Reaching escape velocity means thinking about marketing and product early

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By: Phillip Bogdanovich

A mentor told me that if you have to choose between great product and great marketing choose marketing. He believed that a great marketing team can sell literally nothing. This quote has stayed with me over the last ten years as I have learned how marketing should inform product, especially for early stage companies working to develop a brand identity and a compelling company story.

Two months ago, I was talking with a friend, who is an executive at a large tech company, about when I should hire a marketing wizard. I was concerned that the cost was not worth the gains especially without a market-ready product. As a note: I am ALWAYS worried about cost. My friend’s answer was immediate and concise: “Hire as soon as you can afford it.”

His answer begs several questions: When can I afford not to hire a marketing person? When can a founder afford not to invest in effectively reaching his or her audience? What founder isn’t thinking about who their target audience is and whether their offering will resonate with them? What founder isn’t thinking about whether their solution is useful and whether it’s priced appropriately?

Our company’s customer profile will change over time. Right now, our most important customer base is investors. We have to test our story on them, get them excited, and elicit feedback that not only helps us fine-tune our message but also increases their excitement in us. Not surprisingly, almost every founder I talk to feels that no one can tell their story better than they can.  After all, we had the breakthrough idea, so who better to tell the story?

As it turns out, the best storyteller may not be the founder. A founder can be so attached to the seed idea that he or she can’t hear what customers are telling them to change. I’ve actually heard founders tell me the customer didn’t know what they needed, or they were flat-out wrong. Customers may be wrong, but if they’re unwilling to buy your product (or invest in you), you have no business.

I was recently sitting outside the cafeteria at Stanford GSB talking with Shaka about how Cipher Skin needs to differentiate from product in the wearables market like Fitbit (we aren’t a wearable), and how we need to explain to investors why embedded sensors/intelligent textiles are the future of multiple industries. Four hours later we had some sketches, some tears, and a whole lot of sweat (I think I was sweating and Shaka was definitely sweating) and all we had was, “We aren’t Garmin.” Shaka and I both knew why we were different. We both knew why Cipher Skin was going to change the world. We just weren’t exactly sure how to bring our story from the edge of consciousness into the daylight.

Months later, we nailed down our story once we started working with a marketing pro, who excelled at storytelling. Our story is about helping everyone in the world lead a fuller and healthier life by knowing when and how to push themselves and when and how to rest. Cipher Skin decodes each person’s unique health and performance profiles. Our story is about how Cipher Skin measures the interactions between bio signals and translates that understanding into reliable predictions of health that prevent injuries and accelerate recovery. We know that the interactions between vital signs and movement tell us more about a person’s well-being and physical ability than a list of metrics measured in isolation. Our story is special because no other technology in the world can do this. This story is simple, concise, and it resonates. And the founders did not come up with it.

Emily and I have had numerous conversations about how marketing was an oft-overlooked necessity. Rapidly growing companies treat marketing as an afterthought. Founders have this loose idea that marketing and a product focus are “things” that needs to be a part of a company’s strategy but they have no idea how to smartly implement a marketing plan. It’s difficult to draw a direct connection between a marketing plan and revenue. Marketing isn’t an “a + b= c revenue” metric.

So how do founders with misplaced confidence decide on who to hire as the first marketing person when they can’t effectively measure the output? The answer is past performance + cross-functional experience + historical evidence. Historically, companies who reach people and tell a great story succeed like Apple or Airbnb. Both are fantastic at telling a terrific product story. Find a marketer who actually understands (your) product who has a proven track record of creating a story (and a market) for a new product category. A solid indicator is if this person comes up repeatedly in conversations with other professionals in similar industries.

Once you have found your “guru” time is your problem. How much runway does a good marketer need to produce measurable results (even if you don’t understand why the brand will gain recognition and traction)? I have posed this question to dozens of CEOs and marketing nerds. The strong consensus is allow a minimum of 6 months and a pre-determined best guess metric for success- 2M in presales for instance.

Summary formula: Great marketer (with personal brand recognition) X 6months of marketing cost= burn. Will you have to kill something you can’t afford to lose to implement marketing? When the answer is “no” hire a marketing/product person. Maybe the real question is at what point can you afford to tell a shit story? Or worse, no story at all?

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