3 Key Lessons I Learned While Building a Startup

3 marketing lessons I learned while building startups

3 Key Lessons I Learned While Building a Startup

When building a startup and trying to take it off the ground, there are two questions that you should passionately care about: How do I get enough people to visit my website and how to convert them into paying customers?

The answer is almost never as simple as “let’s throw a bunch of ads”, or “change the button color to red and people will click to sign up”.

In the last 5 years, through a combination of building startups, joining the team at Germ, and helping Zepel grow, there are few key lessons that have defined how I’ve come to think of marketing.

Lesson 1: You can’t sell somebody a solution until they’ve bought the problem.

There are two types of users who’ll come across your product: those who know what problem you are solving and those who have no idea what you do.

Talking about how great your product is and all the features you have to offer is easy. Anyone can do that. But that’ll only leave you with a flat line and few crickets chirping in your analytics dashboard, especially if people visiting your website have no idea what your product is.

Telling everyone how great your product is, is the equivalent of a sales guy knocking on everyone’s door and talking about all the different topics the encyclopedia he’s trying to sell, has.

Remember those days?

People viewed the encyclopedia as just another giant book that’ll end up collecting dust in their already overflowing cupboard. All they saw was a sales guy trying to make a commission and they hated it.

The few people the sales guy managed to sell the encyclopedia? They already had the need for a source they can refer and learn from. Lucky for the sales guy, he happened to visit their house just at the right time.

But you don’t have to leave your product’s growth to chance and luck.

Those who decide to buy your product go through a five-step journey before they decide to hand over their credit card details:

  1. Unaware of the problem.
  2. Aware of the problem they’re facing.
  3. Aware of the solution that could solve their problem.
  4. Aware of the product that has the solution to their problem.
  5. Committed to buying the product.

If you can take people through every step of their journey with just the right information and not overwhelm them, people checking your product will convert without cringing.

For example, back in 2015 when germ.io got listed on StartupStash, users who visited our website, already had a rough idea of what we do. The category we were listed in, the screenshots, and the detailed descriptions gave them a pretty solid idea of what problem we were solving and what to expect from our product. So, when they visited our website, we knew they were already in the fourth step of their journey and we needed to help them with more information and walk them towards the last step.

Ultimately, how deeply a problem is understood and how well it is defined sets an upper bound for the quality of results you see. And that is true for all your campaigns.

Lesson 2: JTBD isn’t just for product development

People want their lives to be better. They know their current situation would be so much better if it wasn’t for that obstacle. And all they can think about is, “if only I could hire someone to help me get rid of this obstacle.”

Jobs To Be Done has been changing the way companies think about their product. It has put the focus on struggling moments people face before they hire a product to solve their problem. And companies such as Intercom have been using this as their foundation when thinking about building new features.

“Ok, great. But how does Jobs To Be Done apply to marketing”, you ask.

When people are considering your product as a possible solution, there are four main jobs to be done forces that ultimately help them decide.

Jobs to be done forces in marketing

Consumers are drawn towards a product through two forces: push and pull. They get skeptical about a product because of anxiety and their current habits. Users experience a push away from a product when they face a struggle, and a pull towards a new product when they’re attracted to the promise it offers.

On the other hand, forces like anxiety – what if this new product shuts down in six months? – and their current behavior  – I don’t want to learn how to use a new product – hinder users from switching to a new product.

For a user to switch from one product to another without any hesitation, both the push and the pull forces need to work together. If the combined force of their current habit and anxiety are greater than the push and pull forces, people won’t switch to your product, even if your product can get rid of their problem.

When you can define precisely what forces are driving your customers towards you and away from you, you’ll find yourself in a pot full of gold that can drive your entire marketing strategy.

Lesson 3: Everyone is working on growth

Whether you’re selling software on the internet or baby products, you know you can’t build a sustainable business unless you can satisfy your customers and keep them happy.

But what does it take to satisfy customers? Is a support and success team enough to keep them happy?

In all the marketing campaigns we’ve run, features we’ve built, and retention strategies we’ve tried, one common pattern emerged.

Everyone in the company – from engineering to QA, product to design, marketing to sales, support to customer success – is working on satisfying your customers. A tiny blip from one of your team members, you risk making your customers unhappy and ultimately leave you for a different product.

“Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.” — Elon Musk

Say you’re working on a key feature you know will benefit your users. Just to build a bug-free version of it, you’ll need everyone in development, QA, and design team to be on their A game. And when it comes to launching, you need marketing to be ready with the launch blog post and the support team ready with the knowledge base.

With each team having their own way of working, it’s nearly impossible to get a pulse of where the entire feature sits, let alone being able to get equipped with enough information to see if everyone is on the same page, step in and course correct.

As Dharmesh Shah put it in his blog post, if you have perfect people and they are perfectly misaligned, the result is zero progress.


Marketers and product people could spend a lifetime on growth hacks and tricks that come with plenty of iterations and a/b testing.

But successful startups were never built from silver bullets. The ones that make it big are built around non-glamorous tasks right and emerging as a winner from a thousand tiny battles: 0.5% here, 1% there.

After all, no billion dollar company was built based on the color of the call-to-action button.