• Matthew Lerner

The best (low-cost) startup marketing strategy (AKA The Locksmith story.)

Step #1 of any marketing strategy is to choose or test channels. Startups usually ask me to help out, and they often start with a list.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “checklist of channels” approach, especially for startups. Instead, I tell them this story:

In my early years at PayPal, I lived in an apartment complex in San Francisco where the flats opened into a courtyard. The whole thing was protected by a wrought-iron gate, and each tenant had a key. One day I came home from work and saw a gold foil sticker on the gate just above the door handle. It said “24 hr. emergency locksmith” with a phone number.


Photo of a locksmith sticker over a door knob
Not the actual sticker, but you get the idea.

I pondered…“For 99.999% of my life, I will never need a locksmith. But the 0.001% of the time when I do need a locksmith, I’m going to be standing right here at this gate.” That locksmith could have bought billboards, television ads, flyers…I wouldn’t have noticed any of them. But she figured out exactly where I’d be when I’d suddenly need a locksmith more than anything in the world.

For most startups, 99.99% of the time, your customers won't actually need your product, so there’s no point in advertising to them. But where will they be when they suddenly realise they do need you? What’s your “locksmith moment?”

A few examples:

  • At PayPal, I was setting up partnerships with shopping cart companies to help their customers set up payments.

  • Canva ranks for 700,000 search terms around “how to design….” certificates, cards, templates, slides, social posts, etc.

  • Soy milk appears in the refrigerator section of the supermarket even though it is not perishable.

  • Spotify gave free pro accounts to personal assistants of famous singers and bands knowing the artists would eventually find out.

Your simple next step

Set aside the generic channel list and think about your customers. What’s their locksmith moment? Imagine your customer’s life in the moments leading them to needing your product. Where will they be? What will they be doing? Where will they look? Who will they ask? What are they looking for? And how can you turn up there?


Need to write a marketing plan?

Print out our free marketing strategy template PDF, grab a cup of coffee, and find a comfortable chair. We’ll step you through a series of questions to draft your startup's marketing strategy to:

  1. Identify target customers

  2. Find your best scalable channels

  3. Develop messaging that converts

Your plan will impress investors, inspire employees, and most importantly, efficiently acquire customers! (Free download)


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