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Episode 3: Marketing for Tech Start-ups

January 17, 2020
Lucy Woods Marketing for Tech Startups

In Episode 3 of the Content Conversations podcast, Lucy Mowatt speaks to Lucy Woods about marketing for tech start-ups. They discuss the challenges start-up businesses face with resources, translating technical terminology and providing a return on investment.

This article is a transcript of Episode 3 of the Content Conversations podcast: Marketing for Tech Start-ups. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity. Listen to the podcast here ↓↓↓

Lucy Mowatt: Hi Lucy, how are you? 

Lucy Woods: Yes, not too bad… Happy new year to you!

LM: Happy new year! How are things going for you?

LW: Yes, all well. It’s the 8th of January today but I’m still wishing people a happy new year. I think that’s ok.

LM: Yes, it’s the first proper week! 

LW: Yeah, officially back to work and plugged in on Monday. The week’s going good, just trying to get organised. As with every new year’s resolution and new beginnings, it’s starting as you mean to go on. That’s my plan for the next few weeks.

LM: For those people listening who maybe don’t know who you are and what you do, could you give us an introduction?

LW: Yes, sure. My name is Lucy Woods. I work in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. I’m based in a town called Bury St Edmunds. I’m a freelance marketing consultant and have been for the last 18-19 months or so.

I guess I started working on the tech circuit about three years ago, and that’s where I met you, in your previous role. I was Marketing Manager at Cambridge Wireless, and that kind of spearheaded my work with tech start-ups, and more broadly SMEs, within my freelance role.

LM: OK, so you have a fair amount of experience with start-ups in that case?

LW: I think so, yes. Cambridge Wireless and similar networking organisations, who are focused on technology companies, [gave] brilliant grounding and insight into the technology world.

Predominantly they are a community of tech start-ups, SMEs, international companies… There are a massive variety of companies, so chipset companies that create and manufacture the chips that go into your phone and hardware, right through to the mobile network operators. As you can imagine; some pretty big players there, right through to fledgeling start-ups and third-party support providers. A massive range of companies spanning IT, […] machine learning…

[It gave me ] good insight into the tech world. I thought I’d take the step and go freelance, and because it was so focused in networking and collaborating [with] these thought leaders, sharing all of their insights, I’d managed to build up quite a few connections. They said ‘well, Lucy, if you do take the jump, give me a call and let’s see if we can work together’.

That was brilliant and that introduced me to tech start-ups and people in that kind of eco-system which luckily – and I’m very grateful – has meant that I can build up my portfolio of companies and means that I can do freelance work, which is great.

LM: That’s really exciting…

LW: Yeah it’s good. There’s been a variety of tech companies on the books. […] Just to showcase my experience, I did a brief stint with CUP, [they] obviously have a massive reputation, have been going a long time, and are a multi-team organisation. I was drafted in to do a social media support remit, so I was a cog within their social media teams.

That was very interesting, to work with a big company. Very procedural led and see how they work. It was really interesting. It was quite a miscellaneous role, I guess.

Then they grew and they were able to draft a role in-house, which is good for them.

And then I worked for a Cambridge start-up in 2015. A Cambridge University spin-out. They create insanely technical… (I won’t go into the jargon because it’s insane but very clever) … revolutionary technologies that essentially upgrades the capability of all GMSS worldwide. [That includes] satellites in the air, receivers and transmitters; they take all of that and they push out all the noise and waffle and make it precise and accurate. It’s really interesting and incredibly technical.

And then another company that deals in co-working space, focused on the freelance community, but also tech start-ups, giving them a relatively cost-effective means of working with a growing team and providing them with business support. It’s kind of like an incubator to help them grow.

LM: So your experience is really varied, even in the time that you’ve been freelance?

LW: Yeah, which I think is good as it’s going to mean I can better finesse my toolkit to help other start-ups.

As you say, working with tech start-ups, more established companies and then the bigger companies, so yeah, really exciting, very varied and coming across different challenges that they face in their marketing pipeline.

LM: You just touched on my next question…typically what would you find that tech start-ups have challenges with, especially when it comes to marketing?

LW: In my experience with tech start-ups, obviously the number one challenge is going to be funding. They’re going to have a fantastic idea, product, service, they could be born from a university… How do they get funding? How do they get in front of their customers?

I guess that’s not a marketing challenge. That’s a business problem and that can be more of an internal marketing challenge, because typically clever technology people, [when] they’re building their team, might not be [thinking about] business development. They might not be well versed in standing up in front of investors and VCs and eloquently pitching what their technology is. They know it really well, but to the layman and perhaps customers transcribing it and reflecting the use case for it, it’s really quite an art I think. I think that’s one of the challenges a start-up will face, going through that process of fundraising and building their team.

Again, not necessarily a marketing challenge, but a business challenge… certainly in Cambridge (and I’m positive London as well), the tech scene is really competitive. How do you market your start-up to be really attractive for people, so they want to relocate and join you?

In Silicon Fen, these tech start-ups are up against Apple, Amazon, ARM. All of these non-start-ups can offer pretty hefty packages and have good reputations, so they’re up against that. One of the key challenges is creating an attractive culture and how do they promote their perks to people that want to join? As you grow a team, you kind of evolve from this quirky, fledgeling start-up into a sensible adult scale-up, if you will, and that comes with lots of challenges. They go through these steps of fundraising, building a team and putting a nice office together.

“As you grow a team, you kind of evolve from this quirky, fledgeling start-up into a sensible adult scale-up”

Lucy Woods

I guess another kind of challenge might be recruitment. Again I’m going to say business challenges because sometimes they’re not always marketing focused. Because they’re a small team and take on lots of different roles, they’ve got the sales enablement to think about, their creative and their branding. What do they look like? They’ve got [LM’s] role to think about, so content marketing; how do they pull everything together and put it in front of the right customer?

And because B2B is such a different kettle of fish, market research is perhaps a bit trickier and difficult to measure and track and, for B2B companies, sometimes they create their product and they have their service and their goal is to hand it over to a middle man, if you will, so they don’t necessarily have control over how they might market that to the end consumer so that’s an interesting relationship.

Then you’ve got the international side. If your product and service is international and global, your customers might be in Korea, China, overseas, so getting that kind of sales collateral really slick and smart.

Then getting your white papers together and your pitch decks, making sure they look branded and smart and translated.

Then you’ve got your sales team ready to go out and do the pitching. That can be massively challenging and something which tech start-ups… some are great at but some obviously need some support.

Luckily there are incubators and support services – there are loads in Cambridge. That’s great for the start-ups and then there’s obviously funding that start-ups can take advantage of. So, yeah a few challenges.

If they’re a small team, perhaps they’ve not got processes in place to collect relevant marketing data and insights to help them carve out a better pipeline. The content marketing challenges might be, if they’re a tech company, their main focus is in the lab doing the great techy stuff or doing the sales development.

They might not think about what content is needed to attract their audience or what prospects may be browsing on the website or the type of content that would really interest them. Whether it be certain white papers on their products and services or ‘OK, so this is a great bit of tech but what does it mean for the sports or food industry?’ So, it’s kind of taking the demand and supply and wrapping it up into a case study, and that’s the role of the content marketer… I don’t know what you think to that?

LM: Yeah, I was going to ask if you find, in your experience, that sometimes it’s hard to remove the jargon that the teams themselves want to put in – the technical features and spec. As a marketer do you sometimes have to go in and say ‘well, actually, this might alienate people’?

LW: Yes… So, you have a marketing strategy, and content marketing is all part of that, but do you have somebody in the team that can take all that […] jargon? Because it’s incredibly technical. So you have to think: would the end customer appreciate that? Would even your audience? Sometimes they just don’t care about the jargon. Although it’s a brilliant piece of technology they just care about what that means commercially. What’s the ROI impact of that? Getting people to write tech copy and turn that jargon into a really compelling piece of copy is a real craft, which is an extra expense if you don’t have that resource in-house…

LM: Technical copywriting can be quite expensive… finding someone who can translate that technical terminology

LW: Yes, and time-consuming as well. I guess for the marketing and chief commercial officers, they need to appreciate that extra cost for their marketing strategy going forward. Again, every company will have to justify that marketing expenditure.

Read more: Episode 2: Empathy & Marketing

Probably one of the biggest challenges for tech start-ups is keeping their board and their investors happy, so they need to demonstrate that this lovely marketing pot of money is being well spent and they can justify it.

And that’s again another marketing challenge; making sure they’ve got all their data insights and correct channel set-ups, collating all the information. That can be really hard to do and do well if you’re a small team.

LM: Do you have any tips for any business for overcoming that challenge around return on investment for investors?

LW: Yes, so B2B again, it will always depend on what resource you have in-house; realistically how much money have you got in the pot to spend on marketing?

I’d always start small. Don’t think you have to be on every single channel. Pick just a couple of channels. I think I’ve heard you mention this in previous blogs, but don’t layer yourself too thin because that will come through, so you will produce half-hearted content, your social feeds will just look like a bot and it won’t come across as authentic.

“Don’t think you have to be on every single channel”

Lucy Woods

And, if you’re in the B2B game, you don’t need to labour too much over social media marketing anyway because the real magic will happen in your networking, sales meetings and having all of your sales collateral well polished, which I think is like a two-pronged [thing] … You’ve got your sales and your marketing. So as long as they can marry together, that is where I would recommend that start-ups focus.

And also building a good relationship with local press and your respective journalists and analysts in that area. Get a good relationship with them. Whether you do monthly breakfast meetings with them or drop them an email every now and then and let them know the juicy details about your company and the exciting things in the pipeline.

I always have a look at Mike Butcher; he is a renowned PR who set up Tech Crunch. He’s editor-at-large at Tech Crunch and he has a really interesting blog about how the world of PR is changing and how it’s essentially dead and how tech start-ups need to change the way they pitch their products and services to journalists. That’s well worth looking at. It’s a bit tongue in cheek and a bit heavy-hitting but it’s good. I think it’s what the industry needs. Well worth checking out….

LM: OK, great, I will do. I’m not aware of that column, so I’ll definitely have a look.

Thinking about prioritising channels, do you have any tips on how they pick the channels they create content for?

LW: I think founders and senior leadership teams will have a good understanding, having gone through setting up their team, obviously knowing their product. They’ll have put numerous business plans together because they’ll have pitched to VCs to get funding. They’ll have probably gone through some kind of incubator course like Set Square and Tech Nation, or whoever runs them. They will have a great understanding of who the customer is and who they need to impress. Of course they will, because it’s their service and their entrepreneurial [knowledge] that has created the product or service. Listening to them and just getting that information out of them sounds easy, but asking the right questions [is more difficult].

Then, A/B testing, so you can always try out a couple of different channels. Maybe trial out an inbound marketing platform. Again that might be a bit of time, resource and expense to set up, but you might want to get some processes in place and figure out ‘ok so I’ve had a lead from the website, but where does that go?’.

So trialling out different CRM systems; it’s labour intensive but if you find one that works for all the team, that can be well worth that time and cost investment.

LM: OK, great. Some businesses might put marketing on a back burner, especially if they’re in a start-up phase, and think of it as something to consider later. Do you think there are dangers in putting it off?

LW: Yes, although I think that’s slowly evolving. I would say no longer is marketing the first budget to slash and role to put at the bottom of the pile, because they need people at the front end creating the tech and testing and doing all of that good stuff and then selling it into the marketplace.

You need your marketing to create your sales collateral. Like we said earlier, you need that jargon-free, compelling copy. You need your brand to look attractive, so it’s not like the B2C market when you’re shopping. It’s not just about what something looks like but we’re more interested in aligning with the company’s values and if the founders have got quirky morning routines and all of that stuff, we take an interest in that.

Read more: Episode 1: Marketing & Internal Communications

B2B obviously isn’t like that, but you’ve still got to get your company values right, your culture right and marketing plays an integral role in that. So don’t ignore it. Just bring it into a normal part of the business conversation in your Monday meetings, or however your team gets together and talks through the challenges.

Bring marketing into the conversation; you know ‘are we having problems recruiting?’ That’s a business and a marketing problem. ‘Are we speaking to the right PRs?’; ‘Are we getting in front of our audience?’, that’s always going to be a marketing conversation to be had…

LM: … and that somebody should be responsible for it, even if you don’t have a dedicated person…that someone has it in their minds.

LW: Yeah, they might not have a marketing role, but certainly there should be some kind of ambassador within the company to make sure the brand is carried throughout the business and everything is on point, so marketing messaging in your recruitment is on point. You’ve got to have somebody flying the flag for your company otherwise it just won’t work. 

LM: It’s too easy, as you say, to put it on the back burner or slash it rather than actually have someone responsible or focused on it…

LW: … and creating templates and writing marketing copy. It’s time-consuming and often business owners and techies don’t want to be too concerned with it, because their time is at a premium, so…

LM: … it’s not their priority…

LW: Exactly. They’re in a position where they can bring in marketing support or they’ve got somebody in-house, whether it’s the office manager who has a marketing background. That’s brilliant because they can help champion culture and they can help weave out what content they might have in the pipeline and help with recruitment efforts and all of that good stuff. So, marketing ambassadors for 2020 could be an interesting goal for some tech start-ups.

LM: I like the phrase ‘marketing ambassador’.

LW: Yeah, not neglecting the marketing need.

LM: And moving the focus maybe away from sales, into that slightly softer area and building relationships with your potential clients and audience...

LW: We know that it’s exhausting for entrepreneurs and founders; their focus is in the lab, or wherever it might be, so they need that person to make sure the marketing actions are being ticked off. Then they can rest assured and be confident that their shiny, fantastic product or service is then going to go through the relevant challenges, looking the right way, and then ending up with their customers at the end of the day.

LM: That’s what it’s all about ultimately. Selling…

LW: Selling their wares, that’s the challenge, that’s the goal. And there might be some tech start-ups whose end goal might be acquisition or growing and setting up other chapters internationally, so marketing that too and reflecting that to VCs and investors. In my experience, that’s all part of the marketing story and narrative. There are lots of ways that it can play and feed into a tech start-up.

LM: That’s great.

LW: Which is great for people like me and you, because we are a cost-effective addition to a company and we are flexible… Hey, I’m really flying the flag here for marketing freelancers! There are lots of us out there and sometimes tech start-ups can’t afford to pay agency rates; this is where the gig economy can step in and support these tech start-ups

LM: Help you grow ultimately…

LW: Yeah, exactly. It’s a nice sector to work in.

LM: Yes, it’s innovative and different and you learn about new products and solutions that are coming to the market. That is always fascinating...

LW: And I always think that people who work in tech, certainly founders and entrepreneurs, they’re just a different breed of person because the tech is just so innovative and it’s like ‘wow!’. To do that… to have the tenacity to get your product to market, not just to get the funding, but to build a team… it’s crazy stuff but it’s exciting to work with these types of people. 

LM: Yes, and kind of invigorating. You come away from them feeling ‘yes, we should do this, we should do that’.

LW: Yeah, definitely. It’s good. 

LM: I often find that you get caught up in their enthusiasm…

LW: Yes, and then it’s a kind of comedown. You leave the meeting on this high and then you’ve got to go and write a blog now. You’re buzzing, it’s like your fuel.

Although I’m not based in Cambridge, I have a sprinkling of clients there, so that’s a nice ecosystem to work in. Obviously I’ve seen you over at the Bradfield Centre and that’s a nice place to work. It has a nice ambience, so it’s nice to take the laptop and plugin there and get some hours done in these types of places.

LM: Surrounded by inspiring people. 

LW: Yeah! It’s a nice way to work. Do you work all over? I guess you’re like me and go where…

LM: Yeah, flexible really. I’ve got a client in Cambridge, a couple in London, a few in Norwich. Mainly in the East…

LW: Aside from the tech thing we’re talking about, it’s always good to suss out where’s good to work in Norwich and what that scene is like. One of my goals for this year, maybe once a quarter, is to put in my diary ‘go and work in Norwich; suss out from Lucy where’s good to go.’ St James Mill?

LM: They don’t have shared office space anymore, but I am a big fan of Centrum at the Science Park in Norwich. So that’s a science-related area, but they have a lovely building where you can go and drink coffee and work. I’m a big fan of that.

LW: So, that’s my goal: to suss out different places, go to different places and that’s just all part of my own needing to network. Get out there. And also it’s [good for] content generation, isn’t it?

LM: Also, it’s just too easy to sit at home behind your laptop…

LW: Yep, getting into a boring routine. I need to change it up for 2020, so that’s the plan.

LM: Cool! Sounds very exciting.

LW: Yes, ask me again in a few months and hopefully I’ll say ‘yes, I’ve got a date in the diary and I’m off to wherever it might be…’

LM: And if people want to find out more about you, where can they do that?

LW: I’ve got a website and I’m trying to be more active on the socials. I’m fortunate that I’m busy at the moment, so I’m not paying too much attention and time on my own marketing. I know that’s me being a hypocrite! I need to not put that on the back burner and I need to focus on that.

I’ve got an Instagram channel but, again, I’m more B2B so I’m not going to find many prospects through that, but it’s more kind of a tool to chat with fellow peers and freelancers and find out what others are up to. And LinkedIn. You can search for me on LinkedIn, ‘Lucy Woods’. The website is Lucywoods.com… very original!

LM: Hey, it does what it says. It’s you. It’s your website!

LW: Yeah, it’s my name! If anybody needs marketing support, I’d gladly assist where I can. And similarly, people should hit you up as well, Lucy, if they need content marketing support as that’s your speciality. 

LM: Thank you for coming on the podcast and have a lovely day.

LW: It’s been brilliant. Thanks Lucy!

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