Startup Marketing

I was recently invited to mentor startup teams going through Iron Yard Ventures Digital Health Accelerator program1. The topic of the day was marketing, which can be a tricky, make-or-break struggle for early-stage software companies.

Below are my notes from the mentor session.

What is marketing?

Here’s a working definition:

Marketing is the sum total of every possible interaction someone can have with your company.

Marketing includes everything from the first time someone sees your brand to the experience they have when they reach out to someone for help.

This is daunting, and it should be.

As an early stage startup, how do you decide what to focus on?

For early-stage software companies, it’s easy. What’s the one thing that will virtually guarantee your company can continue to exist?

Customer acquisition.

That means that, at this stage, your marketing efforts need to focus almost exclusively on getting customers.

  • This may seem like you’re neglecting really important things like customer support, but that’s actually a myth. Once you have a customer, you can have a conversation with them and they can give you direct feedback on what you need to change—they’ve already committed to you.
  • The real trick is figuring out how to get people to sign up to use your product in a world of overwhelming options.

But what about things like attrition and percentage of active users? 

  • Those metrics are extremely important, but if you can’t prove that you can get people to sign up, stats around whether or not people use or leave your app are irrelevant.

Enough philosophy. How do you do marketing?

First, marketing is not black magic.

Second, the following formula assumes you know your product well and can communicate about it—if you can’t clearly communicate about what problem your company solves for your customers, your marketing will be dead in the water.

The formula:

  1. Test on a small scale.
  2. Measure.
  3. Keep doing what works.
  4. Stop doing what doesn’t.
  5. Be consistent.

Test on a small scale

  • Try everything you can think of (within reason, of course—don’t buy a Super Bowl commercial)


  • It’s simple: ask your customers how they heard about you. This can be really primitive at the outset—you’re looking for broad trends. Think of them as signposts.

Keep doing what works

  • If you see any traction, dive into that channel.

Stop doing what doesn’t

  • Just because it worked for another company doesn’t mean it will work for you
  • Success in one market doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing will work in every market
  • Don’t live in the land of “if” (if we could just…). Either you can do it or you can’t, either it works or it doesn’t.

Important side note: worrying about what your competitors are doing never works.

When we were going through our initial stage of expansion at The Iron Yard’s code school, we looked on as several competitors enjoyed visits to the White House to talk about the state of education. While we could have focused on trying to get the same opportunities, we focused 100% on building and growing the best immersive code education program we could. Today, we’re the largest and fastest growing code school in the country and several of those competitors are out of the game.

But, don’t take my word for it. Here are some well-respected (and successful entrepreneurs):

Be consistent

One mistake a lot of people make is blaming unsuccessful marketing efforts on their messaging and brand, so they constantly change the way they sell themselves to find something that “resonates” with customers more. Awareness is a really important piece of the marketing puzzle and constantly changing things guts your ability to leverage the awareness you do create. While your messaging and brand might be off, it might not be, and there’s a very real cost to gutting awareness you have built and starting over. For example, I had a friend who ran an online life science company, and he specifically accredited the growth of his business to using a life science agency. In this case, he chose an agency who specialised in his particular business area, thus giving him a competitive edge.

Lots of companies get tired of their own brand, want to “update their look” or try to make their company “look cooler”. You shouldn’t look like crap, but your customer cares whether your product solves their problem, not whether you’re tweaking your logo to make it look more suave.

Grasshopper2 has been using what are, in my opinion, weird-looking cartoon characters and a less-than-sexy logo for a long, long time. Parts of their interface are weird. The interface for ‘advanced users’ is objectively horrible. But their product works incredibly well and makes my company more efficient, so I don’t care about their characters or logo or weird parts of their interface.

A few more examples:

  • Dropbox refreshed their brand, but maintained the equity they built by keeping the shape identical and sticking with blue as a color
  • BMW’s logo has looked virtually the same since the very beginning (the version below is from 1917)
  • Amazon has been using their “a to z” logo for 15 years
  • Apple used the “rainbow” logo from 1972 to 1998 and maintained the exact same shape when they updated the color


Great, but how do you actually execute this in real life?

Figuring out what to test and making a plan

Your initial marketing plan can be a simple list of all of the things you want to test. Google Sheets works great for listing, categorizing and tracking3 (check it out an example in the footnote). In fact, that’s exactly what we used to grow The Iron Yard code school for the first 10 cities (and we still use them for some things today).

No matter what tool you use, the first step is easy: list every possible place that you might find your customers. Once you have that list, prioritize the opportunities then turn it into an attack plan with due dates, etc.

From there, try, record, iterate and repeat.

Choose your battles

It’s not cheap to attend classes at The Iron Yard, meaning the sales cycle tends to be much longer and require a much more hands-on approach. We learned quickly that in-person interactions at events was the most efficient way to get customers quickly. For a long time I was the only full-time person working on marketing, so that meant I flew from city to city and was on the ground working events with local staff.

Because travel was so time consuming (and exhaustin), I neglected more complex inbound marketing efforts like turning website traffic into leads and using calls-to-action to figure out what potential students were interested in. Looking back I wish I’d focused on that earlier, but the reality is that I had to choose my battles and digital wasn’t the quickest way to make sales.

For those interested, you can do basic inbound marketing cheaply with tools like MailChimp Automation4.

Don’t over extend

Things like content marketing can be really helpful, but can also be extremely labor intensive, take lots of time to build steam and usually have low conversion rates. As I said above, just because something worked for another and someone blogged about it doesn’t mean it’s a wise use of your precious hours.

Get creative and scrappy

Again, constantly ask yourself, “how can I get as close to my customer as possible?” Everyone wants to be features on Product Hunt and Tech Crunch, but the competition there is insane. Find places no one else is looking.

For example, in the early days of launching The Iron Yard in new cities, we hypothesized that people working in the food and beverage industry would potentially be great customers or, at the very least, have conversations with patrons who might be (especially bar tenders). We printed a few hundred coasters and met every bar tender at every bar in the city, telling them about what we did and offering referral fees for anyone they sent our way.


Measuring success

Use analytics, if possible, but remember, time learning to do analytics is time you could be selling. Data always has answers, but if you don’t have a clear question you’re asking, you’ll be led in a million different directions. What’s most important? Probably questions like, “are we generating leads?”, etc.

It’s simple: ask your customer how they heard about you. You can talk to your customers! They love hearing from someone in the “C-suite”. At The Iron Yard, it’s a required field on our applications.

Compare that information with what you executed in your marketing plan, see what works, rinse and repeat.

1. You can read more about Iron Yard Ventures on their website.2. You can read more about Grasshopper’s phone service on their website.3. Take a gander at a basic marketing plan spreadsheet in Google Drive.4. Learn more about MailChimp and their Automation feature on their website.

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