"Startups exist not to make stuff, make money, or serve customers. They exist to learn how to build a sustainable business." - Eric Reis
By nature, startups are chaotic environments. Even in a quiet office, most startup's Slack and emails are ablaze with fiery arguments, narratives, assumptions, and ideas on how the business should work, how things should be organized, and where the future is most likely to lie.
The Lean Startup Methodology evolved out of this turmoil. By crafting a simple path from chaos to understanding, it’s helped a generation of product teams design, build, and iterate on product visions by constantly testing their assumptions and ideas against user feedback and data.
In these environments, other teams often rally around and take cues from the development happening within the product team. In most cases, this is a mistake, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the marketing department.
Modern marketing and user acquisition is a product in Itself
Given the role tech now plays in acquiring users and customers for both digital and non digital products, organizations must now think of the way they reach customers as a distinct product line. Like a product that exists to provide some benefit to customers, a marketing product exists to provide the organization that makes it with the most important fuel for growth- customers.
As a distinct product, reducing marketing to taking cues from product development is folly for three main reasons.
- The validated learning coming from the product team represents an exceedingly small sample size in the early stages. This severely limits the feedback and understanding needed for a marketing strategy to come together.
- Untested assumptions about possible product distribution channels can hamstring a project if those assumptions prove incorrect when the product seems ready to scale.
- In most cases, a well built and validated product will fail without a complementary marketing product to bring it to a wider market successfully.
In a nutshell: building a product without also building a marketing product leaves a startup (or any organization) without a scalable and tested bridge that helps them understand how to reach customers and acquire them. Without this connection, product is vulnerable to poor decisions, sales will take infinitely longer to collect the necessary data to understand how to sell the product, and the organization itself will be vulnerable to everything from unfavourable investment terms to uncertain bottom line revenue.
Marketing is not a product feature
It’s a separate and complex product that seeks to serve the vision and organization rather than serve the buyer as a product does. It’s goal is to validate demand by supplying a startup or business with enough leads, users, or interest to either sustain itself with revenue or build a better case for investment.
Validating if a product serves the customer properly is the job of the product team. Validating that a system can be built to continuously sell that same product is the job of the marketing product.
Marketing and product feedback loops
None of this is to say that product and marketing are silos. Customer interview data and other findings from product development can very much help inform the early direction of an organization’s marketing product. Conversely (and perhaps concurrently), customer acquisition efforts can yield powerful insight that can positively impact product direction.
At my current position at Remote Year, we recently got some feedback from our sales and product people that a sizeable group of leads were being disqualified later because they didn’t realize the product wasn't free. Oops. After some testing, we moved our pricing information from well below the fold on a secondary page to a more prominent position in the main navbar which helped reduce churn lower in the funnel. Conversely, the marketing and sales teams came upon the understand that a huge cause for lost leads down-funnel was that many people couldn’t make the 12 month programs work due to their personal situations. To fix this, the product team has since developed a 4 month program to complement the longer 12 month product.
Your marketing product has a job distinct from that of your product. It must consistently validate and understand demand, create revenue or leads channels to help the product team continually validate the product against broader and broader audiences, keep the organization in revenue or funding, and it must build a body of knowledge strong enough to be leaned upon once the product validation phase slows and the process of scaling begins.
In the next two chapters, we’ll borrow from Lean Methodology again in creating a Minimum Viable Marketing Product, and then applying the Build / Measure / Learn framework to a burgeoning marketing team.