Originally published here on Medium
A few years ago, I started my first “real” tech startup.
At the time, I thought I had a marketing problem. I was constantly thinking: if only I could find a clever strategy or get an expert digital marketer to make it work, I would finally make decent money… Of course, that was many years ago and I now charge premium for my marketing services.
“Hey, I need a good growth hacker.”
“Hey, I need some clever digital marketing so we can get some leads.”
“Hey, I don’t have any money, but can you get us some signups? You know, just a thousand or something like that?”
Most digital marketers have probably heard these sentences more times than they can count on both hands…
During the past month alone, I’ve been approached quite a few times by startups in very early stages. I believe all of them have great products and cool teams. I wish them tons of success…
But there’s something else they all have in common: all of them only have a handful of customers and very little in the bank.
Now, here’s where I’m going with this: coincidently, with the rise of the “growth hacker” term, many startups think digital marketers are magicians.
(Side note — I actually was a real magician for over 7 years.)
Unfortunately, digital marketing isn’t the same as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I can’t make leads appear and get you signups out of thin air. No matter what, your costs won’t be $0.
Maybe this sounds obvious, but conversations I’ve had with both early-stage companies and fellow marketers show the opposite.
So here’s the deal:
If your company is early-stage, either in the ideation phase or validating, you probably don’t need magical digital marketing.
Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, and that‘s ok. But let me explain…
In this digital age where we can do pretty much anything we’d like at the push of a button, it’s never been easier and more comfortable to hide behind our screens and think we can grow a company by simply injecting a few hundred dollars into our Adwords budget.
The truth is that this reflex that we’re now so used to, the one where we decide to stick our noses in front of a screen to do absolutely anything we can think of, has to be avoided. Especially if you’re only getting started with your venture.
I call this reflex the “digital twitch”.
And you know what? I’ll even go as far as to say the digital twitch can kill companies. It once killed mine…
How the digital twitch killed my startup
When I started my first company, a marketplace called Idealinput that connected small business experts with marketing experts, I wasn’t too aware of the lean startup movement. In fact, I had no clue how to build a startup efficiently… I simply built the company without doing much validation.
I built the website, obsessed over every little detail, looking to make it perfect. A few months later it went live.
I had a little list of email addresses that came in via my launch page. But my launch page, being extremely vague (I wanted to stay in “stealth mode”), didn’t actually serve its purpose of validating my idea. No one who signed up actually knew what it was.
The result? The day I launched, expecting to get at least a few transactions, I heard only crickets. Nothing. Over the course of a few months, transactions would happen here and there, but nothing exciting or even remotely promising.
Looking back, the website was actually really well made — from a conversion optimization standpoint. But I was still lacking traffic, massively.
Was I lacking traffic-building or clever digital marketing skills? Sure.
But was it really the problem? I doubt it.
You see, instead of talking to my target customers, I chose to fuel my Facebook ad budget, write a blog and work on getting press. It helped, but I was far from having a good ROI or a scalable business.
I didn’t need to be focusing on any of those things. I said it… I should have talked to my target customers. As my mentors advise, and now so do I, you should interview at least 100 potential customers and get a good portion of them to signup (and pay) BEFORE even building the website or app.
In a company’s early stages, forget digital marketing and anything else that does not involve talking with prospects. Go old school.
The digital twitch in today’s startups
Startups, like humans and animals, have some basic needs that need to be fulfilled in order to survive.
I could go on and on with a list of important needs, but I’ll skip it and say right away that before anything else, capital is numero uno.
“CASH IS OXYGEN!” –Gary Vaynerchuck
No cash, no employees. No cash, no marketing. No cash, how do you pay your bills?
Sounds obvious, right?
The problem is, despite it being so obvious, many newborn startups are running low on cash, and looking to hire even more employees to polish their offering…
Let’s take a step back.
If you only have a few customers for your consumer product or mobile app, what’s the purpose of scaling your team and polishing everything? No one uses it.
After all, you’re probably adding features or working on a few things that people don’t even really want…
Remember Idealinput, my first tech startup that failed? That’s what happened.
But then at this stage, the stage where you shouldn’t be doing anything other than talking to customers and getting paid, I started getting calls and emails from the founders:
“Hey, can you growth hack my company? We have a very small budget, but we need at least a thousand users. We can pay you in shares…”
Now, I’m super happy to give advice and help them by giving directions and tips. I love talking to founders. Their passion and drive for success is contagious, and I love hearing about cool new companies.
However, I have to be truly honest with them… I don’t want to give useless advice that they can’t apply until much later. Growth hacking and validating now tend to get swapped around.
Another common confusion among startups: growth hacking doesn’t necessarily mean digital marketing — even if it is mostly used that way nowadays.
Thing is, none of these words replace each other… building lean is a way of working efficiently to minimize big failures. Growth hacking, optimizing your website, ad buying, link building, etc. is something you do when you’ve validated your product and already have a few customers at the door.
I highly recommend Sean Ellis’ post “Milestones to Startup Success” if you want to read more about the priorities of a startup.
So back to startups asking me for scaling advice when they really should be validating, what do I tell them? To remember the good ol’ lean startup process.
No matter how much money you have, how big your team is, how polished your product is or how often people say your company looks cool… If you can count your users on both hands, and nobody’s paying for your product, you’re still in the validation stage, working on your product/market fit.
Digital marketing can be applied at this stage, but do you really want to spend thousands just validating? Not even knowing if people will use or want what you’re building?
Here’s what you have to do: get out of the building.
Who are your target customers? Where do they hang out? Go find them and ask them questions. Interview them to see what they think of your idea. Are they willing to give you money — right now?
Stop hiring, stop coding, stop whatever you’re doing. Get outside and go get your first 100 customers. Have just a few users or customers? Have everyone inside the company do the same.
It’s your #1 priority. No users = no product.
On top of that, you’ll inevitably get mountains of insights, be able to build a better company, and save crazy amounts of time and money.
If the lean startup methodology is too deep into your 2013 notebooks, take a small break and go read Eric Ries’s Lean Startup and Ash Maurya’s Running Lean.
It’s always tempting to find shortcuts that lead to growth. New companies of all kinds starve for them, they browse GrowthHackers.com for genius hacks and they keep fuelling Adwords with the little money they have, hoping for overnight success.
Yet, it barely moves the needle…
The “lean startup” term might now be overused (just as “growth hacker” is), but the methodology should not be forgotten.
People forget the baby steps they need, and prefer to avoid the unpleasant task of facing the public and hearing things they don’t want to hear. It’s normal human behavior, and I certainly was once one of those people.
Digital marketing and clever hacks before you’re scaling won’t make things easier, in fact, it will make them harder.
Get out. Talk to people. Organize, attend and speak at events. Interview people, validate your product, get your users to pay. Only then should you turn your digital marketing game ON (and call me).