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I admit, I didn't know what marketing is - a tech IndieHacker

Last week, after feeling burned-out sitting on my chair for WEEKS without breaks (other than sleep and meals), working on my product Goals , I decided to stay away from my chair for a week to recharge.

I'd been working on Goals for exactly a year by July 1st. I've got it to $900-$1500 MRR (fluctuates because of churns). It can be seen as a success if I had lived in a place with lower living costs, but it's still far from paying my monthly mortgage payments.

The product is great and unique, according to its core users, but I've failed to communicate the message efficiently before users download the app. In other words, I didn't know marketing.

Well, how could this be? In my past life, I've worked closely with marketing people and solved their problems, built tracking systems, hundreds of A/B tests, and overheard lots of tips about marketing. They see me as one of the rare devs who understand them. I thought I'd be a marketing genius when I started.

So, I bought 5 marketing books (one of them is @arvidkahl's new book (zero to sold, very timely) and decided to read them during my break time. 50% into these books, I admit, I didn't know marketing.

As a product engineer who has worked on hundreds of projects activating users (onboarding, growth) and retaining users (valuable features, great UX, email campaigns), I realized I didn't spend nearly as much time on acquiring users, and even LESS on the step before that: understanding users/niche.

When I joined companies as an employee, most of the time someone else (founders) has already done the work of identifying the niche and target market. So I always took it for granted. As a result, since I started last year, I spent most of my time building features for power users and had nearly 0% focus on the technological stack for attracting, capturing, nurturing, and converting prospects.

To correct this problem, I've come up with a new mental model:

Market Engineering (Attracting the right prospects)
Growth Engineering (Converting prospects to users)
Product Engineering (Providing value to users)

It's clear. I've got 10+ years of experience in Product Engineering, 3+ years on Growth Engineering, and 0 years of experience in Market Engineering.

Market Engineering is the ultimate "Front-end" engineering. We all know that all users experience the app through its Front-end, they don't care about how well your backend is written as they will never interact with it directly.

Similarly, all prospects experience the business through its marketing message, and they don't care about how good your onboarding is unless they see you, and in a short period of time, are convinced that you can help them.

It's fascinating to identify my own shortcomings because it means I can finally put a conscious effort to nail it.

More to come!

  1. 12

    As a 20+ year veteran of marketing (and a founder), I'm overjoyed to hear you come to this conclusion! Too many people think marketing is something that just happens!

    However, your framing it through an engineering lens may still be problematic.

    Marketing isn't about engineering (though many "growth hackers" may try to convince you of this). It is where art meets science, human relationships meet business transactions, and planning meets intuition. Marketing is 75% (ish) listening and 25% (ish) talking. The best marketing books I've ever read are about human psychology and it takes lots of practice and interactions to get right...not to mention that it's CONSTANTLY changing. Unlike math, there isn't a right answer...just a boatload of variables. Good marketing is about getting better and better at understanding those variables.

    One of the books I'm reading right now (and loving) is Jonah Berger's The Catalyst: https://jonahberger.com/books/the-catalyst/ - it's about removing roadblocks to changing behavior. It's a fun read. :)

    1. 1

      "Marketing Engineering" is really just a lingo that speaks to my inner ego.

      By "engineering" I don't mean coding and building, but taking a systematic approach to understand it and measure the results, instead of treating it as a bag of tricks.

      1. 1

        That makes sense and I get what you mean! As a writer, I've always thought language matters, so I wanted to pop in to ensure that you allow for the non-systematic bits of marketing that matter! :)

    2. 1

      Thanks for the book recommendation! I take book recommendations very seriously even though my reading list is already long. But I truly believe people only recommend the best books to others. So I'll add this to my list.

      What would you say are the top 1 - 3 books that you think had the most profound impact on you?

      1. 2

        Oh boy...my early influences were:

        • The Cluetrain Manifesto (old school, but I was really influenced by this early on)
        • Creating Customer Evangelists (Jackie Huba + Ben McConnell)
        • The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell)
        • Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

        More recently:

        • Contagious (Jonah Berger)
        • Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely)
        • Hit Makers (Derek Thompson)
        1. 1

          Csikszentmihalyi is a name I've just read in one of the books!

          The common wisdom is to not start reading another book until you finish the current one but I found reading multiple books on the same topic at the same time helps with understanding new concepts quickly...when a point is being mentioned multiple times...my brain recognizes them as real important.

    3. 1

      May I challenge this? I think you may be a marketing expert meaning the fundamentals are childs play to you. However, my experience of working with SME tech firms is sometimes they have very little in place so starting to think about structure and fundamentals is great. Sure, a video testimonial helps (I'm video) because customers singing the praises of a solution always help sales but I always encourage startups and SMEs to spend time and money on developing a basic marketing ecosystem to drive their business.

      So I get that the structure as laid out by the OP needs a lot of work and your expert marketing eye is probably wincing a little from the engineering approach. But the first step for me is always to recognise that a fundamental marketing approach is necessary.

      If anything, OP could probably do with a chat with you (or someone like you) and your advice to him / her would be better than 10 books. I'm a little contrarian here but I'm also passionate about helping businesses succeed and this is something I see all the time. What do you think?

      1. 2

        @Itsnotthemousetrap Agreed that the books aren't the same as advice. I definitely agree with you that this is a good first step. :)

        I, too, am passionate, which is why I pushed this in the first place (we're building a platform to help businesses succeed without having to pay exorbitant agency fees!).

    4. 2

      This comment was deleted 8 months ago.

  2. 4

    Interesting.

    I’m quite the opposite, I’m a solo maker, but I have zero knowledge in technical side of things, like my peak is literally HTML and CSS, and that’s it.

    But then again, I’ve been working in the marketing industry for close to 5 years now, specifically in SEO and Copywriting as an outside contractor for agencies. A few of my projects that I’ve worked on for the agencies have been with startups, and I’ve seen that a lot of the founders have gone through what you have, primarily coming from a technical background. I found that positioning has always been important, and adding a value proposition, and being able to communicate that effectively to your ideal target audience.

    In copywriting we use the formula of;

    Emotionally appealing primary promise + unique mechanism = intellectually interesting appeal.

    Essentially this can used across the board and in any situation of how you angle your marketing strategy, but it kinda boils to sparking interest of what ever you’re trying to market.

    1. 1

      Thank you for sharing your formula. I’ll sure add it to my marketing cheatsheet

  3. 3

    What where the five books you decided to read during your break?

    Looking for some top marketing books to get me up to date.

    1. 2

      Would love to hear this too! Congratulations on diving into the field with a new sense of respect. I find that it happens all the time (even with engineering, design, etc) when you take full ownership of the project.

      1. 2

        @reecekidd @stephenhuh

        ## Crossing the Chasm

        Classic, theoretic, a bit philosophical but there is so much truth. I came across it 10 years ago while wandering in Harvard book store never thought I'd pick it up lol

        ## 1 Page Marketing Plan
        Surprisingly good - just enough details and provided a basic structure and framework which I can fill the details in.

        ## Zero to Sold
        As mentioned in the post - @arvidkahl's new book. It's not a marketing book but I finished the parts about identifying niche first. It's a good case study on applying what other books have mentioned to cross-validate.

        ## Obviously Awesome
        Recommended by @genemachine and it's a book about positioning. Basically I'm looking to drill-down on the topics that "1 page marketing plan" couldn't cover in detail

        ## 3 Months to No.1
        A book about SEO that has high ratings. Haven't read to much yet but just wanna "load" the knowledge in my mind first so it can process it in the background

        Later on

        ## Magic Words
        A book recommended by some people on Reddit. Kind of an easy read. Doesn't quite apply to online marketing but in-person communication. Prolly will help me talk to my wife.

        ## Ogilvy on advertising
        My facebook friends said they were reading this internally and recommended it to me. Prolly will help me with positioning and etc.

        1. 2

          Amazing @irid thank you!

          Been meaning to read crossing the chasm for years. 💪

  4. 2

    I felt similar as you did when I started this having worked on A/B testing and analytics systems at corporate jobs. Company scale plays such an important role in how well concepts transfer.

    One of the biggest things I've recently discovered is talking to people. If you're just starting out and don't have a reputation, nothing will help your marketing more than having real meaningful conversation with people.

    I also highly recommend the book "Building a story brand" by Donald Miller. It talks about how you need to tell a story with your marketing in order to connect with people.

    1. 2

      Totally. One of the things I didn't make clear in my post is I did 20 - 30 interviews before I started coding. Then still, the people I talked to are my friends many of whom were not my target audience - they just helped me out of friendship.

      But since I had no concept of "target audience", I felt talking to 30 people was enough. It did help a ton in terms of UX, but not so much on market positioning, which was my fault.

  5. 2

    So refreshing to have an engineer be interested in improving their marketing skills instead of just thinking they know it all b/c it's, you know, words and stuff. I've been in digital inbound marketing for almost 6 years now; you'd be SHOCKED how many tech founders with stagnant MRR want to hire a marketing professional just to "implement their [the founder's] marketing vision better".

    CONGRATS MY FRIEND!!

    If I had to sum up inbound in a sentence it would be: "think about the problem you are solving, the person you are solving it for, and what outcomes your product creates to eliminate that person's pain".

    And two bonus tips: 1) collaborate; 2) be the source of data

    If you use these as your lodestar, you'll see some great results.

    Thanks for understanding that marketing is an actual discipline that requires expertise!

    1. 1

      Thanks man! It really is!

  6. 2

    I’ve been looking for a product like Goals. Downloading now. Habitica wasn’t cutting it for me.

    1. 1

      Thanks! Lemme know your opinion!

  7. 2

    I feel you @irid. I learned this the hard way a few times too.

    I think talking and understanding your end user is such an underrated part of business building. I learned this the hard way many times in the past too. So often I created projects without community or an initial customer base. I didn't have anyone to get feedback from or validate my idea with.

    It doesn't matter if you are building a SaaS product, creating online courses or building an app like Goals, fostering a community from the very start allows one to gather feedback and start iterating and refining a product or service almost immediately.

    This is why I began building community from Day 1 with Startup Sanctuary, and recommend others do the same when building out new products and services.

  8. 2

    Thank you for being so open in your sharing! I'm the opposite :) Happy to jump on a call and brainstorm with you / bounce ideas / give feedback if you'd like. All the best!

    1. 1

      Awesome. Will reach out!

  9. 2

    I love the conclusion you have come to. I also struggled with this quite a bit. It definitely helps to think of marketing as engineering relationships in an honest and obvious way. No deception, no tricks, just clear offerings of win-win situations.

    Looking forward to hearing the processes and systems you’ll be implementing to make this happen!

    And thanks for the shoutout. Much appreciated!

    1. 2

      Congrats on the book launch. Amazed by the volume of the book - 500 pages! You’ve really packed everything you know into it. I felt I’ve got a bargain. Shared with a friend who happens to be interested in language teaching as well.

      1. 1

        That's super kind of you. And yes, I tried to cover everything I could. Good thing I had editors who removed the repetitive stuff and shaved 100 pages off the book :D

  10. 1

    Hey Terry! Thank you for being so honest. I am curious: how did you optimize your development process to get to product-market fit? Do you think you got it? Do you really need marketing if you hit PMF?

    1. 1

      I don't think I have found PMF. There are people who email me multiple times a week who said it's exactly what they need which makes be happy and humble - but I never understood what "market" really is in the term "marketing". I just assumed I know it and thought marketing is a series of hacks.

      Luckily I have enough number of active users to help me define the target audience, so I can sharpen my marketing focus instead of saying "It's really for everyone".

  11. 1

    Hi! Do you plan to proceed with the same project? Or try another one ?

    1. 1

      Hello, same project, stronger positioning.

      1. 2

        Just my 50 cents what I would do from marketing perspective:

        • define your biggest competitor (direct or indirect) who holds your target audience.
        • do interviews with users (why they use it? How they made a decision to start using such apps/tools? What is their pain points? What options they considered?
        • narrow down your target audience (now it looks like many other apps for everybody) Age, gender, status, interests, etc.
        • think about Value proposition (why your app is better vs your biggest competitor, like “We push you not once but twice a day, your phone will stop working until you finish your tasks, for example) It should be something related to the main value for users not just a price or quality.
        • than start you marketing campaigns (ads, promoposts, influencers)
        1. 2

          Sweet. Will def keep you posted after my “ban on using laptop” ends and move forward with these.

          1. 3

            Sure! Let me know. Would be happy to assist.
            Add: why is important to find the biggest competitor? Because people already spend money on this service, you know how to find them. In this world it is hard to convince people to spend money on something they never paid for (budget is limited). So you need to lure them to your service. This approach saves money in the beginning(otherwise you just burn your cash without a clear path)

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              That is, they've done the hard work of defining and creating the market.

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