The biggest mistake you’re making is putting customers first

Even pop sensation Justin Beiber doesn’t rely entirely on his fans: A whole marketing, sales, and events team helps the star keep his luster.
Even pop sensation Justin Beiber doesn’t rely entirely on his fans: A whole marketing, sales, and events team helps the star keep his luster.
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In my last post for the Hive, The #1 reason your small business will fail, I suggested that if you’re developing a product without a specific customer in mind, you’re making a mistake. Engaging with a set of specific customers grounds your development, making it impossible to go too far off the path to your first sale. Second, if you find the right customer, they will pay for product in advance. Say goodbye to investors—you just got funded and didn’t lose any stock! I call that customer your Cookie Monster, because if you make cookies, only a cookie addict will pay you serious money to bake ‘em. The rest of us just don’t care that much. To find your Cookie Monster, all you have to do is let go of three myths about marketing.

The first myth to let go of is viral marketing. That’s the child-like hope that magic fairies will spread word of your product to millions of end-users. My shocking advice is to put end-users on the back burner. Stop trying so hard to please them and focus to businesses instead. That’s a shift from a B2C to a B2B business model. With a B2C mentality (Business to Customer), you put all your effort into pleasing millions of end-users. Of course you want your cookies to be delicious to the people actually eating them! (Or your mobile app to be delicious, whatever you are making.) But as a small company, you don’t have the budget to reach millions of end-users, so you’ll need to partner with someone. For example, you’ll need to get your cookies picked up by Procter Gamble and distributed to grocery stories.

It’s tempting to think that you don’t need a distribution partner. If you can “go viral” the cookies will sell themselves. Here’s a fun reality check. Set up a booth on a college campus and sell cookies. On the cookie wrapper, ask buyers to tweet about you. You’ve got about an hour before campus security escorts you away, and when you find that nobody tweets you’ll have learned the #1 rule of marketing: People don’t care. You have to make them care. There’s nothing wrong with incremental growth, but we entrepreneurs don’t put our hearts and weekends into a startup for slow growth. To grow quickly, you need to advertise, and for a small company, that means you need a partner.

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Still don’t believe me? Take a look at Justin Bieber, the poster boy for viral growth who was discovered on YouTube. When Justin Bieber has a concert, his people advertise. I can go one step further. If you don’t think you need partners, then you’ve never studied the viral growth model in detail. Stories that go viral do so when they are picked up by major news organizations. In this case, media companies are the B2B partners. You can’t avoid it. You can only grow rapidly when some Very Important Person plucks you from obscurity and says, “Hey, Kid, I’m going to make you a star!”

Now you realize that your cookies don’t just have to taste good. They need to plug into the existing suite of products that P&G already has. They have to follow P&Gs food and safety standards. You may have to make deals with P&G suppliers of high fructose corn syrup and chocolate, because P&G gets economies of scale from buying in bulk from large suppliers, and they don’t care that you like Farmer Joe down the street. (Or if you really want to go viral, and chase down CNN as a media partner, then how do you plug into CNN’s news calendar? Are you following CNN’s media kit standards? Which of their journalists should care about you? Why are you their scoop of the day to outfox FOX?)

If you’re feeling overwhelmed now, I’m sorry to say that you haven’t even begun. Fitting in with P&G existing lines of cookies is tactical. Having good tasting cookies is tactical. Big companies are flooded with “me too” brands trying to get attention that only move the must-do-a-deal-o-meter to 2 out of 5. There’s so much competition to get the attention of a VIP firm that it’s easy to for we entrepreneurs to give up or settle for a second tier player. Don’t do that yet. While large organizations may seem like fortresses, uncaring and unapproachable, they have a weakness. If you take away one thing from this article, it should be this: the bigger the organization, the bigger their strategic problems. That’s their Achilles’ heel. If you can solve a strategic problem for a big company, they will run run run to your side.

What keeps the executives of Procter Gamble awake at night? They’re worried that Johnson & Johnson is growing too quickly in the Mexican market. Or that P&G sales are down because a cookie competitor has just signed a deal to make Star Wars themed cookies, or cookies with a fad like they’re shaped like smart phones. So you swoop in the door and say, we’re going to develop synergies between your food business and your toy business by introducing food you can play with. Our cookies look like tablets and they come with tubes of colored icing so that kids can draw on them. Or maybe your cookies are shaped like frisbees and can be thrown. Wait a second. Moms and dads will throw a fit if their kids are throwing cookies around the house, so despite my earlier advice I admit you can’t ignore your end users. You need the highest quality end-user experience. Just don’t put all your energy into customers. Put partnerships first and customers a very close second.

So what are the other two myths of marketing? How do you match your product with your Cookie Monster partner’s strategic needs? How would you even identify those needs? Those are question for my next article in this series, or come to my keynote lecture at the Hult Venture Capital Entrepreneurship Summit on Tuesday, April 9 at 12pm, or to Startup Grind on Wednesday, April 17, where they’ll interview me, Oprah-style.

Johnny Monsarrat is an MIT alumnus and the founder of Turbine, Inc., a videogame company acquired by Warner Brothers for $160 million. He now runs Hard Data Factory, which is based in the Boston Globe building the world’s largest arts calendar. He runs one of Boston’s major events blogs at Events INSIDER and @OddBostonEvents.