Yes, there’s big money sloshing around a few sectors in India today, notably e-commerce in all its hues, housing and more recently food. There is also an uptick in smaller investments in earlier stage ideas and future-flavors of the month and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) status, hyper local services for instance. This loosening of the purse strings for startups in India now is affecting at least 2 areas very starkly for the broader domain of start-ups and beyond: 1) hiring and 2) marketing.

Beyond the headlines and hype about money though, there is some real pressure. Going from a bootstrapped startup to a having some funds at your disposal can really put the pressure on when it comes to spending it right and showing exponential growth in a few months so that the next round is ensured.

It is a feat to get good talent with experience (unless you can afford to give increases of 30-40% over what people are currently earning). But that’s for a separate blog. Here I wanted to focus on marketing and the challenge that early stage startups and businesses face when they are crowded out by lots of money!

So here’s the reality for many high-quality, yet early stage businesses looking to scale:

#1 the big (read funded) guys have probably made keywords super expensive

#2 the quick wins from social media are gone

#3 there is so much content out there that just standing out is hard, and

#4 bought data and leads most often don’t work!

We all know this, and also know that despite these challenges, not growing is not an option. This does mean however that you don’t need a killer marketing strategy. Without it, chances of survival are lowered – the other looming reality for startups beyond the funding hurdle. After being bootstrapped for 2 years, last October, Flexing It got its first round of funding. Here are 5 strategies we learned on the job that helped us get to that first round, and on to the next level of scaling up:

1) Link your marketing strategy very closely to your defined customer and target group (TG): This is very basic but we have felt the pressures of experimenting with strategies we weren’t fully convinced tied to our customers, but tried just the same to get growth. In our case, as our platform targets professionals who are likely to have graduated from a top tier college and worked for 7-8+ years on average, we found that leveraging affiliates did not work for us while it works beautifully for many other online business. So we now try and be very specific as to how a marketing approach will get to our Target Group, defined by age, qualifications, work, and other behaviors.

Basic principles are called that for a reason: There are a ton of mantras out there including don’t market offline for an on-line product. While these may be true in some cases it may not be true for all. So follow the lifecycle of your users – where they are likely to work, what they are likely to read, where they are likely to live, and that may throw up innovative ways to get the message across to them

2) Maintain a marketing heat map: to track levers for your TG, what’s been tried, reach achieved, costs (per click, registration etc) over time, amongst other metrics. Definitely track quality as well as we realized that several of our mini-experiments gave us faster uptake but were less aligned with our core target group. The heat map also helps us figure out when its time to cut our losses from a certain approach.

3) Always size an approach: we have learnt that given our focus on project-based and consulting opportunities versus regular/permanent jobs, we need to reach lakhs to get tens of thousands to open our mailer and then get a few hundred (or thousand if one is lucky) active users. This was a big shift in mindset for me coming from a management consulting background where we always had a very well defined – and contained! – business development pipeline.

4) Invest in original, quality content and research….and expand readership beyond current users: Well written blogs with clear and relevant messages that speak to your target group’s needs are an established strategy to get people interested. The challenge for us has been expanding the audience for these so that they not only engage existing users but also draw new ones.

Our focus now is on linking up our blog to other content platforms to expand readership, and also developing a content strategy based on where we want to be read and featured. The other aspect of content we are starting to get our act together on is data – while we have regularly done surveys/research pieces to understand independent consulting and freelancing in high-end skills, we have done less well with data we collect regularly i.e. on skills registering, projects posted, the kinds of searches done on our site amongst others. Since ours is a new market segment, this is a wealth of data that can really shape and further the discussion as it evolves, and we need to leverage this research well for the overall benefit of the space and of course our platform.

5) Finally, the one mantra though that is incredibly true is that customer experience trumps marketing. We will slog to get site visits and sign-ups, and one poor interaction can and has cost us users. It is critical to get the customer experience consistent and right through scripts for everyone in the team and ensuring a tight ops loop no matter what your product or service.

The elements outlined above is our list of how we look at our overall marketing approach and also individual levers. I look forward to feedback from fellow entrepreneurs attempting to scale-up their businesses on what else one should consider – and if there is a silver bullet out there that we have missed.