free stuff
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One of the single biggest challenges for any startup is trying to market a product or service on a tight or non-existent budget. When I sat on the investor side of the table I would cringe at every “Go to Market” slide that had a single bullet for marketing reading: “viral marketing.” I can't count how many companies were hoping for a miracle viral effect.

I’m now back on the other side of the table as an entrepreneur and have more sympathy for slim marketing plans, though I still haven't bought into the idea of counting on a single magical program that depends on the stars aligning. 

Nothing's Free in This World

Budgetary restrictions can force you to be creative and to leverage as many no-cost options as possible in pursuit of traffic and customers. One of the wonderful things about our enormous marketing technology landscape is many of the tools are free, or offered at a low cost introductory price. Every startup I know (including us) is busy testing and trying free tools and leveraging those as much as they possibly can.

Free tools are among the most popular ones found across all the tech stacks under management on our platform. Google Analytics always shows up as the most popular tool. All the social channels (LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) appear as “tools” in the top 30, alongside Gmail and productivity tools like Trello and Asana. None of this is surprising as most people tend to view social media marketing as both “a must do” and “free” (manpower aside), unless you are paying for ads.

I wish I could say it’s possible to construct an entire marketing technology stack for free, but it isn't. At some point you are going to have to pay for something. 

But how do you decide what you should pay for and when you should go for the free tool? As usual, there’s no one size fits all answer. Much depends on the profile and expertise of your team and what you are trying to accomplish.

The best way to approach tool selection in a tightly constrained environment is to clearly identify your goals. Then as you identify products to support those goals, factor in:

  • Feature set.
  • Price/value ratio.
  • Ease of use.
  • Impact on revenue.
  • Impact on productivity.

Related Article: Evernote Falls Prey to the Freemium Model Catch-22

Some Tools Are Worth Investing In

In our case, when we reached the point where we needed to track our prospect/customer activity and provide pipeline visibility across the organization, we went on the hunt for a CRM system. As most of you know, there are some very sophisticated CRM platforms on the market, many of which have a free version. In our case we started with a free CRM platform, which was highly functional and reasonably easy to use, but it didn’t work for us. All of us wear multiple functional hats in our environment and we found we were struggling to find the time to add data into our CRM. We ultimately abandoned our free product and elected to pay a monthly fee for Spiro, a relatively new CRM that leverages machine learning to scan your email, assess which contacts belong in the CRM, and then directs relevant email communications and event scheduling into the system. Though it’s a tremendous time-saver, the real value for us was in not having to manually enter data into the system.

An anchor platform, such as a CRM system, generally ends up being a paid element in the marketing stack. Another one of ours is Klaviyo, an email platform. With so many great email platforms available to use, the goal is to find the best one for your environment. In our case, with our extremely limited budget, once we narrowed the list of options down to those that satisfied our email campaign needs, we looked to see what added value we could derive from the various options. Klaviyo now serves as our email platform, our marketing automation system and as a critical piece of our analytics suite. With Klaviyo, we got three products for the price of one.

We are happy to source our anchor platforms from a number of different vendors, but several of my startup colleagues have chosen to concentrate on using one vendor like HubSpot, which can supply multiple platform components. They found that the integration a single supplier relationship provides delivers productivity and ease of use benefits. This is an equally viable approach.

Related Article: What Do I Spend on MarTech This Year?

Making the Leap From Freemium to Paid

When every dollar counts, jumping from a free version to a priced version of a product is a big decision, even if the dollars aren’t that large. We are huge fans of Canva. Everyone on our team uses Canva to produce marketing materials. We used the free version, which was perfectly functional, but we eventually realized our inability to save and share digital assets was hindering our productivity. We now pay for Canva and it’s proven to be worth every penny we spend on it.

Our overall strategy around tool acquisition has been:

  • To make sure the anchor platforms are right for where we are as a business today. Pay for those that we need to.
  • Leverage as many free tools as we possibly can (Google Hangout, Skype, Intercom, Google Analytics, Trello) and then upgrade to premium paid versions when absolutely necessary and only if we can justify the expense from a revenue, productivity or functional need perspective.

We regularly revisit what we’ve chosen and fully expect to “graduate” to new systems as the business grows and the profile of the team changes.

If you’ve managed to build a stack using only free products please reach out, I’d love to see what you’ve done. I’d also love to hear about the free products you love and the ones where you made the decision to upgrade to the paid version.