In the startup world, marketing is not just lead generation. This Houston expert explains. Photo via Getty Images

Until recently, the concept of marketing within the startup sphere was often equated solely with lead-generation. It's not entirely inaccurate to say that "marketing is lead-generation," as revenue generation is undeniably the end goal of marketing efforts.

However, what tends to be overlooked by founders is the intricate path to achieving revenue generation and how marketing can pave the way. I firmly believe that a similar paradigm exists in the realm of B2C marketing.

Distinguishing "Marketing" from "marketing"

I'd like to start by establishing a distinction between Marketing and marketing. This distinction might not be perfect, but it encapsulates how I conceptualize these concepts. When I refer to Marketing with a capital "M," I'm alluding to the overarching strategies that companies employ to drive revenue through marketing and advertising activities. This is the domain of the chief marketing Officer. The role of a CMO entails overseeing marketing and advertising efforts to ensure their alignment and efficiency in achieving the company's broader strategic goals.

Given this concept, where should a startup begin when figuring out their marketing strategy?

The role of brand

There is a common tendency amongst startups to create a product, establish a name, and swiftly attempt to enter the market. While the initial step for a startup involves achieving product-market fit, I advocate that once this milestone is reached, startups should pause to invest time in crafting their brand identity. Branding serves as the facet of a company that sets it apart and defines itself. This encompasses articulating a vision, mission, and values. Founders have the opportunity to shape their company's voice, articulate how they add value to customers, and delineate the organizational culture they aspire to foster. This phase is pivotal because it establishes the foundational elements that necessitate internal alignment for efficient scalability.

Once the brand is established, it can be handed over to a skilled marketer to start driving revenue growth. However the path to revenue growth goes straight through brand awareness.

Distinguishing marketing from advertising

This distinction can be perplexing, as the activities described here largely fall under the Marketing umbrella. However, I find it beneficial to differentiate between marketing and advertising within the broader context of Marketing strategy. Marketing revolves around cultivating brand awareness. Marketing is about building brand awareness. In marketing campaigns the wording can be about the company and its team. While I don’t recommend the old visuals of people in a boardroom having meetings, it’s ok to talk about the people and goals of the company in marketing campaigns. What does your brand represent? What is your product? What do you do? Who are your people? What are your values? It’s ok to share all of these things, and depending on the channel a company is marketing on, their marketing person will be well equipped to display this.

Advertising has a different tone and purpose. When advertising a company is talking to their customer, and offering the customer a solution to their pain and problem. This is a company’s what. I assume that a company that has made it this far offers a solution that is a cure, and not a nice-to-have.

Most advertising campaigns follow a simple formula, “are you suffering from X?” with a clear answer of “our company can solve that with Y”. If the answer to the pain question is yes, there is a good probability that the person will click on the ad they are seeing. That probability improves when the advertising campaign is layered on top of a well executed brand awareness campaign.

The significance of brand awareness

Although I'm not a psychologist, I do recognize the potency of the subconscious mind. This isn't about psychological manipulation, but rather an acknowledgment that the subconscious retains more than the conscious mind is capable of. Unlocking this potential might be challenging for individuals, but for marketers, the process is comparatively more accessible. Present information to an individual, and as long as they see it, their subconscious mind will register and retain it. This underscores the importance of brand awareness in revenue generation. By exposing a target audience to the company’s messaging through brand awareness campaigns, enhances the likelihood of engagement.

This fundamentally reshapes how companies connect with their ICP.

The nuance of timing

When an individual encounters advertising, a part of their brain will recognize the brand and might even associate it positively. This underscores the criticality of brand awareness, as it allows companies to focus on their target audience and continuously engage them until they are ready to make a purchase. Determining the precise moment when a customer is ready to buy is nearly impossible. However, this moment invariably arises, usually propelled by a pain point. When that decisive moment arrives, the goal is for the company’s brand to be the first that comes to their mind or that they see. This necessitates an ongoing investment in brand awareness campaigns.

So what does this mean in the context of startups?

A capital-efficient marketing approach

A key component of any Marketing strategy is capital efficiency. Founders must familiarize themselves with crucial metrics, such as:

  1. Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC): What is the expense of acquiring each customer?
  2. Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV or LTV): What is the anticipated revenue generated from engaging this customer?

While it's acceptable to commence with assumptions, any shifts in these assumptions warrant corresponding adjustments in a Marketing budget.

In the initial stages of a company’s lifecycle, a significant portion of sales might stem from direct, personalized selling efforts. This entails founders engaging in activities like providing software demos for enterprise sales or conducting face-to-face interactions within the target market. However, as revenue grows, capital is raised, and founders transition from selling to leading, this selling strategy should be phased out. This also marks the moment for founders to begin contemplating their Marketing budgets.

A starting point for figuring out your Marketing budget can be based on a CAC to LTV ratio of 1:3, where CAC is a third of your LTV. Once you have determined your CAC to LTV ratio, you need to determine what your revenue goal is, and then set your marketing budget based on that. Finally, you need to divide your Marketing budget between marketing and advertising activities. Depending on the stage the company is at, the division should be around 60% for marketing and 40% for advertising to start. This is to enable brand awareness to work its magic to build an audience for retargeting.

If you’re unsure about how to proceed, we can talk.

In the upcoming months, I intend to delve deeper into several topics:

  1. Founder-Led Storytelling
  2. The Imperative of Building Brand Awareness
  3. Delineating the Distinctions Between Marketing and Advertising and How They Synergize
  4. The Necessity of Outbound Email Marketing
  5. The Power of Marketing Email Automation in Nurturing Your Endeavors
  6. Embarking by Selling Your "What"

I hope these insights contribute value to the founder journey.

Should you have any questions I can help with, please don't hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Yosef Levenstein is the chief marketing officer and venture partner at Golden Section Ventures.

The music industry has adapted to the digital age — so should financial securities. Getty Images

The financial industry needs to digitize not tokenize, says this Houston expert

Guest column

One of my favorite movies growing up was Empire Records. It was the mid-1990s, and the closest we got to Instagram feeds was who had the best mixtapes. If you're not familiar with Empire Records (or what a mixtape is), I recommend watching the movie, but you don't have to worry too much about mixtapes any more.

Since Empire Records was released in 1995, the way we purchase and consume music has fundamentally changed. The physical music store was displaced by iTunes, and then the music industry evolved even further into a streaming economy. It took 24 years, but music evolved and it now operates in a fundamentally different way. Digitization of music was initially viewed as an existential threat to the industry, but in the end, music was digitized globally and the music industry very much survived.

The music industry has evolved and adapted to the digital age. The same happened across countless other industries, including financial services. Today we can invest in publicly traded stocks through a mobile app for free. However, a critical segment of capital markets has not evolved yet. The private securities space.

Transactions in private securities are still done on paper (no, DocuSign does not count as securities digitization.) Administrative costs are kept high due to the amount of paper that is processed and pushed through this system. As long as the foundation of private securities is paper, there is no amount of administrative technology out there to create an efficient market.

Public markets took the plunge into digital long before music did, and digitization of public markets enabled exponential growth globally. Trading volume, access to capital, and liquidity have all increased, and a large part of that can be attributed to the efficient and transparent nature of most public exchanges.

Efficient markets rely on price transparency and information equality. Currently, the private securities markets do not offer either of these characteristics. This is nothing new to people in the alternatives space, but how to reach these lofty goals, to create liquidity and reduce costs, is what I am excited about.

The reduction of cost does not relate only to commissions. There are administrative costs associated with private securities. Information distribution is slow and unilateral, forcing investors to depend on antiquated systems in order to track their investments. Nearly all of these costs are absorbed by the investor, and most efforts to date have not helped address the core issue, analog private security transactions.

Digitization of private securities is fundamentally different than tokenization. Tokenized securities are considered bearer securities. A digitized security, on the other hand, maintains its original status as a registered security, as long as its digitization is implemented in a manner that fits current regulatory requirements. Until recently, that had not been possible in a scalable way. Blockchain changed all of that.

Initial attempts at utilizing blockchain for private markets applied tokenization. Essentially, this configuration took securities that had clearly defined ownership records, anonymized them and put them on a public blockchain such as Ethereum. While there are some benefits to this approach, it also opened doors to significant fraud and securities regulation violations. Tokenization may provide liquidity, but the long-term risk far outweighs the value of liquidity for any prudent investor.

Blockchain does provide a framework that supports compliant digitization of private investments, it's simply not tokenization. The solution lies in using private permissioned blockchains that allow an appropriate degree of technical security while also ensuring transparency and accountability.

Blockchain enables us to maintain a statement of record that is both compliant, and scalable. Across the financial services industry, and across most other industries, blockchain is being deployed to help solve problems that were previously unmanageable. The blockchain is even helping farmers track their crops through IBM's blockchain. iownit has integrated blockchain at the core of our technology, proving that compliant digitization of private securities is possible and scalable.

The United States has a free market economy, so in the end, winners are determined by the market. It is our belief that the digitization of private securities is the responsible way to help this industry evolve. If you're still skeptical, just look at how the public securities markets have evolved since the '70s when electronic stock trading was enabled and the first digital public security trade was placed. Now try and imagine how private security markets will look in four years.

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Yosef Levenstein is the head of marketing at iownit, a Houston-based financial technology firm that is democratizing how investors and private companies transact.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.