Doing more with less: This is what marketers get asked for when they join an early-stage startup. British consultant Lucy Heskins knows firsthand how overwhelming that can be, which is why her services can both replace and complement early in-house marketing staff. Either way, it often involves educating the founders about the job to be done.
“Too many people fail to realize that marketing is the process of understanding your customers, building appropriate channels to reach them and ultimately meeting their needs (profitability),” she wrote on her site, Oh, blimey.
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Having earned “scars and stripes” at various startups, Heskins recently joined “tech for good” company Big Lemon as a part-time head of growth, but still offers her services to other teams as a SaaS and early-stage startup marketing consultant. If you are a marketer yourself or thinking of hiring one, read on: She shared some compelling insights with TechCrunch.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How do you collaborate with the startups you work with as a consultant?
Typically I will work with startups in two ways. The first will be project-based. So for example, when they want to explore a potential new customer market or introduce a freemium strategy.
The other way is as a mentor or extension to their marketer. Often I will work with marketers who’ve never worked in a startup and they can bounce ideas or strategies off me. It helps speed up their learning and time to deliver results.
How do your roles as an employee and as a consultant nourish each other?
I’ve experienced the very real pains/challenges/opportunities a startup presents, especially as an early-stage employee. I’ve come in, helped change business models, explored things like freemium and repositioned brands. It’s tough. So as a consultant, I can pass on my learnings (and mistakes). And I get to work with some great startups who are open to trying new things. Plus, having worked in four startups now, I get the pressure they’re facing and can adjust my approach accordingly. There’s a lot of plates spinning, and I get that.
What do early-stage startups typically misunderstand and need to know about startup marketers like you?
In my experience, there are a few mistakes startups often make.
The first is hiring a marketer too soon. I’ve come into startups, thinking I was coming in to set up their in-house function. However, very quickly you realize that they’ve jumped the gun and think they’ve got product-market fit when they are nowhere near it. This can cause conflict because the startup’s expecting one thing (say, revenue) but the marketer is missing a few basics to be effective (value proposition, an idea of how “painful” the problem is that they are solving, lack of involvement in areas like pricing).
The next mistake is not trusting their marketer. All too often I hear of marketers who’ve gone into a startup only to learn that their ideas are put on the back burner because the founder(s) — and this is typically first-time founders — don’t quite understand marketing and will push them to deliver short-term results (leads).
Lastly and probably the biggest mistake is applying what worked at a previous business. When joining a startup, you’re starting from scratch — new customers, new markets, go-to-market strategy. There’s a bias for wanting to use what worked previously, but people forget … your customers and markets are totally different. You can’t just replicate.
What should be the main focus of a startup’s first in-house marketer?
Of course, it depends really on the stage of the startup; however, whatever stage you’re at, it needs to be customer research/development. I’d be very wary of a marketer who doesn’t suggest this as one of their first activities.
You need to unlock why customers buy or subscribe to the startup’s product. This will determine your traction channels, your proposition, your pricing model — everything.
Why should startups consider hiring a freelancer or agency to help with their marketing instead of doing everything in-house?
I think it’s a great idea to outsource until the startup understands (1) if there’s an actual problem that needs solving and (2) whether there’s a market big enough to actually turn it into a business.
Whilst you’re in this period, you can’t afford to learn new skills — even though it may seem attractive/”cheap” to do it in-house, it really isn’t. It can actually set you back. Outsource the specifics and focus on what you do best. Once you’ve got a better idea of validation, then you can start to see which skills to bring in-house.
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Why have you decided to focus on SaaS startups? What makes them different when it comes to marketing?
I love working in SaaS, especially B2B SaaS. What makes it different, for me, is that the role becomes part marketing, part product, part commercial. You get to look at the entire customer experience, and because many SaaS products are trial/subscription-based, your focus needs to be on retention. You’re only as good as your last month, so it forces you to work and think harder.
Plus, B2B SaaS is actually very, very cool now. Just because you work in B2B marketing doesn’t mean you need to be boring!
What are some key takeaways from your Early-Stage Startup Marketing Playbook?
I created the playbook because I sat in a board meeting and, when an investor was asking about the go-to-market strategy, I realized that there wasn’t a clear toolkit for helping early-stage startups to map out the market, nor think about the steps leading up to launching a product.
There are many takeaways, but I think the main one and the most valuable is providing clarity as to what specific steps go into a go-to-market strategy and how it all works together.
I talk you through how to speak to the customers who’ll actually buy from you — not those who tell you they love your product but run a mile when it’s time to pay — and how to determine which market channel is best to reach them.
What is customer-led growth? And how can it help startups adapt post-COVID?
Customer-led growth is a strategy that combines product, marketing and sales. It views your product through the lens of a customer with the aim of working out how value is delivered to them “whenever, wherever and however they need it.” It’s something I learned and studied from the co-founders of Forget the Funnel.
The idea is that you look at the entire customer journey, from the struggle stage right through to when they’re a customer, and you break each section down to where there’s an opportunity for growth. It’s really helpful for startups — especially post-COVID because chances are, your customers’ needs have changed.
How your customers derive value from your product changes all the time. This framework gives you a starting point.
How is content marketing best used?
I often say to startups, stop creating content for the sake of it. A lot of content that’s created doesn’t allow for where your customer may be in the buying process. It doesn’t consider what’s motivating them to solve their problem.
As a result, the results you get are skewed. Things take much longer than they should. Customers get confused about what it is your business actually is/does. Everyone starts to lose respect for marketing.
Again, you need to take it back to the customer and their journey and identify what content they need to overcome that particular problem that’s getting in the way of signing up/using your product.
Why is alignment with sales important, and what does it involve?
I’ve worked in startups that have been sales-led (so, complex products, long lead time) and it’s important to understand what sales needs to uncover to help move a customer to the next stage. Likewise, marketing can help sales to really dig into the proposition and understand what channels are best to convert leads.
I think when you work in a startup as a marketer, you have to roll up your sleeves and get involved in sales. It’ll help improve the content, strategy and revenue in the end.
So if you are working with a salesperson whose ultimate aim is to secure a call with a prospect, you can’t just go in and expect a prospect to say yes, immediately. There are a series of steps you and the salesperson need to go through in order to nurture and open up this relationship. It’s all about proving a set of hypotheses about your customer. Do they really hang out on LinkedIn? Are they bombarded with companies offering the same? Which proposition is working enough to get someone to agree to a call? Is that calendar link putting off prospects altogether?
I truly believe people do love to help, but it’s about working out what’s in it for them and how your product will make their life just that little bit easier.