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Marketing a start-up company on a minimal budget

Author's avatar By Robert Allen 27 Jul, 2016
Essential Essential topic

Use these 5 steps to successfully market your start-up at low-cost or no cost

Your start-up opportunity...

So, you’ve had a fantastic idea for a new product, piece of software or solution to a business or personal challenge that everyone has, but no one has fully solved. The idea was so good you decided to quit your day job and found a start-up and have defined your business model using the legendary Business Model Canvas and built the online revenue model to prove the idea will fly.

Maybe you just invented a mobile app that allows you to hire someone to stay in your house for when you're waiting for a parcel to be delivered that is going to be ‘The Uber of getting people to wait for parcels’. Maybe it’s a website with a new photo-analysing algorithm you can submit photos of yourself to that finally answers the question ‘does my bum look big in this...?’. Maybe it’s a social network for cats. Whatever your idea, no matter how brilliant, you still need a way to tell people about it, but inevitably, initially budget, or rather lack of it will be an issue. You may have budget for coffee-fuelled planning or partner meetings, but not large media budgets.

Social network for cats

But you have a tiny challenge...

The problem is that, unlike the established players, you may well be trying to un-seat; you don’t have a marketing department. It might just be you, or you and a co-founder. Maybe if you are a bit further down the line of start-up growth, it is you, your co-founder and a couple of developers. You have to do marketing on a shoestring budget, so how can you possibly compete with the big players in the industry you're trying to disrupt?

The answer is simple, although to put it into practice it is rather complex and needs a lot of hard graft and testing. The essence of this approach is to leverage the excitement around your idea via free/low-cost platforms, using your time or those of your first employees.

As you build a loyal following and have new customers become your advocates, you'll be able to reach far more people than you would if the same budget was invested in advertising. These 5 steps give an overview to break down the process of achieving this and you can also read our other articles on startup marketing:

Step 1: Brainstorm how to generate excitement

When Marketing a start-up company, always bear this one thing in mind; the established companies you’re trying to displace most likely have vastly larger budgets than you, quite possibly more experience in marketing and pre-existing relationships with clients and customers. You have one huge asset: the power of your idea and the excitement this can create in your and others. You absolutely have to leverage this if you are going to be successful.

Dave's post on the prioritising online marketing channels using our Digital Marketing Radar and Marketing Bullseye gives some frameworks to help you brainstorm where to spend your time to get traction.

Bullseye Framework for finding the best acquisition channels

Think long and hard about how to present your idea to convey how exciting it is and how it will improve people’s lives, save people money, bring people joy, laughter or help people enhance their skills. The tone you use to market your idea and how you convey your brand has to be nailed down right from the start. And if you don’t think about it you are sure to end up with a generic brand tone that won’t do you any favours and won’t set you apart.

If your start-up idea is for a dating app for Smart Watches that uses Bluetooth to only match you with people within twenty paces of you, then you probably want to take a cheeky and fun loving tone.

smart watch dating app

Conversely if you are creating a Fin-Tech app that lets people loan money to other people to install solar panels on their home in return for them paying the lender the amount they save on their bills, then you want a brand tone that is serious, eco-conscious and conveys how you are going to improve the world by propagating the use of green energy.

solar fin tech

Brainstorm with colleagues or even friends about how to convey the importance of your product/service via the right tone. Once you have this nailed you can go onto the next steps, but don’t start marketing before you know exactly what kind of message you want to impart on your audience.

Step 2: Build a presence across social media – use a personal touch to your advantage

For start-ups, social media strategies are a great place to start with marketing, because it is low cost and the barriers to entry are so low. You can have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ accounts set up in an afternoon. That doesn’t mean you should only take an afternoon over it though...!

If you are going to be successful using Social Media to market your start-up you will need to Plan, Manage and Optimise. Planning, managing and optimising social media for a start-up really warrants a post itself, but here is a brief overview of what you need to do to be successful:

  • Plan: Before setting up on any channel, read about what works and what doesn’t, and what techniques are working well within your industry. Shameless plug: Smart Insights guides provide both handy overviews and great in-depth advice for all the major social networks. Construct a plan for each channel first, and only create accounts on the channels you think you can really use. I’d advise you start out with the larger platforms; Facebook and Twitter, and depending on the nature of your start-up, then branch out to others. If it is a stylish and visually appealing product that is associated with a certain lifestyle, sharing images via Instagram or Pinterest may be a good bet. If the product has an audio dimension (maybe it’s an app that can read newspapers via a Smartphone camera and then turn them into audio recordings), then having a Sound Cloud account could be a good idea.
  • Manage: Whatever you do, don’t go setting up accounts on as many social platforms as you can and then abandon them when you realise you don’t have the time to manage them all and have no content to publish on them. This will look unprofessional and you risk potential customers/clients either being put off or attempting to contact you via the channel but for you to not see their messages because you never log in. For all the accounts you do set up, make sure you manage them, post to them regularly and answer customer questions. Also make sure to have common branding across accounts so your accounts are all pulling in the same direction and none are undermining your brand.
  • Optimise: To build a following, post content as regularly as you can manage without taking up too much of your time, and interact with other people and companies pages. Particularly on Twitter, interaction is a great way to gain visibility, as your interactions with other accounts will often be re-tweeted by the account owner if the interaction was positive. Find out what goes down well with your audience and aim to produce more of that kind of content. Social media is not a virtual silver bullet, so don’t expect huge results straight away. You’ll have to work hard to build up a big audience, but because of the low barriers to entry and the low costs of using the platforms it is a great place to start for start-ups.

When using social media, make sure to take advantage of something major companies can’t match you on; personality. Your small size means you can engage with your audience much more authentically than larger brands. You don’t have any form of stymying corporate culture, which gives you far more freedom to be witty, funny or clever. Having a genuine personality will reward you with a more loyal following. People are much more willing to do someone a favour if they feel like they know them than if they are a faceless corporation.

Step 3: Run a regular newsletter to build an email list via voluntary organic opt-ins. This will create your future customer base.

Hopefully, your social media channels will get people aware of your offering and start to generate a loyal following of people interested in your start-up. Email is the channel that consistently offers the best ROI, but only if done right. Some brands conduct email marketing campaigns by paying data-owners big sums of money for access to their databases of email addresses and then sending out vast numbers of emails which may have low click rates and low open rates if not well targeted. There is nothing wrong with this tactic if it is working, but for you as a start-up, you won’t have the cash for buying big lists of email addresses to send out E-shots to.

Start a simple newsletter to let people know how about the existing developments with your product. It may be that you’re still tweaking the design and adding new features. Loyal fans will want to know about this. A monthly newsletter is probably best if you don’t have much time to spend on it, but bi-weekly or even weekly could also be very effective if you have the time to create the content regularly. Tell your fans about this newsletter via your social channels and on your website, and prompt them to sign up, whilst promising them that they won’t receive any spam from 3rd parties. This will reduce people’s hesitations to giving away their email address. Make sure to keep up your side of the bargain though. Don’t spam your audience with sales emails and don’t sell your email list to third parties if you’ve told people signing up they won’t be getting emails from third parties. This is common sense, but if it did happen it could be a PR disaster.

When it comes to using your email list to sell, do so softly without being spammy. Use product announcements and perhaps the odd offer in your newsletter to nudge your loyal followers towards conversion. If you were to send them regular emails that are just trying to get them to buy they are likely to unsubscribe from your list.

Step 4: Use excitement to increase reach via PR campaigns.

This goes back to point one; you have to utilise the strength of your idea to increase your reach far more than one would normally be able to on a shoestring marketing budget. Rather than taking out ads, contact journalists about how your product is going to change things in your industry, challenge the establishment or just simply make people smile. Whatever it is that your start-up does, getting a lot of press attention around it is probably the single most effective away to generate a huge reach without spending a huge amount on advertising.

"If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I'd spend it on PR!" – Bill Gates

Work on your pitch, keep it short, snappy and exciting, and start contacting journalists. You may have to try a huge number before you get success, but once you are in one magazine, news site or paper, then others will sit up and start paying attention.

Step 5: Reward loyal followers to increase engagement

Your social media followers will have been helping you increase your reach at no extra cost throughout this process by sharing stories to their communities which will allow you to get your offering heard by many more people than would have been possible without them. If you are really lucky you may even have had some content go viral and shared exponentially to reach even more than your established competition could with a significant ad spend.

Once your start-up is into the swing of things, has launched its product/service and is starting to make sales, you should reward your followers/email subscribers with special offers and let them know you are grateful for them being with you along the bumpy ride from young start-up to flourishing company. This isn’t just worth doing because it’s a nice thing to do, it will help you retain that nucleolus of loyal followers and brand advocates which helps you to punch above your weight in reach and conversions. Word of mouth is hard to measure but extremely effective, and stories about a good experience with a brand can have a huge effect on purchasing decisions. Being generous to your fans can thus make great business sense. It will also help build your following which will in turn help you with email sign ups and improve your reach and positive PR. Rewarding loyal customers can create a powerful virtuous cycle.


Follow these five steps to market your start up effectively on a small budget. You will need determination and a fantastic product to succeed, but the rewards are potentially enormous. These steps won’t be enough on their own but provide a useful starting framework. Be agile, seek out the best advice you can find and always do your research before diving in blind. You don’t have time and money to waste getting things wrong. Needless to say, I think Smart Insights guides are a place to get the advice you’ll need to market your start-up effectively, so have a look around the site and see if you could stand to benefit from expert membership.

Image credits: Place it; pustovit and Elliott Brown
Auhtor's avatar

By Robert Allen

I was the Editor of Smart Insights between 2015-2017. I managed the blog and you will find blog articles on a range of subjects- Marketing Technology trends and latest tech developments are a regular focus, as well as exploring key marketing concepts. You can get in touch with me on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn. The new Editor is Carolanne Mangles.

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