Launching a new business? Whether you're newly self-employed or planning to be the next Amazon, the principles for a startup founder are the same.
1. Direct Networking
Startup founders must engage in direct and regular prospecting for their business. There is no other way around it. This can be difficult for some founders, especially those who have not participated in sales before.
Some think they can hire a sales person to do it for them. But, in the early days, no one will be as strong on the message or as committed to the business' success as the founder.
Moreover, the process of finding prospective customers, convincing them to agree to meet with you, talking to them about their problems and your solution, convincing them to give you a try - is the difficult rite of passage that a founder must go through to find product-market fit. It's only by having dozens and eventually hundreds of conversations that you start to understand what part of the message really sticks with customers, and what is really motivating them to buy. And it's never exactly what you thought it would be when you started out.
What about using marketing as the primary way of generating business? A seasoned marketing leader will tell you that it's no substitute for direct human conversation. Marketing strategy can help find which prospects to reach out to. Marketing demand-gen can help set up conversations. A great website and collateral can lend credibility to your message. But the founder needs to be the one to have the conversation.
Simply put, if you're not able to generate business by simply talking to people, you won't be able to generate leads with marketing.
Y-combinator founder Paul Graham discusses this further in his seminal article:
The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can't wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.
So get cracking on direct outreach! Start by aiming for 1 prospective meeting per day.
Here are some ways to land those meetings:
When I was doing business development in the healthcare space, I would book a ticket to every major conference where my prospective customers were exhibiting and spend the day going from booth to booth striking up cold conversations with each exhibitor. By the end of the day you've had 100 customer conversations!
2. Establish a Web Presence
A business needs a website, but how can you ensure your website is maximizing the amount of traffic and converting that traffic into customer conversations?
You need to give customers a reason to visit your website and keep coming back to it. If all your website does is talk about the service you offer and background about your company, it's not going to pull in a lot of traffic.
Think about websites that you have visited, especially those you visit regularly - what is it that brings you back? Probably you go to a website to read useful information, engage socially, or get a free product trial. So your website needs to offer one of these.
The easiest to get started with is useful information. Some call this "thought leadership" but that implies you have to be somehow producing visionary content and manifestos, and actually, most readers don't want that. They just want practical information that answers their questions. That's why Google's algorthim now ranks websites higher when they directly answer frequently searched questions.
Start writing a few good articles or blog posts. Quality over quantity. One very practical, helpful article that provides worthwhile advice is worth 10 blog posts that don't actually answer anyone's question. If you can get a few really helpful articles, you can:
Some specific things that Google prioritizes about your page:
Although I'm referring to Google's algorithm, these best practices are largely true for most other search engines as well.
Of course, you can also boost traffic to your website through paid advertisements although organic is usually best because it is validation that you are truly connecting with an audience and not just artificially. Paid advertisements also tend to be expensive for the amount of well-targeted traffic they can yield.
3. Participate in Social Media
Apart from a very small number of startups that get lucky with a viral social media campaign, for the vast majority of startups social media is typically not a lead generator in the early days. Especially not compared to direct outreach and your website. But it is useful to expand your company's reach, to set up meetings with prospective customers not in your immediate network, and to explore and uncover secondary markets.
First decide what social media "channel" makes most sense for your business. It's a waste of time to try to be on multiple platforms, so instead try specializing in just one. Facebook is typically better for promoting consumer products as Facebook allows business owners to target large numbers of people by demographic. LinkedIn posts are typically better when you're in B2B or professional services. Instagram if you're a creator and trying to be part of a particular community of creators, or showcase a particularly visual aspect of your work (art, crafts, fashion, etc.). If you're targeting other geographic markets, choose social media that is popular in the countries you are selling to. This should all be common sense.
Just as Google ranks web pages based on an algorithm that looks for 'engagement', social media platforms are also discerning in terms of the posts they will make visible to other members. For example what I have found for LinkedIn:
Earlier this year I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post to illustrate all of these techniques. It took me 2 minutes to write, and I got over 2,000 views in a day. Image what you can do if you follow these same techniques but with helpful relevant content!
For an effective social media campaign, you'll have to plan your messaging, content, frequency, audiences, etc. Social media can be a major time suck, so check in frequently and be ruthless about cutting things out if they are not generating the engagement with your business that you're hoping for.
Also, business owners tend to think of "social media" as posting on Facebook and LinkedIn, but consider other forms of social media such as answering questions on Reddit and Quora where you might actually be adding more value.