Earlier this year, I met with an entrepreneur who had worked for more than two years on an amazing software innovation. He wanted my help with some marketing advice and I started the process by asking him about the competition the product is likely to face, his ideal customer and how he would price the product. He couldn’t answer any of those questions, and I knew we had a lot of work to do.
It might seem surprising that my friend could work so long on an idea without a clear idea of the competition and the customers he was serving, but unfortunately this is not unusual at all. In fact, over my career I’ve had the opportunity to coach, counsel and mentor dozens of diverse startups, and most of them have ignored marketing. So many companies are ready to launch a product and then realize they don’t know how to launch it, where to launch it or even who to launch it to!
If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business, and yet ignoring this important function is a chronic issue. Here are the excuses I hear:
- This product is so good, it will sell itself. We don’t need a plan.
- How hard can it be? When we’re ready to go to market, we’ll read a few blog posts and figure it out.
- Our focus is the product. Then we’ll worry about how we will sell it.
These attitudes are all recipes for disaster. To be successful, marketing must be baked into your entrepreneurial effort from the beginning. Marketing is much more than creating a website or a nice Facebook page.
An effective marketing plan will:
- Provide some determination of customer needs, market size, competitive challenges and revenue projections.
- Guide the development process to fit ideal attributes, product features and distribution considerations.
- Create a uniform brand image that can be carried out on the web presence, marketing materials and packaging.
Here are five considerations to create a market-ready startup:
1. Build it in.
The thrill of working on a hot new idea is intoxicating. But, before you commit to following a dream, spend a little time thinking it through. The No. 1 reason for business failure is that there is insufficient demand for the product. Minimize this risk by using marketing data and available research to address real customer needs and opportunities.
2. Bootstrap it.
A basic marketing plan does not need to be costly. There are many templates available on the web to help guide you through basic questions and uncover key competitive considerations. A good old SWOT analysisor some simple market research are good places to start. Take advantage of all the free resources out there, including data and trend reports for your industry.
3. Get help.
Marketing today can be extremely complicated. Customer attention is fragmented across thousands of channels. Committing to an advertising or PR plan can make or break a startup no matter how good the product is. So if you’re stuck, don’t set marketing aside — get help. Marketing is too important to ignore, so find a professional to help with your strategy. And by the way, that means something more than social media. Marketing starts with data and analysis, not an Instagram account.
Most cities have a chapter of the American Marketing Association. Pay it a visit to learn about the most appropriate resources to support your type of business. Your local chamber of commerce can also help point you to reliable marketing partners.
4. Consider influencers.
If you don’t have the time and money to patiently build a large and engaged audience, consider “borrowing” the audience of a trusted online influencer. There is simply no better way to ignite vast awareness on a budget than having the public validation and support of an online influencer. Again, this relationship must be built from the beginning, not as an afterthought. Early input from an industry expert may even be crucial to your product development process.
5. Adapt and adopt.
Your marketing plan simply sets your course in the right direction and gives you the best possible chance to succeed. But, the fact is, true market opportunity may be unknowable until you actually launch the new product or service. You have to constantly and rapidly adjust to what you learn along the way. Don’t be wedded to a plan and ignore valuable new information coming from your customers. I’m convinced there’s no such thing as a “long-term” marketing plan any more. Your path is going to twist and turn and your marketing efforts must be flexible.
The trail to entrepreneurial success is littered with businesses who overlooked marketing fundamentals. Don’t be one of them. Approach marketing as a core consideration of your entire business plan.
by Mark Schaefer