How to go-to-market for B2B founders

July 27, 2022

Many of my friends who have become founders or joined early-stage startups have asked me how to set up GTM teams throughout the last few years. After advising several folks on this topic, I turned my advice into a blog post. Enjoy!

When people ask for advice on this topic, the real questions they're asking are

"How do I know what sales & marketing investments to make?" 

"What's the expectation from investors on this?"

"What's the playbook or standard way to do this? Surely there must be one!"

People end up in this situation because they either didn't have the opportunity to work closely with GTM teams or didn't lean into GTM in their prior roles. Well, my first advice is not to let that happen. If you're thinking about founding a startup in the future, please learn about GTM where you are right now. Without GTM skills, founding becomes 10x harder.

Here's the playbook. What's terrific about this playbook is that you can also apply it to larger companies. The basics aren't different. There are a few things across sales & marketing that you must nail before you scale efforts.

Who's your customer?

This seems easy and obvious. It isn't. You'd expect that founding teams have figured this out by the time they think about GTM. The best have, for sure. But many haven't. 

If you're in the position to think about GTM, you likely have cash in the bank that you just raised. In that fundraising process, you defined the market in the biggest possible way since that's one of the top criteria for investors when evaluating startups. The downside of defining a massive market is that it gets hard to pick specific customers in that market that you'll start with. 

If you're solving for "everyone" from the beginning, good luck. It's rare to find success with this approach because each market segment will have different needs / jobs-to-be-done, willingness to pay, and status-quo on how they solve those needs. By attempting to address everyone right out of the gate, your sales & marketing will try to say the same thing to 5 different types of customers, reducing your ability to get your message across effectively.

So, what can you do differently? Learn how to segment your market. There's a lot of theory on this which I'll post about in the future, but here's a simple approach. As you're doing customer development, try to tease out whether market segments behave differently. These differences usually arise from demographics, firmographics, geography, or behavior/needs. You don't have unlimited time and resources to get this right, so don't aim for perfection but start creating your hypothesis on segments and refine them as you go along. Here's a short HBR article on how to think about segmentation that'll help.

As you make progress, if you see yourself succeeding with multiple sub-segments, ask yourself if that's intentional or a fluke. Will it be more helpful in the medium term to narrow your scope? Selling a $20k deal to both a 100 person startup and a fortune 500 seems like the wrong way to go about it. You could generate more leverage by selling your product for $100k+ to the fortune 500. Is that a better path for your business? Or is selling lots of smaller $20k deals more scalable? The GTM motion for each sub-segment is quite different. Being intentional will help you scale up faster and avoid confusion.

What's the Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) for your business?

The logical next step is to define your ICP. This should flow quite easily if you've gotten specific on market segmentation. How do you define an ICP? Think about all attributes about the customer that make them a perfect fit for your product or service. Some of these will stem from the segmentation, but you can go into more detail here. The list below is just a starting point - you should add more as you learn more about your market, segments, and ICP.

  • What are their needs or jobs to be done?
  • How many employees or how much revenue do they generate?
  • What's their industry or geography?
  • Who are the decision-makers at the customer for your type of product or service? 
  • What are the relevant job titles that are decision-makers or influencers?
  • What's the expected sales and implementation cycle?
  • What's the status quo for how they solve their problems today?
  • Where does the ICP hang out online? 
  • What are the content consumption habits of the ICP?
  • What are other types of products & services (adjacent to yours) the ICP buys?

Your ICP should reflect the top 50% of your customer database as you get more traction. There'll always be some customers who don't fit perfectly into your ICP definition, and that's ok - it shows you can expand from your current ICP into new ICPs/segments, but the top 50% (by revenue, retention, p/m fit) will likely fall into your ICP if you've done this right. Another way to think about this is that as you scale, you should define your ICP based on where you're having success, and that's essentially the same as the top 50% of your customer database. You can work backward from that!

What's your positioning?

Positioning is the exercise by which you place your product in the proper context in the ICPs mind that makes the buying decision obvious. 

There are a gazillion "positioning" statement frameworks on the internet. Please don't look at them. They're garbage because they're based on nothing but what you think. Positioning isn't about what you think/feel/intuit. Positioning is about what's true/objective in the market. So how do you go about creating your positioning? Here's a 5-minute playbook. 

  • Identify the alternatives for your product that your ICP might consider. As technology progresses, there are several alternatives for every new product or service. These don't have to be specific products. They can also be processes/systems they rely on today.
  • For each feature in your product, identify whether it's truly unique or different from the alternatives and specifically how/why it's so.
  • Figure out the true benefit and value your ICP will derive from the differentiation and articulate value themes.
  • Decide on a market framing that puts your differentiation at the center and makes the task of choosing your product obvious.

If you find this stuff critical for your business (why wouldn't you???), you need to order and consume April Dunford's book - Obviously Awesome - right now. Please do it.

Do you start with sales or marketing?

The answer is sales. However, there are four steps that I usually see.

Step 1: Founders are the ones who must figure out the segmentation, ICP, positioning, and then sell. They are the original visionaries behind the product, and they need to iterate on it closely to know whether it's working. They must make sure the engine is working before delegating parts of that engine. 

Step 2: After figuring out founder-led sales, figure out how to hire and train your first sales rep to take the baton from you. Probably after shadowing the founder for a while. 

Step 3: Once your first rep has ramped up, figure out how to scale to 3 to 4 while you, as a founder, support the marketing, sales enablement, sales training, strategic storytelling aspects of the sale. Shadow them all and see if you're able to scale and get a very repeatable process going.

Step 4: Finally, add marketing firepower to your team with a clear goal — reaching and converting more prospects that fit your ICP.

There's a lot more to talk about in sales, so we'll pick that up in another post — how to construct your pitch, think about your sales process, handle objections, etc.

Which marketing hire should be your first?

There are many aspects to marketing - content, creative, social media, email, product marketing, ad-buying. The list goes on. However, there's only one obvious answer to this question.

My strong recommendation is to hire a Product Marketer. Especially in the early stages of building out the GTM function, you need a strong Product Marketer. Mayur Gupta, CMO of Gannett, said it best recently on LinkedIn that all marketers are Product Marketers first. 

Every marketer is a Product Marketer first

Why? Product Marketers will help you refine everything we just talked about in this post: segmentation, ICP, Positioning, Sales Pitch. You're going to need continuous refinement as you scale from a handful of deals to 100s and 1000s of deals. 

PMM can also help you understand the media consumption habits of your ICP and develop a content marketing strategy. Only after that should you consider other marketing functions depending on your specific situation - social, ads, community, etc.

I can't emphasize enough that you should avoid investing in every possible marketing strategy right out of the gate. Build your marketing engine one layer at a time. Each marketing strategy takes time to generate ROI, so going deep in one area before going broad in many places is highly recommended.

What type of content do you produce?

After you've done everything we've talked about above, you're ready to start developing content marketing. Once you've created the overall strategy, content marketing is the first / core activity you need to take on. The beautiful thing about content marketing is that the assets you produce can be re-purposed across multiple channels - on your website, social, email, ads, or any other medium of your choosing.

Content marketing starts with knowing your ICP deeply and figuring out what type of education, entertainment, or cultural/trend awareness topics resonate with them. This isn't a static exercise. It's something that changes every once in a while, so you need to develop the correct intuition and process to refine your content strategy as you learn more. Where does your ICP hang out online? What types of content resonate with them? What niche can you create that sets you apart from other generic types of content already in the market?

Ultimately, you need to develop content that adds unique value to your ICP. Does it make them smarter? Does it make them more money? Does it make them look fabulous? 

Finally, once you have your Product Marketer and Content Marketer, and you've experimented with a couple of strategies and channels, you're ready to bring in the next marketing hire that can help you go deeper on a specific channel - ads, emails, SEO, etc. If you're not ready to hire, it's so easy to find agencies that specialize in specific channels. As long you've developed a clear strategy internally, that's always an option for lean startups.

Wrapping up, here's the summary:

  • Define your market segment and customer
  • Define your ICP
  • Define your positioning
  • Set up and scale your sales process
  • Then hire your first marketer
  • Finally, grow your marketing team in a structured way

If you're looking for help thinking through this, reach out, and I'd be happy to consult with you. 

If you liked what you read here and are interested in building your go-to-market skills, follow GTM Digest on Twitter, where I post tips on leading go-to-market teams.