“No Marketing” Isn’t as Impressive as You Think

fortune cookie meh
Almost every early stage startup that pitches me these days talks about the traction they’ve had with absolutely no marketing whatsoever.

“We have five hundred signups and we’ve done no marketing at all.”

“Our beta list is growing quickly–and we’re not even marketing yet!”

“Customers are knocking at our door, and that’s with no marketing.”

Honestly, it sounds silly. I’m glad to hear that people are finding you and expressing interest, but when it comes time to scale from a handful of users/customers/signups to thousands (and more!), you can be damn sure you’re going to be marketing. And if you don’t start early you miss out on a lot of learning.

Customer acquisition is hard. And there’s no silver bullet. There’s no one trick or one thing you can do that guarantees success. It’ll be a lot of trial and error. It’s a long-term investment (think: content marketing, partnerships, understanding your analytics, testing, etc.)

When you tell me that you’ve done no marketing what I hear is:

  • “I don’t really know who my customer is yet”
  • “I have no idea how to find them”
  • “I don’t really understand my value proposition”
  • “But trust me, when we do start marketing everything will be awesome”

It won’t. Marketing isn’t something you just “turn on”. You can’t put “marketing” as a line item in a budget and correlate that to your user/customer growth numbers and magically expect it to work out. And as much as I enjoy ProductHunt, it’s not a marketing strategy. So please don’t lead with that.

Marketing is about genuinely understanding your customer and the pain they have. It’s about reaching out through many channels, multiple times and building relationships with people such that they immediately recognize that you get them. It’s about speaking the right language and using the right messages. If a smattering of users show up at your website and sign up you don’t know anything about them. You don’t know their motivation. You don’t know who they are. You don’t know if they have any similarities that could guide your future. And because you don’t know anything about the people that showed up at your doorstep, you have no knowledge to leverage as you want to scale.

Ash Maurya just published a post, The Fallacy of Customer Development, which has a very similar message to mine. He says, “Start building and testing a path to customers from day one”. Exactly! Marketing is learning. If you’re not learning, you’re not making progress. Don’t sit around and wait for people to come to you. Don’t marvel at the smattering of site visitors that sign up for your product. And don’t tell investors that your traction is “without any marketing” because that just means it’s not repeatable and scalable.

Image courtesy of Rick Harris.