Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Laying a Foundation for Startup Growth

I spoke at an awesome startup event this week called Startup Empire. It was a sold-out conference with a great set of speakers including John Baker from Desire2Learn, Dan Debow from Salesforce, Harley Finkelstein from Shopify and Michael Litt from Vidyard and others. You can scroll down for my slides.

I decided to focus on what I think of as the “Foundational Elements” for a successful sales and marketing strategy at a startup. As startup people we’ve heard many, many stories of magic marketing tactics had a big impact on the business. We talk less about the daily grind of testing and discarding failed marketing programs that don’t deliver much of anything. As much as we love stories of specific examples of the hacks that grew successful companies, rarely are those tactics applicable to the business we are trying to run right now.

In my experience, starting with tactics is the wrong way to go about it. That’s because perfectly executed tactics layered over a flawed foundation will fail.

The Foundational Elements are:

Deep customer knowledge – A foundation of customer knowledge is really important. This has to go way beyond “we sell to SMB’s” and should include the unique characteristics of your target customers, their big pain points, where these prospects gather and how they learn about new products and solutions.

Messaging – Every campaign and sales call relies on your ability to communicate what you do in a way that gets prospects excited to hear more. That messaging needs to describe your unique value in ways that your customers can easily understand, articulates how you are different from other alternatives and points to proof that what you claim is actually true.

Understanding the buying process – Every customer segment makes purchase decisions in different ways. How they move along this journey and where they might be getting stuck is really important to understand. Chart 19 and 20 describes this in more depth and talks about the importance of mapping tactics to a buying journey.




  1. Always love your perspective (how’d you get to be so smart?!)

    I’m a big fan of Pragmatic Marketing – specifically, their “grid” (http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/about-us/framework) – the continuum illustrating their approach for product development and go-to-market. They make the point that, in an ideal world, you would start from the far left in Strategy and work your way right … but instead (sadly, all-too-often) companies start at the far right and work their way left … and STOP at “Planning”. *sniff, sniff*

    • Thanks Dave!
      I did Pragmatic training like a million years ago (so long ago that it was actually Craig Stull that taught the class – which was pretty amazing). Their stuff was literally the only training I did back then that was even remotely relevant to what I was doing at a tech startup. He really hammered us on the fact that understanding your customer was the critical staring point for everything.
      Since then, I think the best stuff I’ve been exposed to has been Steve Blank’s stuff around Customer Development. It’s funny – I hardly meet any startups that admit that they haven’t read his stuff but I don’t see a lot of companies doing an awesome job at customer development. Probably because it’s just plain hard to do.

      • I remember Craig – met him back in 2000 while a Prod. Mgr. in Bay Area. Years later, I took the EPM course with Adele Revella (also amazing!) who hammered home the importance of buyer persona research … not only as a critical foundation for all go-to-market activities, but as marketing’s CORE COMPETENCY within the organization – we’re not just the “t-shirt and website” department. File under: professional epiphany! Love her.

        I agree – it’s weird that companies don’t spent more time on cust. dev. It is hard work, but I also think there are other unfortunate factors at play: from a product perspective, too many assumptions are made internally about customer needs – and when combined with pressure to ship, people get lulled into a false sense of security by these assumptions (“Of course we’re solving their pain points”). From a brand perspective, a lot of companies – large ones in particular – still structure themselves and operate like Don Draper: a focus on creative execution of mass advertising to demographics (not individuals or personas). In this world, I can understand why they scratch their heads when I suggest we need to get more granular.

  2. Great post April. I’d argue that these foundational elements don’t just apply to start-ups. Too often big brands get sucked into their own internal perceptions and fail to take a deep look at who their customers are and what they actually are looking for (the Value Prop).

    • Thanks Tamera!
      Yes, I agree with that. In particular I think big companies get thinking that they understand customer buying behavior so well that they don’t have to pay attention any more. Then suddenly the market changes which drives a change in the way customers behave, and then by the time everyone realizes what’s happening – it’s too late.


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