Marketing Your Startup

with Alice Lankester

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Go To Market

Planning a go-to-market strategy

Alice Lankester

Startup Marketing Executive, Silicon Valley Veteran, Entrepreneur Enthusiast

Lessons Learned

Do not start marketing until consolidated, confirmed messaging and measurable goals are set.

Work toward big goals in small measurable phases. Give them names & get people to rally behind them.

Make a one year plan. Keep it updated with what works and what does not.


Lesson: Marketing Your Startup with Alice Lankester

Step #5 Go To Market: Planning a go-to-market strategy

Early on when I join a company, the first thing I will do is figure out where a company is trying to go and how long they think it's going to take to get there. Then it's all about phases and it's about process. So what are the first phases, second phases, third phases and how do I approach that and break it down into soluble chunks that I can afford in terms of time and resources. Then I will frequently put together a plan that reflects those phases. So for example, a team might come to me and say, "Well why aren't we sponsoring events?" I say, "I will have an answer for that because I will have done research on the trade events that are relevant for your industry and you will find out it costs you $150,000 to sponsor a trade event," and they will say, "Oh, now I know why its not in your plan."

So the first thing you do is research. Nothing happens before there is consolidated, agreed messaging. And measurable goals are set. This sounds super boring, but it is super important and it's something that good marketing people can help with. You need to arm the whole company with the sort of bite sized chunk, the essence of what the company is trying to do. Without that and the vision and the goal, you don't start a go-to-market plan. So I do that first.

The second thing is I try to understand who the target audience is and those have to be very laser focused. Large companies can afford the sort of machine gun approach where they'll sort of shoot around and hope they hit someone. Startups and entrepreneurs can't afford to do that. They need to, and I'm a pacifist, so I apologize for using a gun analogy, because I hate guns, but it works. It's machine gun versus rifle. You need to have a sniper-like focus on a particular target audience and that target could be a particular industry leader just as well as it could be a particular kind of target customer. And know where they are. So if you're after college students, what do they read and where can you find them and what resonates with them?

The third thing I'll do is establish data driven targets. So how do I measure how successful my go-to-market plan is going to be and be very consistent in how I do it so there are phases on that. I will acknowledge the fact that the company is weak in some areas and strong in others, so how do you place the strengths and how do you circumvent the weaknesses? And then I'll do a lot of work to understand competitor best practices. There are bound to be somebody adjacent to you in your space or somebody in your space that you're trying to overturn. Learn what they're doing, embrace it and do it better. So that's all part of the research.

Once you've done all that research, you've really understood targets, your data, who you're after, what you want to say to them, that's the preamble and that's a lot of work. It shouldn't be outsourced. You never outsource your thinking. A lot of people will go to an agency and think they'll come up with a marketing plan, they'll probably come up with some great creative, but they do not come up with a plan, don't outsource the thinking. The thinking has to be part of the intellectual capital of the company, spend a lot of time thinking. Turn off email, turn off social, go and start Googling around, learn, think, walk, think some more, write it down, present it.

Once you've done that, then you put together the plan, the plan consists of your brand and awareness building as the first step. How you're going to get found is the second step. How you nurture your customers when they find you, how they come across you, timing of it, the market fit, all those things go into the go-to-market plan and you decide what phase you want to do first. I mean there's a lot in there, but the research is the first step. You could do endlessly and I think if you do it endlessly I think you'll get yourself wrapped around the axle, it's okay, it's time to move on. You can't do it to the exclusion of anything else, when I have a new plan to put into place I will probably feel from start to finish that if I'm doing it at the same time as other things I'll probably put at least a months worth of thinking into it.

So for the first time I sit down. Startups work very quickly, I mean you have to really get something. They will expect you to come in on Monday morning and have a plan on Friday. You can do that. You'll have a better plan the following Friday and a better one the Friday after that, so that's okay. Get something out there, do some research, initial ideas, come back and say "You know, I found this about this competitor, what do you think? It seems to me I'm seeing this kind of trend," ask a lot of questions. The founders of the company probably have thought about it just as much as you and will have instinct, so you keep going back and forth. Within a month you should be able to as a marketing person joining a startup be able to put some sort of piece of plan together that helps them get their product out the door and into the marketplace.

Part of it is having an agreed set of goals as a group. It's not just marketing that sets their goals, it's the whole company. And the company might be 5 people, or it might be 10 people, or it might be 20 people. But the company as a whole has a set of goals by which they're going to judge success. They may say I will feel great if I've signed up a thousand new people by July 1st, that will be fantastic. All right, so that's our goal. We're all going to work toward that goal, and so the phases say, how am I going to get those thousand people in? That's going to be my first phase. I must say, that's my first phase against which I'm going to judge myself.

Oftentimes I will give it like a code name and I'll say Operation Kickoff or something like that and I'll call it a particular thing. We'll all get behind it and it becomes a project that we're all doing and how are we doing on Operation Kickoff? And you give it a name and you can report back every day or every week or whatever system you have in the organization to say "Operation Kickoff, we got to 267 of our 1000" and you have like a fundraising chart outside the school board. You're really getting everybody to move behind it. So that way you can break it down to a goal that you can really say is achievable. And yes you may want to get 5 million users by December first, but you really focus on trying to reach that goal that you've set for yourself initially. I think that helps sort of coalesce people behind a particular achievable goal.

My favorite phrase when I'm discussing a product launch, and I've launched hundreds of products, that a launch is a process; it’s not an event. So you may have an event, you may have a party and that's great to have a party, but that's not your launch. Your launch is a process. So when I'm putting together a go-to-market plan and the launch strategy, I will have a plan which may be a year long plan. I will have, here's what we're going to do between the first week, the second week or running up to the first week and the first month and the second month and it will be very specific in the beginning. It will get a little less specific towards the end and that's perfectly normal because what happens later and in large part what's been working in the beginning. So you generally have a plan that lasts quite a long time but realistically it's going to be a fairly narrow window that you're working with, but you have to keep moving your focus.

So you will have your initial plan, then you'll report back on it. So in the best companies I've worked for they give me a forum for going back and saying, "Remember this plan that I showed you on April 1st? It's May 1st, we can check for these things, this worked, this didn't work, this is how I've worked it to accommodate the fact that this worked and this didn't and this is what I'm going to do next." Ideally use the same plan and you can check off done, done, done, not done, this is the reason it's not done. Can't afford this yet, want to do this, have decided I can't afford this and I can afford that. So it's a process and it changes a lot, because you will discover things in that launch that really totally surprise you. If you think its cast in stone and shouldn't change, you're going to sorely disappointed.

Make sure it's flexible, make sure you report back on it and judge yourself by how well you've delivered against it. It's a favorite thing of mine to go back on a launch plan I've put a year later and see how many of the things were right and how many were wrong and some of them were really wrong. Some of them I'll say "Wow, I so got that predicted right. I'm so going to tell people I got that predicted right." But go back and have a look and judge yourself against it.

I think from a business process standpoint one of the things you can ask the marketing people in your startup organization to do is to really try and help you communicate where you are delivering against that plan. If they're good communicators everyone is going to benefit from that because everybody in the company wants to know how you're doing. Did you have a great win? Is there a great story, did something work out really well? So the marketing people will probably be really helpful at having those great stories come back and telling those really great stories. That's a really good thing to try to encourage people to do against that plan.

If you presume that your go-to-market plan is when you're first going to open the doors to business, that's when you really say "I'm here, here's my URL. I'm open for business and I'm going to have a whole bunch of ancillary relatives along with it." At that point you should have a pretty clear idea of your market fit. You should have a pretty clear idea that you aren't opening the doors to test your product, you're opening the doors with a product you're pretty sure is what you think is going to work. If it doesn't maybe just to put it out there just to see, okay, that's great. But I would have thought that there is some testing that goes along before that that says I've tried a few different things and I've learned from it and I think that this is my best understanding of the offer.

So your product market fit is going to change just as often as your marketing plan because you may be surprised by how users use it. You may be surprised by your feedback. But you probably have a pretty good idea by the time you open your doors for business.

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