New, York, New York
alex@thesevengroup.com

7 Big Lessons Learned from Incubating a Startup Over the Past 12 months

Navigating the launch and growth of a first-year company in 2020 was probably one of the more unique experiences of all time. Doing while managing marketing for another business in growth mode – a whirlwind experience that brought a lifetime of wins, failures, and lessons.

To help set the scene: A year ago, a small team of three set out to build what would become Seven Group, the new kid on the block of financial advisor marketing providers. Our model we felt was cleaner, our platform-user experience better, our system helped advisors think more holistically about their marketing.

I tell everyone that what I learned in the last year has not only made me a better marketer, but it’s made me a better professional, executive, operator.

In going through this experience, I wanted to share some of the learnings I had as we built this initially as a standalone business. So if you’re launching a B2B product or marketing your own business more aggressively, the information may help you with direction.

Before we get going – for those who may not be aware, or know us and are interested, here’s a bit more on the business and where we landed at the end of 2020:

  • Company: Seven Group
  • Concept: Create a better model that helps financial advisors market their practices better. Pair software with a robust consulting program to give them the full suite of service vs. only SAAS or only Agency.
  • Type of business: SAAS with an Agency remix. We’d largely pitch it as the mid-point between SAAS and Agency. Higher price than your traditional, comparative SAAS, lower cost than your traditional agency (though we still did some traditional agency work).
  • Business model: Two-tier business model: 1st Tier: Subscription ($199 or $499). 2nd Tier: Custom agency contracts
  • Avg. in-bound leads per month: 30
  • Email list size: Built to 900+ from 0
  • Average cost-per-lead: $100
  • Booked revenue in first 12 months: $100k+
  • MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) from subscriptions / recurring contracts in first 12 months: Approaching $15k/M
  • Lifetime value (LTV) per subscription customer: $3,734
  • Average churn rate: <5%

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Not that that’s out of the way, on to the learnings.

1.    Talk to your users before you put pen to paper

  • I cannot understate this enough – talking to your users before you sketch out the full product is the most important aspect of any good product. I can’t tell you how many products I’ve worked on over the years where we would just start designing and building. For Seven, we spoke to 30 financial advisors before designing a thing. We captured their wants, needs, tendencies, channels, and appetite. This led us to the SAAS/Agency model. We knew exactly what the pain points were, we knew how advisors felt about the other players out there, the roadmap defined itself.

2.    Get your foundation right

There are three aspects of foundation that are critical and need to be defined, fixed, or built before you aim to get going on a new, digital-first, business.

  • Your messaging guidelines: Value proposition, mission statement, taglines, service defined on paper, and operating principles. All of this messaging finds its way into your website, your brochures, your pitch decks – it becomes your repeatable mantras, what you become known for in the market even if it’s not explicitly said. Your customers align with your principles as a business through your actions – whether you write them down or not, so might as well write them down. This allow us to keep our messaging consistent as we scaled – we didn’t have to recreate the wheel each and every time.
  • Your visual identity: Color palette, logo variations, fonts, graphic templates, image approach. This seems so basic and such a usual part of any business, but a lot of people forget this step. Your visual identity allows you to scale all you create much more effectively. It allows you to create with more speed (more on that later). It allows you to product content at a higher velocity.
  • Your website conversion points: Especially for digital business, your web conversion points are everything. You want to have 3-4 possible contact information conversion points on your site. This could be a contact form, book a demo, watch a recent webinar replay, sign up for your newsletter. Whether you’re trying to book meetings off a conversion or not, your email list is the gold – your email list is where the relationships are in-depth. Make sure your conversion points are set up, and more importantly, make sure they’re feeding correctly into your CRM/marketing database. If they aren’t, you’ll be not only missing out on opportunities but also understanding attribution to allow you to invest more in places that are working.

3.    Set your systems to scale

Your systems come down to three areas: Creative systems, marketing systems, and sales systems. Having each of these systems set up allows you to move quicker, and as a startup, this is critical. It took us some time to get these setup, but once we did, we were cooking; able to produce content quicker, analyze ads in shorter sessions, and close leads at a higher rate. 

  • Creative systems: Your creative systems are your templates. This includes your presentation templates, your social media graphic templates, your video templates, your webpage templates. These are 3-5 assets, per category, that are easily editable. For example, our social media templates would allow us to create graphics for social in minutes instead of hours. Our presentation templates would allow us to create new strategies in a matter of hours. Templates allow you to scale content production.
  • Marketing systems: Your marketing systems are the consistent communication flows you have set up for both clients and prospects. We had our monthly email that would go out to promote a webinar, which was a big driver of leads. We would have a bi-weekly email to clients that would highlight what’s new in the platform. We’d have a podcast email that would go out to our database every time we dropped a new episode. We’d have an automated email go out to anyone who filled out our contact form or booked a demo. Your marketing systems are your communication streams, repeatable tactics, and deployed consistently.
  • Sales systems: Your sales systems are threefold: your pre-call lead research, your follow up process, and the assets you use for your follow up process. These three items helped our close rates skyrocket in the last six months from leads that came through the door. First, before following up with any inbound lead, we needed to some pre-call research. This took no more than 5-10 minutes per lead, but it allowed us to 1. Bring a personal touch to the follow-up and 2. Allowed us to be more prepared for any questions that would come up in the call. Second, the follow-up process got pretty clean toward the end of the year. Once an inbound came in, depending on which form, there would be an automated email sent to them, letting them know someone would follow up. Then, manually, we’d email them with more details on the platform and either book the meeting or send more details about the meeting (if say they booked a demo). You hear it all the time, but time to follow up is everything. Within 5-10 minutes on a contact form should be your thought process. Third, your sales assets. Everyone thinks they need new content and new info, but at the end of the day, I had one go to one-pager for every single lead that broke down our program and platform. It was all I needed to sell more effectively. 

4.    Speed is everything in your marketing

  • You hear it all the time, but speed in marketing is everything. Let me repeat, everything. To build any brand recognition early you have to stay in front of your audience and moving quickly allows you to do that. I’d rather have 5 videos that aren’t perfect out the door over a 3-week period than one video that takes 3 weeks to create, every day, all day. We moved quickly on all our content production – producing at least a social post a day, a couple of blog posts per month, a podcast episode a week, and ad rotation on a bi-weekly basis. Paired with our podcast strategy and community outreach approach, we were able to build up a small community of people who listened and watched us regularly. Using templates helped with this, but it was more about goals and deadlines we set to hit this cadence. They say the best form of motivation is a deadline, so set them for yourself, aim to hit a goal to do something once per day or once per week marketing-wise. From now to six months from now, it will put you in a much better place.

5.    Paid vs. organic, it needs to be both

  • Whoever tells you you don’t need paid media to build a business either is a genius or a liar – but if anyone tells you one way or another, ask them for their strategy and data to back it up. Organic marketing is about relationship building and affinity. Paid marketing is about reach and awareness. And for new brands, reach and awareness matter as much as relationship building. You need to make people in your target market aware of you, your brand, your services.
  • From an organic marketing standpoint, we focused on building relationships through our podcast guests. We knew that people in the industry had smarter things to say than us in context of financial advisor business building and marketing – we leaned into that, building out influential connections with financial advisors and experts to generate valuable insights we could then repackage and share with our audience. We also focused on good, quality email list building. Building to over 900+, we didn’t buy any emails, we leveraged our list to keep people up to speed on podcast episodes, industry news, and value-add webinars.
  • From a paid standpoint, we had a modest media budget ($3kish per month) but used it well. When it comes to paid, I say this all the time, but you can use it to drive leads – but if that’s your goal, your leads will likely be low quality and have lower conversions. Our goal of paid – drive quality intent-based traffic to our website and sign-ups to our pure value-add webinars. We leveraged Google Ads for intent-based traffic (i.e., financial advisor marketing), and LinkedIn for our webinars. These two tactics together helped us really boost our lead inflow. The key to good paid media is setting the intent prior to kicking anything off – if you want to drive brand, drive brand. If you want to drive leads, go for that (though I’m against doing this on social, it’s an outdated framework). But you have to set the intent before launching any paid ads.

6.    Build a community of affinity early 

  • Building a community of affinity early was big for us – not saying we had the perfect model, but with our podcast, we wanted to build a channel that served the advisor, without an agenda. So, we invited guests on (still do) in the industry to share their knowledge and ideas. This in turn enabled them to re-share it with their network, creating a strong network effect. Additionally, we got involved in the subcultures online for financial advisors – on Twitter and LinkedIn. This is important – you need to build relationships with people in your target market, again, without an agenda. Get involved in online groups where they live – if they live on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Reddit, Clubhouse – doesn’t matter – the key is to communicate early and often.

7.    Work with people who want to work with you

  • When it comes to early-stage startups, you want the business. You want to create a recurring revenue stream, and sometimes this can cause you to take on difficult clients. This happened to us a few times – I would just want the business, so I didn’t do a proper job of setting expectations with the person on the other side of the table. Disgruntled prospects will turn into disgruntled clients – be wary of this. Work with people who believe in your philosophy, your process, your product. If you have a good enough product, you won’t need to fight tooth and nail to close people and it will allow you to work with people who want to work with you.

Bottom line, the last year taught me more than I could have ever imagined. I always wondered what it would be like to get a product from 0 off the ground, and we took that step. It came down to keeping our foot foot to the gas, figuring out our product market fit, and building influence early and often.

Excited for things to come – if you want to follow along, sharing some links below to our podcast.

Until next time, stay well.

-Alex Cavalieri

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