Startup failure is well documented. According to Matt Hirst, Partner at West, a venture studio that specializes in designing, building, and launching brands, a key reason startups fail is because they undervalue marketing. Below, I share Hirst’s insights on the marketing problem so many startups face and how to prevent it.
Kimberly A. Whitler: In your current role, you’ve come across a number of startup firms. One of the biggest challenges CEOs face is driving growth—or finding new customers and creating more loyal customers. This is especially a challenge for startup firms. One thing I’ve noticed is that some startups devalue marketing expertise, waiting until a later stage of development to bring in marketing expertise, rather than giving marketing talent a founder/partner position. They then are surprised when they can’t find a market for their product. Have you seen this? What insight can you provide as to why so many startups mismanage marketing?
Matt Hirst: That’s a great point. So much of this is a misunderstanding of what marketing is and can do. First, companies need to focus on their product’s truth and the outcome it provides or the need it serves. At West, we have this saying around ‘Build for Impact’. The impact you have or the purpose you serve is the core tenant of your brand. Marketing is a key driver in crystalizing that message and disseminating it out into the world.
Organizations that hold a heavy product or engineering bias can run into the most trouble. I actually experienced this firsthand during my time at Google. There was a mindset along the lines of “hey, we (engineers) have built this product, can you go market it for us?” The team was essentially asking for someone in marketing to draw up creative assets and drive (or create the need for) adoption. Of course, the marketing team’s reaction at that point should be to take a step back and ask, “What was the insight that drove (you to create) the product?”, “Who is the audience?”, “Why should they care?” The issue, of course, is that all of these questions needed to have been asked much further upstream.
Whitler: It seems that marketing teams are pulled in right at the end because startups prioritize that initial engineering and technical talent needed to build without considering the long-term need for brand-building. Any insight on why this occurs?
Hirst: In the engineer’s defense, they have access to a lot of powerful data, which they use to drive their decision making in real-time. But user data is only one part of a successful product development strategy. The marketer’s role is to help extol the value of consumer insight, helping product teams see around corners and build products that address truly unmet needs. Teams love to build, iterate, and push their updates out into the wild, none of which is bad.
But all of that energy is lost — and conflicts or frustrations with the marketing teams arise — when what they’re building does not meet a true consumer (or technological) need.
This isn’t just true of product development – creating features, use cases, adoption and ongoing engagement. We live in a world where in any given category there are a number of apps, widgets or services, thus ‘Brand’ and brand resonance is critical. And given that brand is synonymous with a product experience, then the brand (its differentiated functional and emotional positioning) needs to be built deep within the product DNA – its not simply a wrapper.
This is a long way of saying that marketing needs to be at the table from day 1. For many organizations, this is a big pill to swallow.
Whitler: What are the other things that marketers need to be aware of in engineering-heavy cultures?
Hirst: Look at how data is collected, used, and emphasized by organizations. For my money there has been an over rotation towards measuring and quantifying in order to justify action and implementation. This in part has led towards the over reliance on sources and mediums that can quantify (i.e. performance marketing). Being able to quantify CAC (customer acquisition cost) on a dollar in perspective versus an impressions/engagement out perspective is very seductive, but it’s not how you build a brand. I often use the example that the best things in life such as friendship and love can’t be quantified (and those emotions underwrite the relationships with our favorite bands), but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. While intellectually most people, marketers especially, understand that to be true, it can be very hard for their organizations to make that leap.
Whitler: What advice do you have for startups? How can they do a better job leveraging marketing to achieve success?
Hirst: Successful companies have been those that allowed CMOs to have seats at the sales, retail, brand / product design, etc. tables, rather than purely acquisition or traditional brand. This requires a certain type of CEO and a significant amount of discipline and trust by the organization in their marketing partners. These are the brands that everyone wants to emulate (Airbnb, Red Bull), but while many copy their output and stylistics, few understand that it is their structure that creates the brand.
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