Marketing Is the Key to Success for a Startup

I expect this article will get more argument than usual. That’s fine. This is my opinion. You’re welcome to your own, even if it’ll cause your startup to fail.

I’ll state upfront that my point of view is biased. I’m a startup CEO with a marketing background. And I’m convinced that’s why my startups succeeded where most others fail.

The number one challenge of every startup is finding product-market fit. P-MF isn’t a single aha moment but an ongoing process of iteration and refinement, followed by the occasional, painful pivot.

The process of finding and optimizing product-market fit starts from the first day of ideation and continues well into Series A.

The second biggest challenge of a startup is finding an effective go-to-market strategy. Again, GTM is not a single answer to fill into the business model canvass. What works with pilot customers will be different from early paid customers, which will differ from a scalable process to reach the masses.

GTM strategy, too, is an ongoing process of iteration and refinement that starts from customer discovery and continues to evolve well into Series A.

It’s no coincidence that the two biggest startup challenges involve the word “market.” You can build the best product in the world, but if it doesn’t match what customers need, or isn’t marketed in a way customers understand, or isn’t available through a route that customers can purchase, the company is doomed to fail.

Marketing, far more than the details of the product itself, is what will determine if a company succeeds or fails.

Working on product-market fit and go-to-market strategy is the role of marketing. The answers found through customer discovery must define the product development priorities and set the sales process. Marketing, therefore, needs to be at the center of the startup.

Because marketing is the key to a successful product introduction, more than engineering, sales, finance, legal, or any other role, a marketing specialist should be the CEO of every startup for the best chance to find market acceptance and growth.

What is Marketing?

Everyone seems to have a different conception of what marketing is, so let’s start from the beginning.

The sales department is easy to understand — their job is to sell product. And engineering — build the product. Customer support, accounting, HR — they all have well-defined roles. However, marketing is something of a Rorschach test that means something different to everyone.

Some people think marketing means keyword advertising and social media engagement. Digital marketing is a function of the marketing group, but just one technique to drive sales.

For salespeople, marketing usually implies writing product brochures, website text, and sales presentations to wow their prospects. Product marketing, too, is a job of the marketing team, but one function rather than its purpose.

To corporate types, marketing seems to involve writing press releases and getting interviews for the CEO. Marketing communications, or marcomm, is yet one more function of marketing, but just another tactic.

All of these are functions of marketing, but not the purpose. They’re tactics and techniques, while the role of marketing is to drive the company’s strategy.

Here’s my definition of marketing: the translation layer between the external — the customer — and the internal — product development.

Fundamentally, the only 2 things that matter to a business are the customer and the product. The job of the company is to build a product the customer needs and wants. Marketing is that connection between customer and product.

“Wait!” I hear you say. “Isn’t that sales?”

Nope. The job of sales is to sell the existing product. Sales is fundamentally about 1-way communications: here’s our product — buy it!

If a sale isn’t coming soon, a salesperson should move on quickly to the next prospect. It’s not the role of the sales team to rethink the product to better fit the audience — that’s marketing.

Marketing: The Internal Voice of the Customer

The goal of marketing is to understand the customer and work with engineering to build a product that meets their needs. This means talking with customers daily but asking questions rather than selling and listening rather than speaking.

With a clear understanding of the customer — what they need, how they use the product, how they learn about new products, and how they purchase products — marketing is responsible for both product-market fit to define the product and customer, as well as the go-to-market strategy to get the product into customers’ hands.

That’s half the job — translating the external customer to everyone inside in the company. Marketing should have a seat at the table at every discussion to act as the voice of the user. That includes engineering discussions of features and user interface. If those don’t meet the customer’s needs, all the hard work of building the product is in vain.

Marketing: The Voice of the Company to the Outside World

Beyond translating the customer to people inside the company, the second half of marketing’s job is translating the product to the customer.

Too many startups attempt to sell their product by explaining its features or how it works, often in the company’s own internal language and unique terminology that mean nothing to the end user.

To succeed, a startup needs to translate what the product does into how it helps the customer. This means translating everything into the customer’s language and terminology, finding the keywords that make user’s eyes light up, and creating stories that cause users to say, “That’s exactly the problem I’m struggling with and exactly what I need!”

Marketing should be responsible for all customer-facing interactions from the design of the user interface to the content of the website. Documentation, packaging, product literature, sales presentations, advertising, and social media interactions should all be the responsibility of marketing.

Marketing: The Corporate Core

The role of marketing is a bit nebulous because it’s responsible for everything except the actual product development effort and support roles like accounting, HR, and legal.

Marketing should be involved in every discussion that involves the product or customers, and have a veto over every important decision.

Since early sales is more about customer discovery than having a repeatable turnkey sales process, early sales should be done by the marketing team rather than hiring separate salespeople.

As the startup grows, the situation will change. Once the product and brand become established with a few million in revenue, the company is ready to hire a VP of Sales or Chief Revenue Office to build a sales team to scale out a repeatable sales process.

Until then, if you want your startup to succeed, put marketing at the center of everything the startup does and make a marketing expert the company’s CEO.

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