Killing the startup myth: “We never marketed our product”

by Steli Efti

What’s the quickest way to tell any investor, advisor, or experienced entrepreneur that you have no idea what you’re doing?

Simple. Just tell them this: “We didn’t spend any money on marketing.”

The no-marketing movement is an epidemic among new founders, like somehow it’s “cool” to neglect a vital part of startup growth.

Forget fads. Here’s the truth: You can’t get customers without marketing. If a startup has even one customer, they’ve marketed their product.

End of story.

Anyone who says otherwise is either lying to make themselves look better, or doesn’t understand what marketing actually is.

What “marketing” actually means

Most people who claim they’ve never marketed don’t understand what it actually means to market something.

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When they say, “We grew to 5,000 customers without marketing,” what they really mean is, “We grew to 5,000 customers without paid advertising.”

Although paid advertising is a form of marketing, that’s not all marketing is. Put simply, marketing is any activity that generates customers.

  • Building an MVP? That’s marketing.
  • Creating a website? Marketing.
  • Cold calling campaigns? Also marketing.
  • Listing your startup on LinkedIn? More marketing.
  • Telling your mom about your product? Yup, also marketing.

Even saying, “We’ve never marketed our startup,” is marketing, because you’re telling someone about your business.

Back to basics: The 4 P’s of marketing

Almost everything you do in a startup is marketing. To better understand this, take a look at Neil Borden’s 4 P’s of marketing:

  • Product: Creating a product with the intention of selling it to a specific market.
  • Price: Pricing your product based on the budget of your ideal customers.
  • Placement: Positioning your product in various distribution channels.
  • Promotion: Word-of-mouth marketing, social media, cold emailing, etc.

When most people think of marketing, they only think of promotion, but promotion is usually the last step in a long marketing process.

No marketing? No funding

Never tell a potential investor you haven’t started marketing yet. It won’t impress them. If anything, they’ll write you off immediately.

You may think you’re saying, “We’ve already got 1,000 paying customers without marketing. Just imagine what we could do with your funding,” but that’s not what they’re hearing.

To them, you’re saying, “I know our numbers aren’t great yet. That’s because we don’t really understand marketing. But once you give us your money, we’ll try and figure it out.”

At best, you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. After all, any worthwhile investor knows you couldn’t have gotten where you are without marketing.

At worst, you sound desperate and dishonest, like you’ll say whatever it takes to impress them out of their money.

You might win over a few investors with a marketing-free pitch, but they’re not the type of people you want tied to your startup. These types of investors are inexperienced, irresponsible, and reckless.

Stop pretending, start implementing

If you’ve been pretending to be a marketing-free startup—stop. It isn’t helping your business or impressing your audience.

If anything, it’s making you look worse.

Take control of your marketing by planning intentional campaigns and tracking your data. Not sure where to start? Look at what’s worked in the past. Identify your most valuable customers and ask these three questions:

  1. How did we acquire these customers?
  2. Are those strategies scalable?
  3. If so, how can we repeat them? If not, what can we do instead?

Use those answers to create your first official marketing campaign. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive; it just needs to provide trackable data to improve future campaigns.

After a couple campaigns, you’ll have enough data to start approaching investors again. And this time, they’ll actually want to hear what you have to say. After all, data speaks louder than words.

There’s no growth without marketing

Don’t be impressed or inspired by startups who say they don’t market. They’re wrong and, unless something changes, they won’t be around for long.

Marketing is what got you your first customer and is what will get you your millionth. There’s no way around it, so you may as well embrace it.

The sooner you get strategic about your marketing, the sooner your marketing can start working for you.

Soon you’ll find that you’ll scale much faster than those “marketing free” startups could ever dream of.

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