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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lerner

The Most Important Marketing Strategy Decision a Startup CEO Must Make

The only thing I can say for certain about your marketing strategy is that it’s wrong. Wait. I haven’t seen your marketing plan?

Yes, but I know it’s a plan. As boxer Mike Tyson famously quipped, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

As a VC and marketer, I’ve seen and worked with hundreds of startups, and I’ve helped some of them grow very big very fast. Many business types – ecommerce, B2B, B2C, SAAS, marketplaces… And many types of CEOs – some get deeply involved in marketing strategy, others delegate it completely. And the right approach varies enormously from one business to the next. But there are a few things all these approaches have in-common.

YOU’RE IN THE DANGER ZONE As a venture-backed business, you have a fixed, precious amount of time and money, and a deadline (and I do mean deadline) You need to hit aggressive growth targets. Each day spent is a scarce finite resource.

What levers do you have? Your budget is fixed. Your people can work harder, and that can maybe give you an extra 20% – 30% impact. They should work hard, but that’s not leverage.

The two things that will determine your success or failure are:

  1. Which work you choose to do

  2. How well you execute it

LET’S START WITH #2 – EXECUTION As a CEO, you can set high standards, model excellence in all you do, hire great people and inspire them to do remarkable work. But if they execute the wrong work perfectly, it’s for naught. Hence, your single imperative is to make absolutely sure your team is doing the right work.

YOUR MOST IMPORTANT DECISION AS A CEO The most important marketing decision you make as a CEO is to decide which work your team will do. That is your marketing strategy.

If you set the wrong targets, tell the wrong story, select the wrong channels, and don’t course-correct, it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how well you execute – your business will die.

HOW DO YOU MAKE THE BEST DECISION POSSIBLE? These four steps are simple, but often feel counterintuitive.

1. DO NOT DECIDE WHICH WORK YOU CHOOSE TO DO. I know I just told you that your most important decision was which work to do. But you’re probably (hopefully) not the best person to make that decision. If you’ve built a truly great team, the best people to make that decision are the people closest to the customers, and the marketing experts themselves. So your job is to create an environment that will ensure they’re making the best decisions. (And even if you do have all the right answers – better to let your employees figure stuff out for themselves: If they make the decision, they’ll be more committed to the outcome, and they’ll execute better as a result).

This is very very hard and unnatural for many founders. In my experience, many talented founders are used to being the “smartest person in the room.” A bit paranoid, they crave control. Their teams feel pressure to tell them “yes” even when they’re wrong. Letting go of decisions is one of the hardest things for founders, but it’s key to building an outstanding company and team. Even famously tyrannical founders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are able to attract, inspire, and delegate to exceptionally talented teams.

2. START WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS’ NEEDS What are they trying to accomplish? And how can you help them achieve that goal? What exact words do they use? How do they talk about their problems? What are they stressed about? What brings them joy at work? Who are they trying to impress? Who are they afraid to disappoint? (These are surprisingly powerful subconscious influences).

3. THEN CHOOSE THE RIGHT METRICS Once you understand your customers’ needs you need to carefully determine how to measure the impact of your work, so you focus on messages, channels and campaigns that will have the greatest bang for your buck. If you have a good team, you’ll get exactly what you measure. So choose the right metric. In other words, the target you set will determine the work your team chooses to do. I’ve seen many (many!) teams execute beautifully, crush their target, only to realise, in hindsight, it was the wrong metric, and they had wasted months, years, millions, and achieved nothing.

4. FAIL FAST It’s safe to assume you will make lots of bad decisions along the way. So follow a lean, fast, iterative process (I recommend weekly sprints). Identify and test your riskiest assumptions. And meet with the team weekly to review learnings and decide which work to do in the following week.

YOUR GROWTH BACKLOG OR YOUR PRODUCT BACKLOG? Think about your product backlog. Would you ever let your devs make random decisions about what they feel like coding each day? Of course not! You have a carefully prioritised and scrutinised backlog of work. And you should! The future of your business depends on it! Believe it or not, your marketing backlog is probably more important than your tech backlog. Consider this:

  1. Marketing, not dev, will become the largest variable cost in your business.

  2. Growth is the main way you’ll get to breakeven or raise more cash.

  3. Most startups fail for lack of growth. (Source: Peter Thiel)

  4. Marketing is less controllable than internal tech resource, so arguably needs more rigour.

  5. If your product is good, then marketing becomes the most important lever.

  6. If your product is mediocre, marketing becomes even more important!

WHY LEAVE YOUR MARKETING STRATEGY TO CHANCE? Acknowledgements: Many talented mentors! Thanks first to Peter Karpas for introducing me to this thinking. Second – Tom Carrington Smith’s feedback was instrumental. Thanks to Diego de Jodar for pointing me to Jobs To Be Done theory (parroted above in the understanding customers section). And thanks to the brilliant Nopadon Wongpakdee for showing me the example of a marketing vs. an engineering backlog.

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