Marketing strategies for startups

Yaagneshwaran Ganesh, Co-founder of SaaS Sprints, is an award-winning marketer, author, podcaster, and TEDx speaker, recognized by The World Marketing Congress as one of the Marketing Mavericks. We invited him for a webinar to talk about marketing strategies for startups with Kiruthika Devi, Product Specialist at Zoho SalesIQ. Yaag shared his experience and actionable insights on how startups should approach marketing from Day 1 and more. Here are some excerpts from the session.

Kiruthika: What are the major marketing challenges startups face today, and how should they approach them?

Yaag: For startups, the challenge is trying to understand their target market. Until something works, until you get a specific sample size and know what is ticking, it's like throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing which one gets picked up. So SaaS startups should find their market product fit and see their ideal customers and who's willing to pay. People call it MVP (Minimum Viable Product), but I'd like to call it BVP (Billable Viable Product). Because it's about getting paid and making people say, "Hey, this is something I'd consider worthy of paying." That's how startups should move. It takes a few months to years, depending on if you're bootstrapped or funded and many other factors.

Kiruthika: Great point, Yaag. I completely agree. There would be expectations from the startup's leadership for a new marketing head. How should they tackle them?

Yaag: It's a funny question. I've been there several times myself. Marketing is one such function where everybody in every function and their dogs have an opinion on how marketing should work. In some startups I've worked with, I've asked the CEOs what we are trying to accomplish this quarter and what core metric I need to focus on. Very few CEOs have come up and said let's do good marketing. So I'd say the challenge is to convince the management team initially to be experimental, put everything out there, and have a conviction. You need to have a specific point of view that you take to the market, and you express it in different formats, such as content, building your presence on LinkedIn, or the kind of demand you generate. Everything starts with a conviction of how you approach certain things, and that belief system is what's going to show who you are. If you're going to be one of the products that are already out there and if you're offering at 20% cost of somebody else, you're just a cheaper product. You must make sure that your voice is unique and build on that. Convincing your management initially to take a bet on something like this is really a challenge.

Kiruthika: Now I've two questions for you: 1) What are the common marketing strategy mistakes startups make? 2) What temptations should startups refrain from giving in to?

Yaag: Mistakes! There are too many. Be open and don't get to a closed mindset where you say this is my competitor, and this is my customer. Because many times you start somewhere, and six months down the line, you realize you're marketing to the wrong customer. So don't hold onto them. It's great to have a belief system, but the reality is to be open to reevaluating yourself. This is a challenge when marketing leaders work with CEOs because you need to bring data to the table. If you're resting on philosophies and opinions, ultimately, you will concede to the opinions of the senior leader with the highest decision authority. They might be the best person to understand the market, but are you marketing to the right customer? That's where everything starts.

Regarding the temptations, marketers should refrain from: Founders meet every now and then to talk about how someone else is doing something, and we should also do it. But why? They'd say someone produces 25 pieces of content monthly, and we should also do that. But why? Having that clarity will save you every step of the way.

Kiruthika: Can I say that marketing make decisions based on metrics and data?

Yaag: I wish that was the reality. But many times, it takes a lot of time until you get there. The reality of startups is that until you get about 100-150 customers (taking SaaS as an example), you don't have a sample size to go back and say that hey this is what working and this is what isn't working, and these are the metrics I look up to. So you've got to start somewhere. You have to start with a hypothesis and go with a hypothesis for certain times and pivot based on your hunches. Probably around Series-A time, you'll have some amount of data to say that hey over the last one or two years this is what worked, we now have a base, these're the adjustments we have to make, and for that you need to work on different kind of tools, metrics, and attributions, and all that. But that game is words playing when you have that much data you have in your company.

Kiruthika:For any marketing activity, we measure at least a dozen metrics. What metrics should marketers be obsessed over, and what can they go easy on?

Yaag: Metrics are highly dependent on what you want to achieve. In the initial stage of a startup, you'd be looking at attracting the right people to the website. You'll be looking at an entire month's traffic versus how many people signed up for your product or booked a demo. That's not enough. You've got to go deeper and pick a metric based on understanding the different channels you can bet on. Instead of looking at your overall CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost), Channel CAC would bring you some results. So pick your metrics based on what you're investing in. I'd say have one channel to start with, become a master of it, and start measuring whether that specific channel is bringing something. If not, identify the other channels you can bet on. When you grow, move your investment from one channel to another and branch out. I'd say start with two. You'll have two things to measure and see what is working. Then experiment with moving budgets to different channels and see how it works.

Kiruthika: Made a note of that. I'll add this to my checklist for all my future marketing plans. My next question is about trends, which change. For marketers, it's essential to know what's happening in the market to remain in the competition. So, how do we stay ahead of the curve and remain relevant?

Yaag: Trends are always going to come and go. Instead of staying ahead of it, be where your customers are. Everybody is now talking about ChatGPT. It's a wave. But the point is, is it helping your organization? Is it helping you get what you want? If yes, how're you leveraging it? That's what you should focus on. It's not about jumping into something shiny today and saying hey, let's also be one of the people who do that. It's about using it the way it best works for you. A couple of years ago, Clubhouse was the rage. Everybody was getting into Clubhouse. But to do what? You couldn't even get data outside the app and use it for marketing. Having people in your room is nice, but how will it translate into business results? You need to see how you can build this from a business standpoint, how this will contribute to your goal, and how this is going to help your customers. If you ask those fundamental questions, you'll always find a way to stay relevant to your customers. Also, when you're starting, don't burn bridges. Start with relationships you already have, expand one by one, and do things that don't scale initially. That's the key mantra for startups, at least in the early stage. Because you cannot afford customers churning. Focus there before jumping on to trends.

Some questions from the audience:

1) How much revenue would you allocate for marketing?

Yaag: The general logic of how you allocate is you look at your current revenue and say, let me have 1% of my revenue as my marketing budget to start with and see how it translates and what results you get. It highly depends on the channels you invest in. Based on that, you increase your marketing budget when you're getting higher returns.

2) How would you position your startup during the early stages?

Yaag: Positioning is something that you cannot do early on. It will always be a bet when you position yourself by saying this is my point of view about the industry, this is the angle, and this is the story I'm going to say. Watch how the market responds, and get a good number of customers. Identify why people buy your product, its purpose, and its use case. Then you slowly start building the story on what's resonating and position your product based on that.

3) What are the ways to start branding your company?

Yaag: Start with something that doesn't require you to invest money. Initially, you've to be frugal. I'd say LinkedIn and podcasts are great spaces. Start and keep telling stories. The best part about these platforms and models is that you get instant feedback. Learn, rectify, and repeat until your brand voice is heard.

4) My users are lab R&D chemists; however, the buying decision-makers are their R&D managers. What is the best way to market to them?

Yaag: This is a common problem that happens. People who will be using your product and those who will be deciding which product to buy are two different people. Your content needs to be focused on both these audiences. You need to decide which story to tell to whom. For example, to someone who's using your product, you need to come up with messaging like how it changes their day-to-day work and what matters to them. But to the decision maker, you talk about ROI and saving time and cost. The message should be different for both audiences. You've got to cater to both and make sure that you don't tell a common story to both.

5) For startup marketing, do you advise in-house or outsourcing content?

Yaag: When you're at a starting stage with a small team, I recommend building your content in-house. Because you know your story and your point of view on the market. When you work with an agency, content gets watered down and becomes generic if they lack domain knowledge. There needs to be consistency in your brand voice. The original thought and the point of view of who you are as a company should come from you, even if you're outsourcing.

You can find how Zoho SalesIQ can be an incredible engagement tool for a startup here. You can schedule an exclusive Zoho SalesIQ demo now and check out what it can do for your organization.


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