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Braving the Wilderness: Tactics for Survival in Your Company’s Early Stages

Surviving the Getting to Product/Market Fit Stage

104 degrees. That is the temperature in Texas today, and I am currently in the middle of a wilderness survival course. What in the world am I thinking?

And sure, this course isn’t easy on a sweltering day like today. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t learned a lot. And one day, who knows?

These lessons may just save my life.

So far, I’ve learned how to build fires with magnesium, flint and steel and the primitive bow drill. I’ve learned how to make myself a shelter. Next, I will learn how to source and filter water and how to navigate correctly with a map and compass.

But when I look back at all this work, I realize that all of these skills seem utterly unnecessary in our comfortable, high tech 21st-century existence. So again I have to ask myself, why am I doing this?

I find that this is the same question many entrepreneurs seem to be asking themselves. Building a company from scratch can often feel as if we have been abandoned smack dab in the middle of the wild.

And I’m starting to see now that I can apply these wilderness survival lessons to so much more than my hiking hobby. When you outlive the most extreme of circumstances, those inevitable takeaways will only enhance every other aspect of your life.

But more importantly, I’m learning that I’m just completely in love with the idea of self-reliance.

Imagine that you’re lost in the depths of the wild and not a soul in the world knows where you are. You'd better be ready for the long haul because like it or not; you are about to undergo possibly days upon days of self-reliance before anyone finds you. And if no one comes, the only one left to rescue you is yourself.

The early stages of building a company can feel as vast as a mountain range and if you’re going to survive it’s going to take great preparation.

The first step to proper preparation is prioritization. In my survival course, we learned first to prioritize our basic human needs; this is called “The Rule of 3’s”.

The Rule of 3’s

To survive, a human can last;

• 3 weeks without food

• 3 days without water

• 3 hours without shelter

• 3 minutes without air

• 3 seconds without the correct attitude.

Even though our stomachs may be growling, if we waste time procuring food before building shelter; the elements will quickly overtake us.

And in the untamed depths of entrepreneurship, we face the same problem.

Companies in the product/market fit stage are by nature pulled into many directions. However, in those early stages, you only have the financial capital, energy and focus to work on 3 priorities max. Fail to allocate those resources correctly, and the elements will ultimately overtake your company.

The Number One Priority of an Early Stage Company: Product/Market Fit

Over my years of working in early stage companies, I’ve come to develop a sense of where priorities should land. Whenever we feel like we are lost in the murk - coming back to these product/market priorities will always be our guiding light.

1. Identify market need by leading with unmet customer needs

You must build for yourself a clear idea of the market you’ll be playing in. Doing this successfully means identifying your potential pool of customers based on their unmet needs and defining who the competitors are in your industry and who are its’ market leaders.

Your customers will be the businesses who are burdened by a problem that your product addresses explicitly. They will value your advantages.

Discovering this market need is your most critical priority. If there is no market need, then back to the drawing board you go.

2. Develop the ideal customer profile and then segment the market

Your team must agree upon a thesis about who and what makes an ideal customer. Ideal customers value your unique advantages. Ask yourself this question - “if a customer understood our advantages, would they be crazy not to buy our product?”

If the answer is yes, and you know why the answer is yes - Bam! You are closer to finding your ideal customer. Next, bring your ideal customer to life in a profile. Include the pain your ideal customer will experience without your advantages, the cost of that pain and if there is a compelling event that requires them to solve the pain. Make sure that the attributes that make up this ideal customer are quantifiable. For example: Which 10X advantages do they most value? What's the cost to them if they don't buy your solution? Who in the company is actually negatively affected the most by not having your solution?

Having a hypothesis about your ideal customer built off the back of quantifiable attributes allows you to test and measure your value to the customer and uncover their "hair on fire" needs.

A beachhead attack – determining which segment you’ll target first, second, etc. will help you stay focused on the task a hand and find your ideal customer without wasting time and marketing dollars on an otherwise ineffective shotgun approach.

3. Know the 10X advantages for your ideal customer

This is Peter Thiel’s brainchild. He believed that you couldn’t just develop any technology; your technology must provide a 10X performance over the closest substitute.

Real advantages are mostly quantifiable - 1/10th of the cost, or 10X quicker or 10X easier, 10X more efficient, etc.

This isn’t always easy to do, but you need to know the 3-5 areas where you can provide the most compelling product advantages. Going through this exercise will help you get to the heart of your product’s value.

4. Build a minimal viable product that demonstrates the same advantages

Start small. Don’t try to boil the ocean with this one.

Focus instead on creating the 10X advantages with a few specific and potent features that demonstrate your product’s value – your unique advantages.

5. Iterate, iterate, iterate!

Collect feedback. Learn. Again and again and again.

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance

Early on in my class, we were given a straightforward strategy for wilderness survival. This strategy is called the 5 P’s; Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

Nothing could be truer.

Doing the hard work is critical to any venture’s success. You only get out what you put in. But work as hard as you want, if you are not focusing your efforts in the proper direction and if you are not executing with sharp focus - the elements will defeat you.

Proper planning prevents poor performance.

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