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Startups, stop doing your marketing the easy way

Startups endlessly pore over the quality of their product, but traditionally fail to nail their marketing. By comparing how startups and traditional ad agencies go through the marketing process, a happy medium can be found, winning your startup loads more business.



easy button

easy button

Startup marketing rarely matches coding efforts

Tech startups write hundreds of thousands of lines of code, alpha and beta test among friends and painstakingly obsess over UI/UX nuances few people care about to perfect their product. Yet when it comes to the actual marketing of the product, in most cases, it seems like a complete afterthought. As a tech startup veteran who started out in the cruel world of big ad agency creative departments, I cringe at nearly every launch’s logo, tagline, and messaging.

I have a difficult confession to share with you. I own a marketing agency and I hate my logo and my website.

It’s because the hardest thing to do is market something you’ve created yourself (read: we’re all cobbler’s children). You can’t see the haystack if you’ve convinced yourself you’ve created a pile of needles. Often, the same somewhat delusional optimism fueling the long hours that brings a startup to life is what kills its success by skimping on the messaging which is supposed to convince others of its value and why they should check it out versus play the latest move on Words With Friends.

When working with startups, an outside marketing firm can often be the voice of reason that tempers the irrational enthusiasm from “Everyone and anyone who owns a computer or might think about owning a computer will use GYDZPOOZ to share their innermost thoughts and fantasies with those that matter!” to “We’ve found a core group of over-sharing 45-year-old divorcees who can’t afford therapy to be our biggest growth opportunity.”

How startups come up with their marketing:

The name: is available! We’ll spend a little more money branding it but I like how “Zwqeelio” rolls off the tongue!

The tagline: ___________ the easy way! or The easy way to _________!

The logo: Hey, I have this free font on my computer. I just typed out the name and it looks pretty good. I can’t believe people get paid millions of dollars to do this!

The copy: We’re so awesome! Can we just tell you how incredibly excited we are that we came up with this idea and raised $450,000 in Group Z, Series 45 funding from the fine folks at HFDSI Capital? We got to fly in a Lear Jet and sign the docs at 35,000 feet while slurping Krug from a swimsuit model’s belly button! Sign up now!

The positioning: Everyone needs ZWQEELIO! We can’t imagine why a single person, even some highly trained chimpanzees would not want to use it!

How ad agencies come up with ideas:

The name: Ideally the name should be somewhat descriptive of what you do. Even if you have to pay a fortune for a domain name, it’s far less expensive than the amount of marketing it takes for someone to remember a gibberish name just because you were able to snag it for $8.99 on NameCheap. Sure, you can create a “brand” from scratch. You just need 100 years or $100 million. Let me know which route looks best to your investors.

Good names: Meetup, Instagram, TaskRabbit, Airbnb, Hotel Tonight, Living Social. When I started a social network for advertising creatives I called it Adholes – a good name because it also set the tone and vibe for the site filled with snarky, irreverent, bitter art directors and copywriters; a bad name when Adobe expressed interest in advertising and the executives found the name “offensive.” Still, it was short, memorable, and generated word of mouth when there was zero budget to promote it.

The advisable method is to use a working title, but find a third party to negotiate buying a memorable domain name and put it into your budget for your first round of investment. It may be the best $5,000 to $10,000 you ever spend.

The logo: This is where it’s fine to go the cheap route. If your product is truly useful, people are not going to care much about a fancy logo. Leave those for craft beers and fragrance bottles. FourSquare’s logo is pretty awful. Facebook is the aforementioned typeface…typed out. I doubt a single user ever said “Wow, it’s really great that I can connect with all of my friends and share everything with them on this free platform that magically advertises things to me that I’m interested in, but I really don’t like their logo so I think I’ll stick with MySpace.”

There’s the famous story where Phil Knight was working with a freelance designer on the Nike logo. When she gave him the swoosh, he hated it but was late for an investor meeting and took it with him anyway. “I guess I’ll have to learn to like it.” That’s likely the process you and your audience will go through even if you don’t do a great job on the logo.

The tagline: This is where you should probably enroll in Miami Ad School, work in an ad agency creative department for two years, binge watch all five seasons of Mad Men, and read lots and lots of books on marketing. Or leave it to a professional. And by professional, I do not mean your cousin who minored in Creative Writing at the University of Lake George Online.

A tagline is between three and eight words that very succinctly sums up the brand philosophy into a single statement. And “Just Do It” is taken. To give you a sense of how long we spend on taglines in an ad agency, it’s not uncommon for a single copywriter to fill an entire yellow legal pad with tagline ideas. We then bring the best 50 or so to our creative director who says things like “We thought of that back in ’72 when we were working on Brill Cream. Nice try though. Out of all of these, these two are ok, I guess. Go back and come up 500 with more like these.”

Multiply that by several teams working at a big agency. I’m not saying it’s not possible that a talented founder who is passionate about their startup can’t come up with something succinct and usable, but it is important to understand that there’s a work ethic involved with finding the best option, just as there was in writing thousands of lines of code and extensively testing the product. There’s no reason why some more effort can’t be put into a tag than “The easy way to order chocolate-covered tofu online!”

If you don’t have time to go to ad school and can’t afford an agency, you can probably ask some of the advertising schools to give you some recent grads who will likely have some fresh, insightful and snarky ideas at a price you can afford (and no, that does not mean free, you monster!).

The copy: Again, it is best left in the hands of a professional, but here’s one key tip. Every time you have the urge to write “we,” try to find a way to replace it with “you.” Remember, no one really cares about what your team did or why you did it. You work for the customer because hopefully they, times millions of others, will make you very rich.

The positioning: This can be somewhat trial and error. The best thing to do is to try to actually describe a very specific ideal person, who they are, and how they will use the product. Then come up with other scenarios and people. Following that, when you launch, you’ll realize you’re wrong, and you will talk to your users and find out what the real deal is and adjust accordingly.

But trust me, there really are people who don’t find Facebook useful. There are many more who won’t find yours interesting either. An example of narrowing down a profile: “Nancy is a 45-year old chain-smoking divorcee whose husband left her for his 19-year-old co-ed Ultimate Frisbee coach. She recently lost her job as Assistant Brand Manager at The Dress Cave and is supplementing her unemployment by being the off-the-books hot wax operator at the local car wash. Her life sucks and she’s distrustful of major social networks, which is why she shares her frustrations with her closest confidants on ZWQEELIO, whose privacy algorithms and policies are unmatched.”

A great book to check out when creating your messaging is Made To Stick. In it, they describe the “tapping test” where one person taps out the song “Happy Birthday” to another person and asks them what song it is. As the person is tapping, they hear the song “Happy Birthday” in their head. Without this audio cue, the person being tapped to has no idea and just hears a bunch of random taps. Often our ideas fail the tapping test because what’s so obvious to us based on our exposure to the problem/solution is not apparent to someone encountering it for the first time. I failed the tapping test with my own website – when on a Skype call with a partner agency in Brussels, the owner said “You know, you seem really talented and accomplished, but I still have no idea what you do.”

Succeeding at marketing your startup

In order to succeed at your startup’s marketing, you have to be your own most brutal critic. Optimism is great, but here’s the reality: you must face the fact that it’s entirely possible that no one cares about the problem you’re solving. Often, startup ideas are hammers looking for nails. Remember that we live in the future.

There is a new Jetsons-like technology and an amazing new free app to download nearly every hour. When we finally get our hoverboards, we’ll just yawn and go “Well, it’s about time.” Understand that you’re likely releasing a product to an apathetic, drained audience who will forget you ever existed in a week unless your messaging is clear about what real problem you’re solving.

In advertising we say “good is the enemy of great.” In startups, “great is the enemy of good enough.” Those two philosophies are constantly at odds when trying to combine an ultralight startup mentality with a successful marketing program, but truly striking messages come only from a combination of creativity and hard work. There’s no doubt that loads of effort is put into any new product development – why squander it by only spending 10 minutes on the message?

Marc Lefton is a creative director and tech entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience. He's a partner in Digikea Digital based in NYC and Gainesville, Florida.

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  1. Tinu

    March 1, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    Truer words were never written. Mostly because people believe that if they hoard this knowledge, they have more to gain than they do by sharing it. The truth is that people who want to succeed are reading this to find people like you who can better help them. I, too, hate my logo and…when was the last time I updated my tag line? Thanks for the fresh perspective.

  2. Jeff Beck

    March 2, 2013 at 10:38 am

    This a really good piece, although you have a problem in the 1st sentence…

    “Startups endlessly pour over the quality of their product”

    • agbenn

      March 2, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      Great catch, should have been caught in edit.

  3. Ethnic Assets

    March 18, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Bravely and well said! … a little close to the bone on how start-ups do concepts! #owch!

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Business Entrepreneur

Why CloudApp needs to be in your business toolkit

(EDITORIAL) CloudApp is simple yet powerful for any sized business, keeping your productivity at an all-time high.




Are you fed up of screenshotting something and taking the time to drag it into a Slack window to share with an employee for them to ask you what you meant by this. Well, so was I. Working remotely occasionally has its blunders when it comes to communication, the struggles of explaining what you meant without the need to meet via a video call or jump over to another person’s desk can sometimes be a tricky situation to be in.

This is the same for in-office situations too. There’s been plenty of times in an office where I’ve had to break my own workflow or someone else’s to head over to their desk to visually explain something. A potentially useful period of time.

A few weeks ago, this pretty much came to a stop. After receiving two emails during a week in October with two types of link attachments, I was curious what they were. Clicking into these links, I got a visual demonstration of what the person was speaking about. I was so impressed. From a screen demo of a website to how something worked and what buttons to click to get a desired outcome. I was blown off my feet.

Simple as it was, the app is called CloudApp. Both available on Windows and Mac, CloudApp’s primary goal was allowing users to capture these moments like a screenshot or a screen record to help explain the thing in front of you, with little worries. The magic didn’t stop there, once I started playing with CloudApp, I recorded a short demo of a site bug/issue that we had and instantly I heard a “ping”. The recording was captured and ready in a paste-able link.

Within seconds, I sent over the visual demonstration. Dead simple, hugely effective.

By the end of the working day, I had visually explained 98% of things in Slack conversations, emails, mobile texts and even to those I was sitting near. It was a crazy addition to my Mac and productivity across my day and it didn’t stop there.

CloudApp also did a host of beneficial things like allow you to annotate images or screenshots, create GIFs, upload files and even record webcam videos too to support your screenshots.

I would recommend CloudApp to everyone. I was so impressed with their toolkit.

The freemium account is great too. You get unlimited screenshots and annotation with 15s of GIF and screen record creation, which was so reasonable for someone getting started. There are additional pricing options too. CloudApp is available for Mac and Windows and is well worth installing to take full advantage of visually explaining things to friends, colleagues, and those struggling to get a drift of what you are trying to talk about.

Download CloudApp for Mac and Windows.

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Business Entrepreneur

How to determine your freelance rates based on data, not your gut

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) Setting freelancer rates can be quite the tricky business. This tool does arms you with the data you need to grow your business



freelance rates

The bulk of my professional career has been spent as a freelancer. The designation of “freelancer” has taken me on an interesting path that allowed for projects and opportunities I didn’t even know existed.

While I’m grateful for each and every opportunity, I now look back on some of these experiences and realize that I was vastly underpaid. For the most part, this is my fault as someone paying for a service is looking for the lowest possible rate and I never bothered to bargain out of fear of losing the role.

It was even at a point where I dreaded being asked my hourly rate because I didn’t know what the norm was. There was always a fear of charging too much and getting dropped for someone cheaper, or charging too little and looking inexperienced.

We recently talked about knowing your worth and how we freelancers often under charge for our services. Luckily, as this career path becomes more and more popular, there are now more resources devoted to helping us know what to charge.

Such a resource comes in the form of Freelance Rates Explorer. Created by Bonsai, this online tool gives users the ability explore rates from 40,000 freelancers worldwide.

“There are many sites like Glassdoor that offer salary data comparisons for full time employees,” said the tool’s developers. “However, there isn’t a site like this dedicated to provide insights on freelancers rates. We had this data, so we built the Rate Explorer to make it easy for freelancers to compare their rates in the largest publicly available rates database on the Internet.”

In order to find the standard rate for their field, users will input their role (either development or design), their skills (full stack, front-end, back-end, DevOps, iOS, and Android), experience (in years), and location. The Rate Explorer then generates a bar graph based on the answers and will show the most common hourly rates based on the number of freelancers and the rates range.

Bonsai also offers proposals, contracts, time tracking, invoicing and payments, and reporting. All of this is designed for freelancers.

As for the Rates Explorer, seeing the numbers calculated right in front of you may make you realize that you’re vastly underselling yourself. This tool can be especially beneficial to use now as we go into a new year and may be updating contracts.

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Entrepreneurs: You’re unemployable in your own company, must define your role

(ENTREPRENEURS) Once you’ve built a successful business, it’s time to reexamine your role and determine where you fit in best.



google tracking career-listing-jargon-man-desk job hunt entrepreneurs

In my experience, most entrepreneurs are “accidental entrepreneurs.” They happened to be good at something, or they had a unique one-time opportunity to provide a product or service to the market. Then years later, they wake up one day and realize that they’re running a big business.

As an entrepreneur, one of the unintended consequences of building a business is that you become essentially unemployable within your own organization. After living the life of freedom, flexibility and responsibility of being a business owner, it’s difficult to go back to a “nine-to-five” job. This is why many entrepreneurs don’t enjoy staying with their businesses after they’ve sold to other organizations. Within months, they are frustrated that they’re no longer in control and the new owners are (in their opinion) making poor choices.

I see many situations where entrepreneurs are bad employees in their own organization. In fact, they may be the worst team members in the organization by having inconsistent schedules or poor communication skills and/or by inserting themselves into areas that aren’t useful. They can also have too much freedom and flexibility. And while most entrepreneurs insist on clearly defined roles, expectations and goals for all of their employees, they don’t always take the time to define their own roles, expectations and goals.

So why do entrepreneurs become bad employees?

I believe that it’s because they don’t have someone holding them accountable. Think about it: Who do they report to? They’re the owners. Part of the definition of “owner” is being accountable for everything but not accountable to anyone. Having a board of directors, a peer group or a business coach can provide some accountability for them, but another solution is to clarify their roles in the company and then abide by those definitions.

If you find yourself “unemployable” in your business, it’s time to define your role. It starts with outlining your main focus. Do you concentrate more on day-to-day execution or strategic, long-term decisions? Do you consider yourself an owner-operator or an investor?

Most entrepreneurs start as an owner-operator and put in countless hours of sweat equity doing whatever needs to be done to build the business. But over time they reinvest earnings in the business and hire a management team so they can step back and take on a more strategic role. Sometimes it’s not clear when the entrepreneur makes that transition, which can lead to challenges for the entire team.

Focus: Strategic Overview

If your main role is in dealing with long-term, strategic decisions, then it’s important for you to communicate that to the team. Clearly delegate tactical roles and responsibilities to the leadership team.

I’ve seen many instances where owners do more harm than good by haphazardly injecting themselves into tactical decisions that should be handled by the leadership team. Instead of jumping in when they see something they disagree with, I encourage owners to actively “coach” their leadership team to be better leaders. The approach of micromanaging every decision of others will frustrate everyone and lead to an underperforming organization.

I have one client that decided his role was to build strategic relationships and work on a new service offering. He was confident that his leadership team could handle the day-to-day operations of the business. Over time he discovered that being in the office every day was actually a distraction for him and his team. So, he moved his office out of the building.

To maintain his ownership responsibilities to the company, he scheduled one afternoon a week to physically be in the office. Team members knew they could schedule time with him during that weekly window when he temporarily set up office space in a conference room. Not having a permanent office in the building also sent a message to the team that he was not responsible for day-to-day decisions. Sometimes not having an office in the building is better than the team seeing the owner’s office empty on a regular basis.

Focus: Day-to-Day Execution

If you decide that your role is in the day-to-day execution of the business, then clearly define your role in the same way you would define any other team member role. Are you in charge of marketing? Sales? Finance? Operations? Technology? R&D? Or, some combination of multiple roles? Take the time to outline your responsibilities and communicate them to the team.

Just as you define your role, also define what you are NOT going to do and who is responsible for those areas. After all, sectioning off some tactical work does not abdicate you from long-term decision-making. You must set aside time to make the long-term, strategic decisions of the company.

Being an entrepreneur sounds glamorous to those that haven’t done it, but ultimately, the owner is accountable for everything that happens in their organization. It can be quite sobering. And while some entrepreneurs have a delusional belief that they can do everything in a company, it’s not a path to long-term success.

All entrepreneurs have to decide what their role should be in their organization – even if it means that they’re contributing to their “unemployable” status.

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