Failure Friday: Natasia Malaihollo on Wasted Marketing Efforts

July 19, 2013

11:00 am

In the startup world, failure is cause for celebration.  This is true for three reasons.

  1. Although not the preferred outcome, failure is a byproduct of risk taking.  Taking risks is the only path to success.
  2. Celebrating failure reduces the attached stigma.  Many fail to take action out of a fear of how it will reflect on them.
  3. Failure is synonymous with experience.  As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

That’s why, each Friday, we bring you a new story of an entrepreneur’s “failure.”  Failure Friday is about helping you avoid common startup mistakes, it’s about squashing the stigma, and it’s about peering inside the minds of entrepreneurs who’ve achieved success because of their failures.

This week’s failure comes from Natasia Malaihollo, cofounder at Sooligan.

Failure Friday: Wasted Marketing Efforts

Natasia MalaiholloMy startup company launched our mobile app during Superbowl weekend in New Orleans this past year. It seemed the perfect opportunity for us to reach thousands of people in our market at once. So after we graduated from our accelerator program, we moved directly to New Orleans to begin planning for the Superbowl. We invested a lot of time and money into organizing a street team, making connections with the local community leaders, and printing tons of flyers and swag. What actually happened that weekend was every founder’s worse nightmare. People simply did not want to talk to us about our startup. Everyone seemed intoxicated and unable to have a coherent conversation about our app’s benefits. People were rushing from one party to another. They were busy snapping photos for Instagram, and updating their Twitter accounts. Loud music drowned out the conversations we did have with people who stopped by our booth in Jackson Square. What seemed like the perfect plan became a perfect disaster.

Although our launch didn’t go as we planned, I learned a lot about marketing that weekend. First of all, don’t market your app during an event that involves a lot of partying and drinking. People simply don’t want to stop and talk about your new app. And if they do stop, they probably won’t remember the conversation in the morning, which defeats the entire purpose.

Next, don’t print flyers or t-shirts promoting your startup with specific event details. We printed 2,500 flyers with ‘New Orleans’ on it, but only handed out 1000 of them out. Now we have 1,500 flyers in our car that say ‘New Orleans’ here in Los Angeles. As a bootstrapping startup, of course we’re not going to throw them away—we still use these flyers at events. However, it confuses a lot of people to see ‘New Orleans’ randomly on our flyers. We were also left over with 50 t-shirts that say ‘Superbowl February 3, 2013’ on them two weeks after the big game had passed.

Next, put your resources into the markets you’ve had success with. In our case, that has always been college students. Instead of trying to go after the ‘big sea’ of social media users and hope to convert the masses at once, we should have spent our resources on creating a strong presence on college campuses. Often entrepreneurs have these huge goals and think everything you do to reach that goal has to be big as well. Go big or go home, right? Wrong. The likelihood of us becoming an overnight sensation after one event is almost non-existent. Plus, your ultimate goal should always be self-preservation. Don’t put all of your resources into one big event. If that event doesn’t work out, you don’t want to be left with nothing. Plan small events where you can continue to improve your tactics and message, and slowly, but steadily reach more and more people.

Finally, one of the most important lessons I learned from this experience is to preserve your cash. Never run out of money. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean you should buy or pay for something. Look for free or very, very cheap at all times. Don’t pay for something just because it’s convenient. You’re a startup founder. ‘Convenient’ should not be in your vocabulary right now. If it is, you’re not working hard enough. You should be so uncomfortable right now, you’ll do whatever it takes to be successful. We often couch-surfed with complete strangers in order to save on housing and lodging. As a startup, every dollar counts. Plan for the future. Think about how much your very bare and necessary bills cost each month (server, hosting, developers, etc.). Multiply that by 2, and set it aside in a DO NOT TOUCH account. Get a credit card and use it for daily purchases and bills. Not only does that build your company credit, but many of these cards have reward points that can be redeemed for things you’ll need as an entrepreneur, such as restaurant and store gift cards. Pay off the bill each month to avoid interest.

The running theme in all of these lessons is to plan for the future by living and working modestly. Don’t focus all of your attention and efforts on one big event. Stretch your dollars further by printing flyers and company swag that is universal and can be used for any company event. Save money whenever possible by opting for cheap over convenience. Remember, running out of money is the number one reason why startups fail. Don’t let your company be part of that statistic.

Check out more failures here.

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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