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Questions to help entrepreneurs analyze a potential market opportunity – Duke Entrepreneurship Manual


The last 10% it takes to launch something takes as much energy as the first 90%.

~ Rob Kalin, Etsy founder

Secret Sauce of Effective Marketing at Startups

At most startup businesses the budget for marketing in the early stages of the business is a very round number, zero.  Especially for those entrepreneurs whose professional experiences may include working at large companies with large market budgets, this can be a significant struggle.  How do I launch a product or service with no financial capacity for marketing?

The core of effective startup marketing is gathering credibility and exposing it to the right audience at the right time.  Garnering credibility in the early life of a business evolves and changes quickly, but can be accomplished without a marketing budget.

The first thing to understand about marketing for an early stage business is what needs to be accomplished.  It’s not about reaching a wide audience, because the early business wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of a big audience in its early stages anyway.  Rather, early stage business marketing is about overcoming the lack of a proven track record.  No one knows who you are.  You are still honing in on understanding customer needs.  You are still working on the solution.  You still don’t know what you don’t know.

What does marketing look like for a startup?  What are some practical means of gathering credibility for startups? Consider these six recommendations.

  1. Know your market – Do your market research.  If you can’t offer up numbers on market size and potential off the top of your head, you haven’t done enough market research.
  2. Create partnerships – The term ‘partnership’ in the startup world does not frequently involve formal agreements.  For startups, partners are usually businesses and individuals who are collaborators on a relatively short-term objective.  When I started Decision Commodities in 2002, The Iowa Farm Bureau was not only an investor, but also a stamp of credibility in offering a new type of grain marketing service to their farmer members.
  3. Third party analysis – Find ways to enter third party expert analysis projects or papers.  Colin Hurd paid researchers at Iowa State University a relatively small amount in 2013 to conduct field trials on Track Till.  That research is still a valuable marketing tool.  The University of Illinois highlighted Decision Commodities contracts alongside those of Cargill and Consolidated Grain and Barge in a 2003 study.  I remember at the time getting a kick out of my little business being highlighted alongside such large, established agribusinesses.
  4. Projects – When Dave Krog and I were starting E-Markets in 1996, we conducted a phone survey of dozens of professionals in the grain industry.  We worked with Context Network, an established agribusiness consulting business, to write up the results in a report we entitled Grain Industry 2000.   We put out a press release announcing its publication and sold it as a multi-client study.  It accomplished several things for us.  First, we made some money.  Second, it was the first public exposure of E-Markets.  Third, it defined us in looking forward with insight to issues facing the markets we were most interested in.  Fourth, we learned a lot and made new, valuable contacts.
  5. Social media – Social media is the marketing lifeline of many startup and small businesses.  Tres Mentes has done a masterful job building a food brand using social media. So has Simple Life Farms.  I heard a podcast some months ago where the guest argued that any business can be viable if it can gain 1,000 fans.  Certainly social media is one way of building your fan base.
  6. Earned media – Do you have expertise that may be valuable to a journalist?  If you do, spend time getting to know journalists and writers in your market space.  Comments from you in trade or high profile publications, even if not related to your startup business, can bring tremendous credibility to you as you work to establish your business.  The most valuable contact for a journalist working on a deadline is often one that will answer phone calls or emails in a timely manner.

What are some ways your startup can gain credibility in its earliest times?  What are specific zero-budget initiatives/projects that can get your business knows to the right audience at the right time?