marketing which are customer centric rather than product centric. So really coming back to basics like who is your customer segment and buyer persona? We’re probably going to talk a little bit about what a buyer persona is and what a customer segment is. But what I tend to find founders doing and startups doing is going way too general. My product can work for anybody.
Kevin Smith I’m advising an enterprise technology company right now that has this really cool storage tech that they built. And I’m like, great, who are you building it for? Well, it could work for anybody from somebody with their home PC to the biggest enterprise in the world. I’m like, well, those are very different problems that people are going to have. The next kind of foundational piece is understanding this concept of the buyer’s journey.
And I spend a lot of time thinking about the buyer’s journey because that’s how your customer is going to try and solve their own problem. They have a path that they’re going to walk on. I used this example of somebody a couple of days ago about microwaves because I needed to get a new microwave and my dad needed to get a new microwave. But we have two very different needs and two very different buying paths.
Like, his microwave died and he’s 79. He wants the cheapest microwave that he can find for his small apartment. It needs to be the tiniest microwave. And so his path is very quick. He’s like, I need it now. It broke. I’m going to look at Walmart and see what they have for the cheapest microwave, and then I’m going to go there and buy it.
Whereas my need was very different. I bought my wife a stand mixer, which took up space in the counter, so she didn’t want the microwave sitting on the counter anymore. So we needed to look at it over the stand microwave, which meant I needed to do a bunch of research on over the stand microwaves and then go to Home Depot and then get an installer that was not a $100 microwave let me tell you that.
My journey to solve this problem was different. The problem I was solving was different. I try and guide founders on how you can really understand your customer and how they are going to try and go to market. And then you map your strategy against that. So when you’re thinking of like, hey, what channels do I use to reach customers? Well, what are your customers doing to research you? How are they trying to solve that problem? You need to follow your customer. If your customer is using Google, then Google is probably going to be a strategy. If your customer is discovering products on TikTok, maybe you need to think about TikTok. Or if they go to trade shows, you need to be at the right trade shows. I find that they tend to try and do too many things instead of focusing and testing and optimizing. So even once you figure it out, hey, this should be the channel, there’s still a lot of work to figure out “what’s the right type of ad?”, “What do I say?”, “How do I communicate to the customer?”, “How do I make it cost-effective?”
There’s all types of work that have to go into that to make it effective. And so you really need to think from the customer first rather than the product first.
Thank you. I’m going to get Angela to build on that because obviously a lot of this work earlier on can be done, I would say in parallel with product development. In fact, I think one could potentially inform another. But what are the implications if these things aren’t done earlier on?
I think that ultimately you waste a lot of time and money if you don’t do things right the first time. There is some trial and error, obviously, in understanding your customer and really digging into the buyer journey. And like Kevin said, meeting your customer where they hang out, what channels are they on and what ads are they, what magazines are they reading, and making sure that you meet them where they are. This takes a lot of strategy and thought and trying to do everything all at once and this kind of spaghetti-on-the-wall approach just is a mess, and it wastes a ton of money. So actually taking a step back, coming up with a plan is actually much more cost-effective. And I find that a lot of startup founders think that that’s more expensive. It’s like, oh, strategy plan. That sounds expensive.
These are what we use to put in place a plan and a budget to not waste money. Everything’s targeted, everything’s planned out, everything’s very strategic. So that’s what I would recommend. And I think to that point, just building on that a bit, there are some really wonderful research kind of avenues.
Working with Altitude, we have some really great market research available to our clients that would be enormously expensive if you were to hire a professional firm, tens of thousands of dollars. But working with us, it’s free! So that’s another enormous benefit of working with us, because really digging into your customers and the market is a critical aspect, and we understand how important that is to an early-stage founder, especially.
Okay, thank you. And yes, thank you for touting Altitude, because we do provide those services for a lot of companies that are still very early-stage and developing their product. We provide resources and programs. Kevin spearheads our incubator program. So I’m going to throw this question to you. So, if there is a cost that Angela is talking about, that can be prohibitive for a lot of early-stage companies, and you can’t afford a full-time marketer, what are the skill sets that you need to ensure that your organization is kind of following the right path?
Yeah, and that skill set will usually kind of align to where your customer is spending their time. So it tends to be channel specific. One skill that tends to go across broadly across all of them, is just understanding content development. So how to write content, how to create content, how to build content that is attractive to your customers and brings them into a conversation. That’s a really important skill to have. And then it drills down into, let’s say your customers using Google as a primary research channel. Building your skill set in optimizing for Google becomes really important. Understanding which path to go again will depend on cost, because something like SEO, search engine optimization is actually really skill-intensive. It takes a lot of skill to do that properly. I like to say I know enough about SEO to be dangerous. I’m not an SEO expert, and it would take me a long time to even reach that. Where something like Google Ads, you can pick up that skill with a few Google Ad courses, and you can get up and run pretty quickly. It may cost a little bit more directly to use that.
If your channel again is, let’s say, trade shows or distributors, there’s a little bit of skill to develop in those channels. So there’s some common ones like content. But then you have to really figure out again, how is my customer going to market and how do I build a skill around reaching them?
And I’m finding, I think with digital specifically, there are ways to actually learn some of those skills yourself. I know it does take time, and there are people that are really good at those verticals, but I think that I would say, democratization of some of the education around this stuff. It’s accessible to anybody at a fairly reasonable cost, right?
Yeah. One of the things that founders can look at doing is maybe that’s a reason to recruit a marketing co-founder or to hire a fractional marketing expert in that particular field. TikTok is a great example. There’s a very powerful channel bit of skill to understand how to use it effectively. And if you bring in a co-founder that already has those skills, then your team is going to be that much more effective at connecting with customers.
Perfect. Angela, I want to talk about branding because branding people think logos. They think what are the colors of my one-pager, my website, etc. But branding is much more than that. It’s all also about your messaging. And I want you to tell us what branding does, the importance of branding when it comes to you as a company and how you put yourself out there.
Well, I think you’re absolutely right. A lot of people think that branding is just the logo and the colors. And I think that I’ve had the great privilege of working with some brilliant branding professionals and creatives over the years and I’ve learned a lot myself. The essence of your company, as if your company was a person, what personality would it have? What words would best reflect your brand? These are the things. To Kevin’s point, as you’re building out your ads and you’re creating an ad campaign to reach those Target customers in those channels where they hang out, what are the ads that will resonate with them and capture their attention?
I mean, I’m a marketing person, so I see ads and most of them just fly right by me. But then one out of, I don’t know, 1000 just makes me stop in my tracks and say, “That’s brilliant!” And they did it. Whatever magic, the potion that marketing team came up with, they landed it. I think that the combination of really understanding your brand from a perspective of who do you want to be when you grow up, what vision do you have that you want to be putting out there in the world?
All of this is reflective in the images that you choose. The typography that you select, there’s a lot of thought that goes behind it. Are you an AI startup that is scary and Minority Report? Or are you something lighter and working to make the world a better place through AI innovation? Maybe you want to reflect that, but it should always be authentic. It should always feel like you, like you as in your company, and you want it to be authentic. Your brand has to be authentic. And really, it’s kind of like looking in a mirror. If you are building your brand and your story and everything, and you’re taking the time to do it correctly, then your customers are going to feel like it’s really genuine. That they get you. They understand you and they like what you’re saying. But if you try to force it and you try to think, what are my customers going to want to see, then it will feel very false and there will be a disconnect.
So my recommendation with branding is to, again, start early and start looking at the iconic brands out there that really resonate with you, and then building upon that and kind of building a brand vision board, if you will. Things that you like, things that you don’t like. This actually is enormously helpful and you can do this on your own.
No, I agree with that. And I think for small companies that are just starting out, maybe it is a reflection of who they are, their own values and what they want to be as a company. And I think that is a great starting point for them to actually build out what their vision is going to be. Thank you.
Okay, Kevin. So I want to tackle this idea of buyer persona and understanding customer, because I feel like there’s not enough attention paid from startups to really understanding their customers, especially if they are a product-led organization. Does it seem like in many cases that companies that are like that, it’s like they’re a hammer looking for a nail?
Yeah. And I’ll give you an example of where this can go really wrong. A couple of years ago, I worked with a healthcare startup and they built in general, a product that would work for appointment booking and a bunch of other things and great opportunity to the pandemic. They decided to go after every opportunity that they could, meaning going after doctors’ offices, pharmacies, the public health units, vaccine clinics. The provincial government had a bunch of initiatives. They rolled out these public health groups for hospitals, so they tried to get opportunities to them, insurance companies. So they really were selling to everybody in the healthcare space. And they were actually successful at getting opportunities all across these different personas. And that was the problem. We’d get customers that would come in, they’d say, yes, we’ll buy it. Let’s start implementing. But they all wanted different features. They all needed different capabilities. And so it actually led us into this position where the development team was going nuts. The one customer group would want a bunch of features, they’d get spun up building those. And then all of a sudden, another urgent request from a bigger customer would be like, “Oh no, we need this, let’s build that.”
And product development would be put on the side for the customers we’d already sold to. And then those customers would understandably, be upset, be like, “Where’s my feature? You sold me this product. I want my money back.” And it just led to this cascading failure across the entire organization. Everything was much more expensive. Trying to market to customers, we had to go to every show, pharmacy shows, doctor shows, and hospital shows.
We needed to hire expensive sales account people that could get into all these different groups, marketing across different industry associations. It was just all over the place. And so the costs were just totally out of control. And again, it was one of these things we had this great product, let’s sell it to everybody. But it actually blew up because you couldn’t get any traction. I want to compare that to another company I worked with that had this dental health product. And what they did is they did focus. They were selling it to dentists, but they made a fundamental assumption about the pain point that the dentist had just by assuming it. They’re like, hey, dentists care about customer service. Fulfilling fails and their patients unhappy, they don’t like that.
And I said, okay, that’s a good assumption. Let’s test it. And what I actually did is I picked up the phone, called some dentists, and I talked to them. And you know what I learned? Your dentist doesn’t care about customer service. They don’t. They’re like, you know what? If a filling fails, yeah, the customers aren’t going to be upset, but they’re not going to leave us. They’re going to come back and we’re going to have to fix it. And that’s what I’m upset about. I’m losing money because I’m not getting paid for that rework. They were really concerned about practice efficiency. And just understanding the pain point better, helped that team to not only market the product better, but actually helped them build a better product. Like they were actually tracking and buiding features around practice efficiency that made the product a stronger product and made them more successful.
That’s perfect. I want to take this down a different road with Angela, because building something that scales, that’s amazing. Most companies that have successfully built for, let’s say one audience, will find multiple ways to actually sell it. But I seem to think that if that works, it can work in a later stage enterprise, but not necessarily so. You could still build a product for a very tightly niche audience and still be very successful. So let’s talk about that, Angela.
Sure. So building on the conversation about buyer personas and how critical this is, and talking to your customer and really understanding what their real pain points are and not making assumptions as Kevin was just talking about. You think you know what their problems are and you don’t. And then you need to talk to them and figure it out, and they’ll tell you. You’ll get a lot of really good information. Similarly related buyer personas, lots of really great frameworks out there. I think that one mistake that people make when they’re thinking about buyer personas is they’re just thinking about demographics. We’re selling to women age 35 with 2.4 kids and a dog, and that’s it. But what you really need to tap into and I would even argue that psychographics are way more important. I think that they really need to be prioritized when you’re building your buyer persona because your ideal buyer may not look alike in terms of demographics, but rather their deep psychological need for your product resonates with them. This is, of course, why segmenting and targeting and positioning is absolutely essential. One of my favorite examples is an Hermes Birkin bag. Classic.
Angela Bourne It’s been around for decades. And you will see movie stars in Hollywood carrying this bag. And then you’ll see in their 20s, LA. And then you’ll see sophisticated 85-year-old grandma in Paris. Same bag! So I think that she may have bought it a little earlier, but same emotional need to own this bag. So that always really stuck with me. So that when you’re thinking about buyer personas, there are also a lot of really great frameworks out there to really tap into the psychology of why people need you. They need your product and shape your ads around that story. That is some advice that I have.
Hessie Jones That’s perfect. Okay, we have time for one last question. So I’m going to ask each of you what is the one piece of advice that you would give to startup founders who say, “hey, I’ve got a cool idea, I want to change the world”? Kevin, let’s start with you.
Kevin Smith Yeah. My advice would be pick up the phone and talk to ten real customers first and validate that they have the problem that you think they have. It’s one thing that I see most founders almost allergic to doing is picking up the phone and talking to people. And I’ll run some workshops where we’ll do customer discovery, and half of the founders will come in, they’ll do it, and they’ll learn some really cool things. And then the other half of the founders will say, well, I didn’t get a chance to do customer discovery because I was out building the product. And the ones who spend time talking to customers actually end up building the better product.
Perfect. Thank you. Angela, you have the last word.
Angela BourneMy advice is related. Talk to your customers but are you solving a real problem that causes enormous pain for people? And are you building a product or service that people absolutely need and they’re going to pay for it? And this requires some self-reflection. Really be honest with yourself. Did you invent a cool thing, and you’re trying to hunt for a problem to build a business around it? Really, being honest with yourself in the very beginning and the early stages of your company will save you a lot of time long term.
Hessie JonesThank you so much. Okay, I think that’s a wrap. That’s all we have time for today. I thank you both, Kevin and Angela, for joining me and for everything that you do to support a lot of these emerging startups. It’s well appreciated. So for our audience, if any of you have ideas for topics that you want us to cover, please email us at email@example.com
Hessie JonesRight now, we are accepting applications for our incubator and investor readiness programs in March, so please go to our website, altitudeaccelerator.ca for more information. And next week, we’re going to tackle the topic of the art of pivoting, so please join us then. In the meantime, have fun and stay safe.
Innovation Manager of Altitude Accelerator
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