Marketing First, Product Second: 5 Contrarian Ideas For Building A Better Startup

Advice for entrepreneurs from outside the Valley. Yeah, really.

I love the startup world, but I really love the weird, atypical, non-Valley, non-twentysomething, Ivy-Leaguers-trying-to-be-Zuckerburg startups. Thus, I’m going to give some of the more unlikely tips I’ve picked up along the way.

1. Marketing first, product second

This goes against every piece of wisdom you’ll find in the startup world, but I’ve seen it work and personally lived the experience.

If you build a great product and find that the market you thought would love it isn’t biting, you’re up a creek. You’ve invested valuable time, emotional energy, and likely financial resources to build something that isn’t getting traction, and even if you’re following lean startup principles, the real market often behaves very differently than your early-adopter test customers.

But if you build a marketing machine first, you are in an enviable position. Even if your early products don’t take off, you have a captive audience that’s returning again and again because you’re producing something of value (usually content, thought leadership, educational resources, unique data, or free tools). You can literally create wireframes or a slide deck-based product and see how your audience reacts.

2. Attitude trumps aptitude.

I’ve seen a shocking number of startups fail despite team pedigrees that would make an investor salivate. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Paypal, Facebook, Google, Apple, blah, blah, blah. Give me a team of people who share the same values, beliefs, and mission and who care far more about those than they do about who funds them and how they’re going to get acquired for enough money to buy a house in Silicon Valley.

I like the outliers--the dropout from state schools who feels excited and privileged to work somewhere they don’t have to feel insecure, the woman who barely knew how to code a year ago but is teaching herself by doing, the work-from-home-in-spare-hours designer who just got featured on Dribbble for the first time and loves the process--those who are overlooked by others turn into some of the finest hires, especially in the early days.

Don’t be stymied because you can’t find a resume that fits the startup world’s preconceived notions of quality. Meet and interview people whose passion for their craft and excitement about your project intersect with shared values and opinions about how a company should be built.

3. Don’t obsess about getting a technical cofounder.

There are other options. Here are four--and I’ve seen all of these models work:

  • Most obviously, you can learn the skills you need to develop early-stage software yourself.

  • Using contract labor isn’t ideal, but if you pick up enough skills to maintain and make slight tweaks and upgrades yourself, it can be a reasonable substitute.

  • Choose a way to attack the market or problem that isn’t wholly engineering- or development-centric.

  • Learn enough to be able to judge technical decisions, and lean on mentors and advisers, but hire technical folks rather than forcing yourself to get a cofounder or nothing. The cofounder bar is a high one, and sometimes you can get good talent without requiring that level of commitment.

There’s nothing wrong with finding a great technical cofounder, but there’s a lot wrong with finding a mediocre one, or one who doesn’t work out long-term and creates a messy situation for the fledgling business. One bit of advice that everyone gives that I agree with is that choosing a cofounder must be like choosing a marriage partner--and its breakdown can often spell the end of the company.

4. Start with a business model that has lots of margin for error.

I make a lot of mistakes--dumb ones, too. But because we’ve got a business that doesn’t depend on one single partnership, doesn’t rely on a tiny handful of customers to pay the majority of the bills, and doesn’t have a single source of traffic that sends 25% of referring visits, we can afford to make a few dumb mistakes.

If at all possible, design your startup to do the same. Those first few years are really hard, and you’re going to mess up. Having alternatives and creating diversity in customer acquisition, in revenue, and in how you get things done (team, partners, data, etc.) can be essential to survival when the going gets tough.

Chris Dixon recently posted about The Idea Maze where he takes a contrarian view on another startup myth (that ideas don’t matter and it’s all in the execution). The two concepts (of seeing the maze and building in margin for error) are highly compatible:

A good founder is capable of anticipating which turns lead to treasure and which lead to certain death. A bad founder is just running to the entrance of (say) the “movies/music/filesharing/P2P” maze or the “photosharing” maze without any sense for the history of the industry, the players in the maze, the casualties of the past, and the technologies that are likely to move walls and change assumptions

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5. Use outsider geography to your advantage.

Let’s say you’re in Glasgow, Scotland, trying to start a technology-driven business. Many would view this as a competitive disadvantage, but I don’t. In fact, I think there are a tremendous number of wins to be had from the outsider status:

  • Your costs--all of them--will be lower.
  • If you have any degree of success, you’ll automatically be a big fish in a small pond, which will give you an amazing emotional boost and make an entire community invested in your success.
  • There is no echo chamber in Glasgow. If you’re building a product that people want, you’ll know, and if you’re chasing unicorns, you’ll know that, too.
  • If you gain traction, your business will become an excuse for investors, startup folks, speakers, and partners to visit Scotland.
  • You’ll have a much easier opportunity to attract the best and brightest in your region rather than having to constantly compete with hundreds of other companies, big and small, for talent.

Don’t dismiss the power of being far away from California. Silicon Valley is a state of mind, not so much a physical place.

--Rand Fishkin is the CEO of Moz. He coauthored The Art of SEO and cofounded Inbound.org. Follow him on Twitter at @randfish.

[Image: Flickr user Martin Abegglen]

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1 Comments

  • comradity

    Product is Marketing.  It is the first  of the 5 P's in Marketing: Product, Packaging, Pricing, Placement, Promotion. 

    Separating product from marketing - i.e., developing the product in a vacuum - is a mistake.  So if that is what you are saying, AGREED.

    Katherine Warman Kern