Rude VC: The misplaced pride of no marketing

Rude VC: The misplaced pride of no marketing
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ignoreI heard it again just the other day during a startup’s pitch. “We’ve done no marketing, and look how much we’ve accomplished,” boasted the founders of the venture for which they were trying to raise money. Imagine what we could do if we spent money on marketing, was the intended implication of what they were saying.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon refrain in early-stage pitches, and I cringe every time I hear it. The variation on this theme is a startup claiming the reason for their fundraising is to hire a marketing department.

There are several reasons this bothers me, but before I describe them, I’ll try to recall the definition of marketing, as explained by my best professor on the subject, Christie Nordhielm at Kellogg:

Marketing represents the set of activities and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. It encompasses all of the following: identifying needs/wants; understanding the competitive environment; disseminating information; generating awareness; pricing; getting someone to buy a product/service; delivering the product/service to customers; setting expectations; creating value for customers; assessing perception; ending the product/service.

So when entrepreneurs brag about their absence of marketing, this makes me wonder…

  • …if they may be working on the wrong problem. Developing a successful product requires interaction with the market from its very conception through prototyping to launch. This is what makes the MVP framework of The Lean Startup methodology so powerful. How do founders know whether they’re addressing a genuine need in the absence of marketing ?
  • …if they lack a fundamental understanding of what marketing is, presuming it’s a function which can simply be delegated to ‘experts’ (e.g. expensive PR firms) when the funding comes. Marketing cannot be delegated; it must permeate the organization. Every new recruit will touch on marketing in some way.
  • …if they disrespect the value of marketing. Is ‘build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’ the prevailing conviction of the founders ?

Or to put it to poetry, as Fried & Hansson do in Rework (an easy and incisive read by the 37 Signals founders):

Marketing is something everyone in your company is doing 24/7/365.
Every time you answer the phone, it’s marketing.
Every time you send an email, it’s marketing.
Every time someone uses your product, it’s marketing.
Every word you write on your website is marketing.
If you build software, every error message is marketing.
If you’re in the restaurant business, the after-dinner mint is marketing.
If you’re in the retail business, the check-out counter is marketing.
If you’re in a service business, your invoice is marketing.
Marketing is the sum total of everything you do.

8 Responses

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  2. Avatar
    Julien Salanave

    I have to disagree with this article: a startup that demonstrates in its early part of life that its product can attract a reasonable amount of customers without active customer acquisition stands a much better chance of success than one that heavily relies on marketing to tentatively attract them. I think it’s easier to figure out the marketing for scaling ONCE you have a product that works and can sell on its own merits than vice versa.
    Not doing marketing in the early life of a startup is most often not a sign of pride, it’s a sign that priorities have been set elsewhere under constrained ressources

    • Avatar
      mark bivens (@markbivens)

      Actually, I’m arguing that “a startup that demonstrates in its early part of life that its product can attract a reasonable amount of customers” has actually already performed marketing with some success. Its product design was likely inspired by market observation, research, iterations, etc. Market observation leads to customer empathy which leads to the creation of innovative products.

      Judging from the impressive products on your web site, I would argue that you’ve deftly engaged in some degree of marketing too.

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    Thomas Oriol

    Sure Mark, but this post is a bit disingenious. You know what “no marketing” means most startups. Modern, cross-platform, data-driven marketing is extremely time consuming and requires very specialized skills. “No marketing” means: we have been doing this part-time because we don’t have the resources to invest in a full-time specialist or outsource to a competent agency.

    So yes, signing-up hundreds (in B2B) or thousands (in B2C) of users in such conditions is commendable. And by the way it wouldn’t be possible without the “soft” marketing tactics you are referring to in the post.

  4. Rude VC: The misplaced pride of no marketing – The Rude BaguettebizEcentre Business UK | bizEcentre Business UK

    […] Rude VC: The misplaced pride of no marketingThe Rude Baguetteignore I heard it again just the other day during a startup’s pitch. “We’ve done no marketing, and look how much we’ve accomplished,” boasted the founders of the venture for which they were trying to raise money. Imagine what we could do if we spent … […]

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    Julien Salanave

    Makes sense with the extensive definition of marketing you use…but I would still tend to put ourselves in the “no marketing yet camp”. Anyhow, thanks for the kind words about our products.

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    David Jouarisse

    Good article Mark – I agriiiii 🙂

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