We work with a few venture capital (VC) firms in Asia, helping them and their portfolio companies to achieve growth through marketing strategies and execution.
It is exciting to see these innovative B2B startups grow and flourish, and we thoroughly enjoy working alongside agile C-suite teams that like experimenting and trying new things in marketing.
But the venture-funded space is incredibly dynamic, and founders face many challenges on their entrepreneurial journey. A theme often arises: how does marketing fit in with the growth plan, and when to spend money on it?
Those are important questions, and missteps can be costly.
We’ve seen some venture-funded startups squander their resources on misguided marketing endeavours, hire the wrong people at the wrong time in their growth cycle, and even add complex marketing technology that drained resources and alienated potential customers.
It can become a question of what marketing functions should be in-house versus what startups can outsource to freelancers, consultants, or an agency.
That’s the same question mature organisations face, but startups have a big caveat: they have limited money, limited people, and are still chasing the ever-elusive product-market fit. The target audience and the message might change in a heartbeat.
The challenge in the early stage is that you can’t separate product, sales and marketing
— Thibaut Briere
Singapore-based Briere takes a hands-on, consultative approach, working specifically with early-stage B2B startups in Southeast Asia to give them direction in marketing strategy as well as processes in sales and marketing operations.
“The name of the game is to build a tight feedback loop between all these. The point is to build just the right level of Minimum Viable Product (MVP), not a product, then find early adopters and get their feedback. This is marketing to me.”
Joeri Gianotten is a partner at AccelerAsia Ventures, a Singapore-based VC firm that invests in early-stage B2B technology companies. “It’s important to integrate marketing into the organisation from the outset,” he says.
“Initially, one of the founders or early employees may have to take on the responsibility (of marketing) in addition to their regular duties. Effective storytelling is crucial in securing funding and acquiring initial clients,” Gianotten adds.
But founders might not necessarily make the best marketing decisions.
“The challenge is that founders are either not aware of (brand and marketing) or worse, they think they are but actually aren’t,” Briere shares.
Marketing as an Investment Thesis
Over in the United States, Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich are former marketers at some very prominent tech firms. They now run a fund at MKT1 Capital with startup marketing at the centre of their investment thesis.
Their fund invests in startup companies where they believe exploiting a marketing advantage could lead to higher growth and better go-to-market (GTM) viability. To achieve that, they actively seek Limited Partners with marketing chops to value-add to their portfolio companies.
In an excellent newsletter post on this topic, they say that founders should look for that first full-time marketing hire once they find themselves managing more than one or two marketing contractors or agency relationships.
“Before cycling through contractor after contractor without an internal marketer to manage them, consider making a full-time hire—you might even save money. It’s simply too hard for early-stage founders to effectively manage a bunch of marketing contractors and agencies without having a single full-time marketer,” they advise.
Although numerous tools are available for DIY marketing, focusing on a few key elements is crucial at the start, even if they may be revised or replaced within a year. Here we are assuming you already have a basic (if fluid) positioning statement. That in itself is worthy of another blog article (or book).
Brand Identity. You don’t need to drop six figures on your startup’s visual identity, but ensure you have a decent logo and a basic but complete set of brand guidelines. Hire a freelancer or a contractor for this. Anyone involved in graphic design down the road should follow those brand guidelines, from the printer making your name cards to your website developer to the guy designing a pop-up stand for a trade show booth. And your decks.
Visual consistency engenders trust.
Must-haves in your brand guidelines include:
- Vertical and horizontal versions of your logo in colour and monochrome, plus a favicon. Ensure you get the Adobe Illustrator (Ai) or EPS files for the designs.
- Your brand colours with RGB, HEX, and CMYK colour codes.
- Your font usage details, ideally using free or open-source fonts. Save those paid fonts for the Series B brand refresh!
If you are more ambitious, you can integrate that basic brand guidelines document, your mission and positioning statements, and even a buyer persona into a more comprehensive brand style guide.
Website. Go ahead and start with Squarespace to get your brand out there, following your brand guidelines. There are plenty of freelancers who can help if you need it.
Consider an upgrade to WordPress with your second or third round of funding, or if you are rebranding and ready for that website refresh.
WordPress is the world’s most popular tool for building sites, and it is what we use for all our clients. But there is a higher barrier to entry, and running a secure WordPress site takes resources like managed WordPress hosting.
CRM. Smart choices in what tech will unite your revenue operations and reporting must be made early. You don’t scale up using Google Sheets.
There are lots to choose from here, but almost all businesses can benefit from a CRM that integrates marketing, sales, and customer success tools in a single platform.
For marketing that’s a Marketing Automation Platform (MAP), the sales team needs pipeline and deal management, and customer success would typically need ticketing and self-directed help.
ActiveCampaign will work if you are really small and strapped for cash. It is more of a MAP with a basic CRM.
Salesforce might be the market leader in the sales CRM space, but you will need to integrate with other tools for marketing and customer success, so it is not our first choice for startups and scale-ups.
Ready to Hire? Hire Smart
What else can you do to “market” your startup before you hire a marketer? Network.
Leverage, leverage, leverage. Leverage your big-name client, investor, and advisor
— Rita Yang
And when you are ready, she stresses the critical nature of the relationship between the founders and the first marketing hire. “It’s going to sound cliché, but until you find that hire you’re comfortable with, don’t settle,” she adds.
And that hire needs to be domain-aware and work well with the team. “Build trust and align with the exec team. Spend time with your BD and sales, and co-create the marketing goal together with the exec team. The most common mistake I see marketing hires make is that they are eager to prove themselves with experience from a previous life, and they forget to take the time to contextualise,” Yang shares.
From what he has witnessed with AccelerAsia Ventures, Gianotten also sees that the relationship with the founders is key.
The marketer will “need to extract what’s in the founder’s brain, translate their thoughts and vision, and make it digestible and presentable so everyone will understand,” he says.
Regarding hiring a funding stage-appropriate candidate, Gianotten adds, “Consider hiring someone from a small firm or agency rather than someone with a corporate background. The marketing lead will likely have to start from scratch with a limited budget and, as part of a small team, needs to be someone who can deliver some core results such as (customer)-focused content, case studies, and blogs” to drive demand.
Consider hiring someone from a small firm or agency rather than someone with a corporate background
— Joeri Gianotten
A Winning Strategy
The journey from startup to scale-up involves carefully considering when to bootstrap or handle your marketing on your own, when to seek outside help, and when to make new hires.
For that first hire, founders should seek individuals who align with the company’s values, possess domain expertise, and can effectively collaborate with the team.
That first hire will likely be a generalist who can multitask and manage outside resources such as freelancers or small agencies as the startup grows and marketing needs to scale.
If you are a founder wondering how you can right-size marketing at your tech startup, feel free to drop us a line. We are happy to share our experiences and ideas.