Vlad Ionescu is the Chief Marketing Officer of a high-growth robotics company, tech angel investor, and marketing advisor to early-stage startups. He joined UiPath in 2015 as the company’s first marketing hire, before going on to become Global Head of Growth Marketing and Marketing Automation. In addition, today Vlad is serving as a Venture Partner at Underline Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm specializing in partnering with founders in Eastern Europe.
Crew Capital’s Dylan Reider and Sonia Damian recently sat down with Vlad for a two-part interview featuring a wide-ranging discussion covering effective marketing strategies for early-stage startups. Below is the first part of that conversation.
Highlights from the conversation:
Early-stage startups should take inspiration from the early blogging era in understanding how good content can, through sharing, syndication, and networks, build brand awareness and lead to commercial prospects.
Marketing-first approaches can be a growth engine for early-stage business growth, building brand equity and reputation to drive inbound leads that sales teams can pick up on.
Early-stage start-ups need to be cost-efficient in their marketing efforts. They should prioritize ROI, and identify metrics to track progress.
Dylan Reider: Vlad, thanks for joining us for this interview. Looking back on your career, what factors and experiences have inspired your approach to startup marketing?
Vlad Ionescu: The early era of blogging, ten to fifteen years ago, significantly shaped my views on marketing. When I started, blogging and publishing were important movements, and everybody was into WordPress and having a blog. I remember a company called Freshome, in one of Romania’s largest cities, that was publishing visually stunning content about design and architecture and they were acquired for supposedly more than $1 million. That was when I realized that you can start a blog from your own apartment, publishing cool stuff, and someone could buy you out for that much money.
Two things have stayed with me since that time. First, startups should have a publishing company mentality. They should publish content via different channels, share and syndicate it, and evolve into thought leadership. If you think like a publishing, blogging, or media company, you will automatically be thinking about marketing. It’s not a sales-first approach; it’s not that you have a product and sales representatives are trying to sell it. You’re a publishing company that puts content out there and that attracts people to your website. And then, they convert, because publishing companies make money via selling advertisements, that’s their revenue stream. When people get to you, you ought to have a sufficiently well-defined value proposition to sell to them, to convert them to be interested in what you’re doing.
The second lesson is scrappiness; being efficient in how you allocate resources. These media companies and blogs were a handful of people trying to put the best content they could find in different niches or categories. They didn’t have budgets. Other people were spending their budgets with them to be featured with advertisements on their blogs. So it’s the other way around. It’s a different way of thinking about marketing.
Sonia Damian: Do you think that all startups need this mentality? Does it matter what type of product you’re selling, and who you’re selling to? Or should all software startups take this approach?
Vlad Ionescu: If you’re a startup whose business is focused on large ACV deals from the very beginning, you should prioritize direct sales over content-based marketing. In these types of businesses, where your deal sizes are very large, you probably won’t be able to attract that type of customer only through content marketing. If you’re a company with this type of top-down motion, after a year or so, implementing content marketing will enhance your existing sales motion, build your brand, and help with up-selling customers.
But in the majority of cases, most early-stage SaaS startups will want to start with marketing first. One reason is the brand equity that you build. Creating content has a compounding effect – it builds on itself. With paid advertisements or sales, if you cut that, you don’t have anything left. If you build evergreen content, it is always there, generating interest and traffic. This is the inbound framework and the mentality that was evangelized by HubSpot.
Dylan Reider: Based on your experience, how should early-stage startups balance engaging with freelancers and agencies, versus an in-house marketing team?
Vlad Ionescu: It’s better to have someone who is full-time and devoted to your marketing efforts at the beginning. These people can be freelancers but only if they can put as many hours as possible into your marketing efforts. If they have many other customers, that’s not good because they can’t be fully immersed and won’t have enough focus on your business. For instance, when I started working with UiPath as a freelancer, they were my sole customer at that time. It is very important to have someone who thinks a lot about how to grow and who understands the company and puts 100% of their effort into it.
Sonia Damian: What are some strategic mistakes you’ve seen in early-stage startups when it comes to marketing?
Vlad Ionescu: The most common mistake is ignoring marketing and focusing too much on the product or the technical side. Another is going sales-first when you don’t have enough runway to invest in a sales team or have a clear product market fit yet. It’s very easy to spend too much. There are startups that focus on heavy hiring in sales but the deal sizes are very small. You end up spending more on sales representatives than the revenue they are bringing in.
The marketing-first approach is about getting a couple of people in the marketing team who can start putting content out there, start talking about your industry (through various channels and communities), writing thought leadership articles, and positioning the company in search engine results to attract leads. Then the company only needs to have one sales representative who can close all the inbound deals. For most startups, in their early days, this is the best approach. It allows you to test different channels and see what works. It can also be agile and very iterative.
Dylan Reider: Does that preferred marketing strategy change now that we are going into a new economic cycle?
Vlad Ionescu: As you mention, we are not only in a downturn, but also at the end of a cycle. There will be some pain until the next cycle begins. Many of us started our careers during the great cycle of the last decade, an environment with low-interest rates and a lot of VC money that led to the big startups following the 2008/2009 recession, and this shaped our business approach. The environment has completely changed, and now so must our mindset.
Today, we live in a much more difficult environment. For many companies, advertising budgets will get cut. And even for the early stage, VC-backed companies, it is time to wake up – this is not the environment where you initially raised money. Companies need to optimize for an extended runway. Startups need to get through this period by prioritizing marketing efficiency and ROI on marketing investments by identifying key metrics to manage.
On this topic of metrics, startups need to think more about the different tactics and functions in marketing. How do you mix content, SEO, conversion optimization, email marketing, social selling, paid advertising and social media? And how do you test what works best while being cost-efficient? If you look at a company from the outside, you can see where its marketing focus is. You can see how many blogs they put out there – one per quarter, one per month, or one per week? Same for their other activities, you can see their output in terms of social media posts on different networks, videos, and all the other types of assets they create. You can see other stats, like LinkedIn followers analytics, YouTube video views, and subscribers, etc., and are they on a growth trajectory? How successful are they in sparking conversations in their relevant groups or communities? You can even estimate the level of traffic, organic or total traffic that they have. The idea here is that there is a relationship between all these stats, traffic, users, conversions, and revenue. They go hand-in-hand. If you’re managing to bring in more traffic and maintain or ideally increase the level of conversion, then you get more users and more revenue. Founders, CMOs, or heads of marketing should be thinking and constantly measuring all these marketing stats. These are not hard metrics, some of them may look like vanity metrics, but I think they’re important, they show the traction that the startups have in their early days.
In Part Two, we dig into tactical steps for achieving excellence in early-stage marketing – the best tools, the right performance metrics, and keys to an effective content marketing strategy.