How smelly towels nearly sunk a startup — and could save yours

By Amanda Herson

A friend ran marketing for a startup famous for its cult-like workout classes and zealous members.

In the early days, this person had a limited budget — unable to buy ads, she pored over customer service logs and made a horrifying find: Their towels smelled bad…

The towels were plush and freshly laundered, of course, but the detergent’s scent was unpleasant.

The hour spent picking a new laundry soap likely had a bigger impact on the brand’s NPS score than any single hour of brand strategy that week.

Marketing success at a startup, especially at the early stages, is often about making your earliest believers your loudest cheerleaders.

Answering customer service calls, or even replacing smelly towels, is often the best use of a marketer’s time.

This wasn’t a one-off. A weekend spent answering the phone lines uncovered a frustration with lack of visibility on order progress and spurred action on a new CRM project.

Sometimes people just want a hand to hold.

Most wouldn’t consider this “marketing.”

Talking to users isn’t “scalable.”

It lacks the scientific patina of an NPS score or the measurable impact of an Instagram campaign.

Still, unsexy customer service often needs to be prioritized over PR and pricey marketing tools.

Most startups aren’t working at the scale at which they’ll have statistically significant data at their disposal.

You can’t A/B test your want to solutions when you’ve only got 26 customers.

In the earliest days, you’ll have to make some decisions using your gut.

This doesn’t mean making decisions blindly. Talk to users and find patterns in support tickets, but don’t think like a “CMO.” Even when funded, you will be materially disadvantaged relative to incumbents and hustle will be your competitive edge.

Marketing at startups is often dull work…

☎️ Talking to customers

🤬 Reading CX logs

🦨 Literal hygiene

…Among many other tedious tasks, but when done diligently the reward can be immense.

One of the few advantages of having less capital is that it forces you to be creative and attentive.

Use it!

Mucking through customer service calls isn’t glamorous but it often unlocks the sweet smell of success!