Trailblaze & Grow

Trailblaze & GrowMarketing Insights from the Front Lines

Product-market fit

Four Steps to Achieving Product/Market Fit

Many startups fail because of the dreaded product/market fit.  Marc Andreesen claims that market is the most important factor in a startup’s success or failure. Great products and competitive prices will not help your company capture market share on their own. To build a solid customer base, gauge consumer desires and build your products to fulfill them by focusing on:

1. Discerning Needs

It’s important to gauge the desires of your target market. You should read review sites and perform a competitive analysis, but the best insights come directly from consumers, or businesses, depending on whether your are B2C or B2B. Survey past customers to see what they liked and didn’t like and open your website to public reviews. Open surveys and review requests demonstrate transparency, honesty, and trust in your customers perceptions. If you don’t have customers, lean on your network or offer your product for free to those who take your survey.

Remember, many consumers look beyond functionality and price. There are many inputs into the value equation, including strong values, ease of use and design can improve the marketability of your brand and maybe capture a price premium.  For example, TOMS “One For One” value proposition drives price premiums and fuels word of mouth marketing.  The company that capitalized on the power of good design, Apple focused on slick design and usability to overtake the consumer electronics category.

2.  Beta Testing

Beta testing can be used to confirm that your product meets your target market’s need, as well as identify the most highly valued features of your product or service. After bugs found during internal (alpha) testing have been addressed, the company offers a select group of customers the opportunity to try the product out. These customers report their experiences to the company, allowing for further improvements before the product is released to general audiences.

Beyond finding bugs, beta testing is useful for getting customers to share their favorite product features, which may be different than the ones you expected. For example, a language learning software publisher may include a microphone to practice pronunciations as well as a feature that translates whole sentences from the target language. While the company expects consumers to focus on the pronunciation feature, it is prepared to update its messaging hierarchy if beta testers report that they valued the translation feature more than any other feature.

Lastly, beta testing can create a buzz — good and bad.  This is why the product must go through extensive alpha testing prior to the testing phase.

3.  Solidifying Your UVPs

With a few changes in messaging and offerings, your company can become wildly more successful.  Once you know what customers want, begin fine-tuning your messaging. Begin building your messaging hierarchy by mapping needs to features to benefits.  Next, understand what your competition offers and describe how your business uniquely delivers these to develop your unique value propositions (UVP).  Focus on using language that your customers will easily understand and avoid company-centric language.

Sometimes you will have to bundle more functionality and service levels into your baseline product. All the features that set you apart from the competition add to your value proposition, even if customers do not pay for them. If your business provides better customer service than the rest, make sure your marketing reflects these superior service levels. Customers may not pay for you to talk on the phone with them, but knowing that you’ll quickly and politely answer their phone requests may earn their loyalty and even encourage them to spread the word.

4.  Generating Demand

Demand generation begins with an effective messaging hierarchy and marketing mix that is focused on the target market. The optimal marketing mix will vary wildly by the target market and the available budget.  If possible, test your way into every channel.  Once you understand the proper mix based on your target and budget, you will be in a better position to create an integrated marketing plan that optimizes PR, social media, email, search and other forms of advertising.

The above steps are as much art as they are science.  I recommend getting advice from people who have experience in achieving product/market fit to help guide you through the (at times frustrating) process.  There are no shortcuts.  The road is paved with unexpected learnings and well-executed pivots.

Weekly Roundup

Weekly Roundup: Joining a Startup, Staying Lean, Thought Leadership and more!

As you know, we share two of our favorite articles and blog posts each day. For those of you who do not have time to read each of them, we have compiled the top 5 articles that have been shared the most:

1. Small, Young, Cash Strapped and Lean? Good.  http://ow.ly/2ZlZsb via Brady Josephson of Huffington Post

2. How To Create A Thought Leadership Strategy That Supports True Innovation http://ow.ly/2Z716T via SAP

3. 5 Things Every Startup Should Know About Hiring http://ow.ly/2ZlZs9 via Carlo Cisco of Tech.co

4. Why I Left a Big Tech Company for a Small Startup http://ow.ly/2Z717j via Adrienne Wiessman

5. Building a Culture that Ensures Your Company’s Success http://ow.ly/NJTrV via Trailblaze Growth Advisors

What was your favorite?

Strong Culture

Building a Culture that Ensures Your Company’s Success

Entrepreneurs often overlook company culture during their first weeks in business. While many prioritize other aspects of their business, they risk sacrificing a potential differentiator. A company’s culture is vital to securing a good reputation, encouraging employee loyalty, and fostering collaboration with other businesses. Whatever your other responsibilities, it’s essential to begin building a corporate culture from day one by:

Veering Toward Values

The first step is to identify specific values that you can easily be put into practice. Generic values like equality, innovation, and employee safety are good at the start, but focus on values that relate specifically to your business. If your company provides home insulation services, for example, you have the potential to reduce your customers’ household energy use and associated pollution, so environmental sustainability will be an easy value to promote in your ordinary business practices. Likewise, if you work in software or network design, information security and privacy protection are ideal values.

For example, Trailblaze Growth Advisors ties its values to helping firms of all sizes improve their appeal and increase profitability. Our values include:

  • Hands-On Operations – The Trailblaze team doesn’t advise from the sidelines. We involve ourselves in your business as directly as possible and offer practical solutions for specific problems.
  • Pursuing Perfection – We constantly seek new information, learning as much as possible, so that we never encounter a problem we don’t know how to solve. Whenever our efforts fall short, we learn from our mistakes and improve our company.
  • Cultivating Collaboration – We incorporate as many experiences and opinions as possible, working with experts from all fields to find the best solutions.
  • Guaranteeing Our Goals – We set clear objectives and always fulfill or exceed them.

Draw Up Documents

Once you’ve decided on values for your business, make sure to articulate them to employees and customers alike. Write all of your values down, incorporate them into training programs, and devote a page of your company website to them. The sooner you make your values clear, the easier it is for your employees to embody them, and the quicker your business will gain a reputation for them.

Articulating company values also gives your employees a chance to become involved in the emerging corporate culture. Encourage them to read through the values, identify omissions, and make suggestions for improvement. The more involved your employees are in this process, the more motivated they will be to promote your company culture and the better that culture will reflect your employees’ attitudes and actions.

Construct a Culture

Putting your company culture into action means giving credit to every employee who promotes that culture. Any of your employees’ actions that embody your values, however small, should be met with praise. Consider holding monthly ceremonies in which you publicly recognize employees who promoted your values and reward them with raises or prizes. Keep permanent records of these achievements on your website or on plaques. You must also negatively sanction employees who fail to live up to your values, giving them an ultimatum to comply. One unfaithful employee can give the whole company a bad reputation.

As the leadership team, you must embody your company’s values in all areas of your life, and not just at work. If one of your values is sustainability, for example, consider insulating your home, installing solar panels, and biking to work. The more commitment you show to your culture, the more it will be taken seriously.

Engender Evolution

As your business grows, attracts new customers, and responds to changes in technology, your company’s culture will have to adapt. Encourage your employees to discuss your values and find new ways of promoting them in the changing market. Your company will change, but as long as it remains committed to its core values, it can continue to garner respect among employees, customers, and the business community.

Don’t overlook something as crucial as culture. Check out our sources to learn more about founding a company on strong values.

Sources:

  • #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amorusa
  • http://www.inc.com/eat-big-fish/why-successful-start-ups-need-to-build-a-culture-of-overcoming.html
  • http://venturebeat.com/2012/05/14/startup-culture-tips/
  • http://www.forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2013/10/04/how-to-build-a-great-company-culture/
  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-hill/small-business-success-advice-_b_1564803.html;
  • https://hbr.org/2015/04/why-company-culture-is-a-misleading-term; www.entrepreneur.com/article/242141

Photo credit: Orin Zebest / Foter / CC BY

Weekly Roundup

Weekly Roundup: Unicorns, False Assumptions, New EU Tax Rules and more!

As you know, we share two of our favorite articles and blog posts each day.  For those of you who do not have time to read each of them, we have compiled the top 5 articles that have been shared the most:

1.  Why False Assumptions and Wrong Metrics Can Kill Your Marketing Success  via Susanna Gebauer

2. The 3 Competitive Defenses of Enduring SaaS Companies  via Tomasz Tunguz at Redpoint

3. The Most Important Advice I Could Give You About Unicorns http://ow.ly/2YLPTO via Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures

4. How Will the EU’s New Value Added Tax (VAT) Rules Impact US Based Businesses? http://ow.ly/2YLPTv via Ed Leiber and Small Business Trends

5. Simple Market Research for Your Business Plan   via Trailblaze Growth Advisors

What was your favorite?

BusinessPlan

Simple Market Research for Your Business Plan

Whether you are a massive corporation or a fledgling startup, understanding your market is absolutely essential. Without a deep understanding of your industry, your competition will quickly outflank you and leave you wondering where it all went wrong.

Fortunately, there are more resources for conducting business research than ever before — provided you know how to use them.

The following is a basic roadmap that can help you analyze your industry and draft a coherent business strategy that you can use to grow your business as fast as possible.

Before investing in any strategy, one of the first steps you must take is market research.

Would you play a game like Risk without knowing the rules? A few might decide to do so, but those are the people who often find themselves outmatched by the people who spent the time to understand the mechanics of the game and perhaps even some possible strategies.

Business works the same way, except, of course, for the fact that the stakes tend to be much higher — your career and your money, your investors’ money or both. It makes sense, then, that you should spend some time conducting market research on your particular industry, which you can then use to inform your overall business strategy.

What does market research actually entail?

The first step in conducting market research is to look at what competitors are doing and saying. Often, you can get a fairly clear picture of an industry by reading company blogs and publications to which industry experts frequently contribute. You should also be able to find news stories about market strategies that other companies — in other words, your competitors — have utilized. Instead of wasting precious time and resources learning from your own mistakes, you can instead learn from the mistakes and successes of others in your industry. Right off the bat, this will help close the gap between you and the more established players in your field.

It’s also important to understand how the industry itself measures success. What does a promising and/or successful company look like? How did it get to where it is? What are the key performance indicators that are used to measure one company’s success against others?

You should also learn about the size of the overall market and any specific or related sectors that could come into play. Knowing whether and where the industry is growing is important, as well.

It’s also critically important that you understand the regulations on the federal, state and local levels with which you will need to contend. Not only that, but in today’s politically volatile environment, it’s just as important to stay abreast of where the political winds are blowing with regard to your industry, so you can be prepared if and when regulatory changes come knocking.

Finally, you need to understand what you need to get started. Do you need investors? What are operating costs going to be as you grow? What expenses will increase with size, and which will benefit from economies of scale?

Once you have analyzed the answers to these questions, your business strategy should start to naturally take shape. Of course, it can be helpful to consult with an expert (or a team of experts) that really knows how to market your business, so your business strategy can be leveraged within your particular industry.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources on the Internet, as well as marketing experts available for hire, who can help ensure that your business is as successful as it deserves to be.

Photo credit: Bert Kaufmann / Foter / CC BY

Weekly Roundup

Weekly Roundup: Consumer Engagement, Big Data, KPIs and more!

We got great feedback from last week’s roundup, so we’re going to continue providing you with our lates top 5 every Friday.

As you know, we share two of our favorite articles and blog posts each day. For those of you who do not have time to read each of them, we have compiled the top 5 articles that have been shared the most:

1.  Friday Is When Consumer Is Most Engaged With Their Phones [Report] http://ow.ly/2Yj6Ta  via NextBigWhat and InMobi

2. Big Data Driven Decisions http://ow.ly/2Yj6SU via Business 2 Community

3. The Marketing Trends That Will Drive Your Business in the Next 5 Years http://ow.ly/2Yj6SL via Business 2 Community

4. 3 Simple Secrets to Marketing Absolutely Anything (Including Yourself) http://ow.ly/2Yj6Ti via The Muse and Alex Honeysett

5. Best Marketing KPIs to Track Your Business Success  /insights via Trailblaze Growth Advisors

What was your favorite?

Dashboard

Best Marketing KPIs to Track Your Business Success

As marketing has become more advanced and targeted, it has also become increasingly important to understand the specific metrics with which effective marketing is measured. These metrics, more commonly known as KPIs (key performance indicators), are a powerful way to determine which marketing tactics and strategies are most effective. Used properly, they can dramatically improve your marketing tactics.

Digital marketing has quickly become the driving sector in the overall marketing industry. This is largely thanks to the fact that close to half of the world population, or about 3 billion people, now use the Internet on a regular basis. As a result, it should come as no surprise that many of the most important KPIs involve the Internet and digital marketing in one way or another.

While each business will have different KPIs, these are some of the most important marketing ones to pay attention to:

1. Cost per lead

Understanding how much it costs to acquire a lead is as important for a startup company as it is for a well-established corporation. If nothing else, understanding what makes the cost per lead increase (or preferably, decrease) can be a powerful marketing tool that improves profit margins. Beyond that, however, understanding what it costs to acquire a lead can be used as the basis for understanding whether or not a marketing campaign is a worthwhile investment or not.

2. Ratio of leads to qualified leads

One of the greatest advantages of digital marketing is the ability to highly target leads. In fact, if you are not targeting leads on a particularly granular scale, you are all but certainly wasting marketing resources in an inefficient marketing campaign. One of the best ways to determine whether your marketing campaign is appropriately targeted is by comparing the ratio of total leads to qualified leads, and ultimately the ratio of each of those metrics to an overall conversion rate. A small number of high-quality and highly-targeted leads are significantly better than a massive number of unqualified leads.

3. Return on investment

Return on investment, or ROI, is as important in marketing as it is in many other aspects of business. With marketing, ROI is used to determine which marketing tactics and strategies are most effective (as well as which ones are not), and can have a substantial impact on determining which marketing strategies will be used moving forward.  In the subscription world, you’ll pay closer attention to customer acquisition cost, or CAC.

4. Lifetime value of a customer

The lifetime value of a customer is a bedrock metric for any business, and it can help determine the marketing framework as well. Ultimately, understanding that the lifetime value of a customer is particularly high (for example) can help to justify the upfront costs of qualifying leads and then acquiring them. On the flip side, a low lifetime value might mean the marketing campaign needs to be as streamlined and bare-bones as possible.  In the subscription world, you should be tracking the churn rate (or retention rate if you want to keep a positive mindset) and the average monthly revenue per customer to calculate LTV.

5. Net Promoter Score (NPS)

The Net Promoter Score is based on the theory that customers who are strong proponents of your company are highly valuable. These “loyal enthusiasts” are a powerful source of referral business, and can be a major factor in the long-term viability and health of a company.

The NPS theory can basically be boiled down to this: customers who rate their overall experience with your company a “9” or “10” out of 10, are likely to be “promoters”, or customers who will dramatically improve a number of KPIs, including cost per lead (thanks to free referrals), lifetime value of a customer (thanks to loyal repeat customers), return on investment (again, thanks to the long-term value of customers), and numerous others.  While it might seem difficult to attain a 9 or 10, the reality is that anything lower (7-8 is considered “passive” and 0 to 6 is considered a “detractor” rating) will not be beneficial to one’s business.

The Net Promoter Score, along with the rest of the KPIs listed above, can and should be used to measure the strength or weakness of your marketing campaign. You can rest assured that your competitors are doing the same.

Photo credit: stratman² (2 many pix!) / Furniture Fair / CC BY-NC-ND

Weekly Roundup

Weekly Roundup: Online Privacy, Decision Science, Content Marketing and more!

This week we are trying something new.  As you know, we share two of our favorite articles and blog posts each day.  For those of you who do not have time to read each of them, we have compiled the top 5 articles that have been shared the most:

1.  The results driven approach to blogging via The Next Web

2. Online privacy and security: the impact of constantly changing social media settings on users’ privacy  via FastHosts

3. How Decision Science Can Improve Your Sales and Marketing  via Intuit QuickBooks

4. 21 Most Distrusted (and trusted) US Companies!  via Gerry Moran and the Temkin Group

5. Four Reasons Why Content Marketing Drives Traffic (and Revenue) via Trailblaze Growth Advisors

We will continue to provide our insights, but wanted your feedback on whether we should add this to our rotation of content.  Is this useful for you?

Content Marketing Generates Revenue

Four Reasons Why Content Marketing Drives Traffic (and Revenue)

Many experts predict that 2015 will be a big year for content marketing. According to recent studies, more than half of content marketing budgets will be increased in 2015, and content marketing alone will be a $100 billion industry sometime in the near future.

There is no question that content marketing is increasingly being adopted and expanded across a wide range of industries and economic sectors. The real question is: why?

The bottom line is that content marketing has proven to be an effective way to drive both traffic and revenue to companies, often at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing efforts. The following are a few of the specific ways that content marketing can help drive both traffic and revenue to your company.

High-quality content is essential to getting ranked on Google

Over the years, Google has made constant updates to its search engine in an effort to serve better results to their users. One of the ways Google has accomplished this is by directly combating marketing firms that tried to “game” the search engine by simply “keyword stuffing” low-quality content. In the past, these low-quality articles could often find themselves at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs), even though they were clearly not the best result for users. In response, Google has changed their algorithm to highly value quality of content over simply the right quantity of words.

These ongoing changes mean that it is increasingly important for marketers to produce high-quality content that provides useful and unique information. Doing so can mean the difference between being highly ranked on Google and not showing up at all.

Content marketing is a one-time cost that results in long-term benefits that aggregate

Content marketing is one of the most cost-effective methods for building web traffic and sales, when looking at the long-term. While it can take some time for the benefits of content marketing to really show themselves, it is important to remember two characteristics of content marketing:

  • Content written is paid for once, but the benefits essentially exist in perpetuity, as the content will remain on the Internet for a long as a company chooses to keep it there.
  •  As the number of content pieces builds, a company can provide an increasingly comprehensive store of related information, which is valued both by a company’s target audience and by Google’s search algorithms.

Content is an effective way to convert traffic into revenue

Studies also increasingly show that Internet users (and particularly Millennials) do not like, and will not respond positively to the “hard sell”. Content marketing allows a company to position the benefits and rationale for a product or service in a non-threatening and non-aggressive way. At the same time, content can provide a powerful and convincing argument for an idea, product, or service without coming across as simply a sales tactic.

Content marketing is a great way to engage with your audience and build brand awareness

Content marketing is one of the best returns on investment in any marketing budget because the brand awareness it can help generate is long-lasting and comes at far less cost than more traditional paid advertising. At the same time, content marketing encourages an audience to engage with the company, and with each other, through a commenting system or on social media platforms.

At the end of the day, content marketing is popular because it is an effective way to reach your target audience in a friendly and engaging, yet also informative and persuasive way.

Sources

http://www.marketo.com/infographics/content-marketing-vs-traditional-advertising/
http://www.allocadia.com/cmo/marketing-spending-rise-focus-digital-social-content/
http://heidicohen.com/why-content-marketing-is-more-effective-than-digital-advertising-research/

Photo credit: itsmeritesh / Foter / CC BY-SA

Fundatmental Truths

Five Fundamental Truths from an Entrepreneur

April marks the 2-year anniversary for Trailblaze Growth Advisors. In that time, I have learned a great deal about what it means to be an entrepreneur and what it takes to succeed when I am directly responsible for my ultimate success or failure.

Being an entrepreneur is the most difficult but rewarding experience I have ever embarked upon. Looking back, I am so glad that I decided to make the difficult leap, and I hope that the fundamental truths I learned along the way can help other aspiring entrepreneurs on their journey.

According to a study by the Kauffman Foundation, the number of new businesses started by entrepreneurs is starting to increase to levels not seen since before the 2008 Great Recession, and furthermore is trending toward the massive numbers (in excess of 85%) seen during the boom times of the 1990s. In addition, the Wall Street Journal has reported that about 54 million Americans – or about one-third of the workforce – are now freelancers or contractors, and that number is expected to increase over the next few years.

Clearly, the trend is moving toward Americans charting their own path through entrepreneurialism, and my hope is that the lessons learned by previous and current generations of entrepreneurs – myself included – can be used to the benefit of the new generation.

With that said, the following are five fundamental truths I have learned over the past years as the founder of Trailblaze Growth Advisors.

Prepare for the leap

There is no question that making the transition from a full-time salaried employee to an entrepreneur with no income guarantee is scary. If you are fortunate enough to still have a “regular” job, make the most of this time by preparing for the leap to full-time entrepreneurialism.

Take this time to aggressively network with your target market. Make as many connections as you can, and try to establish yourself well before actually giving up the regular paycheck. If at all possible, try to start your entrepreneurial venture as a part-time project while keeping your job, so that you can make the transition as smooth as possible.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

One truth that I actually found to be a bit surprising at first is how willing people are to help. The concept of paying it forward is alive and well, particularly among fellow entrepreneurs.

You should learn as much as you can from experts in your field and anyone else that has experience and expertise that could benefit you and your business. The key, of course, is to ask for their help. Don’t be afraid to ask, and remember to return the favor when you are in a position to help an aspiring entrepreneur sometime in the future.

Always remember that you are the face of your company

As the founder of your company, you are the brand – particularly during the early stages. In addition, you are the Chief Sales Person at your company. Every major deal will ultimately involve you, even if you have hired a sales team. For people who are natural introverts (like myself), this can be a challenging truth, but ignoring it, or pretending that it isn’t the truth, is simply counterproductive.

You need to always be ready to give an elevator speech and a sales pitch. If you are an introvert, that just means you need to put more effort into practicing.

Don’t sacrifice your being

This is perhaps the hardest lesson to actually execute. When you are starting a business, you are going to be working nights, weekends, and holidays. In order to differentiate yourself from your better-established competition, you are going to have to work far harder than them. However, it is absolutely imperative that you also reserve time for you. Stay active and exercise, meditate (if you don’t meditate, you need to learn—it is an absolutely essential practice for an entrepreneur’s mental health), make time to spend with family and friends, and do your best to maintain a hobby you genuinely enjoy.

The importance of making time for yourself cannot be overstated. If necessary, write it down into your schedule as an appointment to yourself!

Balance being flexible and knowing when to say no

When I was first starting out, I wanted to accommodate every client that came my way. Conceptually this makes sense, since the need to generate revenue for the business is paramount in the early stages. However, the reality is that not every client and customer is going to be worth the time it would take to provide them with the level of customer service you want to provide. Not all customers are profitable, so learning how and when to say “no” is an essential part of being a successful entrepreneur.

Hopefully you can learn something from the fundamental truths I learned during my first two years of Trailblaze Growth Advisors. It has been a great ride, and I am proud to say that Trailblaze Growth Advisors was named a “rising star” of VentureScape’s Office Hours Class of 2015 by John Backus.  Feel free to reach out to me any time at info@tbgrowthadvisors.com.

Photo credit: Julian Partridge / Foter / CC BY-SA