Strategizing for startups

How to think before you act when it comes to marketing for your company

The concept is simple: Think before you act in marketing. Getty images

If there were a joke about how entrepreneurs treat their marketing — and there totally isn't — it would go something like this.

An entrepreneur walks into a bar. Before the bartender can ask, the entrepreneur says, "I want a drink and I need it ASAP."

"What type of drink?", the bartender asks, motioning to the hundreds of bottles behind him.

"I need a drink that is refreshing, doesn't make me too drunk and makes me feel like I'm getting my money's worth."

The bartender begins listing drink after drink, and the entrepreneur, sometimes sampling the drink, turns each one down.

At long last, the entrepreneur climbs behind the bar, grabs a glass, pours in some ice and soda water, and takes a long sip.

"This is exactly what I wanted," the entrepreneur proclaims, "Why didn't you offer me this in the first place?"

The moral of the story? When it comes to marketing, entrepreneurs tend to know exactly what they want, yet they focus on quenching that immediate thirst, not knowing why they're in a bar in the first place.

The idea of your first step is nothing compared to the reality of your second. You can know something but applying those principles to starting and/or running your own business can be difficult.

When we (yes, I'm an entrepreneur too) look at marketing, we often confuse tactics with strategy. I see a problem and immediately need a tool to fix it. Hanging a picture? Where's the hammer?!

While it's tempting to lead with the tactics (i.e. website, brochure, display ad, video, etc.), they can be misguided. This can drain precious resources. Strategy can inject purpose into everyone's mindset.

Marketing efforts must be considered a sequence of events that, when lined up in the right order, produce results that are repeatable, more effective, and can lead to a predictable type of profitability.

Where careers rise and fall is the accuracy of any particular strategy. Since we're talking about accuracy, let's use an archery metaphor. Sure, you can consistently hit a target from five feet away. The farther away you get, though, the more you have to consider crosswind, the arrow's trajectory, and your own focus in order to hit that bullseye. And that's all part of a process of whittling down the variables you don't know or can't control.

It's the same with marketing. The more time you've spent preparing, studying, testing, and strategizing, the more often you will accurately target that bullseye.

Where a lot of entrepreneurs also miss the mark is not clearly understanding the core business issue. If you're lost in the forest (and it can totally feel like that sometimes), you're supposed to be quiet when hunting for food but you supposed to make a lot of noise when trying to get rescued. That's what mixing up a core business issue can do. As a process where you're whittling down the variables, marketing is a sequence, like this:

Graphic from Jarred King

Seems simple enough, right? But the process itself is dependent on the intangible pieces in between the steps. This is what happens between the "knowing" and the "doing." So, the above graph should really flow like this:

Graphic from Jarred King

Usually, the typical entrepreneur prefers to start with step four and just "get sh*t done." The problem with this approach is that it can either be the wrong solution (you're hunting with a rock instead of an arrow) or the wrong effort (you're staying quiet when you should be hollering).

The difficulty here is that the desired effect doesn't happen overnight. It rarely solves "today's problems" today. Even worse, it might require a larger investment. Without fundamentally understanding your business problem, any solution offered will be less effective, more expensive, and more wasteful of time and resources.

Instead, simply start with the business problem and then follow the above sequence to leverage "the doing" part in order to develop "the knowing" part. This doesn't have to be a drawn-out process, and there are a ton of free resources available online to help conduct your own research, analysis, and planning.

Ultimately, I'm saying "think before you act." It's not difficult to understand. The challenge for entrepreneurs is that they are faced with hundreds of important and, often, business-critical decisions each day. We can't help but to react, then decide, and move on. While our gut and grit got us to this point of success, it's strategy that will take us from surviving to thriving.

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Jarred King is the founder and president of Swagger Agency, a full-service marketing firm as well as the current president of Entrepreneurs' Organization - Houston. King also serves on the board of InnovationMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Houston-based Sportlo is shooting for a one-stop-shop platform for sporting programs in Houston. Cade Martin/Getty Images

In virtually no time at all, Sportlo has built its reputation on the simplest of foundations: community.

Thilo Borgmann and Sebastian Henke founded the local hub for sports parents earlier this year as a tool for sports moms and dads to stay connected with local leagues, sports clubs, coaches, and other parents with children involved in youth sports in the greater Houston area.

"We make it easy for sports parents to keep up with what's happening in their local youth sports community," says Henke. "With our platform, they can discover tryouts, camps, and sports clubs. They can also join and create groups, find private coaches for their kids, and more."

Borgmann and Henke are both former NCAA Division 1 soccer players who starred while they were student athletes at Houston Baptist University, then went on to become well-known private coaches.

The sports-loving duo saw a dearth of useful information for sports parents on popular social media sites, so they created the platform to give users a central place to communicate with each other, join and create groups, discover tryouts and camps for their children and find private coaches across the city to help their young athletes reach their goals.

"We were both involved in sports for most of our lives and then got into private coaching," says Henke. "Overall, what we saw was that there is an entire ecosystem of youth sports and it was very much unorganized."

Henke says sports clubs weren't able to reach potential members and their parents. He says they envisioned a one-stop-shop approach to the sports ecosystem.

"So, Sportlo is focused on sports parents, but within the community, we try to connect persons with coaches, with clubs, with colleges and so on," Henke says. "That's the vision behind it, so people will have a place to have a community, to get advice and tips and then they will have access to certain services and information."

The plan for Sportlo has already evolved in its short life. Originally the platform was going to support just private coaching.

"After we got more feedback from parents and first users, we started to adapt the product and rebuilt the product," Henke says. "Based on the surveys we collected online, parents wanted us to find ways how to connect them with each other, so that's why we started building it as a new page and that's how we realized where it needed to go."

The biggest lesson in listening to their users was understanding that any initial vision to help a community must also be focused on or include what's intrinsically valuable to the users.

"Too often, people get focused on their own ideas and forget that feedback offers surprising moments," says Henke. "Users gave us a whole new path, which kept us from going in the direction where users wouldn't want the product to go."

Feedback from users is key, Henke says, and he recommends startup founders prioritize user experience and constructive criticism.

"All of the ideas that we had in our head, at some point we had to stop and reevaluate them and then focus on the most important thing first and then go from there," he says.

Still, the launch of Sportlo was not without its own unique challenges. Its March go-live date coincided in point of time with the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately turned into a worldwide pandemic.

"We haven't had to make any major changes," says Henke. "But groups on the platform have focused on that topic because there are no sports happening at the moment and they are eager to get them back. But other than that, it's not something we've had to focus on. But for parents, they've focused on related topics, like how to keep their kids busy at home doing exercises, things like that, or when discussing when their kids' clubs are starting back up and how to keep kids safe."

In addition to forming groups and sharing a variety of sports-related topics, parents can post pictures and videos of their child's latest tournament or game, get access to useful articles shared by fellow parents and find recommended sports products for themselves or their child.

"The main reason we added that social component was because we wanted to have a user timeline so when they log in, all the users can see something sports related," says Borgmann. "There's so much noise, with politics and posts that are only about the coronavirus and all that, so we wanted to focus on sports and have parents be able to show how their kid is doing, see other kids in action and support each other with a focus on sports without seeing all the other distractions that might be on other platforms."

For now, Sportlo is focused solely on keeping Houston informed, but it will look to expand to other cities and states when the time comes.

"We are focused right now only on Houston, because we know Houston and Texas and we've experienced different levels of sports in this area, so we want to stay local," says Henke. "Then, the next step is we intend to take it to other cities within Texas. And at some point, our vision is to have the entire youth ecosystem of the United States."

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