“If you build it, they’ll come.”
As a B2B founder, you’ve probably heard that phrase or its variations:
“Oh, just focus your efforts on building the best product out there and the customers will come.” Or “Keep adding features to your SaaS product, that’s what brings the customers in.”
Here at VEC, we’ve had founders say to us:
Unfortunately, not only is this mindset wrong, it is dangerous. Creating the perfect B2B SaaS product isn’t the ultimate recipe for success. It’s only part of the equation.
Now, you might be wondering…
“What do I need alongside my product to grow and scale my startup?”
I’ll tell you.
You need to stop neglecting startup marketing.
Marketing is crucial, yet founders underrate it, particularly those from technical backgrounds. Sergio Pereira, a 3x Startup Founder, and 5x CTO emphasized this in a response to Andrea Bosoni’s tweet:
Surely, Pereira, a 3x startup founder, knows a thing or two about building and scaling startups, right?
You see, it’s a running joke in Silicon Valley that seasoned founders pay more attention to marketing than 1st-time founders. And that’s probably because they have first-hand experience in how crucial startup marketing is to the success or failure of their products.
This meme says it all:
Most times, the reason why your startup isn’t growing is that you treat marketing as dispensable. In this piece, I’ll explore examples to show why you shouldn’t.
Marketing Shouldn’t be an Afterthought. Prioritize It.
This is the average founder’s mindset and formula when building:
A great product + virality = a sure-fire means of getting rich
Do you know what’s wrong with this formula?
There’s no thought for marketing and sales, at least in the present. But let me ask: how can your product go viral if the target audience doesn’t know it exists?
You see, no matter how great your product is, if people don’t know about it, it won’t go viral. On the other hand, a product not as great as yours can even be more successful if marketed well.
Hear it from Rand Fishkin, Co-founder, SparkToro, Ex Moz:
It might be a hard pill to swallow, but a great product doesn’t equal success:
To build a successful company, you must first position the product in front of the right audience. Then show (not only tell) them how it’ll solve their problem.
In other words, market your product.
Not just in the future but from the very beginning.
As Dave Bailey, a Founder Coach to scale up CEOs, said:
To rephrase Bailey’s words…
Marketing shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be a priority from the get-go. It is as important as your product itself.
Therefore, the average founders’ formula illustrated above can be modified into this: A great product + marketing + virality = a successful startup:
A great way to show not just tell the value of your product is by using the Product-Led Storytelling formula.
I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of this formula later on.
Apart from acquiring more customers, startup marketing does something else: it makes your company attractive to investors. If your company is bootstrapped, and you’ve been hoping to raise seed or Series A funding, initial marketing can help you raise venture capital funding. The reason is that these efforts signal to potential investors your product is worth investing in.
Megan Groves, Founder & CEO of Population, said as much:
If marketing is so great, you say, why do founders neglect it?
Why do founders neglect marketing?
From my research and watching interviews with founders like you, I discovered the three major reasons why founders (especially early-stage) don’t invest in marketing:
- They underestimate its importance.
- They lack the time or marketing expertise.
- They think marketing is too expensive.
Let me address each reason:
As I’ve explained from the start, a lot of founders underestimate B2B marketing because they think the quality of their product is enough to sell itself. Of course, this is foolhardy. And this belief could lead to disasters like little to no demand for a product, or even worse, the death of said company.
Other founders, however, know the importance of marketing to their startup. They just don’t know how to do great marketing (and don’t want to learn either), or they don’t have the time.
To this group of founders, there’s a solution.
They can either hire marketing experts or bring a co-founder with a good understanding of marketing on board.
On to the third group: the founders who think marketing is too expensive.
First, marketing is not an expense; it is an investment. And as an investment, it will bring in considerable ROI, which is why you need to invest in it.
But as a startup, you might have a small marketing budget.
Instead of spending a lot of money hiring a full marketing team, you can just enlist the help of contractors, freelancers, or top content marketing agencies. This would reduce your marketing costs.
Fiskin takes this approach to Sparktoro.
For now, they are only hiring agencies & consultants to take care of most of their needs.
Now that you know the problems hindering most founders from marketing their SaaS business, and the solution to these problems, it’s time to get practical. By practical, I mean let’s look at some real-life examples of companies that didn’t invest in marketing and compare to those that did.
Neglecting Startup Marketing: 3 B2B SaaS Examples
Before I get to them, let’s look at Dagobert’s story.
Logology is a B2B SaaS company providing designer-quality logos to startups. The founder, Dagobert Renouf is building his company in public, and as such, has been pretty open about the processes.
Marketing is among these openly shared processes.
Dagobert strongly believes in the power of marketing as he has suffered the impact of underrating it. He shared his thoughts here:
Here’s further proof of how marketing accelerated the growth of his company:
However, not every startup is as lucky as Logology.
And not every founder comes to the realization and makes the switch to marketing before the death of the startup.
Here are 3 startups that didn’t invest in marketing, and failed as a result.
Tailor: The A/B Testing Software that Failed
A seasoned founder, Tailor was not Joe D’elia’s first rodeo in building SaaS products.
Yet, with all his previous experience, his startup failed because he didn’t research and validate the product, and didn’t do marketing. In fact, he said he spent 90% of his time building the product, and only 10% on marketing.
“I really didn’t focus on marketing, which was a big mistake.”
Muun: The B2B Coworking Platform that Died Too Quickly
Unlike D’elia of Tailor above, Elco did everything right by the books.
He identified a pain point, validated the idea, and confirmed people were willing to pay for the product before building Munn. He even did marketing!
So what went wrong?
Why did Munn, a platform that would make coworking easier, fail?
A lack of funds contributed to its failure. But also, not pushing through with his marketing strategies was a major cause. In his words:
“For all of them, I did the bare minimum”.
There’s a lesson here.
Not only do you have to do marketing, but you also have to do it right and be consistent. Otherwise, you’re better off doing zero startup marketing because it would be a waste of time.
Also, as Elco advised, you need a solid marketing plan before, during, and after your product launch.
Habitual: The habit-tracking Startup that Failed to Launch
Here’s the headline that introduced this interview with Habitual’s founder:
“Habitual’s Biggest Mistake: Underestimating the power of marketing.”
And indeed, it was its biggest mistake.
On why he underestimated marketing so much (which eventually led to the company’s demise), Holger Sindbaek, Founder, gave the following reasons:
- His background is not in marketing. He doesn’t like doing marketing, so he tends to push everything marketing-related to the back of the queue. A lot of other programmers feel the same way.
- The nature of the other side-projects he’d made throughout his time as a programmer. Because those other projects were simple tools that could be found via a search on the App Store, they didn’t need so much marketing. Naively, he assumed it was the same for a B2B product. But as you know, B2B products are different from B2C, and therefore the rules are different.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Let’s look at some early and growth-stage companies on their way to continued success because they got their marketing right.
3 B2B Startups that Didn’t Neglect Marketing
Let’s do a quick recap.
So far, I’ve dismantled a popular belief amongst founders and presented you with the truth: you need marketing (not only product development) to grow your startup.
I went on further to present you with proof from 3 B2B companies whose failures were largely due to a lack of startup marketing. Now, I want to show you 3 B2B companies where marketing plays a huge role in their success.
Microacquire is the world’s 1st acquisition marketplace. They help small and medium-sized startups get acquired by buyers. Their growth pattern has also been great.
In just 12 months, their revenue grew from $0 to 630k ARR:
7 months later, and they’ve more than doubled their acquisitions and ARR to $1,401,999:
No mean feat for a company that until recently, was bootstrapped.
How did they do it?
In an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session by founder Andrew Gazdecki, he mentioned paid promotion as one of the factors impacting MicroAcquire’s early growth. Gazdecki regularly marketed the product on ProductHunt, and the results were great.
But that’s not the only marketing strategy he employed to achieve his business goals.
Cold calling & emailing, and more importantly, content marketing form the core of his strategy. The ROI on these marketing efforts is high as seen in the image above.
Relevant to content marketing, Microacquire has a pretty extensive content section comprising ebooks, videos, articles, and podcasts:
This content, alongside Gazdecki’s marketing efforts on social media, exposes the company to its target audience.
More importantly, Gazdecki weaves his product into their content efforts.
Take this one, which shows a problem the product solves:
This one shows the outcome prospects crave:
As you see in the screenshots above, by weaving his product into the content he shares on social, Gazdecki is subtly piquing the interest of prospects.
And with hundreds of engagements, he sure is reaching more people.
Crossbeam’s early marketing strategy was pure content marketing.
But despite much SEO focus, they still achieved this:
According to Sean Blanda, VP of Content at Crossbeam, they wanted potential customers to read and respond to their content.
To achieve this, they just focused on creating high-quality content for humans (not just for SEO). Crossbeam got what it asked for – a ton of positive reviews from fans, prospects, and customers alike.
Furthermore, Sean Blanda shared how their content marketing efforts generated an email list of 22,000+ averaging, a 38% open rate, and a 14% month-on-month traffic increase in this article.
These positive reviews and metrics are not just vanity metrics.
Their content converted readers into customers:
Besides getting customers directly from content, Crossbeam also receives appreciation from prospects on their path to becoming paying customers.
See for yourself:
Evidently, their B2B startup marketing strategy worked right?
Let’s look at the third startup company on this list.
Rand Fishkin needs no introduction in the B2B startup space.
After founding and leading Moz for years, he exited the company to co-found Sparktoro, an audience research tool in 2018.
Rand’s investment and dedication to marketing from the get-go is synonymous with the growth of both companies (Moz & Sparktoro). In fact, apart from himself and his cofounder Casey Henry, the only other full-time employee in Sparktoro is Amanda Natividad, a Marketing Architect.
This speaks volumes about Rand’s belief in marketing.
And the results of their marketing efforts?
See for yourself:
Sparktoro’s marketing strategy is influence marketing driven by exceptional content. They create content that resonates with their target audience; then, distribute said content on different platforms:
But more importantly, they weave their product into their content.
Here’s Fishkin (like Gazdecki of MicroAcquire) doing just that:
At this point, you must be convinced about the need for marketing after seeing all the examples detailed above.
But what kind of marketing should you create for your startup?
Content Marketing: the Low-Hanging Fruit for B2B Startups
Ofer Mintz is an Associate Head and Senior Lecturer of Marketing at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Together with Gary Lilien, Research Professor at Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business, they conducted a study on 377 startups.
They aimed to find out the importance of marketing for early-stage startups.
Their study found that early-stage B2B companies benefit more from systematic marketing than any other startup category.
But not surprisingly (as we’ve been discussing all along), these startups are the least likely to do marketing.
According to them, systematic marketing is planned, proactive, and viewed as an investment. While non-systematic marketing is the direct opposite: Spontaneous, done only when absolutely necessary, and is viewed as an expense. Which is exactly how most founders view marketing.
Here are the differences better illustrated:
But everything I’ve been talking about so far shows that unsystematic marketing is the wrong approach and Mintz and Lilien’s study proves this.
So what do you do?
You employ a systemic marketing approach or a marketing flywheel.
For context, a marketing flywheel is a continuously improving set of repeatable, tactical investments that scale with decreasing friction. Below is the flywheel Rand Fishkin accidentally built for Moz:
This content marketing flywheel is organic, not so expensive, and has great ROI. The only disadvantage is that it is a long-term game. Nevertheless, organic flywheels usually beat paid ones because, while the results aren’t immediate, the effects are long-lasting.
For an early-stage company, if executed well, a content marketing flywheel is an effective startup marketing strategy. As proof, 69.79% of people voted ‘Yes, absolutely’ to the question, ‘Do you think startups should invest in content marketing right away?’ in a Twitter poll conducted by Semrush.
But getting the best results out of content marketing all comes down to finding the right content expert.
And that begs the question most founders have…
How to Find a Content Marketing Expert?
That was a lot, right?
If you’ve not been doing marketing before, all these terms and processes could seem overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. Like I advised earlier, you don’t have to do the marketing yourself.
You could contract out your startup marketing to content studios and consultants.
VEC is one of such studios dedicated to exceptional content. We excel at the art of crafting (not just creating) content or Product-Led Stories (as we call them) that converts readers to our clients.
It’s how we get founders to refer us to other founders:
We create the same kind of content for early and growth-stage B2B SaaS startups to help them generate demand for their products:
How do we achieve these results?
Product-Led Storytelling involves crafting B2B content or SaaS copy with relatable stories while weaving your product into them to show how it solves your target audience’s problems and pain points.
Let me break it down.
We do two major things in our content pieces:
- We weave your product application into your content. After observing the way giant companies like Ahrefs create their content, we noticed showing the practical application of a product is actually what moves the needle on the customer acquisition scale. See below what Ahrefs’s early customers said about this strategy:
Sparktoro’s Amanda also does this well in her Twitter threads:
Take a look:
2. And we infuse stories about people who have used your product and gotten great results into your content. If you noticed, I applied this same strategy earlier when I shared a screenshot of our customer success story.
But here’s how we also did this in a content piece for our client:
We do this because we know people are influenced by the words and actions of others. In fact, a survey by G2 Crowd and Heinz marketing revealed 92.4% of b2b buyers are likely to purchase a product if they’ve read a review.
Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 companies are considering adding reviews to their marketing. So, we take these reviews or customers’ success stories and include them directly into the content piece to convince readers to buy.
If you’d like us to use this approach to create your content and copy, check out our pricing page and book a call.
Or, join our email community to learn more:
You can find other marketing experts and consultants in communities like Superpath, DGMG, Peak freelance, Swipefiles, and so on.
Above All, Develop a Great Product
The first thing I did at the beginning of this piece was to counter the belief of “If you build it, they will come.” If you can recall, I said a good product doesn’t automatically sell itself; it also requires marketing.
These are all true and valid points, no doubt.
But don’t be mistaken. You should still invest in building great products.
Great marketing can’t save a crappy product. It just means more people will find out about your crappy product sooner rather than later. And once people discover your product doesn’t live up to the hype, they will churn.
Groove’s founder, Alex Turnbull’s personal experience with this led him to say:
So for customer acquisition, retention and longevity, you need a good product + marketing + great customer support:
Find the balance between creating and constantly improving your product + marketing. The thread below explains it perfectly: