A startup company executive explains his company's business model.

Tips from a Start-Up Exec

Updated June 2, 2018 . AmFam Team

Getting your startup off the ground is no easy feat — but by gearing your product, services and actions towards your customer from the get-go, you can get off on the right foot.

Guesterly founder Rachel Hofstetter shows how to engage your audience.

When Rachel Hofstetter was planning her wedding, she wanted her guests to leave the nuptials as friends. So she and her fiancé created and distributed personalized booklets with enough information on the attendees to spark a good conversation.

The booklets, or guesterlys, were such a hit that friends asked Hofstetter to create guesterlys for their events. Then, when someone offered to buy one, she set her sights on turning her hobby into a business.

As a magazine editor, she used the art of storytelling to get the word out. “I knew that editors needed new stories all the time,” she says. Hofstetter rounded out her promotional efforts through strategies such as content marketing, event planning, and social media. That earned her business about two years of steady press coverage.

In 2015, Guesterly was acquired by Chatbooks, a subscription service for personalized photo books, and Hofstetter became Chatbooks’ chief marketing officer.

The experience showed Hofstetter that an effective marketing model could catapult a start-up to success. We asked her how other small business owners can do the same.

Relationship marketing is extremely important today as business owners and marketers look to build more personalized customer experiences. What steps should they take to create messaging that is authentic?

Talk to your customers yourself. Whether you have five or 5 million customers, start with what your customers’ problem and solution is. How do they talk about the problem that you’re solving? How do they talk about you as a brand?

It’s as simple as going to your customers and asking them ‘How does what we do help you?’ For example, at Chatbooks, we sent an e-mail to a couple thousand people. It was just one question: ‘How has Chatbooks helped you?’ That alone has given us so many interesting insights and words and language to use in our messaging.

What are the most important marketing vehicles or platforms that business owners should be leveraging?

It really comes down to where your audience is. What’s the easiest, most effective channel I can do right now today? For example, at Guesterly one of our big markets is for people planning their wedding. Where do you go when you’re planning your wedding? Pinterest. If you were a food or a fitness company, Pinterest is also a great place to be. For Chatbook, our audience is millennial moms who might want to post pictures and put them into books, so where do you post pictures? Instagram.

cIt’s really thinking, ‘Where is my audience when they are thinking about my type of product or service?’ Where is your target customer? What channel is she on? Where does she live in the social media world when she would be thinking about your product?

That’s very important because before you could even figure out where to market, you have to know who your audience is. What common misperceptions should small businesses avoid when trying to identify their target audience?

You assume you know what it is. You started a business because you had a pain point, and so your target customers must be people like you. That might be true for your early customers, but as you grow it’s not always true. It’s as simple as talking to your customers, and being willing to shift your preconceptions.

What are some of the signs that a company might need to change its marketing strategy?

When your leads are not converting as well. The way we market and the way we talk to customers is changing so quickly, so you have to constantly look three steps ahead of where you are today. What are people striving to get into — where are they spending their time, online, and off? And then constantly being really creative and coming up with an entirely new strategy, a new way of looking at the world that nobody’s done yet. Often, what worked six months ago is not going to work today, and what works now isn’t going to work six months from now. So the real skill is in constantly changing and optimizing.

What are the biggest lessons small businesses should remember when it comes to promoting their brand? Is it always possible to recover from a marketing mistake or is there a point of no return?

You can always recover, but every single time your brand touches someone is an opportunity for someone to stop liking your brand. Even though you want to move fast and furious, every single thing you do should be branded — from your business cards to every ad that goes out on social media. Even if it’s only going out to 100 people, it matters that it still looks cohesive and is a message you’d want someone to get if it was the only brand message they ever received from you.

With so much emphasis on social marketing and digital media, should marketers and business owners assume that they’re always on? How does this 24-hour information cycle impact a small business’s marketing efforts?

I do think from a social media standpoint, and a customer support standpoint, you should never as a whole company pack it off and go offline for four days.

Always have somebody who is available within a couple of hours to handle something. That’s just because things can escalate very quickly. I don’t think you have to be on social media 24/7, but you do want to make sure that there is some sort of ongoing conversation with your people that you’re having on a very regular basis.

Implementing a successful marketing plan is essential to connecting, promoting, and selling your products or services to your target audience. “Marketing can be the most fun part of it all,” Hofstetter says. “You’re being creative, you’re talking to people, you’re getting out and about, and you’re interacting; it’s really fun. Just kind of look at it as like, ‘Hey, this is a really fun thing that I get to do.’”

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