Shortly after we first launched LawnStarter in DC, we were accepted into Techstars in Austin. For those of you who don’t know, Techstars is a startup accelerator, and we were stoked to get in.
Our company, LawnStarter - a two sided platform that allows consumers to easily book and manage lawn care service from local professionals - had some early traction. We had over a hundred paying customers being serviced by a handful of lawn care professionals, and everything seemed to be going alright. So we set ourselves on trying to hit 10% weekly growth, a common target goal for early stage startups.
Over the course of the first month, we met dozens and dozens of mentors, fellow founders, investors and others, and we shared our weekly growth goal. Every conversation ended up devolving into a marketing brainstorm. Some of the ideas that came up were printing our info on church pamphlets, buying LawnStarter branded coffee sleeves in local coffee shops, ads in the local newspaper, having an intern run around Austin dressed as “Captain LawnStarter” (seriously), knocking on doors, and cross-promotion with other local services.
We came up with so many ideas. But here’s the problem: none of them worked.
Yes, that’s Captain LawnStarter...maybe we should have gotten a little more sleep
The wrong way to think about marketing
Now that I’ve been doing marketing for a few years, I realize how foolish it was to think any of these tactics would work. The reason is simple: people don’t like being marketed to, and every tactic we were trying is what Seth Godin would call interruption marketing.
Now that I’ve watched 2 more Techstars classes come and go, and met with tons of early stage startups, I see this pattern over and over again.
You get a bunch of smart people in a room to do a ‘brainstorm’ about customer acquisition, and you come up with dozens of ideas like these that seem really cool, and you’re astounded by the group’s creative output. However, all you’ve really done is come up with a lot of ways to annoy prospective customers.
The right way to think about ‘marketing’
At an early stage startup, I think founders should be focusing on two things:
- Making the product so awesome that customers will naturally tell others
- Finding out where the intent already exists, and juice it to the max
I’ll assume you’ve already figured out or are figuring out #1, so I’ll talk about #2. Figure out where your target audience is already looking for your solution.
The easy answer to “where does the intent already exist”, is search.
First, determine if there’s any transactional search volume - meaning people ready to buy. These searches should be fairly straightforward to convert right off the bat. For us, that was keywords like “landscaper in austin, tx”. We had done Adwords a bit, but we really started seeing results after investing the time and thought to setting up our campaigns correctly.
However, transactional search can be competitive - both in paid and organic search - and eventually you’ll tap out. That’s when you should look for informational searches that still imply buying intent, and create content that searches will stumble across.
To take advantage of informational search that answered prospective customers’ questions they had right before they made a purchase decision such as “lawn mowing service prices in Round Rock” and “how to hire a lawn service”. One thing we did was create this giant how to guide for lawn care, which has easily gotten us a hundred times more customers than Captain LawnStarter ever did.
Other places where intent exists
Chances are, search isn’t the only place people have intent. It could be other blogs, trade shows, review sites, industry publications, tech meetups, hackathons, someone else’s store...that’s up to you to figure out. One way to figure this out is to see who else is bidding on your keywords.
Wherever the intent might be, it’s up to you to find it, and once you do, it will be a thousand times more fruitful than interrupting prospective customers.