When you’re starting a hardware, semiconductor, mobile software or SaaS company there is more often than not a need to create some very early traction. There are a few startups that are able to get strong external funding from a standing start, notably successful entrepreneurs on the second or third startup, companies with a strong proprietary advantage in a “white hot” technology segment and startups in geographic areas flush with Venture funds, such as the Bay Area. But in 2018, most tech startups need to be far past the business plan stage to have a realistic chance of external funding. These days, there usually needs to be an impressive MVP along with at least some sales as a proof of concept to potential investors. So how do you accomplish this important task with a shoestring marketing budget? Here’s a few best practices:
The Market, Price Point and Complexity All Matter
Just to set the stage, we are talking in generalities here. How to proceed in marketing at a software or hardware product at ANY stage is highly dependent upon the details of the business. Lower price points, for example, lend themselves well to a marketing-intensive sales cycle driven by low cost digital marketing programs. On the other hand, what if you are selling $10M enterprise software or extraordinarily expensive supercomputers? In these cases, it might actually make sense to blow a large percentage of your scarce marketing budget on that highly targeted trade show, where 80% of your 200 potential prospects will be in attendance. These are two extreme examples of a broad, continuous spectrum of situations. So it’s important to keep in mind that your market specifics are always extremely important in formulating marketing strategies, at any stage of a company’s development. With that disclaimer, below are some of my favorite approaches which work well in a wide variety of circumstances where a frugal approach to marketing is required:
Shoestring Marketing: PR first and foremost
For all but the smallest market segments, PR is generally my first choice in marketing programs for tech companies marketing on a highly constrained budget. The reasons:
- PR can create not only leads but credibility with prospects as well, based upon favorable reviews by trusted 3rd parties
- While PR is not “free”, at the extreme it can be conducted very inexpensively
- A startup can minimize the expenditure of scarce marketing funds if the “legwork” is done using internal resources
While this is one of my favorite tactics for marketing on a shoestring, it’s important to keep in mind that success is predicated on the company having something to offer that is “newsworthy”. Newsworthy not only to YOU, but to the media outlet that will publish a story about you. If you are entering a commodity market with a me-too product, you’re not very newsworthy and it’s not likely you’re going to get much “ink”. So please keep that in mind; “news” is the currency of the media world. If you don’t have it, it’s going to be hard to play in this arena.
Free Digital Marketing
Unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere for the last 10-15 years, you are aware of the role of digital marketing in today’s technology market. Digital marketing can range from emailing to an in-house prospect list to blogging and social media marketing. These free/cheap forms of digital marketing should be a staple of any software or hardware based business, unless the market is truly tiny. The beauty of these digital marketing programs from the perspective of a bootstrapped SaaS, mobile software or hardware startup is that if there is little money available the work can be done internally. There are some very inexpensive tools available which can make this work much more efficient, but even they aren’t absolutely required. All it requires is the labor of the founding team. While time is also a scarce resource in a startup, in the case of an unfunded startup or other cash-poor company, it is far less scare that cash itself. So for most early stage companies marketing on a shoestring, I recommend an approach “tailored” to you specific situation, but likely including the following programs:
- Extensive Search Engine Optimization (SEO) on the company website
- Drip email campaign to in-house prospect list (including all web inquires and others that aren’t “hot” prospects)
- Company Blog which is hosted on the company’s own website; this is the core of the company’s content marketing efforts
- Automated Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn & Google Plus content marketing campaigns featuring the company’s own content, but utilizing external content as well
- Automated Instagram and Pinterest campaigns if appropriate due to rich graphic/photographic content and/or a B2C focus
Paid Digital Marketing
In addition to digital marketing that is cheap or free, judicious use of paid digital marketing activities can also be an inexpensive and cost effective method of tech marketing on a shoestring budget. While there are definite costs involved, activities such as PPC (pay per click) advertising such as Google Adwords and Bing Ads can fit into all but the skinniest of marketing budgets. Highly targeted email campaigns to paid lists can also be accomplished without breaking the bank. Money can be wasted on both of these programs; email to paid lists can also cause a variety of reputation issues if executed by novices – so it’s advisable to get help. If you can’t pay someone to assist with PPC or email marketing, there are a lot of good free resources out there to guide you. Google can be your best friend when marketing on a shoestring.
One of the most capital efficient shoestring marketing tactics that is often under-utilized at the early startup stage is partnering. It’s not unusual for a startup to set their eyes on a large, established company as a “holy grail” partner which could set them up in the beginning for great success. It’s great if you can pull this off; but frankly, these are difficult to do at this stage – and there some disadvantages to them if you are “lucky” enough to pull one of these off. I won’t go into gory details here, but it’s quite possible for the larger partner to “smother their embryonic startup partner in the crib”.
However, I believe that more modest partnerships with less imposing partners are often overlooked. Both potential partner companies expend scarce resources are marketing. Marketing is under the best of conditions an expensive endeavor, particularly before real traction is achieved. Two complementary and non-competing partners can create great leverage for each other by sharing leads, trade show space (more examples her), etc.
These are some suggestions for how to use shoestring marketing approaches to reach those important initial sales goals and build an customer reference list. This is so important for so many reasons, not the least of which is attracting growth capital. As I mentioned above, every tech startup is unique, calling for different strategies and tactics. Your mileage will vary on the tactics listed above, and others may be more appropriate for your business. Hopefully some of these ideas will be appropriate for you and if nothing else, stimulate your creativity on how to best market on a shoestring in the early days. Please post a question or a comment about your own software or hardware shoestring marketing experiences so we can further this discussion on marketing on the cheap in the early days.