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Guest Post: 10 Ways To Build A Rock Solid Marketing Engine For Your Startup

When my company, Leap, was in the Brandery class of 2012, we had a “spray and pray” approach to marketing. It was really just pure hustle and a little bit of luck that helped us reach 50,000 downloads for our mobile app in a matter of weeks.

As we started to grow, I marched on out to the Valley thinking a nice chunk of change (a few hundred thousand) was going to fall into our laps and all would be right with the world.

But it didn’t exactly work out like that.

Now there are a lot of reasons why and there are a lot of mistakes that our team made that we can talk about, but today I want to talk marketing. Specifically what mistakes we made (which are also mistakes I see other early stage companies making), what I would have done differently knowing what I know now, and finally a little bit about the approach (and some juicy tips for you) that I use today.

Where I Messed Up

When it came time to raise the big bucks for Leap, I struggled to answer these questions:

  • How do you guys get users long term (beyond press and App Store features)?
  • What’s your revenue model?
  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What’s your unique value proposition?
  • What’s your customer acquisition cost? LTV?
  • How are you focusing on marketing right now?

My answers were weak. Something along the lines of…

“Well, we’re building partnerships with influencers so that they can build communities on Leap and it spreads organically because people share content from the app. Basically, once we build up the user base we’re going to bring brands onto the platform so that they can create challenges on our app. Right now our audience is pretty broad – we’re narrowing down into some of the really active communities we see doing challenges. We’re too early to know our customer acquisition cost.”

Now that I spent time working at a VC firm last year and now help fast growing companies scale their online marketing, I slap my forehead when I think back to those days. And you wouldn’t believe the amount of companies that I talk to that really can’t answer these basic questions and are hoping to raise a $1 million seed round from investors.

What You Can Learn From My Mistakes

When I read the example of my answers above, here’s what I think today:

“Ok, this company doesn’t truly know who their customer is – I think they’re going to have a hard time finding a scalable way to generate growth (PR & features won’t do it). Since they aren’t 100% who they’re going after, how do they find the right channels for their business?

Hmm… if they aren’t really focused on a core audience to start with, then overall their marketing is going to be tough since they can’t really communicate a unique value proposition.

And they don’t really have a revenue model so finding out how to spend money to acquire users at breakeven isn’t going to happen until they figure out how to make money, since ‘going viral’ isn’t how 99.999% of businesses are built.”

Now let’s use that to think about the takeaways for your company, and we’ll drill down into some actionable tips.

Here’s what I want you to think about:

Who is my customer? What problem am I really solving for them?

  • Actionable tip #1: take your most active existing users and put them in a spreadsheet.
  • Actionable tip #2: create columns with their name, email, & Facebook profile page. Then stalk the crap out of them. Go onto Facebook and find out what books they read, how old they are, male or female, where they live, what websites they like, what interests they have, what groups they are a part of, grab everything you think will be useful.
  • Actionable tip #3: then find them on LinkedIn and do the same thing. Look for patterns – this is how you’re going to find out who your customer is. (H/T to Noah Kagan’s Summer of Marketing for this)

How are you going to get people to use your product?

  • Actionable tip #4: use that list above to find out where those people are hanging out online and what their interests are, and what demographics your biggest fans have in common.
  • Actionable tip #5: go build out some Facebook Ad campaigns targeting that same person! (You can check out the Crush Campaigns blog for more tips on how to actually structure your campaigns).
  • Actionable tip #6: next find out what the biggest players in your market are already doing! Spy on their ads using SEMRush. They’ve probably spend a crap-ton of money getting customers, so find out what channels are already working for them. You can get a good guess by filtering out ads and campaigns that have been running for a long time.
  • Actionable tip #7: put all that competitive stuff in a spreadsheet. Find out as much as you can about where they get traffic, what they’re doing on social, etc. Not only will you have a better idea of where you focus your attention, but you’ll know where the gaps you can exploit as a little scrappy startup are.
  • Actionable tip #8: now you have a good idea who your customer is and how to find more of them. Write down 3 things that you can test each week (3 ways you can reach this customer). Validate or invalidate great potential user acquisition channels over time. See how much it costs you to get an email address, a download, or a customer and track the results!
  • Actionable tip #9: And this is how you’re focusing on marketing right now. You’ll sound really smart, like you know what you’re doing :)

What’s your customer acquisition cost? What’s your revenue model, etc.?

  • Actionable tip #10: Hopefully you have a revenue model. But the rest of the stuff will begin falling into place once you start these activities. Trust me, you’ll start to have a MUCH better understanding on marketing.

Final Tip

It’s never too early to start experimenting – so get started on this stuff now. You’ll have a much deeper understanding of your market, your customers, and how you’ll grow. Finally, you won’t have the short term “spray and pray” approach that Leap did – and when you’re ready to pound the pavement and talk to investors, you’ll be ready to answer some of those tough questions.

Author

James Dickerson is the Founder of Crush Campaigns, an online marketing agency that helps innovative companies acquire more customers.

Meet the Mentors: Joe Medved, SoftBank Capital

1. Tell us about yourself! Who are you and how are you involved with the Brandery?

I am a Partner at SoftBank Capital, a venture capital fund focused on mobile applications, social media, ecommerce, online advertising, gaming, and cloud computing. I have been a mentor at the Brandery since its inception. Dave Knox, who had been a great mentor to companies in our portfolio, encouraged me to join the program when it launched.

2. Why are you passionate about the startup community in Cincinnati?

I grew up in New Hampshire but my parents both came from Cleveland, so I have personal ties to Ohio and great fondness for Cincinnati (except when the Bengals are playing the Browns). Dave, JB, Rob and Bryan laid out a vision that would leverage Cincinnati’s industry leading consumer companies and wealth of design talent. The timing was perfect given the evolution of the web, as open source solutions and utility computing leveled the playing field a bit on the infrastructure side, enabling a new wave of innovation at the application layer. Great branding and design, which the Brandery and Cincinnati represent, are the key elements to differentiation at this layer of the stack.

3. As a specialist in investments and venture capital, what is your biggest piece of advice for applicants and aspiring entrepreneurs?

One of the most important things an entrepreneur does in his or her company’s infancy, is to hire the right people to build their team. The same diligence that is put into the recruiting and hiring process should be applied when selecting mentors and investors. Having the guidance of Mike and the team at the Brandery can help entrepreneurs identify the mentors and investment partners that are optimal for their business goals and culture.

4. If you started a company, what would it be?

Many of the greatest startups, particularly on the enterprise side, are built by people that are attempting to solve a problem they’ve experienced firsthand. Being a VC is an incredible job, but one pain point in the job is email. We network with an extraordinary number of people in order to help our portfolio companies and identify new entrepreneurs to back. I am constantly behind on email and feel bad about responding slowly. My dream company would be one that completely disrupts email with a more efficient form of communication.

5. What are your goals for the Brandery as a mentor?

My goal is to share my perspective in areas where I have significant experience and to help make connections with experts in areas where I don’t. One of the things that I learned early on as a VC, from my partners who had decades of experience operating and investing, was to understand your strengths and weaknesses as a mentor. Just because you help control a lot of investment dollars, people may assume you’re an expert on every facet of being a startup, or worse off, you may believe it yourself! Our team has investors from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from sales to product to tech to finance. We aim to leverage those talents across our portfolio, and I try to take the same approach to my mentorship role at the Brandery.

My goal as a mentor representing SoftBank Capital is also for us to find great companies to invest in, which we did recently with FlightCar. I mentored the team at the Brandery, and we are thrilled to be investors in the company. The Brandery helped the brilliant young team at FlightCar craft a powerful brand message that is clearly resonating in the market.

For more information about Joe Medved or any of our mentors, visit www.brandery.org/mentors!

2012 Grads In The News!

Brandery grads have been making waves in the startup world. Some videos were released by news stations this past week to highlight their achievements.

Impulcity is makes finding events in your area simple. The Impulcity team relocated to Cincy from Louisville to build and release their app. They have raised a strong seed round led by local firm Cincy Tech. Last week, Impulcity released their app to the apple store. You should go download it. Now.

“We take everything going on around town and we give you the best things to do. You can open the app and instantly find your favorite concerts, sporting events, nightlife, things to do with the family. The really cool thing is we let you see what’s going on everywhere… We want people to spend less time looking and more time doing the things they enjoy.”

- Hunter Hammdonds, CEO and Co-founder Impulcity



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FlightCar is reducing inefficiency in the airport car market by allowing people parking at an airport to rent their vehicles out to other travelers. FlightCar opened it’s first market in San Francisco on February 5th. In one week, they had over 100 rentals. The team didn’t put effort into marketing before their release. They knew the product would market itself- validated with some great press in a video piece by an ABC San Francisco affiliate.

“I think it’s a great idea. I talked to some people about it and they all said, ‘Yeah. Why didn’t somebody think of it earlier?’”


- Derek Broker, FlightCar customer