Kickstarting customer acquisition is hard! Here's a simple framework to help you get started

It's never been easier to start a company. During the last 20 years, the time and cost of starting a business decreased substantially worldwide. But it's a double-edged sword: more competition, more choices, more channels, more noise…

In this context, customer acquisition is arguably more challenging than ever.

If you’re a startup founder currently facing this challenge, you maybe feel:

  • Paralyzed: “Where to even start?”

  • A bit lost: “Am I doing this right?”

If you feel that way, I hope this post can help you and bring some clarity.

Common pitfalls to avoid

In my experience, here are the main pitfalls you should try to avoid:

  1. A strategy that you can’t afford: these days, more often than not, startups kickstart customer acquisition with Facebook and Google Ads. While those channels are almost inevitable when scaling, they’re not the best to start with when you have a limited budget and runway. Be mindful of your burn rate.

  2. Reinventing the wheel: many startups try to copy tactics used by more established companies. These companies have more resources and can afford to think long-term. Choose a strategy that you can realistically execute upon with your current resources, and that could pay dividends immediately.

  3. Compromising: saying no is hard, and it can be tempting to onboard any customer that would like to test your product. But will they get it? Will they stick around? The most important for growth is retention and as a startup, it’s critical to zero in on the customers who care the most about the problem you solve.

The sweet spot is to find customer acquisition initiatives at the intersection:

Where to start?

Well, it depends! :)

When founders ask me this question, I tell them to forget about the lengthy process of personas, funnels, and marketing mix and draw this simple 2x2 matrix instead:

Why? If we simplify, there are only two types of potential customers for your product:

  • people actively looking for a solution

  • those who aren’t

And there are only two ways to get in touch with them:

  • leveraging touchpoints that already exist

  • building new ones

How to use this framework?

Here are some prompts and examples to help you fill in the matrix:

Quadrant 1

  • When potential customers search for ——— (keywords related to the problem you solve) they usually find ——— (list of websites ranking for these terms). Among them, we could partner with ——— (selected website) by ——— (your initiative).

  • When potential customers ask questions about ——— (questions related to the problem you solve) they usually do it on ——— (popular group or forum in your niche). We could join the conversation by ——— (your initiative).

  • When they compare or review ——— (alternatives) they usually find ——— (list of review sites and comparators). We could be included by ——— (your initiative).

Example of initiatives: partnerships with affiliates, requests for article updates, joining and participating in an active community, listing your company on review sites….

Quadrant 2

  • We could help potential customers searching for ——— (keywords related to the problem you solve) by building ——— (your initiative).

  • We could help potential customers having questions about ——— (questions related to the problem you solve) by building ——— (your initiative).

  • We could help potential customers to compare and make a decision by comparing ——— (alternatives) with our product by building ——— (your initiative).

Example of initiatives: landing pages for SEO, FAQ, guides and blog posts, user-generated content (forums, community…), reviews, and comparison pages…

Tips: I wrote earlier about SEO for early-stage startups and comparison marketing.

Quadrant 3

  • Most of our potential customers also care about ——— (related topics relevant for your audience). Their go-to is ——— (leading publications in that space). We could partner with ——— (selected publication) by ——— (your initiative).

  • Most of our potential customers follow and trust ——— (influential profiles in your industry). We could partner with ——— (selected profile) by ——— (your initiative).

  • Most of our potential customers also use ——— (adjacent products and services). We could partner with ——— (selected partner) by ——— (your initiative).

Example of initiatives: native advertising and PR, guest content, influencer marketing, strategic partnerships…

Quadrant 4

  • We could inspire our potential customers who also care about ——— (related topics relevant for your audience) by building ——— (your initiative).

  • We could raise the interest of our potential customers who follow and trust ——— (influential profiles in your industry) by featuring ——— (selected profile) in our ——— (your initiative).

  • We could provide additional value for our potential customers also using ——— (adjacent products and services) by building ——— (your initiative).

Example of initiatives: content hubs, interviews, ambassador program, collabs, integrations, product directory, marketplace…

Notes

  • This is just a framework; results will differ based on your creative inputs.

  • The prompts are suggestions only; use other questions if you like.

  • You don’t need to follow this order (quadrants) but it can help with prioritizing.

Tools that can help for market research

If you’re looking for some data and fresh ideas, I can recommend these tools:

  • SEMrush: for competitive analysis and keyword research.

  • AnswerThePublic: for finding relevant questions in your space.

  • Sparktoro: for identifying sources of influence for your audience.

  • SimilarWeb: for estimating traffic volumes (competitors, partners…).

Wrapping it up

If you felt paralyzed, overwhelmed, or lost about getting started with customer acquisition, I hope this post brought some inspiration and clarity to your journey.

Whether you use this framework or not, here are some key steps to keep in mind:

  • Start with market research: map customer intents and touchpoints, focus on the places they already know and trust before building your own channels.

  • Experiment and iterate: all initiatives won’t be a hit. Document your learnings and move on to the next one. Start small and stay consistent; it’ll pay off!

  • Add layers over time: scaling user acquisition is all about adding layers and building repeatable systems, but it’s only possible with solid foundations.

If you found this framework valuable and would like to try it for a brainstorming session with your team you can get my template for free. Just let me know if you need help.

Have fun baking!

Get the template

Thank you for reading,

@Erwan 👋

Illustrations by Gustav Bodin

Where to find your first growth marketer?

Beyond your own network and without contracting a talent acquisition agency

Last year, I wrote a post that addresses when to hire your first growth marketer, but a question I get even more often from startup founders is where to find relevant profiles.

The short version: to find a talented growth marketer for your startup, you need to take a different approach to the traditional recruitment process. It's not enough to rely on your network alone and hiring a talent acquisition agency is often too pricey. You'll need to be proactive.

For more details and actionable steps, keep reading.

Why is it so hard to find relevant profiles?

  1. Exploding demand, short supply

The VC funding boom in the last decade led to rising demand for growth marketers, not only in Silicon Valley but all around the world. Growth marketers with a proven track record are highly sought-after.

  1. Difficult to evaluate

Growth marketing is a relatively new function. It lacks industry standards and recognized certifications. Pretty much anyone can call themselves a growth marketer these days, but the quality of work varies a lot. For startup founders, it can be challenging to differentiate good and bad profiles before hiring them.

  1. Early-stage isn’t for everyone

Being a GM1 at an early stage startup is a different ball game than being a GM at a scale-up. As a startup founder, you need to look for profiles that can be autonomous, hands-on, and strive with limited resources. The job description from Levels below is a good example of how to tackle this early in the recruitment process.

Well, so where to find them?

  1. Try LinkedIn Sales Navigator but avoid generic InMails

LinkedIn Sales Navigator allows you to apply advanced search filters. Define your ideal candidate profile and apply some matching filters. Select relevant ones and reach out but avoid generic InMails (leave those to bigger companies using uninspiring recruiting methods). Instead, craft a short, friendly, and personalized message or find a way to get introduced. If they’re not interested or not available they might point you in the right direction.

  1. Be where they hang out

As mentioned in the introduction, the best GMs are highly sought-after which means that they’re not actively looking for a new job. So the best way to catch their attention is to be where they hang out to discuss growth with like-minded professionals.

For example, a few communities I’m part of:

Instead of just sharing a link without context, start a conversation about a growth challenge you're currently facing. Not only will that generate more engagement and provide immediate value, but it could also lead to a genuine discussion with someone well-suited for the role.

  1. Promote your opening on industry-specific job boards

If you didn't succeed to get any leads using the above tips or don't have time, consider promoting your job listing on some job boards dedicated to growth professionals and startups. For example, Demand Curve. These boards attract a more specific audience than LinkedIn and are still less costly than hiring a recruitment firm.

Other examples include:

  1. Talk with career accelerator programs

Programs like Reforge and Growth Tribe help hundreds of professionals to upskill in growth every year. It’s in their interest to help alumni so why not reach out to their team and ask if they know someone currently searching for a growth position?

  1. The growth marketer you’re looking for might already be on your team

I totally agree with Jeff. I've seen several people successfully transition from customer success, engineering, or finance roles to growth leaders.

Early-stage GMs are generalists with a good understanding of marketing, product, and data. Strategies and frameworks can be taught. But you can't really teach cultural fit.

Finding a growth marketer that will be a good fit for your startup isn't an easy task. But by being proactive, using the right touchpoints, and creating a growth culture, you can increase your chances. If you're hiring, I hope this post was helpful!

@Erwan


If you’ve any questions, feel free to reply directly to this email or leave a comment.

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My next article will focus on effective go-to-market strategies for startups.

1

GM: Growth Marketer

Comparison marketing

Why mentioning your competitors can be an effective go-to-market strategy?

Rule 1:

If your customer does not mention the competition then neither should you. Never discuss the competition in any way unless you have to. Just carry on with your sales presentation as if they do not exist.

Above is the number 1 rule you’ll find in most sales playbook but also the general implicit guideline about competitors in marketing.

For startups, it’s the norm for founders to use competition slides in their pitch decks when meeting with investors. But elements of these analyses are rarely found outside of the boardroom.

If this information is so essential for investors couldn’t it also help potential customers to make a more informed decision? Why hiding the alternatives when they represent the only point of reference?

In this essay, I will not encourage you to start an advertising war à la McDonald’s and Burger King. Instead, I will describe how some successful startups like Figma, Ghost, or Notion intelligently mention their competitors in their communication and how you could do it too.

The psychology and behavioral bias behind new product adoption

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he spent more time talking about the incumbents than touting the benefits of Apple’s new product.

In fact, he used the same approach when launching the iMac and the iPad. Why would he do that? Weren’t these products so much better than the competition anyway? Well, Jobs was a genius salesman and a master at understanding consumer psychology. He was well aware of the often-overlooked psychological costs associated with behavior change.

Many products fail because of a universal, but largely ignored, psychological bias: People irrationally overvalue benefits they currently possess relative to those they don’t. The bias leads consumers to value the advantages of products they own more than the benefits of new ones. It also leads executives to value the benefits of innovations they’ve developed over the advantages of incumbent products.

John T. Gourville (Harvard Business Review, 2006)

Consumers evaluate new products based on a reference point. Your startup is only as good or as bad as what the user is comparing it to.

Take Figma for example, the first browser-based and real-time collaborative tool for design professionals, and arguably a much better solution than anything else currently available.

Problem? Their target audience developed long-time habits using tools like InVision, Sketch, or Framer throughout their careers.

To win them over, Figma created a compare section on their website in order to educate them about the product's key differentiators.

Mission accomplished! Figma is the fastest-growing tool in that category.

The upside of capturing comparison searches for user acquisition

As described in my previous post SEO for early-stage startups, ranking on Google for comparison and alternative search terms within your industry can be a very valuable user acquisition channel compounding over time.

Because it’s taboo for most companies to mention their competitors, these search terms are generally dominated by affiliates, comparison sites like Capterra, and review bloggers. While being listed or mentioned by “neutral” websites can be a precious trust factor for your brand, it can also be very pricey. As an early-stage startup, you might not have the necessary funds to compete with other players on that front.

So why not creating this content on your own website instead?

That’s exactly what Podia did, and the results are nothing but impressive.

Between research, design, and copywriting, I can’t imagine how much time it took for the team at Podia to create all these comparison pages.

But was it worth it?

According to data from SEMrush, a single landing page comparing their product with the more established player ‘Kajabi’ generates an estimated $18.7K worth of organic traffic every month in the US.

With 30+ similar landing pages, Podia now ranks on Google for keywords like “Patreon alternative”, “Gumroad”, or “Udemy alternative”.

A more effective (and ethical) strategy than aggressively bidding on competitors’ brand names via Google Adwords in my humble opinion.

In just 2 years, Podia gained significant market share in a very competitive industry with “only” $2.6M in funding (source: Crunchbase).

You’re not Starbucks

Most SaaS startups’ pricing pages read like a Starbucks menu.

Instead of the tall, grande, and venti options, we can choose between basic, standard, and premium or starter, professional, and enterprise.

Namings might change but it’s always the same tactic: the decoy effect.

In marketing, the decoy effect (or attraction effect or asymmetric dominance effect) is the phenomenon whereby consumers will tend to have a specific change in preference between two options when also presented with a third option that is asymmetrically dominated.

Huber, Joel; Payne, John W.; Puto, Christopher (1982)

As a startup, it’s tempting to take inspiration from successful companies like Starbucks and Netflix and decide to apply the decoy effect too.

But as mentioned earlier in this article, buyers tend to overvalue products they already have and use. So the best way to market your innovation is not to emphasize your product benefits but to highlight what they’ll lose by not using it (avoiding pain, a hassle, a cost..).

Basecamp, a project management software, isn’t really a startup (founded in 1999) but applies this approach to perfection:

Instead of choosing between another basic/pro/enterprise package, users are put in front of their alternative stack—far more painful and costly to maintain. Nudging done well! Your pricing page should be written from the perspective of your users, not your profits.

The painful transition from old to new, an opportunity for onboarding

Email services are generally free (except Superhuman) but we usually stick to the same one for years because of the switching cost.

It takes a lot of time and effort to change: exporting data and contacts, migrating, redirecting, updating subscriptions, marketing material…

Switching costs are the building blocks of the competitive advantage and the pricing power of companies. Firms strive to make switching costs as high as possible for their customers, which lets them lock customers in their products

Investopedia

For example, I’ve been using Evernote daily for almost 10 years. But in 2019, I found Notion. It looked better, had more features, and it was cheaper. But it also meant having to learn a new tool, reorganizing 1,000+ notes, reconnecting devices. You name it: first world problems…

But somewhere during the signup process, I was given the choice to automatically import my data from Evernote (and get credits for it). Boom! Problem solved, aha moment.

Note: Notion now has a dedicated landing page and signup flow for Evernote users (2nd screenshot below).

Like Notion, think about how you can flip the expectations relative to switching costs for your users and simplify the transition from old to new.

It’s not because you control the narrative that you can oversell

If you’re still reading, you might be convinced (or outraged) that I’m recommending you to mention your competitors in your communication.

But here comes Bowser, the final boss: your self-perception.

According to Harvard Business Review, startups overvalue the new benefits of their innovation over the advantages of incumbent products by a factor of three. In other words, it’s going to be very difficult for you to present an unbiased comparison of your own product vs alternatives.

When you control the narrative, it can be tempting to trash the competition or magnify your own features. But talk about your incumbents with humility (they paved the way for your company) and set the right expectations for your product. In the words of Ron Burgundy: “You stay classy”!

For inspiration, study how Ghost subtly does it:

This reminds me of one of my favorite marketing quotes:

It’s really scary to turn down most (the average) of what comes your way and hold out for the remarkable opportunities. Scary to go way out on an edge and intentionally make what you do unattractive to some. Which is why it’s such a great opportunity.

Seth Godin, No to average

Including competitors and alternatives in your communication is counterintuitive. It goes against everything you learned before, but in fact, it could be the most effective way to introduce an innovation.


SEO for early-stage startups

Is SEO worth the effort for startups?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the practice of improving your rankings for relevant search terms on search engines, remains predominantly negatively perceived by startups despite its proven effectiveness to drive traffic and leads.

Growth marketing expert Andrew Chen, ex-Uber and now General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, recently tweeted:

I agree with Andrew, SEO takes time and shouldn't be the focus channel early-on. However, I believe that startups can use the SEO methodology to inform their go-to-market strategy, improve their product, and survive longer.

Here below are 8 ways SEO can help early-stage startups.

1. SEO can help startups to verify market needs

According to data from CB Insights, tackling problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need, is the No. 1 reason startups fail.

Keyword research, the process of understanding what people are searching for online, is one of the starting points of any SEO strategy. With the help of tools like Google Keyword Planner, Google Trends, or SEMrush you can easily gather data that will help you to identify clear market needs.

Throughout this blog post, I will use the example of a fictive "note-taking" startup going against industry incumbents like Evernote and Onenote. To verify market needs, volumes, and current behaviors, this startup could use SEMrush.

source: semrush.com

2. SEO can help startups to identify a viable go-to-market strategy

Lack of focus is another big reason why startups fail. Even if you identify a big market for your product, it's crucial to choose a good starting point so you don't dilute your efforts.

In SEO, we distinguish between generic keywords and long-tail keywords that are more specific topics (generally with lower search volume and competition). Going for the long-tail is a smart approach for startups with limited resources.

From the example above, our fictive notetaking startup could decide to focus on college students first as there seems to be a demand for "how to take notes in college".

They could then refine their search around this query using a tool like Ubersuggest and look for more similar terms. Note that this will also help you to understand seasonality in your market. Here obviously, the "back to school" season is key.

source: neilpatel.com/ubersuggest

3. SEO can help startups to build a compelling value proposition

Great, now you know if there is a market for your product. But what features should you prioritize for your MVP?

Sure, you could ask questions to a few beta testers. But will they be objective? Is the group representative?

Instead (or in combination), you could use SEO tools like Answer The Public to list and analyze the most asked questions within your niche. This can help you to gain empathy with your target audience and prioritize key features that the market is already asking for.

source: answerthepublic.com

4. SEO can help startups to win market share against incumbents

Regardless of your industry, competing with incumbents will be a challenge. And as an early-stage startup, you will lack the resources to go head-to-head with them.

But you could win some strategic battles thanks to SEO.

a. Alternatives

It's a basic human trait: people love to have many options.

A simple Google search with "alternative to (competitor)" for your niche will list the options people are already looking for.

In our example, people are actively looking for alternatives to replace Evernote or Onenote—the current market leaders.

source: google.com

From there, you could either try to convert them with your own website (Notion example below) or try to be featured on comparison websites (often affiliates), blogs, or directories.

source: notion.so

b. Pareto principle

In a David versus Goliath scenario, startups should hurt the core of their incumbents' visibility. In other words, targeting 20% of their activities accounting for 80% of the results.

It can be challenging to identify how much competitors spend on Facebook ads (you can find their assets but not their budget with Ads Library) but you can easily analyze their organic and paid visibility on Google with SEMrush. Look for keywords or backlinks that have a disproportionate impact on their traffic.

In our example, Onenote gets more than 25% of their organic traffic from the single keyword "notebook".

source: semrush.com

Trying to rank for a very competitive keyword with a newly launched website would be mission impossible and would totally go against what I recommended above.

However, you could spend some time looking at the type of results featured for that search query. Could you be one of the Google Image results? Are there any YouTube videos or podcasts? Are there any Answer boxes, Tweets, or news? Are there any affiliate sites or blogs you could win over?

Search for small wins with a large potential impact.

c. Gaps

The Internet is fragmented and your competitors are probably not winning on all channels. With tools like SimilarWeb, you can identify gaps in their marketing mix.

These insights could help you make strategic decisions on the right markets and digital channels to focus on.

For example, here is Evernote's traffic by country and source. Do you see any gaps?

source: similarweb.com

5. SEO can help startups to build a user-friendly experience

CB Insights' data reveals that the #6 reason why startups fail is because of user un-friendliness.

User experience is critical to SEO. All major search engines use factors like load time, responsiveness, architecture, reviews, and engagement to judge one's website or app.

Google offers free tools like PageSpeed Insights, Google Search Console, and Mobile-Friendly Test to help you there.

source: search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly

6. SEO can help startups to establish their brand online

As your brand takes off, more and more people (from potential users to potential investors) will Google your brand.

If you chose a domain that isn't too generic or doesn't mean something else (movie, personality, slang...) it should only take a few days or weeks to rank for your brand name.

But what most startups ignore is that they can work actively to secure more real estate on their brand results thanks to Google's structured data and some common sense.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of results that generally rank well on Google (for branded queries) that you can leverage.

7. SEO can help startups to build relationships within their industry

Since the late 1990s, search engines have treated links as votes for popularity and importance on the web (Moz).

Link building, the process of getting other websites to link back to your website is, therefore, one of the most important tasks in SEO. It requires a combination of various marketing and sales skills and can be a great exercise for startup founders who are looking to build and nurture long-lasting relationships within their industry.

With tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, Buzzsumo, or Sparktoro, you can identify link-worthy domains, topics, or industry influencers around a specific keyword or competitor.

Back to our example, we could research the links pointing to Evernote, or journalists and influencers mentioning them and explore opportunities for partnerships and inclusions.

Done well, link building can bring a large amount of traffic and sales but also quickly increase your industry authority.

source: semrush.com

8. SEO can help startups to limit burn rate and extend their runway

CB Insights list "running out of cash" as the killer for 29% of startups (#2). Most startups in the early stages, spend more than they make. Even if raising capital allows to operate at loss for some time, the runway doesn't last forever.

According to data from Brex, 20% of startups' burn rate goes towards advertising with the main cost being Facebook ads accounting for 62% of these expenses.

Relying on paid channels to grow when the cost of digital advertising is rising at rates close to 5x inflation (Adobe) isn't sustainable. It needs to be offset by growth coming from organic channels like SEO, social, brand building activities, but also integrations, product-baked viral referral loops, and supported by strong retention and activation cohorts.

It's crucial for startups to harvest the organic traffic they can get through SEO in order to avoid paid marketing addiction.

Results from SEO can take months, especially for new sites, and early-stage startups often don't have the luxury to wait.

But understanding SEO can be remarkably insightful, provide some initial traction with the right approach, and help to avoid some of the most common startup pitfalls.

I think it's important to see SEO as an investment, not a cost. Like compound interest—the earlier you start, the better!


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