Marketing a startup takes work. A lot of it. / by Jeromy Sonne

I think there's this notion that marketers sit around drinking and smoking all day waiting for brilliant ideas to come to them. When I tell people I work in marketing I usually get jokes about Mad Men. I usually joke back that it's less Mad Men and more spreadsheet hero. 

Pictured above. A misconception. Not reality. 

Pictured above. A misconception. Not reality. 

It seems to be the same meme that Hollywood likes to propagate where the hero is a loveable scoundrel who doesn't really try, but is brilliant and cool so it always works out in the end. This is literally almost the exact opposite of how a functional marketing program works. 

It's much less akin to strokes of genius and much more similar to exercise. The work is hard, and sometimes unpleasant. It takes a disproportionate amount of effort to see real results. Gym memberships, eating right, and supplements are expensive. If someone promises you something that will get the job done fast and with no effort, it's probably awful for you. A lot of things that you have to do make little to no sense or seem at best tangentially related. 

All these things hold equally true to marketing. Hiring an agency and expecting them to get you to monster revenue increases within a few weeks is the equivalent of hiring a personal trainer and asking them to get you to Arnold Schwarzenegger levels of jacked in the same time period. 

By the way, have you been to a Whole Foods recently or had a gym membership in the last decade? Eating right and gym memberships aren't cheap. In the same way, neither is good marketing. Most agencies or consultants aren't out to screw you.  The truth is, marketing services have some of the most razor thin net margins of any industry. At the same time, agencies are often much much more cost effective than hiring an in-house solutions. If you're working with an honest agency, you're probably getting a good deal. 

Which leads me to my next point. The difference between amateur hour and the people that really make it is that they put in the work. Doing things half-assed is a fast track to disappointment. The truth is that consumers are getting more picky about things like brand consistency, not less. If you're trying to start a new business, you have 0 credibility. None. The way people try and tease out if something is legitimate or not is the simple stuff that doesn't necessarily drive revenue. Setting up and making social profiles consistent, decent design, messaging consistency, even things like Facebook likes are all social proof of legitimacy. Going back to the exercise analogy, would you trust a guy with only a huge bicep on one arm to be your trainer? Of course not! To whip your brand into shape you have to do things like develop muscles you don't necessarily see. No one can take a look at you and gauge your cardiovascular health yet it's an essential part of fitness. 

I realize this sounds like a self righteous rant. That truly isn't my intention. Nor is it my intention to call anyone or any business out. It's just difficult seeing idealistic people with big dreams not understand the realities of setting up a marketing program. 

Here's some quick rules of thumb I've found. 

1. If you can't afford at least $1000 you probably shouldn't hire a marketing agency on an ongoing basis.

2. If you can't sustain this spend for at least 6 months without a revenue bump you probably shouldn't hire a marketing agency on a consistent basis.

3. If you aren't willing to go outside your comfort zone and accept that there's a lot of things you're going to have to do that won't always make sense to you or directly drive revenue you probably shouldn't hire a marketing agency. 

4. If you don't have a consistent sales path that you know works, don't hire a marketing agency. This is probably the single biggest thing I see in this industry. Marketing agencies can't fix fundamental business problems. If your unit costs don't work, or if no one is buying your product at all marketing probably can't help. We don't start fires, we throw gas on existing fires. 

Here's what you should do instead:

1. Learn. Seriously, there are so many resources out there. I never went to school for what I do. I read a lot. I tried things. I learned quickly and worked really really hard. It isn't rocket surgery. Start with anything Ryan Holiday has written.

2. After you've learned the basics, work really really hard and don't expect instant results. Work your ass off to put what you've learned into action, but cognizant of the fact that it'll probably take months if not a year or more to see real results. 

3. Hire specialists to shore up your weaknesses. I'm really bad at lots of things. I can't balance books to save my life. Any talk about governmental forms and licensing etc. instantly puts me to sleep. I also can't draw a straight line with a ruler. So I hire smart people for tightly scoped projects to do what I can't. If you don't have a ton of money you should probably still work with outside talent on some level. Just make sure it's super specific and accomplishes something tangible. 

It won't happen overnight. It'll start with small things that start to cascade into real progress. You can do this. Like exercise, it just isn't cheap, fast, or easy, but I believe in you.