📂 Common myths and mistakes that hold back growth

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📖 The following is an excerpt from my work-in-progress book, Founding Marketing. It's a (very) rough draft of thoughts, notes, and research... so feel free to reply with your feedback on what I should expand more on and what needs to be clarified. Enjoy!

Build it and they will come

10 years ago… even 5 years ago… life was a little easier as a SaaS startup. Every ad platform was underpriced, Google wasn’t nearly as inundated with content yet, and everyone still had a twinkle in their eye about new software.

Now? A very different story.

The days of “if you build it, they will come” are long gone.

You can’t spin up an HTML website with a payment form, post to Twitter, and expect for it to be smooth sailing to recurring revenue riches anymore.

Every day, hundreds of new products launch across the internet on Product Hunt, Betalist, and TechCrunch with their sights set on growing into cash-generating machines. But the vast majority go unseen, unused, abandoned, or shut down.

It’s never been easier to build a software product with the tools and information available today, but it’s also never been harder to find, acquire, and retain customers.

Here are 3 reasons you need to be intentional about marketing:

1. Changing perception, behavior, and beliefs takes hard work

Most products are not trivial. In other words, especially for B2B software, making a decision to pay money to use your software takes a lot of thought. A lot more thought than buying a movie ticket, candy bar, or even a car.

Software has the unique challenge of having to change someone’s mind, instead of just fulfilling a pre-existing perception, behavior, or belief that was already there.

Software usually presents a new way of doing things.

Instead of using a spreadsheet, use our software. Instead of hiring an intern, use our software. Instead of using a different software, use our software. Instead of doing things X way, do things Y way.

And that all takes marketing. You have to influence the way someone seeing things. Convince them. Show them a new way. Create a new belief about how something should or shouldn’t work.

2. Selling a product requires trust

The world is at an all-time high in skepticism. Thanks to bad actors — fake news, pyramid schemes, over-promised products, and gimmicks — and also due to the sheer volume of advertising in our day to day — through games, TV, social media, really everything digital — people have a right to skeptical.

So the difference isn’t in having the most attention-grabbing marketing or in the most marketing overall, it’s in the marketing before the marketing. It’s about each and every interaction and encounter with you. It’s about slowly and gradually building trust.

So that at the right moment, at the right place, with the right offer, you can cash in on that trust.

Business is built on relationships. And right now the most scarce resource is trust.

3. Time is finite

Sure, you’ve built a great product and maybe you’re getting a few customers a month. But at that rate, how long will it take you to get to your goals?

We’re all on a deadline. Each of us are only allotted so much time on this earth, we only have so much time to work, and we all have somewhere we’re going.

For some, you’re trying to reach a certain revenue milestone so you can survive off of it. For others, you have an investment to return. For others, you want to eventually sell. And for others, you’d like to eventually replace yourself in the business.

Without marketing, you’re at the mercy of someone else — to discover you, take the time to learn about you, contact you, use your product. You have to wait for customers to come to you, which isn’t even guaranteed.

With marketing, you determine your own fate — to get discovered, to teach others about you, to contact them, to make an offer. You go to the customers.

Think of marketing like the gas pedal — the faster you get somewhere, the better. Why stay in idle?

My friends: Hope is not a strategy.

Stealth mode

When a startup is in “stealth mode,” it’s intentionally not hiding it’s whereabouts. It’s the exact opposite of marketing. No landing page, no talking about your product, nothing.

Why?

The idea is to gain a lead on copycats and competitors getting wind of what you’re working on and deciding to go head-to-head.

But I call BS.

The only scenario I can think of where stealth mode makes sense is when you’re not sure what your product is or how to position it in a way that’s going to land with potential customers.

But that’s not really stealth mode. Every startup goes through that phase. It’s a very existential issue to the company itself.

So if it’s really just about gaining a lead on copycats, how long would that last anyway?

Every month in stealth mode is a month staving off the benefits of a strong marketing engine.

When you have limited time, budget, and resources, I have a hard time believing that stealth mode is actually beneficial.

Stealth mode has very limited upside, and potentially disastrous downside if you can’t build momentum coming out of stealth mode.

One more feature

It’s tempting to delay launching, inviting beta users, or even sharing your landing page when your product still feels feature incomplete.

But the truth is that SaaS products are never done.

That one last feature won’t make or break your landing page conversions or Product Hunt launch.

How do you know when it’s ready to share?

If your product does the job customers want to hire it to do.

As soon as it works, as soon as it solves the problem, as soon as it does the minimal amount possible worth paying for… you’re ready.

With a “just one more feature” mentality, a whole year will pass without any building traction whatsoever.

It’s a form of procrastination. Build the MVP and then ship it. You can build more features once you have users asking for them.

Imposter syndrome

Impostor syndrome is an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be, as if you are a fraud.

“Who’s going to use my app? It sucks.”

“I can’t do marketing, I’m a developer.”

“I’m not an expert in this industry. They’ll see right through me.”

There are a lot of doubts that creep in when marketing a product that can sabotage progress.

Secretly, maybe you don’t want to market your SaaS because if you fail to gain traction, you’ll feel like a massive failure. By avoiding marketing, you can be let down more easily and chalk it up to losing interest in the product or being too complicated to build.

Whatever it is: You can do it. You’re not an imposter. You should swing for the fences and give it everything you’ve got, regardless of your skills or expertise in any area.

Self-promotion

A lot of founders, especially, feel icky about marketing their SaaS because they think it’s a form of self-promotion.

Self-promotion and marketing are two very different things.

Self-promotion is about publicizing yourself to gain favor with others, bragging to boost your ego, and taking more credit for accomplishments than you should.

Marketing is an act of service. You’re helping customers find solutions to problems and giving them superpowers to do their jobs better. There is absolutely nothing wrong with talking about your SaaS, sharing a link to it online, or asking for someone’s business.

In fact, not marketing your SaaS is doing a disservice to people. If you developed a commercial drug to cure cancer but you didn’t want to market it because it would feel like self-promotion, shame on you! You’d be doing the world a disservice. I’m using an extreme example, but the principle remains. When you save your customers time, save them money, and make them more money, you are adding value to their life.

Dealing with failure

Marketing is not for the faint of heart. You will fail, without a doubt. A launch will flop, an onboarding experiment will reduce conversions, an email will be sent out with the wrong link.

Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re banging your head against the wall trying to get something to work. You’ll try and fail, try again and fail again. And you do it publicly.

It can be completely demoralizing.

Unfortunately, Pareto’s Principle applies to marketing experiments too. Approximately 80% of the things you try to get more customers will have little to no (or even negative) effect. Approximately 20% will have a measurable positive impact.

Warning: American sports analogy incoming! Marketing is like baseball. If you can even just get on base 3/10 times you go up to bat, you’re a Hall of Famer. The trick is that you have to go up to the plate trying to get a base hit every single time.

The goal is to get the largest number of “at-bats.” When you fail to get on base, you keep your head up and get ready for your next at-bat.

The less time a startup has existed, the harder it is to market it. This is because you have to spend the time and money to figure out what doesn’t work before you find what does work. Once you’ve found the first marketing experiment that works, you’ve gained invaluable information and can build on that. In the early days, there are so many unknowns so you will fail more often than you likely ever will later on in the company history.

As Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

Programming vs Marketing

Programming is deterministic. Inputs always lead to an expected output. It’s a closed loop system. Before I learned to code, I used to think that “bugs” and “glitches” were errors where a program didn’t execute correctly. But computers always execute programs correctly, barring any server performance issues. In fact, what we think of errors in code are actually just unexpected results. If the code executes “correctly,” that means it produced an expected result. If the code executes “incorrectly,” that means it produced unexpected results. But in both cases, the fault was in the user, not the program.

Marketing, on the other hand, is not deterministic. Inputs don’t always lead to expected outputs. It’s an open loop system. When marketing works, it’s akin to when code executes correctly. When marketing doesn’t work, it’s akin to getting an error. But good programmers know that errors happen all the time and are actually key to understanding how to write good, resilient code. By debugging errors, you understand your code more holistically and get to the root of what you need to make your program work. So understanding why a certain marketing activity didn’t yield the expected results is one of the keys to executing marketing activities that do work. You have to “debug” your marketing. It’s a process of elimination.

Another apt analogy is contrasting card games: solitaire vs poker. In solitaire, it’s impossible to lose. The rules are straightforward and there’s always a way to complete the game. Every move is deterministic. However, in poker, information is very limited and you have to use what information you have to make decisions that can yield good or bad results. Sometimes the right decision yields a negative result (get unlucky) and sometimes the wrong decision yields a positive result (get lucky). But all you can do is keep adjusting your strategy to get positive results more frequently.

—Corey

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