3 Marketing Mistakes That Kill Tech Startups
Despite media headlines claiming that startups are leaving Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is still a hotbed of innovation. Out of the 10 companies to reach a $1-billion valuation the fastest, eight are based in San Francisco, according to PitchBook.
Just a decade ago, we could not imagine renting out someone's home, hailing a cab or chatting on video with friends in other parts of the world -- all with a single tap on our smartphones. Yet the Airbnbs, Ubers and Facebooks of the tech world work hard to make these tech dreams a reality.
Against incredible odds, given that most startups fail, thousands of founders aspire to launch the next unicorn. Want to join the winning percent of startups that survive? Avoid making these three terrible marketing mistakes:
Chasing media fame too early
Startups are built on passion and faith. If you don't believe in the company's mission and product, then success is impossible.
This level of conviction, however, creates a blind spot for many entrepreneurs. Think of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos as both the best example and the worst-case scenario. Founders want to share their vision with the rest of the world and chase press coverage before the company has been tested and proven.
While a feature in TechCrunch or VentureBeat will indeed impress investors, make your parents proud and stroke your entrepreneur ego, if product-market fit isn't established first, you're likely marketing your startup into a very public embarrassment.
Take another example, Bodega. Last year, two ex-Googlers tried to launch what was essentially a vending machine full of assorted items people typically pick up at their corner store. The issue with this concept was immediately apparent to everyone but the founders themselves.
The startup's perceived core audience were happy to support their local merchants (often hard-working immigrants) and did not want to abandon the mom-and-pop operations they'd patronized for years for a robotic alternative that was only a hundred feet closer to their door. While Bodega earned stories in The Washington Post, CNN and the like, the majority of that coverage was negative, as it exposed major flaws in the startup's product and market fit.
Another example is Juicero, a startup that raised $118 million in funding only to fail after the media unveiled the $400 juice machine as a useless device designed for the "out-of-touch elite" from Silicon Valley.
Before revealing your tech innovation to the world and aiming for features in top-tier media outlets, first establish that your audience actually exists (outside of your friends-and-family supportive circle). It doesn't matter how great your product is if it doesn't fulfill anyone's needs.
Conduct extensive testing to understand who your target is and what about your product resonates with them. From there, refine your product and brand so it has a solid foundation. Then employ marketing strategies to get press coverage and grow your target audience.
Relying on growth hacking
One challenge many tech founders face is a constant need to disrupt the system. When you constantly hear about "overnight" successes, and in an effort to meet expectations from investors, it's only natural to want fast results.
Responding to entrepreneurs' pursuit of a better - and most importantly faster -- way to reach their goal, "growth hacking" has become a popular trend when marketing tech. While this is an agile way to quickly find channels that reach your audience, it ignores a fundamental aspect of marketing: relationships.
When a company is a growing yet early stage startup, the quality of the relationships it has with customers is vital. It's better to have a fan base that is loyal and willing to advocate for your brand than one that just consumes content.
Focus on reaching your small group of believers first. Speak to what they want and need. In turn, they will eventually become brand advocates, spreading the word among other like-minded individuals and helping organically grow your reach. While this may take longer, it creates a stronger group of customers and allows you to avoid marketing mistakes that waste time and money.
Spreading yourself thin
Our world is inundated with content. From blogs to videos to social media, there are infinite ways to market tech. But, if you try to be present on every platform - especially as a startup founder short on time, people and money - your overall efforts will suffer.
Instead of chasing every opportunity, do your research and discover where your audience is. Focus only on high quality and the channels tailored to your audience that bring your best results. Not everyone is a potential customer, and the sooner you realize that, the better.
For example, if your core audience is teenagers, put your efforts in Snapchat or Musical.ly. If you do it right, you'll see a higher return on investment by putting your limited resources into that specific channel rather than trying to do everything at once.
Avoid the main mistakes that make companies fail. Focus on the product, build strong organic relationships with your audience and invest your time and effort into marketing channels that generate results -- and make your unicorn dream come true.
The article was originally published in Entrepreneur magazine.