How to Grow Your Startup on a $0 Marketing Budget

A lot of people think they need a big budget to do their marketing. The reality is that the highest quality marketing is often a shade of free.

Spending money on paid acquisition channels like Google AdWords and Facebook help pull people directly to your website. But while paid marketing can buy scale, it doesn’t buy quality. More often than founders think, some of the most worthwhile marketing efforts are free.

To get started with content marketing, all you have to do is sit down and write a blog post. Or, you can create a group in Slack to build a community around your product. These initiatives take time and effort, but they don’t actually cost money to do yourself. Pouring your own blood, sweat, and tears into your marketing efforts helps you translate your vision into a brand that people can relate to. That’s the first step to any kind of marketing worth doing.

If you’re just starting out, rethink your marketing strategy to engage in marketing that you can do for free.

“$0 Marketing” vs. Paid Acquisition

For every paid acquisition channel—from Google AdWords to hiring an agency—there is a low-cost equivalent that you can do yourself:

Paying by the click for traffic from Google will grow traffic, but writing content that resonates with your audience is how you build a brand and drive organic search traffic over the long-term. You can hire a PR Agency to get your company mentioned in publications like TechCrunch, but meeting people and building relationships is how you sustainably spread word-of-mouth awareness with customers.

Let’s dive right into real examples of how companies have kicked off $0 marketing efforts before reaching scale. Then, we’ll get into tactics you can use to do the same.

1. Tell a story people will care about.

You don’t need to hire a team of writers to be successful with content. Content works according to the power law, which means that a small percentage of blog posts drive the majority of traffic. Early on, your goal is to jumpstart traffic by finding the stories your audience will care about.

Take StatusPage, for example. StatusPage took six months to hit $5k in monthly recurring revenue (MRR). In the next four months, they increased that figure by 5x to $25k MRR. And they did it through a single content home run.

A Google Trends graph comparing the search terms for “to do list app” and “server status app” for StatusPage. (Source: StatusPage)

StatusPage didn’t write blog posts around topics directly relevant to their product. The audience for content around server outages and exception handling was simply too small. They focused instead on telling a story that would resonate with a wider community of founders: their own.

One of their most successful posts of all time was called “5 Steps to $5,000 in Monthly Recurring Revenue.” It’s a nitty-gritty break down of the first six months of StatusPage’s business and it tells a story that everyone can relate to. Two years later, the same post was responsible for 10% of all traffic.

Digging deeper into their blog traffic, the team at StatusPage found that 20% of blog posts were responsible for 78% of total traffic. As StatusPage founder Steve Klein says, “Not every post takes off, but the ones that we do strike sweet take off, really fly, hit the bull and win a steak.”

Here are some tips for $0 marketing with content:

  • Build habits that scale: At KISSmetrics, our blog pulled in millions of website visits a week, but we didn’t get started by writing our own blog posts. Instead, my co-founder and I set aside a couple hours a week to find and share helpful content for marketers on Twitter under the hashtag “#measure.” When we hired a marketing team to help with the blog, they followed this same model—80% of our blog content came from guest posts.
  • Pull your audience back: Every time Groove wrote a new blog post, they sent a personalized outreach email asking key influencers for feedback. When Groove published a blog post, they’d shoot another email asking people to share it. Within 5 weeks, this strategy drove 5,000 new subscribers to Groove’s email list. Content home-runs help drive short-term spikes in traffic, but the ultimate prize is nurturing an audience that keeps coming back to you.
  • Help wins compound over time: When you’ve published a post that resonates with your audience, double-down. Drift published a post on product marketing that began to climb Google’s search engine rankings over time. Instead of letting it sit, they did outreach to build backlinks to the post and updated the content. Today the post is the #4 result for a “product marketing” search on Google.

Founders often make the mistake of trying to drive paid sign-ups through content too early. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Content helps get your name out there and build a recognizable brand that shapes how people will think about your company. Once you’ve done that, you can hire someone in-house or a freelancer to do the writing work later.

2. Handle your own support.

Handling your own support is another free form of marketing that you can take advantage of early in your business.

This is something I discovered almost by accident at Crazy Egg. When we launched Crazy Egg on Digg in 2006, we received almost 23,000 sign-ups for our early-access list. This tidal wave of interest caught us completely by surprise and even crashed our servers.

We were a small team without any support reps, so I got pulled into handling support out of necessity. For the first couple of years at Crazy Egg, I answered almost all support requests directly from my Gmail inbox. It wasn’t a scalable way to do support for a self-service SaaS product like Crazy Egg, but it paid off tenfold in terms of building a brand.

One customer added this comment to an early post about Crazy Egg:

The best marketing comes from your happy customers.

As a founder, getting listed as one of the benefits of your own products is the highest form of social proof. Here are a few ideas for handling your company’s support.

  • Give out your phone number: Jason Knight, CEO of Wesabe gave out his phone number on Wesabe’s website as the company was facing down Mint. Knight would talk to Wesabe users two to three times a day. Basecamp CEO Jason Fried set up office hours each week encouraging customers to talk to him personally. You don’t have to give your personal cell phone number to customers, but even an email signature with a founder’s name on it is a powerful signal to customers.

  • Build community through chat: You don’t have to rely on support to build a relationship with your customers. Buffer created a Slack community for social media marketers to help and learn from one another. Tomasz Tunguz, a venture capitalist at Redpoint, uses Drift to chat with readers on his blog. Tools like Slack and Drift can help give you direct access to your customers—for free.
  • Set up notifications for company mentions: Set up email alerts for mentions of your company through Google Alerts or Notify for free. Set aside a couple of hours each week to personally respond to everything that people are saying about your business on the internet.

Your company’s brand is built from all of the different customer interactions with your company—before and after they try your product. Reaching out and helping your customers directly is one of the best ways to build a lasting impression.

3. Practice “invisible marketing”

The most effective marketing often doesn’t begin as marketing. That’s because by the time you’re trying to “market” something, you’re often already trying to make the sale. The strongest form of marketing comes from helping people, and you can do that for free.

Take Crew. In 2011, Crew had three months left to turn their business around before they were out of cash. The team was too busy trying to keep the lights on to invest money into a marketing budget. That’s when they accidentally stumbled into a side project that would save the company.

The team had hired a photographer to take a bunch of photos for their homepage. In the process, they found out that there weren’t any good options for finding high-resolution photos online. Everything was either bad quality or too expensive. The folks at Crew figured this was a problem a lot of other founders probably had.

So they mocked up a landing page in a single afternoon for Unsplash.com on a $19 Tumblr theme and gave away the rest of the photos from their shoot.

Unsplash’s original home page.

Within ten minutes of posting Unsplash to Hacker News, Crew’s side project received 50,000 visitors and traffic on Crew’s home page spiked. Unsplash was a bigger source of traffic for Crew than any blog post or paid acquisition campaign they’d previously tried.

As Crew Founder Mikael Cho says, “The best marketing is when you don’t know it’s marketing.”

Here’s how you can get started:

  • Let customers to do your marketing for you: Intercom created a user map feature, which allowed Intercom customers to see where their users were all across the globe. When Intercom dug into the usage of the feature, the company realized that customers were using the maps to show off on Twitter, in front of investors, and at trade conferences and shows. So instead of making a better map, they made the map more shareable. They added a share button within their product, automatically hid sensitive data—and that linked back to Intercom.

  • Find unconventional marketing channels: At Crazy Egg, we experimented with stuff like creating a Flickr Group and posting on CSS galleries to expand our reach with designers. Don’t just rely on the same combination of Hacker News, Twitter, and Facebook because that’s what everyone else is doing. Continually experiment with new ways of marketing yourself and your business.
  • Be helpful: Buffer put together a free Transparent Salary Calculator that shows people how much they’d make working at Buffer. While the salary calculator isn’t related to Buffer’s social media product, it boosted job applications to Buffer by 2.2x one month after it was released.

In SaaS, your customers are smart, and they can tell when you’re trying to sell something. So don’t. Find problems that you can help the solve, whether it’s by posting answers on Quora or launching a free resource or tool.

How to Start

My favorite Paul Graham essay advises founders to “do things that don’t scale.” I’d add one caveat: don’t do things that don’t scale until you understand how they might scale.

Pick up the phone and call your customers. Write the personalized emails. Hustle. But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Experiment with different types of free marketing to acquire your first 1,000 customers; then you can find a way to scale for your next 10,000.

Having a small or non-existing marketing budget doesn’t limit your marketing efforts. It forces you to pound the pavement and be more creative about how to build awareness for your company.

Finally, while you might be doing early marketing completely by yourself, there are tons of tools out there that will make your life easier completely for free:

  • Clearbit Connect: Find any email address directly from your Gmail inbox
  • Drift: Live Chat for your startup. Free for 1 seat and 100 contacts.
  • HTML Email: Free responsive HTML email templates for startups
  • Google Trends: Research topics that your audience cares about
  • GrowthBot: Chatbot for marketing and sales
  • Open Site Explorer: Free keyword and backlink research
  • Pexels 2.0: Free stock photos for your startup
  • Submit.co: Free list of places you can get press coverage for your startup.

If you want to see more free tools, check out my “Free Stuff for Startups” collection on Product Hunt.

Find opportunities for your early marketing efforts that will give you the highest leverage for your time today. That way, when you do spend money on marketing down the line, you already have a roadmap and a strategy that works.