Co-founder of Harlow – an all-in-one tool to help freelancers get organized, save time and look professional.
The process of launching a Software-as-a-Service startup used to go like this:
1. Pitch investors on the concept and early products.
2. Get your first round of funding.
3. Build a product for six to 12 months.
4. Launch a minimal viable product.
5. Validate product-market fit.
6. Get an initial blip of customers through your network.
7. And, finally, build the foundation for marketing.
There are a few other steps in there, but you get the drift. Marketing traditionally has been the last priority for startup founders. If you follow this path, it can take six to nine months from the day you launch to even begin to see real growth. I’ve found this approach is so common that founders widely accept it as the only way. But is it the smartest way?
My business partner, Andrea, and I have worked with more than 40 early-stage startups in the past few years, and now we’re building our own SaaS company. We’ve seen this pattern play out dozens of times. As consultants, we’d join the team and immediately notice that product, development, sales and customer support were all up and running, while marketing was simmering on the back burner. These startups would have no marketing programs in place to back up the lofty growth goals they’d sold their investors on.
What I’ve heard over and over again from product and tech founders is that they don’t want to invest in long-term marketing strategies until they know they have a product-market fit. But the reality is, these types of programs can help you identify product-market fit before the product is even live.
Focusing on your community, content and social presence can deliver valuable results in the long run, but companies often shy away from these programs because they take time to build.
As my co-founder and I have been building our own company, we’re doing things differently. We put time, effort and money into building our community, content and overall brand before we even launched the product. By the time we got to market with our beta and official launch, we knew exactly who we were marketing to—and had a list of hand-raisers who wanted in. We knew from experience how important brand perception and audience trust are to a company.
Here’s how we thought about brand, community and content for our company (and our previous consulting customers), as well as how I suggest pushing these programs forward while building your own product.
1. Define your value proposition and how you can help.
Ask yourself: What pain points are you helping your audience solve?
Once you come up with these hypotheses, it’s time to validate these value propositions with your potential customers. Make sure the problems you are outlining resonate with them. You can start with 10 to 15 people in your assumed target audience and start running these problems past them.
If they resonate, that’s great. Now it’s time to dig deeper.
Ask your customers: What content do they consume? Who do they engage with? What products are they currently using to do their job or solve this pain point? What do they like and dislike about competitors? Gathering some of this early information will enable you to start working on your high-level positioning statement. This can change as your product and company evolve, but you have to start somewhere.
Once you figure this out, you can build an early website or splash page around your vision. Set up a simple form on your splash page, and all of a sudden, you’re prepared to start talking about your brand, collecting names and nurturing early interested parties.
2. Start engaging and building community.
This might look different based on who you are building your product for, but there is almost always an existing community or forum where your audience is already having conversations. Is it Twitter? Is it Reddit? Figure out where your audience already is and start engaging. The more you engage, the more you’ll learn about your audience’s pain points and preferences.
This is a chance to start building connections with a wider subset of your audience and can be done through your personal brand or through your company’s brand. So spin up those social profiles and get to engaging.
Be very thoughtful during this step, however. Find the right balance between building connections, asking questions to learn more, sharing helpful information and self-promoting. Too much advertising at this stage can actually hurt you if you haven’t built up trust.
3. Create your early content strategy.
Once you start getting answers and validation from your audience, it’s time to start building your content strategy. Content marketing takes time. And while I’m not suggesting that you just start throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, you can take some simple steps to create an initial strategy.
Along with what your audience has told you early on that they care about, pay close attention to what they’re posting and sharing to see what draws their attention. Think about how content can support your story. Think about what kind of content is truly helpful. Make a list of your first 10 to 20 posts, and start moving.
If you can, engage your audience and get them to contribute early content.
4. Start distributing.
You now have social profiles spun up, relationships being built and content ready to put in front of your audience. Now comes distributing that content.
Chances are, at this stage, you’re going to be the biggest company advocate to leverage, which might mean a lot of the content distribution is going to fall on you. Own that.
You can easily start content distribution by sharing on social media, with your network or even with friends and family. Don’t be afraid to ask others to share. The more you share, the more feedback you’ll get, which will lead to a deeper understanding of what resonates with your audience.
Make sure you continue to find a balance, but at this stage, once you’ve built up trust, self-promotion gets a bit easier.