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Startup Journal: Marketing Without Funding

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Growing a startup is synonymous with chase. You're chasing growth. You're chasing the market. You're chasing innovation. But the biggest Mac Daddy of them all - you're chasing funding.

Countless startups will attest that money does not equal success. You still have to know what to do with that money. There still has to be a large enough market, you still have to know how to capture it, and you still have to bring in the right people to help you grow. As Mark Cuban has said, "...money can't buy happiness, [but] it can sure make life a whole lot better."

When you're a startup that doesn't have investors throwing money at you, you have to get creative. Otherwise you'll just flop. How do you create any kind of traction without paying for it? There's really only one other option: organically.

Organic growth might be one of the most difficult strategies to navigate (sorry!), but it has proved successful for past companies and can be a significant portion of any startup's progress. There may be more, but let's say there's three types of organic growth: viral, word of mouth, and SEO.

Viral growth seems to be everyone's favorite, so we'll start there. Viral growth is when every customer you get brings in at least one other customer without you having to do any extra work. So if you bring in 10 customers, those 10 will bring in another 10, and those 10 will bring in another 10, ad infinitum.

It's beautiful because you create a structure, and then before long you have more growth than you know what to do with. That's the dream! The problem is that very few people have any idea how to make their product viral. Another problem is that too many people try to make their product go viral, when they don't have a viral product - it's not something people would really have any reason to share.

Hotmail is a great case study from back in the day. When their free email service came out, they had a line in every sender's signature saying something to the effect of "I got free email with hotmail.com." Everyone of their users brought them more users. Apple did something similar with "Sent from my iPhone" in the bottom of every mobile email sent. Dropbox is another great case study. They offered additional storage space for free to every user who got a friend to sign up. It exploded! How viral is your product? Is it something everyone needs? Is it something that's easily shareable? If not, can you make it more shareable?

In my humble opinion, the best read on word of mouth growth is Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. Word of mouth growth is really about getting a few influencers on board who everyone looks to emulate. If you're a B2C product, maybe you target bloggers in your niche. If you're a B2B product, maybe you target the most reputable name in an industry or franchise company.

A recent example is Snapchat. Snapchat was big in its own way before, but then Gary Vee started proclaiming the value of Snapchat, and it's been steadily blowing up ever since. Sometimes you can reach out to influencers and work a deal to have them promote you. More often than not, you need to toss a wide enough net when pitching your product that you pick up a few big fish who really like what you do. Who should you reach out to?

SEO might be the most powerful organic tool that any startup has access to, except that there's three things standing between it and growth. You have to know what you're doing for it to work. You have to create a lot of content, and/or earn a lot of backlinks to your site. And you generally have to give it a significant portion of time before you'll see any real benefits (we're talking months). SEO is critical for any business these days, but unless you're able to start some PPC advertising (which you probably can't if you're still reading this post on startup growth sans funding), it will take you too long.

It is possible for startups to grow organically, even to grow explosively! But you have to get creative. You either need to figure out a way to market your product virally, or to find people who will become advocates for you. While you're doing this, be working on your SEO, because it will pay off in the long run. If your startup is finally able to grab hold of that elusive funding, that's awesome! If not, you just need to be more creative in how you get the word out.