What’s the worst advice you’ve gotten as a startup founder?

Crashing into growth marketing: a CEO journey. Part 7 — Awareness Funnels

Before I get to this week’s learnings (and it’s been groundbreaking!) I’d like to reflect on some of the seriously bad advice I’ve previously gotten as a startup founder. I’m actively debunking some of these suggestions with educating myself — for example with taking this CXL course! But certainly life keeps me wondering if there’s a ton of awful advice I’m still holding on to.

Here’s a few examples of advice I’ve gotten on the way. These comments were probably meant in a kind-hearted attempt to be helpful, but ended up backfiring, with extremely negative results to our processes and morale:

“Stop messing around with the funnel, just go out and sell!”

“Why are you reporting on so many activities, you should be focusing on the one thing that really works!”

“Why all this engagement stuff? You shouldn’t spend on anyone who isn’t buying!”

In retrospect, I do understand these anxieties — they are all saying just one thing: I think you don’t understand what you’re doing, so stop!

And they were right — we did not understand what we were doing, but that didn’t mean we were doing the wrong thing. But that’s unfortunately exactly the way I took their advice. We stopped a lot of things that could have worked out well. We tried a lot of other things that felt extremely wrong, while pushing for “activities that work instantly and bring in sales for yesterday”.

And what crazy suggestion that an early stage startup (or any company!) would even have activities that work 100%. And what an insane idea it was to just go out and sell, without any research, preparation or battle plan. Because we did take it verbatim, and very seriously. We naively went out, wearing our Sunday best, and tried to sell stuff. What a mistake.

We came back with bad news. They didn’t want it now. Some didn’t need it at all. Some didn’t understand what it was. Sometimes they weren’t ready to listen. Those who were, weren’t ready to purchase. We were all devastated. At some point we picked out a few accounts that were most collaborative, and tried to “close the deals”. What a mess.

Over time, I’ve come to accept the fact that it’s totally OK if you’re not successful at selling. Because I’ve learned that the clients might be extremely successful at buying.

All of the good accounts we’ve closed so fare are customers who really need and want what we have to offer, and who have identified with our mission. Generally, people who have come to find the right vibe with us and the product.

I don’t see how I could have known what I’m learning now when we were really in the beginning of our journey. When we tried to aggressively close sales that one Wednesday morning. Back then I was still learning about the basics of startups, fundraising, and SaaS in general. And I’m eternally grateful to those couple of mentors who took it in a relaxed way and told me it’s OK not to focus on the instant revenue. It’s OK when you’re not an overnight success. Because nobody is. Because here’s what I’ve learned this week about awareness and funnels.

This is the seventh post of many to document my journey as early-stage startup CEO through the growth marketing minidegree by CXL Institute — a 12-week online program about the practicalities of growth marketing.

Disclaimers: I’ve done intense learning sprints before. I’ve never touched marketing from a practical perspective before this course. Consult a specialist before trying this at home.

Promo insert: My startup is called Zelos, it’s an app that helps you manage tasks and distribute activities with a very large group or community, and you can sign up here for free: getzelos.com

Awareness funnels

With marketing, the same approach is really hard to grasp. We ran some campaigns for vanity metrics. Can we get people to like our page? Sure. Can we get people to click to the website? Sure. Did any of that work? Conversion wise — not at all. The activity-based funnel was weird and we immediately realised that people didn’t work that way.

Click an ad, visit sales landing, visit pricing page, click to product sign-up? Great idea, doesn’t work. It’s nothing like our sales rep moving cards in a CRM. You cannot really move people around on a website (unless they want to move).

The concept these marketing courses have taught me is awareness funnels. We’re not moving people from a page to another, we’re expanding their awareness of the problem and product until they decide to try and buy. It may take time until they get to that place in life where they suddenly need a product like this (and the built awareness and influence comes in handy). And it may take time until you figure out how to let these people find you easily.

And we had tried to go out and find them. With really really bad guesswork and targeting.

I’m now absolutely sold on the framework of moving prospects from low problem awareness (I didn’t even know my pains were caused by this problem!) to high product awareness (I understand how my specific problem is solved with this exact product). Much more insightful than the meaningless activity phases of “demo done” or “signed up for newsletter”.

But it’s much easier to report “x demos done” or “y leads in newsletter list” than “n people influenced”. And because we were under a lot of early pressure from our early investors (and rightfully so — again, we did NOT really have a clue nor experience about starting a SaaS business), we were dying to present anything tangible to compensate for the lack of instant massive sales. Live and learn!

Different approach for different funnel stages

Now I know they meant to express only general distrust and anxiety. I’m an inexperienced female founder in a niche industry with a fuzzy small-ish market size (well, now our market has blown up to massive numbers in a post- COVID world, but we didn’t know that in early 2019).

Curt Maly now gives me golden advice on CXL webinars:

  • Customise your content to the stage of the funnel.
  • Create relationships and establish rapport.
  • Don’t fixate on clicks or likes. Buyers aren’t clicky people.
  • Create a good and stable content plan, and be strategic about moving people down the funnel. This way you can post the actual offers to validated buyers who are already familiar with your product and almost convinced that they need it.

You should totally not push your offers on random people off the internet who accidentally clicked through to your page. Of course they won’t buy. They don’t know you. Your offer isn’t THAT good. They probably don’t even know they need your thing. And it’s your fault for not telling them.

Top of the funnel — low awareness

I love the idea from the Facebook Ads course that all further funnel ads should be qualified by a long and thorough video view in the top of the funnel. If someone invests the time and actually watches 15–30 minutes (or a whole hour!) of your webinar or training video, they’re likely to be genuinely interested in what you have to offer.

Middle of the funnel — some familiarity

The content targeted at the middle of the funnel is something that can be evergreen — emails about tips and tricks or ongoing video ads. Once the prospects have enough exposure to the brand and content, they’ll be much more likely to say yes to any offer you make.

End of the funnel leading to conversion

Have a good plan

Here’s the content plan that I put together over this weekend. It lays out content-related activities we are doing (or should be doing) targeting all the different stages of the funnel. It’s no longer an activity-based list of stuff we should write about, or videos we should create. It’s a matrix of content targeted at prospects of different readiness levels.

Zelos content plan for 20201

Yeah, I know it’s too blurry to read. I just wanted to show off. Go write your own.

CEO of Zelos Team Management — an app for gig work and communities.