How do you go from having a few customers, to enough customers to sustain your business and fuel its growth?
7 Oct, 2017FORBES.COM
So you’ve finally launched your startup. It’s a dream come true, and you are undoubtedly excited. You may even have a customer or two already. But here comes the tough part: How do you go from having a few customers, to enough customers to sustain your business and fuel its growth? Your sales team will of course have a huge role to play in this trajectory, so hire wisely. But you will also need a steady stream of leads that you can feed to your sales people. Where will these leads come from? In all likelihood, they will come from your company’s marketing efforts.
It would great if there was a straightforward formula that shows that if you spend X dollars on marketing you will get Y leads in return. Alas, this is not the case. This is particularly challenging when you don’t have millions of dollars from VCs to spend on testing every marketing whim and fantasy. For most startups, you agonize over every dollar spent. An unfortunate consequence can be paralysis by analysis -- you aren’t sure where or how to invest marketing dollars, so there’s a tendency to do nothing and hope for the best.
Marketing is top of mind for me at the moment. My company Torsh, an education software company that produces TALENT, an online platform for teacher professional learning and development, is knee-deep in the hiring process for a marketing professional to propel our business forward. Keep in mind, we are already six years into this startup journey. If you are just starting out, it’s very likely that you don’t have the budget to hire a full-time person, and don’t have money to invest in marketing initiatives that may or may not move the needle. So what can you do in the interim? Here are five simple, straight-forward thoughts on how to market with little or no budget.
Take time to really consider who you are, who your customers are, what you want your brand to represent, and what your message should be. Consider this a very simple marketing roadmap. Then stick to it. A few years into our business, we did a marketing audit and discovered that we had begun to use, over the years, a variety of tag lines. Our web site said one thing, our print collateral said another. We had t-shirts printed for a conference and those communicated yet another message. This seems obvious; but when you are juggling a thousand balls and your hair is on fire, it’s easy to lose sight of these details, especially if no one “owns” the marketing/communication piece of your business. As you prepare to launch your startup, pause and take time to really focus on your brand and your message. If you have launched already, schedule in some time to do this asap. This will save you time and aggravation (and probably money) down the line.
I’m proud to say that our current customers are our number one source of new leads. We have a great product, but that’s only one piece. We also have a great team in place -- in both sales and client management -- who work hard to keep our clients happy. And, we actually listen to our customers. When they have ideas or suggestions for how to improve our platform, we take this feedback directly to our development team. Of course not every idea is incorporated. But enough ideas are that we’ve gained a reputation for responsiveness, which makes our customers happy. And happy customers tell their friends and colleagues about us. This word of mouth marketing costs us nothing. Always remember that how you treat your customers after they’ve signed the contract matters, and a positive relationship can be worth its weight in marketing gold.
When we designed and built the first version of our website, we did not factor in SEO. Your site can look amazing and be user friendly but if potential customers never see it, then it’s actually fairly useless. Yes, when people type in the name of our company on a search engine, we come up. But what if they type in something like, “tools for teacher professional development.” Does our company come up on page one of Google? Unfortunately in the early days, the answer was no. We had to hire an SEO expert, who then had to do a complete front and back-end audit of our site to see how we could optimize for SEO. Ultimately we made all the changes the audit suggested. But if we had considered SEO in the first place, a lot of this extra work could have been avoided.
Social media is sometimes farmed out to the lowest man or woman on the totem pole with no oversight, but this can be a mistake. Social media requires consistency and focus. Make sure that what’s posted across channels is in line with your brand. Make sure the writing is on-point and professional. Have you ever visited a company’s Facebook page and been utterly turned off by what is posted there? I have. If I see typos, sophomoric writing and just an overall lack of professionalism, it makes me hesitate. Do I really want to spend money with this company? You will be busy. But, check out your social media regularly to be sure it’s on track, and be sure it accurately reflects your brand. If not, make adjustments before further damage is done.
Tap into your local entrepreneurial ecosystem, and network like crazy. We don’t have a PR person on staff, nor do we currently employ an external agency. Yet, I’ve had a variety of opportunities to be interviewed by, or be a contributor to, various publications. That’s because I am diligent about plugging myself into the vibrant tech community here in my company’s hometown of New Orlean. I’m involved in the community, I am constantly networking, I am a guest speaker at events, I engage in philanthropic activities. Despite an incredibly busy work life and an equally demanding home life with a wife and three young kids, I hardly ever say no to an opportunity to spread the word about my company. For example In 2016 I was invited to participate in Idea Village’s premier pitch competition, The Coulter Pitch, which gives startups from rising markets exposure to investors and the media. It’s part of NOEW (New Orleans Entrepreneur Week) which is held here in New Orleans right before Collision’s annual tech conference. The preparation was time-consuming and at the time, I felt like it was interfering with the more important task of actually running my business. But I did it anyway. As a result, I met an editor from Forbes who then invited me to contribute to this very blog you are reading.
Related: You can now find jobs on BEAM
None of the tips I’ve mentioned here will necessarily open the flood gates when it comes to new clients. Have realistic expectations as you invest energy, effort and time into building the marketing foundation for your startup. Remember that this foundation is essential. First, it will provide your team with valuable leads that can help propel your initial growth. Second, it will prevent you from losing the interest of potential customers, who could be turned off by sloppy or unprofessional marketing messages. Finally, when you are able to afford a full-time marketing/communication/PR professional, that person can truly focus on bringing your company to the next level. They won’t waste time and money ripping apart and rebuilding that could have been properly executed in the first place.