I’ve spent nothing on marketing!*

I did some media training with a group of startups from the Amsterdam branch of an accelerator last month. I did my talk, told my Finovate story (so many learnings!) and quoted George Orwell (as ya do). Then I sat down with the teams to do some one-on-ones.

Inevitably, a phrase cropped up that I have come to know very well in startup land. Two founders sat down with me (female CTO – way-hey!) to talk about the experience they have had with the press so far and if I had any advice to make it better.

The CEO told me he usually puts together ‘press packages’ for journalists from publications he wants to be featured in – PDF press releases, background information, contact details of people they may want to interview.

That sounds good,’ I told him ‘How much success have you had so far with that?

Both founders nodded and smiled and the CTO commented ‘We had a lot of success, considering we have spent nothing on marketing.’

I looked both of the founders in the eye and said ‘So, your time then, putting those press packages together, is worth nothing?’

They looked at me, the implication of what I said, slowly dawning.

You hear that phrase a lot is startup land. ‘We got so much press, and spent nothing on marketing!’ One particularly insulting comment from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur I  read said ‘Marketing is like sex, you shouldn’t have to pay for it.’ (screw you tech bro – you never bought anyone dinner, never cleaned your sheets, never spent any time or effort to learn how to be a considerate and knowledgeable lover? I weep for your past and current sexual partners) Anyway…

The thing of it is, this phrase ‘We spent nothing on marketing’ is just false. What it really means is your startup does not have a person, taking in a salary, who has ‘head of marketing or head of PR’ as their job title. And for most early stage startups, this is perfectly reasonable. Most do not have enough capital to cover expenses other than core product development and lead generation needs.

However, unless you are building your startup under a rock, not content to emerge into the outside world until you have made your first billion, you will have spent time and effort speaking at events, responding to Twitter, developing a regular social media presence, writing blogs, appearing on podcasts etc… All of the above takes time (your time, dear founder) and planning and effort. I know that my time is valuable, so I am guessing your average startup CEO’s time is valuable as well.

Any marketer, PR professional, growth hacker worth their salt will tell you that the efforts that yield the best results are the ones that are thought through and consistent. Consistance being the key – if you don’t have regular output, then you can never measure which ‘marketing’ outreach (which you are definitely not paying for) is working the best and which you can scrap.

I have seen several cool startups, not only act as if the above does not cost money, but that it shouldn’t be any effort at all. I was a journalist for 20 years. Listening to, or interviewing, a CEO who feels they are ‘too cool’ to get proper media training or bother to sit down with a trainer that can help with public speaking, is hell. Watching a founder mumble from a sheet of paper, to a packed room in a nightclub in Shoreditch for 45 minutes, is 45 minutes of my life I will never get back again.

Now, what am I advising? So for early stage startups (when you are still just a handful of people with a dream) I would not recommend going out and hiring an expensive head of marketing or signing on with an agency (even those ones with ‘startup-friendly prices’ – paying a cheap price just means that you will get cheap service). Even for larger companies, when I have done jobs that involve content creation and marketing, I have looked for free platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium), positioned myself for speaking slots (so I don’t have to pay for a ticket to events) and cosied myself up to friendly journalists who might be looking for a cool startup to interview or quote in their paper.

My argument is – while all of the above is ‘free’ – it isn’t free. So don’t insult the millions of people who work very hard in marketing and PR, or your own team working away to get publicity for your startup, by claiming what they do is worth nothing.

And on a side note – and this pertains to our FinTech world – anyone notice the ‘What is all this Open Banking nonsense?’ type pieces cropping up in mainstream news – like the Independant, the Daily Mail, or the BBC? Do you think these journalists woke up one day and came upon the viewpoint that Open Banking is is a threat and nonsense all by themselves? Or do you think they have deep relationships with the teams of PR and comms people who take a paycheck at our major incumbent banks? (hint: it’s the latter)

Open banking’s intended success – to present consumers with more choice – depends on consumers making the choice to take part. Growth hacking (what the cool kids call ‘marketing’) might give you a good start – but if you are going to reach the consumers the big banks have the resources and capital to reach, heavier artillery is needed. And those guns take time and effort to handle.

*Outside of the annual fee I pay to WordPress, and the 90 minutes it took for me to write it, and the 10 minutes my husband spent proofreading it and the 10 minutes I spent sharing it on social media. 

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