Must-reads for Startup Growth and Marketing
In this startup growth list, you’ll find 10+ books, blog posts, and videos that are highly referenced amongst entrepreneurs in the industry and considered some of the best resources out there for startup growth and marketing.
My goal with this list was to be fairly comprehensive and cover growth as it applies to everything from the very earliest days of a startup to the point at which a startup enters a mid stage growth phase.
In this list there are valuable learnings from Marc Andreessen, Paul Graham, Steve Blank, Sean Ellis, Brian Balfour, Elad Gil and more - if there’s anything critical you think I missed, please leave a comment below. Enjoy!
Note to the reader: the original version of this article was posted on Medium and can be found here.
“The Only Thing That Matters” by Marc Andreessen
You look at a startup and ask, will this team be able to optimally execute against their opportunity? I focus on…pmarchive.com
“The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit. Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” “You can always feel when product/market fit isn’t happening. The customers aren’t quite getting value out of the product, word of mouth isn’t spreading, usage isn’t growing that fast, press reviews are kind of “blah”, the sales cycle takes too long, and lots of deals never close… And you can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it - or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers.”
“I believe that the life of any startup can be divided into two parts: before product/market fit (call this “BPMF”) and after product/market fit (“APMF”). When you are BPMF, focus obsessively on getting to product/market fit. Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to, raising that fourth round of highly dilutive venture capital - whatever is required. When you get right down to it, you can ignore almost everything else.”
“Startup = Growth” by Paul Graham
“A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”
“We usually advise startups to pick a growth rate they think they can hit, and then just try to hit it every week. The key word here is “just.” If they decide to grow at 7% a week and they hit that number, they’re successful for that week. There’s nothing more they need to do. But if they don’t hit it, they’ve failed in the only thing that mattered, and should be correspondingly alarmed… Focusing on hitting a growth rate reduces the otherwise bewilderingly multifarious problem of starting a startup to a single problem. You can use that target growth rate to make all your decisions for you; anything that gets you the growth you need is ipso facto right. Should you spend two days at a conference? Should you hire another programmer? Should you focus more on marketing? Should you spend time courting some big customer? Should you add x feature? Whatever gets you your target growth rate.”
“If you want to understand startups, understand growth. Growth drives everything in this world. Growth is why startups usually work on technology - because ideas for fast growing companies are so rare that the best way to find new ones is to discover those recently made viable by change, and technology is the best source of rapid change. Growth is why it’s a rational choice economically for so many founders to try starting a startup: growth makes the successful companies so valuable that the expected value is high even though the risk is too. Growth is why VCs want to invest in startups: not just because the returns are high but also because generating returns from capital gains is easier to manage than generating returns from dividends. Growth explains why the most successful startups take VC money even if they don’t need to: it lets them choose their growth rate. And growth explains why successful startups almost invariably get acquisition offers. To acquirers a fast-growing company is not merely valuable but dangerous too.
“It’s not just that if you want to succeed in some domain, you have to understand the forces driving it. Understanding growth is what starting a startup consists of. What you’re really doing (and to the dismay of some observers, all you’re really doing) when you start a startup is committing to solve a harder type of problem than ordinary businesses do. You’re committing to search for one of the rare ideas that generates rapid growth. Because these ideas are so valuable, finding one is hard. The startup is the embodiment of your discoveries so far. Starting a startup is thus very much like deciding to be a research scientist: you’re not committing to solve any specific problem; you don’t know for sure which problems are soluble; but you’re committing to try to discover something no one knew before. A startup founder is in effect an economic research scientist. Most don’t discover anything that remarkable, but some discover relativity.”
“The Startup Pyramid” by Sean Ellis
“Every six months I rethink the optimal startup go to market approach based on new insights gained at recent startups. Lately I’ve been using a pyramid to represent the process I’m using. Startups require a solid foundation of product/market fit before progressing up the pyramid and scaling the business.”
“I’ve tried to make the concept less abstract by offering a specific metric for determining product/market fit. I ask existing users of a product how they would feel if they could no longer use the product. In my experience, achieving product/market fit requires at least 40% of users saying they would be “very disappointed” without your product. Admittedly this threshold is a bit arbitrary, but I defined it after comparing results across nearly 100 startups. Those that struggle for traction are always under 40%, while most that gain strong traction exceed 40%.”
“If you haven’t reached product/market fit yet it is critical to keep your burn low and focus all resources on improving the percentage of users that say they would be very disappointed without your product. Avoid bringing in VPs of Marketing and Sales to try to solve the problem. They will only add to your burn and likely won’t be any better than you at solving the problem. Instead, you (the founders) should engage existing and target users to learn how to make your product a ‘must have.‘”
“The Four Steps to the Epiphany” by Steve Blank
“The greatest risk - and hence the greatest cause of failure - in startups is not in the development of the new product but in the development of customers and markets.”
“Have we identified a problem a customer wants solved? Does our product solve these customer needs? If so, do we have a viable and profitable business model? Have we learned enough to go out and sell? Answering these questions is the purpose of the first step in the Customer Development model, Customer Discovery.”
“The appropriate milestones measuring a startup’s progress answer these questions: How well do we understand what problems customers have? How much will they pay to solve those problems? Do our product features solve these problems? Do we understand our customers’ business? Do we understand the hierarchy of customer needs? Have we found visionary customers, ones who will buy our product early? Is our product a must-have for these customers? Do we understand the sales roadmap well enough to consistently sell the product? Do we understand what we need to be profitable? Are the sales and business plans realistic, scalable, and achievable? What do we do if our model turns out to be wrong?”
“On the day the company starts, there is very limited customer input to a product specification. The company doesn’t know who its initial customers are (but it may think it knows) or what they will want as features. One alternative is to put Product Development on hold until the Customer Development team can find those customers. However, having a product you can demonstrate and iterate is helpful in moving the Customer Development process along. A more productive approach is to proceed with Product Development, with the feature list driven by the vision and experience of the company’s founders.”
“Positioning your product against the slew of existing competitors is accomplished by adroitly picking the correct product features where you are better.”
“One of the first tests of your value proposition should be, is it emotionally compelling? Do customers’ heart rates go up after they hear it? Do they lean forward to hear more?”
“The year-one objective for a company in a new market is to drive or grow adoption of this market. The limited demand-creation activities the company engages in are focused on (1) customer education about the new market and (2) turning earlyvangelists into “reference customers” for the emerging market to emulate. The success criterion for year one is that the number of potential customers has gone from zero to meaningful.”
“A customer reference is something you have to arm twist to get; an evangelist is someone you can’t get off the phone.”
“What happens when you fully staff sales and marketing and you haven’t nailed who your customers are and why they should buy your product? Sales starts missing its numbers. The board gets concerned. The VP of Sales comes to a board meeting, still optimistic, and provides a set of reasonable explanations. The board raises a collective eyebrow. The VP goes back to the field and exhorts the troops to work harder.”
“Growth” by Alex Schultz - A lecture in Sam Altman’s course “How to Start a Startup”
“Retention is the single most important thing for growth… If [the retention graph] doesn’t flatten out, don’t go into growth tactics, don’t do virality, don’t hire a growth hacker. Focus on getting product market fit, because in the end… if you don’t have a great product, there’s no point in executing more on growing it because it won’t grow.”
“My contrarian viewpoint is, if you’re a startup, you shouldn’t have a growth team. Startups should not have growth teams. The whole company should be the growth team. The CEO should be the head of growth. You need someone to set a North star for you about where the company wants to go, and that person needs to be the person leading the company…
“Back when Facebook started, a lot of people were putting out their registered user numbers. Right? You’d see you registered user numbers… Mark put out monthly active users, as the number both internally he held everyone to, and said we need everyone on Facebook, but that means everyone active on Facebook, not everyone signed up on Facebook.”
“And that’s the next most important thing to think about: How do you drive to the magic moment that gets people hooked on your service… What do you think the magic moment is for when you’re signing up to Facebook?… See your friends. Simple as that.”
“Do Things That Don’t Scale” by Paul Graham
“One of the most common types of advice we give at Y Combinator is to do things that don’t scale. A lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don’t. You build something, make it available, and if you’ve made a better mousetrap, people beat a path to your door as promised. Or they don’t, in which case the market must not exist.
“Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off… The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.”
“You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy. For as long as they could (which turned out to be surprisingly long), Wufoo sent each new user a hand-written thank you note. Your first users should feel that signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made. And you in turn should be racking your brains to think of new ways to delight them.”
“Sometimes the right unscalable trick is to focus on a deliberately narrow market. It’s like keeping a fire contained at first to get it really hot before adding more logs.”
“Traction” by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares
“Traction is growth. The pursuit of traction is what defines a startup.”
“After interviewing more than forty successful founders and researching countless more, we discovered that startups get traction through nineteen different channels:
- targeting blogs
- unconventional PR
- search engine marketing
- social and display ads
- offline ads
- search engine optimization
- content marketing
- email marketing
- engineering as marketing
- viral marketing
- business development
- affiliate programs
- existing platforms
- trade shows
- offline events
- speaking engagements
- community building”
“Traction and product development are of equal importance and should each get about half of your attention. This is what we call the 50 percent rule: spend 50 percent of your time on product and 50 percent on traction… To be clear, splitting your time evenly between product and traction will certainly slow down product development. However, it counterintuitively won’t slow the time to get your product successfully to market. In fact, it will speed it up!”
“You can think of your initial investment in traction as pouring water into a leaky bucket. At first your bucket will be very leaky because your product is not yet a full solution to customer needs and problems. In other words, your product is not as sticky as it could be, and many customers will not want to engage with it yet. As a consequence, much of the money you are spending on traction will leak out of your bucket.
This is exactly where most founders go wrong. They think because this money is leaking out that it is money wasted. Oppositely, this process is telling you where the real leaks are in your bucket (product). If you don’t interact with cold customers in this way then you generally spend time on the wrong things in terms of product development.”
“High Growth Handbook” by Elad Gil
“Once there’s product/market fit, then the main thing becomes taking the market - which is to say, figuring out how to get the product to the entire market, how to get dominant market share, because most tech markets tend to end up with one company with most of the market share.” - Marc Andreessen, interviewed by Elad Gil
“One of the things that’s most frustrating for a startup is that it will sometimes have a better product but get beaten by a company that has a better distribution channel. In the history of the tech industry, that’s actually been a more common pattern. That has led to the rise of these giant companies over the last fifty, sixty, seventy years, like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, and many others.” - Marc Andreessen, interviewed by Elad Gil
“All marketing and PR efforts ultimately contribute to building the company’s brand, public perception, and customer acquisition…
“Growth marketing is analytically driven marketing and includes all quantitative areas of marketing. This includes online advertising, email marketing, SEO/content marketing, viral marketing, and funnel optimization…
“Product marketing (sometimes just “marketing” without a prefix word) is the canonical, old-school technology marketing discipline. This includes things like testimonials, feature requests, user testing and interviews, competitor analysis, collateral generation, and case studies…
“Brand marketing is focused on the squishier side of marketing: brand awareness and perception, logos and other design elements…
“Public relations is focused on story development, press, events, as well as product-focused activity such as reviews and awards programs.”
“The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” by Al Ries and Jack Trout
“The Law of Leadership - Many people believe that the basic issue in marketing is convincing prospects that you have a better product or service. Not true. If you have a small market share and you have to do battle with larger, better-financed competitors, then your marketing strategy was probably faulty in the first place. You violated the first law of marketing… The basic issue in marketing is creating a category you can be first in. It’s the law of leadership: it’s better to be first than it is to be better. It’s much easier to get into the mind first than to try to convince someone you have a better product than the one that did get there first.”
“The Law of Focus - A company can become incredibly successful if it can find a way to own a word in the mind of the prospect. Not a complicated word. Not an invented one. The simple words are best, words taken right out of the dictionary… This is the law of focus. You “burn” your way into the mind by narrowing the focus to a single word or concept.”
“Building a Growth Machine” by Brian Balfour
“The answer to ‘What tactic would you use to grow my company?’ is not what you think it is. It has nothing to do with tactics. It has everything to do with process.”
“What works for others, won’t work for you. Your audience is different, your product is different, your business model is different, your customer journey is different. Your business is different, plain and simple.”
“You need a machine: scalable, predictable, repeatable. The machine produces the tactics. The process makes the machine.”
“The first step: know where we are going. How we set goals: objectives, timeframes, and key results. Once we know where we are going we hit the road as fast as possible.”
“Growth” by James Currier at LeWeb
“Every company is ready for growth right now. Some people say ‘oh it’s too early to grow.’ But what they’re talking about is: it may be early to grow new users. But there are different types of growth. The one everyone talks about is the topline growth… The next type of growth is activated growth. People came and used your product but did they understand its real value to them? Were they activated? And then there’s retained growth. They understood the value but did they come back And then there’s monetized growth. You’ve got them to come back but did you make any money out of them?”
“You have to organize for growth. You’ve gotta create a growth team. And I believe even the smallest company should have a concept of a growth team. You’ve gotta have people responsible for growing. And remember these are four different types of growth, not just topline growth but also monetized and retained growth.
You’ve got to actually put growth in people’s title. These people need to report to the CEO. They need to have a personality where they enjoy data exploration. People who aren’t really into data aren’t going to be good at growing a company. And they’ve gotta have a really aggressive personality because they wanna grow that company even faster than the CEO sometimes.
And the pieces that often cause companies to fail in this is the CEO doesn’t give the growth team clear directive and the clear ability to break eggs. You’re going to make mistakes as you’re trying to grow, you’ve gotta be willing to do that and the CEO needs to be on board with the growth team. We’ve got a couple companies where the CEO was not on the growth team and it never ends well, because you’ve got to make clear decisions where it affects the whole company.”
“Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore
“The number-one corporate objective, when crossing the chasm, is to secure a distribution channel into the mainstream market, one with which the pragmatist customer will be comfortable. This objective comes before revenues, before profits, before press, even before customer satisfaction. All these other factors can be fixed later - but only if the channel is established.”
Thanks to Ryan Kulp for recommending “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing”
Thanks to Anthony Pompliano for recommending James Currier’s LeWeb talk on Growth.
Thanks to Justin Mares for conversations about his book and for recommending Brian Balfour.
Thanks to Trevor Owens for recommending Sean Ellis’s survey on product/market fit.
Thanks to Elad Gil for an early copy of his book.
The writings of Paul Graham, Marc Andreessen, Steve Blank, and Geoffrey Moore are classics and thanks to every single person who has re-recommended them over the years.