2013-07-11

How To (Really) Get The Word Out About Your Startup

Most books on marketing tell you to get out and network, do speaking engagements, and attend meetups. I found none of that worked for my project--but I did find some strategies that did.



Have you ever asked, "How do I get people other than my mom to visit my site?" I have. I've asked it a lot.

Most books on marketing all say the same thing: get out and network, go do speeches, go to events, etc.

Well, I've done networking events. I remember one with a neat speed-dating-like portion where we switched seats every three minutes. I got to meet a lot of people. I got a lot of business cards. Unfortunately, that's a useless stack of paper when we're all looking for new customers, but no one's interested in becoming a customer.

I've also given talks at business conferences. I was given a chance once to talk about prediction markets at a conference in Miami. I thought it would be a great marketing opportunity for my first Y Combinator-backed company Inkling), and I'd enjoy the sun.

I think it turned out pretty well, which I can state with some confidence, having won awards for public speaking in high school, participated in Toastmasters, and trained as an actor. I'm comfortable on stage, I was incredibly well-prepared, and I even did a magic trick.

What did I get for all the preparation? Nothing. Zero leads. No calls, no emails, no interest of any kind.

Since then, I've spent quite a bit of time changing my approach to marketing and promoting myself. And it's working, at least so far. My current project, Draft, is a Web-based tool to help people write better. When Draft was in beta, I had 1,500 testers, and many more than that signed up to try it out. I've now launched Draft, and interest continues to grow.

Here are some things I've learned that help attract and keep attention.

If You Can't Out-spend, Out-teach.

I recommend reading Kathy Sierra's entire blog. In particular, this is one of her best: You can out-spend or out-teach your competition. This is where I learned a little marketing sleight of hand.

Let's say you're selling a camera. If you have a lot of money, you can use it to buy attention. But if you begin in a spot like me, without enough money to even pay yourself, you're better off spending your resources teaching people.

Teach people to be better photographers. Once you've helped someone take better pictures, you'll have a true follower and lifetime fan. Oh, and you also happen to sell cameras?

At these business conferences, I wasn't being a very good teacher. I gave people definitions, data, and confidence intervals, but nothing I said was immediately useful. When I was done, no one was a better manager, entrepreneur, or employee than when I had begun.

Now when I speak or write, I try to teach things that are immediately useful. Today. I write blog posts trying to teach people how to do what I've learned: how I improve my websites, how I write, how I create, and how I attract followers. And I'm constantly open-sourcing projects, which doesn't just apply to software.

Someone once told me they'd carbon copy memos around at work (pre-email). These memos would be things like letters from a business partner to a client. And they'd CC new employees, so they'd get a chance to see what this communication was like.

There's so much you can learn from just seeing how someone emails another person. Open source your emails. Your excel spreadsheets. Your PowerPoint presentations. Do you have an effective resume or cover letter? Open source it.

Become A Better Teacher By Becoming A Better Storyteller

Remember the specific numbers of John McCain's 2008 tax plan? Probably not. But you probably remember Joe the Plumber and how McCain's plans were supposed to help people like Joe. People remember stories, and politicians know this. That's why their stump speeches are full of them.

Another failure of mine in past presentations was not being a very interesting storyteller.

Since then, I've paid more attention to what good storytellers do. I've gobbled up things like Wired for Story, Pixar's rules of storytelling, and Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Basics of Creative Writing.

One commonality in most good stories is trouble: Some struggle our hero needs to overcome. It catches and keeps our attention. It gives us someone to root for.

In the speeches and writing you see from me today, you'll often be introduced to something I had to struggle to get through, and what I learned along the way. In that journey are important lessons that might also resonate with my audience. So now, instead of zero interest in what I'm doing, it's not unusual for a piece of my writing to be shared on a place like Twitter a few hundred times, or have 15,000 people show up to read a blog post.

As you write, give speeches or even write marketing copy on your website, give the content some plot. Trace a story of struggle you or your customers have gone through, and what you've learned to avoid it in the future.

We all love stories. Learn how to tell them.

Help Someone You Look Up To, Your Hero

Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.--Harold Ramis on how to be successful

Harold played Dr. Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, which he cowrote with Dan Aykroyd. In that quote, he's talking about helping Bill Murray and the success that brought Harold.

When I was struggling with what to do after my second Y Combinator-backed company wasn't working out, I decided to take a break from running my own software company and join the tech team at the Obama re-election campaign. Not because of the politics, but because the team was ridiculously talented.

I tried to help them as best I could through some long hours and less-than-ideal conditions. These are actual photos of the men's restroom:

[Photos by Ryan Kolak and Jason Kunesh]

Now that the campaign is over, I find those talented folks have still "got my back." Harper Reed, the campaign's CTO, has given me tons of great feedback. Brilliant developers like Chris Gansen and Jesse Kriss inspired open-source projects I've spun out that many others are using. But what's even more incredible is that they've been the first ones to spread my new work. They tell their friends about my writing or convince them to use Draft.

So skip the networking events. Instead, find people who make you feel inferior. Commit some real time to helping them. You're going to find that there’s truth to the idea that "what goes around, comes around."

Today, I'd like to help Christopher Flint, a talented friend of mine leading a new company, Infiniteach. They're making iPad apps to help students with autism. Christopher recently hired an intern with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) whose main goal in life is to be a book author. They're about to start using Draft and my professional editing service to help him with his writing. I'd love to be even more helpful here. One idea that's begun to brew is a service to help match up people with disabilities like ASD who want to write better with people who'd like to donate 15 minutes of their time each week reviewing writing.

Tim Ferriss, too. The guy is ridiculously talented at writing, teaching, and giving back to the world through his relationship with DonorsChoose. I'd like to find a way to help him. I'm not even in the same room as him. But I'm knocking.

Just Remember This One Thing

If you take away one thing from this post, it should be this: Be generous with what you know.

Go teach people. Start a blog. Write one post a week teaching people what you've learned along the way of your struggle. Help them leave with something they can use today to get better at something. Use a good story to get your point across.

Invest in helping other people, and you'll find you have a lot more people paying attention.

P.S. I'd love to meet you on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Floeschie]




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5 Comments

  • Lorraine_M

    I like your article and I wish I could get away with your final message.  The thing is that I don't see the link between helping others become good at what you're doing and getting customers.  In my business, my concern is that most of my readers might be competitors rather than potential customers, what do you say about that?

  • JenButson

    Ridiculously good article. I have a marketing background and am building my first tech startup and am still sometimes having a hard time getting those followers and fans. You re-inspired me to keep working on a guide I've been writing.

  • Sebastian

    Great advice, but it doesnt solve this problem: Teach all you want, but first you need the students. So how to get the audience, among which the potential customers are?

  • Chris

    terrific advice for bootstrap start-ups.  Particularly enjoyed the "out-teach" the competition point.  time to go update my company's blog!

  • Leap Graphics

    Excellent info... I especially like the the section about helping your hero.  Sometimes, we think that those above us wouldn't want to associate themselves with those on the rise, but you're absolutely right. By helping them, we can't help but to help ourselves in the process.

    Thanks for posting this!