OWNER'S MANUAL

What Every Successful Startup Knows About Marketing

From Dharmesh Shah, an entrepreneur who built a company--and wrote the book--on the subject.
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Building a great company means spending the vast majority of your time and resources on two things:

  1. Creating products and services people will love, and
  2. Finding people to love those products and services.

Even though they may be great at building products, many startups fail because they are terrible at marketing those products. Why? They see marketing as a necessary--or even unnecessary--evil.

And of course they're wrong.

Dharmesh Shah, co-founder of HubSpot (No. 666 on the Inc. 5000 in 2013), has spent most of his professional career helping entrepreneurs and startups take a different approach to marketing. Last year, I featured his incredibly popular (1.3 million views and counting) Culture Code slide show on how to build a company you'll love.

Now he's published a great new slide show, Jumpstart: The Guide to Growing a Startup With Inbound Marketing.

Here are some of the highlights:

1. You absolutely must market.

Many startups ignore marketing. After all, they're committed to building a killer product people will love.

Still: Without marketing, who will ever know your killer product exists? Great marketing helps you find people to love what you do.

Granted, you can hire a PR agency and hope that you'll get "free" publicity on, say, TechCrunch or Inc. That's fine--but what will you do the other 363 days? Hiring a PR firm doesn't work for most startups, but yours just might be the exception.

Then again, probably not.

If you don't plan to invest in marketing, you shouldn't invest in building a product.

2. Your marketing should never be sleazy.

No one wakes up thinking, "Gee, I hope I get spammed today." Ninety-five percent of people don't like being interrupted.

The other 5 percent hate being interrupted.

The best marketing is based on doing what you do best: helping customers. The best marketing is based on creating content that is useful for your potential users or customers. That's the essence of inbound marketing: helpful, useful content that draws people to you, attracting instead of annoying them.

3. Leave stealth mode to fighter jets, not startups.

If you're worried about somebody stealing your idea, please stop. Now. Don't worry about that.

Instead, worry about how you'll get customers. And team members. And funding. All of these things are really hard--especially if you don't talk about your idea.

4. Wait until your product is "ready" to start marketing and you've waited too long.

Ideally, you should write your first line of content the same day you write your first line of code. Ideally, you should write your first line of content the same day you brainstorm your first prototype.

You absolutely must start building brand, reach, and credibility as early as possible.

Too soon is never soon enough.

5. Never engage in an arms race for attention.

You won't win by shouting louder, placing bigger ads, or buying a bigger booth at the trade show. You can't buy attention; you can only rent it. Advertising is always temporary--when you stop paying the "rent," you stop getting any attention.

Besides, well-heeled competitors have more money and can spend money way more stupidly. So let them.

As a startup, your goal is to use marketing tools and strategies that create leverage. You need to receive disproportionate, long-term return on your marketing investments.

That's the only way you will survive and later thrive.

6. Don't rely solely on a chief marketing officer.

In the early years, everyone in the company should be selling. Everyone in the company should also be marketing.

You don't need to steal away a highfalutin marketing executive from (whatever company you think is hot). You need people that care passionately about what you do, who want to help and inform and teach other people, and who can create content that builds your brand and reach.

You need as many of those people as you can find--because the more people you have committed to helping customers, the more your company will grow.

7. Focus on SEO and organic traffic.

There are 5.9 billion searches performed on Google every day. That's way too many potential visitors to ignore.

The great thing about organic versus paid traffic is 1) there's more of it, and 2) the marginal cost for those clicks is low. Unlike PPC ads, once your content ranks well you no longer pay additional money for every additional click.

So don't rent online attention; invest in organic search, solve for the searcher and not the search engine (there's a huge difference), and build marketing assets you own.

Remember, as ye SEO, so shall ye reap.

8. Use social media as an amplifier, not a magic bullet.

It takes time, but if you build a following, social media is a great way to take the awesome content you produce and spread it further and wider.

But don't try to automate getting fans or followers.

The best way to get fans is to create value for the connections you hope to someday get. Then make it incredibly simple to share your content. Put sharing buttons on your site--the easier it is to share, the more people will share.

And, in time, your following will grow--the right way.

9. Don't waste time assembling your own platform.

This may seem self-serving because HubSpot provides a marketing platform, but it's still true.

As a startup, you should spend all available calories on making your product better and helping your customers. So don't decide to wire together a bunch of different apps just because you're smart enough to pick the right tool in each category and smart enough to get those tools to talk to one another.

Use every bit of brainpower on your product and your marketing.

Customers don't care about your platform. Customers care about how your products can meet their needs, solve their problems, and make their lives a little better.

Focus on helping your customers, both with your products and your marketing.

Then everyone wins.

Last updated: Jul 9, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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