Our Approach To Fixing Startup Marketing

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In Part 2 of this two piece post, I outline our approach to solving the the Three Challenges of Startup Marketing explored in Part 1.


Four Areas of Focus

We focus on the following four areas to help startups build strong foundations for marketing and enterprise success:

  1. Make marketing more approachable and easier to grasp
  2. Embrace third party specialist marketing resources and platforms
  3. Nurture marketing leaders
  4. Adopt Lean and Agile

Each of these four points contribute to building what I like to call as “marketing infrastructure“. The objective is not to just get marketing right once, but consistently right against a “moving target”: startup marketing is an iterative process of hypothesis building and experimentation along different stages of your customer and product. For the startup manager who previously approached marketing as an afterthought (and realized the error hence listening to us now), this is surprisingly a lot of work, almost a setback. In my view, there’s no such thing as plug-and-play marketing. There’s only the organizational way – the goal is to build a strong marketing organization. Let’s get started.

1. Make marketing more approachable and easier to grasp

Marketing is overwhelming, and it scares away people. Startup entrepreneurs need good resources (i.e. advisers, training programs, tools) that will give them the broad scope of marketing (I am avoiding the use of “full scope” here as every marketing is different). Once they get a grasp of that, confidence level to tackle marketing and marketing organization building should go up.

For my contribution, I am working on a framework I’d like to call “Compact Marketing“, a MVP (minimum viable product) of sorts of essential areas of marketing for startup entrepreneurs to consider. As output, I’d like to put together a one-page template tool where the entrepreneur can fill in their findings and decisions into their own marketing MVP. The template would be somewhat akin to a Business Model Canvas, but I am currently considering versions that may be in horizontal or vertical sequence following the marketing/sales funnel, or circular representing the marketing/sales lifecycle. Contact me if you would like to receive a copy of an early version of this tool; collaborators welcome too.

2. Embrace third party specialist marketing resources and platforms

The idea is to significantly supplement the startup’s marketing hires with a syndicated approach to tapping into 3rd party resources of different specialties (both individuals and service providers), and various marketing technology platform providers. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of such specializations:

  • Content creation and design
  • Digital asset management and marketing resource management
  • Social media marketing, monitoring, community management
  • Influencers, advocacy, loyalty and referral marketing
  • Account based marketing
  • Marketing data, optimization, personalization, testing, analytics, performance and attribution
  • SEO, search, social, native advertising management
  • Customer intelligence, CX/UX, web experience, CMS
  • Marketing automation, campaign management
  • Sales automation, CRM, lead management

Advising and recommending which services to integrate according to the needs of the startup will be a key element of our consulting, so this is dependent on our intelligence, research and networking. Specialists and platform providers, please contact us!!!

3. Nurture marketing leaders

Finding a strong marketing lead is a hiring challenge and even after the hire there’s still the question of fit and efficacy. In my opinion, nurturing marketing leaders among your own people is an encouraged option: my belief is that marketing is complex but it can be learned. And as marketing is a very human business, look for the people with strong empathy and emotional intelligence – you may find that you already have talent within your team.

This leads to my next final point of approaching marketing as a whole organization exercise with servant leadership. And where else would you find the best servant leaders other than from your own people?

4. Adopt Lean and Agile

And final point, I like Lean and Agile because they are good working frameworks for businesses facing strong uncertainties, which is pretty much the definition of startups. The challenge is that we are so ingrained in traditional waterfall project management ways and hierarchical functional organization structures. Even the younger generation are not immune to this as our educational and social systems is very waterfall, hierarchical and functional.

Learning Lean and Agile is an uncomfortable experience for many because it requires a lot of behavioral changes to what we are used to. No more waiting for instructions, instead you are asked to participate in deciding what to do.

(Okay, so far so good.)

You are asked to continuously question, build hypotheses, test ideas, measure results but also challenge interpretations of findings so your learning is properly validated.

(Urghh, I’d prefer to keep my way of doing the job. I already know what to do, and changing things will effect my productivity. That’s not good for the business, right?)

And you really need to be a team player – those that can’t take down the wall of not-my-job mentality will sadly be excused, as when things aren’t going well, these bad apples will revert to the old habit of blaming others and hinder the team’s collective effort to “fix the system”.

(Wait, does that mean I can’t just do my job and am responsible for other people’s performance? I think that’s unfair. In any case, this sounds too idealistic and I’m skeptical if it will work.)

Just installing Scrum (one of the popular Agile practicing frameworks) won’t get you far – buy-in from every team member is a must and you can’t top-down tell people to buy-in. Hence the need for servant leadership – in the case of Scrum a contemplative Product Owner and an articulate Scrum Master, whom are both very credible listeners to team members, stake holders, collaborators and most importantly, customers.

There will be a lot of resistance; the naysayer voice above is not an exception but actually, more or less our own voice. Old habits will kick back in and silently you may drift into a “bad Scrum“. And for the startup entrepreneur, being the owner boss, servant leadership can be a hard bridge to cross. Adopting Lean and Agile true to their values may be the hardest challenge that your organization can face.

But let’s face it, there’s a reason why 95% (or whatever absurdly high number) of startups fail. You can’t run a startup like a conventional business – almost all successful startups have adopted Lean and Agile in one form or another (they may not necessarily be labeled Lean and Agile, but following the same essence). Departing from old ways of doing things is a painful transformation, but it seems like startup success is all about that. Actually, Lean and Agile are the shortcuts – they are culminations of wisdom from our forerunners, through the learning from their own many failures. They are like climbing routes on a mountain – they vastly help and prove that the mountain is conquerable, but nobody carries you over the mountain and you’re going to have to make the climb yourself.

Where to Start

Pick up a book. Here are some recommended reads.

Reach out to your startup community to find out how others are practicing Lean & Agile. Some may merely be using Scrum as a project management framework, others may be more deeply embracing Lean & Agile thinking at the organizational level. If you come across a team that is practicing Scrum pretty good (or Kanban or whatever other approach), maybe even ask to intern for a few days to experience the workflow and culture.

And then, give it a go. Try Scrum yourself among your people. Maybe things will go incredibly smooth and everybody will like it. And if “this isn’t working” happens (which is most likely), then review, reflect and iterate – apply Scrum on your Scrum itself.

At any point, reach out to advisers, coaches, consultants and specialists like us. At different levels of involvement, we can provide you essential help in getting your marketing and Lean and Agile implementation right. It’s commendable to try and figure out things yourself, but stubbornly not seeking for help is not a wise thing either. As an enterprise manager, you should be conscious of the “money value of time”; investing in outside help early on may actually save you money, leaving you more time to burn.


Startups of all stages, whether you are new to Lean and Agile or seeking help to reboot your marketing, get in touch with us and share us your challenges. We also help larger enterprises transform with Lean and Agile. And fellow professionals in the marketing community, especially those with the specialist skills and platforms mentioned in this article, we should collaborate. Please contact us.

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