The year 2015 was a heady time to do marketing for tech startups. The venture baronry that controlled the fates of founders had decided that markets, rather than engineering or personnel, made or broke new companies. If you were a strategist or a creative, swagger came with the job, along with corporate Uber and free lunches of glistening sushi. You’d enter a pitch meeting in your sharp blowout and bravura nail art—every time; it was all about the rose gold accent nail that year—extremely confident that a solid creed preceded you. The only thing startups need is markets.
Marketing was on fleek, just as “on fleek” was on fleek. Those were the days. I was the editorial director of a tech marketing shop based in San Francisco, and—having come up as a blowout-deprived journalist—I felt almost high on the luxe marketing-chick lifestyle. Not only did the job often seem like one long perk, but it was important. I knew, almost by heart, “The Only Thing That Matters,” the 2007 essay by Marc Andreessen, in which the oracle of Menlo Park argued that markets are, indeed, “the most important factor in a startup’s success or failure.”
But didn’t the product matter? The team? Not really. Andreessen was blunt: With a great market, a company can handle a staff of half-wits or jerks because “the team is remarkably easy to upgrade on the fly.” What’s more, he wrote, “the product doesn’t need to be great; it just has to basically work.”
VCs had also soundly discredited pricing as the key to success. (When a sector is indifferent to the laws of supply and demand, that is some serious irrational exuberance.) “Innovation,” too, was yesterday’s news. Disappointingly, for those of us who cottoned to the folktale of a new economy driven by brilliant little Edisons and Teslas in Everlane, technological breakthroughs were, by 2015, believed to be too easily copied. Instead, success lay in branding flourishes—Snapchat ghosts, Instagram influencers, the massive glass lantern that is Istanbul’s Apple store.
We in marketing also held tight to Rachleff’s Law of Startup Success, named for Andy Rachleff, another VC god who cofounded the firm Benchmark that made a mint betting on eBay, OpenTable, Snapchat, Twitter, and Uber. Rachleff’s Law: The number one company killer is lack of market.
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And so, flush off earlyish rounds of venture capital, startups paid us to identify, reach, and soften up prospective consumers, using an alchemy of surveys, intuition, design, blue-sky ideation, typography, ethnographies, direct email, advertising, events, comms, logos, PR, stunts, and (in theory) art, literature, and film. And of course my specialty: decks. These are the sententious keynote presentations, used to dazzle investors or recruit employees, that try to get a startup to seem like a holy mission. In my decks, I liked to associate things like payment software and organic-snack subscription boxes with such universally admired ideas as Apple, love, or Banksy.
We marketing teams came to believe we alone could save startups from untimely deaths by achieving the desideratum to end all desiderata: product/market fit. PMF. Products were seen as placeholders that were to be broken, iterated on, pivoted from. By contrast, a nice loamy market, primed, was a joy forever. The everything. In the right market, anything—vanilla-honey vape, ancient grains meal-delivery service—can find purchase. Though not all startups believed marketing was the silver bullet for success, the ones that came to us seemed to think: If you build it, they will come, and if they come, you will find a way—even if far, far down the road—to sell them mugs. Or memberships. Or ads, or some freemium bunk.
The problem was the usual. We were bullish for too long. As we watched the big agencies, we saw that even the best marketing couldn’t quite compensate for a certain miniature blood test that didn’t work. Nor, at another agency, could Instagram influencers turn disaster-relief tents into a sexy island bacchanal worthy of Kendall Jenner. From our firm’s gleaming digs, we shuddered as we watched the first cracks in the facade of Theranos. Later, other offerings with marvelous marketing—Jawbone, Hampton Creek (Just Mayo), and Airware—burned through millions of dollars trying to get the optics right on products, services, or business models that were, yeah, janky.
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