From Idea to Market: Essential Marketing Advice for Pre-Seed Startups
Unknown Ventures’ business development associate James Gall shares his thoughts and advice on how to take your pre-seed startup from idea to market effectively.
If you are a start-up founder, especially in the pre-seed stage, you're going to need an aptitude for all sides of the business if you want to take your company to a scalable level.
Besides knowing your product and industry inside-out, devising a marketing strategy that complements your business model is often the make-it-or-break-it factor for most pre-seed startups. One of the most common misconceptions I find circulating within the startup ecosystem is that product and marketing strategy development happen separately in a vacuum; while in fact, they both should take place simultaneously.
As a startup founder, I’ve come to learn the importance of a carefully calculated marketing strategy firsthand and have made it my mission to help early-stage entrepreneurs find their footing. With this article, I hope to shed some light on how you can construct a marketing playbook that significantly increases your startup’s chances of success in its most critical time of growth.
Knowing is Not Enough: Empathize With Your Customer
Before anything else, founders are problem solvers. Understanding this is one of the first and most important distinctions to make when figuring out how to sell and market your product. Knowing who your target customer is, and genuinely empathizing with them allows you to understand their problems better, equipping you with essential information needed to tailor your product to them.
Creating a customer persona is an excellent way to realize your customer’s identity. These often one-page graphic documents can provide company-aligning insight into the priorities of your potential customers.
I’ve found that the most effective way to do this is by conducting informal interview research, with the primary goal of understanding how your customers see their priorities and why. The objective of these interviews is not to ask them about how they want to solve their problems directly, but rather to ask open-ended questions that can work to either validate or invalidate your first proof-of-concept. To put in layman’s terms, I think Henry Ford said it best with his famous quote:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Ford’s statement means that while customers can understand their challenges and pain points, they may not always have the optimal solutions for these problems. Founders need to leverage an understanding of an individual’s priorities to create and position their product to most effectively satisfy their customer’s needs.
Download this empathy map template.
Another helpful exercise to accomplish this is done by taking the information gained from these interviews to help you create an empathy map. This exercise works by putting you in the shoes of your target audience and can work wonders for anyone trying to understand whoever it is they are trying to serve.
Develop a Prototype & Validate
With a clear understanding of the customer, their problems, and their priorities, it’s time to develop a specific hypothesized solution to test as soon as possible in the form of a prototype.
The folks at Google Ventures have a track record of pumping out profitable products largely thanks to their efficient prototyping method, detailed in the book Sprint. I’d highly recommend giving it a read before you get to prototyping yourself, as it can help provide perspective and avoid costly mistakes before your idea ever get’s off the ground.
Additionally, if you happen to have a software product, many prototyping tools such as Figma or even PowerPoint, can aid in prototyping development. Any of these tools can lead you to success as long as it allows you to build the earliest, cheapest, fastest prototype of the exact solution you’re hypothesizing.
The faster you can get this prototype in front of people’s eyes for feedback, the better. These insights are then used to perfect your prototype, turning it into a working tool to solve your customer’s problem.
This step may not seem tied explicitly to marketing itself. However, I assure you, it most certainly is. The prototyping process includes determining the language used to communicate your product to partners, investors, and prospective clients, which in turn will help you build the foundation for the story of your product’s growth.
With this early iteration of the product ready for public eyes, it’s time to take it back into the target customer’s hands to be able to see how it operates in a real-world setting.
Here, it’s essential to look at how your hypothetical solution worked to solve the customer’s problem: looking for ways to improve, or if you must, completely scrap your original idea and head back to the drawing board.
It’s necessary to run this validation process early and often, as even the greatest marketing strategy won’t save a product with no potential for market fit. With a solid minimum viable product set, you’re ready to complete your proof-of-concept and plan your marketing strategy around it.
Draft a Marketing Strategy Tailored to Your Market’s Barrier to Entry
At this stage in your startup journey, you have two target paths you can take when drafting a marketing strategy. Whichever one you take depends on the barriers of entry for your market.
If entry barriers are low in your target market, then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to bootstrapping your business to chase revenue as soon as possible. This means you can focus your marketing efforts on acquiring early-stage customers as opposed to acquiring funding. This is often the case for professional service startups, among other human-powered products.
If your barrier of entry is high, then chances are your marketing efforts will be best spent if tailored to acquiring funding through angel, venture capital investments, or crowdfunding. Many software startups require high-cost talent and a fair amount of time to perfect these products, making a steady flow of funding essential for survival. This is why it's so necessary to prototype cheaply and validate at every prototype stage. With a strategy outlined, you can now use it to inform the creation of your brand.
Develop a Brand that Speaks to Your Target Audience
It’s expected that through this process, you’ve already established some essential brand characteristics such as a name, maybe even a logo, and color palette. These are great as a placeholder when building out your product or business. Still, it’s not until you understand your audience and strategy that you’re ready to build an impactful and effective brand.
The best way to develop a brand that establishes authority and credibility is through conducting a good-ole branding workshop. If you have the cash, I recommend going through a marketing or advertising agency, as they are likely to not only have a formalized workshop program but an entire creative team capable of bringing the decisions made in the workshop to life.
However, you can also try to run one on your own, as resources are abundant on conducting your own branding workshop. Remember that Sprint tool I mentioned before? Well, the author, Jake Knapp, adapted the same process used in prototyping for branding. It’s a quick and effective way to develop a brand that is intentional and effective. His medium post tells it all.
Whichever route you choose to go, remember that the most effective brands craft a story that puts their customer at the center. David Miller’s story brand is another excellent resource to learn more about this idea.
Another critical piece of branding advice is never to neglect the impact a well-designed brand can have on establishing trust and confidence in your product and company. Often when you’re just starting out and have no previous clients to back up your work, a clean look targeting message can make all of the difference in the world.
Invest in a Strong Website and SEO Optimization
With a solid brand, product, and marketing strategy in the queue, it’s time to execute. No matter what industry or business your startup is in, having a solid web presence is crucial for establishing yourself as an authoritative business in that space and can be leveraged as a pivotal marketing and sales tool.
Depending on your specific needs, there are dozens of website builders you can use. I champion Webflow as the strongest of the most popular site-building clients for its design-first interface, CMS capabilities, and other essential sales and marketing integrations. Webflow also offers a catalog of tutorial videos and educational resources, allowing almost anyone to start designing. However, if you want to use Webflow’s sweet animations and interactive design, it’s best to reach out to the professionals.
It doesn’t matter how great your site is if people can’t find it. Most likely, if you’re in the pre-seed stage, spending money on paid search and social might not be an option until you get your hands on some initial funding. In the meantime, working some in some back in SEO optimization in addition to SEO content strategies may serve as a more sustainable means of improving your brand’s visibility.
This more traditional stage of bringing your product to market is where I see most startups slip up. Jameson Pitts, Growth Marketer here at Unknown and Managing Director at Sangfroid!, has a lot to say about navigating this critical stage as a startup.
Nurture Your Existing Relationships and Focus on Building Your Network
It goes without saying, word-of-mouth is the best marketing there is. I’ve seen the most profitable deals come through friends, partners, and introductions from current and previous clients. This is especially true for smaller businesses and pre-seed startups working to build their reputation. Devising a referral program can be a great way to grow your customer and client base organically.
I’ve seen numerous colleagues make their way to a pivotal deal or even an acquisition through relationships they’ve made and maintained over the years. With achieving an exit or investment being the goal of any pre-seed startup, this may be the most critical piece of advice I have to offer.