We’re back this week as promised with our friend and startup marketing guru, Heather Fields! So Heather, to get started, can you tell us a little bit about your experience in startup marketing?
I've been through four acquisitions. I didn't plan it that way; I've been really lucky in my career. CheckFree Corporation had a site, missingmoney.com, where you can search for unclaimed property. I worked with a small team of founders within CheckFree and got the startup bug. CheckFree was acquired and that launched a really exciting journey of working at startups.
The second startup was Bill Me Later. It was a really exciting time to be in financial services, in good ways and bad. There was so much innovation happening online. Unfortunately, there was also the financial crisis of 2008. We were on our upswing, but the crisis was crashing down. We were fortunate; eBay acquired the company in 2008. It was a huge win for the team and for Maryland.
From those two experiences, I discovered I love to work with passionate small teams and grow things big when there's a greater purpose.
While they’re all very different types of companies, I was always working in agile startup marketing. That's the thread of my career. On my LinkedIn profile, it says “high-performance teams and shoestring budgets,” because that's what it's like when you're working for a small startup. You have a lot of amazing talent, a lot of passion and energy – and very little budget.
From your experience, what are some of the unique marketing challenges startups face and what approaches do you recommend for tackling them?
You’ll want to try everything and you’ll have to be really creative! On a passionate team, everyone has meaningful ideas. They’ll have opinions on what should be done, what they want to test and what others are doing, especially the competition. That is definitely a unique challenge of a startup – trying to understand how to work efficiently and effectively. There is typically a finite pool of money, so you want to make sure you're aiming at things you can measure so you’ll know if they're winning. Then you can scale them. Resist the temptation to do a lot; be really focused on a learning agenda.
Imagine you’re trying to acquire new customers. What are two or three things you want to try? And as you're trying them, how will you learn what is working?
If you want to do an influencer marketing program, be really thoughtful about how much you're spending and how you'll measure success. This will help you know if influencers are working so you can decide if you continue investing there or you stop.
Email is another channel a lot of people use to grow their business. If you're acquiring names and sending email, really keeping a close eye on those metrics to understand if people are opening and engaging. Is the email really performing? If not, there are several things you can try to lift performance. You can test subject lines, offers, use different visuals or change the time of day that you send.
Working efficiently and measuring everything so that you continually learn is vital when you’re operating with a tight budget.
Sometimes it’s the constraints you have that lead to a lot more creativity. It can be incredibly frustrating but also lead to incredible work.
Someone is investing money in you – or looking to invest money in you – and that's very demanding, yet also exciting. You want to be able to prove to them this business has legs. I’m a proponent of collaborating with a small team and using everyone's input and ideas and then, as a team, agreeing on the ones we think are the best. It's risky to have one person coming up with the ideas.
The benefits from a lot of feedback can be tremendous. If you're a small startup and have just a couple of people, you can tap into your networks or ask your early customers for feedback.
You have to be curious. Ask people or do your own research. I think curiosity is one of the most important traits to have as a marketer.
Run a subject line through a free app to know if that subject line is good or bad. Read what the latest best practices are on Facebook advertising or LinkedIn advertising. Don't guess; there's a lot of information available. Be curious enough to ask.
Doing the research for the last couple of blogs, I got a lot of help from others essentially doing just that, trying to put what we do out there, it’s incredibly helpful.
People want to do business with people, not institutions or faceless organizations. Transparency is really important. I love it when businesses are sharing a little bit of what’s happening behind the scenes. Who works there? What’s it really like? That matters to me as a consumer and it can help businesses stand apart.
At OrderUp, we developed an amazing culture and we strategically worked to promote it. We had a dedicated social media strategy promoting our culture. We created a hashtag, #OrderUpLife, and we only used that hashtag to represent things that were happening with employees. OrderUp was a wonderful place to work; people supported each other and cared about delivering a great experience for our restaurants, driver partners and customers. #OrderUpLife was the idea of a curious intern. At OrderUp, we gave everyone a chance to share ideas and bring them to life.
I think that says something about a company. If you can see the people are happy and joyful and have fun and are passionate, why wouldn't you want to work there? Or engage with that company? Baltimore's competitive when it comes to hiring great talent. There are so many amazing companies here. You want to figure out ways to stand apart and one way you can do that is by marketing your people and your culture.
What have you enjoyed the most about marketing startups?
I enjoy helping startups understand who their customer is. I'm usually working with founders who have an amazing innovation. They’ve come up with a fantastic idea and they passionately believe there's a place for this innovation in the world. They have a sense of who they're building it for, but I love to really sit down and work with them to figure out who's going to pay for the innovation.
Buyer personas are really important when your startup is lean and you don't have a lot of money. If you spend the time doing the buyer persona research, you really get to know who your ideal buyer is and what's going to motivate them to spend money. You’ll also learn how to find them. When you’re marketing, you're not throwing a lot of money at everything. You really understand how to laser focus those dollars at the persona. It helps to be very thoughtful in the way that you’ll use your dollars.
I’ll sit down and work through the buyer personas, do the research, and then help define messaging. Really understanding the value proposition and then the messaging that flows out of that creates the bedrocks you need before you start spending money marketing.
You were talking about this a little bit earlier about, A/B testing, seeing what works and what doesn't, and then focusing all your money toward what you know gets results.
Honestly, there's really no silver bullet when it comes to marketing. It will probably take multiple methods to reach those who are going to spend money with your company. It probably takes multiple touches before they're even going to engage. In the case of OrderUp, everyone eats, so we offered a $10 coupon to earn a new customer. Getting them to come back was where we spent more time on our marketing efforts.
If you're going to fire off four or five different things, you really need to figure out which of those four or five different things works best. If you're not testing and measuring, it's a lot of guesswork. When you're on a small team – or any team – you have a lot of opinions. The only way to really know is if you have some rigor around the testing.
And just as soon as you figure it out, don’t be surprised if things change. As soon as you figure out Facebook advertising, Facebook waves a magic wand and the algorithms don't work.
Marketing is always in motion. It's constantly changing; consumers are changing. Consumer behavior has changed drastically in just the last 12 months and will change again in the next 12 months. That's what makes it an exciting field to work in. Again, those dollars are really precious, so you have to make sure you're tracking how you're spending each of them.
If you were starting your own small business today, that same small team and shoestring budget. What would be your recommendation to yourself?
I think being a founder is one of the most courageous things that I've ever witnessed. I have a lot of respect for founders. I've run my own consulting business for about a year and a half and I've made mistakes, so I've learned a few things along the way. If I was going to start a business today and was trying to reach consumers online, I do think there are some foundational things to do to set yourself up for success.
Have the best team of smart, curious people around you. You need people who believe in your vision, who believe that, with you, anything is possible. Whatever you're working on is possible. Then start that foundation building. Before you start running, there are those walking steps you have to take. Understand who the buyer is. You have a hypothesis about who you're selling to, but really research, get a deep understanding of who they are and how your business fits into their life. Through that, you can develop the types of messaging and the offers that will resonate with them. Understand how to reach them. Whether that's Instagram or Facebook or LinkedIn or an app or email, all of that should start to become evident once you have real, live conversations with your customers.
That leaves one question, if you could give just one piece of marketing advice to a new startup, what would that be?
Curiosity is vital with any business. When I mentor startups or when I'm just with a consulting client, I go into any conversation really curious about the business. I don't know it all. I don't have the information of the person I'm talking to. I may or may not be the customer. If you’re marketing for a startup, you have to constantly remain curious. What's new out there? What are the new marketing techniques? What's my customer up to today? What might have changed in their life?
There’s a lot of curiosity around Baltimore. I get calls from startup founders in the community who have questions about marketing. I really respect that. They're really busy, but they also know they have to remain curious and try to find answers. I’m always humbled by those calls.
I'm constantly asking people for advice, too. I ask Dan and Sean questions about video marketing. People are visual and video is killing it online and that's absolutely not my forte. I’ve directed video marketing but I'm not a videographer; I don't know the specifics of it. I have a network where I can reach out to those like Dan and Sean for trusted advice.
Be curious and build a network of trusted people who you can turn to, because you will not have all the answers and sometimes you're going to need those answers quickly. By cultivating that network, you'll have places to turn.
Give back, too. When people reach out to you for advice, respond and participate in that community. We're all better when we talk to each other and share advice and experiences. I try to always be responsive to people who reach out. I'm better for those conversations; I always take away some sort of learning.
Well thank you Heather for answering all our questions, we really appreciate your contribution and we look forward to working with you again.
And to all our readers, thank you for making it all the way to the end of our Startup Marking series. If you would like you to go back and read our first blog in the series you can click here, or you could be a rebel and use the navigation below to experience the whole thing in reverse. Your choice.