Originally published in forbes.com
The digital advertising and marketing industry is booming. With a market size projected to reach $946 billion by 2027, it’s no wonder that startups are flooding the market, trying to capitalize on the industry’s explosive growth. But 90% of startups fail. Starting a business in such a competitive market isn’t easy, and keeping a business afloat is arguably even more challenging. From my experience, one big reason for failure is that with a laser focus on the next big product, companies can lose sight of the most critical aspect of building a company: the go-to-market strategy.
I was one of those entrepreneurs: After co-founding Influ2 in 2018, my company almost didn’t survive, and I paid my team’s salaries from my own pocket for a while to stay in business. We got through it, and I learned valuable lessons about success from the experience. It doesn’t matter how great or innovative your product is; it doesn’t sell itself. Without an effective GTM strategy, you are dead in the water.
And developing such a strategy is not as easy as you might think. Every product requires its own GTM strategy, and no two GTM strategies are the same. You can’t simply copy one GTM strategy and execute it on a different product or in a new context and expect the same results. A good GTM approach is something you strategize, plan and execute. While you can pick up tips along the way from your previous product experiences or a marketing class, it is a trial-and-error process. You do your research, then come up with a hypothesis, try it, learn and continuously improve based on your failures and wins until you finally nail it. That is, until the next surprise.
Why is a good GTM strategy critical to success?
Many (if not most) startups are born when founders invent a product that solves one of their own nagging problems. Because the value is obvious to the entrepreneur, they often assume their market will readily “get it” and that adoption will spread quickly and widely. It’s often the reason new entrepreneurs prioritize their GTM strategy lower in the hierarchy of things to do. This can be an existential misstep.
For example, imagine that someone built an app that helps find diet food in nearby fast-food restaurants and then counts calories based on the meal the end user selects. Because the app developer eats at fast food restaurants and wants to stay healthy, they built the app for their own purposes and thought the value would be obvious to others. But now that the app is fully developed, it turns out the tool doesn’t meet the needs of most consumers. Why? Most people don’t look for fast food when on a diet. Had the developer paid attention to building a solid GTM strategy along with their product, they would have quickly uncovered the holes in their thinking and adapted it along the way—either finding the niche market or context where their product would play or adapting their product to appeal to whatever segments they were targeting.
Here are tips from the trenches that will help you build an effective GTM strategy and ultimately set your business on the early road to success:
1. Think about your GTM strategy as part of your innovation process.
Innovation applies not only to your product development but also to your GTM strategy. Entrepreneurs should think about product and GTM strategies in parallel as they influence one another. If your GTM strategy is simply “we will buy ads on Google,” your startup is doomed. Hundreds of tools buy ads on Google. Your product needs a unique and authentic value proposition and a related plan that is highly targeted.
2. Be ready to change course.
Before becoming an entrepreneur, I was tired of selling IT services. My dream was to build a product that sells itself and is at the core of company growth. The idea was to show potential customers our ability to select who will see their ads, demonstrating our ultra-personalization capabilities. Essentially, every ad we purchased would serve as a demo of our product. That product-led tactic worked for the first 20 clients. But it quickly became clear that this self-service model of the product doing the selling didn’t work. Prospects weren’t sure what they were witnessing when they saw those early ads. So, we amended our GTM and leaned toward a sales-led approach, building a sales development team to clarify our value proposition and creating an associated marketing plan. The point is this: As an entrepreneur, your assumptions will be tested, and change is inevitable. Expect it and be open to charting a better course.
3. Create an ‘unfair’ business advantage.
Every successful startup founder sees something no one else noticed. And the most successful of those companies break the rules (not the laws) to create “unfair” business advantages that solve authentic problems. My company, for example, gets person-based advertisements in front of only relevant people within a targeted account and tracks intent signs through an advanced AI-based algorithm. Most advertisers would have said our business is impossible, but our unique AI technology creates a never-before-considered business advantage. Look for unsolved problems and imagine making the impossible possible—that’s the genesis of an unfair business advantage.
4. Focus on customer fit.
No matter how unique a product is in its features or look and feel, it needs to solve a core problem to be successful. If the problem is unclear or without merit, the product will feel irrelevant no matter how well it works. Similarly, if the product is oriented to the wrong problem, no one will buy it. Do your research to make sure the market is there and that the product provides value to the segments it serves.
Many startup founders are laser-focused on creating innovative products. This drive is admirable, but to be successful, those innovative products must perform in the market. For market success, a well-designed, well-implemented GTM strategy is a critical piece of the puzzle.