How to Market Your Bootstrapped Startup to Success

5 min read · 7 years ago


Every day, we are pelted by marketing messages from all
directions. Getting someone to stop and pay attention to your
flailing startup in this kind of environment seems impossible –
especially with no budget and no team.

But not if you take the right steps.

Marketing is the last thing you want to spend
money on in the early days, as it can lead you down the wrong path with false
positives, i.e. “We’re growing, so we’re good!”. Paid marketing will
have its day – but in the meantime, it’s all about having a story and
hustle. Here are nine steps to market your new business from the

    1. Get the story right.

      Before you can sell something, you need to give buyers a reason
      to buy. Identify what makes your brand unique in its space, and create your
      story around that. For example, I founded The Bouqs Company as a solution
      to my poor experiences buying flowers online. Whenever I ordered flowers,
      I noticed they never looked the same as they did in pictures, the pricing
      advertised was never the real checkout price, and the customer service was

      So, we built The Bouqs Company story around the idea of
      farm-direct flowers with straightforward, honest pricing – with a little
      “volcano” sprinkled in (more on that later).

        2. Tell everyone the story.

          At The Bouqs Company, what you see is what you get – and that
          was the story we told people. I told everyone about the
          vertically-integrated supply chain we’d created, our unique all-inclusive
          pricing with free shipping and subscription options, how easy it is to order
          and how our flowers lacked cheesy plastic butterfly decorations.

          Many people are afraid that if they tell someone their idea,
          that person will run with it. But without telling people,
          however, you can’t know if it’s a good idea; you need to test it out
          first. Second, you’re going to have to tell someone someday if
          you want folks to use your product. Third, it’s extremely unlikely that someone
          else is as interested or passionate about this idea as you are, and if
          someone else can do it that easily, it’s probably not a viable business in
          the first place. So, share away!

            3. Optimize the story until people say, “Wow, I want that.”

              You might have to make some edits and adjustments to your story
              to find the parts that really resonate with your audience – and once you do,
              you should amplify those parts. We started by talking about honesty,
              integrity, flat pricing and sustainability. While all of that was good and
              people liked it, it wasn’t getting the “Wow, that’s cool! Tell me more!”
              reaction I was looking for.

              And then we started to talk about the volcano. You see, we
              source many of our roses from an active volcano range in South America. This
              was normal to us, as my co-founder, Juan Pablo Montufar, grew up on this volcano
              range and I have visited many times. We overlooked this awesome piece of our
              business story simply because it was just a part of the team’s DNA.

              In passing conversation with an executive at Deutsch LA, I
              mentioned the volcano and he was hooked. We then started saying “We drop-ship
              flowers from an active volcano in South America to anywhere in the U.S. for $40
              flat,” and our story had arrived.

                4. Tell friends and family about your product.

                  You’re going to have to make the business personal because
                  it is personal. So, start with telling your friends and family
                  about this incredible product or service you’re developing. Share with them via
                  in-person visits, emails, texts and phone calls. Don’t send e-blasts or mass
                  messages – make it one-on-one instead.

                  When we launched, I wrote close to 3,000 individualized,
                  personal emails. This works for a number of reasons: first, this audience is
                  the most likely to buy your product, so the results should be pretty
                  good. They’ll also give you honest and helpful feedback to identify early
                  issues and figure out ways to improve the experience.

                    5. Branch out from personal to social.  

                      Move your brand awareness out from your close, personal circle
                      and into your bigger online network. Create a Facebook page, a LinkedIn profile
                      and any other social sites that make sense for your audience. Push the brand
                      story out via alumni groups, Linkedin and Facebook groups, and leverage
                      employee connections as well. Everyone has to sell in the early days.

                        6. Get others to tell your story for you.

                          By now, you’re two or three months into your soft launch. It’s
                          time to get others to tell your story for you. This doesn’t mean you need an
                          agency. PR in the early days is about having a good story and hustle. You can
                          grow your own exposure by acting as your own agent.

                          Work your network, reach out to writers and editors and
                          passionately tell your story. You’ll get noticed. About six weeks after
                          launching, I networked my way to an editor at Daily Candy and
                          sent her some flowers (straight from the volcano). A call followed – they
                          wanted to break the story, and we were featured a few days later. The PR gravy
                          train started from there and, once it’s rolling, it’s glorious.  

                            7. Develop quality partnerships.

                              At these early stages, it’s hard to reach big audiences
                              directly. Keeping this in mind, find brands and outlets that are a good match,
                              cut a deal to share profit per order (so you pay only out of sales), and work
                              with them to bring an interesting (or exclusive) story, product or offer.

                              We were able to partner with Facebook Gifts and quickly became
                              their biggest flower vendor. Google Offers and Gilt City were also valuable
                              partnerships. These types of partners can drive early adoption at scale, with
                              little-to-no up-front capital outlay.

                                8. Amplify sales with referrals and social buzz.

                                  Let your growing audience market your brand for you. Ask your
                                  audience to refer their friends for an incentive. Have social sharing buttons
                                  on your site, and respond to emails and social comments as quickly as possible.

                                  Develop unique and engaging social content. Run a promotion – a
                                  giveaway or contest – and distribute via social. Enter followers who post
                                  about your brand into a drawing to win a free product or service. In
                                  essence, engage using all viable channels.

                                    9. Keep it organic at first, and then raise money once you’re ready to spend on paid media.  

                                      During your first six to 12 months, you shouldn’t have to
                                      raise a dime. If the opportunity arises, consider it, but know that it’s not
                                      required to grow your brand. The Bouqs Company garnered more than half a
                                      million dollars in revenue through organic reach, with only a $13,000 initial
                                      investment. And we only spent $8,000 of it.

                                      So now you know that it’s possible to scale a business without
                                      funding. What you really need is a well-executed story, plenty of hustle and
                                      the formula above. After you’ve achieved some scale through these steps, you’ll
                                      be in a better position to raise funding and make your business bloom.

                                      What are some of the challenges you’re facing
                                      in marketing your bootstrapped startup?

                                      John Tabis is
                                      founder of 
                                      The Bouqs
                                      . He worked for six years in Disney
                                      Corporate Strategy with a focus on Consumer Behavior and Brand Management. John
                                      left Disney as a Director in the group, having worked on global brand and
                                      consumer strategy. He entered the world of VC-backed startups as VP, Brand
                                      & Corporate Development at ShoeDazzle, where he worked on broad corporate
                                      initiatives. In the Fall of 2012, John launched The Bouqs Company with a
                                      stated mission of fundamentally changing the supply chain and consumer
                                      experience in online floral.

                                      Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised
                                      of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi,
                                      YEC recently launched
                                      BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.