When I landed a job at my first start-up I wasn't given a marketing budget. Nothing. The scrappy team that would go on to create Like.com and get acquired by Google did everything in-house. There was no budget for PR, advertising, paid content, or sponsorships. It was my job to build relationships with the wider online community—and users—but I had to do it without spending a dime.

So I muddled through doing what I called "community marketing" and would later be coined social media marketing. This was before Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. The idea was that I could build relationships one-on-one and grow a strong and vociferous user base that would help us grow to the next level.

And it worked. It worked like a charm. In just over six months of muddling away at this, we launched our beta product to a flurry of media, sign ups, and excitement. Users uploaded more than one million photos to our site within 24 hours.

When it came to marketing my current start-up, Buyosphere, I realized times had changed a bit. There were fewer start-ups and customers had different expectations when Like.com launched. Grassroots was easier because "start-up" meant exciting and new and different. Today, the market is saturated with start-ups and apps and launches. Giants like Facebook with its humongous teams of coders can take out a small start-up in a weekend by implementing a single feature.

I realized that to compete in today's market, you must act like a giant... but on a start-up's budget.

I find this daunting. How can I take my measly budget of $5,000/month and make it count? Advertising and search marketing are still unattainable. Even at a decent CPC, the spend feels meaningless and hardly makes a dent. One advertorial or newsletter placement on a small site eats the majority of the budget. We can't afford placement on the bigger sites. Throwing $5,000 at one promotion a month is like walking into a Vegas casino and saying, "Bet everything on black." Unless we are feeling really secure about the placement, it's a stupid gamble to make.

So we go back to grassroots. We get involved a little bit in everything. We try to appear in as many places as possible, hoping that this appearance, this small sponsorship, this small ad spend, this demo, or this promotion gets in front of the one right person. It's like betting on a bunch of different games strategically. The returns will net something, but will we ever hit a jackpot that way? That's the hope.

I read a funny cartoon when I was young where a kid goes into a fireworks store and asks what he can get for 5 cents. The cashier hands him a tiny firecracker. The kid walks out of the store looking deflated but then gets an idea. He uses that firecracker to light the store's entire inventory on fire and sits and watches triumphantly from the outside.

The moral: You need to find out where to throw your measly firecracker to get the fireworks show you need.

In the end, marketing is always uncertain. The only thing that works is time and great customer experiences. Whether you approach your marketing one-on-one or spend a bunch to get bigger exposure, the only way you will get fireworks is if you wow the people who come to your site... and hope that one of those people is the firecracker that lights off an entire show.