A Designer’s Thoughts on Go-To Market Strategy for Startups

Christian Beck

Christian Beck,

October 21, 2020

This article was contributed by Christian Beck, Executive Partner, Growth Strategy & Design for Innovatemap. Innovatemap is a team of experts in digital product research, branding, marketing, and design.

I’m in no position to write this article. I went to design school and have learned all I know about marketing sales while building an agency and observing startup clients.

But what I’ve learned is that all new founders (“new” meaning those who haven’t struck gold with prior exits) are learning on the job. Your career up until the point of founding was largely centered on one domain. And unless your previous gig was in sales or marketing, there’s a decent chance that you’re learning this the same way I did. Come to think of it, maybe I am in a good position to write this article!

Here are a few common mistakes I see founders make when they’re new to marketing and sales and taking a digital product to market (but don’t worry, I’ll also explain how to avoid making them).

Mistake #1: Having no strategy (or blindly copying)

One advantage of design is that you can learn by observing successful digital products. Want your app to have the ease of Airbnb? No problem, their product is public and prime for copying (err, I mean, referencing).

But when executing a go-to market strategy, all the things that make it successful are behind the curtain. You can see marketing emails or content, but you can’t see the metrics behind them or the accompanying sales strategy.

In The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen talks a lot about how companies don’t properly categorize their inspiration and often draw the wrong conclusions from others’ success. It’s fine to be influenced by others, but your strategy should be your own and done with intention. Don’t buy Facebook ads because you did that at your last company. Don’t build a team of SDR’s just because you read how a Series D unicorn did that. Your go-to market strategy needs to be your own whether you know what you’re doing or not.

Pull Quote: It’s fine to be influenced by others, but your strategy should be your own and done with intention.

Key Takeaway

  • Strategize with intention. Only when you create an intentional strategy, with goals and metrics, can you set yourself up to understand what is working and what’s not.

Mistake #2: Switching strategy too often

Once you’ve intentionally created your strategy, give it time. If it was intentional, that means it has rationale. And if it has rationale, it has a chance to succeed. All it needs is some time to thrive.

Lean startup methodology covers this well by emphasizing running experiments. And while my grades in science weren’t the highest, even I know a good scientific process has to have controlled variables. For example, you’re going heavy with content marketing to start and it’s not performing, start by tweaking the strategy, don’t abandon it.

Pull Quote: Once you’ve intentionally created your strategy, give it time.

Too often I find founders either impulsively tweaking too many parts of their GTM strategy, or simply abandoning entire efforts when things don’t go well. Change the price, don’t make it free. Change your ad copy, don’t drop Facebook and start using Pinterest. And most importantly, don’t make all these changes at once! You can run multiple experiments but too many changes will make it difficult to know what’s working and what’s not.

Key Takeaways

  • Move fast but have patience. Be lean and ready to pivot, but give your strategies time to reveal themselves.
  • Tweak strategy, don’t overhaul it. Even if you do need an overhaul, the way you get there is through incremental improvements. Once you find what’s successful you can rapidly scale the tactic.

Mistake #3: Overvaluing the launch

Many founders treat launching like the grand opening of a restaurant: have a big event, invite a bunch of socialites, and let them spread the word. The problem is that SaaS products don’t get street traffic and capturing attention is constant. There are sites like ProductHunt, and traditional PR models that can help spread the word, but SaaS is about continuous improvement. And, if you are solving a problem in a way the market hasn’t seen before, you’ll need to be constantly educating the market—both about your product and the problems you’re solving.

Launches also bring false positives. The spike of traffic that comes with launching is hard to not get excited about. But the attention is largely due to something new being introduced into the world, and not because your entire target audience suddenly converged on your product ready to buy. Moreover, launch visitors are often not your best ones (particularly if you’re going to market with broad spectrum marketing activities like PR or syndicating release news on sites like ProductHunt). This overreaction can cause founders to expend too much follow-up energy on “bad leads” while leading to an inevitable launch hangover—the morale hit founders take when they realize the spike is just a spike, and not a hockey stick.

Key Takeaway

  • Always be launching (ABL). Okay, so the acronym isn’t as great as “always be closing” but founders should adopt this mentality. When you make updates or add features to your product, you back these up with the same marketing activities you would if they were individual product launches. Look up how often Framer (a UI prototyping tool) posts on Product Hunt. They treat every feature like launch and blast the design community correspondingly.
  • Launches are important... but understanding that they are recurring will help you scale and prioritize your efforts. Stretch your marketing and advertising dollars over several launches, rather than the “big tent” event.

Mistake #4: Undervaluing customer service

Obviously customer service alone is not marketing (or sales for that matter), but in the early stages of launching a SaaS product, follow-up service is about as good of marketing you’ll get with your early adopters.

Have you ever been to a new restaurant you have been desperately waiting to open, only to have poor service? This happens because the waitstaff is learning the menu and hasn’t gotten fast, while the cooks are equally as inefficient. Patrons will often give restaurants the benefit of the doubt if the food is great, but the long-term success of a restaurant will rely heavily on its service. With SaaS products, this is even more pronounced.

Whether you have a model that requires someone to set up a new customer, or a self-service model where someone can be up and running on their own, customer service is an extension of sales and marketing in the early days of a startup. Too often, startups can be quick to count a sale as a win and leave customers to fend for themselves as they learn the product. On the other extreme, startups might take this too seriously and spend too much time onboarding and addressing customer needs. Find the right balance.

Key Takeaways

  • Treat customer service like marketing. In the early days, understand that your product’s success is not just measured on conversion into sales, but how it continues to prove its value after conversion. Your long-term brand and viral growth will be tied to how well you service customers.
  • Invest in onboarding processes and features to scale. Don’t assume all the burden yourself. Even with domain-heavy SaaS products that require internal team members to onboard, your processes should be well-defined. For self-service products, the product should have onboarding baked into the app itself with easy access to a customer support rep.

Go-to market strategy in the seed stage of a startup is a lot like the early stages of starting a bonfire. It takes a lot of care in the beginning and any adjustment can cause the fire to go out completely. Adding just the right tinder can make it accelerate, but putting too big a piece can suffocate it. And, once the fire is going, you can easily keep adding pieces to keep it going. Like most of you reading this, I’m no expert on go-to market strategy but hopefully I’ve used that as an advantage and provided some helpful takeaways.

To read more product resources, check out the Better Product Community by Innovatemap.