Like many startups, my company put very little thought into marketing or business development. To us, they were activities you would only engage in if you had a weak product. We had a great product roadmap and were poised to own the software development work market. But halfway into a pitch with a renowned VC in San Francisco, the VC threw up his hands. “Why do you TechStars and YC guys always think everything is a product problem?” he asked. “Don’t you realize you have a marketing problem on your hands?”
Turns out he was right — very right. Fast-forward a few months later to today: Marketing and customer and business development are high-priority activities that are right up with there with coding and design. They’re embraced as part of our weekly sprints, sitting alongside feature sets.
Unfortunately, marketing and general business development are also the core elements of schlep, a broad category that encompasses everything that is not fun. Paul Graham calls the unwillingness to address such issues, “Schlep Blindness.” “Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in — without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people’s broken code,” says Graham.
Like most hackers, startups begin with an aversion to engage in marketing and business development. They look for that product that is trivially scalable, with a value proposition so obvious, solving a pain of such unbelievable proportions that is self-discoverable and viral. Unfortunately, that product doesn’t exist.
Founders need to identify and deal with the schlep inherent in their businesses. Schlep comes in various guises and flavors: initial traction, achieving virality, winning reference accounts, and getting reviewed by big blogs or media outlets. Each is done with the goal of getting the flywheel going, i.e., achieving effective viral coefficients, landing that marquee customer your other customers recognize, and generating buzz.
As it turns out, the bigger the problem a startup is solving, the bigger the schlep. But as going through the process, it’s good to remember that some of today’s winners had to go through lots of schlep to get to where they are now. Instagram recruited bloggers as early users. Github and Heroku spent quality time with developers at Ruby meetups to recruit early adopters. Airbnb schlepped their stuff all the way to New York to photograph apartments themselves.
Like all things unpleasant that are good for you, the best way to deal with marketing and business development is to jump in and embrace it. Get used to talking to users to win them over in sets of one or two, reaching out to small blogs to get them to use your product and feature it, making phone calls, calling favors, going through your yearbook, and seeing what people who went to school with you are doing.
You will take meetings that will get you more meetings. You will sign deals that you did not expect to sign, your product will be used in unintended ways, and you will learn a ton about your product and its users!
Some schlep goes away as your business grows and scales up. Other kinds stay with you forever. Schlep forces you, in the words of Steve Blank, to “get out of the building” and learn about customer pains. It will help you prioritize features and platforms, come out with new features or potentially pivot. It will save you time and money in the process of building a great product and ultimately a great company.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]