How to Market your Startup: Good Marketing, Bad Marketing

By Brian Scordato, Founder of Tacklebox Accelerator and the Idea to Startup Podcast

My best friend growing up lived about 5 houses down from me. He moved there in 3rd grade, coming from a far away land called “Long Island” that to 3rd grade Brian sounded very exotic.

His older brother had taught him about girls and z100, so on top of being exotic he seemed very grown-up to all of us who mostly spent our days playing with transformers and sipping Capri Sun. On the first day of 3rd grade — his first day in a new school — he wore his hat… and pants… backwards. He swears to this day the pants backwards thing was an honest mistake, but it was right around the time this was happening so I’m not buying it.

Anyway, our teacher immediately made him go to the bathroom and turn around both his pants and his hat.

This is all to say that Jeremy made quite a first impression.

Segue.

You’re reading this because you’ve got a startup or a startup idea. In either case, just about everyone that interacts with your current or future company will be doing so for the first time. You won’t have an ounce of brand equity to lean on. No one will give you the benefit of the doubt or even think about you enough to consider it. In most cases, your months or years of hard work won’t even register a thought.

This stinks. But it’s also an opportunity. Recognizing that most people will ignore you frees you up to pick out and focus on people that might. Your job is to make sure you convert a high percentage of those people. This is how you kick off compound interest — the thing that will be the difference between success and failure.

Let’s take a look at how compound interest works:

For the guy starting Eastminster — Westminster for people with rescue dogs and mutts — the pyramid gets fat. The message is simple to digest and spread. It’s clear who it’s for and why it exists. The juxtaposition against Westminster — the hoity-toity dog show everyone knows — immediately lets people understand what Eastminster will be — the complete opposite.

Now let’s look at a website I was sent a few days ago:

The company may be great, and what they’re doing makes sense, but… what are people supposed to do with that? It’s too broad to be actionable.

No matter how well you target, you’ll need your message to travel past the first person who hears it early on. If it doesn’t, you’re toast.

The math is striking. The below graph shows the number of people that learn about two different companies. The blue company gets 10 out of every 100 people to tell someone else about the company, the red gets 2 out of every 100 to do the same.

Our general rule at Tacklebox is it usually takes 6 interactions with a customer before they convert, with at least 2–3 of those interactions needing to come from word of mouth. You’ll need to be famous to the family to grow, which means tight and highly differentiated marketing.

Unfortunately, differentiation is harder than ever because everything is so damn cluttered. Funded companies have poured ungodly sums of money into Instagram and Facebook ads, pricing out anyone who hasn’t raised a series A. The low hanging fruit acquisition strategy of 2014 — minimalist design + Instagram lookalike audiences — is done.

The words of my grandfather have never been more true — to be a difference, a difference has to make a difference. You can’t rely on the surface level stuff anymore.

So how do you do it? How do you differentiate and get people to share your message without showing up with your pants on backwards?

Today, we’ll look at examples of good marketing and bad marketing to help you get better at your first-interaction marketing. We’ll lean on the framework we use to evaluate our Tacklebox companies.

The Criteria

Good marketing (and a good product) hits one of the top three levels on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The below framework is a pain in the ass (it’s hard), but it ensures you do it.

There are three top-level criteria:

  1. Specificity vs. Brand Equity See-Saw

When you don’t have any brand equity, you’ll create connection through specificity. If I don’t know you and you tell me you make organic, 3d-printed, sweaters made from 100% recycled materials and you stand for social change, I don’t care. I don’t know you, so I don’t really trust any of it. If you tell me you make sweaters for tall, lanky people so the sleeves go all the way to your wrists, I’m in. You’ve proved you know something about me. I’m tall and lanky and a problem we have is sweaters go to our forearms and look ridiculous.

You want to be on the left side of this see-saw. The less specific you get, the more you need to lean on existing brand equity to get customers to notice. Early on, that’s a bad strategy.

2. Attention Pie

If your messaging has too many things, it dilutes them all. Focus drives understanding and understanding leads to sharing. You need to make tradeoffs when you build a startup — choosing between two important things and leaving one out because clarity is the most important.

I don’t know what to take away from this, and I don’t know who to share it with:

I know exactly what to do with this and who to share it with:

3. The Intangibles — Call to Action, Decision, Differentiation

The last category we think about are the “intangibles.”

  • Is the Call to Action, the thing that is supposed to drive action (put in your email, sign up to newsletter, buy) compelling?
  • Does the brand force customers to make a decision?
  • What’s different about this? When I share with a friend and they say “oh, so-and-so also does this” — what do I say?

Alright, let’s play some Good Marketing Bad Marketing:

Good Marketing Bad Marketing

I stuck with newer companies — or at least companies I definitely hadn’t heard of. These popped up from all over the place. I have no idea if any are good or bad companies. This is all about marketing.

Company: Cottage

We’ll start off white-hot with something I know absolutely nothing about. I have no clue what an ADU is and I love that. It’s specific — not to me — but I’d imagine to someone.

A two-second deep dive let me know “ADUs” — Accessory Dwelling Units — are livable spaces you rent out on your property. I’ve got a friend who owns a place he airbnbs out in San Fran, so I texted him:

“Have you ever thought about an ADU?” (I felt cool casually using that term)

“Yes, definitely. My plot has room for one. The problem with ADUs is permitting — it’s a disaster. I looked into it a while back and want no part of it. But you can definitely crush it, it’s just extra income and I’m already renting the main place.”

“I stumbled on a startup that manages the design, permit, and building of an ADU in the Bay Area.”

“Holy shit that’s awesome — send it to me.”

Well, alright.

To the grades:

  1. Specificity vs. Brand Equity, 8/10. Terms like ADU let people opt-in. Tight location (Bay Area) lets me think quickly about who I know in San Francisco who might be interested. They also prominently display the main thing my friend was wary about — permitting.
  2. Attention Pie: 4/10. They mention permitting, designing, rental income, boosted home equity, “hassle-free” — there’s a lot going on here. I’m sure they’re all important, but it gets overwhelming. Make tradeoffs — if permitting is the hardest thing, the bottleneck that keeps people from doing this, go in on permitting.
  3. Intangibles:
  4. Call-to-action, 1/5. Love the “see how much rental income you can earn,” do not love the “book a free phone consultation.” Asking too much from the first interaction. It’s our first date, I want to split some shishito peppers not move in together.
  5. Decision, 5/5. The inclusive language and tight location makes my decision clear — do I know what an ADU is? Do I want to build one in the Bay Area? That’s a yes or a no. The CTA above needs to do better capitalizing on the “yes’s.”
  6. Different, N/A. Don’t know enough about the space. Sometimes that happens on Good Marketing Bad Marketing. Everything is on the table.

Overall: 18/30Pretty Good Marketing!

NOTE: They’re clearly A/B testing their website because they have slightly different messaging each time I go. Here’s the newest iteration. I like this CTA much, much better. Give me that estimate (the shishito peppers), I’ll decide on whether I want that consult after I see it. That’d bump CTA to 4/5.

Next up, The Mother Tongue.

Most of your first interactions with ice cold customers will happen on things like Facebook ads or Product Hunt. The Mother Tongue was featured on Product Hunt yesterday, which is where I found it:

“100% organic everyday cooking spices” is as fluffy as it gets. Maybe 100% organic is a differentiator for some people, but for that to be the sentence about your brand — I’m skeptical. I don’t think that’s driving a decision. Let’s get to the site and see what’s what.

Ok, looks like organic + nice branding is their north star. If there are customers who are frustrated as hell using McCormick because it’s not organic, maybe they’ve got something?

Although a quick Google shows tha McCormick is all about organic, too (or wants to be).

To the scorecard:

  1. Specificity vs. Brand Equity, 2/10. Organic is likely a feature, not a decision maker. Specificity is about WHO this thing is for. I have absolutely no idea. Who would you share this with? Is this for chefs? Beginners? The essentials were designed for “everyday cooking” — my everyday cooking? No problem being solved, no clear customer.
  2. Attention Pie: 7/10. It’s organic and for everyday cooking. If those matter to people, they’re not being diluted, which is good.
  3. Intangibles:
  4. Call-to-action, 1/5. Pre-order or sign up to a newsletter. In fairness, when you’re selling stuff D2C it is extremely hard to have a good call to action that isn’t “pre-order” or “get 15% off your first order.” But that’s not an excuse — it’s an opportunity to differentiate. The price of going the D2C route is you’ve got to be ridiculously compelling because you aren’t paying a middleman to get you placed in front of the customer.
  5. Decision, 1/5. I don’t know if this is for me or not, and don’t know what my decision is.
  6. Different, 1/5. I’m not sure what it’s for or who it’s for, so it’s tough to figure out if it’s different or not. Choosing a lane is so critical. Are they spices for grilled veggies? Spices for people who just started learning to cook during the quarantine and want to explore past the basics? How are they different?

Overall, 12/30: Not Great Marketing, Bob!

Don’t be fooled by the good design, this just isn’t great marketing. Maybe their product is AMAZING — and I feel absurdly bad writing this harshly about them so I am going to pre-order some spices. But I think there’s an enormous opportunity to go tight on customer here and solve a real problem and edge of the wedge their way to something.

They’re doing their product a disservice by staying so broad.

Last up: MainStreet

Also on Product Hunt, but with way more traction.

Be still my heart.

  1. Specificity vs. Brand Equity, 8/10. If you’re running a startup, you have heard tell of mythical tax credits. How do you get them? No one knows. Welp, MainStreet knows. They tell me, a startup founder, I’m owed $50k and it’ll take 20 minutes to qualify. I know exactly who it’s for and I know the exact value they’re bringing to the table. I dropped them to an “8” because it feels a bit car salesman-y and as a three person startup I’m almost certainly not getting $50k.
  2. Attention Pie: 9/10. You deserve all the tax credits and we’ll get them for you.
  3. Intangibles:
  4. Call-to-action, 2/5. Get started is nice. It feels like there’s action. But there’s a little friction there that could be smoothed by a “see how much you can get” or “see if you qualify,” as I doubt I’m in the $50k bucket.
  5. Decision, 4/5. Either I have a startup or I don’t. I don’t know exactly what size, but it’s specific and compelling enough for me to ask the question “do I qualify?”
  6. Different, 4/5. I’ve never seen this type of messaging before.

Verdict, 27/35: Very Good Marketing

And a bonus… the place near my old office:

“You’ve gotta try this place’s ‘more’”

Trust your damn pickles, man!!

We help founders with full-time jobs validate their startup before they quit. The posts are tactics we use. http://gettacklebox.com