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How to Build a Marketing Function During the Go-to-Market Stage of Your Startup

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I talk to entrepreneurs all the time with a shiny new product or service and big marketing plans. Since I own a marketing agency, they’re probably not expecting to hear what I have to tell them:

They don’t need my agency yet.

In fact, they might not even need a full-time marketer on their team yet. At this stage, with a go-to-market plan the priority, there are certainly lots of boxes to check, but many of them have little to do with media.

Let’s discuss how to approach marketing resources at the go-to-market stage: mistakes to avoid, priorities to address and how to move forward without curtailing future growth prospects.

Related: How to Build a Marketing Function During the Early Stage of Your Startup

Marketing mistakes in the go-to-market stage

There are a couple of things founders can get very wrong about marketing at this stage: either they under-invest in things like branding and proving product-market fit, or they over-invest in resources they don’t need.

I’ve seen plenty of founders bring on full-time CMOs or VPs of Marketing when the priorities should be block-and-tackle work and establishing product-market fit and a go-to-market plan. A better approach, and one that doesn’t represent a long-term salary commitment and/or equity shares, is a fractional expert who can help you develop your go-to-market strategy and find the right operational talent – which might be freelance – to carry it out.

Another mistake founders make at this stage is thinking that any marketer can do the job and not trying to find – or pay for – a great fit. I had a conversation with a fellow agency founder the other day, and what he said about hiring – in general, but especially in the early days – really stuck with me: If you think hiring experts is expensive, try hiring novices.

You need to tackle a few initiatives at this point:

1. Establish your brand

By “branding,” I don’t mean spending a bunch of money on commercials and programmatic campaigns to build brand awareness. I’m talking about building the essentials: a name, logo, visual identity and messaging that speaks to the brand’s positioning, differentiation and target market. This branding should carry over into optimizing owned media: a website, social media profiles and profiles on any free directories that might be referenced by your target audience.

Related: Creating a Brand: How To Build a Brand From Scratch

2. Find a channel-product fit

The quickest way to assess the right advertising channels for your offering is to choose one or two advertising channels (usually Google and Facebook) and methodically test messaging, creatives, and audiences to see what features and differentiators resonate and with whom. You’re likely convinced you have a great product that can improve your ICP’s life, but paid media offers a quick way to establish proof of concept outside of your echo chamber.

Even with paid media on the table, you’re probably still too early for an agency; if you go that route, you’ll get a B team and a retainer you don’t need. When you scale up, it’s time to evaluate in-housing or hiring an agency. In the meantime, I highly recommend freelancers or consultants with expertise in these channels. If you try to do it yourself or make it worthwhile with existing resources who don’t have the chops, you’ll never know if it was the channel that didn’t work or just a lack of operational skill that led to failure. Carefully vetted freelancers are great for point-and-shoot projects, and this is an imperative one.

Related: You’ve Got to Rethink Product-Market Fit to Stand Out

3. Build a community of evangelists

Your immediate network should help provide you with a seed group of folks who can test your product and speak publicly about why they’re using it. Those folks will provide some significant early benefits: social proof and a source of referrals to establish a revenue base and force you to build your customer service processes.

How to plan for responsible growth

The important things to avoid at this point have a theme: commitments that will extend beyond their usefulness. This often boils down to hiring and equity, but it can also incorporate initiatives like PR and media campaigns that don’t have a product-market fit to convey.

Concentrate on initiatives that will pay off for years to come: positioning, audience understanding, competitive research and your place in the market. Look for experts who can help you tackle each of these, but leave yourself room to bring on the next wave of experts as your business matures and your needs evolve.

When you move into the next phase of your business – early-stage growth – you’ll have more resources on hand and a broader range of possible initiatives to tackle, including building an actual marketing team. I’ll break down the challenges and considerations of this stage in my next post.

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