Every day, we are pelted by marketing messages from all directions. Getting someone to stop and pay attention to your flailing startup in this kind of environment seems impossible – especially with no budget and no team.
But not if you take the right steps.
Marketing is the last thing you want to spend money on in the early days, as it can lead you down the wrong path with false positives, i.e. “We’re growing, so we’re good!”. Paid marketing will have its day – but in the meantime, it’s all about having a story and hustle. Here are nine steps to market your new business from the ground-up:
1. Get the story right.
Before you can sell something, you need to give buyers a reason to buy. Identify what makes your brand unique in its space, and create your story around that. For example, I founded The Bouqs Company as a solution to my poor experiences buying flowers online. Whenever I ordered flowers, I noticed they never looked the same as they did in pictures, the pricing advertised was never the real checkout price, and the customer service was awful.
So, we built The Bouqs Company story around the idea of farm-direct flowers with straightforward, honest pricing – with a little “volcano” sprinkled in (more on that later).
2. Tell everyone the story.
At The Bouqs Company, what you see is what you get – and that was the story we told people. I told everyone about the vertically-integrated supply chain we’d created, our unique all-inclusive pricing with free shipping and subscription options, how easy it is to order and how our flowers lacked cheesy plastic butterfly decorations.
Many people are afraid that if they tell someone their idea, that person will run with it. But without telling people, however, you can’t know if it’s a good idea; you need to test it out first. Second, you’re going to have to tell someone someday if you want folks to use your product. Third, it’s extremely unlikely that someone else is as interested or passionate about this idea as you are, and if someone else can do it that easily, it’s probably not a viable business in the first place. So, share away!
3. Optimize the story until people say, “Wow, I want that.”
You might have to make some edits and adjustments to your story to find the parts that really resonate with your audience – and once you do, you should amplify those parts. We started by talking about honesty, integrity, flat pricing and sustainability. While all of that was good and people liked it, it wasn’t getting the “Wow, that’s cool! Tell me more!” reaction I was looking for.
And then we started to talk about the volcano. You see, we source many of our roses from an active volcano range in South America. This was normal to us, as my co-founder, Juan Pablo Montufar, grew up on this volcano range and I have visited many times. We overlooked this awesome piece of our business story simply because it was just a part of the team’s DNA.
In passing conversation with an executive at Deutsch LA, I mentioned the volcano and he was hooked. We then started saying “We drop-ship flowers from an active volcano in South America to anywhere in the U.S. for $40 flat,” and our story had arrived.
4. Tell friends and family about your product.
You’re going to have to make the business personal because it is personal. So, start with telling your friends and family about this incredible product or service you’re developing. Share with them via in-person visits, emails, texts and phone calls. Don’t send e-blasts or mass messages – make it one-on-one instead.
When we launched, I wrote close to 3,000 individualized, personal emails. This works for a number of reasons: first, this audience is the most likely to buy your product, so the results should be pretty good. They’ll also give you honest and helpful feedback to identify early issues and figure out ways to improve the experience.
5. Branch out from personal to social.
Move your brand awareness out from your close, personal circle and into your bigger online network. Create a Facebook page, a LinkedIn profile and any other social sites that make sense for your audience. Push the brand story out via alumni groups, Linkedin and Facebook groups, and leverage employee connections as well. Everyone has to sell in the early days.
6. Get others to tell your story for you.
By now, you’re two or three months into your soft launch. It’s time to get others to tell your story for you. This doesn’t mean you need an agency. PR in the early days is about having a good story and hustle. You can grow your own exposure by acting as your own agent.
Work your network, reach out to writers and editors and passionately tell your story. You’ll get noticed. About six weeks after launching, I networked my way to an editor at Daily Candy and sent her some flowers (straight from the volcano). A call followed – they wanted to break the story, and we were featured a few days later. The PR gravy train started from there and, once it’s rolling, it’s glorious.
7. Develop quality partnerships.
At these early stages, it’s hard to reach big audiences directly. Keeping this in mind, find brands and outlets that are a good match, cut a deal to share profit per order (so you pay only out of sales), and work with them to bring an interesting (or exclusive) story, product or offer.
We were able to partner with Facebook Gifts and quickly became their biggest flower vendor. Google Offers and Gilt City were also valuable partnerships. These types of partners can drive early adoption at scale, with little-to-no up-front capital outlay.
8. Amplify sales with referrals and social buzz.
Let your growing audience market your brand for you. Ask your audience to refer their friends for an incentive. Have social sharing buttons on your site, and respond to emails and social comments as quickly as possible.
Develop unique and engaging social content. Run a promotion – a giveaway or contest – and distribute via social. Enter followers who post about your brand into a drawing to win a free product or service. In essence, engage using all viable channels.
9. Keep it organic at first, and then raise money once you’re ready to spend on paid media.
During your first six to 12 months, you shouldn’t have to raise a dime. If the opportunity arises, consider it, but know that it’s not required to grow your brand. The Bouqs Company garnered more than half a million dollars in revenue through organic reach, with only a $13,000 initial investment. And we only spent $8,000 of it.
So now you know that it’s possible to scale a business without funding. What you really need is a well-executed story, plenty of hustle and the formula above. After you’ve achieved some scale through these steps, you’ll be in a better position to raise funding and make your business bloom.
What are some of the challenges you’re facing in marketing your bootstrapped startup?
John Tabis is founder of The Bouqs Company. He worked for six years in Disney Corporate Strategy with a focus on Consumer Behavior and Brand Management. John left Disney as a Director in the group, having worked on global brand and consumer strategy. He entered the world of VC-backed startups as VP, Brand & Corporate Development at ShoeDazzle, where he worked on broad corporate initiatives. In the Fall of 2012, John launched The Bouqs Company with a stated mission of fundamentally changing the supply chain and consumer experience in online floral.
Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.