Category: Startups

Marketing Planning for Startups: Here’s a no-BS Framework for Early Stage Companies

It seems we have product-market fit. What marketing channels should we invest in?

This is probably the most common question in the startup community (right after “should we do an ICO?”). After answering it a couple of dozen times in one-on-one sessions and workshops I now think I have a solid answer, the equivalent of having a map in an unfamiliar city. You can still get horribly lost but there’s a really high chance of getting to where you need to go. Which is particularly handy if you’d like to arrive before all the others do.

This post builds on my Two Hedgehog Marketing framework which was great but may have missed some practical implementation guidelines which are now present.

Ready? Building a marketing plan starts from assessing category awareness.

Step 1. Map category awareness: are you a guard dog, a sugar glider or a little bit of both?

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A sugar glider, your humble guide to understanding category awareness.

Join me on a (justified) detour with pets to illustrate this. You get a guard dog if you feel like you need to protect your property by someone who can also keep you company. You kind of know what to expect and how the business of getting and looking after a dog works. No amount of advertising or media stories will persuade you to get a dog if you don’t want a dog. In fact, if someone did advertise getting a dog, you’d probably be blind to this.

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70 meetings and calls later: How I achieved customer interview management superpowers

customer development path

I’ve been working on a tool that does marketing automation for Pipedrive (more on that at the end of the post). Or rather, I’ve been working on an idea for a marketing automation tool as I don’t want a single line of code written before I’d experienced a notable pull from target customers. (This may sound like I am clever/ born lean, but in reality, I’ve made the mistake of starting a couple of projects out of pure enthusiasm in the past, and I’ve had enough of that, thankyouverymuch).

I set myself a goal of 10 customer pre-orders in a reasonable time, kicked myself in the butt and got started. As I had been preparing for cutting the cord of employment for some time, I had created an Evernote document with names of people I wanted to approach, another one with interview questions and the third one with feature ideas.

I knew I wanted to keep track of the whole process, be able to easily access and analyze my notes and automate as much as possible. Unsurprisingly, I picked Pipedrive as my main tool and took the advice that I had been preaching Pipedrive users for almost seven years: that the first step of achieving a (good) result is defining the process.

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Show your click stats to the designer, or how creativity at scale is hard work

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This post leaped out of my head as I’m wrapping up my six or so years of heading marketing of Pipedrive and I’ve started to reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly. There might be more posts like this, you sign up to receive notifications in the right sidebar.

Q: What moron pays good dollars for the right to show Facebook ads to the perfect audience and then cobbles together stock illustrations and copy that makes one yawn at best?

A: The moron that wrote this piece.

Hear me out, there may be a lesson or two here. You see, I’ve considered myself as a “creative” marketer which has been somewhat justified. I’ve rented a tram for a month and had it transport people for free, brightly Skype-branded. I’ve won creative awards on both sides of the table. I’ve managed a creative team at an agency and run my own little boutique.  And then I completely stupidly dropped the creative ball as head of a 20+ person tech marketing team.

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How Pipedrive reached 50,000 paying customers

Pipedrive art

Earlier in the year Pipedrive crossed the 50,000 paying customer mark, an event we celebrated with cheap champagne insightful stats. I thought it’d be a good idea to follow up my “how Pipedrive got to 10,000 customers” post.  A couple of things are exactly the same, some have lost their relevancy and there are several new themes.

What follow are my observations of things that got us from 10,000 to 50,000 customers, in no particular order, but leaving the most important thing last. Note these are observations of a marketer, if you asked one of our product managers, sales leaders or investors to write the post, you might get a different post.

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10 highly practical startup marketing tips

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Sounds like clickbait, right? A “listicle”, questionable facts loosely stitched together only to get you to visit. But what this really is is ten solid, if I say so myself, marketing tips based on almost a decade of technology marketing.

I wrote them down because each of them has proven valuable in conversations with people that are marketing startups in one way or another. Here they are, in no particular order.

#1. Talk to lots of customers in a short period of time.

Talk to customers” is the piece of advice that has probably the lowest ratio of awareness to real usage ie. everyone knows it and no-one seems to do enough of it. Let me one-up this: speak to a couple of dozen of customers in a short time at least once when you start working with a new company or customer group.

I spoke to nearly 40 customers in 3 weeks for an hour each about 1,5 years ago as part of a customer persona exercise and while the result was useful, the process of having gone through this was even more useful. This dramatically increased my ability to create connections between Pipedrive’s offering and our customers. I can now relate new features we announce to specific places in the day-to-day of customers. When I look at product usage stats or market research slides, particular pieces of these conversations spring to mind and help to bring data to life. (There was also the practical added benefit of finding three really insightful case studies for our blog.)

And here’s a practical tip. The answer to the question how many customers should I talk to is: keep talking to more customers until the stories you hear back start to resemble each other. If you have a homogenous user base the right number may be 10, but in most cases it’s safe to aim for 25 or so.

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From hand to hand combat to a Bond villain – how you evolve as a startup marketer

I’ve worn so many different marketing hats it’s surprising I have any hair left. But heading marketing of Pipedrive from zero to more than 30,000 paying customers, and from writing copy for the first marketing site to managing a team of 15 on two continents, gave me a front row seat on how your role as a marketer evolves as the company grows, and the opportunities you will miss if your behaviour doesn’t match the phase company is in.

I’m not a fan of military doings but weirdly there is no better analogy to the evolution of marketer’s role than war. I must stress that this does not mean I treat customers/users as enemies – in fact, I’d like to think the opposite is true.

how you evolve as a marketer
This image will make more sense when you reach the end of the post. Alas, it won’t become any prettier to look at.

Stage 1. Hand to hand combat

Back in 2010 Pipedrive had an idea, a multi-skilled group of founders, one hired engineer, a lot of enthusiasm and … not much else.

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The Two Hedgehog Model, perfect for marketing early stage startups

One thing that doesn’t hold you back in startup marketing is the lack of options for models, frameworks and opinions on what to spend one’s time on. There’s Dave McClure’s AARRR model. The Bullseye framework. The “Throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks” approach. The list goes on.

So why this post? If you have little data and time, as many early stage startups do, these models don’t help you focus on the 1-2 things that can make a difference. And so many spread themselves too thin between too many channels.

I think there’s a simpler better model for early stage startups. (It’s so simple in fact that you might already be using it and I was the last person on Earth to stumble upon in it.)

Two hedgehog marketing model
The Two Hedgehog marketing model, focusing on Recommendations and Findability

About a year ago I did a customer persona exercise for Pipedrive and spoke to about 35 customers for an hour during an intense two-week period. (Something I recommend any startup marketer to do). One of the slightly off-piste questions I asked was: how did you first hear about Pipedrive? Most people replied “from a friend or colleague” and other said they searched the hell out of the internets. I dutifully marked down the answers and continued my persona work.

Only some months later it hit me. What I had gotten from those good people was not just an idea of who Pipedrive’s customers were but a highly practical marketing model.

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What you know, doesn’t matter

The Achoo autopsy post has gotten good feedback and resulted in many good conversations. It wasn’t always pleasant to talk about the failure, but it helped to cement the learnings and, in a way, “get over it” faster.

Among other chats I did a largish Q&A session at a co-working space where I could go into more detail about the different mistakes we had made. Another thing to point out is that most of the time, we were aware of the mistakes we were making. We knew that focus is key to startups and that any successful social products always grow out of a tight small groups. But we thought “our product is so great, this doesn’t necessarily apply to us” and went with several target groups anyway. Same with our other mistakes. Just like a smoker knows that smoking is bad for health, but lights the next one anyway.

What you know, doesn’t necessarily matter, for startups and for other walks of life.

Closing Achoo, or how I learned that it’s all about the team

After around 18 months of (non-full time) work we’re shutting down Achoo. 13542 unique visitors, 1000+ users and one pivot later it’s a good time to move on to other things. Achoo won’t become the professional social network that shows what one has accomplished, and with whom. Mark my words: someone will crack that nut soon, and probably a startup not LinkedIn.

We made many popular startup mistakes but if I had to pick one I’d say the main reason we failed was that our servers kept crashing under the load. I wish:) The real reason lies in the words non-full time. We, and I should really say I, failed to get to a setup where the team can focus and take lots of shots at the goal. We were 3 people: a designer, a coder and a marketer, all good at what we do. And though we put in lots of hours, too many of them were evening hours away from each other.

All team members had other commitments of various levels, and our thinking was to moonlight until first signs of traction, and then go full time. Sounded good on paper, but this setup slowed us down and mostly working in Skype chats and Google docs limited our creativity. On a different level co-founders are also co-believers and if the team is not there for each other emotionally, you won’t get the 101% output necessary to bring a world-changing idea to life.

At this stage it’s worth pointing out that it’s not a dramatic divorce. We have the same view on closing Achoo and we might work together again – just not on another 18-month moonlighting project.

If the resourcing wasn’t enough we also got the process wrong. I fell in love with the idea rather than followed the process of getting user feedback before starting to build. Our comprehensive piece of market research was a month after our public beta launch, not before. And while I talked to lots of people about Achoo, I didn’t do enough of talking to our target group. Which neatly leads to the next mistake.

We lacked focus. Our go-to-market plan didn’t focus on one particular group of people. We had freelancers in mind but we also wanted to target a couple of other types (“let’s throw some spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks”), and so we never properly penetrated any one target group. Which is not how you grow a social product.

Despite all this there are several things to be proud of – the design of Achoo, our hackatlon-like periods before major releases with intense pace and high spirits, our PR results and a couple of smaller wins. It’s just that in this day and age you need to get more than a couple of things right. You need to get almost all things right, and you definitely need to get all hands on the deck for a good while.

Big thank you to my co-founders for the journey, for mentors at various stages and to Ajujaht (the prize money we won there greatly helped to cover our outsourced development, marketing and travel costs)! The outcome isn’t great and it wasn’t always pleasant, but all in all it was fun and I learned how not to build a startup.

What next?

Not 100% sure yet, but I know I won’t be hoping to be the exception whose idea doesn’t need validation before building and I’ll work in a motivated team. I’ve started customer development for a marketing tracking tool, but for a month or two I’ll be keeping my ears open (as well as take my first long holiday in 2 years). You’re welcome to share this post and/or get in touch.

Keep it simple, talk to users – how Toggl has gotten to 20.000 paid users, and counting

I attended one of lunch talks at Garage48 Hub yesterday, the guest was Alari Aho, co-founder of Toggl. Toggl is a SaaS time tracking app that is doing well. They have more than 300.000 registered users and around 20.000 paying users. It’s a freemium product that is free to up to 5 users per team.

Due to the nature of the lunch (no slides, people ask questions, and sometimes very random questions) talks Alari didn’t go too deep into any topic, but he openly shared what Toggl has done and have his suggestions for other SaaS startups. In this post I’ve tried to structure Alari’s nuggets under different “headers”.

The first lesson is focus

Toggl was started as a side project in a software development house back in 2006. For the first couple of years it didn’t make any money and growth was rather flat. Things kicked into gear when client work stopped due to recession and the team properly focused on building the product.

Another aspect of focus is building an app that does one thing very well, and talks to other apps, not a “swiss-army knife”. To provide more value Toggl has introduced additional products like Planner or made Toggl better by making it simpler (eg. remove features that are being used by 1% of users) and faster to use.

Toggl has some very specific target groups like lawyers or designers, and the company has been toying with the idea of making dedicated apps for each one. But so far users in different verticals have rather homogeneous needs, and there hasn’t been a real need for that.

For wantrepreneurs Alari’s advice was to do one thing at a time rather than build several products and “see what sticks”, because it takes time to do something properly. He advises to plan 2 years for getting something done properly, and not counting on much income during that period.

Talk to users a lot

When probed about the most important things that have led to Toggl’s success, Alari emphasised the importance of talking to customers. They frequently travel to US or UK with the sole aim of visiting customers, seeing first-hand how they use the product and getting feedback. He brought the example that sometimes a feature that works well in the office simply doesn’t work in real life.

Toggl has also introduced some scalable means of talking to users. For example, when they found out that conversion to paid is much higher for users that have invited the whole team, they set up an email that encouraged users to do just that. 14% of people who received the email invited the team vs. 7% for those that didn’t.

Be very pragmatic about marketing

Toggl only hired their first marketing person a couple of months ago. This is not to say Toggl hasn’t done any marketing, they’ve just been very pragmatic about it (like the email example above).

A whopping 75% of traffic to Toggl comes from non-branded search (try googling “time tracking”). And this hasn’t come by itself – they’ve invested into SEO-friendly website and good copy. It also helps when you’ve been around since 2006 and been linked to by LifeHacker and lots of forum posts and discussions.

To get the word out Toggls emailed around 20 relevant bloggers back in 2006, and – lo an behold – one of them wrote about Toggl. This trickled over into posts downstream and the company hasn’t had to work hard for PR later.

Today Toggl does lots of marketing experiments. For example, Dropbox-style “refer people to get free service” didn’t work well – there were some signups but they didn’t convert.

Raise prices when you can, and raise money only when you need to
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Toggl started out by charging $1 per user and now charges $5, without introducing new features. With the latest price hike, existing users kept the old price for 3 months, and could lock in the price for 12 months thereafter by paying in advance. 5% of customers decided to leave but because 10% decided to pay upfront, revenue increased both in short and long term.

Toggl was initially funded by proceeds from software development services, and is profitable today. They haven’t felt the need to raise addiotnal funds and, as of now, are planning to self-finance future growth.

Photo courtesy: Kadri Uljas of Garage48Hub