Building a modern marketing plan and need to know how to incorporate personas, build a team for growth, and utilize different demand generation techniques? Download the free 20-page guide written by a startup VP to learn:

  • How to nail your messaging

  • Tips for building a sales and marketing machine

  • Demand generation activities with the biggest return on investment

  • How to staff your company for growth

  • Tips for setting a timeline and budget

While you’re at it, take a look at what Dharmesh, co-founder of HubSpot, believes are the most important things to do before building your startup.

"We failed.

After 6 months poring over the code quality and refining the design of our mobile app, my partner and I finally launched it in the app store and the downloads started coming in.

Then after a few days, BOOM. We got punched in the face by reality. No users returned to the app. This was a devastating shock, since most people we spoke to were excited about the idea. Our app allowed you to take photos and ask questions to learn about what you were looking at. It had all the traits of the most-hyped startup trends that year: mobile, social, local. It was early 2011.

Frustrated and determined to find out why no one was using our app, I decided to interview iPhone users who took a lot of photographs to understand if they had visual questions to post. After a few rounds of interviews, where they walked me through their photos, it soon became clear that I had built my product under a crucial, and faulty assumption; I had assumed that people actually had questions about the things they took photos of! What I learned was that these people were often in familiar environments where nothing new piqued their curiosity. Even when they did take photos of something that was interesting, it didn’t bother them enough to exert the extra effort needed to find out more information.The root cause of our failed launch finally dawned on me. The failure wasn’t due to a poorly designed solution; our app simply didn’t solve for a real human need. I had been working under an assumption that we had never validated.

The key to building products users want

Why did it take so long for me to realize I was building a solution for a problem that didn’t exist? Besides the various confirmation biases that often plague entrepreneurs, many fail to recognize these pitfalls early on because they are not taking the time to quickly test risky assumptions before jumping into the thrill of building.

By testing the value of the product, and other assumptions continuously throughout the product development process, entrepreneurs multiply the chances their businesses will acquire a passionate group of engaged customers faster.

Identifying assumptions

An assumption can be any number of things - a user behavior, mentality, or action that needs to be accurate in order for the solution to be viable. The riskiest assumption is the assumption that’s most core to the viability of the business and most unknown, meaning there is little or no data collected that supports the validity of the assumption. Testing the riskiest assumption at the very start of the project reduces the time it takes to find the biggest flaws in an idea and increase the speed at which we can find a better, more viable alternative.

In my example, the riskiest assumption to test early on would’ve been: people have questions to ask about their photos. That is eventually what I went back to test, after my partner and I gave up our salaries and put in months of labor. Testing the riskiest assumption is difficult for many to do and, very often, teams will succumb to hindsight biases and subjective arguing. To mitigate this problem, entrepreneurs need a way to list out their assumptions for any new idea, run an effective experiment, and hold each other accountable to the results.

Testing the riskiest assumption

There are many ways for teams to define and agree on what they’re testing up front. The pain of my failure led me and my co-founder at Javelin, Trevor Owens, to create the Experiment Board, which helps entrepreneurs to do this in a systematic way. Writing down the riskiest assumption focuses team efforts on testing the most important aspect of the business first. Once the riskiest assumption is validated, the team can move on to testing the next riskiest assumption.

One key benefit of the Experiment Board is its ability to help entrepreneurs and teams focus on customer problems and assumptions, rather than jumping into solutions. The steps it brings users through are the same steps an entrepreneur should take with any new business idea:

  1. Identify the customer segments, and the problem being solved.

  2. Brainstorm a list of assumptions.

  3. Determine how the team will know if an assumption is valid.

Validate before building

Let’s see how this works with a case study from Tarikh, founder of Seen.co, a past Lean Startup Machine winner who went on to raise money from Dave Tisch and other top investors.

Continuous Validation

Once an entrepreneur has validated that there is a real customer problem to solve for, the next step is to test how much the solution is worth for the customer. Will they pay, pre-order, or give up something of value to use the service? This measure of demand can be easily tested through a pitch experiment. You can do this with a simple landing page and some Google ads (and yes, we’ve created a tool to help you do just this, it’s called QuickMVP)."

Since you've downloaded the Marketing Plan For Start-Ups, continue your learning with this startup PR tip from Dharmesh:

"Entrepreneurs that are looking to get attention from bloggers and journalists will often pitch their businesses themselves or though a PR agency.

It's sad that most of those pitches fall flat and are likely to be completely ignored. A waste of time and money for everyone.

For example, here’s a pitch from a PR professional. I’ve changed it slightly to avoid embarrassing anyone:

“I’m working with a wonderful new business… The owners grew up together and decided to go into business… it’s a story I’m sure your readers will care a lot about!”

Uh, no. It's unlikely that people are going to care about this story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the entrepreneurs are great people, but many entrepreneurs can tell a tale of struggle and euphoria and heartbreak and someday, against all odds, turning their dreams into reality and making their business a success. While occasionally readers might be inspired or motivated, for the most part we’re just not that interested in other people’s stories. Unless those stories are particularly remarkable we're more apt to just keep living our own dreams and writing our own stories. So, the things we're interested in is not other people's stories, but information that helps us write our own.

So what should you do if you’re trying to spread the word about new products and services, landing new customers, bringing investors onboard… all the stuff you hire PR agencies to do for you or, more likely, try to do on your own?

If you’re looking for press, forget the formulaic, cookbook approach to crafting a winning media pitch. That approach may result in coverage in a few outlets… but not the ones you really want.

Quick rule of thumb: Any media outlet that will do a story based on a crappy pitch is a media outlet that will get you crappy exposure.

Let’s pretend you’re thinking about pitching me an article idea for OnStartups.com (which has a modestly sized, but awesome audience).  You can apply the following to any media outlet or blog, though.

Here’s what to do and not to do:

Don’t tell me your story is unique.

No offense, but it really isn’t. There are thousands of Ramen noodle stories. There are thousands of 3 am “Eureka!” stories. There are thousands of maxed-out credit cards, relatives won’t return your calls, last-minute financing savior stories.

Your story is deservedly fascinating to you because you lived it (just as my story is fascinating to me), but to the average reader your story sounds a lot like every other entrepreneur’s story. Claiming your story is unique creates an expectation that, if not met, negatively impacts the rest of your pitch.

And if your story truly is unique, I’ll know. You won’t have to tell me.

Don’t tell me how much a little publicity will help you.

Never waste time by explaining how this could be a win-win relationship or, worse, by claiming you want to share your wisdom because you simply want to help others.

I know you want publicity, and I know why. I get it. I've been there. We’re cool.

Know what I’ve done recently.

It’s easy to think, “Hey, he recently wrote about choosing a co-founder, so I should pitch a story about how I help people find co-founders”

Um, probably not. If just wrote about co-founders. I’m probably good for a little bit on that topic. Never assume one article indicates an abiding fascination with a particular topic.

But do feel free to pitch if you aren’t a member of the choir I just preached to. Different points of view catch my attention; same thing, different day does not.

Know my interests.

You certainly don’t need to know I enjoy late-night walks on the beach. (Hey, who doesn’t?) But skim a few posts and you’ll know I have a soft spot for company culture, startup funding and startup marketing

So if you really want to get my attention, don’t use the tried-but-in-no-way-true “mention you really enjoyed something recent the writer wrote” approach.

Instead put your effort into finding an angle that may appeal to my interests. If you can’t be bothered to do that you’ll never get the publicity you want.

Forget a profile piece.

Straight profile pieces that tell the story of a business are boring. (At least I think so, which is why I don't post those)

The best articles let readers learn from your experience, your mistakes, and your knowledge. Always focus on benefiting readers: When you do, your company gets to bask in the reflected PR glow.

So,readers don’t want to know what you do; they want to know what you know. If you started a company, share five things you learned about landing financing. If you developed a product, share four mistakes you made early on. If you entered a new market, share three strategies you used to steal market share from competitors.

And while you may think the “5 steps to” or “4 ways to” approach is overdone, keep in mind readers love them… and even if I decide not to frame the story that way, developing mental bullet points ahead of time is a great way to organize your information (which helps me) and ensure you have great talking points (which definitely helps you.)

Realize that the more you feel you need to say… the less you really have to say.

Some people think bloggers are lazy and look for stories that write themselves. I can’t argue with the lazy part, but I really don’t want to read a 1,000-word pitch with a comprehensive overview of the topic and a list of semi-relevant statistics. The best products can be described in a few sentences, and so can the best pitches:

So now let’s get specific. Pretend you’re crafting your pitch:

Remember: forget what you want.

Many people think, “Wow, it would be awesome if OnStartups.com ran a story about our new product—think of the exposure! So many VCs would read it! We're looking for funding!"

Maybe so, but unless you focus on how readers can benefit from the story (learning about your new product isn’t a benefit to readers), that’s not going to happen.

Then, think about what I want.

I want to inform and occasionally – hopefully – entertain readers; the more you can help me accomplish that goal, the more interested I am in what you have to say.

Then craft your pitch with publicity as a secondary goal.

In the example above, the PR pro didn’t offer readers anything. His only focus was on getting publicity to benefit his clients.

Flip it around and focus solely on how you can benefit readers. When you do, your company will benefit by extension.

For example, if you want to spread the word about:

· New products or services: Share four lessons learned during the product development process; describe three ways you listened to customers and determined how to better meet their needs; explain the steps involved in manufacturing products overseas, especially including what you did wrong.

· Landing a major customer: Describe how you changed your sales process to allow you to compete with heavy hitters in your industry; share three stories about major sales that got away and what you learned from failing to reel them in; detail the steps you took to quickly ramp up capacity while ensuring current customers needs were still met.

· Bringing in key investors: Explain how you helped investors embrace your vision for the company; describe four key provisions that create the foundation for a solid partnership agreement; share the stories of three pitches to VCs that went horribly wrong and how those experiences helped you shape a winning pitch.

Sound like a lot of work? It is, but it’s worth it. When you offer to help people solve problems and learn from your mistakes, bloggers and writers will be a lot more interested.

More importantly, readers will be more interested in the news you want to share because first you helped them—and that gives them a great reason to be interested in your business."

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