Vlad Ionescu is an investor and a 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, Vlad is a founding partner at Underline Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on Central and Eastern Europe.
Crew Capital’s Dylan Reider and Sonia Damian recently sat down with Vlad for a two-part interview on how early-stage startups can craft the most effective marketing strategies. In part one, Vlad shared marketing lessons and principles from his career both as a marketing operator and an investor. In part two, Vlad and the Crew Capital team dig into effective strategies and tools for early-stage marketers.
Highlights from the conversation:
Early-stage startups should have a sharp focus on unit economics and ROI when considering paid advertising. Startups with a consumer or “prosumer” angle may be better suited for paid ads at the seed stage relative to B2B companies targeting larger deals. Remarketing - online advertising based on past browsing behavior - can also be effective in conferring credibility for visitors who may already be familiar with a startup’s brand, though marketers will need to adjust to the decline in third-party cookies.
Failure in content marketing is a failure to recognize a startup’s capacity to create performing content efficiently. Successful content strategists know the startups’ landscape, and who they are competing against for their audience's attention. Content marketers should match audience goals with their capacity to deliver a regular flow of engaging, well-produced content.
Startups have access to thousands of marketing software solutions today, including for building LinkedIn audiences, reaching out to target prospects, identifying relevant newsletters and podcasts for advertising, and managing online reviews. These were not available a decade ago and give early-stage companies greater reach and credibility.
Dylan Reider: Vlad, thanks for joining us for part two of this interview. There are so many marketing software solutions out there right now. If I’m a founder or a VP of Marketing at an early-stage company, how do I identify which ones are right for me?
Vlad Ionescu: One of the biggest changes in marketing over the last decade is the number of tools, literally thousands. There’s a famous infographic compiled by ChiefMartec.com with all the marketing tools and yes, there is a big challenge in choosing the right marketing stack for your company.
These marketing tools can help your startup look bigger than it is. This relates to the publishing mentality I mentioned earlier (in Part One). When you’re publishing about design or architecture and someone lands on your website through any channel, you want to look great. You want to look like the top blog in your niche regarding the design and how you structure the information. Even if you’re just getting started with publishing, visitors should not see any difference between you and the other top 10 big blogs in that space. This is the same for startups – you have to look credible. Your image needs to be perfect. And credibility is built around the several metrics I mentioned in Part One – social stats, external reviews, testimonials, and association with big logos, industry leaders, or influencers. You may not have enough content to share yet, but you should at least be able to explain your product and who it is for, and have a great ‘About Us’ section. Any proof-point that you know what you’re doing and you can deliver on your value promise is incredibly important in the beginning. Why would customers choose to work with you and not one of your competitors? Features and benefits are not enough, it’s mostly about the trust that you can create.
Your image goes further than your website. You want to have great-looking profiles and as many followers as possible on social media. When potential customers look you up and see your company doesn’t have a significant number of followers on LinkedIn, that says you’re not serious about sales, or you haven’t figured it out, or there’s simply just not enough interest in what you’re doing.
There are also tools for managing and growing online reviews, which has become an increasingly important area. For SaaS startups, there are five main review platforms out there, from G2 to Capterra. There’s a very big difference between having zero or several reviews and having hundreds of reviews. If you have hundreds, you’re in a different game. Every startup should figure out what its channels are. I have seen small, bootstrapped SaaS companies get a lot of highly rated reviews. Today, buyers and customers are in control, they do their own research. With review platforms, you can shortcut through the ‘awareness’ stage and go directly to the ‘consideration’ stage – they are a great channel. And if you can reach into the top 5 or 10 tools on G2, in a specific category, just focusing your resources on getting stellar reviews can be extremely rewarding.
In terms of other tools, there’s a tool for everything you can imagine. Just a few examples that one couldn’t envision a few years ago: there are marketplaces to advertise in newsletters. You can review thousands of newsletters, select your industry and the marketplace shows you newsletters in which you can pay to be featured. There are also marketplaces for finding the top podcasts in an industry; the influencers, and the top blogs. There are platforms in which you go in and select through various SEO metrics, and you get the websites which you can pay to get backlinks from. There’s a platform called Blindspot on which you can get heavily discounted digital billboard advertising on the most famous screens in Times Square. Think about it, even if you’re a small brand, you can be on a Times Square billboard, it’s all democratized now.
A scrappy solution for various marketing needs is to go on Fiverr or Upwork and see what services there are for marketing, content writing, guest blog posting, or building backlinks. These are great tools if you want to be cost-efficient.
Sonia Damian: How do you think about early-stage startups leveraging paid ads?
Vlad Ionescu: For seed-stage companies, I rarely recommend paying much for advertisements. You can have paid ads (PPC) as a support, and can probably make up to 20 to 30% of your traffic acquisition. And then as you grow, you can gradually increase your paid budget. For consumer startups, it might make more sense to do paid ads. And for B2B startups, LinkedIn ads are a great way to go.
Thinking about unit economics, if you’re paying $1 to acquire traffic through paid ads and that $1 gives you 10 cents in revenue per month then if you annualize, it becomes $1.20. So you’re paying $1 and you get a yearly revenue of $1.20. If the unit economics start to make sense like in this example, then it totally makes sense to do it. But you have to see the limits of where you can scale because that might work for a budget of tens of thousands of dollars, but not for millions. So these are exceptional cases in which it can work.
If you have a killer product that is much better than your competitors, you can bid on that. You advertise on the competitor’s brand name, you can have a landing page where you promote yourself as an alternative to that competitor, and you drive traffic to it and see if it converts. This could be a good solution.
I think remarketing is also important, again it relates to making your startup look bigger than it is, and the benefits of having a credible image. If you’re remarketing, people who’ve already visited your website will start seeing your ads popping up on social media like YouTube, LinkedIn, and other display channels and publications. That is a very powerful message because not everybody is aware of the mechanism of remarketing. When you see ads on big news sites, that’s a big boost in image. People will then think ‘these guys are serious enough to advertise in the New York Times.’
Dylan Reider: What are the core principles of successful content strategies?
Vlad Ionescu: With content, most probably you’re competing with someone, like a direct competitor, or the media and publishing companies. For instance, if you’re a marketing startup, in any marketing category – and we’ve seen there are 10000 tools and hundreds of categories- you’ll probably compete with HubSpot because they publish so much marketing-related content. You have to know your startup landscape, which means having a good picture of the influencers in your industry, the relevant blogs, and podcasts, the ‘Who’s Who’ of your industry. Competitors are another part of it. Founders and marketers need to be aware of the general business landscape of their company because it informs the marketing strategy and in particular the content strategy.
Knowing this will help you make connections by participating in podcasts, publishing in relevant blogs, or having content produced by relevant people on your website. You can forge relationships with influencers so that you feature their thoughts and quotes on specific topics in your blogs. This puts in motion a flywheel in which you get their views, you publish the content mentioning them, you share it, and then they will go on to share it as well. Through the associations with these influencers, you gain trust and look bigger than you are.
The second thing is to own your keywords. Keyword research is still overlooked by founders, but it is critical. From the early beginnings, you should think about the keywords or searches someone would input into Google that are relevant to you. This is related to category thinking as well, which category do you plan to lead? For what searches would you like your pages to come up in Google results? Then, you do a deep dive into keyword planning to understand the number of monthly searches and how your keywords rank. You can use tools like SemRush or SEOMonitor. If a keyword has more searches, it’s obviously a better keyword to rank for because you’re going to get more traffic. But it might also be a more difficult keyword to rank for. S
When you know your landscape and keywords, you can start thinking about what you want to write. For me, content strategy means, first of all, listing topics, thinking about the most relevant keywords and what you want to write about. Then you can set the cadence and schedule: do you want to do one blog per month or one blog per week? Once you’ve established the cadence and calendar, you can think about the channels of distribution – which channels are most effective? In terms of good content, Rand Fiskin, the CEO of Moz and SparkToro, is someone to learn from. He made a famous video about how to create ‘10x content’; because of the competition and because everybody’s putting content out there, yours has to be 10 times better than the others.
With content it’s about knowing what is already out there and finding ways to come up with something better, more relevant, finding your niche, seeing where you can start building, and using different new tools or new communities.
OpenAI’s ChatGPT is a mind-blowing experience. This technology will disrupt research, content writing, translation services, chatbots, and conversational AI. It will have an enormous impact on marketing and communication in general.
Sonia Damian: Are there any examples of content strategies that have failed? Is there anything that founders should avoid from the beginning because it will likely be a failure?
Vlad Ionescu: Failure in content marketing is often the result of failing to understand what you are able to deliver. For instance, you might think that you can do a great newsletter regularly, but then you find you don’t have enough content for it; or you think you can do a podcast, but you run out of ideas or you don’t have the time to prepare for it. So it’s more about how you evaluate what works and what doesn’t work for your company and how you prioritize. For early-stage products and startups, you probably have less than 10 people in your marketing department. The discussion changes when you have big budgets, big departments and well-defined processes. But at the beginning, you should quickly figure out what makes the most sense for you and how you can quickly acquire leads.
Dylan Reider: Startups are increasingly leveraging influencers as a catalyst to enhance distribution and reach a wider audience. What’s your advice to startups considering an influencer marketing strategy?
Vlad Ionescu: This is a key part of the landscaping process that I mentioned earlier. You need to find out who the key people in your industry are, who has the most reach and the biggest audience, say via an influential podcast. You need to reach out to them with a win-win proposal. Perhaps you can participate in their podcast, and get advice about the market and how they perceive your product. From a marketing point of view, you should explore options to co-create content, for instance, you could develop thought leadership ideas like [Your Industry] Predictions or Trends for 2023, in which you publish their thoughts and tag and quote them. This associates your startup with their image, this content association is really powerful.
Sonia Damian: In terms of the talent aspect, when is the ideal team size to start hiring in marketing?
Vlad Ionescu: If there is no marketing expert in the founding team, then I think when you reach about 7-10 people. Certainly, before you are preparing to launch, you need a marketing person to think about your audience and the best way to present the product, your positioning and value proposition, and what your online presence should be. There can be a trap with engineering-led teams that if you build a great product, they will come, which only works in very few cases.
Also, many founders ask me which are the first key hires in a marketing department. From my experience there will be a few functional titles in place, you will maybe have a tactical and strategic leader, and a content developer, and depending on your priorities, you might have someone on performance, SEO and paid; social media; product marketing, and campaigns. These are the main initial roles. I want to stress that in the beginning, you want to generate leads and have a credible image, these are the main 2 things you should focus on. Just doing this right will set you up for success, the other aspects of branding and communication come at a later stage.
Dylan Reider: In those early hires, how should founders think about traits and competencies?
Vlad Ionescu: You need to hire people with a startup mindset, who are not afraid of taking risks and are comfortable with uncertainty. They need to know they will not have huge budgets and a big team, they need to be scrappy and results-oriented. They should be good at finding the low-hanging fruits and getting as much done as possible, efficiently, with constraints, and to be good at identifying the best actions that will generate the biggest boost. The initial marketing hires should be immersed in the business and think about the asymmetrical results that their actions and tactics can bring – big wins while being cost-efficient. Growth and traction without burning a lot of cash.
Sonia Damian: How should startups consider structuring their demand gen organization, either within marketing or sales at the early stage?
Vlad Ionescu: There are two sides to this spectrum and it fundamentally depends on the startup’s business model. Large deal companies, selling annual contracts of millions of dollars, have a top-down sales motion. Whereas, for smaller ticket products, the business will likely be marketing-driven. In most cases, there is a blend, but typically one of the two will be the focus. I’d say that generally, lead generation should start and be led by marketing.
Dylan Reider: Thank you Vlad for all this insightful and practical information, it was a pleasure speaking with you.