Hate it or love it, marketplace start-ups have proliferated almost every industry to date. VC funds are cashing in on the promise of industry disruptors and entrepreneurs are on the search for the next big industry to dismantle. Critical to the success of marketplace start-ups is rapid expansion, but rapid expansion takes substantial resources both in human and financial capital.
Leaving our opinions out of the marketplace economy itself, an all too common question we hear is how best to launch a market without wasting precious capital on marketing resources. In my experiences from having launched markets myself and also speaking with an abundance of other on-demand businesses and marketplaces, there is one concept that if implemented as part of your larger operational strategy can truly accelerate your next market launch.
Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a strategy that views social relationships in terms of their network structure. Nodes and ties comprise the structure of SNA where people and organizations represent nodes and the relationship between people and organizations represent ties. While ties between nodes differ in type (i.e. business partner, friendship, etc.), the idea is that you can map out and analyze any network based on tying nodes together accordingly. Now, I am by no means an expert in social theory and will stop with the academic jargon here, but you can see how this is an incredibly useful concept to consider when launching a new city for your product or service.
I was fortunate enough to have an extraordinary mentor when it came to launching cities. He worked at Lyft as one of their initial city launchers and preached this concept of nodes. Prior to launching in a new city for my former company, I certainly understood the concept, but didn’t quite grasp the true value of it. The more nodes you are able to access during your time launching, the more ties you will receive and thus the more customers, users, and brand loyalists you will gain. Looking back, it’s the single most important thing I learned and crucial to successfully unlocking a city for your product/service.
Let’s pretend I am launching service X in city A, which has a population of 645,000 (you can guess which city I am modeling this off of). I’ve never been to the city and have limited budget, so sponsoring expensive events is not an option (we can tackle event sponsorships in another post – we have our opinions). How do I even begin to tackle it?
The first step is to get a lay of the land. You need to unlock as many nodes as possible via introductions and meetings, and the last thing that you want to get in the way is not knowing the area and not being able to suggest places to meet. Understand the general lay out- what neighborhoods should you prioritize and what vibe/type of person frequents and lives in each of those neighborhoods? Online research is a given, but it helps to chat with a few people from the city to get anecdotal feedback. Go into the launch with a couple of coffee shop/restaurant/bar suggestions per area to potentially meet at.
The next step is to make a hit list. Who are the companies or people that you want to get your product/service in the hands of? Make a list and categorize accordingly. Think about who would use your service/product, but also who would advocate for others to try it. Ideally, your product has a high viral coefficient that makes this easy. Don’t forget to leverage the startup community either – it can be the single biggest asset when launching a city and you should get as many people within the startup community to connect and spread the word about your product/service. Lastly, you should tap influencers. Who are the key movers and shakers in the city? These are the hardest to access, but by leveraging nodes you can hopefully get ties to these people.
Exhaust your company’s network – and do this before you even step foot in the city. Make a company spreadsheet where every employee records every person they have ever come in contact with from City A in the spreadsheet. They can do this by searching their social networks, “rolodexes,” etc. This is where SNA shines – the more nodes you have at your disposal initially, the easier it is to make ties to more people. Now you have to make a game plan.
Get introductions & set up meetings with as many relevant people as possible based on the company spreadsheet. Your goal is to provide them knowledge of your product, ideally a taste of it via a discount or sample, and leave with at minimum one referral that they can connect you to. While not all connections are created equal, the idea is to get to as many influencers or brand champions as you can. By talking to these people and creating more and more nodes, you’ll begin to learn the intricacies of the city, what events are worth attending, and who is worth speaking to.
Conduct substantial cold outreach while continuing to network. Unequivocally, this is less effective, but you are trying to get in front of as many people and companies as possible. Often times, an office manager, for example, can send out an email blast that is more effective than any one meeting you could have had with someone else from within the company. For example, I launched a product-based service, so I was able to, at the very least, offer a deal of $25-$50 off to first time users. I broke my target list down categorically: advertising/marketing agencies, property management firms, universities, start-ups, and corporate companies. Just a tip: Property management firms were without a doubt the most unresponsive!
Use hacks to make your job easier. For instance, there are a ton of email hack apps that help you identify emails for people at various companies. I used Tout App- which sends mass emails individually and can save templates for you, Email Hunter- which finds emails off of LinkedIn, and Rapportive- which can actually verify emails inside your email client. For the product I was marketing, it made sense to go after marketing managers or office managers, but you know your product best so think about who would be best to connect with at each company you are targeting. Then send an email to try to set up a meeting. Here’s a good template:
Hi <First Name>,
<Provide a quick introduction about yourself and your role. Provide information about the service/product- what it does, where it is, etc.>
We’re excited to call City A our next home. We would love to drop by to introduce ourselves and provide (product credit here) for the entire office so (Company Name) can see what we’re all about. Is there a time later next week when we could drop by?
Here is some of the press we’ve received if you are interested in learning a little bit more: (insert relevant press or thought leadership here).
<And of course, insert a link to the startup itself>
Look forward to stopping by.
Follow up with credits. It is way easier to sell a product or service in person, but most of the time these emails will go unanswered. Don’t be discouraged! The more meetings you get out of this outreach the better, but for every email that goes unanswered, you should follow up with special offers to try the service. Surprisingly, this follow up often works.
Lastly, attend tech and networking events. While you are launching, you should try to go to as many relevant events as possible. If for nothing else, you can make your presence known.
If done correctly, an initial marketing launch is one of the most exhausting things you can endure, but it will certainly be worth it when you see your user numbers increase. If you are interested in learning more about launching a startup, launching in a city, or would like some help on strategy/advice, apply to submit a request here.