Marketing Advice From the Trenches | What should you focus on in the early days of your startup?

If traction is the name-of-the-game for early-stage startups, it's no surprise that conversations around marketing, promotions, and sales are always on the go here at Startup Edmonton. Teams are small, everyone wears a lot of different hats, and budgets can be tight - so, how should you make those first investments? 

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I chatted with Danelle Fash, Marketing Manager at Testfire Labs, and Kieran Ryan, Founder of POGO CarShare, about their approach, advice, and some mistakes made along the way.

Both highlighted that in early days the direct access you have to customers is fertile ground to learn more about what they want from your brand, create a wave of ambassadors for your product, and improve on your marketing efforts every day.  

"In a start-up, everything is lean - especially marketing budgets - but that doesn't mean you can't make an impact. I think one of the best and most cost-effective ways to make an impact, is by building strong customer relationships. Unlike large companies who spend thousands of dollars running surveys or focus groups, startups are in a unique position to establish strong relationships early on with each user. Picking up the phone and talking directly to your customers is the best way to understand their pain points and challenges, the language they use to describe your product and how it solves their problem, or how they prefer to gather their information - all of which is marketing gold and completely free. 

The look and feel of, the first product from Testfire Labs, reflects the company's dedication to productivity tools that modernize the way people work. 

The look and feel of, the first product from Testfire Labs, reflects the company's dedication to productivity tools that modernize the way people work. 

Our team personally reaches out to every new beta user to better understand their needs and challenges. Once we've gained that understanding, we use those new insights to write and test our ad copy, web copy, the channels we use, etc. Running small experiments is an incredibly cost-effective way to better understand the messaging that resonates best with your audience, and continuously optimize your content to reach new customers.


Marketing a startup isn't easy. But if you're agile and willing to get creative with your budget and resources, you can scale your efforts quickly." Danelle Fash, Marketing Manager - Testfire Labs

Danelle's advice resonates with me on the connection between customer support conversations and the language you use to describe your product. If you reflect the language used by your customers in the way you describe your company, you'll be in a better position to drop words that mean something to your team but no one else - especially if you're in a jargon-filled emerging technology field! 

"When you're just starting out, your primary objective has to be awareness, because you're new and most of your potential customers haven't heard of you. At the same time, you also need sales to survive! 

I would recommend focusing all efforts on marketing channels that tell customers who you are and what value you can create for them. Go after that low hanging fruit! Zero in on the audience that is the most primed to the solution you have to offer and speak directly to them. 

This approach means sacrificing some of the other aspects of marketing before you launch into the world, like having a complete brand strategy - loads of content, visual identity, big advertising campaigns. 

In the end, this works in your favour because it forces you to have a flexible strategy. You don't know what's going to work, so don't over plan it. Assess what's working by talking to your customers a lot. Tease out how they actually heard about you and why they signed up. Budgets don't allow for formal feedback loops, but the best part is you get that hands-on experience through conversations and intuition. 

This type of flexibility and sacrifice can be tough, especially if you're passionate about marketing and branding or come from that type of business background. In the early days, you don't have money, you don't know who your customers are, and you may not even really know exactly what your product is. So, you have to run experiments and upgrade later, once you know what works. 

POGO CarShare makes the most of it's biggest marketing asset - a fleet of branded vehicles operated by their customers. 

POGO CarShare makes the most of it's biggest marketing asset - a fleet of branded vehicles operated by their customers. 

I've seen a few startups design a beautiful brand and have a great strategy, and then discover they have a slightly different market than they thought, or need to pivot the product a bit, and now they've committed a lot to something that doesn't quite fit anymore. 

Actually, we did this ourselves. We had to change our name last minute, and it didn't quite fit the branding we created. It annoys me to this day! If you hate the thought of building a muddled brand initially through less planning and trying things, create a straightforward, versatile brand that works on many channels/directions." Kieran Ryan, Founder - POGO CarShare


Kieran mentioned the number one mistake I see startups make when it comes to marketing - waiting too long to engage with customers because they're waiting on the brand strategy to be perfected. This doesn't mean you're going to throw garbage into the market or that you stop planning altogether! Rember a brand is what your customers think and say about your product, your marketing efforts are all the ways you engage with customers to foster real relationships and inspire sales. 

Here are my top three marketing tips for early-stage startups: 

  1. Plan experiments with time to plan, deploy, monitor and evaluate success in short bursts.

    Try starting with a 12-week plan with three sets of experiments. A/B test two landing pages; run Facebook ads with different images; write blog content from different points-of-view, and then double down on what works best for the next round! 
  2. Make time to define your brand voice.

    Choosing the persona, tone, language, and purpose of your company is free and will help guide all your interactions with customers. It also makes the nuts-and-bolts of marketing so much easier - like writing social media posts, customer onboarding emails, and even phone conversations. 
  3. Ask your peers for advice and research your favourite brands and campaigns like it's your job. 

    If you like a particular company's t-shirts, don't be shy about asking for one. Not sure where to get the good stickers that students actually put on their laptops, ask who printed them. You don't have to start from scratch, and that's one of the best parts of being part of a startup community. 

    Love a campaign for a specific product or brand? Set time aside to study it like there is a final exam coming up next week. Figure out how often they post to social media; if the photos are the same or different across platforms; capture how the language shifts from landing pages from ad links vs. organic search links. Make a giant spreadsheet and track everything you learn. They have massive teams working to influence your decisions, why not make that brand machine work for your company, too!