I believe in marketing because $800,000 in revenue suddenly fell into the lap of one of my startups on a Wednesday afternoon several years ago.
At the time, the business was a bootstrapped software company earning less than $1 million in revenues per year. With a fair amount of trepidation, we had made the decision to invest in a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show and showcase our 3D visualization software.
At the show, I happened to bump into a reporter from The Wall Street Journal in the exhibition hallway and went into pitch mode. Lo and behold, a few weeks later a big article about us ran on the B2 page of the Journal — primo real estate and a great story.
The article ran on a Wednesday morning. The phones started ringing off the hook, and by the end of the day we had letters of intent for two original equipment manufacturer (OEM) licensing deals totaling $800,000 in new business. With the bump in revenue and the legitimacy that the Journal article gave us, we secured a small venture capital round, and sold the company just one year later for $10.5 million.
If you’re in bootstrap mode, you know the deal. Either good things happen and you figure out how to survive, or good things don’t happen and you go under — and going under is a blow to everything from your personal finances to your relationships with loved ones to the reputation you so desperately want to establish.
For me, I was ecstatic to avoid failure. But, it was clear that my venture’s happy ending was directly attributable to our decision to invest in the trade show and the fortuitous PR result.
It was then that I fell head over heels in love with marketing. With a background in computer science and finance, I decided to master marketing, a profession I previously hadn’t thought much of.
Why many of us don’t have enough love for marketing
My decision to learn everything I could about marketing has paid off in spades. But, having spoken with hundreds of founders, I find that many still shy away from marketing for several reasons.
- A pre-existing relationship: A founder who loves sales will focus on building his direct sales force, often at the expense of marketing.
- A previous bad relationship: Some business owners tell me they soured on marketing because a prior marketing experiment didn’t deliver good ROI.
- It’s easier to be single: Another common objection is that engaging in marketing activities seems like a big and burdensome endeavor.
Changing your mindset about marketing
If you’re an entrepreneur who doesn’t spend much time or money on marketing, here’s what I recommend you do: Make a conscious decision to give marketing a chance. Pull together a small budget and decide when you are going to start up your marketing engine. Write it on the calendar and let your company know about it. Announcing it to your colleagues and employees makes it hard to back out of it, increasing the likelihood of follow through.
Pick one idea and KISS. As you ramp up marketing, embrace the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. Don’t put too many chips on the table or plan too far in advance. I also recommend starting with one simple, low-risk marketing experiment. For example, decide that you’re going to invest $5,000 per month in online advertising for three months to see what happens. That’s your one initiative to restart your marketing engine.
Connect with customers to pick the best idea. Your customers can be a great source for marketing ideas. Take the last big sale that came in and ask the customer this question: “We are so happy to have you as a customer. We are thinking about how to attract more customers like you. If you ran our marketing department here, what would you do to bring in more customers like you?” Use their feedback to determine the marketing program you will run.
Get some free advice. Marketing probably isn’t your strong suit, so before you start running with your new marketing idea, allocate 10 hours to talk to experts about your plans. Businesses that don’t compete with you might offer free advice about what has worked for them. In some cases, you can barter your talents with others. For example, if you know a lot about sales, maybe you can give sales tips to a fellow entrepreneur who knows a lot about marketing in return for free advice.
Execute, measure the results and determine next steps. If you’ve thoughtfully gone through the steps above, you’re ready to execute. Moreover, because you’ve kept the scope manageable and consulted with your customers and some experts, the odds are you’ll get some good results. Think through what worked, what didn’t work and whether you want to do more of what you tried initially or try something new.
An ongoing cycle of small marketing tests will likely result in something that works, something that makes you fall in love with marketing. If nothing works, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the business model and you may need to pivot. Even in this worst-case scenario, you should appreciate what marketing has done for you: It allowed you to fail faster and be a more agile entrepreneur.
As entrepreneurs, we often gravitate toward the things we love to do at the expense of things we ought to do. Marketing has to be on your entrepreneurial dance card. Without it, nobody knows you exist or why they should talk to you. It’s fundamental to the success of any business. If you’re underinvesting in it or ignoring it altogether, I’d ask that you try the simple program I’ve outlined above.
Remember that first venture of mine, in which a decision to attend a trade show started us down the path to getting acquired for $10.5 million? A story like that one can be yours. All you need to do is take a leap of faith and fall in love with marketing. If you do it right, you’ve got very little to lose and everything to gain.