4 marketing challenges that keep start-up CEOs awake at night
70% of start-up founders worry about finding new customers. Find out how these start-up CEOs are turning marketing headaches into winning strategies
Running a start-up? It’s highly likely that you face hurdles in marketing and promoting your new business on a regular, if not daily, basis.
If you’ve found marketing a breeze then, lucky you, you’re one of a select few entrepreneurs for whom the constant challenges of finding and winning new customers doesn’t keep you up at night.
Whether it’s deciding which marketing channels to prioritise and invest in, how to pull the plug when marketing activity isn’t working, or determining how to market your business when you have no budget, there are several marketing issues for start-up founders to overcome – the solutions to which are not always straightforward.
In fact, a recent survey conducted by Startups.co.uk with business broadband and phone provider Plusnet showed that a staggering 70% of start-up founders worry about finding new customers, while 71% find it difficult to measure the return on investment from their marketing efforts.
While the survey raised some interesting points, we wanted to delve a little deeper which is why we brought together founders behind nine fast-growing UK start-ups for a lunchtime discussion to share their biggest challenges on three core areas of business – with marketing as our first talking point.
This discussion was part of the motivation behind launching the Plusnet Pioneers programme, a new series of inspiring events, content and mentoring designed to help aspiring entrepreneurs overcome some of their biggest obstacles.
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The guests included Pip & Nut founder Pippa Murray; Women in Business Award winner at the Startups Awards 2016, Daniel van Binsbergen; founder of lawyer marketplace Lexoo which has raised more than £1.1m in funding, and Emily Forbes; the founder of video collaboration start-up Seenit which recently clinched the coveted Disrupt Cup.
Also in attendance were Nelson Sivalingam; founder of Hownow (formerly Startups 100-listed discovery platform Wonderush), Gem Misa; co-founder of the world’s first cauliflower rice brand Cauli Rice, and Luke Barlow; co-founder of two-time Startups Award-winning start-up Netduma.
Completing our enterprising group were co-founder of fast-growing office marketplace Hubble; Tushar Agarwal, Andy Logan; co-founder of “London’s premium vaping stores” Vape Emporium, and Mike Bandar; the serial entrepreneur behind start-up studio Turn Partners which runs Toyboy Warehouse, Hopper, and Real Tribe.
From the discussion, we learnt that there are four major marketing questions that often occupy the minds of entrepreneurs the moment their heads hit the pillow. Read on to find out what these questions were and the marketing challenges shared by our start-up founders…
Marketing challenge 1: ‘Am I exploiting the best marketing channels for my business?’
Daniel van Binsbergen, founder, Lexoo:
“Whenever we try out new channels, what I find really hard is to know when to keep pushing – because it might take six months to understand a channel and get it to work – and when to call it a day.
“I’ve found that traditional start-up knowledge of running a lot of quick experiments doesn’t always answer that question.
“When we started out we used Google AdWords quite a bit as it was a natural fit for people searching for a lawyer. Looking at Google AdWords numbers now to when we started out there’s a huge difference and it’s now a profitable channel, but it certainly didn’t start out that way.”
Tushar Agarwal, co-founder, Hubble:
“We’ve struggled [with marketing] but I think we’ve had the same struggles as Daniel as we are a B2B marketplace. We’re trying to find decision makers within a business searching for office moves so the challenge we have is finding the right person and being in front of them at the right time.
“We also started out with Google PPC [Pay-Per-Click] and lots of social channels, but with varying success. What ended up being some of the most effective were old school ways of selling like conferences, being part of founder groups, making sure you’re writing really good business content that founders read etc.; a lot of that just has to do with building up trust and credibility.
“I was running our in-house marketing for a long time – we brought in someone and it didn’t quite work out so it was me again – whilst trying to do eight different other things. We needed to turn to experts and that has really helped. In order to, for example, drive acquisition models, you need help – whether that’s freelancers, agencies or resources out-of-house. When we had enough money we ended up bringing in really experienced marketers in-house.”
Mike Bandar, co-founder and CEO, Turn Partners:
“The issue we’ve had, quite heavily actually, is in understanding what channel to carry on pushing or stop pushing, and how to prioritise which to focus on in the first place.
“Also there’s the management of [your marketing channels]. If you do get somebody in as marketing manager you really need someone who’s generalised to start with; someone who can create and test the channels and activate the channels while managing them – we’ve still not been able to find the right people to do that. Then you have the frustration of new people coming in, saying ‘Oh you should just do paid Quora ads’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, I know that’s on the list, it’s number five!’
“The way we manage our marketing channels now is by having affordable loss for each channel, so we prioritise a list of all the channels we think will work. We will spend, say, £35,000 on one channel and if we reach that amount and we’re not getting payback then we’ll axe it off. It’s all about prioritising.”
Nelson Sivalingam, founder, Hownow/Wonderush:
“I didn’t know much about digital marketing when we first started out so we hired someone, who also turned out not to know a lot about digital marketing either.
“The problem is not knowing what [marketing activity] you need so early on, so you’re asking the wrong questions and you’re not getting results.”
“We’re not allowed to do PPC so we’ve had to find other [marketing] methods.
“We found shows that were relevant to vaping; our first ever show was The International London Tattoo Convention – our thinking was if you’ve got a tattoo there’s probably a higher chance you’d smoke – then the Erotica convention and then The Royal British Military Tournament. Shows worked well as we could speak to the customer and get them to put their name in the database.”
Marketing challenge 2: ‘How can I measure the performance of my marketing efforts?’
“One of the first things we found when we started [marketing] was that you need to put the right framework in place.
“When you start out, you’re desperate to get customers. At every board meeting you’re being asked ‘How many users do you have?’ so you’re trying out so many different things to get users. But you’re trying it out in a non-systematic way which is actually inefficient and you’re losing a lot of money.
“Simple things like documenting a marketing campaign [are important]. It sounds simple but unless it’s documented there isn’t a way to track it. That’s the sort of stuff that is central; to be able to track it.”
Gem Misa, co-founder, Cauli Rice:
“I’m interested in finding out what [marketing channels] work particularly well for retail products like ours.
The others mentioned the efficacy of digital marketing but for FMCG products like ours you also have in-store marketing and trade promotions to help push your product. There’s also traditional methods like print and tv advertising, but I find it more difficult to measure the effectiveness of these formats compared to trade promotions or digital marketing.”
Pip Murray, founder, Pip & Nut:
“We have done lots of partnerships with brands. For us it’s about budget, for instance Nike actually paid for us to be at their events […] while we get to meet new customers and get all that data. For me, partnerships are really cost effective.
“We also use coupons so we can track sales in store and geo-locating but it’s so different to track sales.”
Emily Forbes, founder, Seenit:
“For case studies, we have an info request and it says ‘Where did you hear about us from?’. I thought no one would fill it in but everyone does.
“We can track really easily now where these leads come from, some of them are really old articles – I have to say Startups’ is brilliant – and you do find where things are coming from so it’s good for tracking.”
“We really struggled when we started to track multi-channel attribution. For example, with our dating site [Toyboy Warehouse] we weren’t performing as well on Google AdWords compared to other channels.
“If we take spend away from our AdWords and put it into other channels we get higher conversion rates but lower new users so our revenue rate goes down. We still find it hard and tracking that is an absolute nightmare.”
Marketing challenge 3: ‘How do I generate good PR and make it work for my business?’
“We got a lot of press when we started which was great for awareness but it wasn’t bringing in the leads.
“That was until we started doing case studies. Now all our press is in collaboration with other clients because clients are going to listen to other ones. The best thing we do now when negotiating a new deal is to say ‘We can knock this off the price if you do a case study with us’. Big companies have PRs behind them who will distribute the press release whereas we don’t have that ability.
“I started out putting video [testimonials from clients] on our Twitter account but our clients have got the amplification so we see where they put it and then try and get a relationship with that publication and then follow up with them.”
Marketing challenge 4: ‘How can I use social media to better promote my business?’
“For us we haven’t really fully invested in Instagram yet or put a lot of money behind it. We just repost people using our product now and it’s much more real because you’re not saying ‘Oh buy my product’ and it’s so much more effective and credible.”
“I can’t work out whether Instagram works in terms of sponsored posts. […] We’d love to do more video but it’s finding the time to do it.”
“Sometimes it’s not what you’re pushing out but how you’re pushing out. As long as you’ve got the right alignment with the demographic – and you can do that with YouTube – you have a bit more control of how you’re positioned.
“The reason why YouTube works is the same reason things like testimonials work as you’ve got trust there, you can leverage that. Also, YouTubers need to be authentic […] so they do need say #ad or #spon.
“[YouTube] influencers will often have ‘Ad’ in the corner when they’re talking about the product but it doesn’t put off those watching because they want them [the YouTuber] to make money and want them to do well. It’s like they can say ‘I’m being paid to say this but I love this lipstick’.
“As well as YouTube, Instagram is making huge developments in the space. The only difference is that Instagram is not evergreen as things get lost in the feed.”
Luke Barlow, co-founder, Netduma:
“We found that social media has really helped [with marketing]. We deliberately bootstrapped so when we started out we literally had zero pounds to spend on marketing; the only way we could spend any money was commission on a sale.
“We looked at similar retailers and the common trend was that they used YouTubers to try their products out. It’s not even content necessarily. We found a guy that we thought would work so we got in touch and asked him if he wanted to give it a go. We knew he had trashed a similar product about six months ago, so it was a bit of risk but we just thought we’d try it and he got it and he loved it.
“He did a review and it got around 80,000 views and we had about 22,000 people visit our site, it actually caused our site to go down as our server thought we were being hacked. They said ‘you’ve had a huge spike so we took the site down’ and we’re like ‘No, bring it back up!’ It was only down for a few, stressful hours but no-one wants that.
“That was it for us, we realised that social media, especially YouTube is incredible. You can get the exact demographic with a YouTuber and you can also get word of mouth which is probably the best. The hardest bit is trying to get hold of a YouTuber and getting them to agree to review your product.”
Views were expressed at a roundtable discussion held as part of the Plusnet Pioneers programme, a stimulating series of events, content, and mentoring created by business broadband provider Plusnet to help small businesses looking to grow. To find out more about Plusnet Pioneers and to book a free place at one of our exclusive events, go to www.startups.co.uk/plusnet-pioneers