Seven things to consider before marketing your small business or start up

In tough economic times it’s amazing how many people decide to start their own business. Most carefully organize and prepare - but far too often marketing the business is an afterthought, is underestimated, or gets omitted.

Here are some things to consider before your launch your start up, or prior to marketing your small business. It’s not a list of instructions, do this, then this, then this - it’s more a thought exercise. To start you thinking about things that will occur or should be considered before your start your business. So you’re prepared from the start to begin marketing your small business successfully.

1. Accept the best product doesn’t always win

Often, it’s not the best product that is the market leader. It may not even be the second best. More than likely, the market leader is either the first into the market place or it’s the one that’s used marketing savvy (and perhaps deep pockets) to be perceived as the market leader. This can be frustrating and difficult to accept. It can stymie some first time entrepreneurs. After all, all our lives we’ve been taught, build a better mousetrap and “they” will beat a path to your door. It’s not true.

I’ve sat in meetings where the client rails against the competitors, trashing their products, exclaiming loudly how theirs is better. Eventually, after the tirade, they’ll ask exasperated “why aren’t more people buying ours?” The unsavory, simple answer - most people don’t know which product is better - and they don’t care. They’ll choose the one that’s perceived to be better, the one their friends talk about, or the one they “like”. Even if they don’t know why they like it.

Books have been written on how to deal with the above - changing perceptions, creating buzz, etc. - buy and read them all (or call us of course). Marketing can be the difference. The lesson I’m offering, don’t waste your time agonizing over why your better product isn’t winning - don’t be reactive. Instead spend your time being proactive.

2. Start marketing before you launch

Don’t wait until after you’ve hung your shingle out to start spreading the word. Start building excitement and demand before day one. It seems silly, almost a no-brainer. But, because marketing is often an afterthought or an underestimated add-on, new business owners often don’t start marketing themselves until after they’ve opened and no one is buying. Start early and stay constant.

In technology web sites, it’s normal to offer beta trials or to provide exclusive access to influential early adopters or related press. But the same holds true for offline businesses. Try to build excitement before you open. Opening a restaurant, put up signage and advertise early, invite “foodies” and food critics to an invite only sneak peek meal. Some other business, do the same “teaser” advertising - but also post construction pictures on your web site. Enable a “sign-up form” for the grand opening to your web site to collect emails. Reach out to local media. Start working the community before opening day and you’ll have customers day one. Then don’t let up. Keep acting as if every week is your grand opening and you’ll keep a steady flow of customers in the door.

3. Develop a brand strategy and stick to it

Brand strategy, sounds daunting doesn’t it? It’s not, it’s marketing speak for focus, focus, focus. Opening a dress boutique that sells designer dress samples - focus on that crowd. Don’t start offering generic branded clothing too. You dilute your brand. Make sure all your offers cater to your target audience. It can be very tempting to start offering add-on products or services - but be absolutely sure the new offerings compliment your core products. Coffee houses selling tea - makes sense. Coffee houses selling laundry soap isn’t a good fit (even if it remove coffee stains). The moral, be extremely critical of each new product or service and make sure it fits into your brand. If there’s any question about it, drop it and move on to the next option.

4. Be prepared to be wrong, to fail, and to move on

I’m not talking about your business failing. I’m talking about recognizing when you’ve made a bad decision. If you’ve screwed up, cut your losses. Don’t waste time on sunk costs (finanicail speak for the money you flushed down the toilet). You can’t get that money back. This could be the addition of new product or service or it could even mean a new team member. If it or they aren’t working out….let them go. Then dust yourself off and try again. You’re going to stumble, it happens. Just ask Coke about New Coke.

The same can be said for marketing your business. You’re going to make mistakes. Not every offer or ad is going to be a blockbuster. What’s important is to keep trying new things - keep modifying your approach. Not that I’m recommended a shot gun approach. You should have a plan. But you should always be ready to incorporate new ideas and options into your plan. Take for instance social media. A few years ago it was no where - nobody but a very few early pioneers even considered it. Now it’s consider essential for most businesses.

One of my mentors always recommended keeping 10% of your marketing budget set aside for opportunity marketing. This is a good idea, as it allows you to take advantage of opportunities when they knock on your door. Maybe it’ll be your ad rep telling you about how a big client just dropped out of the magazine - and they can offer your their premium space for pennies on the dollar. Or perhaps your big competitor stumbles, you’ll be ready to capitalize on their flub. But if you don’t have budget set aside, you won’t be able to do anything. So be ready.

5. Pick vendors carefully, give them direction, let them work, and hold them accountable

Key resources every business needs: a good accountant, a good attorney, and a good designer/marketing consultant. Most will agree with the first two, the latter many will see as odd. However, a good designer or marketing consultant will become an external, but interested and concerned, advisor that can provide outside direction and consultation. Business owners won’t spend big money without consulting their accountant, or enter into a contract before talking with their attorney, but oddly, they’ll hand over marketing their business to almost anyone.

Often a small business won’t have a dedicated marketing person - the owner makes the decisions. But few will have the experience and savvy to navigate various marketing options and opportunities confidently. When your local “ad rep” stops by and talks up a great advertising deal - how will you know if it’s truly a good opportunity? Or when you’re focused on the hard costs of expanding your product line - will you also be able to concentrate on the strategy to announce it to your customers and existing channels? Or when a brilliant marketing idea strikes you - won’t you find it beneficial to bounce it off of somebody.

Of course, you have to hold all your “extended team members” accountable. If your account screws up and cost you money you’ll most likely find a new accountant. Same with your attorney. The same is true for your marketing “partner”. If they’re providing bad advice that isn’t working then they need to be replaced too. Or if they’re simply “yes men” - consider a change as well. Remember, you’re not looking to hire a sycophant you want someone who will help your business grow. Sometimes this means telling you what you’re thinking is a bad idea. Ultimately the final  decision will be yours - but if you’re not getting occasional warnings or arguments from your marketing team - beware.

6. Set a marketing budget. Then double it.

Most new businesses that actually set aside a marketing budget underestimate the amount that’s necessary. It may be through inexperience or simply because of working capital limits. Sadly, marketing is critical to your success and should be integral to the start up of your business. Too frequently we’ll sit with new companies and listen to their grand plans only to hear the same reply when we ask “what’s your budget?”  The typical answer - we don’t know, you tell us, or they propose an unrealistic figure. 

When you’re developing your business plan (or marketing plan) if you don’t know how much to budget -  reach out to connections who might be able to advise you. It could be family, it could be friends, or it good be free business consulting volunteers (such as Once you have your figure, then double it. It doesn’t mean you’ll spend this amount, but it does provide a cushion, allows for opportunity marketing, and it forces you to account for the higher figure - allowing wiggle room.

Don’t be afraid to share a budget with a marketing firm or designer you’re meeting with for the first time. Services can be tailored or perhaps they can propose accommodating some of your marketing objectives for the proposed budget - with others being added later. Remember, you’re looking for a partner - not an order taker. However, if you can’t overcome your fear, and insist they provide a proposal without a budget, be prepared to discuss the proposal - even if you suffer sticker shock. When a marketing firm doesn’t know what they have to work with, they won’t be able to limit their ideas or to tailor their services. They’re flying blind. So after you’ve received the proposal, you might need to provide them some more guidance.

7. Have a plan, write it down. Review it frequently.

It seems silly. It fundamental right? But writing down your goals, your objectives, and your marketing ideas on how to achieve them will provide guidance to you and to the marketing professionals you talk to. For yourself it forces you to actually think about what’s necessary and to strategize before hand. You don’t have to have all the answers or all the pieces of your marketing mix figured out - but you should have the basic framework thought out. 

The last tidbit. Review your plan frequently. This should be done in conjunction with your “marketing partner” during periodic reviews. By reviewing what’s been done, what has been achieved, and how well it’s moving you towards your goals - you’ll be able to make adjustments where and when necessary. No plan should be carved in stone. The market changes and your plan will need to as well. But if you don’t have a plan you’ll find yourself being reactive instead of proactive. You’ll be chasing the competition instead of leading them.


Sep 10, 2010

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