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Marketing Strategies and Practices for Blockchain Projects and Startups

If you are a blockchain startup, open source project or decentralized protocol and believe that you don’t need the right kind of marketing to succeed, think again.

“Marketing” has traditionally been a weakness in the early lives of many tech startups for a variety of reasons. Most startups are often led by young or inexperienced CEOs or project leaders who come from a strong engineering or product mindset. These founders either don’t understand or don’t appreciate the value of marketing, and certainly that comes from a lack of experience or education on the subject. Most blockchain companies/projects founders are no different.

At the root of this situation lies a common and fundamental misconception: not knowing the true meaning and functions of marketing.

Marketing Mistakes

Wrongfully, marketing is prematurely equated to shouting about a product prior to having it ready for the market to try. Others think that marketing is about hiring a PR firm, polishing a website, publishing a blog post, promoting on social media, designing a great logo with new colors and fonts, or producing videos about your product.

Unfortunately, during the ICO frenzy days, the term marketing has been bastardized around excessive usage of the above named activities. Therefore, marketing has received a bad rap in blockchain circles because it has been equated to pumping bad ICOs where the marketing consisted of purely unchecked promotion.  

In the past few months, I have had several conversations with founders of blockchain related projects and companies who clearly didn’t seem to understand, let alone appreciate the value and priority they should be giving to doing a better job at marketing. When I challenged them on their marketing, or broached the topic, the responses ranged along the following flavors:

  • We’re not ready for marketing until the next product is released and announced
  • We have it in the budget for next year to hire a PR firm
  • I’ve been doing videos that will air as advertising later
  • We prefer to deliver first, and then talk about what we have done
  • Marketing is expensive and we don’t have the budget now
  • We hired a design firm and redoing our website with a new visual identity
  • We don’t need marketing, we focus on our community on Reddit

All of the above are the wrong answers, and point to not understanding the various parts of marketing.

Marketing is a Process

So let’s start with the basics and further discuss what marketing is, or is not about. First, there are 3 parts to marketing:

  • Product marketing – explaining what the product does (features/benefits), and how it is differentiated from others.  Goal: Positioning the product.
  • Corporate marketing – positioning the company and communicating its messages in a variety of means. Branding and Marketing Communications is a big part of it. Goal: Generate Awareness and Preference.
  • Customer marketing (sometimes labelled as field marketing, direct marketing or content marketing) – getting in front of your target market to generate adoption, leads and sales. Goal: Generate Adoption and Loyalty.

The kind of marketing that is often deficient in blockchain companies or projects is Marketing Communications, i.e. how to strongly and clearly message in a few words what your project, company or product do for the user/customer. But this must be done as a continuum. Messaging is not a single shot of sound bites around a launch event. To make it even more effective, it must be customized to the specific audience you are trying to reach: customers, investors, employees, media, influencers, partners, etc.

The process of creating the messaging is a complex exercise that has several layers designed to answering the WHY, WHAT and HOW of your value proposition. Many companies nail the WHY (Elevator pitch), but don’t follow through with the WHAT (Competitive positioning and Core value proposition), or the HOW (Product/Solution messaging and Technology differentiation).

Marketing is a process that evolves along a series of objectives, from Awareness, to Consideration, to Trials, and then Loyalty. Different tools are effective for each one of these steps. For example, thought leadership focuses on the awareness aspect and trying to shape the market by educating it. The brand leadership helps to influence the prospect’s perception towards you. You want to gradually progress from letting your target market care, understand, believe, then act to try your product.

Brand Strategy First

Here is the right order of progression for the following activities:

  1. Brand Strategy
  2. Positioning Statement
  3. Messaging Elements
  4. Visual Identity

Sadly, a common mistake I see is starting with the visual identity and thinking that it is branding. Often, that is the result of being led by an inexperienced CMO or one that came from the PR/Communications side, or when the organization has hired a brand design firm instead of a brand strategy firm. Most brand design houses (and some PR companies) will tell you they will take care of your messaging and branding, but that is the tail wagging the dog. Brand strategy takes a very unique skill, and there are few brand strategy experts that do a great job with it. One brand strategy firm with whom I have had experience working with, is Brandsinger.

In a nutshell, if you are not occupying a position in the minds of users/customers (and the prospective market), then your brand value is zero. Someone else will come and articulate their value proposition better than you, and will subsequently occupy that position. If you are first to deliver a product, it may not matter. You need to be first in occupying that specific position in the minds of your target market. The battle is a battle of the minds, as rightfully spelled out in the seminal book on that topic Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, a classic book that I have perhaps read over 20 times (over a course of 25 years), and almost memorized and put into practice accordingly. The sequel to that book, – Marketing Warfare, is also a must read marketing classic from the legendary Ries and Trout, the two authors of that series of work.

Blockchain Examples

Let’s give it some blockchain and cryptocurrency flavours.

Bitcoin occupied first the digital money position and still does to this point. Ethereum exploited a weakness in Bitcoin,- its ease of programmability and development platform potential, and it currently owns that position. All other (newer) blockchains have to attack Bitcoin or Ethereum as the reference points. Most of them have to raise the volume and intensity of their marketing in order to make an assault on these established leaders. It is always more expensive to attack than it is to defend a position.

ZCash and Monero have exploited the privacy niche. Coinbase occupies the safety ladder in cryptocurrency exchanges. Binance is trying to attack it with a me-too strategy focused on scale, and they are extending their brand with new services. LoomX has been good at becoming a Layer 2 leader for Ethereum. Take any other segment. For example, when you think file storage, you probably think Storj or Filecoin because that’s the position they are occupying. When you think prediction markets, you probably think of Augur or Gnosis. And when you think of stablecoins, Maker comes to mind.

Back to Basics

For those of you who know me from the blockchain market only (over the past 6 years roughly), you may not know that I’ve previously spent a long career in sales and marketing with a variety of positions and experiences in direct sales, field marketing, corporate marketing and several startups as founder and default chief marketer. More specifically, since I exited the operational world via my last startup in April 2013, I’ve written extensively about startup marketing in the early years of this blog. All of it still applies, as I focused on explaining the basics of market positioning, marketing strategy, messaging, brand strategy, and related marketing topics.

There is no point re-inventing marketing for the blockchain sector. So, I’m going to link to some basics that I’ve already written about. Here, I collected the 12 most pertinent blog posts into a single one that links to them: Startup Marketing Compendium of 12 Posts on Positioning, Branding, Messaging and more. Then I wrote one more, The Biggest Blind Spot of a Startup CEO is Ignoring Their Brand.

So please go read that series, and if you need help implementing some of that, don’t start by hiring a PR agency. Rather, take an introspective view, and hire the right marketing person first.

Another common weakness with blockchain companies is they fail to tell their stories in non-technical terms to the market. It is not enough to excite the developers.

And don’t just focus entirely on social media publishing. Unless you have 1 Million+ Twitter followers in your target audience, promoting on social media will only make a dent in your awareness goals.

Remember, marketing is not just writing a press release. It is not shouting from the rooftops. It takes finesse, planning, thought, accuracy, targeted actions, and iterations to get it right.

And timing is so important. Sometimes the marketing is way ahead of delivery, and sometimes it is way behind it, but when the timing and sequence are right, that’s when the magic of results happens.

Allow me repeat this: marketing is a process. Learn it, acquire experience in it, practice it, but don’t be amateurish about it.


Some Harsh Advice for the Blockchain Industry

Honesty_imageFor the blockchain, 2018 is ending with a marked contrast to how it started, no matter how optimistic you care to be. That’s because the largest mindshare has been on the price of tokens and cryptocurrencies. That is an unfortunate frame of reference, because it symbolizes the velocity of hype, more than enlightens on the real measures of progress in the industry.

It would be an interesting experiment if we could ban or hide all media (including social) stories related to crypto trading for the first 3 months of the new year, and only focus on discussing the projects and technologies that are being built, without any references to the price of Bitcoin, Ether, XRP or any others. Not even a word about ICOs. This experiment would give us more clarity about the real work that is actually taking place.

I am fortunate enough about continuously gaining insights from this industry from being constantly exposed to it first-hand, deep in the trenches, interacting with the technologists, entrepreneurs, financiers, lawmakers and regulators across a global geography. As I reflect on where we are, entering the New Year, here is a list of prescriptive thoughts for the various entities in the space focusing on what they can do, or how they can think, in order to give us lot more hope for a prosperous evolution.


Going to market is not easy. Many blockchain startups continue to underestimate what it takes to bring a new product to the market and put it in the hands of users. Refine the value proposition of your offering. How unique is it? What value does it really offer? Why blockchain? Why should a user switch to, or start using your product? Are your user interface and user experiences really intuitive, or are the barriers to entry too high? Have you assessed the size of the potential market and specifically identified and understood the profiles of your target audience?


Whether you are working on (or enhancing) a protocol, infrastructure, middleware technology or applications, delivering what you promised within the deadlines is key. Do not hide under the pretexts that decentralization is messy and open source projects take time to materialize. Yes, the consensus process is key to the base technical layers of the blockchain, but if we applied consensus to all decision-making or to how we manage for results, the world would be in a very bad place, and most businesses would be bankrupt. Cut to the chase, make the tough decisions, and hold people accountable to their deadlines, including yours. If you are not that type of leader, then put someone else in charge that you trust.

Marketers and PR Companies

Clarity in marketing communications is important, but do not go overboard with marketing jargon, hyperbolic statements, non-genuine endorsements, aggressive outreach, and chest pumping. Smart marketing is about finesse, accuracy, credibility, and education. Shouting from the rooftops is like wolf howling. It is not a long-lasting form of communication, and certainly doesn’t stick in the market’s mind. Remember, the key objective of marketing is to get into the minds of the people you want to influence, and there is so much you can do when pushing your way into it. The best results occur when you create the conditions for the market to be pulled towards you.


If you were lucky to have raised funds with an ICO process, count your blessings, because they end there. You are now just like a startup. So, just behave like one, and don’t forget: valuations matter. The price of your token will come back to bite you if you don’t let that token prove its real utility in the hands of users and developers. The token must add real value to the network, and if it doesn’t, then refine your assumptions and find the right token-to-market fit. One last thing, get some real mentors to mentor you, not the advisors you put on your website to fake legitimacy for your projects. Self-accountability is overrated, and it will get discounted.


Don’t kick or stab the wounded while they are down or have not had a chance to stand up. The blockchain, tokens, cryptocurrencies and decentralized trusted p2p networks are a new thing that doesn’t fit the old paradigms you have built your practices on. Put on some new lenses, and show us your creativity in innovation, not in enforcement. Imagine if we had kept the old dirt and gravel roads, and we were fining cars for creating dust in the air, instead of laying asphalt on the roads. If regulators are responsible for consumer safety, then they should lay out some asphalt because the cars are different now.  Electronic trading was not as revolutionary as the blockchain, so it was able to adapt to existing frameworks, but the blockchain is more fundamentally different, therefore it needs a new framework.

Wall Street Institutional Investors

Stand back. The crypto markets aren’t totally ready for you. Most valuation correlation metrics are hyperbolic and wishful at best. We know you like quantitative models, but all you can do now is speculate. I wished you would stop pretending you are “investing” because all you want to do is flip. Flipping is not what early technologies need, because it betrays them too early. The mature cryptocurrency instruments are few, maybe Bitcoin, Ether and XRP and another handful, but until there are measured real correlations between real metrics and market caps, institutional firepower might destroy more than build confidence.

Venture Capitalists

Good news. There is less FOMO now (Fear Of Missing Out)! It’s (almost) back to business as usual. Back to finding the startups and companies to invest in, but first, do your homework, and understand the blockchain and its potential from a first principles viewpoint. Form your own and original investment thesis or tact, instead of following others’ who have been thinking about it 5 years longer than you have. By copying someone else’s approach, you are only fooling yourselves and your limited partner investors. Good news though,- the blockchain investment landscape is rich, varied and offers new opportunities.

Average Consumer

I wished you didn’t put that 5 or 10K you had painfully saved into some cryptocurrency during 2018, after what your aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, taxi driver or nephew told you it was going to the moon. Unfortunately, the institutional investors and mainstream media headliners fueled the frenzy too early, which spilled over into the mainstream creating a false reality. My advice- take the loss, and keep your day job. There will be new, safer opportunities, as the market matures. In the meantime, use cryptocurrency to understand it, not to trade it. Pick a consumer app that depends on cryptocurrency and become a user. Some examples to pick from: Steemit, OpenBazaar, CryptoKitties, Kik. [Disclosure: I’m an investor or holder in them]

Large Companies

Admit it, you didn’t plan for the blockchain. It just appeared and foiled your strategic plans, but you still haven’t changed your strategic thinking about it. You know you can only disrupt so much of your business, so your initial instinct is to box the blockchain into its own corner, where it can do no harm, while you might have paid some lip service to it, in the meantime. Regardless, the only way you will find the right and best use cases for the blockchain is by allowing your best people to be a part of it. And I challenge you to insert the blockchain lexicon in your strategic planning, even if the exercise is unnatural.

I might have been utopic in my prescriptive wishes, and perhaps my words were rough while making these points, but there is no better medicine than tough words to meet a tough and harsh reality.


The Universe Will Try to Stop you from Building a Great Product. Don't let it.

IMG_20150827_193444_HDRThat quote, by Simon Vallee, product manager at Slack resonated with me at the Product Hunt One Year Anniversary event last Thursday Aug 27th in Toronto. That event was organized by Daryna Kuyla of Deloitte’s Digital Innovation Lab, and attended by over 450 people.

I tweeted that statement along with its corollary that Simon echoed:

If you stop being relentless, you’re screwed.

It is true that most startups initially face a tremendous amount of skepticism about their product, to the point of being often ridiculed, because they are seen as going against all odds. That’s normal, and that is a common starting point. And I would add to the statement that it’s not just building a great product that’s difficult. It’s about getting out into the market.

If everything in a startup was so obvious, the business would look more like a franchise, and not a startup. In a franchise, they hand you the book and processes on how to operate the business, and they supply you with what you need. They even choose your location based on optimal traffic. You just show-up and operate the business.

When bringing a truly innovative product into a new market that doesn’t exist yet, or is ill defined, you are not always competing with other products. Rather, you’re competing with user habits, their time, and whether they believe in your ideas or not. And if you are targeting businesses with your product, companies have already engrained processes that are old, and take time to change.

Even established companies need to continue being relentless. Imagine if UBER caved in to the local cities and taxi cartels objections. Instead, they continued plugging away, and have been relentless in pushing and propagating their agenda and services worldwide, into every area that justified their business case, even if the cities objected to it.

Every year, thousands of new tech startups are founded. Several hundreds will make headlines, a few hundreds will acquire significant users and customers. But only a few dozens will make a lasting difference and stick with our habits, have us either buy their product/service or use their App.

You are fighting the universe, because the universe is complicated and doesn’t want to change. And there will be several barriers and challenges along the way.

As a startup, you are lifting a lot of weight in order to get noticed, to continue plugging and to win. Being relentless means that you never stop, even if you stumble and fall along the way.

What is important is to have the determination to finish. To join these two metaphors, you need to watch this incredible video of athlete Heather Dorniden Kampf who takes a terrible fall during a 600 meters race. Nonetheless, she gets up even more energized and determined to finish the race. How she ends the race is nothing short from spectacular. Trust me and click on this short 2:48 minutes video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjejTQdK5OI&feature=youtu.be]]>

Revisiting Mentorship: Diversify your Mentors as you Grow your Startup

mentorshipIt’s a generally accepted common practice that startups benefit from mentoring, especially while in their early stages of development. There is no shortage of mentors in startup communities and mentor networks among accelerators who pride themselves on such value-added, and it is a good thing during these startup stages.

In this post, I’d like to first segment the types of potential mentors, then suggest evolutionary mentorship sources for more mature startups.

So where do mentors come from?

  • Peer entrepreneurs
  • Role models
  • Corporate employees
  • VCs
  • Angel investors
  • Board members
  • Advisors
  • Accelerators program managers
  • Expert consultants
  • Pundits
  Each one of these segments has their strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are typically obvious and they depend on how much the mentors know about your particular situations, and their own experience in the mentoring process. [The Techstars Mentor Manifesto is a good refresher.]

But their weaknesses are more invisible, and they are the kinds of things that a startup CEO needs to either discount, or be aware of.

Peer entrepreneurs may not have experienced what you are going through.

Role models sometimes have a better image than substance.

Corporate employees may be unrealistic about startup realities.

VCs will most often see things according to their own thesis and agendas, and if you are getting mentored by VCs who have invested in you, they can be too emotionally attached, and more forgiving.

Not all angel investors have had broad operational experience.

Sometimes you end-up with the wrong Board member, and that creates tension when listening to them.

The advisors you pick initially may be useful then, but if they don’t evolve with you, their value may diminish over time.

Program managers in accelerators are typically junior and don’t have depth or breadth.

Expert consultants will tilt on advising you more than mentor you.

Pundits may be more visionary, and sometimes not so relevant to your immediate priorities.

This diversity in mentorship choices is a good thing for early stage startups, but as a startup matures, I suggest they should re-think who their mentors are.

As a startup grows and finds product/market fit, there is less and less ambiguity about their business. With less ambiguity,  you need less ambiguous mentoring and support. The mad, fast and furious moments of early stages gradually becomes less mad, less furious and more measured and structured, as the startup grows. Therefore, the type of mentoring required becomes more prescriptive and less suggestive because several situations and issues will have more clarity to them.

I recently advised a startup to consider vesting an advisor package to 1-2 years, not 4 years, because you can’t really predict the value of the same advisor over 4 years. If they are great, renew them yearly.

Take a page from Brian Chesky who expanded his mentorship horizons, and went really high by picking some legendary role models and asked them for specific mentorship and learning advice. It is a bold move, and I’m not suggesting that any startup CEO could have easy access to these types of people, but the point is to aim high and try to go out-of-the-box when it comes to mentoring support.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 6.30.07 PMSource: The Education of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky (Fortune).

What’s so interesting about getting advice from successful CEOs of bigger corporations or larger startups? They have honed in their execution capabilities, and know well how to manage people and objectives. And they know how to be strategic while at the same being operational, so you can learn from them how they manage that balance. Each seasoned CEO has a few unique tricks and rituals, and maybe one them will click with your needs or personality. I wrote a blog post titled Managing a Startup Isn’t Different – Don’t Re-invent Everything, because I saw first-time startup CEOs trying to reinvent management in their own ways. My suggestion is to go back to first principles of management, and read a couple of old-fashioned books on being a first time CEO, then discount what doesn’t apply, but take what applies. But don’t discount the basic principles of managing people. Or read Matt Blumberg’s Startup CEO book.

So, my advice is to think about re-evaluating your mentors, role models and advisors at every successive funding round or stage of growth that you reach.

Your needs are changing, so why not change who you are being surrounding with and influenced by?


The Digital Native Marketing Trap, Another Startup CEO Blindspot

trapI’ve already alluded to the “digital native marketing trap”, a syndrome that plagues many startup CEOs who were birthed in and grew-up with online and the Internet. For them, everything can be done online, because they only see online marketing via growth-hacking techniques, user activity and analytics data.

And there is another parallel trap,- the startup CEO who is too focused on their product and its features, even if they are growing a community and creating new categories around their products. It’s a trap because they see that as the only answer to marketing.

In both cases, that’s not enough.

There are 3 types of marketing you need to think about:

  1. Product Marketing: focused on product features and their differentiation.
  2. Digital Marketing: manifested by online campaigns mostly (has almost replaced direct marketing).
  3. Corporate Marketing: brand and market position related.

Most startups do well in understanding product marketing and online marketing, but they fail at corporate brand marketing, and they ignore the power of the pull that a strong brand can give them.

I have written plenty about how to grow your brand as a startup, and why it’s important:

  You can push push push, but at some point in time, you need to grow your brand, and that will pull customers and users to your product with less effort into it.

Get out of your online cocoon, and get into the real world which includes physical touch points, and also includes reaching the market that you don’t currently have, and let your prospects know that you exist.

Don’t be that digital native startup CEO who falls in the online+product only marketing trap.]]>

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