How Your SaaS Startup Can Successfully Compete Against Established Giants

Salesforce, Zoom, and HubSpot were once largely unknown startups. They faced the same daunting challenges that the vast majority of early-stage startups are confronted with.

When you’re a largely unknown startup, how do you disrupt the giants that got there before you? Your competition might have a head start of a decade-plus, and they’ve spent it building their brand and increasing market share.

It turns out you can actually successfully compete, even when – frankly – no one knows who the heck you are. Here’s the roadmap.

Stop 1: Conduct a Digital Marketing Audit

Learn about your competitors’ wins and losses through a thorough digital marketing audit. It’s one of the most important things you can do. By peeking into a competitor’s world, you’ll learn lessons without having to trip up on your own. Sign up for their newsletters, read their landing pages. Understand their positioning and messaging.

Example: Go to and see how your key competitors’ website and core messaging has changed over the years. Compare this to their current website messaging.

Don’t think of your competitors as enemies. Think of them as ways to gain insight and determine opportunity. How has their message changed over time? If they’ve switched directions, there’s probably a reason, and it’s on you to figure out why.

Stop 2: Forget the Entire Market

Even if you’re an amazing new CRM, you’re not going to usurp Salesforce’s throne. But if you’re pitching yourself as the best CRM solution for a specific vertical, a core audience and a targeted value proposition can take you far. So don’t focus on the whole market. Just focus on a piece of it that you specialize in and can conquer.

It takes a lot of time to establish yourself if any industry. Take the time to understand your buyer personas inside and out, conduct interviews, understand their challenges, get feedback, and build a solid product.

After you’ve mastered that, then you can start to branch out from your core audience. It won’t happen overnight, but maybe one day, you’ll be looking at Salesforce in the rear-view mirror!

Example: ConvertKit, an email marketing platform, saw an ARR explosion when they focused their product and messaging on the blogging niche. Read the full story here.

Stop 3: Plant Your Stake in the Ground

Once you’re competing in a defined vertical, let the world know. Examples of putting a stake in the ground:

  • Your website and landing pages help establish your expertise for this space – make bold claims and back them up with proof of happy customers
  • Join online communities and answer questions in your field of expertise
  • Apply for awards, speaker opportunities, and event participation in your space

People would rather buy from other humans than faceless companies. So how are you humanizing and marketing your company and executive team? Tell your story and it will build your brand. If you aren’t, someone else will, and they’ll claim that space.

Example: Unbounce isn’t trying to replace WordPress, which powers 25% of all websites on the internet. Unbounce is focusing on drag-and-drop simple landing pages, aiming to increase speed to publishing and conversion rates. They claim to be the “world’s fastest and most customizable landing page builder”, and they have a rich bank of content, webinars, and guides focused on conversion.

Stop 4: Embrace Your Unfair Advantage

There’s one thing you’ll always have over established brands: you’re new. They’re old. They’re “legacy.” They’ve been around forever and have probably slowed down on innovating. A smaller company can move so much faster than a big, bulky company with entrenched bureaucracy.

Embrace your unfair advantage, and stop thinking of your beginner status as a crutch. Newness is prized in tech, and as a smaller operation, you can be agile. For example, if you’re a scrappy newcomer that uses AI and big data to move quickly, you can disrupt a sizeable market with the next big thing.

Offer more personal investment in your customers. Neil Patel calls it “the warm hug experience.” You’re free to directly interact with customers on an individual level. You prize customer feedback and use it to directly influence your products and processes. Larger companies just can’t offer this level of personalization, so embrace this advantage.

Stop 5: Join Forces

As a startup, you’re trying to be laser-focused on one thing. But if you find that your audience consistently needs something outside of your realm of expertise, look to partner up. You can grow very quickly by leveraging partners in your ecosystem.

Example: Drift builds chatbots and playbooks for sales and marketing. Drift’s customers would love to know which companies are visiting their website, so they can market and prospect those companies. So Drift partnered with an IP address lookup tool, in order to provide their customers with greater insights.

You can make magic happen for your customers by pairing with another agile company that’s building an awesome product. Then, there’s the ripple effect of your growing reach through your partner. This is a great opportunity to leverage their brand and expertise, and cross-sell your services to their audience and vice versa.

Stop 6: Engage Influencers

If you’re a small startup focused on Facebook marketing, why would anyone care that you sent out a cold email? But what if Mari Smith – recognized as the top Facebook marketer in the world – mentions that she loves your product? People will start to pay attention.

In consumer marketing, influencers are not necessarily fussy about who they promote. But in the B2B space and especially in SaaS, influencers need to protect themselves, as they live and die by their credibility and authority.

Strategy: You can engage an influencer in increments. Try reaching out to an influencer in your space. See if they’ll participate in a webinar. If that goes well, have them try out your product, which can lead to them becoming a brand ambassador. Eventually, they may even become a board member. You can offer tiered levels of engagement to influencers, and show them how you’re disrupting the space.

Stop 7: Aim for Communities

Communities can be your best PR. A no-name brand getting featured in Product Hunt is no longer a no-name. When you join a community, your audience will hear about you from a source they trust.

People are saturated with emails they don’t open, from companies they don’t recognize. But if they find out about a joint webinar from a brand or community they rely on for education, they’ll be much more interested.

Example: We drove ~600 registrations to a Customer Experience Webinar through a strategic sponsorship in a community that had the ideal persona our client was targeting. The CPL (cost per lead) was $12… we could never have achieved that many registrations at that CPL through digital marketing alone. By partnering with a respected customer experience community, we got huge results. See how we achieved this in step 3 of this article.

Stop 8: Align Sales and Marketing

In a startup, marketing and sales can’t afford not to be aligned. A branding campaign that looks nice but doesn’t convert users or lacks key metrics is not a campaign you can afford to prioritize.

Sales and marketing need to work together to ensure that marketing efforts are moving the needle downstream, at the bottom of the funnel. If the MQLs marketing gives to Sales aren’t resulting in meaningful sales conversations, it’s time to get aligned.

Marketing team members should get in the habit of sitting in on sales calls. Similarly, enable sales teams to actually report back on things like which types of leads are quality, which are poor, and where they’re having success from marketing’s efforts.

Stop 9: Learn by Doing, Not by Guessing

Large companies have lots of meetings, rigid processes, large legal teams and more bureaucracy.

Not for you! So you need to embrace the ubiquitous term heard in all startups: hustle. It’s important to make plans, but even more important to make tough decisions, ruthlessly prioritize and move forward.

There’s a difference between saying what you’re going to do, and then just getting down to brass tacks. Here are some ways you can quickly out-hustle the competition:

  • Implement persona-based marketing and create automation workflows
  • Test messaging from your website to campaigns to emails and ads, and determine the messaging that resonates with your target audience
  • Write a thought leadership piece every week that challenges the norm in your space, and share it with your audience and in your space
  • Create a video every week and post it
  • Commit to doing something to stand out, at least once per quarter – then do it, whether it’s a fireside chat or an event in your industry

Stop 10: Embrace Product-Led Growth

Your marketing team isn’t just about people. It’s also about your product. More companies are embracing product-led growth to demonstrate their product value to customers, and then comfortably upsell their product. Any time you “try the first 30 days for free,” that’s product-led growth. These leads that buy on the basis of your product are also less likely to churn and will yield a higher LTV (lifetime value). Let’s grow your MRR with satisfied users!

Example: Dialpad is a cloud-based VoIP software. The heart of their business is an extensive IP-based phone system for businesses. However, they attract many of their customers through UberConference, where users can easily set up conference calls and have participants dial in. UberConference is free, but the company uses it to upsell to their premium product.

Stop 11: Measure the Funnel, Embrace the Flywheel

In the marketing and sales funnel, you aim to nurture prospects from visitor to qualified lead to opportunity to customer. It’s a linear model that basically removes the customer from the equation once they reach the bottom.

The flywheel is all about attracting, engaging, and delighting your customers in a way that removes friction (for deep flywheel insight, check out this flywheel primer and personal exercise). This model makes sense for SaaS startups that want to retain customers and build advocacy.

The flywheel is all about how customers can be engines of growth. It gives you a dynamic approach to identifying customer needs, by meeting them where they are during every step of the marketing and sales process, and beyond. Noah Kagan has done a fantastic job analyzing Intercom’s growth based on this flywheel concept.

Stop 12: Your CEO Should Be Out There

Conversational marketing is effective. The strength of a startup lies in its ability to go beyond corporate jargon and impersonal landing pages and into the realm of humanizing. Not just for your internal teams, but also for your audience, you should be fearlessly answering questions like:

  • Why did you start this company?
  • What’s your opinion on what’s happening next in the industry?
  • How are you disrupting this vertical?
  • What are you passionate about?

Example: Take Drift, the chatbot company we referred to earlier. They build tons of momentum through short videos, often with their CEO giving insights into where he thinks the market is going. One day it’s “coffee with a CMO”, another day it’s “growing your marketing career.” They’re pithy, and informative, and they establish Drift as a thought leader.

Stop 13: Undercut Through Pricing

Without undervaluing yourself, think about undercutting your competition. If a corporation is worth millions of dollars, and they make all of their money because they charge premium prices, they cannot suddenly reduce their pricing by half. Their stock price would plummet, their shareholders would be upset, and their overall valuation would suffer. They have to maintain or even increase their pricing.

You can use this to your advantage. Use the newest technology to undercut your competitors on price. You can go where these giants aren’t going.

Stop 14: Exit Your Marketing Comfort Zone

There was a time when only a few people were using Google AdWords. At one point, people weren’t sure whether social media advertising would catch on. Right now, account-based marketing is growing but is still an under-utilized marketing tactic. The opportunity lies in doing what other people are not doing.

Have your marketing team read about the growth of Intercom, Slack, Dropbox, HubSpot, and others. These companies have all been pioneers in the marketing space, implementing growth hacking and tactics others weren’t trying.

Example: Salespeople at Terminus started creating personalized video demos for their prospects. They would say, “Bob, as CMO at Company X, you have the opportunity to land the top accounts your sales teams want to pursue. We can show you how to improve Company X’s pipeline through a cool video that’s made just for you.” Bob is more likely to want to see a demo that’s all about Company X than a generic sales pitch. The results have been impressive.

In conclusion…

Zig where the giants are zagging. Every company has problems, even if they’re large and powerful (often because they are large and powerful). If you’re disrupting legacy competitors in a space, you need to deploy disruptive marketing and sales strategies like the ones mentioned above.

Need a helping hand? At Clutchgrowth, we help SaaS companies successfully compete in a crowded space. Schedule a consultation with us and let’s discuss your specific needs.