Digital Strategy Template – for startups & small business

Prologue

Building a Digital Strategy Template, is on the wish list of almost each and every individual in the digital advertising business, every tech entrepreneur, existing startups or marketing communication teams in corporates.

But can we really create a generic strategy template? Lets find out.

People in the traditional advertising would definitely know about the role of a “strategic planner“. They are the genius brains (inside every advertising agency) who create the “brand story”, who add their midas touch by wearing a strategic hat and making sure that each and every part of the brand messaging goes through a quality prism.

The problem is, there was no such concept of a “Digital Strategy Planner” for a very long time. Fundamentally, planning & strategy in the online space was restricted to “Media Planning”. The ad agencies & the marketing team never really thought about “digital strategy” from an integrated customer outreach standpoint. It was more of a “media oriented approach” where the only objective was to optimize cost per user acquisition.

Unfortunately, social media ended this madness but added some new madness of its own. With Facebook & Twitter taking over the digital world like a storm, conventional media publishing models got massively disrupted. Audience started discovering new content on the social platforms and as a result, a lot of small publishers had to shut down their operations as bulk of the marketing spends started to move into social platforms because client’s objective shifted from just acquisition to engagement.

The Need

As a digital marketing consultant, I’ve heard this from so many aspired entrepreneurs in different startups meets, there is no single approach using which they can prepare their digital strategy to promote their SAAS product or to increase their app downloads or prepare a basic customer acquisition plan while they are bootstrapping it.

A lot of startup marketing teams see “Digital Strategy” in silos and not as an integrated marketing approach which is critical to build a consistent communication & brand experience across all audience touch points.

Who can use this document?

  • Early stage – Mid Stage startups
  • B2B Marketing Teams
  • Digital Ad Agencies
  • Digital Marketing Managers
  • App Developers

In this presentation, I’ve tried to cover very practical approach on how to break down your digital strategy process into stages that cuts across identifying & segmenting your target audience, choosing the right digital marketing channels and creating the marketing metrics to track your performance.

6 stages of Digital Startup business

If you are reading this post, I can assume that you have an idea and you are on your way to build your startup or else you have a deep desire to build one. Don’t worry, you are not alone in your journey. Building startups seems to be the only thing on the mind of every professional.

For a long time, the venture capital world has often correlated the ability to build a successful startup with the age & experience of individuals. Not anymore.  According to a Harvard Business Review report, the average age at founding (a startup) was just over 31, and the median was 30.

 

Startup Founder Age of VC Backed Companies

Startup Founder Age of VC Backed Companies

However, age has nothing to do with the stages of startup but interestingly it can increase or decrease the duration of your pre-startup period.

Now if you search on the Google, you would find different views & opinions about the stages of startup business. Frankly speaking, none of them is incorrect. But the one which has simplified it considerably is created by StartupCommons (see below):

 

Startup Development Phases & Lifecycle

Startup Development Phases & Lifecycle

Key stages of digital startup

Stage I : Ideation

In this stage, the startup founder(s) builds, sharpens, polishes their “potential scalable product or service idea” for a big enough “target market“. There is no need for any team or resources at this stage of startup. A significant amount of time goes into the market research, collecting data about primary & secondary audience. The end outcome is a very simplified 30,000 feet business plan document that defines all the key variables about your business in a nutshell. Most importantly, at the end of this stage you should know, who would pay for your product & service & why?

Also read: How to write a business plan document by Sequoia Capital

Stage II : Concept Development

Once you are convinced about your core startup idea, the next stage is to find your core team of people whom you would want to be part of your journey. A lot of startups (especially tech startups where founders are programmers and core architects) want to keep their idea within the closed room till they get the venture fund. Usually it delays the project considerably as they end up doing a lot of non specialised tasks by themselves.

In the concept development phase, you should start creating your actual business plan with estimated financials  of budgets, possible revenue and key company milestones for the next 2-3 years. Identifying your core team and involving them in the ideation process is absolutely critical as this would set the stage for actual business roll-out.

Stage III : Commitment

This is the stage when the founders actually start building the MVP or Minimum Viable Product for the users to test their business idea. According to Techopedia:

A minimum viable product (MVP) is a development technique in which a new product or website is developed with sufficient features to satisfy early adopters. The final, complete set of features is only designed and developed after considering feedback from the product’s initial users.

In case of services business MVP, it needs to build the tools for service delivery like wireframe of CRM for customer lifecycle management and how it would be linked with an online customer acquisition and final service delivery.

An MVP is one of the most important stages in any startup business. Not just it allows the founders to calibrate their efforts & product idea, it is the stage when you can start marketing about your product/service to prospect angel investors (not VCs).  The commitment stage is also critical to define the roles of the founding team & the shareholding pattern for the first 2-3 years of business.

Most of the early stage hiring happens during this stage of startup. The team size are thin and the founders literally bootstrap it to the maximum by doing multiple roles.

Also read: How to hire for bootstrap startup?

Stage IV : Validation

‘Validation’ or ‘proof of concept’ is one of those stages of startup business where they have to live with a great degree of vulnerability, both from inside & outside. In the validation stage, founding team has to show maximum value for all stakeholders, starting from its current customers, its employees to current angel (if any) & potential investors.

In many ways, this stage decides the fate of your business idea, and hence it gives the maximum stress to the startup owners.

On one side, the founders are struggling to find the right product strategy & brand positioning that would allow them to attract potential Series A/B venture investment, and on the other side, there is a continuous pressure to show some running profits and ensure customer delight. Incidentally, most of the startups lose their plot during this stage of business.

 

Also read: Worldwide Failed Startup Trends

Stage V : Scaling Up

This stage usually start after you’ve received your Series A investment and now you are looking to scale the length & breadth of your business operations. A significant amount of time goes into hiring resources, marketing your product in the target markets to key audience, building a strong word of mouth PR, and accelerating your quarter on quarter revenues.

Stage VI : Growth

This stage is actually subject to how your business idea has performed. Once you’ve achieved a critical mass of customers, you enter the growth stage in which you can diversify your business through possible acquisitions of smaller companies or you can enter newer markets by raising more venture fund. Fundamentally, there is no fixed time duration to this stage as most of the startups want to remain in the startup mode for a long time.

How to hire for bootstrapped digital startup?

Hiring for bootstrapped startup is always difficult, especially when you are building your prototype or incubating it using angel fund. A bootstrapped startup always goes through several challenges before they find the right people on board.

If you are one of those bootstrapped startup owners who is running or planning for his digital or tech startup, get ready to face the pain of your lifetime in finding the right set of people for your company.

And the below graphic would be sufficient to demotivate you further:

20 reasons startups fail

According to the above research by CB Insights, 23% of the bootstrapped startups shut down because they could not find the right team. So don’t worry, you are not alone in this pursuit.

With limited funds, poor office space (sometime no office space), lack of technology infrastructure (forget about the Macs, people would be lucky to get some decent Windows PC configuration), and absolutely no brand name, you just don’t have any negotiating or attractive proposition.

Also read: RIP Reports – Worldwide Failed startup trends

But like Friedrich Nietzsche has rightly said,

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Here are some suggestions ( I won’t call them tips), which I’ve figured out after working & consulting with different stage startups in my career:

Stop hiring people like yourself

One of the common aspect of most of the early stage startups, is that the founders have very limited or no experience in hiring in their career. Result? They end up hiring resources like themselves so that they feel most comfortable. Eventually, they end up building a team with similar shades of skills. Most of these resources join because of fancy designations offered by the founders.

Remember that you need people who are “go go go” types with 100-percent drive, and also people who are meticulous, detail-oriented and know how to create solid internal processes.

Stop looking for ‘only’ MBA’s or ‘only premier institutes’ candidates

MBAs bring a lot of value on the table for any early stage startup, there is no doubt about that. Polished communications, problem solving skills, fresh ideas etc. But over obsessive nature towards hiring only MBA’s would make your life miserable and could lead to delays in product and brand build up strategy. Look for key skills without which you would not be able to take off your dream, instead of just MBA. For e.g., if you are hiring for a new digital media company, look for candidates who have worked as a media planner in any advertising agency or who have handled marketing operations for any brands.

Also read: Why I Don’t Advise Bootstrapped Startups to Hire M.B.A.s by Vivek Wadhwa

Hire people who make you do something crazy

Another challenge for a lot of younger startup CEOs is that they don’t necessarily have a large enough network from which to pull talent that they need. New founders will often hire friends, and there are pros and cons to that.

On the one hand, there’s a huge amount of loyalty, and you can pull in friends who are in it to win it, and who back you 100-percent. On the flip-side, they might not fall into the normal lines of authority, or you could just end up with yes men who agree to things, even if the ideas are ridiculous. The key is to hire people who will tell you that you’re doing something crazy.

Here’s a must watch video on Bootstrapped Startup hiring strategy: