Go-To-Market Plans (Gone Awry)

Posted by Louis Brandy on 17 November 2008

I work for a tech start-up. I've taken a very active interest in the business half of our start-up company. Consequently, I try to keep up with start-up news. I read start-up blogs. I follow other start-ups. One of my absolute favorite guilty pleasures is learning about a particular start-up's "business guy's" version of their go-to-market plan.

A go-to-market plan is an important part of any start-up company, whether the plan is formalized or not. You work for awhile building something you can sell and then you need to figure out how to get the ball rolling in your market of choice. Sometimes this is a simple problem. Sometimes it's incredibly difficult. I don't envy people who need to come up with solutions when this is a difficult problem. And those people who solve it successfully deserve their success. Those guys certainly earn their money. This story, though, is not about those people. I've developed an extremely strong distrust of marketing and marketing speak from non-technical people. I freely admit that it might be more about my own cynicism than their methods. I've tried my best to disabuse myself of this bias but stories like what follows keep adding evidence to my prejudice.

I want to relay to you a real example of a "to-market" plan I was exposed to from a real company, from their non-technical founder. This particular company was doing both software and a gadget that were useful separately but also had synergy. The actual details aren't really relevant. Here was their two-step "to-market" plan, phrased exactly as they did:

  1. Be popular on tech and gadget blogs
  2. Make viral videos
Immediately, I was struck by the certainty. They aren't going to to "try" to be popular, they just will be. Maybe that's that start-up confidence. I waited for the specifics. Someone asked what demos or cool things they'd do to "be popular" or "become viral". They froze up a little. Oh my god, I thought. They didn't seem to have specifics. They actually thought it was this easy.

Break Time

I need to make something clear before I continue: I don't have a lot of real world experience in this arena. I haven't started multiple successful start-ups or anything like that. I'm just a guy who reads a lot. That's the extent of my expertise. So while I do hold strong opinions, I understand fully that I might have missed something critical in my reasoning. I am always open to correction.

So, all that being said, someone please explain to me how this is not the dumbest conceivable plan. I was stunned when I heard this. It blew my mind. They actually thought it was this easy!

Being Popular is Not Trivial

Shouldn't this go without saying? Listen start-up guy: if you think "being popular" on blogs or "making viral videos" count as a marketing plan, you need to stop, right now. You aren't any good at this. I'm serious. If it was that simple, you'd be King Midas. Every pile of nonsense you touched would turn to gold. If you really can wave a magic wand and turn videos viral, you don't need to make whatever stupid widget you are trying to make. Your skills can be leveraged elsewhere.

Chances are good, however, that you aren't King Midas. You are just a guy who has absolutely no idea how much of a non-plan being "viral" is. You are in way over your head. Pretending you can just "go viral" is like believing in magic. Or that you can make money by stealing people's underpants. Going viral is something that happens to a large extent at random. You can study all the real-world cases you want. There might be some lessons to be learned but at the end of the day most of it is just pure dumb luck. It's basically akin to rounding up all of last's years lotto winners and trying to find lessons. Ooohhhhh, they all eat cabbage.

The lesson is simple. If you had specific ideas for demos, blogs, or other marketing things that you think has a good chance to be well-spread and fairly viral, that can constitute a plan. "Be popular" isn't a plan unless you can answer the question: how? These specific ideas for how represent your "to-market" plan. If you don't have any specifics, you don't have a plan.

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