The earliest stages of a startup are some of its most critical. A huge percentage of ventures never make it past this phase because they don’t understand the proper techniques needed to grow their customer base through marketing and product development. They might have misguided priorities or focus on internal tweaks and adjustments to campaigns without properly incorporating feedback from the market.
If you want to be successful in growing a startup from its earliest seed stages into a thriving business that captures a significant portion of the market and adds real value to its industry, here are a few important strategies to focus on.
Do Things That Don’t Scale
Paul Graham, a co-founder of Y-Combinator and one of the most respected startup advisors in the world, wrote a famous essay about the value of doing things that don’t scale. Many of these actions are related to spending extra time on making sure early customers are as satisfied as possible. Graham compares this process to starting an engine with a hand crank. Once the engine is started, it runs on its own, but it takes some manual effort to get it to that point.
What are some examples? The essay provides a few:
- In its earliest stages, Stripe’s founders (brothers Patrick and John Collison) were famous for how aggressively they recruited new users. When speaking to people who expressed interest in trying the product, they would take people’s laptops and manually set up their accounts for them.
- Focusing on a narrow market in a startup’s earliest stages seems like it wouldn’t scale well, but Graham compares this idea to keeping a fire small in the beginning to increase its intensity. He provides the example of Facebook: before it became the worldwide juggernaut that it is today, Facebook was restricted to only users at Harvard. According to Mark Zuckerberg, this early restriction allowed the product to be built in a way that made users feel like it was created specifically for them. It also helped Facebook acquire a critical mass of users much more quickly.
- Use a product or tool on behalf of a prospect. Graham’s example here is about the beginning stages of Viaweb, an early e-commerce platform that was eventually acquired by Yahoo! in 1998 for $49 million. Graham says some of the merchants they approached weren’t interested in creating online shops on their own but were okay with the Viaweb team building one for them. Not only did his use of the product on behalf of prospects impress them with personalization, but it also helped him and his team understand the gaps and missing features that the tool needed to be more successful.
Of course, at a certain point, you won’t have enough time to carry out these ideas for every single customer. But according to Graham, that’s the point: he concludes that when you work hard to please customers in the early stages, it carries over as you grow larger and helps create a long-lasting culture of pleasing the client.
Gather and analyze as much data as you can
In the beginning phases of any startup, it’s tempting to pursue the channels and tactics that feel appropriate. After all, you know your product and have a good understanding of what its users want – you should be able to craft an effective marketing strategy without much input, right?
Actually, you should gather as much data as possible from as much of your target audience as you can reach. In the lean startup method, after you build a minimum viable product (MVP), the next steps are to measure and learn. In other words, you need to collect as much information as you can from people who use your product and then apply that information to make it better.
One common challenge here is creating a large enough sample size for the information you collect to be valuable. In the earliest stages, a startup might only have a handful of customers who happen to be friends, family, or business associates of the founders. It’s sometimes challenging to get an unbiased opinion from these early users.A better solution for gathering data to improve your startup is to combine the feedback of early users with insights gleaned from your ideal customer through interviews. Click To Tweet
This kind of approach makes your analysis more well-rounded since you can weigh feedback from people who may not be using your product yet but fall within the desired target audience.
Build a community
The desire to belong to a group – especially an exclusive or highly-respected one – is a fundamental human trait that evolved after millions of years of depending on membership in a tribe for survival. Accordingly, tactics that reinforce the feeling of a community are effective for marketers and entrepreneurs even in today’s era of digital businesses.
Many of the most successful startups – in both B2B and B2C – have gained major traction by forming communities around their products and/or services. This is common in the sales and marketing space, where companies often create their own curriculum and certifications that help customers learn while they use the product. These kinds of initiatives can also create a fruitful reseller program if that’s a channel your startup is interested in exploring as an avenue for additional growth.
Of course, in the beginning stages of a startup, it might not be feasible to build out an entire online university to train prospects and customers on best practices. This is a time when you can take advantage of networks that already have a built-in audience of hundreds of millions of people: social media. Almost every network has a system you can use to organize your content in a way that helps establish community, from hashtags to lists and groups. If you start off with a consistent effort to build a real community on social media, it won’t be difficult to eventually transition to an owned property – as long as you’re adding real value for members. If it’s within your budget, you might also consider investing in paid advertisements on social networks as a way to accelerate your efforts to make people interested in your offering through the community.
Early growth depends on agility and customer satisfaction
The startups that are able to grow past the initial seed stage and become a thriving, profitable business that satisfies a need for customers are the ones pre-eminently focused on improving the user experience. To keep up with a rapidly developing marketplace and ensure the company can grow fast enough, a startup and its marketing both need to incorporate feedback from prospects and customers in a timely fashion. Whether it’s a full pivot or a slight course correction, keeping a marketing plan on track in the seed stage is more important than almost any other time in a company’s existence.
Making these kinds of adjustments in the midst of everything else going on at a startup can be a real challenge. It may be necessary to bring in outside help that can offer executive-level guidance. A fractional CMO can be a great fit for these situations, when you need an experienced leader to oversee your campaigns without the significant investment required to bring on a full-time C-level marketer. For more information, click here to schedule an introductory call.