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The Critical Role of Marketing in the Lean Startup Process

So your new startup’s minimum viable product is hot off the press and ready for some validation. To test some of the core underlying product assumptions, you need to get the app in the hands of about ten customers to see if they “get it.”

Mom’s always down to test (but you might have to help her install it), and you’ve got a handful of colleagues who owe you a favor. Great, as long as they’re potentially real customers for your product.

But as your startup moves through its iterations, your testing sample sets will grow larger and larger to keep statistical significance. To continue down the lean process of assumption validation, startups need to invest more into growing their test sizes and user base.

What’s the quickest way to gather these happy users? You might just need some help from your marketing team after all.

I recently interviewed Lean Startup pioneer Eric Ries at the Lean Startup Conference. In our context, he defined marketing as ‘anything you do to drive more than a couple of customers to a product’.

“Startups break down the distinction between product and marketing,” he said. Marketing is an essential function for a startup, even at the earliest stages of validation. If you can’t drive customers to validate and learn, your startup dies.

Lightbulb moment

Eric told me about his work with an innovative company launching a new product. This “startup from within” was at a standstill because of internal politics. Engineering wanted to own the product and give direction to marketing; meanwhile, Marketing wanted to take the reins and give direction to the engineers.

In a day-long lean workshop, Eric and the team started brainstorming a minimum viable product. That got the engineers excited about the potential of having a product generating real revenue and real customer feedback within a week. Amongst themselves, they started asking questions. Who knew some customers? How could those first customers be convinced to pay?

Then came the breaking point in the conversation, when the engineers asked, “Could we get someone from marketing on the team full time to make this process work?”

This unwedged the product, moving it forward with a cross-functional team and a full-time customer acquisition pro at the table. It also gave the product team an internal champion on the marketing side of things to break down barriers within the organization.

Front-row seats

So what’s a quick hack to integrate marketing team members in the lean process? Don’t silo them. The best way for marketers to steer your product away from bottlenecks is to bring them into the action. Here’s where they fit in:

  • Putting your product through the ringer: Steve Blank, who launched the lean startup movement, points to six hypotheses at the core of its approach. Nearly all of them — customer, value proposition, distribution channel, demand creation — directly relate to marketing the product itself.

  • Testing your assumptions with your product is just as important as testing your assumptions with the market. Your product shouldn’t move into marketing at a certain stage of validation. Marketers should be there, whether you’re evaluating basic consumer demand or determining cost-per-acquisition ratios at scale.

  • Building some killer buzz: As your startup grows and validates hypotheses, you’ll need to create demand and expand your reach. Put that value proposition in your marketing team’s hands. Getting things right for ten happy users is great, but quickly driving in new customers with increasing orders of magnitude as the product evolves is critical to creating a great company.

Having a huge chain of command is counterproductive: Eric said the “whole point of Lean Startup is an autonomous business team.” Bring in a marketing voice to join your developers at the table from day one. (The same goes for legal or IT stakeholders if you need them.) Then you’ll really have a product that someone besides Mom will be proud of.

How do you keep the marketing team involved in your business?