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Gold rubics cube T Marketing Success Secrets for Tech Startups

By John Ortbal

It is estimated that 40 percent of venture backed companies fail; 40 percent return moderate amounts of capital; and only 20 percent or less produce high returns. It is the small percentage of high return deals that are most responsible for the venture capital industry consistently performing above the public markets. So what separates the zeroes from the heroes?

Thought Leadership is a Primary Differentiator

It’s true that launching a new company or growing a young company requires an outstanding product/service, but marketplaces today are so cluttered with new and innovative ideas that the real differentiator in my experience is thought leadership.

How does one define thought leadership?  Here’s how writer Shel Israel in Forbes magazine described the concept:

“A thought leader is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.”

Gold rubics cube 500

Not everyone can be a thought leader on the scale of Steven Jobs or Martin Luther King.  For most young companies, it’s enough to be a thought leader for a specific audience or niche market.

To establish thought leadership you have to know your audience, understand what motivates them emotionally as well as rationally, and stake out a position that presents a unique perspective.  Keep in mind that your positioning is not thought leadership unless it breaks through the status quo to challenge the conventional thinking or habits of your audience.

Plus, when positioning yourself as a thought leader in your space, you’ve got to reposition all your competitors as lacking in both vision and capabilities.


Redefine the Playing Field According to Your Rules

Time and again I’ve seen startup or emerging growth tech companies floundering in search of the “right” messages to demonstrate the superiority of their products.   What they should be concentrating on is creating a context or playing field that leads inevitably to the conclusion that their product is the right solution for the problem situation.

In most cases that means re-defining or refreshing the perceptions surrounding the category where your product/solution plays.  So when you stake out a thought leadership positioning and start promoting your agenda, you’ve got to define the new rules and convince others of their validity and value.

united hands

This of course is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  You’ve got to understand your audience and marketplace, see where customers are frustrated and in pain, and give your audience hope that there is a reasoned, workable solution within their grasp.  Ω


John Ortbal is president, Services Marketing Group.
For the past 15 years, he’s been a key contributor in marketing software and hardware technology startups and early growth stage companies in the US with a focus on developing brand positioning and revitalizing young firms.  His team members are now VP’s of Marketing and CMO’s at successful technology companies across the country. Helping to launch a dozen or more tech companies that were eventually acquired by larger enterprises, he’s learned a few lessons in marketing.

This article is adapted from the Journal of the Heartland Angels.  The newsletter is available here. (PDF)

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NEWS FROM HEARTLAND – the Journal of the Heartland Angels, is published quarterly as an information service to its members.  Articles may be reproduced in full with attribution for educational purposes.

CAVEAT EMPTOR – These articles are for educational purposes and not investment advice.  Investment involves substantial risk.  Please perform your own due diligence.  Contact Ron Kirschner – Ron@HeartlandAngels.com

Photo Credits – John Ortbal

Copyright © 2014 Heartland Angels – John Jonelis, Editor


Chicago Venture Magazine is a publication of Nathaniel Press www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link. This is not investment advice.We do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not our fault if you lose money.

.Copyright © 2014 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved



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Compass 3 - John OrtbalWhere Tech Startups Come Up Short

.From the Journal of the Heartland Angels

By John Ortbal

Far too many start-ups in the technology sector launch a great product with distinct advantages over competitors but fail to gain a solid footing in their marketplace. One of the major reasons is lack of adequate investment in what I call a solid marketing infrastructure.

Establishing a solid marketing infrastructure gives the startup technology firm (software or hardware) the foundation from which to grow and expand. Without that foundation, it’s easy to become distracted in a scramble to ramp up sales—dispersing your resources and energy.

Compass 4 - John Ortbal

What does it take to build a solid marketing foundation? Here are some basic suggestions:



First and foremost is positioning. A start-up or early growth technology company has to stake a claim, define its positioning, and express it in an elevator pitch—the two or three sentence description that captures the who, what, where and most of all why your new company exists. What most start-ups don’t realize is that when you position yourself, you’ve repositioned everyone else, i.e. your competition. So there has to be a strong element of conflict in your positioning and maybe even a bit of controversy. Playing it safe just doesn’t cut it.



Content is king today as evidenced by the flood of buzz around “content marketing.” For technology start-ups and early growth companies, developing, organizing and sharing content is critical to grabbing and keeping anyone’s attention for long. There’s a reason that Google has recently urged companies to rely less on link building and more on building quality content.



How many people know that the now-famous TED conference was founded by a designer? In fact, how many people know that TED stands for Technology, Education and Design? I doubt there is a component of marketing infrastructure that’s less understood or undervalued. Without the creative genius of design, your content lacks drama and impact.


Web Presence

While anyone can put up a web site these days, that’s the problem for many startups. Their web sites look arbitrary and boring. They lack the content and design that define any brand personality, which could set them apart from their competition. In other words, their web presence fails to fulfill the promise of their positioning. That’s a huge and costly disconnect for many start-ups.


Public Relations

I lump the analyst and professional social media community under public relations. You must communicate your positioning. Flesh it out through a coordinated public relations effort that leverages ALL types of media. That means your positioning has to wear a lot of different outfits depending on which audience you’re trying to attract. Find a spokesperson who can play off your core value proposition with variety and variation using by-lined articles, blog posts, tweets and video interviews.


Customer Community

This is obviously the toughest nut for startups to crack. If you had customers, you wouldn’t be a startup. Your initial customers are really your partners and should be treated as such. Promote them as much as your product and you’ll plant the seeds of a growing customer community that will yield results for years to come.

This article is adapted from the Journal of the Heartland Angels



John Ortbal is President of Services Marketing Group http://servicesmarketinggroup.com/


NEWS FROM HEARTLAND, The Journal of the Heartland Angels, is a quarterly newsletter published as an information service to its members.  Articles may be reproduced with attribution for educational purposes. Copyright © 2013 Heartland Angels –  John Jonelis, Editor – John@HeartlandAngels.com

HeartLand Angels Logo

CAVEAT EMPTOR – This article is for educational purposes and is not investment advice.  All investment involves substantial risk.  Please do your due own diligence.  Contact Ron Kirschner – Ron@HeartlandAngels.com

For more information, go to:



Chicago Venture Magazine is a publication of Nathaniel Press www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link . This is not investment advice. We do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not our fault if you lose money.

.Copyright © 2013 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved







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