Three startup marketing tips from the founder of Kayak

By David Frankel

As capital gets scarce, I want to relay a few thoughts on startup marketing that Kayak founder Steve Hafner recently shared with the Founder Collective portfolio:

Steve suggested the following order:

🗣️ Word of mouth: Free
🔍 SEO: Inexpensive
💵 Paid: Measurable/scalable
📣 Brand: Save for last

This idea of starting with the least expensive channels and progressing into the more expensive ones sounds basic, but it’s excellent advice that many founders choose not to hear. This list is worth internalizing in an environment where capital is a precious commodity.

Take this seriously. Push your team to find every efficiency with the lowest cost channels before progressing. This rule goes for staff as well. A team with a <$1M marketing budget shouldn’t have more than 2–3 people. Make every dollar count.

Once you have product traction, you need to shift gears into marketing. Competitors will rapidly catch up on features, so you must sell while your product is hot. Unfortunately, products don’t sell themselves.

There’s always one more feature that you could build. It’s easy to believe a new design will unlock viral growth. Never stop working on your product, but at some point, you must make the conscious choice to prioritize distribution.

Many startup founders think their job is to create buzz and generate awareness. Enthusiasm is good, but only among your target customers. Marketing that tips off potential competitors about your strength or popularity is counterproductive.

Your goal should be to grow for as long as you can before attracting the ire of well-funded incumbents. You have a window of opportunity to build customer loyalty before competitors start to copy your formula. Try to lengthen informing customers and eluding competitors.

These are all big picture concepts, well worth thinking through in a deep way. However, Steve also had another, immediately actionable bit of advice — if you have any plans to operate internationally in the future, secure your domain names ASAP.

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