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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

How to launch a startup without spending a fortune on marketing

It’s perfectly possible to make a big splash without spending big money.

How to launch a startup without spending a fortune on marketing
[Looker_Studio / Adobe Stock]

If only there was a one-size-fits-all approach to guarantee a successful startup launch and ongoing traction. Novice entrepreneurs are eager to label their companies “the Apple of X” or “the Uber of Y” in an effort to reach those ranks that much more quickly.

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While there are many variables that come into play, there are actually some common denominators entrepreneurs can use as a diving board for launch success without spending big money on marketing.

START A WAIT LIST

There are many ways to define ideation as it pertains to the startup realm, but in a nutshell, it refers to identifying a problem that’s ripe for disruption and acting on it. That’s what audiences find most fascinating. Facebook, as we all know, was originally developed for college students to connect. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia of Airbnb wanted to make lodging less expensive and more accessible.

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Interestingly enough, you don’t need a hypertargeted use case to be successful. For instance, Ben Silbermann, Evan Sharp, and Paul Sciarra—the founders of Pinterest—simply wanted to create a product that absolutely anyone and everyone could use, not just techies.

In the case of my own startup, Walnut, we started with just two founders and an MVP. We began researching a portion of our potential audience to validate our idea, and they loved it. Per their request, we enthusiastically placed them into a waitlist.

This is where the element of initial traction comes into play. Even if it’s a pre-product, there are people who are excited about the problem you are aiming to solve, and you want to get the word out.

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It’s at this point that many entrepreneurs might create a series of beautiful digital assets and paid campaigns on Google and Facebook. That’s a perfectly fine approach, but my co-founder and I chose to go a different route: building minimal assets and very short, concise pages optimized to gather interest and add more names to the wait list.

PUT ON YOUR SEED-STAGE HAT

Send out a newsletter and participate in lots of group discussions on networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. From our “seed list” of prospective customers, word traveled fast, and the waitlist started to grow—still without spending any money.

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One of my bold moves was going for a launch day despite the fact that it was just too early product-wise. Turns out, being bold paid off. In one explosive day, a popular product listing website featured our seed round on their homepage, and we were featured in almost 20 press articles. It led to an even longer waitlist of 700 names and three term sheets to extend our $6 million seed round.

When you’re aiming to disrupt an industry, your initial launch will play an astronomical role in your success. Make a splash.

DON’T AVOID MARKETING ENTIRELY

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Of course, there are many companies that fare extremely well without a marketing infrastructure set in place. While that is possible, it does put a lot more stress on the differentiating factor of your technology, and it becomes a gamble in the early stages as you count on word-of-mouth to work its magic.

That approach fared well for Wayfair, which raked in major profits by cleverly purchasing hundreds of domain names that matched with common search terms. Tech companies such as Atlassian and SurveyMonkey also bootstrapped their way toward achieving the success they presently enjoy. All of these companies had very humble beginnings without wide-scale marketing efforts or triumphant launches.

At the end of the day, it is perfectly possible for you to make a huge splash in your respective industry and gain traction without spending big money on marketing, but it definitely isn’t an easy feat. If you ask me, I’d say as a first-time entrepreneur, you’re better off at least dabbling in marketing elements to some extent versus not doing it at all.

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Cleverly presenting your value proposition, building a product your audience really needs and outsmarting your future competitors with a strong brand are all the path to success in your startup’s early days.


CEO at Walnut and “Tech Marketer to Watch” by Forbes. Startup mentor in the world’s top accelerators.

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