Marketing in a Lean Start-Up

What comes to mind when you think about being a lean start-upEric Ries defines this as following a simple 3 step scientific process in which you:

1) Build
2) Measure
3) Learn

Not exactly mind bending stuff, but there is a method to this madness. The idea is to move to what is referred to as “action metrics,” or as I like to think of it, what people do on your website that we can actually measure. But you’re smart. You’ve read the fluffy Social Media books, and need something beyond theory and glowing rhetoric.

I agree. If you’re working in a start-up you should be frustrated when social media people say “it’s all about being human and engaging.” Well, once you’ve heard “look both ways before crossing the street,” you may be looking for something a bit more satiating.

Lean Start-up & Start-up Tenets

So what does BML (build, measure, learn) look like when marketing at a startup? The first thing you have to understand is the two core principles of working for a startup. At a startup, you are either:

1) Building
2) Selling

Engineers are builders. If you can code, then you stand to make a lot of money since even in Silicon Valley engineers are a rare species. Start-ups still need to sell, however. The great thing about marketing is that you get to do both. According to the pillars of Lean Startup, it’s difficult to separate a marketer from a product development person - this is where the “building” comes in. A marketer who can’t sell anything: A) shouldn’t be working at a startup and B) shouldn’t be working in marketing.

Begin with STP

In order to market in a lean start-up, you can’t just make assumptions and perform some market research by Googling around. That might be a nice place to get started, but it doesn’t produce any actionable metrics - or actually prove anything for that matter. That initial research is useful only for generating a hypothesis. Here’s where the “traditional” marketing method STP comes into play. It is “traditional” in the sense that this is the basic methodology taught in business school. However, as my friend Chris Penn so clearly illustrates in his latest book - even digital marketers need to do a better job at STP.

Here’s a nice link to a more technical explanation should you want to really dive into it (I recommend you do!) When you get ready to deploy the STP methodology for your research keep one thing in mind: your goal is to form a hypothesis. You’re not trying to prove the existence of the mountains, just get an idea of what direction you need to drive in. Keep in mind in a lean startup, making assumptions = bad. Just because you pulled some information from a couple of bloggers doesn’t validate your hypothesis. Don’t dismiss the data, but realize that the data may or may not be applicable to your business.


Let’s say for this example your hypothesis was: Group A like using this product for this reason. OK, we’ve identified a possible audience group, and made an assumption. Now it’s time to test it. There are a number of ways that you could test it. You could invite users to try your product, you could launch a small, low-budget PPC campaign, or you could find someone from Group A off the street to sit down and use your product. I personally like what Eric Ries proposes in Lean Startup - testing in small manageable groups. At Ries’s company, they used Google Adwords to test hypotheses spending $5/day. Don’t be too concerned with generating a sample size. At a startup you might not have the luxury of having a strong demand presence. Once you run your test, it’s time to evaluate your action metrics.

Actionable Metrics

Marketers love numbers. Let me rephrase that. GOOD marketers love numbers. However, numbers are everywhere. We could pop open our Google Analytics and poke around and see, “Hey! Look at all those page views and clicks.” I’m not discounting those numbers, but I will tell you they don’t help answer your original question:

Does Group A like using this product for this reason?

So you gathered a bunch of data and discovered that your hypothesis about Group A being interested in your product was spot on - they found it useful. Kudos, you just validated your assumption. You can take this information and think about how your product needs to be tailored to this particular audience. The other thing you learned was: Group A liked the product but they really need X if they are going to pay for such a product. As a lean startup marketer you’re pleased. Your data gave you some important insight about your product that help you form a Product Development POV and a Sales POV.

One more thing...

Marketers like getting lost in data. However, lean start-up marketers cannot afford “analysis paralysis.” They need to move, and move fast. Every time you need to deploy BML - speed is of the essence. Your main goal is to not only validate your hypothesis (or invalidate it), but validate it as quickly as possible. Set goals for your data. If you have your hypothesis formed at the start of the week, make sure you can validate it by the end of the week. Set clear deadlines so you know that you are constantly rolling out your BML feedback loop.

Last thing. Remember that once you validate your assumptions, you need to keep doing it. Even if your start-up gains a little traction - you can’t afford to be lazy. As time goes on, more competitors are going to be flooding into your space. Just as with physical fitness, ongoing commitment helps you stay lean.

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