The Fundamentals of Startup Marketing

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Rion Haber | Feb 01, 2023

As a startup, you’re diving headfirst into a world of challenges that other small businesses rarely encounter. You’re not just competing with other SMBs, though. You’re facing off against industry giants and, sometimes, breaking whole new categories to boot. So, how do you carve out a niche for yourself, avoid the most common traps, and start growing? The secret isn’t a specific type or combination of outreach strategies; it’s positioning your brand for success before you deliver them.

Defining Your Audience

How people feel about your brand is the cornerstone of your communications strategy. Yet, startups tend to spend so much time on visual assets that represent their brand and so little time defining what they represent.

Product-Market Fit

Product-market fit (PMF) is a heady combination of factors including market demand, value, and pricing. Often defined in the very early stages of growth, a good PMF means that your product or service solves a demonstrable problem. And, that given the right conditions, it’s likely to sell. It may seem like an obvious pre-requisite from the outside looking in. But hard analysis about whether these conditions are met is often skipped in favor of a projected or assumed pain point.

While PMF is often framed, exclusively, within the context of Product, it’s wildly important to your marketing and communications strategy. A lack of PMF doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad product. It does mean that no matter how well your product is messaged, it will never land. Access to the quantitative tools used to test PMF may not be affordable at the early stages of growth. So, you’ll need to validate your assumptions qualitatively. To that end, tools like Survey Monkey and Discuss are a boon for startups, and can help shape PMF through objective feedback.

Defining Your Values

The tendency to believe that because your widget looks or works better, customers will flock to it, is objectively wrong. The startup graveyard is littered with great products that never gained enough traction to disrupt the marketplace. More often than not, its because the challenge they’re facing isn’t building a better widget. It’s building a version of the audience’s self that includes that widget -a subtle, but important distinction.

To do it, you’ll have to tap into something more compelling than need – namely, values. That’s because values underlie our entire decision-making process. Start by broadening your definition, from morally-centered to something more objective: Looking good, being thrifty, sounding smart, etc. Figure out what values your audience prioritizes and build your messaging around them. Doing this successfully ensures that your brand represents both need and fit.

Your Messaging Strategy

A messaging strategy – including a profile, framework, etc – is the means by which you connect a brand with its target audience. It ensures that each person on your team communicates its values and benefits in a consistent and compelling manner. Most importantly, it should communicate your brand’s superpower, allowing you to scale the “aha moment” beyond a single communication.

The process of building a messaging strategy takes time, as well as iterative testing and feedback though. It’s important to build a first draft, but a healthy strategy will continue to evolve as your offering grows. Bringing qualitative analysis back into the fold is a great next step here. Use the data to understand which parts of your messaging strategy are working and phase out those that don’t meet your litmus test.

Staying Focused

As a startup, you have limited resources. Using them effectively means staying focused. So, what are the most important aspects of your strategy to rally around to ensure that you’re making the most of every dollar?

Establish a Toe Hold

When it comes to audience size, bigger is rarely better. One of the most common startups mistakes is assuming that a wider target audience translates into more sales. In reality, the approach usually just scatters an already limited set of resources over a larger variety of communications. That dilutes your marketing spend, making it less likely that you’ll achieve the critical mass needed to turn audiences into customers.

“A bigger audience does not equal more buyers. In many cases it reduces them by diluting your messaging so far that it drives overall conversions down.”

~Rion Haber, Lead Strategist – Catalyst Marketing

Once you’ve created a smaller, more tightly defined audience, become a “big fish in a small pond”. Use the goodwill gained through superior relevance, expertise, and service to break into new markets as resources allow. This process can feel counterintuitive. However, the biggest technology companies in the world, from Facebook to Microsoft to Apple, have all started with niche audiences and grown outwards.

Focus on Relationship

As a startup marketing team, your priority should be establishing recall with the target audience. You need to do more than tell audiences what your startup does, though. You need to create an emotional connection. First, align you audience around a set of common values by mirroring their pain point. Then build a vision for how this pain point can be solved that evokes hope . Finally, present your brand as the source of that solution.

Once established, managing the customer relationship should become a collaborative effort between communications and support teams. Remember that short-term experiences impute long-term values. Seemingly unrelated aspects of your customer experience, such as ease-of-use are often as much of an expression about of the value your business places on customer relationships

The Importance of Advocacy

Paid and earned media are great ways for businesses to get found. Without the amplifying effect of advocacy, however, they aren’t sustainable and tend to burn a lot of capital very quickly, for very little return. New customers generated from advocacy also close sales at a significantly higher rate. They return more often. And, they are more likely to become a source of new business themselves. This self-sustaining model continually lowers the cost of acquisition and drives long-term relationships.

Advocacy should be a part of the marketing equation for all growing businesses. For startups, who need to grow quickly, it’s absolutely vital. There’s no defined formula (though influencer marketing takes a stab), but advocacy most often results from consistently over-delivering on your brand’s promises. Leaving its development to marketing is a common mistake, though. Real advocacy comes from product, marketing, and customer support teams working together to build strong brand experiences.

Building Your Team

In the early stages of growth, your biggest marketing challenge will be making the most out of limited resources. So, how can startups get the range of expertise they need to compete?

Understanding Marketing Operations

Marketing operations (mar-ops) is the most important part of the marketing ecosystem you’ve likely never heard of. So, what is it? As marketing strategies have gotten more multi-faceted, so has the depth and breadth of expertise needed to leverage them. What used to be a small group of subject matter experts has bloomed into entirely new approaches to marketing. Without a catalizing agent, each tends to go in dramatically different directions based on their unique interpretations of the goal.

The job of Marketing Operations is to organize a stable of channel and disciplinary experts around a common objective using project managment. The approach creates an organizational layer between subject matter experts and the c-suite, which allows both to spend more time on their strengths. Meanwile, mar-ops converts strategy into an organized project plan, sets the budget, and communicates the scope, progress, and impact to executives.

Picking Your Partners

Startup marketing leaders have the unenviable task of delivering enterprise-level marketing strategies on an SMB budget. It usually leads to one of two operational scenarios. A) A small internal group of generalists scrambling to mock the impact of a more experienced team and getting burnt out in the process. Or, B) A hub-and-spoke style manager/siloed contractor team tends to leave a lot of intellectual capital on the table.

An integrated marketing agency can be a great third option. These specialized partners provide growing organizations with an integrated team of subject matter experts for a fraction of the cost. They generally consist of strategic, creative, and technical experts who work together daily. Together, they create a bridge for fast-growing startups that don’t have the budget to hire a full-stack marketing team but want to scale quickly.


As a startup, your marketing strategy has to think outside the typical small or mid-sized business box. Start by creating a strong values-based identity, make sure to avoid the most typical startup traps, and prepare your team to compete at scale. Bringing in the right partners at the right time can be the difference between massive growth and the, all too common, fizzling out.

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