When you push that first code commit live on a production server, it feels like you’ve made the leap from “dreamer” to “doer”.
One problem: 24 hours go by and no one has signed up.
You have to market this new idea. After spending a weekend reading blog posts and watching YouTube videos, you have a nauseating feeling that there are 200 ways to try to launch your new project and you have no idea which one might work.
I’ve launched 13 different startups from $0 to $2MM or more in ARR, usually as the first non-technical member of the company. And the good news is while there are many ways to launch to market, I’ve become a master in building a marketing engine in a particular way that seems to make sense to a lot of technical founders.
Your marketing engine will consist of 3 distinct phases: Build your prototype, push to production, and loadbalance and scale.
Build your prototype marketing engine
The fundamentals of “building an advertising campaign” are pretty basic, and whether you want to create a Facebook video campaign, a Twitter promoted post campaign, or even a LinkedIn Event promotion, the mechanics of building a campaign and launching it aren’t that complex.
Most founders run a few ads on Facebook, spend a few hundred dollars, and conclude that ads just don’t do the job.
That’s like assuming that if you can’t get your first
$ print("Hello World") to work, programming just “doesn’t do the job.”
There are two things a good prototype does:
- Create a test environment to explore new ideas
- Give you clear answers if an idea is a success or a failure
I like to build my prototype marketing engine before I even start on the product, so let’s start with our test environment.
Creating your test environment
You’re going to need a landing page that looks decently reputable and that you can iterate on quickly. I’ve written about using WordPress for that or a simpler tool like Super.so. In either case, you’ll want to build a landing page with a simple structure:
- Hero section – 1 short sentence about the value your user will get from your product
- Features overview with screenshots / mock screenshots
- Deep dive on the user’s problem and how you can help (See the classic Problem, Agitate, Solution framework for a good structure for this)
- Social Proof – either get users / your friends to give you some reviews or (if you’re launching this before you have a product) go find examples of people discussing that they have the problem you solve.
You want to find several different ways to talk about your product, focusing on the value that you provide rather than the feature that you built.
It’s better to say, “Save 4 hours a week building invoices with PRODUCT” than it is to say “The smartest people use PRODUCT”. One feels quantified and shows that you address a specific problem your prospects have. The other is your standard marketing blah-blah. 😛
Find your audience
One of my favorite ways to find users fast is to run performance ads & test your messaging there. Let’s start by talking about Facebook ads as a top of funnel (that is, the beginning of a sales funnel to acquire your users).
This sequence works quite well to deliver you knowledge about what works for your audience.
You’ll notice it’s a very mechanical process; perform experiment X, looking for result Y. That’s on purpose. If you were in a dark room trying to decide what other objects are in the room with you, one of the most thorough ways to do it would be to send out thousands of probes and measure how far across the room they went before they touched something solid. Walk a little bit around the room and repeat, and you’re basically re-inventing photogrammetry.
The same ideas apply to discover how to go to market. Gather enough data that looks at enough different views of the problem and you’ll eventually have gathered all of the data you need to assemble a complete picture of your audience and how to go to market.
As a rule of thumb, as you’re running your top-of-funnel tests, you want to see something around a 2% click rate on the ads to show that your messaging is resonating with your audience. Less than that, you either have a bad audience or a bad message.
You’ll notice a problem here, though. When you’re only testing the top of your funnel—finding users—you’re not going to be solving how to get them to sign up.
Loadbalance & scale: Converting audience into leads
90% of all tech founders that I’ve talked to have already run ads on some platform. And they’ve concluded that they suck.
So they stop.
But when your funnel is failing you, it’s usually not the ads that don’t work. Your funnel is broken and you need to fix it.
The main point of failure for a funnel usually resides
- Bringing the right audience to
- the right landing page offer
So at the start of your GTM tests, your focus is on getting people to your landing page reliably.
Then you want to worry about improving the landing page conversion.
Key in this is making sure that you have good insight into what traffic is doing when they come to your website.
You wouldn’t run a Kubernetes cluster with no event logging to help debug when something goes wrong. So don’t run your website without setting up Google Analytics correctly. Measure events on your button click—and make sure you’re measuring all the way into your app itself so that you can track trials and trial conversions as well as click on the signup button.
As Seth Godin points out, getting those first few users is what you need to prove that you’ve got a go-to-market campaign that matches the product you’ve built. Once you’ve got your first 10 users, you can start to take advantage of social proof. You can publish case studies. You can understand what your users really value instead of what you want to build.
All of that depends on gathering those first few users and then using them to drive an engine of social recommendation, content, and proof that you’re not a crazy hacker with a dream: you’re a successful startup founder.
The above steps will expose your startup to tens of thousands of people in a few weeks, and jump-start the user acquisition cycle. It can find you dozens or hundreds of prospects if you have a product that solves an immediate pain and you explain it well.
But sometimes, 0
Sometimes your idea doesn’t work.
You get no users, or you do get users and they churn in 30 days.
There are two courses of action to take after that.
- Change your positioning & try again
- Pivot to a new idea
Either can work. When you’re a technical founder, there’s usually no shortage of ideas you could tackle, so either can appeal.
My recommendations are straightforward here: Try 3 different approaches to positioning for an idea before you give up on it, and pay attention to where your funnel fails.
If you can’t get a 2% CTR on your ads, you need to solve audience / messaging issues. Give that 3 tries before you go back to the drawing board with a completely new audience or value proposition.
If you can’t get a reasonable number of people to sign up on your landing page, you need to match the audience to the offer. Keep your ads the same and give 3 tries and make new landing pages and see if you can’t move the needle on acquisition.
If you’re consistently bringing good traffic but you can’t get it to sign up, then it could be that you don’t have the knack to build good landing pages. Go look at examples from your competition and see how closely you can copy their ideas without actual plagiarism.
If you get signups but no one converts to paid, book onboarding calls with leads, improve your docs, find out where the gap is between acquisition and performance that makes your leads all churn.
And at each stage, if you give it 3 tries and you can’t progress further, it’s time to take stock and see if you can’t bring a whole new approach to the problem.
You can either pivot your existing product or you can pivot to a new product altogether. Depending on how invested you are in your current project, either can be appropriate. Regardless, if you’re struggling with fundamental user acquisition and can’t progress, the project as a whole will continue to be very hard to monetize and grow.
It’s your own judgment call on this; I tend to launch products and build waiting lists before I write a line of code for them. If I can’t crack GTM in 2 months of effort, I’ve lost nothing by giving up on the project and finding another.
If you’re struggling with Go To Market for a product you’ve spent a year developing already, you probably want to try some more approaches before throwing in the towel.
GTM strategy doesn’t have to be scary
When you don’t have a marketing background, creating the strategy for a go-to-market campaign up and running can be daunting. The above steps I’ve laid out have worked to launch 13 different companies to $2MM+ in ARR, and they’ve launched nearly a hundred others out of the gate with their first few thousand in MRR over the last 2 years.
Have questions? Want to know more? Hit me up @trevorlongino on Twitter and let’s chat. 🙂