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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.



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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

Every modern business needs to automate these important processes

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) If you’re still handling the majority of your business functions and processes manually, you’re missing out on a chance to grow.



Automate your biz

We’re living in an era of tremendous innovation. But not only are business technologies rapidly advancing, they’re also extremely cost effective. If you’re still handling the majority of your business functions and processes manually, you’re missing out on a chance to grow.

There’s something to be said for performing tasks manually, but if you’re attempting to do everything on your own, you probably have an issue with control. You’re worried about what will happen when you step away and aren’t quite sure of how your business will respond. Well, here’s a news flash: The most successful small businesses in the world are automating many different key activities, including the following:

1. Employee Scheduling

“If you’re still scheduling your employees using pen and paper and then calling them individually or making them come into work to learn when they are working, you are living in the past and need to modernize your process,” ShiftPlanning clearly explains.

It may seem like a basic business process, but employee scheduling is extremely important for many companies.

You need to ensure you have the right number of people working at every hour of the day, as well as the right mixture of talent and personalities.

Thankfully, you don’t have to handle this responsibility on your own. You can streamline and automate the entire process with employee scheduling software.

2. Social Media

For small businesses, social media is a big priority. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest allow you to put your brand in front of thousands – even millions of people with the click of the button. But if you’re like most businesses, you don’t have the time or resources to spend 40-plus hours per week working with social media.

Don’t fret, though. Automation is possible in this area as well. In fact, social media automation is a swiftly growing industry that features dozens of reputable tools that can take your business to the top. Here’s a look at a handful of the top ones.

3. Human Relations

Most people don’t realize that you actually automate many different HR tasks with relative ease. While it’s still a good idea to have an HR person on staff (or at least someone who has experience in the area), HR software can reduce much of the burden associated with maintaining a full-blown HR department.

With HR software like Zenefits, Justworks, or Algentis, you can automate tasks like compliance, benefits, insurance, taxes, and payroll – all things that otherwise take up hours of your day. This also lets you move towards a paperless system, saving money and space.

4. Backup and Recovery

If your business has ever experienced data loss, you know how significant and detrimental it can be. However, you’re also aware of how time-consuming it is to manually backup files. It’s easy to forget, space is at a premium, and you aren’t even sure you’re doing it the right way.

This is where automated backup and recovery comes into play.

An automated solution handles the process without any need for manual intervention and ensures your data is waiting for you in the event of a disaster.

How does that sound?

What are you waiting for?

If you aren’t currently automating business processes like these, you’re well behind the curve. Whether you realize it or not, you have access to tremendous tools that allow you to streamline these responsibilities with relative ease.

Take advantage of these opportunities and actively work to push your business forward. It’s the businesses that automate that will excel in the future.

This story was originally featured on November 11, 2016.

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Business Entrepreneur

7 books every entrepreneur should read

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) You’ve heard it said, “do as I say and not as I do.” Read these books from authors who have figured out what works and what doesn’t when starting a business.



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The power of books

If you’re thinking about leading a startup, but not sure where to go, the internet is often the first place we look. Surely, you can find dozens of blogs, articles, stories, and opinionated editorials that can help give you something to think about.

However, there are tons and tons of great books that can help you think about what you need to get started, how you need to change your mindset, or challenges you may confront as you begin your startup journey. Take a look at the following 7 you may want to add to your bookshelf.

1. The Startup Checklist: 25 Steps to a Scalable, High-Growth Business
This text not only boasts a 5 start rating on Amazon, but offers what few books do – practical, tangible, down to earth advice. Where lots of books try to tell you a story, talk strategy, and share wins, author David Rose instead focuses on advice that assumes no prior experience – and breaks it down from the fundamentals.

2. Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation
Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom focus on creating a lean startup by offering a step-by-step process that focuses on nailing the product, saving time, and saving money. The first step is about testing assumptions about your business, and then adjusting to growing it (hence: Nail It and Scale It). Strong aspects of this book include a great theoretical foundation, and an easy to follow framework.

3. The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls that Can Sink a Startup
Wasserman’s strength here is that he focuses not only on the financial challenges, but identifies the human cost of bad relationships – ultimately how bad decisions at the inception of a start-up set the stage for its downfall. This book is a great tool to proactively avoid future legal challenges down the row, and also discusses the importance of getting it right from the start.

4. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
Horowitz writes about his experiences, taken from his blog, in a way that even inexperienced managers can touch and learn. The advice here really focuses on leading a start-up, and what lessons his experience has given him. Presented in a humorous, honest, and poignantly profane way.

5. The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company
Blank and Dorf here standout due the sheer mass of this text. A comprehensive volume at 573 pages, my favorite piece for new investors is a focus on valued metrics – leveraging data to fuel growth.

6. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
A personal favorite of mine, this book is recommended for entrepreneurs not because it’s focus on business, but as a reminder that those of you wanting to start up are people. You have limited resources to manage as a person, and will need to adjust your perspective on what you care about. This book is about changing your mindset to pick your battles and be more focused.

7. Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup
Bill Aulet starts with an approach that entrepreneurs can be taught, and breaks down the process into 24 steps, highlighting the role of focus, the challenges you may encounter, and the use of innovation. This text wins due to its practicality for new start-ups, and a specific method for creating new ventures. It also features a workbook as an additional, optional resource. Check it out on Amazon


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Business Entrepreneur

6 entrepreneurial tools for startup productivity

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) Whether you’re a small business or startup, improving efficiency means more money and less stress. Here are six tools to help do just that!



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All good entrepreneurs are full of ideas

Truly great entrepreneurs are also well organized and know which tools will help them see their ideas to fruition.

That can be key for getting a startup business off the ground. Good ideas and a strong entrepreneurial spirit aren’t always enough on their own. Sometimes you need the right mix of technology and tools to keep the more mundane and tedious tasks from bogging down your efforts.

Here are six tools almost any entrepreneur can use to help keep productivity high when starting a new business:

Lawtrades: For legal help

For most entrepreneurs, it’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but making sure you have your legal ducks in a row is important for any startup. Lawtrades helps with that while trying to keep costs down — music to the ears of any startup business owner.

The service is a legal marketplace of sorts designed specifically for startups and entrepreneurs. It connects business owners with legal professionals that it claims don’t charge “bloated law firm hourly rates.”

Lawtrades offers a number of services, including business formation, employment and labor, contracts and agreements and intellectual property.

Do: For productive meetings

Anyone who has started a business knows that it doesn’t happen without a multitude of meetings. Do is a service that can help make your meetings productive so you can waste as little time as possible.

The app allows you to plan and share an agenda to make sure everyone is on the same page. Other features include the ability to track accountability by showing you which points and/or tasks have been covered.

1Password: For easy password management

Starting a new business likely means starting and managing lots of online accounts. The 1Password app from AgileBits helps you save time by remembering passwords and other information for you.

The app helps you generate strong and unique passwords for your many accounts, and secures them behind one safe password known only by you. The app doesn’t only work for passwords — it can also help remember other information such as credit card numbers, safe combinations or street addresses.

Kanbanize: For product development

If your startup involves a specific product or set of products, Kanbanize helps you develop them with your team without bogging down the process. The software allows you to post and share boards that include product information and progress, and you can choose which people see which information.

For example, if you want to update investors on the status of your product development, you can share certain boards with stakeholders and no one else.

Evernote: For organization

There are many applications available that aim to help team productivity, but Evernote is one of the best.

The software allows you to collaborate with your team all within one workplace, keeping projects and other work together. You can also give feedback on ideas and share notes while syncing the data across computers and phones.

There are many other features as well, including in-app chat functionality and integration with Google Drive.

TaskHusky: For web development

Almost any new business will want some sort of business, but a staff of web designers and developers isn’t always an option for startups. That’s where TaskHusky comes in.

TaskHusky is an on-demand service for small businesses that need help with one-off tasks with the Shopify, Bigcommerce or WordPress platforms. The company has a simple three-step process: You create a task and pre-pay, a TaskHusky team member is assigned the task and gets to work and the task is completed and is sent back for your approval.

The takeaway:

Smart entrepreneurs understand they can’t get everything done on their own when it comes to starting a new business. These six tools may not be everything you need to launch and maintain a startup, but they will go a long way to helping you keep productivity at a high level.


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