Growth Marketing for Startups vs. Established Businesses

By Monday March 11th, 2019

Marketing for startups is different than established businesses. As a result, I have found the need to alter my approach when mapping a growth strategy for the fast-paced world of startups. Here are a few tips from my experience.

Over the last few years, Brolik has increased its engagements with emerging brands, otherwise known as startups.

Marketing for startups is different than established businesses. The good startups test fast enough to minimize investment in each initiative. This allows for an aggressive range of marketing experiments before they reach the end of the cash runway (which is almost always looming in the near future).

The problem with the way most startup founders approach marketing is that it doesn’t fit a proven model of diversifying the marketing approach in order to win in both the short AND long term. In the startup world (at least the pressure cooker VC-funded segment of the world) there is no such thing as long term. There is only today.

Marketing is often compared to investing. Investment strategy typically includes a diversified portfolio, with a set it and forget it strategy. Don’t watch the market every day, but instead look at your long term gains. This is the perfect marketing strategy for an established business seeking 10-15% growth year-over-year.

Startup marketing can be compared to the investment world too, but the approach is more akin to the day trader. Gather information fast, speculate, calculate, make your big play, and cash out (or lose big!).

As a result, I have found the need to alter my approach when mapping a growth strategy for the fast-paced world of startups. Here are a few tips from my experience.

Calculate your target customer acquisition cost to understand your runway

In order to fly you need to understand how much lift you’ll need to get into the air, then design your wings for that.

In the startup world, lift is calculated with the combination of cash and customer acquisition cost or CAC. You typically need a CAC that will leave you with enough margin to reinvest and grow (except in a winner take all market).

Once you have your target CAC established, identify what multiple of that CAC is acceptable when entering new channels. When dipping your toe in the water, you’re not likely to be immediately successful. Instead, you’ll need time to experiment and work your CAC down to a profitable target. If you’re in a competitive market, you’re not likely to cut your CAC by 10x using optimization tactics alone. If your CAC is 10x your target right out of the gate, cut your ties with that channel and move onto your next experiment. On the other hand, if your CAC is only 2x your target, you might be able to optimize your way to success.

The goal is to identify the channel feasibility as quickly as possible, even if that means showing a plausible path to your target CAC over 2-4 months. Demonstrating that you’re able to improve your conversion rate and reduce costs over the first week or two of a campaign is a great starting point. Leverage the early learnings to develop your list of target optimizations needed to reach your target CAC.


Use marketing to learn about your brand, product, and audience

The traditional advertising and marketing world has a history of lacking data to confidently articulate what’s working. The missing data is what has prevented marketers from employing practices like the scientific method to determine what works. However, in the digital world, there is an abundance of information.

All digital marketers today should be using some sort of testing methodology but this is even more important for startups. Some startups we work with are still struggling to find a product-market fit which can be far more difficult than just a/b testing images or messaging.

Growth marketers should be deploying a calculated testing approach that includes establishing hypotheses, determining the variables and defining the testing criteria. This typically comes in the form of identifying key value propositions and running them in test ads. This isn’t as clean as a scientific laboratory experiment, but if the testing is thoughtful and leads to key learnings, it will provide direction at the speed that startups need in order to scale. Chris Meyers, founder of Kapsul, provides a master class on using testing to find a product-market fit in episode 13 of GrowthCurve.

In this way, every marketing based initiative is delivering brand awareness to a potential audience, but it’s also going to systematically improve all marketing efforts over the long term.


Buy trust and credibility

Consumers need to trust a business before they feel comfortable buying its products or services. Established businesses usually have a good foundation in the form of a recognized brand, reviews, endorsements, and press. For a startup, however, there will be very little of this.

Due to the importance of credibility and the lack of it with unproven startups, we look to purchase it.

The easiest way is through enlisting influencers or review sites. They will speak favorably about your brand, product or service to their audience for the right price.

You should also look to purchase credibility through sponsored content. Sponsor content in a relevant news publication and then amplify the sponsored article using your paid advertising channels. The click-through rates tend to be dramatically higher due to the built up trust in the publication’s brand and the users’ trust toward the startup also increases because of the third party publication speaking on behalf of the organization.

With a tool like, you can even add the viewers of the content to a retargeting marketing funnel to continue the narrative, bringing the consumer closer to the target transaction.


Multi-task your way to long term strategies

Some of the most successful engagements we have worked on have come from the long-term wins with search engine optimization and conversion rate optimization. However, each startup that we have worked with needed to hit specific and aggressive targets this week, this month and this quarter. CRO might be able to impact the short term but SEO will likely not produce by the end of the quarter.

Due to the low probability of a positive short term impact, these initiatives constantly stay below the line. That means that in a year or two when the brand could be getting major growth from SEO, they still haven’t started. Instead, they are addicted to paid acquisition from rented channels. Andrew Chen goes as far to say that startups die from an addiction to paid marketing. Jason Brewer says diversify away from rented lead gen channels as soon and as often as possible.

The tactic you can use to avoid this certain death is multi-tasking. The paid acquisition strategy needs good content to send consumers to. Before writing content, pause and do keyword research first so that it may eventually rank in SERPs and create impact organically. A guiding principle for SEO writing is to produce content that is 10x better than the best similar piece out there.

This is great for SEO and for paid acquisition. If your paid acquisition landing page is 10x better than the competition, it will be highly effective at driving new business.


Most startups need to grow fast. To do this, they can’t be afraid of risky marketing tactics. To make the situation more difficult, startups often have limited cash, they lack product-market fit, and they have a limited time to be able to solve those problems. Yes, if they don’t solve these problems, they will cease to exist. They are forced to live in the short term.

It’s up to the marketing team to keep this focus while not trading too much away from long term, sustainable growth opportunity. The right balance of growth “hacking” and growth “nurturing” is a must.

It’s also worth noting that the strategies suggested here should only be borrowed by older, more established businesses instead of living by them. Every now and then these tactics can make a big difference to an established business, but it’s much safer for more established organizations to stick to a diversified approach instead of the risky day-trader type methodology.

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About the Author

Bryce is the Director of Marketing Strategy at Brolik, using his diverse background in marketing and finance to develop marketing campaigns that are both human and data driven. Bryce is the fearless leader of Brolik’s digital marketing team, overseeing client accounts and supporting some of the more technical aspects of our campaigns. He is also an avid home-brewer, and is working on building an Arduino into his kegerator as we speak.