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6 Lessons on Marketing a Startup with a Shoestring Budget

It’s important to know who you are as a company, and mold your branding into something that will stand the test of time, not just copy what’s trendy that year.


By Jacqueline Rosales

As an entrepreneur, I crave endorphins – I love the way they make me feel. I am a straight up endorphin junkie. Launching a new business is like standing on the edge of a cliff and looking out. You are exhilarated by the view you see in front of you and scared to death of falling.

When I was asked to launch SoapBoxSample, an Online Market Research Company, three years ago, we were a self-funded initiative under a larger corporate umbrella. After more than 15 years in the market research industry, I knew the marketing challenge we faced. We had to stand out amongst the bland, interchangeable, scientific “data-y” branding. The websites all looked exactly the same. We are suffering from “Eddie Bower color addiction” and the taglines were generic. It was all pretty much interchangeable. We were a new player, in a mature space. Besides being good at what we did, we HAD to stand out or we would be falling off the side of that cliff – without a parachute.

We were determined to get ourselves noticed. We were determined to stand out and be part of the consideration set. We wanted to change the conversation from “why should we consider you” to “can’t wait to try you.” To do so, we had to be creative, outrageous and leverage existing relationships to be successful.

Not one to shy away from taking risks (one of SoapBox’s Telltale Ten values) – we, and by we, I mean our giant team of three, jumped in feet first with a brand that looked totally different from the rest of the industry’s. We focused on being bold, authentic, different, edgy and human. We focused on our tagline “Wanna Get Fresh” – grabbing attention, but also getting our clients thinking. Is there a new way we could do things? Is there a new approach out there? Am I stuck doing things the same old way? We are not perfect. We are probably not winning any “advertisement of the year awards,” so what did I learn?

Act Big. From day one, we focused on the type of company we planned to be – a big company, even though we weren’t (yet).  A few years ago, I overheard someone talking about SoapBoxSample at an event – “They are like cockroaches… they showed up with their damn frisbees and stressballs and now they are EVERYWHERE!” I could only smile – as an entrepreneur, being considered a cockroach is a pretty amazing compliment. You know who has survived thousands of years – the cockroaches! While you definitely have to prioritize your spend, have a presence at industry events when you launch – don’t sneak into events. Choose sponsorships that give you high visibility for the most economical price. Negotiate and/or do trades for advertising along side the bigger companies.

Be Scrappy & Have Fun. To me, scrappy means feisty, tenacious, determined, and creative. Even as we have grown over the years, the scrappy, grassroots approach remains a critical element of our marketing because it works. Our team has fun and our clients want to be a part of it.

We selected a tagline that would make people laugh (and thus remember us) — “Wanna Get Fresh?” also had relevance to our industry. At industry trade shows, we created a booth covered in bright blue bubbles and stood in the aisles tossing Frisbees and throwing stress balls. Not only did we stand out like a sore thumb in a room of conservative exhibits but more importantly, we caught people’s attention causing them to stop, ask questions and start booking business with us. We walked the line carefully between being fun, real and smart and absurd, foolish and childish.

Perception Is Reality. We focused on an area where we knew we could play a big role, even though we were small – Thought Leadership. The result? In a very short time, we were no longer viewed as a small startup but a true industry player with a significant role in driving the industry conversation ahead. A couple of years ago, we were invited to become Founding Members of SampleCon*, the only sample-focused industry event. This leadership role put us at the forefront of a major conference in the Market Research space and more importantly, at the table with some of the largest players in the industry. People took notice!

*Side note: When I first went to our President and asked him for the funding to become a founding member of SampleCon, which was like double our budget, I knew my chances were slim. But I was pleasantly surprised by the yes. He has since then told me that it was one of our best moves ever and that he highly doubted the success but I that I must have been extra convincing that day – he now takes credit for HIS yes, being the driver of our success (if you know him this is funny. If you don’t, it is still funny).

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Feet on the Street. When I started SoapBoxSample, I thought I could do it all and while I gave it the old college try. The reality is, one person cannot be everywhere doing every job. Invest in feet on the street — this will balance out the relationships you can leverage and help you get ahead in the race faster.

Don’t Stop At Failure I often laugh when I look back at our early marketing efforts. Having no budget, we hired a designer from 99 Designs who clearly had no idea what “fresh sample” meant. The designers created a series of ads featuring sliced bread, avocados and even shrimp. (Click here to see the original ads.) I am not sure what part of Online Market Research screamed “food service business.” Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but we actually considered using some of them. We didn’t notice that the ads call-to-action was to CONTACT US but had no contact information. Thankfully, the husband of a senior leader in our sister company jumped in with a humble “would you like me to give it a try?” We did, and we’ve done ok since then. Thankfully, we had a least one sane human on our side watching out for us.

Know Your Brand While many companies will transition after launching to more traditional, mainstream marketing strategy, we remained focused on the tactics that helped make us the company we are today. The styling and messaging has gotten more sophisticated, but the branding has stayed the same: young, fresh, vibrant and fun. It’s important to know who you are as a company, and mold your branding into something that will stand the test of time, not just copy what’s trendy that year.

Have Some Tips of Your Own to Share? Message me on Twitter @Jax_Rosales with #BigBrain

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Jacqueline Rosales

Jacqueline Rosales

Chief Operating Officer, SoapBoxSample