There is an art to launching a successful consumer startup.
Andrew Chen, one of the general partners at famed Silicon Valley VC firm, Andreesen Horowitz, published a whole report on the 2018 consumer startup pitch decks he loved, and why. Taking the excitement of the category one step further, if you are an entrepreneur either in the process of launching a business, considering launching a business, or maybe have recently launched a business and are underway with the launch, then there are a handful of creative partners you should have by your side in order to make your launch successful.
Reason being, it’s very difficult to build a captivating and “unique” consumer startup all on your own. The venture requires a mix of so many different skill sets, it’s not that finding multi-talented individuals is such a difficult challenge—it’s that even the most multi-talented individuals often end up being “masters of none.” And in order to make sure your startup is seen as “different,” you’re better off enlisting the help of masters within each respective domain.
As someone who has been building the brands of consumer startups for years now, I can tell you first-hand that this ends up being one of the biggest mistakes early-stage startups make—and at our agency, Herman-Scheer, we see it all the time. A startup believes they are better off trying to do everything themselves, decide not to partner with other creative individuals/agencies (whether it’s a project fee or an equity arrangement so the partner has “skin in the game”), and then six months go by and they realize they’ve made a terrible mistake.
The only problem is, by then, the startup has been launched, the product isn’t “clicking” with consumers, and now the problem is ten times more expensive to fix.
After working with dozens of consumer startups, the vast majority of which are early stage and are either in the process of raising a seed round, have closed their seed round, or are gearing up for their Series A, there are three external creative partners that are absolutely essential for both early traction and long-term success:
If you are a consumer startup, in some cases you are going to need a handful of specialty partners. For example, if you’re selling a physical product, you may need to partner with (or bring someone onboard) like an industrial or package designer to help design the physical unit itself. Or if you’re selling some kind of hardware device, you may need an engineering partner to help create or sharpen the product’s mechanics, etc.
But for the most part, all consumer startups will need a branding partner.
When most people talk about “branding,” however, they think of a room full of “creative” people debating which font type to use, or which colors make up the brand’s color palette. And while these things are certainly important and part of the process, a good (or great) branding partner helps with something much more important: finding white space in the market. They, quite literally, help you understand who you are, where you “fit” into the industry you’re competing within, and how to best position yourself for success. It’s hard work, and happens at the intersection of product design, pricing strategy, value propositions, and target audience—all of which, as a collective, determine the market opportunity. It’s a very high-level brand strategy, and intended to inform nearly every decision you make moving forward.
Once the brand strategy is defined, then the startup can begin to focus on building a brand identity and communications platform that is distilled into all of the different touchpoints a customer will experience, such as the website, out-of-box experience (OOBE), branded content, email sequences, and ads.
All these things, together, are what make a great and memorable end-to-end branded experience.
2. Digital Marketing
Once the above is established, most consumer startups start to gear up their digital marketing.
First and foremost, the fundamental reason why digital marketing is so important is that it can take 5 to 7 impressions before someone actually remembers a new brand. Think about that. You could have the most beautifully designed brand on the planet, but even still, it’s going to take time and consistency for consumers to begin to remember you and “think” about you in the moment of purchase.
The reason consumer startups will begin investing in digital marketing even before their product or service has launched is for a few reasons:
- Early digital marketing spends can reveal new insights about who may be interested in your product, where they live, and/or why they would want to become a consumer
- Early digital marketing efforts can spearhead audience growth to ensure you have some sort of active audience on the day of the launch (and thereafter)
- Early digital marketing optimization will only make your launch more effective since you’ll have already refined your campaigns and audience targeting
- Early digital marketing testing can and should reveal which platforms are best suited for your product (for example: you may find that your conversation rate on Instagram is 3x your conversation rate on Facebook)
Now, it’s worth noting that digital marketing and all the ways it can be best leveraged for a successful launch exist on a case-by-case basis. Some industries lend themselves better to this approach than others. For example, cannabis is an industry where digital marketing is a huge hurdle. Most social networks do not allow advertising in the cannabis space, whereas certain display networks (although they usually can’t report as concrete of data) are leading the charge for these types of companies.
What’s important isn’t so much the medium itself, but rather the fact that you are capturing data about your target customer’s preferences as early as possible. This is why companies will very often put up pre-order pages, or run ads to sign-up forms hinting or even debuting a product before it’s live, just to see the response. They want to know, as soon as possible, whether they’re building something viable or not.
3. Public Relations
Lastly, you are going to want to invest in some PR for your startup—especially if you are a brand new company/product.
PR is a difficult effort to quantify, and there is a reason it’s one of the last priorities for many startups (both seed-stage and even later stage). However, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The primary benefit PR provides a new company/product is credibility, plain and simple. There’s something “different” that happens in the mind of the consumer when they see a third-party opinion, review, or journalistic piece on your company. It’s validating, and not in a way a digital marketing ad can accomplish.
In most cases, startups will begin having conversations with prospective PR firms as early as five to six months prior to launch. Three months out is when the engagement typically begins.
Similar to digital marketing, the intention of a PR campaign is to ensure that when you launch, you aren’t launching to *crickets.* You could spend all this time creating a beautiful brand, setting up the strategy, launching some low-spend digital marketing campaigns, building out your website and email funnels, but if nobody’s there listening to you when you launch, then you’re going to have a tough time. No buzz.
Whereas previously traditional PR was primarily editorial, today’s startups are now thinking about PR a bit more strategically. Instead of focusing on publications themselves, startups are spending resources and looking for partners who can essentially bridge the gap between “PR” and “influencer marketing.” They don’t just want a piece in a specific publication—they want a specific writer, who has a highly targeted following in their niche, to write about them. Because they know this more targeted approach (even if it seems like a smaller-sized audience) is going to be more beneficial in the long run.
All in all, there has to be synergy between these three partners: branding, digital marketing, and PR. And as the startup founder, it’s your job to get them to all work together, keep them on the same page, and orchestrate a successful launch for your company. That is the overarching goal.