The past year has been one of the most challenging periods ever for companies as they’ve fought to survive and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Marketing is playing a huge role in their ability to bounce back and regain profit. In a recent survey by Deloitte, 72% of marketers say that the role of marketing has increased in importance over the past year. 1

The situation is even more complex for start-ups that are trying to gain market share without a loyal customer base or reputation. Previously, I outlined the five key pillars of marketing for growth-minded startups: create strong positioning, be customer-centric, build for scale, be bold, and align with sales. Here, I’d like to address some of the most common challenges marketers face in building successful teams and strategies – and how to overcome them. These challenges have surfaced at every startup I’ve marketed for and taken public over the past 25 years, including Snowflake.  

#1. Differentiating your startup in a crowded field

This is likely the most common challenge marketing teams face as a start-up. When I joined Snowflake, my first task was to define the company’s positioning: What category can you own, and how can your positioning state that? There were many different views, and in most organizations, the loudest voice wins. But we took a data-driven approach instead. We ran focus groups not only with current customers but with the people we wanted to sell to next. We showed them a few positioning statements, and in the beginning years, the winner was “The Data Warehouse Built for the Cloud.” 

If you have a process of getting feedback from prospects, and you can get data-driven insights from that process, you’ll have the legitimacy needed to get buy-in internally. That’s necessary to deliver consistent positioning year after year to win the battle for your prospects’ minds. I could almost argue that it’s more important to execute on consistency than being 100% right in your positioning. But that doesn’t mean it can never change –in fact, it should evolve as your company and product offering grows. Today, our positioning is that Snowflake delivers the Data Cloud.

#2. Setting a values framework – and living by it

What values do you want every employee to live by? At Snowflake, we have eight core values

  1. Put customers first
  2. Integrity always
  3. Think big
  4. Be excellent
  5. Make each other the best
  6. Get it done
  7. Own it
  8. Embrace each other’s differences

Each of these values has an important role to play in our success as a company. In marketing, we focus a lot on the very first value, “Put customers first.” That has been our priority from the beginning. When I joined the company, there were only eight people on the marketing team, so I talked to customers all the time. I was at the registration desk at our events greeting customers and printing name tags. Today things are different, but I still prioritize receiving customer feedback through programs such as our weekly Office Hours, where we put new prospects on a call with our existing customers to answer their questions. 

We also constantly track customer engagement through metrics such as our NPS score. We examine and track every single component of our customers’ journeys. If anything failed, it would be “all hands on deck” to investigate what is going on and address it. We have a culture where complacency can’t happen. We’re always thinking about the next most important thing for our customers. Also, there have been situations where we’ve had to make decisions that haven’t led to increased revenue in the short term, but that were the right decision for the customer. We’ve always lived by the customer-first mantra, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re seeing the success we have today. 

#3. Deciding where to focus your efforts

In the startup marketing world, you can get distracted by many different tasks. But at the end of the day, most of them don’t have an impact. So it’s important to recognize and prioritize your most important tasks and programs and then focus your efforts there. In the world, sonic booms generate enormous amounts of energy. And in our marketing organization we are constantly thinking about and planning for our own sonic booms. What programs, campaigns and events are going to make the biggest impact, and be heard around the world? Once you identify them, you need to get commitment from everyone on the team and then focus on executing them with consistency, alignment  and quality. 

At Snowflake, one of the programs that has had the greatest impact is customer advocacy. This involves constantly talking to customers and finding ways to engage and activate them in our marketing programs. Our customers are our greatest marketing tool, and their word-of-mouth referrals have been invaluable in building our brand awareness. Startups often have great customers who are willing to talk. If you can get your passionate customers activated and inspired to talk about you, that’s great. But if you don’t engage them, that’s a lost opportunity. We’ve had a laser focus on customer advocacy from the beginning, and have built programs to support that. 

#4. Determining budget allocations

As a start-up, a large portion of your budget should go toward attracting new customers. At Snowflake, most of our marketing budget goes into building new businesses, landing new accounts, and building the pipeline. At the same time, Snowflake has a net revenue retention rate of about 168% as of April 30, 2021. When you land customers, you have to commit to continue listening to them and meeting their needs through concrete resources. We do this through programs such as professional services and customer advocacy. What are their main concerns and questions? We also make sure to market new workloads and use cases so that existing customers can optimize their use of the Data Cloud. And we rely on our partners, who are a big component of that optimization. 

#5. Preparing for the curveballs

Although this challenge is the last one, it may be the most important one – especially today. As we’ve witnessed, every successful startup is going to have many unforeseen challenges and obstacles to deal with as it grows. My advice is to embrace the curveballs. In my 25 years working at start-ups and companies, the difficult times have been the best thing in my career because I’ve learned so much through them. So today, I try to embrace them. Curveballs are going to come your way during  the journey and it makes us fall off track. But it’s all about how you handle those surprises, dust yourself off and get back on track. 

If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and creative. That’s the only option. And to be successful in a startup, you have to want to never lose. That’s the type of mentality you need to have.

Denise Persson is the Chief Marketing Officer at Snowflake.