The Start-Up Launch Plan: A Step by Step Marketing Plan for Startups
It’s been said (by Einstein, maybe, if you believe the Reddit threads) that one cannot resolve a problem at the same level of thinking that created it. As a tech startup, your ground-level target is to relieve consumers’ pain—your high-level objective, however, is to transform the way they think about that problem in the first place.
This, it’s been said (almost certainly not by Einstein), is the power of an electric go-to-market strategy: the document that will plot your business’s course into the public domain.
Drafting a go-to-market plan isn’t just about integrating your products or services with your consumers’ lives as they exist today. It’s where you engineer a new framework for envisioning the challenges they face and, as a result, a progressive, unrepeatable solution.
This guide will outline five steps for creating a plan that every disruptor should implement to launch on solid footing while staying light on their feet.
Prepare for take-off.
5 Steps Every Startup Should Take To Create A Dynamic Go-To-Market Plan
The difference between a startup and a capital C corporation isn’t tenure, status, or capital—it’s about the spirit of your enterprise. While a corporation is an agent of order, a startup is an agent of change.
In this way, it’s in your interest to regard your go-to-market plan as a palimpsest: a living document you’ll inevitably rework as you field more data, and as external and internal conditions push you to adapt.
With that, there are five steps every go-to-market plan should cover:
- Category design
- Competitive positioning
- Customer personas
- Financial projections
Startups in particular are prone to feeding their scraps to the marketing budget, but the best branding companies for startups will tell you that kinetic marketing strategies are machines for optimizing your ROI. Locking one in from the get-go makes your business shock-absorbent, equipping you with both critical marketplace insights and the material reinforcements you’ll need to build as you go.
Step #1: Category Design
The road to market is paved with good intentions. But before you can disrupt, you need to get crystal clear on what yours are: i.e., are you building a Trojan Horse or a completely new City of Troy? Put differently, are you disrupting from within the market, or creating an entirely new product category that you alone can own?
I’ve already raved (ad nauseam, some might say) about Al Ramadan’s Play Bigger, a treatise I recommend every startup entrepreneur read (and re-read, and worship, and maybe stick under their pillow for osmotic absorption).
In it, Ramadan details why and how the preeminent companies of our time—“Category Kings” like Netflix, Uber, and Salesforce—sweep their industries clean. It comes down to three keen-edged maneuvers to bullet in your launch plan checklist:
- Category creation – Rather than thinking of “categories” as a class of products (solutions), think of them as a type of problem a consumer might have. When you can conceptualize a problem in a new way, you automatically mint a brand new product category. And when you create your own category, you own both the product standard and the terms on which your brand will operate. In this way, you establish an inevitable, teleological pathway between the problem you’ve conceptualized and the product or service you’re offering.
- Perspective – The next step is to take a strong stance on the category you’ve created. Get granular and concrete about the problem, and give voice to your perspective unapologetically. The bolder your POV, the more coherence your company, product, and product category will assert in the market arena. Together, they don’t just constitute a brand identity—they make you a force to be reckoned with.
- Framing the problem/solution dyad – When you enter into an entrenched product category, you’re unlikely to come out on top if your objective is to clobber the competition by sheer might. Instead of fighting tooth and nail to do it better, do it different. What is your unique vantage on your industry? What are your competitors missing? What do you offer that no one else can? Mind those gaps, and your business gets to build the bridge that carries you over your competitors’ trenches.
You already have the intuition that something could be done better. Design your category, and you control the terms, the angle, and the shockwaves sent through a stale or dated market.
Step #2: Competitive Positioning
Your next checklist item is to methodically suss out the competition. But herein lies a paradox: if you’ve successfully designed a brand new product category, haven’t you effectively eliminated the competition from your purview?
Yes and no. Take bottled water—you’ve got your Poland Spring, your Fiji, your Voss. Through shrewd branding, each brand has stylized its own niche to match a particular flavor of consumer (the treehuggers, the jet-setters, and the image-conscious, respectively).
But their biggest competition isn’t one another. It’s the tap.
To that end, your best bet is to examine your competition across and between product categories. We recommend taking stock of the following:
- Key players – Give credit where credit is due—the more you can learn from your adversaries, the more you’ll distinguish your own players from the reigning Brat Pack. In this step identify all the organizations in the space to know.
- Competitive matrix – The CM is one of the most progressive tools in your arsenal because it prioritizes value over traditional industry lines. In it, you’ll identify two axes along which to evaluate your competitors’ performance and where each is jockeying for a share of your market (e.g. affordability, user-friendliness, etc.). The CM’s purpose is fairly straightforward: the better acquainted you are with your competitors’ value props, the more precisely you can peg their blind spots. Those blind spots are where you build. Then you can begin to plot the players on these axes.
- Key differentiators – After reconning the competition and the territory, it’s time to look inward. Which assets set you apart from your peers? What specifically do you offer that engages a consumer problem in a new way? Establishing what distinguishes you from your competitors is key to every element of your engine, from your personnel to the branding that introduces you to the public. Your differentiators are your grappling hooks for bootstrapping out of a startup sinkhole and moving swiftly once it’s time to scale.
Step #3: Customer Personas
A little tip that would probably save humankind from years of therapy invoices: our problems are relatively simple. The layers of unsolicited input, projection, and assumptions that convolute and magnify these problems? Those are what tangle our pathways toward resolution.
What does this mean for startups? That beyond your intuitive awareness of a problem, and beyond pinpointing the product category it dovetails with, it’s essential to put a face to the name: you need to get to know the “whom” who encounters that problem in the first place.
Customer personas are a tool for understanding who you’re trying to reach and the nature of their plight. Each persona should include:
- A value prop canvas – The value prop canvas uses the principle of parallelism to align your product with your ideal customer. You’ll outline your customers’ objectives and pain points, as well as the “gains measurement” system they use to evaluate their satisfaction. These dimensions are matched with a value description of your product: how it helps consumers attain their objectives and how this attainment registers as a gain.
- Messaging framework – Once you’ve fleshed out the dimensions of your customer’s problem, your next step is to whip up core messages that can both empathize with their grievances and instill confidence in your ability to address them. Your messaging includes your core pitch, evidence of your product’s worth, and the precedent (proof) you’ve set for resolving their problem.
- Channels – Unlike corporations, personas are certifiably people, and everyone is different—including the digital platforms they live and connect on. There are myriad communities and sub-communities online, just as there are IRL. Discovering where your customers are huddled is as integral to digital channel optimization as learning more about who your customers are. (Spoiler alert: we’ll cover this in Part 2 of our Start-Up Launch Plan series).
- Promotions – Once you’ve established the personas and circumstances of your customers, you’ll have a better grasp of what motivates them to act. Promotions are your ignition for coaxing those embers into full-blown flames—i.e., conversions.
- CTAs – The final piece of the puzzle is to envision the shape of your digital marketing funnel. To the untrained eye, a funnel is just an upside-down triangle. But within that triangle are a series of marketing funnel stages—a pinball-style array of calls to action (CTAs) that you can tinker with to streamline your customer’s pathway to the jackpot (conversion).
The vast majority of startups bite the dust for one reason: rather than getting to know their customers, they siphon all their resources towards scaling too early in the game.
Your customers are the foundation of your business. When you portray them in full contour, you refine your perception of the three-part consumer complex at hand: person, problem, product. The more dimensions you can illuminate, the more aptly you can execute the resolution.
Step #4: Budget
Your next order of business is to get down to brass tacks (or in this case, tax): budgeting.
Budgets vary considerably between ventures, industries, and your comprehensive financial projections, but each plan should capture the following go-to-market expenses (all the expenses to get you to the market or your first revenue):
- Brick-and-mortar office and equipment
- Taxes and incorporation fees
- Marketing expenses
- Inventory and shipping (if applicable)
- Digital platforms
- Payroll and staffing
- Travel (if applicable)
At S!, we advise startups to think beyond the fiscal and organize operations around other forms of currency: time and effort.
Agile development started out as a darling of the software industry, but it’s proven to be a markedly effective model for growth marketing. Central to the agile approach are story points (or, simply, “points”). Instead of evaluating work based on hours allotted, you refocus the lens on the value of the project—how much horsepower it takes your team to iterate on each two- to three-week sprint.
Just as you’d balance your budgetary capital, revenue, expenses, and investments, you should also be monitoring your team’s time, energy, and creativity (and allocate accordingly). Ultimately, your material yields are a reflection of how well you’re able to manage those primary immaterial resources.
Step #5: Projections
There’s a reason why this step holds the final slot on your checklist: it takes a rigorous investigation of the other five branches of your engine to produce an accurate fiscal prognosis.
Marketing is instrumental in carrying out that detective work. Off-kilter positioning, insufficient research, and missed-target marketing are some of the most common reasons why startups don’t traction the velocity they need to survive. From this perspective, it helps to treat your financial projections as both a venture and marketing issue: the more hale and hearty they are, the more appealing you’ll be to investors.
That said, laying the foundations for your marketing game plan isn’t limited to stiffening up your sales forecasts.
From generating your executive summary to predicting your outcomes down the line, you’re building a beautiful machine whose value lies in its integrity: with your customers, with your backers, and internally.
Marketing is where you distill and disseminate your vision, your voice, and your talent. That’s more than appealing. That’s bulletproof.