Friday, March 11, 2005

Early Stage Marketing

I love startups. There is nothing more exciting than this early stage when so little is defined yet everything seems possible. So whenever a startup approaches me to help them with marketing, I get really excited. Unfortunately, I don’t get to enjoy it for long. Having been in these situations many times over, it doesn’t take long before reality sets in.

“We need you to help us generate leads,” says the founder. “We have a great idea, the ROI is less than 3 months. We just need to let the world know about it.” I agree the idea is great. I am not so sure about the ROI. “Tell me who is using the product,” I ask. “We are talking to some companies about using it,” says the founder. “We are going to close the first pilot by the end of this month.”

I am still excited, but by now, my responsible self takes over. There is so much to do, and generating leads is NOT one of them. But how do you tell it to a proud father (that is founder, I mean…)? How do you tell one that the company is not ready for this type of marketing yet?

I usually end up telling the founder that they should wait until they have a few success stories to prove they are for real. When you have these stories, marketing can be effective. You can generate leads. You can spend money and get a return. Until then, save your marketing dollars.

It doesn’t mean you do nothing. You need to get these first customers somehow, and you need them quickly before you run out of money. What you need is a leverage point. Something that will get a buyer to trust you can deliver an unproven solution.

Maybe it’s someone you know. Maybe it’s someone your VC knows. First and foremost, though, your solution has to solve a clear and well-defined problem, and your offer has to be compelling and carry low risk. This is, for example, how Impress Software was able to land six major corporations to be in the pilot group when they were developing a new product. It didn’t hurt that they had the support of SAP. That’s a leverage point.

In the meantime, you can also learn more about your market, build your target market database, and establish a thought-leadership position in the industry. One company that has done a remarkable job at cultivating a thought-leadership position in an early market is WebLayers.

While the company was still in stealth mode and working with its pilot customers, WebLayers founder Motti Vaknin started the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) Forum, an exclusive Fortune 500 roundtable of enterprise architects who are mandated with the challenging mission of creating a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) in their enterprises. Forum members include senior architects and IT executives from companies such as AIG, Bank of America, DaimlerChrysler, eBay, Intel, JP Morgan, Northrop Grumman, P&G, and many other leading corporations.

Vaknin is very careful not to abuse the forum as a sales channel for WebLayers. At the same time, the forum provides him with access to top-level, relevant industry contacts. It’s a way for WebLayers to learn about industry needs. It also positions WebLayers, the small startup, as a thought-leader in SOA. All this is done with very little financial investment (although the attention of Vaknin is required, but well worth it). Could you ask for anything more at this stage?!

Do you have any other ideas for early stage marketing? Let me know how you go about it!

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