The Marketing Conundrum For Startups & Small Businesses


“To spend or not to spend that is the question in mind”. When it comes to allocating the marketing budget, we the entrepreneurs are no less than Hamlet. (For the sake of brevity, I will refer to small business owners and startup owners with the same word).

We are confused, indecisive and fickle-minded.

And why wouldn’t we be so?

Marketing is unpredictable. It’s that division of your company that behaves, unlike any other division. Take the example of operations – Every result in operations is driven by a series of steps. Unlike marketing, it is process-oriented whereas marketing is more of a hit and trial.

For years, I have toiled hard to succeed in marketing.

When I succeeded as an individual marketing person, I failed in leading the marketing team.

When I succeed in leading the team, I failed in rightly predicting the outcome of our marketing campaigns.

I am not even talking about beating the competition using marketing.

Welcome to the World of Marketing for Small Business and Startups!

A world where we are daily improvising and fight against the odds to market our product/service. A world where every mistake is a part of the steps to become a better entrepreneur.

What makes Marketing so confusing & challenging for startups & small business owners?

The Marketing Conundrum for Startups

The steps to marketing and promoting a business are quite straightforward. Try any of the small business courses online and you can see marketing divided into following simple steps:

  1. Decide the sales target
  2. Define the value of each unit sales and decide the number of leads to reach that number
  3. How will you reach the leads?
    • Marketing Team
    • Marketing channels (offline/online)
    • Budget allocation
    • Run campaigns
  4. Optimize campaigns

For large enterprises, the above steps are well refined and defined. There are teams, SOPs, past case studies and most importantly – budgets to the above steps.

It’s a well-oiled machinery that is result-driven.

(note – I am in no way saying that there are fewer challenges faced by large enterprises. However, they are always protected by the cushion of working for a known brand with a large budget to support their efforts)

Now compare it with how small businesses and startups operate.

There are challenges galore!

1# Deciding where to Focus

Setting Up a Home Office 2

As an entrepreneur, you want to do so much in marketing. I vividly remember being a part of small business where we wanted to grow the existing customer base in our existing line of business and also launch a new line of service.

There were different strategies put on the table by everyone with a long list of “to-do” points.

We picked up a few strategies based on our budget and started working on them. Now marketing requires time and patience, we had none.

Since it was a small business, we expected fast results. By the time, the chosen marketing path could deliver some results – we jumped to the next one.

Unfortunately, marketing is not as agile as other divisions of a business. You definitely can move fast by trying out of box ideas but all of it requires time and focus.

A key skill, small businesses lack.

2# Budget Issues

5 Things to Reckon in Your Business Budget

Let me pick up from where I left above.

What leads to a lack of focus for entrepreneurs? Having been an entrepreneur I can count hundreds of instances where I would have loved to run a campaign for a “little bit longer”.

What stopped me?

Obviously – budget issues. We were always trying to run a marathon with the stamina to run a 100-meter sprint. By the time we were halfway through, we were out of breath and had to give up on our marketing effort.

I have never met a small business or a startup that has been able to run long marketing campaigns and then wait for the final results.

For us, every marketing effort has to give results. Unlike bigger companies, there is no way we can afford a “marketing campaign” to gauge public opinion on our new line of service. The campaigns we run are budget constrained and rarely give the final output expected from a proper marketing campaign.

3# Confusion in building a Marketing Team

4 Effective Team Building Activities For Employees
Image Source – Pexels

What kind of resource works for a small business?

Do they hire an expensive resource from an MNC to grow fast by leveraging their marketing connections or do you build a team of freshers and train them as per your company’s growth trajectory?

A few years back, I had hired a senior marketing resource from an MNC. The marketing resource came with a truck full of promises. To accommodate the resource, I and my partner had taken a salary cut.

You might find the above line strange. It’s very rare to hear that someone took a pay cut to accommodate someone. Yet, we the entrepreneurs are not a part of the salaried lot. Though we take salaries from our companies, our aim is always towards growing our organization.

Hence, the salary cut.

Now within 3 months, the senior resource started complaining about frivolous issues like:

  • The company has no brand, so I have to work extra hard
  • The company needs to allocate more funds to brand awareness
  • I need a team to work with me

I am not blaming the resource. For all my entrepreneurial experiences, I knew – the challenges mentioned above were genuine challenges. Still, we had no funds left to address anyone of them.

We thought the resource can work in a flat hierarchy with support from the founders and though the resource understood the structure before joining – it never understood the challenge of working with a small company.

We parted ways amicably after three months.

I have friends who run small businesses and they swear by the challenges of leading the marketing teams. The logic most of them have:

  • Expensive resources should deliver fast results because small businesses do not plan to fund them for the next 6 months or a year. While expensive resources deliver results fast in bigger companies because of the support they have, they fail in small companies.
  • Affordable resources take long and require constant help from the founders to guide them.

Which brings me to the next marketing challenge faced by entrepreneurs – Time Constraint (I will discuss it in the next point).

After months of training the young guns, your company makes progress, albeit rather slowly.

You question yourself all the time – Is it worth all the effort?

The answer is yes and no. Before you ask me – how can it be a yes or now, let me remind you we are discussing the “marketing conundrum”.

The progress was slow with the marketing team because they needed you at every step of marketing. Now you are a one-man or a two-man army. Imagine, giving all your time to marketing interns.

And just when you thought, they are ready to promote your organization the way you wanted – they leave the company for another company that is willing to pay them more.

Unfortunately, you cannot match the salary because you have budget constraints.

You are clueless about what you should do next?

You just trained a resource for another company on your payroll.

4# Time Constraints

time management skills

When you run a company, time is not your friend.

I do not remember the number of times I wished the day was 48 hours long.

For you every division in the company is equally important, you have learned from experience that Human Resource Management is as important as Finance and better operations lead to better delivery which always leads to repeat customers.

How about now allocating all the time planning, strategizing, implementing marketing strategies. You either leave it to your team members who are still learning and see it fail or you decide to spend more time on marketing – only to see other divisions struggle.

Ultimately, you spend time with the marketing team running campaigns to target new clients – only to lose old clients (our next challenge on the list).

5# Old Clients v/s New Clients

How to Deal with Difficult Customers

When I started my first venture, all we wanted to do was sell to as many clients as possible and build the top line. That’s how we understood business. Make as many sales as possible and business will progress.

How wrong was I!

I was naïve and my love for marketing the business blinded me to the fact that though businesses need new customers, it is the existing customers who provide a regular source of revenue.

All our campaigns were targeted towards new clients. Our focus was to get as many new clients as possible. We did not want to spend a penny on cross-selling or up-selling to our clientele.

You might not find me as the only person in the above boat.

It is a common challenge faced by entrepreneurs to focus on their marketing efforts.

Well! That ends my list of major marketing challenges faced by small business owners and startup founders.

Although the above points are the major points, there are other confusions or challenges like:

  • Should I focus my energy on my competitor’s marketing strategy or run my own show
  • Spending too much or too little time figuring out who the right audience is
  • Marketing a product that has no market need

As I mentioned earlier – there are challenges Galore!

Welcome to the world of marketing conundrum for startups and small businesses.


Author Bio: Jasmeet is a founder of Lessons at Startup – A blog where he shares entrepreneurial stories. He specializes in Digital Marketing and Content Writing. He is addicted to Google News, Netflix, Good Coffee and Quora 🙂