Photo courtesy of Len Markidan.
Digital marketing strategist Len Markidan enjoyed his slice of startup success in San Francisco. He was on the founding team at A/B testing software startup Overstat, which was acquired in 2011 by Tealeaf, a web analytics company subsequently acquired by IBM.
In 2013, Markidan moved to Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood with his fiancée, a nursing student at the Johns Hopkins University. But Markidan had stayed active working with startups in Baltimore, first as a digital marketing teacher in the initial semester of the Betamore incubator’s Academy classes, and now as a marketing consultant helping startups focus on their marketing plans and strategy.
“I love the startup community here, and it has a lot of advantages over a place like San Francisco or New York,” said Markidan, 29.
Technical.ly Baltimore heard from Markidan via e-mail about some of his other impressions of the city’s startup scene.
TB: What’s the biggest difference you see between San Francisco’s startup environment and Baltimore city’s startup environment?
LM: In San Francisco, the infrastructure that supports a startup environment — communities, hackathons, service providers — is deeply connected and easily accessible to everyone. A lot of that infrastructure exists in Baltimore, but the dots aren’t connected. Just last week, the head of one of the city’s most active development shops complained to me that too many of the talented Ruby developers he meets have never heard of B’more on Rails.
This isn’t a dig on Baltimore. It has everything it needs to be a successful ecosystem. We just need to make the network stronger.
TB: What’s the advantage Baltimore has over a place like San Francisco?
LM: In San Francisco, any entrepreneur with a bit of hustle and the right connections can get their idea funded. The cash pool for software startups isn’t nearly as big here, and “raise more money” isn’t a viable long-term growth strategy. Companies are forced to think like businesses — that is, figure out how to make money — a lot earlier, and that’s a very good thing.
TB: Startups sometimes bemoan the lack of venture capital funding in the Baltimore region. Does that necessarily make or break a scene?
LM: When you glorify VC funding as something that will make or break a scene, it’s easy to explain away the poor health of a startup community (or, more often, a startup’s own underperformance) by saying that there isn’t enough venture funding. But it’s a bullshit excuse.
Most startups that complain about lack of [venture capitalists] shouldn’t be looking for VC funding in the first place. Unless you have a real shot at a $100 million-plus exit, it makes little financial sense for an institutional investor to bet on you. Bootstrap, stay lean, raise an angel round if you need to. You can build a very successful business that contributes massive value to the city and the local startup community without aiming for a big exit.
TB: What are some digital marketing mistakes that startups routinely make?
LM: The biggest marketing mistake I see startups making all the time is being too tactical from the start:
“We’re going to start a blog.”
“Let’s run some Facebook ads.”
“We need to be on Twitter.”
Being on Twitter isn’t marketing. Instead, start by deeply understanding your customers. Talk to them. Look at what they’re saying online. Do research. Learn their actual needs, hopes, fears and challenges, and not just what you think they are. It’s not digital, and it’s not sexy, but I guarantee that it’ll fundamentally change the way you do marketing. It’s amazing how many startups are willing to spend their entire marketing budget on tactics without taking the time to build the foundation.
TB: Why did you leave Overstat after it was acquired? Why not just stay, as opposed to venturing out on your own?
LM: I had always wanted to help startups tackle marketing challenges, and that transition when Overstat was acquired turned out to be the perfect opportunity to take that next step.
At Overstat, I was helping one company grow. As a consultant, I’ve been fortunate to help many more. Now through teaching and speaking at Betamore and other accelerators and events around the country, I can work with hundreds of companies at once, and I’m hoping that the next step I take will open the door to turning hundreds into thousands.