The essential skill you don’t want but desperately need as an entrepreneur

So you’ve launched your big project, but no one seems too interested. This might be the first time this has happened to you, but it’s pretty typical. Entrepreneurs often overestimate the difficulty of actually building their product, and severely underestimate the difficulty of getting anyone to care. The vast majority of web startups are not built around difficult technical problems, but difficult (or intractable) marketing problems.

A lot of entrepreneurs talk about how they want to get better at marketing, hire a marketing person, improve their marketing, move to the marketing phase, etc, etc. What does that mean, though? What are actionable steps that you as an entrepreneur can take to accomplish these goals?

Getting traction for a web startup basically consists of two things:

  1. Getting traffic to your site
  2. Persuading that traffic to buy or otherwise engage

Enough has been written about #1 that I don’t feel compelled to cover it in detail right now. Suffice to say that you should read up on viral growth models, SEO, advertising. Here’s a post to get you started.

#2 is where a lot of entrepreneurs get lost, especially technical entrepreneurs. I think the reason is that this step of getting a visitor to buy what you’re selling is more art than science, and most tech entrepreneurs are more comfortable with science than art. That’s why we love A/B testing so much: it’s a scientific way of attacking #2. But A/B testing can only get you so far.

If you want to become great at marketing, there’s one skill you need to study and hone above all else:


No matter what kind of entrepreneur you are, in what industry, business consists of persuading someone to do something. It’s usually persuading customers to buy your product or service, but it might be persuading investors to back you, employees to join you, landlords to give you a break on your rent, readers to subscribe to your blog, etc. Copywriting is simply writing that persuades the reader to take some action.

For a long time, when I thought of copywriting, I thought of ad copy and those long direct mail sales letters. Both do fall under the definition of copywriting, but there’s so much more. The text on your homepage and landing pages is copy. The emails you send to customers letting them know their trial is about to expire is copy. The blurb at the end of your blog posts explaining your product is copy. All of these things represent an opportunity to persuade customers to buy your product, and effective copywriting is key to making it happen.

You might be thinking that you’re not a writer, so copywriting isn’t for you. I disagree; I think most people can become good at copywriting (and most other kinds of writing) with enough practice and study. More on this below.

You might also be thinking that your time is better spent on something else, and that you can just hire someone to write copy for you. You almost certainly should hire someone to write copy for you at some point, but knowing it yourself will be tremendously valuable. It’s very difficult to start a technical company without being technical yourself, and it’s very difficult to start a company with great marketing if you’re not a great marketer yourself. Some people just naturally have this skill, but most need to hone it, and copywriting is a great place to start.

Also, really good copywriting is expensive. And with good reason: if you were doing millions in sales per year and you could bump it up by 20% just by hiring someone to rewrite your marketing copy, how much would you be willing to pay them? This is the environment copywriters operate in, so it’s to your benefit to not be helpless without hiring the expensive ones.

Part of the art of copywriting is understanding how to sell prospects on your product from their perspective, rather than your own. This is the source of the oft-repeated advice to focus on benefits, not features. But it goes much deeper, and if you understand copywriting, you’ll be crafting this story and pitch to your customers before you start building the product. This can be helpful to knowing what features to focus your development time on. No, it’s not a substitute for getting out of the building (note: must-read for founders), but it’s definitely helpful to crafting something you know you can actually sell to prospects.

So assuming I’ve intrigued you at least a little bit, now what? I’ll write a longer post later about some of the resources I’ve found helpful, but here’s a few to get you started:

Copyblogger – Great blog on web copywriting and content marketing.

The Copywriter’s Handbook – This book is outdated and has a section on the copywriting business (which we probably don’t want), but no matter: it’s a classic and covers much of what you need to know if you’ve never been exposed to copywriting.

Scientific Advertising This is the granddaddy of all advertising books and basically invented the concept of A/B testing. Highly recommended.

If you’re anything like me, you love to learn new things. But before you learn yet another web framework that you’ve convinced yourself is the key to fame and riches, give copywriting a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.