At the end of December, I often reflect on what happened throughout the year. I like to remember the good, grow from the bad, and avoid the ugly lessons.
I thought I’d share 10 lessons from my experience helping entrepreneurs go from idea to scale with you.
Language shapes reality.
When I began learning about marketing, I thought branding was a bunch of “squishy, ephemeral, fluffy stuff” which everyone needed but no one should care about it. You know, things like your logo, design, and colors. You need ‘em, but very few care about them.
It was foreign to me why Facebook spent $200,000 to go from “thefacebook.com” to Facebook.com. (Source) Not to mention how confused I was when later learning they spent $8.5 million to get FB.com. (Source)
Fast forward to the present.
I’ve seen content marketers make a fuss over word tense, preferring active to passive verbs.
I’ve seen copywriters making six-figure incomes labor over a single word.
And I’ve seen a web hosting client of mine double their annualized revenue in six months with a 10-word unique selling proposition (USP).
If you’re familiar with my content, you know I’m a huge advocate of you talking to your customers. You can complete 70% (or more) of your business model by asking your customers the right questions.
The language you use has such a strong pull, it will change your priorities and your focus.
Are you curious what the 10-word USP that doubled a web hosting startup’s annualized revenue? Here it is:
Get 15% or faster web hosting by switching to Decibite, guaranteed.
No longer was Decibite struggling to rise above the noise from 100’s (if not 1,000’s) of other web host companies Plus, the language provided Decibite the focus they needed.
There’s less discussion now what features they need to build to keep up with the web hosting Jones’s. Instead, it comes down to a simple question, “Will this help our clients get faster web hosting?”
Entrepreneurs who win focus on what’s happening on the playing field (creating value for customers), not the current scoreboard (revenue).
Of course, your business needs money to survive. Which takes us to the next lesson...
The possibility of future opportunities can be exciting. And it’s great to have a feeling of success. But until you have someone’s money in your bank account, you should not make any major decisions until you do.
A customer is not your customer until you have money in your hand. An investor is not your investor until you have money in your hand. And an acquisition offer is not an acquisition until you have money in your hand.
It doesn’t matter if an enterprise client wines-and-dines you, drafts papers with their lawyers, or does anything else that looks like a positive commitment.
As Yogi Berra would say, “It ain't over till it's over.”
When I first began learning about the world of internet marketing, I read anything and everything that I found interesting.
Some topics I applied right away, like content marketing. Other topics I’ve started applying in my work this last year. But since I had three years of intermittent research, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I knew the principles to focus on and who had expertise on what niche topics.
There are even marketing topics that while I have not applied myself has inspired other successful campaigns.
I’ve been studying network effects for a year-and-a-half. As of this writing, I have done only a little marketing for network effect businesses. But I took a principle I learned from that research to create 90 bottom-of-the-funnel landing pages in a month for Decibite (which was a huge part of their quick success).
Read anything and everything that catches your attention.
Earlier this year I had the privilege to interview 10 SaaS founders to learn what they did to get their first 1,000 customers.
One fascinating insight I learned is that these successful founders either:
Consider the 10 people I interviewed:
I get 10 is a small sample size. But I’ve found this pattern when talking to many other clients, prospective clients, and other successful founders too.
Mark Zuckerberg started with his fellow Harvard students. Reid Hoffman tapped into his network from Paypal to build LinkedIn. Andy Rachleff began Wealthfront from his connections at Facebook and LinkedIn.
Is this always true? Maybe, maybe not. However, it makes sense that people who know you will be the easiest people to get new customers.
If you want to start a successful startup, it will be easier to solve a problem with people who already know, like, and trust you.
The most common questions I hear from entrepreneurs relate to their marketing strategy:
It makes sense marketing strategy questions are more common to think about first because entrepreneurs feel these pains first.
Unfortunately, entrepreneurs aren’t aware that they should dig deeper into more important questions related to their business strategy that will inform their marketing strategy.
Both types of questions are important. However, your business strategy will inform your marketing strategy, even if you have no formal strategy in place.
You’ve heard me say a few times now that you should talk to your customers. If the goal of a business is to serve customers at a profit, then it makes sense that customer needs should direct your business strategy.
A concern which stops entrepreneurs from talking to customers goes something like this:
“I get talking to customers is valuable. But are they really going to hop on a call? They’re busy people and their time is valuable.”
There is some legitimacy to this concern.
Each of us only has 24 hours in a day. People rarely take the time for drawn-out meetings from random strangers.
Here’s the thing:
Sure, not everyone will be available to help. If you follow my email outreach program, you should expect 20-40% of customers to reply to your email.
Doing five customer interviews is a good starting point. You’ll likely get great insights in three interviews. (But I suggest five to give you some practice and you may interview some customers who don’t provide many details). I recommend 15-20 customer interviews once you’re convinced of the value.
On Twitter the other day, a PPC marketer I know and respect posted this:
His team has made money for companies like Nike, Nickelodeon, Duluth Trading Co, Aerosmith, Infusionsoft, Kaiser Permanente, Allen Edmonds, and Lane Bryant. I say this because this isn’t some random marketer on the Internet making a complaint.
Cold emails are notoriously bad. Go check your spam folder if you’re curious how many bad pitches you’ve missed.
Yet I plan to double down on cold emails this next year. Sure, I use cold email more for marketing than sales purposes. But it still works.
Don’t take what someone says on social media or their blog at face value, including what I’m writing here. (Especially if they only have 280 characters to do so).
Yes, everything I write comes as a result of my experience. I don’t write articles for the sake of ranking content in search engines (though that’s a part of my content strategy).
But you need to test what I write for yourself to truly see if what I say applies to your business.
Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”
I advise clients to take reasonable requests which takes them five minutes or less to do.
Does someone ask you for feedback on their landing page relevant to your expertise? Give them a quick five-minute analysis.
Did you find an article you particularly enjoy? Sharing it with a few friends on Facebook or Twitter.
Is a friend asking you to test their new software? Give them a couple of minutes to be a beta tester.
Yes, that specific way you helped them may not lead to their success for that project. But they won’t forget how you made them feel in that moment.
I’m active in six business and marketing communities. Most are private, invite-only groups (but Reddit’s startup Discord is an open community worth checking out).
In one group, I’m constantly impressed by the next-level thinking these marketers are considering, testing, and doing.
More often than not, this causes me to stretch my thinking. However, I’ll admit from time-to-time this also causes me to become jealous of these marketers.
For example, one of these marketers started a couple of years after I did in a more junior position. He’s now the head of growth at a multi-million dollar eCommerce brand and co-founder of a growing startup. It’s easy for me to look at his success and tell myself I should be where he is today.
The same can be true for you. It’s wise to be around and learn from entrepreneurs who are smarter than you. But be careful you don’t become jealous, which only leads to ruin.
I’m thankful you’ve taken the time to learn from me. This could be your first time reading what I’ve learned (hi!) or you’ve read my content for years. I hope my articles continue to be valuable to you to help you become a smarter entrepreneur, marketer, and human being.
Here’s to a fantastic new year.