An Early-stage Startup Marketing Handbook

An Early-stage Startup Marketing Handbook

This is for y’all one-person marketing “teams” and founders out there. I feel you and this is my attempt to help.

Disclaimer: I’ll be heavily borrowing from my favorite marketers and newsletters: Elena Verna, Leah Tharin, MKT1, Kyle Poyar, Lenny Rachitsky, Julian Shapiro, April Dunford, Kevin Indig, Reforge, Demand Curve


Part 1: Getting Things Straight

Look, startups are amazing; they’re fresh, energetic, and full of hope.

But, let’s be real for a second – marketing in a startup is rough.

There’s no money. There’s no data. There’s no clear Ideal Customer Profile. The product is full of bugs. The landing page sucks. And brand? Are you kidding me?

It’s like assembling IKEA furniture. You’ve got a rough idea, some tools, and instructions in a language you barely understand. Fun, right?

But the fun doesn’t end there.

In most startups, the marketing department, if you can even call it that, is just…well, you. Just a one-person team. You’re the whole orchestra and you better play every instrument.

Imagine all the fun you can have under all this responsibility.

Every dollar you put into marketing is a dollar less for product development. And, you don’t have the privilege of past data. You know, the comfort of thinking, “Hey, this worked last time!” You’re basically setting sail without a map.

შtarting from scratch is both a curse and a blessing. There’s no legacy, no baggage – sounds great, right? But it also means there’s no established voice, no brand presence. You’re creating everything on the fly while trying to ensure it all makes sense.

Sure, the title might say “Growth Marketer”, “Marketing Manager” or even “CMO”, but come on, when you’re in a startup you’re the plumber, the electrician, and occasionally, the gardener too.

I would know. I’m a founder and I’ve been a one-man marketing “team” here at Kernel for years. So this is for ya’ll solo startup marketers and founders out there – a handbook for startup marketing.

But first I’ve got a bone to pick with some of the startup founders.

Founders, Curb Your Ego

Here’s a scene I’ve witnessed too often: founders believing they can wear the marketing hat just as effectively as their entrepreneurial one.

I mean, how hard can it be?

“I can create Facebook ads. I can build a website on Wix. I can write blog posts and send emails and honestly, my product is so good and there’s such a big need for it that it’s basically gonna sell itself.”

  • Says literally everyone who’s been a founder for less than 60 days.

Sure, good for you. Get back to me in a few months when reality slaps you.

In this oversaturated world we live in today, people will NOT find your product on their own, and mediocre marketing won’t get you anywhere either.

Bottomline – unless you’re a marketing founder with co-founders to take on business and product leadership roles – running a marketing engine is not your responsibility.

You have a product to build, a vision to validate, people to hire, customers to interview, decks to pitch, and a shitload of money to raise.

Nope. You should NOT have time to be a full-time marketer. If you do, you’re doing something wrong.

So, curb your ego and either get yourself a marketing co-founder or onboard a full-time π-Shaped marketer.

π-shaped marketers are like T-shaped marketers, but instead of having depth in 1 area, they have depth in 2 and competency in other areas. For example, they could be an expert in product marketing, and proficient in growth marketing.

Having said that, let’s define the type of marketing early-stage startups should be doing.

Marketing in an Early-stage Startup Needs to Be Product-led

What’s the one goal every early-stage startup has?

To find the product-market fit, of course.

And what does the PMF mean in its simplest form?

It means building the right product for the right audience.

If your product is amazing, but no one finds it, it fails. If your marketing attracts millions of people, but they hate the product, it fails. To make this relationship work you need to be product-led.

Product-led marketing is NOT just about grabbing leads! Nope. It’s a marriage between the product, marketing, and customer success. It’s about escorting users through every twist and turn of their journey—from the ‘Aha!’ moment they realize they need your product, right down to the sad (or happy) day they decide to part ways.

Marketers like this have one leg in the marketing boat and the other in the product. Sometimes they’re called growth marketers, sometimes product marketers but it really doesn’t matter.

The true essence of product-led marketing isn’t just about knowing the ins and outs of what you’re selling—it’s about deeply understanding who you’re selling to.

In fact, think of it as audience marketing. It’s not about the tool, gadget, or app. It’s about the people whose lives you’re aiming to transform with your creation.

Being an effective product-led marketer starts from deep audience knowledge, then deep product knowledge, and not the other way around.

This is a person who can nail the communication, create content, build landing pages, set up and optimize campaigns and analytics, design onboarding experiments, handle lifecycle marketing, and conduct customer interviews.

They are the whole orchestra and this handbook is their sheet music.

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Start with Positioning

For many businesses, it’s an overlooked aspect, but positioning is essential for setting the right context for your product.

What is Positioning, Anyway?

Imagine watching a movie without an opening scene. You’d be lost, right? Positioning is similar to that opening scene. It establishes the setting and provides clarity.

April Dunford, the world’s leading authority on positioning says:

“Positioning defines how your product is a leader at delivering something that a well-defined set of customers cares a lot about.”

Positioning encompasses a particular set of components. The magic lies in understanding these components and their relationship with each other.

Consider positioning as context-setting for your products. Much like that first scene in a movie that lays out the setting. It addresses the critical questions:

  • If you didn’t exist what would customers use?
  • What features/capabilities do you have that others do not?
  • What value do these attributes enable for customers?
  • Who cares a lot about that value?
  • What context makes the value obvious to your target segments?

Once these questions are answered, both you and your customers can dive deeper into the product’s nuances.

  • Good positioning sparks a set of assumptions about your product that align with reality. It ensures your product is perceived in the light you intended.
  • Bad positioning can cause misaligned assumptions, making your sales and marketing teams work twice as hard to correct any misconceptions.

Remember, the opening scene in a movie sets the tone for the entire film. Similarly, the positioning of your product establishes the foundational perception in your customers’ minds.

Do it right, and your product’s narrative will seamlessly flow. Do it wrong, and you’ll be constantly course-correcting.

In the next part, we’ll be taking this positioning framework and using it as a foundation for the whole marketing engine, starting with marketing assets and advertising engine and ending with content strategy and brand.

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