Saturday, 26 February 2011

What's the role of marketing in start-ups?

Recently a question was posted in one of the Linkedin forums I joined entitled: "Why aren't marketers part of more start-up founding teams?"

This questions actually goes a lot farther then it would seem but part of the answer to the question is really: What's the role of marketing in tech start-ups? This is a pretty fundamental questions and the answer is pretty complex. I've been working in tech start-ups for about 7-8 years or so and my general consensus is pretty simple: engineers typically don't really understand what exactly marketing is and how it can help their companies and marketing guys typically struggle to find a way they can contribute to tech companies aside from advertising (which they usually don't have budget for), PR (which they might not be good at) and marcoms (which is key to selling but gets very dull very fast). What typically also compounds the problem is often that the marketing guys - present company included at times - don't know enough about the tech to build street credibility with the product guys.

All joking aside there's a lot of truth in what's been said here. I deal with this every day in my company. 2.5 years ago I was employee number 8 and today we're near 70 with over $40M raised to date in VC funding and I can truly say that marketing plays a big role in what GetJar does and how the company is seen on the outside.

But we're an anomaly. Sadly, I have to agree with many posts I've seen from frustrated marketers: The mentality in the valley is engineering driven: build it and they will come. It's also a real reflection of the ignorance of what marketing does or should do in a start-up. However, some clarification is required here:

Fred Wilson wrote a great post some time ago that was also partially re-printed in Techcrunch where he talks about the role of marketing in start-ups. Mistakenly, but somewhat unsurprisingly, Techcrunch sensationalized his post in a story saying "Marketing is for companies who have sucky products." In truth, this isn't at all what he's saying. He says that there is a time when tech companies need real marketing and that's later in their life cycle. Not in the beginning. Even then, this is only partially true in my opinion. He doesn't really do a good job of explaining what marketers can do in early stage start-ups.

Here's my experience on this at GetJar:

You have to define what your role is in the company very early on. What start-ups need is:

1. A killer product
2. A business model - and someone to sell it
3. Free, or next to free user acquisition (which Wilson does highlight well)
4. Cheap PR
5. Someone charismatic, smart and well connected to get out their and evangelize their product without over selling it
6. Lots of BD

I was with a partner at a leading VC the other day and he looked at me and said: "You're not really a CMO. You're a BD, Marketing, sales guy." He's right. But my role became that because it's my company needed - and to a degree still needs.

Part of the challenge for marketing guys is that they should know the tech cold. This helps credibility with the engineers and product guys and is key to getting a seat at the table. I'm still working on that part and I'm far from perfect but you need to build your street cred not just with the coders but with the organization as a whole. If you acknowledge what I said above and work along those lines you can really become a critical component of the C-team but if you think marketing is just advertising and PR you're going to be very frustrated very fast and not really add much value.

So if you don't believe you can change the engineer or "product guys'" view (as they sometimes like to market themselves - lol) here's a formula that could work for you:

- Spend time with the engineers. Ask them questions. Understand what they're working on. Take them to lunch. Play ping pong with them. Become their friends
- Spend time with customers. On average I do 4-5 meetings or calls a week with customers or potential customers. I also sell - literally - to clients and bring in cash. That earns you kudos with sales and in some cases these guys can influence product more then you do since they make sure the coders get paid ;)
- Do lots of research. Marketing 101 for start-ups at least for me is to spend a large chunk of time positioning your company as a thought leader. We're the only app store to share consumer and developer / platform data to the press, other developers and partners. We publish our numbers openly, discuss trends and are out often talking about where the industry is going. The benefit of doing this is threefold. 1. It generates free PR. The press loves this stuff particularly if they dont get answers from others. Apple and Google make our lives easy here since they don't openly share data. 2. It's a soft sell which helps you build credibility with your ecosystem but also helps your sales guys open doors. 3. If the above works you get a lot of credibility with the engineers because if they are smart they will see / hear others talking about your company and they will give you "respect".
- Think of "distribution" as bis dev. Again, this has the same benefits as doing research but also can widen your distribution and build leads.

The reality is Silicon Valley isn't going to change for marketers. Marketers need to adapt to the culture and do a better job of understanding the technology their company is doing and also carve out a space for themselves that brings value in the organization. By understanding what the organization needs and really add value they will build credibility not only with their organizations but also within their industries. In time hopefully they can then think of more traditional marketing if and when the opportunity presents itself.