Lessons in marketing: Early stage challenges

Mayank Kumar, co-founder & MD, UpGrad
When you are starting up, you are low on resources. Getting your first set of customers becomes very crucial. A lot of us, when we take the entrepreneurial plunge, have a fair idea of how the product will look and evolve - and this is something that lies in our hands. But reaching out to your customers is a complete unknown. You always ask yourself these questions -- Will customers try my product? How much do I need to spend on getting customers? 

Getting your first 100 customers is always one of the toughest, but the most fun part of the entrepreneurial journey. 

We recently launched our first online program - StartUp with UpGrad - in the area of entrepreneurship. We knew that there is a need for the program in the market, but were unsure if:
  1. We will get customers to take up an online program 
  2. We will get customers to actually pay for an online program 
As a new venture, we were facing two uphill battles - one of convincing our customers to adopt online education and secondly, to pay for it. Therefore, it became important for us to be smart about our marketing. We tried different techniques- some worked and some didn't. 

Target a smaller customer group --  fewer cities and right channels 
As an early stage digital startup, it is very easy to start focusing on getting customers from across India for your product. Yes, it allows you to aim for a larger target group, but you end up spending a huge amount without commensurate conversions. It is important to know your 'one customer' and plan to target them accordingly. In the case of UpGrad, we went ahead with focusing on three Tier 1 cities for our digital marketing initiative with a small marketing budget. We got a very strong response to our marketing campaign. We deployed a small amount on sites (Yourstory, NextBigWhat etc.) that folks interested in entrepreneurship frequent. With that limited marketing budget, we were able to reach out to our narrow target segment multiple times. It is important for an early stage startup to know the right marketing channel and focus on it rather than going after multiple channels. 

Online marketing is not everything
For a lot of entrepreneurs, digital marketing is always the first thing that comes to mind. However, for the first 100 customers it is important to leverage offline marketing significantly. When we were launching Startup with UpGrad, we participated in a number of events across our selected three cities. The reception that we got in these offline events helped us create a strong positioning for the brand UpGrad in terms of credibility. In these events, we got a chance to talk to potential customers that helped shape our product and fine-tune our positioning. In the early stage, as a founder it is important to go out and meet potential customers and get first hand feedback on their expectations, and offline events are great avenues for that. 

Don't let anything stop you from thinking big 
When we were conceptualising Startup with UpGrad, we wanted to create a strong positioning for our program. The idea came up in one of our weekly meetings, when a team member asked, "Why don't we interview India's leading entrepreneurs and get them to share their experiences for our program participants?" Initially the idea was laughed away, but we all realised that it did sound like an interesting proposition. We decided we will go ahead with this approach, and reached out to 30-plus first generation tech-entrepreneurs -- from Kunal Bahl of Snapdeal to Deep Kalra of MakeMyTrip, Bhavish Aggarwal of Ola and VSS Mani of JustDial. Most of them responded enthusiastically and we interviewed them for their insights. These interviews and experiences that we offered as a part of the program helped us create a strong positioning for the brand -- and that became a strong marketing message for the program. So when you are starting up, any crazy idea could lead you to a successful launch, and thus do not shy away from thinking bold.

Mayank Kumar is co-Founder & MD of UpGrad, an online education platform for working professionals

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