If mobile marketing isn't in your startup's toolkit, it should be. Photo via Getty Images

Consumer privacy is driving startups to immediately begin marketing and data collection. Google and Apple have recently stressed the importance of first-party data collection for businesses. For the last two decades, businesses have had access to cookies to advertise to people who visited their digital assets. Digital advertising has already changed with Apple’s iOS 14.5 alterations, switching the default of ad tracking from yes to no and both Google and Apple expect data privacy to increase.

For startups, when and how to begin marketing their business can feel like a cumbersome task. As a chief marketing officer, I was asked to list services and channels that I oversee, and I came up with 16. For founders of startups who must often take on the roles of CEO and COO in addition to CMO as they look to expand their teams, that time commitment is not reasonable for someone who also has a personal life.

Entrepreneurs need tools that are simple to institute and not cost prohibitive, to meet their respective milestones. First, we need to collect first party data, so that when we get to our minimum viable product we have plenty of people waiting to buy it. Next, marketing must work even when we can’t focus on it. Third, we must focus on revenue generating activities, whether they are marketing or not. Finally, we want to create an environment where successful entrepreneurs have a work and life balance.

Before doing anything else — get a virtual phone number

A virtual phone number is the first marketing tool I would use for any business. This number can be connected to your cell phone during certain hours of the day and disconnected for others. This allows people to reach you on your schedule. Put this phone number on every asset you have, so it can be integrated into future tools, such as customer relationship management and Google My Business. With proper opt-in information, it also creates an immediate list for SMS marketing in the future. A virtual phone number typically runs $1 to $2 a month plus usage fees, so it can be used by any business.

It is important that this is set up first, because without this, you can’t use the following marketing tools effectively.

Tool 1: Missed Call – Text Back

An entrepreneurs’ worst nightmare is missing an important phone call, whether it’s an investor or closing your first sale. Constant phone and email checking causes anxiety, but more importantly, it is a low revenue activity, so you are actively hurting your business.

Missed Call – Text Back, or MCTB, allows a customizable text message to be delivered to a client when you miss their phone call. It moves the caller towards resolution (sales or otherwise) immediately encouraging them to give you more information about their problem. The best part is, that once you have the system in place, it costs you zero time. Imagine walking out of a meeting and instead of 10 missed calls, you have 10 text messages that you can quickly answer. How much time did you just get back?

Pro Tip: In many cases, you can automate your emails in a similar way.

Tool 2: A funnel page

Now that we have a tool that allows us to work productively without constant phone checking, we need to increase our book of business. This is where a funnel comes in.

A funnel is a unique digital experience you would like a specific person — a client or investor — to have. When you start a business, a funnel can be your website because you only have one specific thing you want any visitor to do, like collect information.

Almost every consultant to new businesses is promoting funnel building. Why? Because a good funnel motivates people to act in a specific way. If you are raising funds, you want an investor to have a specific experience to garner interest, not hope they navigate to the correct webpage. If you have a new technology, you want early adopters to learn and then provide a simple way to collect their information, so that you can contact them when your product is ready. Finally, if you’re about to hit the market with your new product, providing customers with a simple purchase method will improve revenue during your important proof-of-concept period.

Funnels, like MCTB, can grow and adapt with your business, providing different groups of people with different experiences, with minimal effort. For instance, suppose I created a dating app and needed early adopters. Instead of creating one funnel, let’s say I created two. The only difference between the two funnels, is the first one’s headline was “The No. 1 new dating app for men” and then the second one said women. Everything else remains the same, but the experience is immediately different for the consumer. The more you can change the funnel to cater to their personal experience, the better it will be, but even simple changes can go a long way.

Pro Tip: Funnels are easiest to keep track of when they are subdomains of your website.

Tool 3: Automated SMS marketing

The final tool I recommend to start is Automated SMS Marketing. Assuming you have people properly opted in from your funnel — review Telephone Consumer Protection Act (1991) to ensure legal compliance — you can make sure they receive a welcome message in the first 5 minutes.

The most important part of text messaging marketing is allowing your customer to believe they are really having a conversation with you. If you can avoid it, never tell a customer that your digital number is automated. If you need, tell them it is automated but overseen by you. You are the owner of the business or the inventor of the technology, people want to talk to you. Customers want to pretend that they know you. Allow them this feeling. Once the customer responds, you should be picking up an organic conversation with them anyway.

Bringing it together

Using these tools, we have created a simple, repeatable method to gather customer data and start their customer journey. Your funnel may also help you gather an email list, but your most active prospects will be more than willing to communicate with you over the phone.

When you can’t take calls, whether it’s because you are in a meeting or with your kids, you can rest easier, knowing that potential customers get an immediate response that helps them get where they need to go, or at the very least, when you get back to work, you can help them quickly.

And the best part for a new entrepreneur is that this can all be done cost effectively. Personally, I recommend a service called HighLevel, a feature-rich cost-effective CRM, that includes all of the tools previously discussed. Most tech savvy entrepreneurs can figure out how to institute all these practices quickly from one platform in a no code environment. If you’d rather have assistance, there are 20,000 agencies that use the platform and just as many YouTube videos.

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Chris Romani is the chief marketing officer for illumiPure, a Houston-based medical device company.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.