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Technical Founders – You might be the problem

April 11, 2019 - Marketing, Practitioner Marketing - , ,
By: Chris Riley

Technical founders are amazing at a lot of things — doing a lot with little, understanding their market at the ground floor, and leading technical teams. But what they are not good at is marketing. And this is why technical founders can often be the core problem when it comes to their companies’ ability to get any marketing done.

With a post as bold as this, I need to establish some credibility. Our domain is content marketing. Practitioner content marketing works. How do we know? Because we have had customers long enough to see their evolution from no content marketing to a full-blown content marketing strategy. We have seen their site traffic increase, their posts shared, and sometimes get insight into how well the practitioner content we provide does. It’s no big surprise that the content is always on their Top Visited lists.

We also know content marketing works because we do it ourselves (for Fixate and Sweetcode.io) successfully.

One of the fantastic things about content marketing is that not only can you use it as a traffic generator and a tool to build a relationship with tricky markets — you can and should use it as a sales enablement tool. Hand your sales team a powerful post to educate your customers, and explain your value. You may have noticed we do the same thing. Our blog posts are often architected around things we see in the market so that we can help our customers execute practitioner content marketing better. That is the reason for this post.

Fixate has tended toward three customer segments/cohorts:

  1. Series A tech startups under 50 employees
  2. Series B+ tech startups between 100-200 employees
  3. Public Fortune 1000 companies inside or outside of tech that need tech content

Segments 2 and 3 tend to be more realistic about what marketing is, and they are committed to a strategy — not hunting unicorns. They are not reading books like “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore, and expecting magic. Therefore, their content performs better.

Segment 1 represents about 50% of our total customer base. Their technology is the most exciting, and there is a clear need in these companies for a strong marketing strategy. They have to make a big wave in a short amount of time. But because they lack resources for marketing, they need outside help to get it done.

In a portion of Segment 1, the technical founder ends up also being the CMO. When we see this, it’s a huge red flag.

Here is commonly what we encounter:

  1. Too much involvement. Technical founders tend to struggle to call something done. Even though they are too busy to focus on the details of marketing, they can still micromanage it. From our experience, their involvement should be limited to oversight and general guidance. Technical founders are also like their target market — curmudgeons. That’s great in providing direction, but it isn’t great when it comes to getting marketing campaigns active. Technical founders will tend to pick on things.
  2. A lack of understanding of marketing. Technical founders will often trivialize marketing. They see marketing as a formula — repeat what has worked for someone else, and see similar results. They struggle to embrace the nuances of engaging with the market and walking the fine line of credibility and promotion. Emulation of successful marketing is good. Participating in healthy marketing campaigns backed by strong analytics is also good. But the process is not binary.
  3. Fear. Technical founders are often afraid to be social. They have no issues with code, but when it comes to having conversations with people in the market, stating opinions, and having a point of view, there is a fear that one wrong word will destroy the company. And by not saying anything, they are unable to create a runway.
  4. They don’t like outsiders. There is a tendency to think that outsiders are not as technical. The result is that with outside help, there is an assumption that something either is, or will be wrong with the output before the work is done. There is an escalation of commitment on the team. “Not written here” syndrome is a real thing.
  5. They believe their tech worldview is the same as their market’s view. If only it were that simple. It is extremely rare for a tech vendor’s point of view to match directly, even if the technical founder has lived the same role as their target users. They drank the Kool-Aid of their vision, and their market has not. The nuances of technology use lead to big differences in perception. Often what is seen by founders as a huge benefit to their technology is seen as just an incremental differentiator and a “nice to have” by the market. The result is disappointment when the market’s reaction does not match their own internal enthusiasm.
  6. They’ve heard a success story, and expect exactly the same. Founders often look to the unicorns in their market for key ideas on how to win. They will talk about campaigns that the unicorns have run with tremendous success, and ask for the same for themselves. The problem is that no campaign is 100% repeatable, even within the same company, much less another company with a different product. The reason? Because there is more to a campaign than just the content. There is timing. Plus, there are distribution strategies that you can’t emulate. There is a VERY high chance that the campaign you envy was either a fluke, or it was done in a very methodical way as part of a well-defined strategy.

Make marketing an app

The result of the technical founder who is over-involved in marketing is that very few campaigns are run, and the ones that are reflect an unchecked reality of a single individual.

There are two simple answers to this challenge. The first is to hire a stellar marketing team, and let them do their job. Have faith in their execution, and then focus on what you do best — building software. Second, realize that marketing may not be as formulaic as code, but the process is the same as modern application delivery. When you build modern applications, you want to deploy as frequently as possible. The faster you get code out the door, the sooner you know what is going to work. Modern application development embraces failure.

In modern marketing, you need to get your message out the door quickly, iterate, and find out what sticks. In the fast-paced tech market, there is a much higher opportunity cost that results from not getting your content out the door (just like getting app features out the door before your competition beats you).

The long-term impact of technical founders over-involvement can have long term effects on company culture. Because technical founders are usually more technical than the marketing team they hire, it leaves their team helpless to present any constructive argument on what ought to be done, even if the marketing team has a much better sense of the amount of activity it takes to see a meaningful impact. This instigates a huge marketing churn rate that is destructive and counterproductive. Even mediocre but stable marketing has a better outcome.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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