As originally published in Synergyzer Issue 4 – 2018

Though we as a nation are late to the startup party, we are here now. We are in the process of getting things right and now have National Incubation Centers in the country. We have Ignite ensuring viable support to tech startups working to benefit the average Pakistani. These, along with numerous others, have brought us to a position that we take a serious look at startups.

That said, there is no benchmark for doing things right. Nowhere on the planet will you find a cheat sheet or walkthrough of how to go from a startup to a successful business. You put in the work, you pay your dues, you learn your lessons; just like everyone and eventually hope for a favorable outcome. However, there is a common theme that is very visible in Pakistani startups: Digital marketing. Or, more precisely, a lack of understanding of digital marketing.

Indulge us, if you will, in an experiment. Can you name 20 promising Pakistani startups from memory alone? Extending that challenge, if you were to Google a list of 20 promising startups in Pakistan, how long does it take you to prepare such a list? While we’re running experiments, have you ever come across someone who won you over in person, but when you visit their site and/or social media they have nothing to show? We are here to address that and all the improper states of digital marketing in between.

Before we dive in, we must acknowledge the true nature of entrepreneurship. Know that there is no higher education in entrepreneurship than being raised by a family of entrepreneurs. It is, quite literally, a lifestyle and anyone not born into it is already at a disadvantage. Being an entrepreneur for anyone else requires change on a personal level, almost completely in some cases. The journey of entrepreneurship is one of disappointment, of sacrifice and self-reliance. Nobody will do anything for you. If you decide to become one, know that the journey is fraught with peril, and learning hard lessons will become second nature. However, if you stick it out, born into it or not, eventually, you will know what it means to be an entrepreneur.

This is not to discourage anyone, it is just important to keep in mind the path you walk.

On to digital marketing. Just to be clear, Pakistan is not a backwards country when it comes to digital media. However, we are slightly sheltered from the full spectrum of its capabilities. We have some successful Kickstarter campaigns, celebrity pages, humor blogs, video sites, some light political posturing, and even an app marketing culture (which is not completely localized), outside of those few applications, we have yet to see past the digital façade and extract something tangible from this platform.

Some startups oversell themselves with gorgeous custom-built websites and amazing digital marketing, but nothing to show for it. Some mimic the perfect strategy, but do not find the results they were looking for. However, you won’t be able to know the state of a startup just by looking at their digital media.

If the recent business with Cambridge Analytica and Trump’s election proves anything, it is that digital media marketing’s potential for misuse might as well be classified as a dangerous weapon. If you bend ethical boundaries, you could force your will on another by exploiting how they operate in the digital space. Granted that level of influence is highly unethical and not within everyone’s grasp nor should it be. However, within the realm of ethics, everyone has the same opportunities.

Pakistan has begun tunneling into digital media and we’ve barely scratched the surface. What works in one region – while teaching you plenty – cannot become a benchmark for how things should be done in another. Watching some speeches by Gary Vaynerchuk (highly recommended) will help you get the ball rolling but will not set you up for total success, you have to take your own path. Gary and his ilk are operating in a realm that is much farther along in digital skills and his audience is much more open to its influence.

Before any of that, a startup only needs three things to get their marketing rolling. If they can attend to these, chances are they will be fine.

1. Master the basics

As pedestrian as it sounds, it is imperative that any professional hoping to gain a foothold in business needs to understand the market, and by extension, marketing. Target market, demographics, competition, the space, the leaders, et al. is critical information for any startup to have. The absence of this information will quickly crumble a business. Conversely, if there is nothing to deliver, then no amount of marketing can help with that.

2. Active social media presence

Make yourself and the business accessible. If someone googles you or your company, people should find the content you have created. Also, your company will go further if you stay connected with your user base. Constantly provide updates either in the form of social posts or through regular live streams or perhaps just regular old blogs. Whatever you do, do it regularly. It is also important to understand how much to lean on which digital platform relative to your space. For example, despite being on all known platforms, a tech startup can lean more on a blog, Facebook and Instagram than on, say YouTube or Snapchat. Things are not quite as simple as that, of course, but a perfect solution needs time and experience to develop. Which is why digital consultants are in business these days. You can hire one if you get some funding.

3. Have a strategy

To capitalize on points 1 and 2, a business needs a comprehensive digital strategy; a complete itemized and inclusive agenda of what value you can extract from all your digital platforms and how you would go about it. The creation of such a strategy will immediately put you ahead of your competition because most startups are simply not thinking digital as a strategic front. It is not enough that you are simply present on all digital platforms; you also need to capitalize on the opportunities each platform grants.

4. Plan (Bonus step)

This step is not strictly limited to marketing and is not exactly news but it is very important that you know what your priorities are. This means a precise map of your entire venture. That way, you are prepared. A plan will take you far and you can go about finding solutions rather than putting out fires all day.

With startups, there is so much focus on actually running the business that marketing takes a backseat. This makes sense in the early stages because one can’t market what doesn’t exist. However, it should be noted that as soon as a demonstration of the idea is ready, so too should a digital presence.

While some people will beat the “analytics” drum to death, and though numbers are very important, you only need a certain amount of information to get you started. It is when you start gaining traction when you need to dive deeper and deeper, at which point you should be in a position to hire people to provide you with this information.

The digital market, despite its popularity, is alien to us. A full-scale demonstration of its efficacy has not yet been seen by the whole of Pakistan. We used digital media to reduce dengue infections in Lahore (through the genius of Dr. Umar Saif of Punjab IT Board) and we created a movement to bring Zainab’s murderer to justice. However, for the rest of us, some companies use it to drive up sales, some just to increase traffic. However, in Pakistan, it has yet to drive political movements, change lives and create value in society. Once we are witness to a few events on that scale, we will see a heavy lean towards digital culture and you are guaranteed to see fantastic new frontiers open up.