“Build it and they will come.”
For years, the most common advice for startups has been to focus on building a stellar product. A product that is so good it needs little-to-no marketing and practically sells itself. This might be the biggest lie ever told. While having a great product is important, it is not enough to win the market.
If we look closely at some of the most iconic companies, it is easy to see that a large part of their secret sauce is building not just an awesome product, but also a stellar distribution strategy. For example, when Airbnb was started, it had the most sleek, easy-to-use product in the market. Yet, the company almost failed until it figured out how to bring its product to customers in an effective way.
Similarly, Facebook didn’t just build a product better than MySpace. They actively engineered viral marketing into their product by making it easy for users to invite their friends to join and launched at colleges until they gained a solid user base and brand recognition that would allow them to expand beyond their initial target market.
Building a transformational company is the result of both product and marketing innovation. But a good product with great marketing will usually win over an amazing product with decent marketing. This is especially true now, when more brands than ever are competing for customers’ attention.
So, which one should come first: product or marketing?
What Is Marketing, Really?
When most people think of marketing, the first thing that comes to mind is usually advertising. We all see countless advertisements on social media, websites we visit, in the subway, billboards and so on. Yet, despite its seeming ubiquity, advertising accounts for only a small portion of marketing.
At its core, marketing is any activity that seeks to educate and establish relationships with prospective customers before they are ready to make a purchase. This includes, but is not limited to, articles written by a company’s team, its social media presence, website, and third-party podcasts and articles about the company.
For the most part these activities would not directly tout the benefits of a certain product or service, but would instead seek to give the customer more information about a pain point they are facing.
Why Marketing Is Important
Building the best product imaginable is futile if you don’t have a list of early adopters willing to try it out. You want to avoid the fate of launching into the abyss and having to find your early adopters on launch day or after.
That’s why it’s important to start building a mailing list of potential customers as you are developing your product. This way, when you’re ready to launch, you will have a number of people who are excited about your product, will try it out and (ideally) will pay to use it.
At EllisX, for instance, we carefully curated a list of prospective customers while building our minimum viable product (MVP) to ensure that people would start using our product the second it was ready. And while we did get a healthy number of early adopters, if we could do it all over again, we’d be much more aggressive with our marketing. For example, we wish we had been more active on Twitter from the moment we started the company, so that we’d get a head start on building our following and become known as the go-to place for advice when it comes to media relations and startup marketing.
Similarly, if we had started writing about the problem we’re solving while our product was still in development, we would’ve gotten a head start on educating the market and would have attracted more users to our waitlist pre-launch.
Why Marketing Should Come Before Product
Your product exists to solve a problem. If you’re the one who created the product, you likely experienced the problem yourself and built a product to address the pain point. This means that the problem was there long before the solution.
Chances are many of your potential customers are experiencing the same problem. If they’re acutely aware of the pain point, they will likely start researching potential solutions. If not, they might continue doing things the old way until someone points out how inefficient or expensive or unpleasant it is. Whoever does this in a way that resonates with them will earn their trust and become their go-to source for relevant information, no matter if this person is presenting them with a solution or not.
That’s why when building something new, you need to own the problem. By being the first to talk about it, you will slowly start building a following and being recognized as the go-to expert in this space. You can do this by writing about the topic in company blog posts (yes, you should have a blog before you launch a product), engaging in relevant discussions online or sharing your thoughts on the social media channel your target audience prefers.
This way, your potential customers will learn to associate you with the problem you’re solving and will likely turn to you for advice or help. As a result, when you’re ready to launch your product, the pre-built trust will lead to much faster adoption and product-market fit.
So, how soon is too soon?
Never. Remember that building an engaged audience is a long process and doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why it’s important to start talking about the problem before you even build a solution. Not only will this help you become the market leader in the space before you launch, but it will also help you assess market demand, refine your messaging and narrow down your target audience.
And with that, let’s build!