How to Fix Startup Marketing

The Lean & Agile Practitioner | agile-od.com | Lifecycle

In Part 2 of this two piece post, I outline our approach to solving the the Three Challenges of Startup Marketing explored in Part 1.


Four Areas of Focus

We focus on the following four areas to help startups build strong foundations for marketing and enterprise success:

  1. Make marketing more approachable and easier to grasp
  2. Embrace third party specialist marketing resources and platforms
  3. Nurture marketing leaders
  4. Adopt Lean and Agile

Each of these four points contribute to building what I like to call as “marketing infrastructure“. The objective is not to just get marketing right once, but consistently right against a “moving target”: startup marketing is an iterative process of hypothesis building and experimentation along different stages of your customer and product. For the startup manager who previously approached marketing as an afterthought (and realized the error hence listening to us now), this is surprisingly a lot of work, almost a setback. In my view, there’s no such thing as plug-and-play marketing. There’s only the organic way – the goal is to build a strong marketing organization. Let’s get started.

1. Make marketing more approachable and easier to grasp

Marketing is overwhelming, and it scares away people. Startup entrepreneurs need good resources that will give them the broad scope of marketing (I am avoiding the use of “full scope” here as every marketing is different).

The first and foremost thing that I would recommend is to pick up a few good books on startup marketing. Sean Ellis’ Lean Startup Marketing, Scott Brinker’s Hacking Marketing and Roland Smart’s The Agile Marketer should get you going.

Next, reach out to mentors – tap into the wisdom of people who have been there, done that. Don’t be shy to ask the most basic question “What is marketing?” If asked with sincerity and keenness, a real seasoned startup entrepreneur will get the gist and actually very appreciate the question – because it’s a question they themselves keep it close to their heart. They will pull up a chair and listen to what you what to learn.

Now with the awareness and mindset of conquering the overwhelmingness of marketing, confidence level to tackling it and building a marketing organization building should go up.

2. Embrace third party specialist marketing resources and platforms

The idea is to significantly supplement the startup’s marketing hires with a syndicated approach by tapping into 3rd party resources of different specialties (both individuals and service providers), and various marketing technology platform providers. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of such specializations:

  • Content creation and design
  • Digital asset management and marketing resource management
  • Social media marketing, monitoring, community management
  • Influencers, advocacy, loyalty and referral marketing
  • Account based marketing
  • Marketing data, optimization, personalization, testing, analytics, performance and attribution
  • SEO, search, social, native advertising management
  • Customer intelligence, CX/UX, web experience, CMS
  • Marketing automation, campaign management
  • Sales automation, CRM, lead management

Finding out which services to integrate according to the unique needs of the startup is an iterative process itself, so reach out to many of these service providers and listen what they have to offer with a learning attitude. Rather than considering these service providers as mere vendors of outsourced work, treat them as enablers for what you want to achieve, and you will get the best out of them.

3. Nurture marketing leaders

Finding a strong marketing lead is a hiring challenge and even after the hire there’s still the question of fit and efficacy. In my opinion, nurturing marketing leaders among your own people is an encouraged option: my belief is that marketing is complex but it can be learned. And as marketing is a very human business, look for the people with strong empathy and emotional intelligence – you may find that you already have talent within your team.

This leads to my next final point of approaching marketing as a whole organization exercise with servant leadership. And where else would you find the best servant leaders other than from your own people?

4. Adopt Lean and Agile

And final point, I like Lean and Agile because they are good working frameworks for businesses facing strong uncertainties, which is pretty much the definition of startups. The challenge is that we are so ingrained in traditional waterfall project management ways and hierarchical functional organization structures. Even the younger generation are not immune to this as our educational and social systems is very waterfall, hierarchical and functional.

Learning Lean and Agile is an uncomfortable experience for many because it requires a lot of behavioral changes to what we are used to. No more waiting for instructions, instead you are asked to participate in deciding what to do.

(Okay, so far so good.)

You are asked to continuously question, build hypotheses, test ideas, measure results but also challenge interpretations of findings so your learning is properly validated.

(Urghh, I’d prefer to keep my way of doing the job. I already know what to do, and changing things will effect my productivity. That’s not good for the business, right?)

And you really need to be a team player – those that can’t take down the wall of not-my-job mentality will sadly be excused, as when things aren’t going well, these bad apples will revert to the old habit of blaming others and hinder the team’s collective effort to “fix the system”.

(Wait, does that mean I can’t just do my job and am responsible for other people’s performance? I think that’s unfair. In any case, this sounds too idealistic and I’m skeptical if it will work.)

Just installing Scrum (one of the popular Agile practicing frameworks) won’t get you far – buy-in from every team member is a must and you can’t top-down tell people to buy-in. Hence the need for servant leadership – in the case of Scrum a contemplative Product Owner and an articulate Scrum Master, whom are both very credible listeners to team members, stake holders, collaborators and most importantly, customers.

There will be a lot of resistance; the naysayer voice above is not an exception but actually, more or less our own voice. Old habits will kick back in and silently you may drift into a “fake Scrum”. And for the startup entrepreneur, being the owner boss, servant leadership can be a hard bridge to cross. Adopting Lean and Agile true to their values may be the hardest challenge that your organization can face.

But let’s face it, there’s a reason why 95% (or whatever absurdly high number) of startups fail. You can’t run a startup like a conventional business – almost all successful startups have adopted Lean and Agile in one form or another (they may not necessarily be labeled Lean and Agile, but following the same essence). Departing from old ways of doing things is a painful transformation, but it seems like startup success is all about that. Actually, Lean and Agile are the shortcuts – they are culminations of wisdom from our forerunners, through the learning from their own many failures. They are like climbing routes on a mountain – they vastly help and prove that the mountain is conquerable, but nobody carries you over the mountain and you’re going to have to make the climb yourself.

Where to Start

Again, pick up a book. Here are some more recommended reads.

Reach out to your startup community to find out how others are practicing Lean & Agile. Some may merely be using Scrum as a project management framework, others may be more deeply embracing Lean & Agile thinking at the organizational level. If you come across a team that is practicing “real” Scrum, maybe even ask to intern for a few days to experience the team workflow and culture.

And then, give it a go. Try Scrum yourself among your people. Maybe things will go incredibly smooth and everybody will like it. And if “this isn’t working” happens (which is most likely), then review, reflect and iterate – apply Scrum on your Scrum itself.

At any point, reach out to mentors, coaches, consultants, accelerators and many other supporters in the startup eco-system. It’s commendable to try and figure out things yourself, but stubbornly not seeking for help is not a wise thing either. As an enterprise manager, you should be conscious of the “money value of time”; investing in outside help early on may actually save you money, leaving you more time to burn.


Adopting Lean & Agile is no easy feat. The ideology behind Lean & Agile is rational and makes sense to most, but putting that into action requires mindset shifts and a lot of breaking habits. Though if done correctly, Lean & Agile will bring incredible productivity, positivity and break through to organizations. At Lifecycle, we have a good understanding of organizational behavior and a method of hacking to drive a successful Lean & Agile organizational transformation. Contact us to learn our approach.