Stage 3 Marketing

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 5

As an engineer entering the land of entrepreneurship, you know (over simplification warning) design can be split into two philosophies: hack & patch, or engineer it. I suspect that all but lazy people would prefer the “engineer it” method over “hack & patch.” Unfortunately, we aren’t’ always given enough time or resources to do it right, which leads to the common expression: “Never time to do it right, but always time to do it over.”

A similar concept applies in marketing; except that if you do a rush job on a brochure, no one gets electrocuted. Much less is at stake, and sometimes the “hack & patch”, or “rush job” is more appropriate. With marketing, you can still get by with a rush job if that’s all the time you have. You just have to do it properly. In fact, early on in your entrepreneurship journey, you’re usually better off putting the majority of effort into getting your product right, and only the minimum effective into marketing. Shoot for the minimum effective point in your marketing and put the rest of your resources into the product.

Minimum effective marketing does not equal “ugly” (although, it might very well be). It means, even though you’d love great graphic design, what you need, is simply a clear, accurate message. The message is always the most important part of marketing, and it can stand on its own. A design without the message, however, can not.

Keep in mind that if you’re a well-funded company, you’ll have people to do the marketing for you. That’s not what I’m talking about. This is for the shoestring engineer trying to get a business going. As the entrepreneur, you have three stages of marketing to concern yourself with.

Stage zero marketing

A count typically starts at zero in the digital world, but stage zero marketing is no marketing at all. Don’t go here. You have to do some or no one will know about your product.

Stage one marketing

This is the most common starting place for a new small venture. It can be done wrong, or it can be done right. Please do it right. Done right, it’s clear and concise. It’s easy to read and understand.

In the print world, stage one materials are simple typed information on a page. In the digital world, stage one is a template-based website, simple posts on Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn, and a few photos or illustrations. The photos aren’t overly cluttered. It’s all simple, inexpensive, easy to produce, and gets the message across. Form isn’t or primary importance. Your only criteria on the form is that it can’t be so poor that it gets in the way of function. If stage one is all you’ve got the time for, go for it. No need to be clever. Just be clear, and don’t try to push too much.

What you want to say isn’t important. What is important is what your potential customers need to know in order to make an informed decision. This is not the time to be in love with yourself. Think about what would be important to a customer and focus on communicating that.

Stage two marketing

You’re a little further along and want to present a better image, so you invest in some layout, either in house, or contracted. Stage two materials are still fairly simple and very clear. Efforts toward making it nice just enhance the message. Form does help, to the extent that it makes the message more readable and more approachable. Polish is there to enhance, not clutter.

On the web, you’ve got a decent layout, with information divided up into bite size pieces, and well organized. The imagery fits what you are trying to do, and can be related to by your customers. You’ll be more active in the appropriate social media and will be building a following.

Stage three marketing

This is where you decide to say: “We’ve arrived!” You’ve got funding, or have hit a revenue threshold, and want to show the world that you’re somebody. You’ve created a world beater and it needs to be dressed like one. It’s time for the BMW and the Armani suit. You’ve earned the splash and flash and anyone who says otherwise just doesn’t get it.

Right? Anyone? Anyone?

I speak from experience; almost every startup gets to this point, and it’s easy to spot. In the print world, it comes in 8 x 10” brochures, extra thick paper, high gloss or metallic ink. On the web, it’s elaborate FLASH animation, high production value videos, and a lot of “look at me” messaging. The problem with stage three, is that the urge to stand out and be clever overrides the instinct to actually communicate.

I’ve seen numerous examples of stage three material over the years. They are all beautiful, and they all communicate virtually nothing about what is being sold and why anyone should care. Stage three is also far more expensive than it needs to be. It’s usually so expensive, that it has to be rationed out. This is the type of material that give marketing a bad name.

Stage four marketing

If you’re wise and care about sales and profit, you’ll skip over stage three and jump here, to stage four. Stage four is only a bit more elaborate than stage two. Again, form is only important to the extent that it helps the message. Stage four materials are attractive. They’re clear, and convey a message of value. Prospects and customers feel connected to what you’re selling and can easily find the information they need.

Appearance is important. That’s why cars come in more than one color, but appearance is always secondary to communication. If anything you do in marketing does not help potential customers understand you and your product, toss it.


One two three four, who are we marketing for?

Minimalist Market Segmentation

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 4

As an engineer entrepreneur, you’ve probably heard the phrase “market segmentation.” If you haven’t, you really should have, and, well… now you have. It is one of the more important components of marketing. Like many others, it can seem intentionally obscure and overly complex. If we look it up in Wikipedia, we get this:

Market segmentation is a marketing strategy which involves dividing a broad target market into subsets of consumers, businesses, or countries that have, or are perceived to have, common needs, interests, and priorities, and then designing and implementing strategies to target them. Market segmentation strategies are generally used to identify and further define the target customers, and provide supporting data for marketing plan elements such as positioning to achieve certain marketing plan objectives. Businesses may develop product differentiation startegies, or an undiffreentiated approach, invovling sepcific prudocts or prokuct lins depefgding on thi spacijic deodnd and attriribkfgstes oh ywe tdgfswet dgjkent dfkasj kdlkl ksdjgklj gj lksjg lfg zzzzz zzzzz…

Sorry. I sort of lost consciousness there at the end. It reads like whomever wrote it was more concerned about showing their “expertise” than about actually communicating.

It is all true, but as with most other marketing duties, much of the detail can be set aside when you’re just starting out. Your task, which I’m about to help with, is to figure out what you have to do now, and what you can hire some marketing geek to do for you a year or so down the road.

As an entrepreneur, you presumably have a product, or plans for a product, that meets some sort of a need. You also know that a product can’t be a successful business without customers, and that’s where segmentation comes in. To boil it all down:

  • If you want customers, you must know what they need
  • Once you know what they need, you must know where to find them
  • If you can find them, you must understand their language

Those statements are what market segmentation is all about. It’s about grouping people – grouping them based on where they are (physically or metaphorically), what they need, and how they speak. Then, you can look for the best places to find them, and the right way to speak to them.

Let’s set the scene: You have developed an automatic, Internet connected, Bluetooth enabled, Arduino compatible, rib-eye steak grilling attachment for backyard barbecues. In many ways, it’s a frivolous toy. A normal person would rather stand out in the backyard with the barbecue smoke and a beer than take the time to set up the BlueTooth and I.P. connections.

Automatic, Internet connected, Bluetooth enabled, Arduino
compatible, rib-eye steak grilling attachment for barbecues

However, this product of yours isn’t made for normal people. It’s made for gadget freak open source developers that don’t have a lot of free time. With your device, they can throw the steak on the grill, use a smart phone to light the BBQ up, and set the perfect point between raw and crispy with the app that goes with it.

Once back inside hacking their Arduino, they’ll get a periodic pop-up with steak status updates. As soon as the rib-eye is done, the Arduino IDE will halt and send the user out to pull the perfect steak off the grill. At about the same time, all of the griller’s friends, who had been monitoring the cooking progress with your iPhone or Android app, show up ready to eat. The app told them exactly when to leave their houses, based on distance, traffic, and cooking time. The group can all eat together with minimal time wasted or need for small talk. Fun party.

With that scene in mind, you need to find people that might want to buy it.

Step one: What do they need (and what don’t they need)?

What these people need is to show off their gadget freakness, and not waste time away from their open source hobby. These folks don’t care about wine pairings, what kind of salad will go best, or having people show up ahead of the meal for relaxed conversation

Step two: Where are they?

Not in the backyard poking at a steak on the grill… I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what websites they visit, what magazines they read (yes. Some people still do read paper things), and what movements they support.

The ideal customer is a gadget freak – especially into connected gadgets, an open source hardware enthusiast, likes to barbecue meat, and is probably a bit of an introvert. You’ll likely find them reading Wired, Gizmodo, Hackaday, Makezine, and others of that ilk. They probably go to Maker Faire and other maker and open source meetups.

Step three: How do they talk?

They’re open source gadget freaks, so it will be okay to use terms that show up in the technology world. They know what an Arduino is, so you don’t have to explain it. They know what an I.P. address is, so you don’t have to explain that either. Still, don’t assume they have the same knowledge you have in your head about your product. It’s quite likely that they don’t know cooking terms like “caramelized”, “seared”, or “rest.” If you use words that your customers might not know, define them, or substitute terms they will know.

Now what?

Go to those websites and magazines and read. See how stories are written and how advertisements are put together. Compare good ones to bad ones. When you’re ready, these are the places you’ll put ads and/or work to get stories published. This is also where you learn about the words people use to describe gadgets, which will help if you advertise with Google Adwords (or other pay per click advertising).

Don’t bother to try and demo your device at the county fare. Your customers won’t be there. Sign up for a booth at Maker Faire. Get one outside so you can demonstrate and give out samples. Be clever, and see if you can connect with the Maker Faire app. Have your device let meat eaters know when to show up at your booth (and non-meat eaters know when to stay away). Go to meetups and show it off. Put your story up on Hackaday.

Segmentation tells you where to go to tell the world (your world), and how to tell the world about your great invention. The process can be a lot more complex, but you can leave the subtleties for later.

Secret Dialects of Marketing

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 3

Much of marketing can be summed up with the word “communication.” It’s communicating about a product or service, about wants and needs, or the past and the future. Good marketeers take this to heart and work hard to understand their market. But, it’s more than just understanding the market; it’s understanding all aspects of their language.

I often talk about the language, or dialect, that people use. When I do, I’m not talking about English English vs. USA English. I’m talking about the difference between hearing and speaking; or between reading and writing. And I’m talking about that within the same person. Knowing the difference is often the deciding factor between winning or losing this game.

Speaking of games, in baseball, right handed players catch the ball with their left hand and throw with their right. Lefties do the opposite. Except me. Baseball was always difficult for me because I both catch and throw with my right hand. It slows things down considerably when you catch the ball in your right hand, take it out of your glove with the left, drop your mit, hand the ball back to your right hand, throw it with your right hand, and then pick your mit up off the ground.

In the same vein, a lot of people speak and listen in different dialects. Like the baseball, information comes in one way, and goes out another. If you don’t plan your communication with that in mind, your conversation may go over about as well as I would as a shortstop in game seven of the world series. The thing is, most people don’t realize that they do this. It’s a perfectly normal, but often not recognized aspect of human communication.

Is it “form over function”
or “function over form”?

Case in point, electrical engineers. Material written by a typical engineer is detailed, accurate, comprehensive, and often barely readable by anyone but the author. A common phrase heard in the technical world is that the content is what’s important, not the spelling or grammar. An interesting contradiction is that engineers are often the quickest, harshest, and most pedantic of the “grammar police” that toss flame around in the social media world when someone chooses the wrong member of the set “there, their, or they’re.”

I maintain that both statements: “it’s form over function” and, the counterpoint: “it’s function over form” are incorrect. The correct maxim is: “form can’t get in the way of function.”

Form works with engineers. It works with everybody. Good advertising works with engineers. Where marketeers run into trouble is when they consider form to be too important, and they obscure the message. The reverse, putting too much weight on function, and not enough on form will be just as ineffective.

Engineers getting into marketing, either as an entrepreneur, for their own startup, or as one moving from a technical job into one that requires a lot of writing, need to pay special attention to this phenomena. You can’t write for yourself.

Anyone, not just people in the same technical field, should be able to read good writing. They may not understand all of the technical details, but they should be able to comfortably read and feel a sense of organization. Order, structure, and simplicity are important, regardless of the intended audience. My recommendation is that you have someone, with a lot less knowledge of your subject than you have, read your material. If they can get through it, you’re at least on the right track.

Millennials Need Not Apply? Boomers?

Do you know how to get past your biases and market to “the other” generation? Are they just too mysterious? Well, I don’t give a flying fig if you’re a millennial, a boomer, or anything in between or outside. It’s not about the label. It’s about doing what you’re paid to do.

If you’re marketing to a thirty five year old population, and they’re not getting your messaging, it’s not because you can’t understand their generation. It’s because you aren’t doing your job. Don’t blame it on “the millennials and their different way of thinking.” Blame it on you for failing at one of the most fundamental tenets of marketing: understanding your customer.

When you got out of business school and started working for a component manufacturer selling to specialty electronics developers (or whatever), you probably didn’t know much about that industry, right? But you learned. You did your homework, researched, talked, and listened. You figured it out (or you didn’t and either got fired, or barely skated by. I hope you figured it out). If you’re not of the generation you’re selling to, learn with an open mind. Don’t take anyone’s age as an excuse, your included. If you don’t want to or feel you can’t, get a new job.

Of course, a “boomer” can better understand other boomers. If you’re not one and are marketing to them, here’s an idea; talk to boomers. The same goes for any cross-generation marketing.

If you’re trying to blame your failure on a labeled generation, I’ve got some bad news for you. Time keeps moving, and generations change. It always has happened, and always will happen, at least until our sun becomes a cold dark lump of coal.

An Engineer Entrepreneur’s First Brand Lesson

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 2

If you’re an engineer starting a business, do you need to worry about the business’s brand?

In a word: yes.

You don’t need to make a big project out of it at the start. It can be as simple as a collection of notes. But simple or complex, you really need to start right away. Doing so will make things much easier down the road. The nice thing is that you can get started quite small. You don’t even have to call it a plan. At this point, it can just be a vision. (If the word “vision” seems too buzzwordy, then just call it “a bunch of ideas”)

What is it?

A brand has a lot in common with a person’s personality and reputation. It’s close enough that you can think in those terms. And, think, you should. Think about what you would like people (customers, employees, friends, family, etc.) to think and feel when they hear your company’s name.

What personality do you want your company to have?

  • Are you mean and gruff?
  • Are you nice?
    • Quiet?
    • Loud?
    • Helpful?
    • Athletic?
    • Sedentary?
    • Reliable to a fault?
    • Usually reliable?

Will you strive to be perfect, just okay, or a bit better than “good enough”? Do you want people to see you as having the best technology, or the best price? Go on with questions like that. Write down your questions, and write down your answers. You can carry a small note pad and pen around, but I suggest that you use a memo application on your phone. You’ll always have it with you, and it’s quick and easy to use.

When you walk into a grocery store, look at the signs. Do they strike you as inviting, or cold? When you get new tires for your car, watch how you’re treated. When you order parts online, consider how easy or difficult the web site is to use. Will any of that, or something similar, apply to your business? If so, jot down a quick note about it. Make a note any time you see or think of anything that triggers thoughts of what you want your business to be like.

You’ll collect all of these notes and clean them up a bit. These will become your brand attributes. They are the seed of a brand for your company.

Once you have this seed, you’ll use it to guide business decisions – all of them. For example; if financially fugal is one of your chose attributes, you won’t go out and rent a big office with mahogany paneling. If you want to be seen as leading edge in the media world, you might buy Mac laptops instead of clunky desktop Windows PCs.

Every thing you do and say, all of the time; it is all part of your brand.

A few example notes:

  • Am I cheap or expensive? Neither – I just want people to feel like they got a bit more than their money’s worth.
  • What about flashy? A little, but only where relevant. I don’t want fancy boxes, but I want them to look befitting of new technology.
  • I’m selling to engineers in banks, so casual suits if I’m in the front office, but no suits when I’m not.
  • Do I want people to envy my lifestyle? No, I want them to see me as a crazy workaholic.
  • What about getting in touch with me? I don’t think phone support is necessary for all of my customers, but I think email should be answered within an hour.
  • Am I “big industry”? No. I’m nimble and “new economy.” I should get a small office in a recently gentrified part of town, instead of in a mid-city office building.

Keep going. It can be as simple as that. You can get more formal and organized with it later.


What is Marketing in the world of Engineers?

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 1

Good marketing requires a black-box of arcane knowledge and magic spells – or does it? No, despite what many marketing folks would like you to believe, it does not. While marketing can seem mysterious, it really comes down to a few key tactics. Even in today’s hurricane of ever changing social media, the fundamentals still apply, and the challenge can be boiled down to manageable chunks.

The start-up engineer entrepreneur has a few more challenges than an established business has. First, the language and lingo commonly associated with marketing are so different than what is spoken in the engineering lab. Second, as an early stage start-up entrepreneur, you typically don’t have the money required for a solid marketing campaign.


At the most basic level, marketing is the process of describing what you do, to people who need what you do. To describe it, you need to translate from your language into their language. You also need to concern yourself with the presentation of that information. That doesn’t mean form takes precedence over function. What it means is that both form and function are important, and form cannot get in the way of function. It’s common to hear that spelling and punctuation don’t matter in the technology world; just the message matters. But, one only need spend a few minutes online to see how fast your audience can get distracted by “there” vs. “they’re.” Once that happens, you are no longer communicating. Your message is lost.

You need to find those people who need what you do or have. You need to find them, understand them, and go where they are. What do your customers read? Where do they read it? Do they talk amongst themselves about the sort of thing you do? Do they make the buying decision, or just give recommendations. A good example if this challenge is the example of children’s products. The child doesn’t buy it. The parent does. The child recommends it (sometimes quite loudly), so who do you need to market to? In the business world, this pairing is often an engineer and a purchasing agent with an approved vendor list. Engineers and purchasing agents speak a different language; have vastly different interests, and read different web sites Which do you need to sell to?

The Problem With Networking, Part 3

If you haven’t yet, go back and read The problem with networking, Part 1 and The problem with networking, Part 2.

The brand of “you”

The brand of you is the tool you need to get remembered. A quality brand of you is the tool you need to get referrals. A quality brand is not only memorable but also relevant to the intended audience. This relevance is key. Without it you will not be more successful than those that rely on random chance.

The key ingredient is personal relevance, or value. To successfully network, you need to get past the charity mentality. Everything is a two-way sales transaction. You need to recognize that you are asking for something of value; either reputation or time. You are not going to get good results unless you have something of value to give in return. This is your brand. When people hear your name, they need a value statement to associate with it, and in turn, with you.

Continue reading “The Problem With Networking, Part 3”

Cromemco, where are you?

Seattle Computer Products placed a quarter page black and white advertisement for RAM chips on page 224 of the September 1979 BYTE Magazine. The ad promoted type 4044 chips: 4K by 1 [bits], 18-pin, 5 Volt, 5% supply. 250 nanosecond chips sold for $7.50 in quantities of 1 to 31. You could buy the slower 450 nanosecond chips for a dollar less apiece. These were the same chips used in their “premium quality” RAM boards.

For every Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates, there is an Alvah Roebuck, a story of a miss of almost unimaginable proportions. Richard Sears and Mr. Roebuck started a small business selling, at first, surplus pocket watches and eventually virtually anything needed by the fast expanding nation of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Sears kept at it while Roebuck left to do more important things. Many years later, Mr. Sears’ former business partner finished his life nearly penniless and working in the mailroom of the company he co-founded. Sears went on to become Americana.

Continue reading “Cromemco, where are you?”

The Problem With Networking, Part 2

If you haven’t yet, go back and read The problem with networking, Part 1.

There is a lot of truth to the statement: “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” While many employment consultants will tell you to get right out there, doing so before you are prepared is not far different from going to a job interview wearing pajamas. They will tell you to go to networking events now and often, to make contacts and give out business cards. They will tell you to use these contacts to expand your network.

In a down industry, networking events tend to be empathy events. Rather than entering a room full of potential employers or even leads, the networker is entering a room full of peers sharing a common problem. There is plenty of opportunity to commiserate but little opportunity to get closer to employment. If that is what you want or need to help your emotional state, fine. Just don’t waste the chance to make a good first impression on any real opportunities.

Continue reading “The Problem With Networking, Part 2”

The Problem With Networking, Part 1

Unemployed? Looking for a job? Network. Get out to all those networking events. Call people and ask for informational interviews. Whenever you speak with anyone, get referrals from them. Right? Well, maybe. Sort of.

A number of years ago, I went through a period of fairly long-term unemployment, and I think I learned quite a bit about that world. Not much was really new to me, but the perspective certainly was.

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