Oh, I don’t know … marketing?

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By Francis Moran

I had one of those conversations last week that frustrate the hell out of me and leave me wondering when, if ever, some technology executives are going to come to their senses.

I was at a session of the Ottawa Wireless Cluster on Thursday evening and I took advantage of the networking to renew an acquaintance with a seasoned CEO, someone who has helmed at least a couple of companies, bringing one of them public.

As usual, I asked him how things were going with his latest venture, now about four years old. He said things were alright, but that it had taken about twice as long as he expected to reach the level of business he currently has. Naturally, I asked him what he was doing to acquire that business. Such as, oh, I don’t know … marketing?

With no apparent awareness of the bitter and tragic irony at play, he proceeded to tell me his new company didn’t need — indeed, didn’t want! — marketing because it is the little upstart in the sector and he doesn’t want to tip off his competitors to what he’s doing. He said he gets customers through word of mouth, or by identifying prospects and going after them.

Now, I have nothing against a sales-driven customer-acquisition strategy and there’s no more powerful a channel than fabled word of mouth, but if it’s taking you twice as long as you expected to acquire those customers, maybe the direct route could use a little help. Such as, oh, I don’t know … marketing?

Naw, he said, don’t need it. In fact, don’t want it because, until very recently, his company was in “stealth.” God, I hate that word. Check out what I wrote about it in Mass High Tech Journal a while back. I have never been able to fathom why companies elect to be in so-called “stealth mode.” I have yet to come across one that was truly stealthy; that is, hiding itself from every prying eye. Most are talking to just about everyone — potential investors, candidate employees, suppliers, landlords, bankers, you name it — everyone except potential customers. In other words, they are simply failing to invest in marketing, and excusing it to themselves by pretending they’re doing something exotic and daring.

Fortunately, I also had the chance last week to at the same OWC event to conclude that conversation and go listen to a tech company CEO who really gets it. The featured speaker at the event was Nick Quain, founder of Cellwand, a gorgeous little company that has rolled out one of the wireless sector’s first premium directory assistance products, #TAXI, with others in the wings. I could write a lot about the product and the company’s strategy but for the purposes of making a stark contrast, suffice it to say that Cellwand executed effectively on the technology requirements and has racked up phenomenal success securing partnerships with wireless carriers to the point that the company now has blanket coverage in Canada, where it started, and is available on 150-million phones and counting in the U.S. It’s a textbook case study in building the right product and the right channel to market, and Nick did a great job of sharing the lessons he has learned along the way.

But, get this: He insisted that, phenomenal product, great carrier partners and blanket coverage notwithstanding, Cellwand is dead in the water without one more key ingredient. Such as, oh, I don’t know … marketing?

The CEO I spoke with before Nick’s presentation began was still there when it was over. I sure hope he was paying attention.

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