Lean Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses and Startups

Small businesses and startups face many challenges when marketing their products and services.

Small businesses and startups have minimal brand recognition, are often located in geographic or demographic areas that limit their marketing options, and most have small (or non-existent) marketing budgets.

Some marketers advise small businesses and startups to research and create strategic marketing plans.

Such plans can help, especially when create at the start as part of a business plan. And, strategy IS important. But strategic marketing plans take time, resources, and money. Few young companies can afford that cost.

Other marketers recommend that small businesses and startups build a website or optimize their existing website, develop email lists, start blogging, and develop newsletters. These tactics can be important and may work for some, but they also require time, resources, and money.

The reality is that for the vast majority of small businesses and startups, marketing consists of handing out a business card.


Marketing and advertising require an investment of significant amounts of money and time.

The ads we see on television or in magazines, for example, were developed by agencies and consultants who evaluated past campaigns, developed concepts and assumptions about advertising themes, conducted some market research/focus group testing, created storyboards, developed scripts (for commercials), and much more. It’s no surprise that the cost of running the advertising itself is often smaller than the cost to produce that ad or marketing piece.

The truth is that most advertising and marketing doesn’t work.

Studies show that people ignore online ads and other forms of advertising are not much better.

Yet products and services rarely sell themselves – small businesses and startups must find ways to let their potential customers know about those products and services.

In this post, we’re going to explore several strategies small businesses and startups can leverage when marketing their products or services without spending a lot of money or time developing comprehensive marketing plans.

First, some background for those not familiar with lean startup principles.

“Lean Startup” reflects a set of key principles used by some entrepreneurs to quickly and inexpensively develop new products and services. Lean startup principles promote creating rapid prototypes of your products and services designed to test your assumptions about the market and then to rely on feedback from customers to enhance those products and services.

There’s strong support for the lean startup movement in the marketplace, including from investors.

Even agencies have taken notice and are talking about ways that agencies can apply lean startup principles when they counsel their clients.

What can small businesses and startups learn from lean startup principles?

Let’s take three key elements of lean startup principles – quick and inexpensive prototypes that test market assumptions, feedback from real customers, and learn fast, don’t fail fast – and apply those elements to strategies for small businesses and startup marketing.

Test your marketing ideas in small batches

Many small business owners and entrepreneurs think that picking the right marketing channel will solve all of their problems.

But there’s no one right marketing channel for all businesses. Some products and services sell better using one channel, while others sell better using different marketing strategies and tactics.

By trying different tactics, you’ll get a better sense of where your customers are, how they respond to your¬†marketing messages, and how they like your products and services.

Once you start excluding things that don’t work after a period of testing, you can focus more of your energy and budget on the marketing channels that are effective for your company.

Instead of starting with big strategic marketing plans and investing huge portions of your marketing budget on one or two initiatives, break your budget into small pieces that you can use to test various marketing ideas.

For example, you could set aside some funds to experiment with offline and online promotions, online small business listing sites, referral programs, deal-of-the-day sites like Groupon, print ads in local papers or mailers, online ads, hyper-local advertising on Facebook, participation on Twitter, or adwords on Google.

Decide on a small budget for each effort, set a reasonable time frame (at crowdspring, we typically experiment with most marketing initiatives for two weeks – but there are exceptions), and then monitor and assess the results, although be careful to focus on the important information.

One word of caution: many small businesses and startups assume that great marketing can overcome poor products and services. They cannot. As the saying goes: “you can’t polish a turd.”

Listen to your customers

Perhaps the most important lean startup lesson for small businesses and startups is the need to increase the frequency of contact with real customers. Marketing is often directed at a faceless, voiceless audience and you rarely, if ever, hear from that audience. It’s the equivalent of standing on top of a tall building with a megaphone and talking loudly about your company.

How likely is it that such a strategy would work?

Small businesses and startups don’t have big budgets to blanket the world with their marketing messages. So what can they do?

Edward Boches, the¬†Chief Innovation Officer at Mullen advises small businesses and startups to¬†“maximize social media. Build a community, support them, leverage them. Market WITH not TO your community.”¬†This is sound advice and is in stark contrast to the way most companies market. Companies rarely engage in dialogue with their customers and as a result, miss opportunities to learn and improve their products and services.

Learn fast, don’t fail fast

Many people fear failure.

For most, this fear is healthy because not every failure is a learning experience.

But the key to lean marketing for small businesses and startups is to focus on learning, not the failure.

The goal is to learn as much as you can about your marketing options and spend as little money and energy as possible to gain that knowledge.

While many of your marketing tests may fail (at crowdspring, 90% of the marketing tactics we try don’t work out), you’ll be able to adjust, refocus, and find marketing channels that work.

And importantly, by applying lean marketing principles and focusing on small, iterative initiatives and feedback from your customers, you’ll test your theories and assumptions within weeks or months, while your competitors will wait years to see if their grand bet-the-company marketing initiative succeeds or fails.

If you want to dig deeper into this topic: Tim Malbon from Made by Many put together an excellent presentation deck focusing on many lean startup and marketing concepts.