Developing a startup growth strategy

Curious to see if anyone has advice on developing a startup growth strategy without a clear target customer or clear message that you’re looking to convey? I realize these attributes aren’t ‘measurable’ the way that running A/B tests for Google Ads are, and can be easily dismissed as ‘expensive’ and ‘time consuming’, but as someone who comes from a narrative background - I’ve been a bit taken aback by companies who focus on ‘growth’ without story. I’ve always found your purpose for being and customer insights to be essential for creation of any sort of user acquisition vision. That being said, I am curious if there are scenarios by which companies have successfully launched growth plans/teams without these anchors of sorts in place?

My take on this, there are 2 stages at startups:

  1. We built this product, who are our customers?
  2. We want to serve this specific customer, what should we build?

There’s often a flip back and forth over and over.

A good example of this is in this case study about Trulia. Their initial growth strategy was about partnerships with large brokerages but when the financial crisis happened they needed to find a new customer and used a new growth strategy to do so.

So if startups are constantly vacillating between

  1. We built this product, who are our customers?
  2. We want to serve this specific customer, what should we build?

How do you plot that against what experiments you’re running – all in service of getting to (x)? And, to further clarify (since my initial question was related to reducing wasteful spend and how much is research of a hypothesis before testing): how do you break it down in to manageable segments to get to the end goal of selling the product?

There are some things you can do to mitigate experiment risk:

  • look at all of the research that has been done already (even if it’s just recordings with no analysis)
  • Look at long term retained users (if there are any) what’s similar about them? If there aren’t use NPS surveys to find happy customers
  • If there isn’t any ask customer facing roles about the customers they have talked to and run your ideas by them.
  • Look at performance of acquisition channels, what’s working, etc

There is almost NO time before making a hypothesis, you just learn as you go and make better hypotheses next time. The suggestions above do not take place over a month or multi-month timeframe, more like a day (except for some of the metrics digging, that may take longer).

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It sounds like the “risk” or “question mark” to validate isn’t retention (congrats! that’s awesome) and instead you’re validating the

  • messaging/positioning/wording,
  • business/model/price,
  • distribution/acquisition channels, etc.

…for each hypothesis (aka different target customers you’re thinking about)So instead of a product MVP, looks like you’ll create a marketing MVP (cheap combinations of the above) and see if they resonate and succeed in acquiring new segments. What a cool challenge… marketing MVPs can sometimes be way more fun in my opinion than product MVPs (mainly when they’re the real question mark about a business!).

To your original question, what you describe is way more than storytelling or narrative, it’s literally a core business question and bottleneck to the growth of the company
And super measurable… as measurable as anything else in marketing… do X people, when presented with Y, do the Z thing we want (or a proxy for it).

There’s tons of examples of startups validating their messaging or positioning or target audience with landing pages or sales pitches or FB/Google Ads or by first popularizing a blog on the topic etc. Unbounce is a famous example of starting a blog before launching the product. I once heard James Currier of NFX talk about one of his gaming companies that first tested dozens of game titles to see what got the best ad economics and then built a game based on that title. There’s plenty of B2B examples as well with sales pitches, PDFs, video demos, ads, outreach, etc.

The common denominator is that the big question mark was the top of the funnel, so they built the very top of the funnel before you build the rest of the funnel.

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