Why Search Is Not Prerequisite For Start-ups


I’ve had the good fortune of consulting with a number of start-ups over the past few months on their media and marketing strategies. Start-ups are very different beasts from the larger corporate giants we media folk are more used to engaging with. For a start they won’t always have a marketing function, your client will most likely be the CEO or even the CTO, and the media budget will be miniscule.  They may not even have a website or an app ready to go; they may simply have a good idea and some funding. Often they will be looking to paid search and SEO as a solution to solve many of their immediate traffic acquisition demands and will come and ask your advice for which they should do first. They may even be launching a new category, making the bedrock of digital media that is search, an even bigger challenge (because no one will be looking). This can lead to much head scratching from digital media experts, who are used to leaning on the weight of an already established brand.

The biggest challenge for start-ups is gaining traction, getting people to use and test the product. Often people will think that creating a website and using search as the main traffic driver is the best way to do this. Looking at recent successes in the start-up space this is clearly not always the case.

Hotel Tonight deliberately avoided a website, which would only have led to a losing battle with the likes of Expedia and Booking.com. Instead they launched with an app, recognizing that people search for last minute hotel rooms whilst on the move. In doing so they not only entered this market early, but also avoided having to use search as their main traffic source, and the expense that would follow. As Sam Shank, co-founder of Hotel Tonight explains, “given the choice of building a website or a mobile app – we knew we had to pick one.  Given the choice of building a website, I’d rather focus on the area that didn’t have as much competition.”

Machinima, a start-up that specialises in entertainment for gamers, have built their growing audience of 220 million viewers largely on YouTube, which is where the bulk of them live. They now have presence across multiple platforms including Facebook and Xbox. They too have avoided the search space as a traffic source, instead relying on other platforms and the organic media that is generated within those ecosystems. Their focus has been on quality targeted content that appeals to a very specific audience and in doing so have elevated YouTube’s commercial potential for other start-ups.

So what about start-ups that actually have a website and a media budget? Surely a search strategy is prerequisite? Well not always, at least not initially. Airbnb, the successful community marketplace for travel accommodation, focussed heavily on online video and pre roll ads during their initial media efforts. They needed to explain the proposition clearly, as well as drive awareness and sales. Using pre-rolls on YouTube they were able to achieve all 3. They built ads that are engaging and tell a story and ‘How to Airbnb’ has so far received 1.6 million views. C2C brands like Airbnb are also much better placed to harness the power of social media traffic, which is often much more of a challenge for B2B and B2C start-ups. If your brand’s success is founded on your audience sharing your content social media is prerequisite, if you’re simply selling stuff, setting up a Facebook page and hoping for the best isn’t the way to go.

Vente Privee, the multi-million dollar online retailer, have also completely avoided the search space, favouring the Groupon model of flash sales sent direct to their customers’ inboxes, making email their primary traffic source. Even in online retail, the vertical that arguably relies most heavily on search, there are brands that have found entirely different acquisition strategies.

What unifies these start-ups is a desire to do things differently and more importantly prioritize product over marketing. Airbnb and Hotel Tonight recognized early on that it is good quality photos that sell their rooms better than anything else, and have a network of freelance photographers across the globe working to produce them at scale. Machinima have focussed too on good quality relevant content that appeals to a very specific audience. Start-ups that begin with marketing or media at the expense of product will be destined to fail.  Arshad Cowdury sums this up nicely in saying that “winning business is not about SEO, paid search, or a glitzy ad campaign. Early on, it’s all about connecting with and impressing one customer at a time. In practice this means hand-written thank you notes, sending people info that you think they’d enjoy, and reaching out to them for advice”.

For every successful start-up that avoids the traditional route of building a website and relying on search there will be ten others that don’t. For this reason I don’t want to underplay the importance of search for start-ups, just to highlight that the traditional route isn’t always the best route to success, and sometimes by avoiding it you can become extremely successful. Thinking about where your traffic will come from before you develop could be your billion dollar decision.


Nathan is a contributor to The Makegood and the Head of Media at VCCP. Nathan has over a decade of experience working in digital media at companies including 24/7 Real Media and Razorfish.