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Why You Should Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding (softwarebyrob.com)
126 points by khingebjerg on Oct 14, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

I absolutely hate hearing these things:

Remember, ideas are worth nothing. And these days, even your code is worth very little.

Alright, so creativity and idea-making worth nothing. Technical expertise to make it? nothing.

Honestly, what's left? The business side of things?

Maybe this article just bothered me because I was getting similar vibes to "you can just have an idea and hire some programming monkey to create it for you."

Or as he said it: You and I could get together and clone almost any popular web application in a month. Or for that matter, we could simply buy a clone script. Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Groupon, Digg, and about 50 others are available for around $100 each.

One supporting example for the article's position is Mint.com

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1791278 (How Mint beat Wesabe from Mint's point of view)

> We spent a ton of time holding online chats, went to events (like twiistup la, finnovate) and connected with the entire personal finance community. Oh yea, this was 9 months before we even launched the product.

Think about this. By the time Mint launched we had more traffic than all the other personal finance sites (buxfer, geezeo, wesabe) combined.

That's exactly right. Ideas aren't worth much. I like Siver's article on ideas as multipliers. Execution and the 'business side of things' as you stated are what matters. If Zuckerberg didn't execute like he did with Facebook, Facebook would've still have been a cute little toy project at Harvard. The idea of Facebook itself is pretty simplistic.

He was also lucky, in the right place and time, and savvy enough to exploit his luck. Plus, the value of Facebook (and other sites mentioned) is the community and mindshare. You can't just buy a Facebook clone and expect overnight success.

This attitude bugs me a lot. There is probably a path for every single person in this country to make a million dollars in the next year if they were just "savvy enough" to take advantage of it. It seems everyone wants to diminish Zuck's success by ascribing luck to it, but let me tell you something. Zuck executed the shit out of Facebook. Did the community and mindshare just come out of thin air?

There's no good reason to believe that Zuckerberg is lucky at all. Saying he was in the right place at the right time has this tacit assumption that if he were somewhere else at the wrong time he would have tried the same thing and fell flat on his face.

It seems because Facebook is an outlier, people feel safe talking about the luck factor, but that's meaningless because we all exist with individual circumstances, and by that measure everything every one of us does is based on luck. Instead, I prefer to ascribe luck to things that the individual actually had no control over, such as winning the lottery.

+1. I once wrote an article on why the idea of luck pissed me off too. You succinctly described my own thoughts better than I did. Thanks for writing this.

The time when it was possible to build simple application with good design and get tons of users is over. Today, a lot of people can do what the pioneers have done and get 0 users. I don't say it's impossible to get so many users as FB, but it's much harder. So Zuck was lucky to have the right solution in the right time. The bar for Zuck of today is much higher, simply because they aren't so "lucky" to live in the wild beginning of computer/ internet era.

I'm not saying his success was due purely to luck, but that luck was a major factor.

Being the right place and right time is a huge part of it. He was the right age, in the right environment, when the right technology reached the right tipping point and critical mass.

I'm not disparaging Zuckerberg's ability or hard work. However many with greater ability and who have worked harder have failed because of circumstances beyond their control.

But isn't it just a platitude you tell yourself to feel better that you will never be that successful? How can you be sure Zuck isn't better than those who failed? And how can you be sure those who failed didn't do something wrong? You see how pointless this is?

Luck plays a role in building a billion dollars company, otherwise billg, stevej, would be building billion dollars company every 10 years which is not happening.

Building a million dollars company is hard work (I mean 10 million at least ), but still billion dollars company are mostly about being lucky and exploiting it. I doubt that billionnaire entrepreneurs seriously worked much more, or much smarter than millionnaires. Billionaire companies landed there because they exploited ideas inherently more monopolistic, more able to spread.

If you take the sivers multiplier http://sivers.org/multiply, ideas still have some potential : a x20 multiplier is a huge boost.

sigh thank you for totally missing the point. This is all mental masturbation. You're just using luck as a synonym for circumstance, which is not a good attitude for an aspiring entrepreneur to take.

> There is probably a path for every single person in this country to make a million dollars in the next year if they were just "savvy enough" to take advantage of it.

Yes, there is, in the literally uncountable possible paths that the decisions of every other person on the planet (not to mention the state of the planet itself) create, there probably does exist a path to success, if not all, at least most people. Some of those paths involve crime, deceit, coercion and such but that is irrelevant.

"Luck" is you making the right choices (naturally based on your genes, psychology and the decisions that have led you to your current self), others making choices that facilitate it and the planet not blowing up in this process.

You realize the statements you've quoted are a 3-sentence tangent that has nothing to do with the point of the article, right? There's another 1500+ words that don't rely on this being true or not.

Secondly, I didn't say technical expertise is worth "nothing." Of course it's worth something. But as developers, we need to realize that, except in rare exceptions, our code is worth a lot less than we think it is.

That's great article you have written and I personally really liked it. I will even take some ideas from it. I think you shouldn't pay to much attention to people who take everything as personal insult and fail to see behind their personal world.

Reason #3: The boy who cried vaporware. If you end up with a history of advertising vaporware, nobody will listen when you finally get it right.

If you are super amazing and you can get your first product to market, this obviously doesn't apply. But most people aren't. And most of those who do, they're just lucky.

Reason #4: Duke Nukem Forever will be out any day now. If you take too long to get it to market, your product will be a joke and people will lose interest.

Can anyone recall the names of the two products I announced on my blog and then abandoned for various reasons? Was anyone here even aware that happened at all?

Just failing isn't nearly enough to get people to remember you. You have to be truly epic to be remembered for that. (How many enterprise deployments go years late for every Slashdot joke about Duke Nukem again?)

Only one I remember is Kalzumeus, which I think was a rental property management webapp for targeted for single-family residences as opposed to apartment buildings and the like. Was going to have awesome integration with Paypal. I could be wrong, that's from memory and I could be confusing you with someone else.

Can you think of a person who has been advertising vaporware that you would not listen to? I don't think that I can.

A similar claim is that people won't give a bad product a second chance, even after many years. But the point is, unless you launch like Cuil, you won't have many users in the beginning. So if some percentage of those few hundred people lose faith, it could be a small price to pay for the knowledge you will gain.

As for Duke Nukem Forever, if it came out today there would be plenty of interest. It might be considered a joke but that is only really a threat someones ego. Of course, it is a financial threat as well but that is because of the massive development costs, not marketing that back-fired.

>Can you think of a person who has been advertising vaporware that you would not listen to?

Microsoft. I ignore anything they say until they have something I can actually buy. They've made too many announcements that were just never spoken of again.

Ok, so your example just shows that you can be super successful using the vaporware strategy...

Only if that's all there was to Microsoft's success.

Their successful in spite of announcing a lot of vaporware, but their biggest win of all; windows was top secret until it was released, right?

My understanding was that the first release of Windows came a long time after the initial announcement, but it was a little before my time.

Microsoft's usual strategy, that no one has explicitly stated yet, is to try and discourage its customers from buying a product by promising the moon 'just around the corner' for a couple years. Microsoft is seen as a better long term bet, and this depresses sales even though it doesn't actually have a product yet, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of the failure of its competitors.

So when people are angrily referring to Microsoft vaporware, that's what they're talking about.

Reason #5: You're not at all sure what exactly the idea of the final product will be. You've got ideas bouncing around in your head and you want to try them to get a feel for what might be a real product.

I have a half-joking pet theory that Duke Nukem Forever is the greatest marketing ploy of all time. Their plan was to announce this game, do enough development to release a teaser every 5 years or so, and then wait until 2008 to REALLY start development of it.

Greatest hype machine ever, and never doubt the Duke..

I'm ambivalent about this. Having been through a few different startups with various degrees of marketing, it seems like the issue is really sensitive to your product and your schedule.

Mog.com started out with minimal hype despite a lot of effort by its CEO, and had an very (almost disastrously) slow startup phase. When we ran into implementation difficulties we compounded this slow-start problem even more. Mog managed to pull through this because of prudent financials and perseverance, but it was a near thing.

Powerset had the opposite problem, we had so much hype we didn't know what to do with it. What Powerset delivered was pretty impressive, but much less than what people expected. Cries of "Deeply Disappointed!" rained down on us like drops of acid, and we were powerless to do anything but deliver on what we could and say the rest was either too expensive or too difficult for the moment. But we did have a lot of users and interest, so we had a huge launch.

Now I'm at BankSimple, which is somewhere in between these other plans. BankSimple is aggressively talking to people and getting their message out, so there is some pent-up demand. We're also very diligent about responding to people as people, we do a bit of research before replying to (almost every) email. This means that we get some impatient tweets and messages (“Who cares what you look like? Where is your service?!”) asking for unreasonably fast development time, but it also means we get a lot of insightful feedback and commentary.

Our biggest obstacle seems to be controlling the hype. It's very easy for people to build up what we promised into veiled hints some kind of complete reform of the US financial system, which is probably an unreasonable launch goal. ;)

As someone who signed up for BankSimple around the time the first wave of press was going out, I can say that I probably check your blog once a week, and have sent your site to countless of my friends. (I'm trying to be patient, but it's hard. :)) I think it's a great example of why marketing early (with the right message) can be super useful.

One thing that the article didn't go into was getting people familiar with you. Even if someone doesn't sign up (or if you don't have a way for them to give you their email address for some reason), if someone stumbles across your site/product a few times before it launches, they're likely to start to remember it and be more interested when it launches.

(KirinDave- Keep up the good work! I'm excited to hear back from you guys and start using whatever you guys give us.)

After reading Zed Shaw's post yesterday about how "Long Beards" are getting marginalized by "Product Guys" I cringe when I hear bullshit like this:

Ideas (and in most cases even the code itself) is worth little. It’s marketing that makes the startup.

(Mind you, ideas are worth little, but the rest... yeah)

Don't take this the wrong way, but why did it take a Zed rant to see through this? Usually "department x is more important than anyone else" arguments are flawed to begin with.

You're right; it didn't take Zed to convince me, I just thought it was odd that I read two articles arguing about the same thing on vastly different ends of the spectrum.

When he says "ideas/technical expertise are worth nothing," I think it might be meant to drive people who are obsessed about ideas/technical implementation toward the middle where things are more balanced, more so than it is to drive them too far to the "marketing is everything" side.

I agree though, saying "X is >> important than Y" tends to not be a great plan.

Ideas (and in most cases even the code itself) is worth little. It’s marketing that makes the startup.

But it does have some truth to it.

You can write great code and still not get customers without _some_ good marketing. And on the opposite many mediocre products can thrive with great marketing.

Zed rants on a Zed blog IS his marketing. When the product is server code and the consumer is other programmers, Zed posting effort-rants to HN for programmers to read is GREAT marketing. If your startup's target audience isn't other web developers then the type of marketing will vary, but it is still essential.

A reason not to start marketing right away:

- You may pick the wrong people to market to and they convince you to abandon your project

While this may save you some time, the people may just have convinced you to stop work on a valuable product.

Even though I've done a couple projects that haven't gone anywhere, the fact that I have completed them in a working and useful state has greatly helped me get interviews and led to higher paying work.

Isn't that like saying "Don't try to find any potential customers for your idea because they may not like it and you may give up?"

I guess the customers might think different when they actually see the product.

"No, these days even technical execution is mostly trivial (with a few exceptions for apps built around unique algorithms). Far more important is marketing execution."

Can someone please smack this idiot?

He's a smart cookie, and for the types of applications he sells and suggests writing, he is absolutely right. CRUD apps have minimal execution risk. Any programmer on HN who has shipped software could write BCC, bar none. Maybe it takes a weekend, maybe a month, maybe the UI is prettier or uglier, but you cannot fail at bingo cards. You cannot fail at invoicing software, or scheduling software, etc etc. You can certainly fail to successfully sell a single copy.

I can think of rather more companies who failed because there was no market for their products than companies who failed because while there was a market the product didn't work. Indeed I have been involved in spending tens of millions of investors money learning this fact during the Dot Com years.

If people really need your product then they will excuse it being a bit crap (Exhibit A: most enterprise software). However, if your product is a work of technical genius but doesn't do anything useful for anyone then it is surely doomed.

I think in the context of "which is harder, building the product or building the market?" most programmers will admit that the coding is (almost) trivially easy compared to actually getting users. Perhaps trivial is too harsh a word but I understand what he means.

agreed. "trivial" is an overstatement but the essence of what he's saying is completely right.

He's right. How many people have failed to launch a product because they couldn't figure out how to do it? How many have failed because nobody wanted it? You can buy technical execution with little risk. Not so for marketing execution.

Why? He's pretty much correct unless you are taking the statement hyper-literally.

Few web applications are technological breakthroughs. You can find exceptions in things like Google maps and such, but for the rest of the startup scene, it is all about the execution and the marketing.

> unless you are taking the statement hyper-literally.

The burden to avoid or justify hyperbole is on the author.

There is much more to the startup scene and tech in general than the dime-a-dozen CRUD apps the author is implicitly talking about.

My pleasure, I'm shocked at how the HN community responds to that article.

Another reason you may want to delay pre-launch marketing is that if you plan on patenting your product you can invalidate your ability to do so in certain juristictions (including most of the EU) simply by "disclosing" your invention.

If your landing page could be construed as an "offer for sale", and goes up more than one year in advance of your patent application, you've lost your ability to patent protect the idea in the US as well.

Of course most startups these days (the ones reading HN at least) are working on web apps and patents are not as commmonly employed. If you ARE working on a patentable idea though, you should do some research and consult with an IP lawyer before you go and put up any public marketing material before you have applications in to the jurisdictions where you want protection.

Yeah I should have started marketing two years ago, or at least show my idea to other people. I started that only after the first year, with a survey to find out if my idea is right (and it was). The thing about marketing, or anything that involves people from outside, is that you can easily motivate yourself by dropping details no one wants (saving time ftw) or add new ones if you see there's someone who's interested in this or that little extra.

Disagree: Technical and design execution matters a lot. Facebook was brilliant in both. While myspace pages were a mess and friendster was having trouble keeping the server up, facebook out executed both.

If you don't have a good product marketing can't help you. Marketing can give you an edge over other equally good products but cannot guarantee success.

Dropbox / Tweetie (before it stagnated) / Minecraft etc succeeded because the product was good. Not because of marketing

I don't think there is any mention of marketing at the cost of technical execution in the article.

If your market does not know your product exists, it won't matter how good it is anyway. I'm reminded of Hugh MacLeod's brilliant cartoon "Welcome to Nobody Cares": http://www.gapingvoid.com/11444661477.jpg

edit: I stand corrected. "technical execution is mostly trivial"? No thank you. I did not become an engineer to write wedding planner software.

Marketing is hard as hell, especially so for developers.

As with many other articles like it, the advice given is too vague. We know that we need to market our product but how? Make a landing page, and get 600 subscribers out of the blue? Just blog it all up in the twittersphere and get 1000 likes, no problem?

Anyone who has tried that without a thorough understanding of marketing, and no real budget for it, will know it doesn't work like that.

When I read these marketing articles, it feels like they are explaining how to model my abstraction layers, when I haven't even written Hello world yet.

Once this is setup the major task is driving traffic, which is far beyond the scope of this article.

Yes, and it's the hardest part of the process. Saying "start early" doesn't help much if you punt on "start what?" Glossing over that 650 strong list is skipping the meat of the subject. How much did they cost, where did they come from, and how long did they take to get? Those are the questions worth answering. You need to answer (or guess at) those questions before you decide when to start your marketing.

First off, the article is "Why" to do this, not "how to market a startup." I named it this way for a reason; marketing is a huge topic. I devote an entire chapter to it in my book, and am tossing around the idea of writing an entire book on the subject.

So offering the how and why in a blog post is a bit more than you should expect.

And there is value in saying "start early." Most devs I know don't do this and it costs them when they launch. If you've heard it and already know this that's fine, but many others have not.

With that said, here are quick answers to your questions:

>>How much did they cost

Typically nothing.

>>Where did they come from

It depends on your niche, but typically from being involved in that niche's community, publishing blog posts that get mentioned on Twitter, being interviewed on podcasts, and generally getting in front of the audience who will buy your application.

At a 50% conversion rate you only need 1300 uniques for a 650 person list.

>>How long did they take to get?

Most often 4-6 months. Most first-time startup founders can drive 1300 targeted uniques to a landing page in 4-6 months.

For more on this topic keep your eyes on the blog; I'll be posting more about this kind of stuff over the next few months.

I think this is awful from the standpoint of morale (coming from personal experience). If you start marketing, and start getting positive feedback way too early, you end up cashing in the rewards a bit too early. Early positive feedback from friends killed many personal projects since I got the praise before I did anything and lost motivation to actually finish them.

YMMV, but this is how I react.

I'm not sure why we require 1,500 words to convey the very basic idea that you shouldn't build a product in a vacuum. This entire article could fit in a tweet:

Show it to the people you want to sell it to as you build it, and start building a mailing list before launch.

"Ideas are worth nothing" - it's a big statement and quite a prevalent view these days.

I think it's true to an extent - a successful startup doesn't need an entirely new, innovative idea but at the same time a new, innovative idea doesn't necessarily result in a successful startup. I think what's more important is not the idea itself, but the angle you take to market your idea. And that is why the blog post has some sound advice.

For example, facebook wasn't the first social network but the way it marketed itself (ie exclusively to college students ) etc was quite effective. Google wasn't the first search engine but its 'clean, simple' branding was quite unique.

Your marketing strategy/approach shapes the design and the features of your product.

For every 1000 people who has the idea, one actually does it.

I think the really big differentiator is not how well you execute (in code or in marketing), but whether you do it at all.

If you're prepared to stumble-and-ratchet (ie. explore; try-fail-try-again; "pivot"; experiment), ahead of everyone else, you win.

The only exception is if someone is massively more skilled/knowledgeable/resourced/intelligent/determined than you. But a funny thing is... that for a new market-product fit, you are the expert, and the most skilled, because the only way to get the knowledge and skill is to stumble-and-ratchet. You are also most well-known in the market. It's really hard for someone to catch up.

You can build an email list cheaply, just use Google Forms: http://www.google.com/google-d-s/forms/

Or you can have a fully managed list for free up to 1000 subscribers at mailchimp.

1. I think everyone here is missing the point of the article... Market now, not later.

2. There is a lot of "code above all" because we are programmers. The sad reality: All aspects of a business are valuable; the ideas, code (IP), marketing, user interface design, customer service, strategy & processes! If you want to be successful, all aspects of your business need to be properly nurtured, provided for & grown.

Idea x Execution x Marketing x Persistence x Luck = Success

Based on Sivers Multiplier idea:

- http://sivers.org/multiply

Why not start a few days (at least) before you start coding?

"Sell before you build" is my new mantra.

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