How startups should think about marketing

On a rainy Saturday, last weekend, I attended TiECon 2016, one of the largest entrepreneurship conferences. I’ve been going to TiECon for more than a decade—before it was cool to go to TiECon—and it remains one of the highlights of my year. It’s just so fun to be awash in a sea of entrepreneurs. And I always leave inspired by the unjaded enthusiasm of so many first-time founders.

At this year’s event, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on how early stage companies should approach marketing. My distinguished co-panelists were Micky Onvural, VP of Sales and Marketing at StyleSeat and Edwin Desouza, VP of Product Marketing and Management at MySQL. Our moderator was Zack Urlocker, COO at Duo Security.

Quantified marketing vs. brand marketing

The conversation began with a meaty discussion about brand, which I sparked by noting that brand marketing has undergone a rapid, irreversible transformation, in the past 36 months, towards trackable performance marketing.

Micky, a diehard consumer marketer, took a bit of issue with my assessment. She acknowledged that brand has taken on a performance component and the way we measure it has changed dramatically in last 36 months. But she argued that brand remains undervalued in Silicon Valley. To many, it’s still just a logo and color palette, rather than a part of the DNA of their company and culture—and that’s a shift she wants to see.

Our moderator Zack, played devil’s advocate. In last two years, a number of big companies–Airbnb, Yahoo, HP–have spent a lot of company on rebranding efforts to little effect. Wouldn’t it have been better, he challenged Micky, if they’d used those resources in other ways?

But Micky didn’t accept the premise. To her, Airbnb and Yahoo changing their logos wasn’t brand in a meaningful way. There’s a difference between brand building and brand marketing communications (e.g., a video or TV ad), she insisted. The real way to think of brand is that brand is understanding your core consumer audience: what problems they have, how you will uniquely solve them, and how to build an end-to-end experience that delivers against those things.

Hers was a holistic approach to brand marketing. For early stage companies, she advised that they, first, needed to find that sense of self: what problem they’re trying to solve, for whom they’re trying to solve it. They should invest in research—in people going out and talking to consumers—and encode that self-understanding into their DNA. And, then, they should invest in product experience, to ensure that they’re delivering on the promise of their unique solution.

I clarified that it’s not that I think brand marketing should become more like direct response. I believe that marketing is ultimately about telling a story and connecting with people. But you have to connect in a way appropriate to a particular audience. And you tell a story with content that eventually ties back to business performance—whether that be sales, transactions, bookings, or whatever metrics you might track.

Meanwhile, our co-panelist Edwin stayed a little above the fray. In his business (enterprise IT), his customers (developers and engineers) are deeply distrustful of marketing. So his approach to brand building is to let the product and experience speak for itself. Focus on customers, focus on successes—and let your customers do your branding for you. His felicitous brand strategy might be called the 1M Formula: once you have a thousand happy customers—your brand falls into place.

Telling stories for B2B

As an addendum to the brand discussion, we went over what works when it comes to marketing to businesses. As the only investor on the panel, I left specific tactics to the experts. Instead, I made the broader point that, in today’s consumer environment, there are infinite starting points for the consumer, and infinite paths to purchase.

The fundamental challenge for marketers in B2B (as well as B2C) is to understand how to have a dialogue—not a dictation—with the consumer, in whatever context they want to have that dialogue, and with whatever content is appropriate for them.

Micky’s company, StyleSeat, for example, has discovered Instagram to be transformative for how they sell. On the photo-sharing social network, they’ve successfully marketed, one-to-one, to beauty professionals—with 80%(!) conversion rates. At my SQL, Edwin’s customers (again, marketing-averse IT guys) don’t want to be sold to—they do, however, want to be educated. He’s found that packaging content as a “guide” gets a more welcome reception.

Sales and (versus?) Marketing

The final topic we discussed was how startups should think about the often fraught relationship between sales and marketing. My chief advice was that early stage companies should establish clear signposts for the handoff between Sales and Marketing. Nine times out of 10, what Sales defines as an opportunity and what Marketing defines as a lead—are not the same thing. So business winds up stuck in limbo. At a certain point, post Series A, a company needs to bring Sales and Marketing together to arrive at that definition.

Micky pushed back helpfully again, and warned against drawing a bright line between the two functions too early on. It’s easier to figure out the right way to reach consumers organically and cohesively when they’re not divided, she said. At StyleSeat, she brought Marketing and Sales together when she joined the company, because they were still trying to understand out how to best sell to their audience. But for that merger, they might not have discovered social selling through Instagram.

Zack then opened the discussion up for questions from our audience of entrepreneurs and marketing professionals. I won’t attempt to recap that eclectic and wide-ranging part of the conversation; I’ll simply say that I was very impressed by the quality of the questions—especially from the technical cofounders in the audience, for whom marketing is a usually a black box. Their desire to understand what marketing is, and how it works, was palpable.

All in all, another thoroughly enjoyable TiECon. I learned a lot from my fellow panelists—as well as from the incisive audience questions—and, as always, the passion and energy of the entrepreneurs is my annual dip in the Fountain of Youth. Already looking forward to TiECon 2017!

For even more insights, read what these three experts had to say about marketing for startups.