Over my time running Sifter, I spent a lot of time trying out different marketing tactics. Then, working on Postmark, we tried quite a few additional tactics as well. The FOMO was always overwhelming. Retargeting. Banner ads. Blogging. A/B testing. Funnel analytics. Podcasts. SEM. SEO. Conference sponsorships. Meetup sponsorships. You name it, I tried it. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, I regret almost all of it. Not in the sense of deep regret, but just in the sense that I could have done better.
For what it’s worth, of all those efforts, those that were about community support/sponsorship definitely felt the best knowing the money was going directly to helping developers learn and grow. But everything else? Well, let’s just say I don’t see myself repeating any of it with new ventures.
These days, I’ve taken away one lesson from all of my marketing efforts as a sole founder over the last decade plus. Until you reach incredible scale, the marketing that worked best was that which gave me energy rather than stole it. With the countless millions of dollars being pumped into startups, there’s plenty of material out there about A/B testing everything to death or using the latest privacy-invading tactics to nag people all over the web.
When you’re constantly bombarded by these ideas, the implicit peer pressure can make them tempting. But why is that? I think it’s partially the growth virus. Part of it is about feeling like it’s easier to throw money at a problem than to sit down and really think about how to improve it. I’m not going to say that traditional marketing and advertising is useless, but it’s not quite as critical as many lead you to believe.
At its core, it’s all about awareness and creating desire. “If you build it, they will come” is a horrible belief. But that doesn’t mean your only option is to pump dollars into advertising. Besides, unless you’ve raised millions of dollars, you’re trying to compete with businesses for whom money is barely an object. Moreover, if you’re a product person at heart, chances are that kind of marketing doesn’t feel right. We could all stand to trust our gut a bit more. So what does that look like?
Let’s start by thinking about the true costs of those traditional channels. First, there’s the cash you spend just to purchase the placement. But then there’s the effort to design and create banner ads, copy, landing pages, and all of the other materials every piece of marketing requires. Then there’s the time spent swimming through analytics and trying to decide if something was worth it. We build tools to look at conversion rates. We look at the numbers from a dozen different angles.
This isn’t just hours, but energy. There’s something about doing work that you don’t enjoy that has a way of draining our energy levels. With things like bookkeeping, accounting, and that sort of thing, it’s unavoidable, but with marketing we have a choice. There’s a lot of value in doing work that energizes you rather than drains you. You know the work. It’s the type where a day can fly by and you realize that you forgot to eat lunch. It’s the work where you can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning because of your plans for the day. That kind of work is a super power.
So if I could do it all over today, what would I do with all of the time and effort I previously spent on traditional advertising and marketing? I’d think about those things that energize me and help others. The latter usually ends up being a kind of fuel for the former in my case.
There’s two sides to your marketing work. The first is the cold hard cash you spend. The second is the time you have to spend. With the money, I’d rather hire folks to help with things. Maybe that’s contributing financial support to open source tools that your business relies on. Or, maybe it’s hiring someone to help you where your skills are lacking. Or maybe it’s supporting community meetups or other events that help people grow their own skills.
It doesn’t have to be marketing in the purest sense. It’s about growing awareness and the circle of people involved in what you’re doing. And, most importantly, it’s about spending that money in ways that lift up your own energy levels.
Then there’s the time angle. If you’re not tracking your time, you don’t realize just how much of it is spent analyzing numbers and looking for opportunities. At really large scales, that can be worth it, but when you’re starting out, it’s a complete waste. The numbers simply aren’t large enough for meaningful insights. If there’s a secret weapon for small businesses, it’s the ability to connect with customers. And that’s where I believe “marketing” efforts are best redirected.
When you spend time on the phone with a customer or potential customer and they understand just how much you care, that carries weight that can’t be bought with cash. And, in my experience, phone calls with customers would invariably light a fire for me to build the tools that would most help them.
As a customer, when you get off the phone with a founder, and then find out they implemented your feature request that same week, it’s hard not to love the product. Even if the product isn’t right for them, people tend to talk it up simply because they know the team behind it truly cares.
I’ve oversimplified a bit here, but when customer research, support, and sales overlap so perfectly, it’s hard to see the value in doing anything else early on. Where possible, I’d even try to optimize my business to delay the need for marketing as long as possible. I’d design the business around spending time with customers and implementing the ideas that come from that time.
The biggest bonus to all of that is that when I’m done, I have more energy and excitement than I started with. There’s times where parts of your business will necessarily reduce energy. That’s unavoidable. So, when you have the power to choose and focus your efforts on more things that reduce energy or more things that increase energy. Where would you rather focus?