OK, you heard the “throw up in my mouth” line about marketing. I’ve been joking about this long enough that it’s become conventional wisdom that I hate marketing. Now for the other side of the coin. If you look at many of our successful investments, they are extraordinarily good at marketing and some people suggest we (Foundry Group, me) are also good at marketing. And remember, I said that I hate traditional marketing.

Chris Moody, a long time friend and COO of Gnip, sent me an extremely thoughtful email titled “Food for Thought.” I read it, thought it was 100% correct, and asked if I could republish it verbatim both as (a) an explanation of how I actually should / do think about marketing and (b) an example of how I learn through direct feedback.

Chris Moody:


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OK, you heard the “throw up in my mouth” line about marketing. I’ve been joking about this long enough that it’s become conventional wisdom that I hate marketing. Now for the other side of the coin. If you look at many of our successful investments, they are extraordinarily good at marketing and some people suggest we (Foundry Group, me) are also good at marketing. And remember, I said that I hate traditional marketing.

Chris Moody, a long time friend and COO of Gnip, sent me an extremely thoughtful email titled “Food for Thought.” I read it, thought it was 100% correct, and asked if I could republish it verbatim both as (a) an explanation of how I actually should / do think about marketing and (b) an example of how I learn through direct feedback.

Chris Moody:

At this point I’ve probably heard/read most of your basic philosophical points on the various aspects of building a successful business. I agree with most of them of course. However, there is one area where I’ve consistently felt that you have underrepresented your true feelings and it feels like your general input on the topic has been mostly nonconstructive. I’d like to try to help change that for the good of the broader entrepreneur community (and to make you look even smarter).

The topic is marketing. I have no doubt missed some brilliant thoughts you’ve offered to the community and I’m sure you’ve provided countless pieces of good advice to individual entrepreneurs in one-on-one situations. But, the sound bite version I’ve heard from you on a few occasions goes something like this “I hate traditional marketing. Focus on building a great product or all the marketing in the world won’t matter.” When I think about the first time entrepreneur, this response feels particularly unhelpful. And, the second part of the quote could be applied to almost all aspects of a startup business including sales, finance, etc. If you don’t have a great product, none of the other shit matters.

And yet, when I see how Foundry Group approaches marketing and when I look across your portfolio companies, I see a very common thread around how you guys approach marketing. I would characterize the theme as “marketing through thought leadership.” In more basic terms it is expressing marketing ideas via “this is why we are doing what we are doing and why it is important” instead of “hey, look at me.” Have a new product feature? Sure blog about the feature, but spend way more time on why the feature is important to your overall purpose and beliefs.

To illustrate the point, I’ve recently talked to/interviewed a few current/former people from Rally and Return Path. When I ask them “what is the most significant thing you did from a marketing perspective to accelerate the business” the answer across the board has been “we focused on being a thought leader in our space.” As you well know that is the same approach we are taking at Gnip and I see it in many of your other portfolio companies too. Not sure it is always a conscience effort by the companies, but it seems to be pretty consistent across the portfolio.

When I think about FG itself I see tons of “marketing activity” but most of it could also be just be labeled: thought leadership. You sponsor conferences around topics that you care about. Your blog post are rich with “here’s why we did it and why it matters” instead of “here’s what we did.” In fact, your whole theme-based approach is really about thought leadership focused in a few areas.

Foundry Group clearly believes that startups have the power to change the world. You guys spend countless time and effort expressing your opinions on this topic. You write books to support your beliefs. If you only talked about what you do with your startups “we invested in X, we sold Y”, the conversation would be short and have a limited audience. Instead, you talk about what you believe and why startups matter. As a result, you have built a real following around people that care about the topic.

If I were going to create the Brad Feld sound bite for marketing it would go something like this “Don’t do marketing. Focus on becoming a thought leader in your space. Talk everyday with your customers, perspective customers, partners, and the world about why you do what you do and why you think it is important. The reality is, you can only talk about what you do one or two times before people think ‘got it’ and stop listening. But, if you talk about what you believe and point to countless examples that exemplify your beliefs, you can build real engagement with people who care/believe the same things.”

Comment by kmenzie
Our company, Slice of Lime, created various incarnations of the Rally, Return Path, and Foundry Group websites. In all of those cases, "thought leadership" proved to be the best path to achieve the results that they wanted. The decision to create a "thought leadership" website isn't something we apply to every project, though. We first look at the business goals, target audience, and desired results.

In the case of Rally, Return Path, and Foundry Group, we felt that highlighting blog posts, whitepapers, and so on (presuming that someone is actively creating this content on their end) would be a great way to engage with their target audiences and to position them as best in their industry.

Not all clients require that strategy, however. For some startups, product demos, video content, or a strong focus on social engagement will be a better path. Other times, simply focusing on amazing customer support will be what acts as your startup's initial "online marketing plan."
September 2011
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