Sometime ago while meeting a stakeholder of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, we got talking about entrepreneurs in the country. The discussion moved from sectors, the stars, the wannabes to those who held promise. One thing I realized over the course of the discussion was that as a newcomer to the space of startups, I was relatively well-versed with company names, founder names and sectors they dealt in, but there was nothing unique that stood out in my mind about them. Even the big names today who are the pinup boys of Indian startup space didn’t really bring any picture to my mind.
Now compare this to large companies – Indian and international. Every company had a distinct identity, an imagery that it stands for and how it is perceived in minds of the customer. If I say Apple – quality, style and premium product comes to mind; if I say Maruti – quality, affordability, reliability comes to mind. Not just companies, even individuals trigger a certain imagery in mind – Nelson Mandela, Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Mother Teresa – each very different from the other. But I am not too sure how Flipkart or Snapdeal are different from one another. Or how Myntra and Jabong are different, or how Make My Trip and Yatra differ.
I think the reason is probably these new companies have not made an effort to create an image, and then market that image. Well you can’t blame them, startups are constantly trying to move to the next level – grow, expand, scale – are probably the only things that founders and employees alike are pre-occupied with. So given the situation, how important is it to market oneself? Should startups invest in marketing themselves? When and how should they go about doing this?
I think it is important to market oneself – both as an entrepreneur and also the venture. This list is not exhaustive, but here are some ways you could start. You can choose your method and style – but do it for sure.
1. Know the tangibles – As a business and a businessman, you are bound to have some tangibles. In case of a business, it is the product/service you have to offer. For a businessman it is his/her experience, qualification. Of the various things your business does, select a handful of things that are most important among what you do. Similarly, from your qualification and experience, pick the one that is most relevant and complimentary to the business you do.
For example, if you are an education startup and you have a degree/experience as a teacher, then that is the most relevant. This should be the tangible that you should always speak out first when you introduce yourself. Your credibility as an entrepreneur will get accepted faster if you speak the same language.
Keep these tangibles handy, either put it down on paper or have it on top of your mind when you are networking, meeting someone one-to-one or formally giving a sales pitch. Talking about these first, helps establish credibility and draw attention.
So when Apple says it is about quality, durability, design – it demonstrates it through the product it makes, and excels on every aspect.
2. Identify the intangibles – Intangibles are nothing but qualities you and your business have, which is not visible on the face. As an individual, you could be perseverant but as a business, can you stay without cash flow for long? Identify that.
Intangibles are the strengths and weaknesses we possess as individuals, and in the business. You maybe ambitious, but if you have a total staff of three in your startup, you obviously cannot undertake a Rs 100 crore project, because you do not have the bandwidth to execute it.
Intangibles are also important to identify because these are the softer aspects that help build your reputation in the market – as an individual and as a business. Once you have identified the intangibles, you should again use them while networking, meeting in person and surely during that sales pitch.
Intangibles are very valuable in creating an impression. They help form a perception. Apple hardly makes news about its R&D, but from the intuitive products it designs we know it spends a good deal of time there. Tales of how Steve Jobs pushed his engineers to come out with better products are in the open, but was that openly mentioned in the sales pitch? I don’t think so.
3. Write your own script – Once you know the tangibles and intangibles it is important to weave them into a well-rehearsed script. I don’t mean you should sound like a song on loop every time you introduce yourself or pitch your business, but the various elements you have identified as tangibles and intangibles should be repeated tactfully.
This script can be refined over time considering the feedback you receive. Share this script with your employees, so that they speak the same language as you do while talking about the business. Employees are your representatives and help build the image of your company in the market and in the minds of others. Therefore, it is important to match notes, have a similar script and speak the same language.
Overtime, this script will be mimicked by people not related to you or your venture, and they will be saying the same thing as you are. Thus what you have done is build a consistent message about you and your venture to resonate in the marketplace.
Big companies call this script their ‘vision statement’. What they say in this vision statement will ultimately be echoed in the world outside the company as well.
4. Meet & greet – Marketing would be incomplete if you do not go out and meet people. It is important to spread the word and the awareness, because only then will people know that you are in the market. Events, conferences, seminars – choose where you want to be heard and seen and make an effort to be there.
If everyone within the organization speaks the same language, then anyone can go to the events. The founder need not go everywhere. But what needs to be done after attending the event should be structured, so that time and money investment can be used beneficially for the growth of the venture.
5. Play to your strengths – It is one thing to be ambitious and another to be able to deliver. As I mentioned earlier, a three-member team cannot execute a Rs 100 crore project. So say you have managed to make your script well and have delivered it to proper places, once business starts coming in, you still need to evaluate how well you can execute. Execution is the key.
Anything can be well executed if you have the ability to pull it off. And to pull it off well, you have to be good at it. The sector that you have entered is your strength number one, followed by the skills your team members bring. This is the collective strength of a company.
When you are starting out, the quality of work you do is what you will be identified with, and form the source of future business. Playing to your strength will help build your identity.
For example, Tata started off as a manufacturing company, built its equity on the back of this strength for a very long time. Subsequently, it entered new businesses. The equity that Tata built on its core strength helped it get an advantage when it entered new sectors and gain customer confidence.
6. Carefully craft your image – Creating an image cannot happen overnight, nor will everything you do be right the first time. So learn as you go. If you make mistakes and there are backlashes, cut off that part of your image – because it is not something customers have appreciated.
However if the mistake you made is something that is integral to your business, take measures to correct it. Everybody makes mistakes, so apologise if need be.
While building an organization, have a long term view, do not short change and always keep the bigger picture in mind. When you are a startup, small mistakes are not noticed by the world and therefore the ripple effect is not there. However, steps you take now to build this image are what you will be identified with in the long run.
Image building will always start small, but doing it consistently and over the years can only help build it in the long run.
7. What you hear is what you see – This is the litmus test of all the above points. So you have built an image for the company, and everyone in the market/ outside world identifies you with certain attributes and qualities, make sure that the experience they get in person when someone new deals with you for the first time is not different.
No one likes hypocrites, and hypocrisy is also detrimental in the long run. Big brands are therefore today very scared of social media and the power it yields in marketing. Social media is a great leveler, which can expose the true face of a person/company. We all know about the IIPM controversy and how the brand which was once hailed as the best in education, has today bitten dust. This is a classic case of not delivering on your promises.
We spoke to Vinay Kanchan, author, brand ideation consultant and a trainer in creative thinking, and this is what he had to say on the topic.
“The change in behavior and mindset one makes when starting out as an entrepreneur, especially when contextualized against a stint in the corporate world; lies in the realization that unless you begin consciously speaking about your idea, it is not going to go very far.
This on the surface seems a simple enough thing, but is quite difficult because our cultural upbringing is such that ‘blowing your own trumpet’ is literally frowned upon. It is a significant mental barrier to overcome.
The fact of the matter also is, until the time the business grows large enough to afford spin doctors (PR, advertising and the like); the founder and the core team are saddled with this task almost exclusively.
The second challenge lies in identifying the ‘core concept’ behind the venture — an exercise which requires absolute clarity, and the mandatory involvement of the founder. Bringing down one’s business idea to a set of simple words, aids in the easy communication and spread of the message. Too many businesses are in too much of a hurry to communicate, without trying to differentiate at the conceptual level. This often results in getting lost in the excessive clutter prevalent today.
Having a version of the ‘elevator pitch’ of the new venture can represent a wonderfully clarifying process. Always seeing ones idea from the perspective of how it will enhance the business of potential clients, is another critical mindset to develop.
Networking is the third aspect. Being part of the right groups — formal and informal — becomes important. In an era where the lines between work and play are increasingly blurring, informal platforms like Facebook also have the potential of spreading ones message far and wide.
As an entrepreneur it is always necessary to think out of the box. Every ‘moment of truth’ with someone of consequence, represents a chance to pitch ones business. It is in the end, a marketing effort which is on 24/7. You can never tire from pitching your own idea.
Rejections and disappointments are inevitable. But the market belongs to those who have the resilience to knock on the next door when the previous one has just been slammed on their face.”