Thursday 17 October 2019

Startup diary: Why it's vital to win battle to boost our website and marketing position


War game: just like Napoleon’s strategy at Austerlitz, startups must divide and conquer by breaking down larger forces
War game: just like Napoleon’s strategy at Austerlitz, startups must divide and conquer by breaking down larger forces

Richard Rodge, Voxgig founder

Our website is terrible. Go to and see for yourself. Why, and what are we going to do about it? Let's answer why first. This is the website we built for our MVP (Minimum Viable Product) last year - a search engine for technology conferences. Since then we've been more focused on building a great product for our trial clients, and that has taken all of our focus.

However, this is not by accident. We made a deliberate choice to focus on trial clients rather than opening the MVP and working with lots of early users. I've written about this decision previously.

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It is a function of our geographic location and funding environment - we are building a business based on a network, connecting speakers, organisers and exhibitors in the technology events space, but on this side of the Atlantic you are better off with investors if you can show actual revenue from real customers first before supporting lots of free users.

It's still too early to tell if we'll pay a price for this later - we're about to find our in the second half of this year when we do open up the platform.

The price of focusing on trial clients is that we had to neglect our website.

We did not neglect marketing itself. As you know if you've been following this series, we've focused very much on building community via newsletters and meetups. This has helped us find private trial clients. But we have not, until, now given our website, or indeed our overall marketing message, much love and attention.

There is a higher level strategic imperative here. In a startup you have limited resources, always. You are fighting a war against vastly superior forces, all of kinds, both belligerent and indifferent.

How do you win such a war? You can actually learn some good tactics from the great generals of history - I'm so sorry, and this is such a cliché, but military analogies come up so often in business writing because there is a kernel of useful knowledge to learn (I'll won't mention Sun Tzu - deal?)

The military tactic most useful to a startup is call 'Defeat in Detail', and it works like this: when you face a far larger force, find a way to break them up into smaller units, and attack those with superior force.

This is how Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon were all successful against larger forces at Gaugamela, Pharsalus, and Austerlitz, respectively (that's your afternoon lost to Wikipedia). In all cases, you must give ground to win. And you must accept loss and defeat on certain fronts to execute the plan. We have lost potential clients because of our out-of-date speaker-focused website. So be it. The important this is to choose where you take damage, for a great cause.

Those generals provide another salutary startup lesson - defeat can also come at the moment of victory, even when you make all the right decisions.

This tactic is more refined that the standard advice that you simply have to 'focus'. That advice does not highlight that you must accept the pain of defeat in other quarters.

For Voxgig we have taken enough pain on the website flank, and having came, seen, and conquered with our trials, we can turn to our attention back to the website.

Where do you start? In one sense, community-oriented marketing is easy - you just have to genuinely support the community that uses your product (the hard part is being genuine - people can smell fake sincerity a mile off).

I've been through this exercise before - our website is rubbish. Something must done. This is something (SEO, new colours, stock photos, web design agency,etc.), let's do it. Having made these mistakes before, I'm very keen to avoid them again. In part, the reason I have neglected our website is because I know how hard it is to get right.

The real challenge is something known as 'market positioning'.

This is the basis for building up your entire marketing messaging and platform so that it is entirely consistent and sensible. It's hugely difficult for Software-as-a-Service offerings like ours that sell to other businesses - this is an inherently boring product. Our big selling point is literally that we are not as awful as a spreadsheet - yay!

This is a technical subject, and there models to help. I'll walk you through our thinking so far, and try to structure it on the context of some of these models.

There are two big categories you can place yourself in: cost or capability.

You're either positioning yourself as the best value (cheapest acceptable) solution, or you're providing something, a capability that differentiates you from everyone else. A lot of inexperienced founders are drawn to the cost side as a strategy.

I'm not sure if this is because they haven't yet fully discarded the consumer mind-set most people start with, and that running a business (of any size), beats out of you.

It is far better to have some differentiation (it's a much easier strategy to execute-you're not Amazon). To have some aspect of your service that lets you charge higher prices to a more focused market. In our case, we're providing collaboration-focused solution that lets you work with all the participants in and event inside the same system, without having to jump into other tools and websites. Our customer discovery work tells us this is a major pain point for our customers.

And who are our customers? This is the real killer result that you want from market positioning.

You've identified and defined your ideal set of customers (no small task by itself), and when they see your marketing material (your website, for a start), they immediately say, yes, this something that I pay for, and essential to my work.

Notice that I've phrased quite carefully. It's not that your website immediately makes them get out their credit card, it's that they recognised you as part of their professional world.

A builder will walk into a DIY store and say the same of a hammer. A builder won't walk into an electronics shop and say it of a laptop.

This is your 'category'. We're still working on this one. For example, our system does a lot of the same things that a project management system does.

But if we position ourselves as yet another project management system, albeit focused on events, then we end up competing with large established project management tools. It will be hard for event managers to convince their bosses to buy us, when they already have a project management system in place. Game over.

I'll return to this subject next week, and discuss how we are using some established models to break down our thinking. You can watch in real-time as is updated (from next week) and see how well we do.

Search engine statistics: 2,274 technology conferences, with 6,219 speakers, 4,981 exhibitors, and 1012 venues. Marketing update: speakers newsletter - 6,202 subscribers, open rate 10pc. EventProfs newsletter: 687 subscribers, open rate of 21pc. The podcast is at 107 downloads.

Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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