“I’m appalled at the number of startups who say ‘we’ve spent nothing on marketing; our customer acquisition is entire organic’ - aka ‘I’m a marketing retard.‘”
I’ll give you a minute to recover from the shock of that statement. I mean, when was the last time Dave didn’t use an F-bomb when sharing a strong opinion? Could he be going soft?
Nah. But that’s not the point of this blog post.
For inexperienced founders, the startup process is something like this:
- build app (using NewJS framework and OtherDB, awesome!)
- get featured on TechCrunch
- post product status updates on social networks (and start word of mouth chain reaction)
- raise funding
- figure it out™
I mean, once we have millions in funding, surely we can throw money and grow our customer base?
I believe this is partly what Dave was lamenting about, though it is hard for me to comment the Silicon Valley specific comments he made as well. After all, in India the most popular growth strategy seems to be acquiring email and/or mobile lists and spamming the hell out of them!
Undoubtedly, before spending marketing dollars of any sort, it is important to have a good product in place. I think most of us do a reasonably good job there. In the past couple of years founders have educated themselves on user interface, performance and several best practices w.r.t coding and deployment. In my opinion we suck a lot less in web design and development today than two years ago (we still suck a lot in iOS, but that’s a new field for most practitioners who’ll eventually get better at it).
Where we fall short is experimenting with various ways to acquire users/customers. For me, apart from being uncomfortable and less enthusiastic about this function as a product guy, the biggest hurdles were access to expertise and cash.
I’ve always preferred the hands-on, self-taught approach to learning new things. For people like me, learning the tech, design and product side of things is aided by innumerable blogs, forums and self-learning platforms. When several developers face a problem, a third-party library solves it for everyone else who faces the same issue, and is easily searchable on Github or Stack Overflow.
Unlike tech or development, distribution is far more of a black box. Many successful founders can pin-point the thing that helped them cross the tipping point looking backwards, but having spoken candidly with several startups in-the-making, I realize that everyone figures out their own path by several trials, most of which fail.
This is where access to expertise and cash both help. It is easy to underestimate how a few good tips from someone who has experience growing a startup can save in time and money, both resources severely scarce to an early stage startup. Here at 500S I have gained a lot from talking to people who have actually been there done that. All this knowledge is not only hard to come by, it is far more contextual than, say, knowledge about how to implement feature X in Python. This makes it hard to simply implement what worked for another startup, and involves experimentation that, in order to yield a statistically significant data, probably involves spending money.
A handful of blog posts do not make a content strategy. A few variations of an ad on Facebook are not enough to know how much to invest on that platform. One does not simply get featured in the New and Noteworthy section on the App Store. PR is not a dirty term. While well-funded startups have the luxury of engaging with third-party services who have the benefit of insight from all their clients, for someone at our stage the goal is to find the right balance between not burning cash recklessly and yet spending enough to determine some key data points from customer acquisition perspective. This is incredibly hard, and the problem becomes worse when founders treat this whole exercise as an after-thought or a low priority function.
While I detest the liberal use of “hacker”, I’ve realized how my role (as an internet marketer) at Seat 14A lies on the intersection of product (code, design), tools (email marketing, analytics, spreadsheets etc.), organic and inorganic channels to determine the best combination that keeps the needle moving. It is a Charlie Foxtrot situation more often than not.
Having dipped my toes in this mess I realize this is far more challenging than shipping a product, and involves both science and art which makes it wonderfully interesting and undeserving of the second-class status tech community tends to ascribe it. I’m happy to see a new wave of resources and tools focused on distribution, it should only get better from here.
If I don’t come off as a dimwit you can follow me on twitter.