Getting the word out is a major challenge for companies trying to move beyond their startup phase—whether it’s marketing a product to the masses or selling a service to other businesses.
“How do we get our name out there and promote the service without breaking the bank?” says Jeff Golding, 43, president of WilliamPaid.com, a Chicago company that enables tenants to pay rent automatically. “I mean, we could do a Super Bowl ad and get our name out there. But that’s not really cost-effective for a company our size.”
Mr. Golding says his company, which launched in 2010, has “tens of thousands of customers” across the U.S., but that’s a fraction of the potential market. That’s why Mr. Golding is stepping up marketing.
For Tiesta Tea Co., the trouble was getting its canisters of flavored loose-leaf tea into more grocery stores. “We weren’t getting a lot of local love,” says President Patrick Tannous, 25, who founded the Chicago company in 2010 with CEO Dan Klein, 24.
Tiesta was on the verge of shutting down in late 2011 when a consultant suggested pushing the product in stores beyond Illinois and Wisconsin, where the company had been focusing. So Messrs. Klein and Tannous hit the road.
“We slept on a buddy’s couch in New York and went to every store,” Mr. Tannous says. “People thought we were nuts.” But after visiting about 500 shops in five cities—stretching from New York to Vancouver, British Columbia—they’d signed up 50 outlets. Tiesta’s sales doubled the following month and quadrupled the month after that.
It’s now turning a profit and on pace to bring in $1.5 million in revenue this year, Mr. Klein says. Tiesta is sold in 2,500 shops, including the Mariano’s Fresh Market chain, which has been opening stores in the Chicago area.
Heritage Bicycles, a Chicago bike manufacturer and store that opened in early 2012, has succeeded without much advertising or marketing. When Michael Salvatore and his wife, Melissa, opened the Heritage Bicycles General Store in Lakeview, they expected to sell 10 to 15 bikes in their first year. They ended up selling 100. People as far away as Sweden and Australia have purchased bicycles from their website.
Mr. Salvatore, 32, thinks the bikes have sold well because of their craftsmanship and design. And the decision to include a cafe in the shop has drawn a regular stream of visitors, he says. That in itself is a sort of marketing.
“People feel comfortable around the shop. They can see us,” Mr. Salvatore says. “They come in for the cafe. But the next time they need a bike or the next time they need bike work done, who are they going to go to—the bike shop they go to every three years, or somebody they see every day? That’s played a really important role with our trust factor.”
Heritage opened its own off-site bike-welding facility in January and recently signed a lease for a kids-oriented Heritage Littles shop in Lincoln Square, which is scheduled to open in August.
Unlike many young companies, Weave the People isn’t aiming to grow quickly—even though founder and CEO Paul Caswell, 45, says it’s on track for $500,000 in revenue this year, doubling last year’s number. Based at 1871, a Chicago co-working center for digital startups, Weave creates visual presentations to help people make personal connections during corporate meetings. Its clients include Comcast Corp., Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola Co. and Abbott Laboratories—and for now, Mr. Caswell says he isn’t too concerned about attracting a slew of new customers.
“I realize we still have a lot to learn from our clients,” he says, playing down the importance of marketing. “Rather than looking to a breadth of the market, we want to better focus on the clients that we have.”
A social media campaign attracted 80,000 visitors in one month last year to Weatherist.com, a Chicago-based website that launched in 2011 and ranks the accuracy of weather forecasts in 10 cities. But co-founder Dave Chung, 31, says the company—which doesn’t have offices or paid employees—didn’t have the resources to make more people aware of the website. “If you don’t have a big marketing budget, it’s difficult to get the word out,” he says.
Weatherist is relaunching its site this summer, expanding its predictions to cover the whole country, using an algorithm that weighs the accuracy of local forecasts. “We’re pretty excited about that,” Mr. Chung says. But it remains to be seen whether the website will be cool enough to attract a fan base without marketing.
Marketing is the top priority for TripRental.com, which launched in 2011 under the name HomesRetreat. The Chicago-based website lists about 10,000 homes available for vacation rentals in the U.S. and other countries.
“We’re continuing to grow on a monthly basis,” says co-founder and General Manager Ketan Thakker, who is in his 40s. The company is seeking a second round of investment money to boost awareness. “We’re adding salespeople, we’re adding marketing people so we can take it to the next level.”
A lack of marketing dollars made it difficult for another Chicago company, Grabio, to build a big audience for its app, says co-founder and CEO Horatiu Boeriu, 32. Launched in 2011, Grabio is similar to Craigslist, but it maps out the locations where items are being offered for sale.
The bootstrapped business is seeking investors. “We’re at the stage where we’ve done everything we could with no money,” Mr. Boeriu says. “We build a very good product. We’re growing every single month. We’re just not growing fast enough to our liking. So we’re saying, ‘Hey, we need some money to push the marketing plan and grow faster.’ “
Mr. Boeriu remains optimistic about Grabio’s prospects, pointing out that it took years for other startups to gain popularity. Pinterest, for instance, started in 2009 but didn’t explode into widespread public awareness until 2011. “We know it takes a long time to build something,” Mr. Boeriu says.
Another Chicago-area company, Noblivity Inc., needed to reach out to manufacturers around the world. Its secret weapon was Skype.
“We became our own guerrilla marketing,” CEO Andrea Williamson says. “Skype became our best friend. Using that technology really helped to bridge that trust gap very quickly. It allowed people to take a chance on an American company.”
Ms. Williamson was making those Skype calls to persuade manufacturers and designers in 50 countries to sign on with Noblivity, which connects those companies with boutiques, primarily in the U.S. She was working on a small budget. “I could squeeze juice out of a dollar bill,” she says.
The Naperville company, which went through the 2010 Excelerate Labs mentoring program, now is placing products from 250 designers and 50 manufacturers in 10,000 boutiques, including shops in every state. Ms. Williamson declines to disclose revenue but says, “It’s growing enough that we can bring in a sales team.”
Although Noblivity has been going for nearly three years, Ms. Williamson says she still thinks of it as a startup. “We’re still a small team,” she says.