Dear early-stage startup entrepreneurs,

Please do yourself and your investors a favor and stop advertising. Yes, yes, I know you want a lot of users, to tout how disruptive you are or to sell a lot of your products. But here’s the thing… if you’re really an early stage startup, then you simply don’t yet know who your customers are, why they’ll buy from you, or the best way to communicate your value proposition. So stop wasting money.

Look, I’m an advertising agency guy. It would be in my self interest to encourage you to dump tons of cash into an advertising and marketing machine. But just don’t do it, not yet at least, otherwise you risk driving your business straight into the ground.

Let me tell you a cautionary tale (names and places have been changed to protect the innocent). A startup company, let’s call them Killer Cuff Links, spent a year perfecting their product — all shiny, expertly crafted and appealing to the target demographic.

The company sold a reasonable number of cuff links at events in their region, had gotten some good press coverage and started seeing buyers (that weren’t their family or friends) make purchases through their website. Encouraged, they convinced their investors to give them a decent chunk of change to run an online advertising campaign and generate more sales. Sounds wonderful, right?


Instead of scaling, all they accomplished over those few months was to spend $25,000 and generate a grand total of… drumroll please… 15 sales. Even worse, they put a big question mark in their investors’ heads about whether they should keep funding the business.

Why did this happen? Did they mess up the campaign, or have terrible creative or a bad product? Nope. They simply decided to run before they knew how to walk.

Here’s the point: It is impossible to sell a lot of something until you know if people want it, who those people are, why they are buying, and the decision-making process they used to come to that buying action. Paid advertising (whether online or offline) can be a really good way to scale your business. But as an early-stage start up, you’re not trying to scale. You’re trying to figure out under what circumstances people will give you money for what you’ve made or built. So stop wasting money on advertising as you’re working to figure that out.

Instead, focus your investments on strategies that allow you get feedback directly from your prospective customers. Strategies like public relations, social media, email marketing, trade show attendance and professional selling all allow you to viscerally feel what sparks interest and gives you the opportunity to dive in deeper with questions when you get objections.

In the language of Steve Blank, spend your early-stage money on Customer Development. Get outside of your building and talk to actual (potential) customers to find out what they love and hate about what you’ve created. That will give you tons of insight that you can then apply to your advertising and other scaling stratgies.

So, early-stage startup entrepreneur, before you advertise, hire a really great business development or sales person to pound the pavement and talk to prospects. And if you’re hell-bent on growing awareness and generating sales early in your company’s lifecycle, spend your budgets on marketing and public relations, not paid advertising. Trust me, you and your investors will be much better off for it in the long-run.