You've probably heard the story of Betamax vs. VHS and how the better technology didn't win the "video tape format war", the better marketing did. It's something that we see many engineering entrepreneurs struggle with: often the assumption is that if you perfect your technology and it is superior, then the customers will come to you. But to beat your competitors and achieve sustained growth, every startup needs some form of marketing. So, when you're a resource-limited, small company, what is the best approach?
Firstly, don't see marketing as a separate function. It should be intertwined with every you do. Even if you can afford an agency or a marketing team, then their role should be to amplify the rest of your team's marketing potential.
Marketing can be broken down into three easy strands:
Understanding your customer and their needs
- Above all, marketing is about building relationships, and building relationships takes time!
Every time you pitch, don't lose sight of the fact that you're having a conversation, and make sure you're listening to feedback. There is a reason that as part of our Enterprise Fellowship programme, the first task we set our founders is to speak to 100 potential customers about their business!
- Listen closely to understand the other side's needs - are they driven by cost reduction? The environmental/social impact of your product? Managing risk? The ability to adapt your marketing pitch to reflect how your product or service meets their needs is key.
- Remember that marketing doesn't stop once a customer has agreed to purchase - continue to nurture and invest time in the relationship. If you're selling B2B then make sure you get to know other key team members, in case your contact moves on from the company.
Knowing how to reach your customer
- It's worth emphasising that your database of leads should be at least 10x the number of customers you think you need - and don't underestimate the time it will take to build a relationship with a customer.
- Leverage your networks to get introductions: tap into the connections of your board, your previous employers, your funders, existing customers...
- When reaching out to potential leads - whether its cold or through an introduction, offer something of value to make your startup stand out from the competition. Try a white paper with information about your sector, or a free product demo.
- If you're a free B2B company targeting larger corporations, in can be difficult to know when you're talking to the right person. Don't underestimate the influence of junior executives when looking for a product champion, as often they will be more willing to take a risk and back something new, and will be able to help guide you through the complexity of a large company's procurement policy.
Communicating how you're different
- Often in technology and engineering startups, the instinct is to lead with your technical spec to demonstrate how you're superior, but to return to the Betamax vs VHS example, you'll need more than that to make the sale. "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it" may sound clichéd, but it holds a lot of weight. Don't sell your tech - sell the outcome it will bring for your customer, and sell your bigger vision.
- When marketing B2B, tie what you do to a bigger trend or market that you know your customers will care about to move them from thinking "that looks interesting" to "I need that!" The feeling of "that looks interesting" will rarely get you a sale.
- As previously mentioned, in small companies every employee needs to be able to market what you do. While you can't expect everyone to be a natural salesperson, invest time in perfecting your messaging and ensure that every employee is confident sharing it externally. The stronger you can communicate your USP, the stronger your marketing message will be.
- Encourage members of your team to personalise their pitch. Keep 80% of the key information included in the pitch the same, and use the remaining 20% for a 'personal touch', such as something they're most proud of achieving at the company. This ties back to our first point - marketing is about building relationships and having conversations, rather than merely cold, hard selling.
This blog is the summary of discussions from a Hub roundtable event with engineering technology and startup SMEs, led by Adam Forbes, Marketing Director at BP.
The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub helps engineering and technology entrepreneurs turn their ideas into reality and become exceptional business leaders by providing funding, training, networking and mentoring from the nation's leading engineers, without taking a penny in return. Find out more about our programmes of support here.