If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in working with entrepreneurs and startups over the years, its that a great idea will only take you so far. Don’t get me wrong – ideas are the seed of every successful business – but if I had to choose between a company with a great idea and an unclear execution plan, or a company with an OK idea and a fantastic execution plan, I’d go with the execution focused company every time.

One often overlooked part of the execution strategy, especially with early stage startups, is marketing. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my experience as a marketer may be coloring my opinion here, however you can’t argue that no matter how good your product/service is, if your customers don’t a) know about it, b) understand why you’re different from the competition and c) have a clear feel for its value, then your business is certain to be short lived.

I know what you’re thinking, “Yeah, Yeah. That makes sense, but I’ll worry about marketing once I have something to sell.” While its true that product development needs your attention first, marketing can inform your development strategy and help you prepare for a fast – and profitable – start to your business. How? Glad you asked:

1 – Know why your customers will love you
In today’s world, your brand is what your customers tell you it is. However that doesn’t mean that you lack control over your brand’s trajectory. Start by giving clear definition to why your customers – your true customers – will love you. How? Do one thing really, really well. For example, Dropbox knows that their customers want something simple in concept but difficult in execution – a folder that syncs to the cloud. Anything else is a distraction. Need another example? How about Zappos? Think they sell clothes? Wrong. They sell an amazing customer service experience. What will your web or mobile application do so insanely great that your customers will fall in love?

2 – Make it look, and feel, great
Great products and services have a natural feel to the customer interface that allow the user to find what they want quickly, easily and without hassle. A touch screen UI that gets it right feels like magic in your hands. A web UX that hits the right notes “just works” for customers. Getting your user experience right takes a lot of work – but don’t underestimate its impact on your future marketing communications.

3 – Be easy to find
If you know your customer, you know their buying process. Typically it goes something like this:

Recognize a need —> explore options —> set buying criteria —> evaluate alternatives —> make a purchase decision

The earlier you can get into their buying cycle the better, as it will allow you to establish credibility and influence their decision making process. Luckily for you the Internet gives you some great tools to make yourself easily discoverable and credible to customers without having to spend a lot of money. I recommend three steps: 1) architect your web application with search engine optimization in mind; 2) build a pool of high quality content – blog posts, videos, webinars, presentations, etc. etc. – that is relevant for your target customers; and 3) share your content everywhere you can (that isn’t spam, of course) to make it easy for customers to find their way back to your app. Do this right and you’ll be off to one heck of a good start.

4 – Inspire and incentivize sharing
But why stop at being easy to find? Kick your marketing up a notch or two by allowing your customers to share their enthusiasm in a way that – and here’s the important part – benefits them. Not to belabor Dropbox, but they do this perfectly. Want additional free storage? Simply invite your friends. Everyone wins. Brilliant, right?

5 – Don’t be afraid to pivot
Lean principles apply to marketing too. No matter what anyone tells you, or how much you may try to convince yourself otherwise, we’re all terrible at predicting the future. Instead, set up your marketing plans with clear metrics and consistently measure results against those expectations. Build on what generates results and optimize what isn’t working. Talk to your customers about how they found you and why they keep coming back. Adapt. In the end your bank account will thank you for it.

As a startup entrepreneur you undoubtedly have a lot on your plate; but by tackling these marketing considerations as part of your product development process you’re putting yourself several steps ahead of the game.

Posted by Jake Finkelstein on Jan 26th, 2011

You can still contact Nathaniel at nathaniel@terralien.com