Startup Marketing: Why Honesty is Always the Best Policy

If you had to make a list of some of the most successful entrepreneurs of the modern era, Gabe Newell would undoubtedly be right at the top. After attending Harvard in the 1980s, he joined Microsoft – where he spent the next decade working on some of the earliest versions of the Windows operating system.

These days, he’s president of the Valve Corporation – a video game developer not only responsible for some of the most successful games of the modern era like “Half-Life 2,” but also the platform that completely disrupted the industry in the best possible way in terms of digital distribution – “Steam.”

In an interview from 2015, Newell indicated that one of the most important pieces of advice he would give to anyone – be they a successful entrepreneur or someone just starting out – is to never try to lie to your audience.

Newell said “you have to stop thinking that you’re in charge and start thinking that you’re having a dance.

One of the things we learned pretty early on is ‘Don’t ever, ever try to lie to the Internet’ – because they will catch you. They will de-construct your spin. They will remember everything you ever say for eternity.

This one simple idea is particularly valuable in terms of startup marketing. Honesty isn’t just the best policy because it’s what people want or because it’s the right thing to do. Startup marketing needs to be honest because the alternative is much, much worse.

Handling Mistakes in Startup Marketing

The fact that you’re going to make a mistake in terms of building and growing your startup is not a secret. Absolutely everyone does. How you choose to handle those mistakes is what will ultimately separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s what will determine whether you continue to grow into the company you always hoped to one day be running or whether you’re abandoned like so many others before you.

Handling mistakes in startup marketing the honest way – meaning that you bother to address them at all – does a few different things, all of which are important. Trying to hide the fact that you launched a product before it was ready, took an already volatile customer service experience and made it worse or something else entirely doesn’t help anyone – most of all you.

Acknowledging that a mistake happened, conveying what you learned and making it right to those who were affected shows an incredible amount of responsibility. It also makes you feel much more accessible – people know that even if something does happen, there is a face behind the business that actually cares about what they think.

It also helps your startup’s brand feel more authentic. Remember that faceless organizations feel cold and are therefore easier to ignore. By developing a relationship beyond just the products and services that you sell – warts and all – you’re making your entire startup feel real and unique.

Honesty in terms of accepting and correcting mistakes in the court of public opinion also helps display a level of sincerity that is often lacking, regardless of the industry you’re talking about. This is a perfect way to inspire not only trust in your customers, but loyalty as well.

The Other Elements of Honesty

But honesty in startup marketing isn’t necessarily exclusive to the idea of “I made a mistake and I want to address it by telling you what happened.” Honesty can mean a lot of other things, too. One of the most important – and one of the most powerful in terms of your overall message – has to do with transparency.

Don’t be afraid to use the marketing collateral you create with a tool like Visme (in transparency which I’m the founder of) to “lift the curtain” off your business. Don’t hold people at arm’s length. Instead, bring them in as close as you can and shine a light on what is really going on.

That information is important, but it’s one small part of a much larger story. It’s like skipping to the end of a novel and expecting the last page to have the same amount of weight it would have if you had read the entire thing.

Use that same presentation to tell the complete story of the product, from inspiration to conception to release and beyond. Come at it from a variety of angles, like “here is what I originally wanted to do. Here are some of the challenges I knew I was going to have to overcome. Here is a major setback we suffered because I wasn’t ready. Here is how we recovered from that challenge and kept going.”

The story of your startup is one that will be filled with adversity. Try as hard as you’d like, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to go through more than a few “dark nights of the soul” – those periods where “giving up” absolutely seemed like the easier option and you definitely considered it, even for a few hours.

Don’t hide these things – use them to your advantage. Be as transparent as possible, which in turn will allow you to be as intimate as possible.

Raw, open honesty is a powerful weapon, both for separating your startup from your “less-than-honest” competition and for creating the idea that your startup is the underdog that isn’t going to give up regardless of how hard things may get.

Honesty and the Right Kind of Attention

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When used properly, honesty is the type of asset that most marketing teams would kill for. Whether you’re talking about car rental company Avis owning the fact that they always have second place in terms of market share (their popular slogan is literally “we’re number two – we try harder“) or you’re Steve Jobs talking openly about the colossal failure that was the Apple Newton, it’s something that most people can’t get enough of.

Running a startup is a path fraught with peril, I know because I go through it daily.  You WILL stumble. You WILL fall. Making an effort to be as open and as honest as you can in as many different ways as you can is what will decide how many people are still standing by your side when you get back up again.