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.


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

Brand Camp: The First Two Weeks


We sat down with two of our startup co-founders in The Brandery Class of 2014, Connor Bowlan and Joel Green, to ask about their first two weeks at The Brandery. Connor Bowlan, 24 (CEO) studied sociology at the University of California, Merced. He previously served as the technical cofounder of a startup that built tools to automate bookings for residential cleaning services. Connor has spent time all over the world, most recently in Botswana where he attended the University of Botswana, studied micro-social interactions, and explored Southern Africa by motorcycle. Joel Green, 21 (CEO), is a mobile and python developer who recently dropped out of the University of California Santa Barbara. Over the last several years, Joel has spent time developing robotics, conducting undergraduate research at UCSB, building automated lab tools, and participating in hackathons as an iOS developer. Previous to engineering, Joel has spent time as a Jazz pianist and music composer.

Connor (left) and Joel (right) sporting red shirts under the Cincinnati sign.

What is the most surprising thing about Cincinnati so far?

Joel: I’ve definitely been surprised at how friendly people are. Especially compared to California, everyone is so willing to help with things all the time. I’m more than pleasantly surprised by Cincinnati. I’m pretty stoked on this place. My plan is to stay here as long as it is in the best interest of my startup, and I see no downside of that at all. I’m really happy here.

Connor: It’s such a close knit community. There’s no fatigue related to startups like in the Bay Area. If you tell someone you’re going to startup in the Bay Area you usually get an eye roll and they change the conversation. Here, they ask you what you are doing and ask you how they can help. The main thing is that people are welcoming and open to it. It’s not seen as a threat.

Joel: Another thing that surprised me is how much design and marketing talent there is here. I’d never really known that much about Cincinnati, besides a few things I’d read here or there. Once I did my research, I said, “Oh, okay. There is P&G, and there is Kroger, and there are some headquarters here.” But once I got here, I was like, “Wow, UC is here and marketers are literally everywhere.” It’s amazing. If San Francisco is known as the city of tech, Cincinnati is the city of marketing. It’s pretty big.

Best part about the city?

Joel: So far, the cost of living is definitely my favorite part, plus there’s so much to do here. Honestly, for half the price of a really crappy place in California, I’m living in the nicest place here. This is the kind of place I imagined I’d be living in if I sold my company, not when it’s just starting out, and it’s so easily within budget. Also, the architecture is super ancient and cool but everyone here is so high-tech and into the latest things and carrying around the newest device.

Connor: There’s so much excitement and enthusiasm for the OTR area. It extends past startups, to small businesses in general. Everyone wants to introduce you to their connections. They don’t see their connections as resources, but more of interpersonal relationships. It takes one day to get a reference to anyone in the city.

What has been the best day of The Brandery so far?

Joel: Brand in a Day was definitely very interesting. It was early, and a lot of stuff was going on, so it was challenging, but it was so productive. My favorite day was when we started Failbone/Quack with Connor and [Connor’s co-founder] Rhett because thats when we got to know each other the best. Failbone originally spawned from Connor playing a trombone noise whenever someone failed at something. Then, we built an app that played it in a radius on everyones phone. From there, Connor decided to come up with his own thing, Quack, which evolved into what we all use now at The Brandery.

Wait… so what’s Quack?

Connor: Quack is a location-based messaging platform that removes all barriers to interaction. It allows people to communicate quickly and efficiently, much like you would in real life. Theres also an element of humor in it, which really brings people into the platform and allows them to express themselves without the fear of guilt or judgement. The thing that excites me most about Quack is that if you’re not staring at it all the time, you feel like youre left out of the joke. It makes you feel like you were last picked for the baseball team in elementary school, so it forces you to look at the app all the time. It’s like having an inside joke that everyone within 400 feet is in on.

Joel: At this point, there’s an iOS, Andrioid, and Pebble version of Quack which have come together from members of three different startups. It’s like a monstrosity of a startup that has spawned out of all the companies. The funniest part is it’s the most popular one.

A screenshot of Quack for iOS.

What is the most unique part of The Brandery?

Connor: The excitement and palpable feeling that everyone is on the edge of something big is really exciting. Everyone is silently (and sometimes not silently) pushing each other forward. My favorite thing is being around other people every day while I work. For the past eight months or so, it’s just been me in a room working, but that is not exciting as being around people everyday who are so much more inspiring.

Joel: I’m surprised at how many resources The Brandery actually provides. The $20k seems almost insignificant compared to how many resources we actually get. Any resource you could possibly need is pretty much available on the first floor— at any hour— just by asking the other startups in the room.

Connor: I didn’t realize how much I would actually think of The Brandery as home. After we’d been here for two weeks, we felt like we’d been here for two months. We were able to get integrated so quickly. You have an ex-Army Ranger sitting next to a 19 year-old college dropout, who is sitting next to the drummer from a platinum selling rock band, who is sitting next to a finalist from Survivor. Where else will you find that?

What has been the most beneficial part in building your business?

Connor: The mentors have been great in getting us to think about things we hadn’t even considered before. The mentors have leveraged a lot of resources for us and helped connect us to a lot of people. They give us a lot of quick insights that they have from years and years of experience that help us focus and not flail around and not know what we doing. It’s also surprising how much the big corporations in Cincinnati are willing to help. Usually, in the stereotypical startup narrative, they are the villains. But really, they are so open and willing to help with mentoring, which is impressive.

Joel: There are 12 startups from all diverse backgrounds here, so whether its development, connections, marketing, life, or business, there are always people there to help you. That’s the most powerful thing. Having everyone here 24/7 is the best thing so far.

Keep checking back for more updates on The Brandery Class of 2014, including info on their startups and their continued transition in Cincinnati. #Brandery2014

#Brandery2014 Kicks Off In Just Three Weeks


Recruiting season, application season, reviewing season, and interviewing season flew by this year. It’s already June, and we’ve (after many, many hours of vetting and debating) selected twelve startups for our fifth accelerator class. The program begins on June 25th, but the teams have already started to trickle in. While we would love to share the ideas with you, we can’t just yet!

We promise you’ll hear more about the teams and their startups soon. In the meantime, here’s some stats about the applicants and the incoming class:

  • This was our largest number of applicants in five classes.
  • We had applicants from 58 countries— the most ever.
  • We had applicants from 33 states.
  • Over half of the out of town finalists flew to Cincinnati for their interview. That’s dedication!
  • The 2014 class includes four Ohio companies.
  • The other states represented in the class are California, New York, South Carolina, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Texas, and Illinois. We have one international company, hailing from Argentina.
  • The 2014 class has an average age of 28.
  • The biggest age difference in the class is 24 years, with the youngest founder being 19 and the oldest (wisest) being 43.

Follow the hashtag #Brandery2014 for updates from the companies and for more fun facts from us. If you’d like to help us welcome the teams to Cincinnati, send us a note. We would love your help in convincing them how great Cincinnati is.

Want to get access to the same resources as The Brandery companies? Register for Cincinnati Startup Day on June 14th.

Reason #31: Proven history of success.


Over the last four summers, we’ve accelerated 35 startups, raising a total of over $44 million. Backed by the previous 30 reasons, there is no surprise that Brandery graduates do big things. We’ve showed you the rankings and the reasons. Now, there’s nothing left to do but apply.

Deadline III is April 15 at midnight and the final deadline to apply is May 1. However, we are currently interviewing candidates, so the sooner your startup applies, the better.

I am a mentor for many accelerator programs. The Brandery is one of the country’s best. Participating companies benefit immensely from Cincinnati’s many global brands, leading agencies, and market research companies.

– Joe Medved, SoftBank Capital

Reason #30: Now's the time to start up.


As Forbes detailed earlier this year, 2014 “will be the best one to run a business that we’ve seen in a long time. It’s also a very good time to start one.” This “Golden Age” of entrepreneurship has also spurred easier, faster ways to fundraise and more general support for founders, including accelerators like us. With your idea, drive, and our assistance working in tandem with an improving economy and general optimism, now is the time to start up. The Brandery could be just the boost you need.

In a world where the costs to build a company and the technical barriers to enter a market are decreasing rapidly, marketing and brand strategy have become critical to building enterprise value. The Brandery focuses in this area and offers a unique value to their portfolio with access to some of the best brand managers and marketing strategists in the world today.

– Phin Barnes, First Round Capital

Apply to The Brandery today.

Reason #29: The Cintrifuse fund of funds.


Our friends a few blocks down at Cintrifuse have created a fund of funds to invest in venture capital firms. The fund has closed $51 million to date and is believed to be the largest privately funded, first-time regional fund of funds in the country. Investors include American Financial Group, Castellini Management Company, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Duke Energy, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, The Kroger Co., Messer Financial Services, Procter & Gamble, the University of Cincinnati and Western & Southern Financial Group. Because of the nature of the fund, VCs are consistently visiting to learn more. The VC firms Cintrifuse has invested in include Allois Ventures, UpFront Ventures, and Sigma Prime.

It’s amazing over the last six months how many VCs have been coming through town to meet with Cintrifuse. The $50M+ dollar fund of funds, whose investors are cincinnati’s largest companies and organizations, has resulted in a steady flow of the top early stage investors around the country meeting with our startups.

– Mike Bott, General Manager of The Brandery

Apply to The Brandery now.

Photo courtesy of WCPO.

Reason #28: We are the #1 accelerator in the country for industry-specific mentorship.

As you know, we recently broke in to the top ten accelerators in the nation. But what we really were satisfied to see are the sub-rankings. Here’s how we stacked up:

  • The Brandery ranked #5 in average valuation across all portfolio companies,
  • #4 in average valuation across all portfolio companies one year after graduation,
  • #4 in average valuation across all portfolio companies two years after graduation,
  • #4 in overall satisfaction with mentorship,
  • #3 in satisfaction with mentorship in management and financial issues,
  • And #1 accelerator in the nation for satisfaction with mentorship in industry-specific knowledge

via seedrankings.com

What does industry-specific knowledge mean? It means we’ve found a team of unbelievable mentors from across the nation that choose to donate their time to our startups. The breadth of their work means they can relate to the startups they are paired with, and moreover, know how to help. The rankings say it all: we do this better than anyone in the country.

Data like this lets us know we’re on the right track— and we want you to be part of it. Today is Deadline II to apply. Deadline III is Friday, April 18th. We will extend offers as we vet startups, so the earlier the better. Apply to The Brandery now.

Reason #27: Cincinnati is a great place to live.


We mentioned before that Cincinnati is a great place to build a business, but we think you’ll love the city, too. Some of the things we love include a thriving local beer and food scene, social media savvy citizens, and a reputation as the “Arts Mecca of the Midwest.” The people are creative, friendly, and know how to have a good time. Read more about all Cincinnati has to offer here.

Having grown up overseas and lived in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC (among other cities), I decided to make Cincinnati my home because of the quality of life. Cincinnati has world class performing arts, provides easy access to professional sports, and has a large creative class. Within three blocks of The Brandery, there are many new bars and restaurants that have become hot spots.

– Rob McDonald, Co-founder of The Brandery and attorney at Taft, Stettinius and Hollister

Apply to The Brandery now.

Reason #26: Other cool perks.


We love our partners. We get all kinds of cool things for our companies, from discounts on food and coffee to free concert tickets. Hopefully it makes having fun a little easier on your wallet. In the past, we’ve taken our startups to Reds games on the party deck, to Bunbury music festival, and to an OTR bar crawl on the Pedal Wagon, thanks to the incredibly supportive local community.

The Brandery gave us so much value, from branding to connections to discounts. Because we were a ‘Brandery company,’ we got all kinds of perks and people were just willing to help us out.

– Konrad Billetz, CEO, Frameri

Reason #25: Successful, accessible alums.


Brandery graduate Roadtrippers’ awesome office, located just down the street from ours.

As The Brandery ages, our network of alumni grows as well. We’ve developed a neat network in the Cincinnati area, with Ahalogy, Roadtrippers, Modulus, Choremonster, and other grads’ HQs located within minutes of our office. They’re well-established and a testament to what our program should do for startups. Because of this, we are able to pair the current startups in our program with alums to help them through the entire process. Even if they don’t turn out to be your favorite mentor, we’ll bet they’ll be some of your best friends in town.

Recent numbers show The Brandery brings some strong alum companies to the table in addition to everything else the program offers. We developed a strong relationship with one of those alums and they turned out to be some of our most useful advisors. They were only 8-12 months removed from our own challenges, and that kind of empathy is paramount when you’re trading advice on building a company. Leveraging lessons from current and past members is where the true power lies in accelerators, and there’s no accelerator deeper with experience in the midwest than The Brandery.

– Craig Baldwin, CMO, Sqrl

Sqrl is a 2013 graduate of The Brandery. They closed their $550M seed round earlier this year.

Apply to The Brandery now.

Reason #24: Brand in a Day.


In similar format to Growth Hack Day, Brand in a Day is a 4-hour intensive workshop focused on the objectives of naming, logo, tagline, and brand manifesto. The goal is for your startup to walk out of Possible with actionable assets. This is likely the first time you’ll work with your agency partner. Absolutely incredible things have come out of Brand in a Day in the past. You’ll undoubtedly have a better idea of who you are as a company after the day is done.

Read the full Brand in a Day recap from last summer.

Apply to The Brandery now. Deadline II is this Friday!

Reason #23: An involved, motivated leadership team.


Here at The Brandery, we have a team of co-founders and a General Manager who are connected and willing to help at any time. You’ll grab time with the founders periodically throughout the program, and you’ll see GM Mike Bott day-in and day-out. So who are the founders?
Dave Knox is the CMO of Rockfish and a former P&G Brand Manager. Check out Dave’s great brand management blog, Hard Knox Life. Bryan Radtke is the Vice President of Strategy at Rockfish. JB Kropp works for Twitter in Strategic Partnerships. Rob McDonald is an attorney at Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, LLP. The co-founders can be found around Cincinnati frequently, constantly driving toward strengthening the startup ecosystem. Because of their deep passion for our mission, the co-founders will go to great lengths to ensure the success of our startups.

GM Mike Bott was added to the team in 2012, as The Brandery really began to take off. Mike is ex-AOL, ex-Match.com, and ex-P&G, and fosters his extensive knowledge in digital marketing, lean startups, and product management when advising the teams in the program. You’ll have weekly meetings (most teams end up meeting with him a lot more than one hour a week) with Mike to check in on your progress. He’s there for you every day of the program. Startups in the past have kind of gotten along with him.

Apply to The Brandery now.