Ask the Expert: Lean marketing strategies to help early-stage startups

As a serial entrepreneur and a Silicon Valley technology marketer for more than 20 years, I know that cash-strapped entrepreneurs are short on many of the marketing resources and tools that could vault their early-stage startups to their next milestones of success.

It’s a Catch-22: To reach those milestones and secure additional resources, you need those additional resources to gain traction and reach those milestones. So, what can a savvy entrepreneur do to break this cycle? The answer: Go lean.

In his book “The Lean Startup,” Eric Ries lays out a methodology for entrepreneurs to experiment, learn and iterate their product so they can cost-effectively build and test their offering at the same time. This also holds true for marketers. Especially in today’s digital world, marketers can quickly test, measure, learn and iterate their messaging, offerings and channels with inexpensive — but effective — tools.

Here are a few examples of techniques and tools that help startup entrepreneurs with lean marketing on a shoestring budget.

• Continually test website messaging and calls to action. WordPress — and the thousands of inexpensive website layouts (known as themes) available for purchase — enables you to easily build and modify a website. It also makes it easy to quickly change website images, messaging, calls to action, layouts, colors, etc. Additional tools, called plugins, are available for free (or at a nominal cost) to perform more advanced functions without knowing how to code (e.g. integrating email marketing forms, A/B testing different versions of the website). Pair this with a free Google Analytics account, and you’re off and running with a core lean marketing tool.

• Email marketing and marketing automation. Low-cost email marketing platforms like MailChimp and Constant Contact are the lifeblood of any lean marketer. These platforms go way beyond marketing newsletters. They now include sophisticated marketing automation functions, data capture, A/B testing, website integration, social media integration and much more. You can try different offerings with new and existing contacts, create and test automated campaigns based upon user actions, and target the most interested contacts for deeper engagement.

• Website content/inbound marketing. While it’s daunting to plan and deploy a content marketing strategy and regularly post content, writing short blog posts on topics surrounding customer pain points can be easy, especially when those posts also include linkages to other “expert” content that amplifies your solution. You probably seek out and read those stories and posts every day. Why not quote (with links) and comment this content as a way to validate your solution to your audience?

• Social media marketing. Whether you’re selling business to consumer (B2C) or business to business (B2B), social media needs to be a core marketing tool in your arsenal. Social media can draw new contacts, amplify messages, and reach and enable direct engagement. It also provides you a way to establish a voice and personal identity for your company that people can relate to. Remember that your social posts should not be just about selling your product; they should be about being a part of your community of current/potential customers. Think about what is important to them and how you can help and serve them.

• Rich media. There are easy ways to create rich media to explain or demonstrate your product and draw your intended audience. Podcasts are a great way to establish thought leadership and educate your intended customer. A simple microphone and some audio editing tools are all you need to get started. Video platforms like Moovly and Powtoon are great, inexpensive platforms to create animated or “explainer” videos, and platforms like Telestream’s ScreenFlow provide powerful editing capabilities at a very reasonable cost.

These are just a few ways that startups can use lean marketing principles to gain traction with their audiences without breaking the bank. What has worked for you?

Margaret Donnelly is a serial entrepreneur, a business and marketing strategy consultant, and a mentor for startups in the New Hampshire hi-tech community. Her NH startup, JitterJam, went from launch to acquisition in 18 months on a zero-dollar marketing budget. Margaret serves as the Marketing Committee Chairman on Live Free and Start’s advisory board, as a founding member of TechWomen/TechGirls initiative with the New Hampshire High Tech Council, and as a mentor for the UNH Rines Fund. Contact her at