Both Anita Brearton and Sheryl Schultz (more below) are seasoned marketing professionals who have devoted their careers to launching ventures. Below is a distillation, based on several conversations, of the advice they often give clients at the earliest stage of the formation of new companies.
- Make marketing central to your vision for your company. Too many entrepreneurs give little or no thought to a marketing strategy. They focus instead on products or the size of the market opportunity without defining the marketing strategy and sales plan that will help them capitalize on the opportunity. When they pitch investors, the marketing slide is an afterthought, and often consists of one bullet point, usually social media. Right from the start, you need a marketer at the table along with the founder and product developer or tech team.
- Start with a one sentence description of what your company is and what it does. It will help customers and investors understand who you are and why you’re useful. And be sure your identity is credible and meaningful to customers.
- Putting a website up too early is starting in the middle. The message document must come first. Don’t spend time on company names, taglines, logos until you have developed your positioning.
- Begin with a stake in the ground! Work hard from day one on developing your corporate positioning. Who are your customers? What problem do you solve for them? How do you solve it better than your competition? How do you want your customers and the market at large to think about your company? Where do you have the opportunity to be a market leader? If founders don’t have marketing skills, themselves, they often confuse tactics, such as public relations or paid search, with marketing strategy. Media coverage can be extremely valuable, but only if it communicates your message. Think about marketing as a conversation with your prospective customers, but don’t talk until you know what you really want to say. If the company positioning is confused or unfocused, customers and investors will also be confused because the company hasn’t defined its core message. If you don’t have a marketing strategy, you don’t have a business.
- Hire a marketing professional who is both strategic and tactical, a hands-on marketer. You want someone who is both a strategic thinker and willing to put hands on the keyboard, someone who can actually do the wireframe for the website, still willing to get dirty hands. Once you are ready to execute your marketing strategy, you require help with synthesizing the information and research, which an experienced professional can do. This process is a grind because there will be barrels of information about the industry or about the competition, but you have to absorb it all so you can develop a distinct position in the market.
- Get out in the marketplace! When companies do positioning work, they often do it in the confines of a windowless conference room. Get out in the market to see the customers, to view your competitors and their marketing strategy first hand, to familiarize yourself with the industry. You may find out your tagline looks like everyone else’s. By concentrating on an internal focus without taking a broad view, it’s easy to set up straw man position which won’t hold up in the real world.
- Look for a launching point. Find opportunities to showcase what you do, especially when you’re in a crowded market. For example, one company we have worked with, Crimson Hexagon, which analyzes consumer opinions created in social media, monitored Obama’s first State of the Union speech for CNN; after that, the company name constantly appeared whenever their data was cited. The election provided a crucial launch point for them.
- Marketing start ups requires hard work and constant refinement. It’s not the same as marketing for more mature companies because you have no brand awareness; there isn’t any budget; you often don’t have people resources; the CEO may or may not have marketing experience. But whether it’s a technology, medical science, internet or consumer company, your ideas will go nowhere without a comprehensive marketing strategy. Take the time to forge one early on.
- Once you create a marketing plan, commit to it. It’s not enough to hire a good marketer or come up with a marketing plan unless you’re willing to spend several hours a week to sit down to discuss the execution. Good marketing professionals demand commitment from the highest level. It may be hard for first time entrepreneurs to communicate or get their minds around their businesses, so when you hire the skills you lack, you have to be prepared to listen.
Anita Brearton has had an extensive career driving the market strategy for early stage technology companies, including Cascade Communication and Sycamore Networks. Currently, Anita is a board member of the Angel Capital Association and the Massachusetts Technology Development Council; she is a managing director of Golden Seeds, and founder of Women’s Entrepreneurial Council in Boston, a super organization to coordinate groups, providing a powerful Boston-based ecosystem for women entrepreneurs.
Sheryl Schultz has spent over 30 years working with start ups, as marketer, board advisor, mentor and investor. She founded SRS Associates to provide communications and market strategy consulting to dozens of telecommunications companies, and took 20 companies from inception through successful IPO or acquisition, including Acme Packet, ArrowPoint Communications, Sonus Networks and Wellfleet Communications. She is a Golden Seeds managing director, and a board member of Crimson Hexagon and The Capital Network. She is also co-founder of The Women’s Entrepreneurial Council.