My daily bike ride to work takes me down Broadway, then I cut across Houston and slip into one of those weird cobblestone sidestreets in SoHo. Every day along the route I see one or two Karma ads on phone booths. They always surprise me! When I joined Karma this summer, it was a cool-sounding startup I'd never heard of. Now it advertises to me during my morning Manhattan commute.

That rising visibility, of course, wasn't an accident. Brand awareness is never easy. Brand awareness on a budget is even harder. I sat down with Amanda Bensol, VP of Marketing & Sales (and my boss), to figure out how we did it.

I guess I tend to idealize "marketing" as a few faceless people sitting in a room, plotting missives. Once their plan is complete, they press a button and the ads descend on the globe. The marketers sit back in shadows and stroke their goatees before plotting the next round of attack. The reality is, unsurprisingly, nothing like that. It's a lot of talking to people, actually.

Brand awareness on a budget is even harder.

If there was one word to describe Amanda's approach to marketing Karma in the first year of its existence, it would be "hustle". Without a budget, she was a one-woman marketing campaign.

"I went to every networking event, every meetup under the sun. And I always had a Karma with me," says Amanda about those early days.

Karma launched in December 2012 with some initial press buzz, thanks to its rapid ramp-up from Techstars-incubated startup to a mobile provider with a shipping product. The trick was keeping the interest after that initial wave: "I had to maintain the relationships, make sure people didn't forget about us."

Hustle. Amanda talked to every big food truck in New York, every coffee shop in the East Village. She talked to people in hotels trying to get online. She went to SXSW with a backpack full of Karmas.

Karma Go display adsKarma Go display ads

"Dave tweeted I had an orange backpack on, and people were hunting me down at parties. 'Is this the Karma backpack? Can I buy one?'" She sold about 40 Karmas on the spot, everything she'd brought with her.

Two things happened in the middle of 2013 that changed up Amanda's strategy: she got a (tiny) marketing budget to work with, thanks to device sales, and she decided to abandon attempts to work "b2b" in coffee shops and food trucks and go directly after the consumer instead.

"We made a firm decision that we didn't want to do something that wasn't flawless for the user," Amanda explains. "If you're 100 feet from the food truck you might see the signal but not have a good connection." Karma was a personal device all along, this just made it more clear.

Because Karma was selling. It was word of mouth, mostly. Karma has a built-in referral program, and it worked. People shared Karma with other people, and then a huge percentage of those people went on to buy a device.

"We made a firm decision that we didn't want to do something that wasn't flawless for the user.

A tiny budget in hand, Amanda started experimenting ("dabbling," as she likes to call it) with how she could scale this growing user base.

"I started to bring in some experts to help me test ads. I did Facebook Ads, AdWords, third party promotions, event sponsorships... I could actually get a booth now!" No more booth-in-a-backpack.

Amanda also did a lot of giveaways early on: "I believed so strongly that if I put it in the hands of people, they would promote for us."

The most important thing she learned that year was who was actually buying Karma. "Everything in advertising at the beginning is about learning. You can't launch something and say you're going to be everything to everyone."

When a big company launches a product, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on market research. We had Google Analytics and the founder emails.

"I stole the founder email idea from weeSpring, a baby toy company," Amanda admits. "I implemented it immediately. Without any money to figure out who your audience is, you have to hack it." The founder email welcomes new users to Karma, and asks a simple question: "How did you first hear about Karma?" The insights were golden.

"You get to know your customers on a different level," says Amanda. "Numbers say one thing. I can find out that you're in this age range, from this demographic. But I don't know that you were trying to send a presentation for work last minute, your internet crapped out, and Karma saved the day."

But learning who our customers are comes with its own challenge: how do we talk back to them in the same sort of human language they talk to us, even while we pitch things like "pay as you go" and "no contracts"? How do we avoid sounding like a telecom provider?

With Karma Go on the horizon, Amanda started to save money and build a team that could refine and tell that story in a much bigger way.

Karma posters in the wildKarma posters in the wild

"I knew Karma Go would appeal to such a larger audience because it worked everywhere," says Amanda. "With the fallback to 3G I was confident I could give it to any consumer and it would work flawlessly for them, which was a big deal to me."

While waiting for the new product to be ready, Amanda kept up with her contacts, fighting to stay relevant in the New York tech scene. And she didn't stop hustling and dabbling.

"There was lot of testing and thinking about the perfect marketing mix. I strongly believe that you don't ever invest in one stock. You need to diversify your assets."

Amanda got contacts, references, and advice from the wide network of people in the startup world she'd met since she started peddling Karma. We hired contractors and full-time people to work on display advertisements, PR, social media, and everything in-between.

"I like to take a step back and learn from these experts," says Amanda. She just spent a week in San Francisco, meeting with interesting companies. "It challenges myself to think at the next level when someone challenges me to think in a different way."

"I try to hire people that are experts in their field or have done it before. People who know what they're doing and can make me better."

For hiring, Amanda takes the same approach: "I try to hire people that are experts in their field or have done it before. People who know what they're doing and can make me better." They're people she trusts to represent this brand she worked so hard to build.

But the phone booth ads were a personal victory. Sprinkled liberally with hustle, of course.

"I've been bugging Steven [our CEO] to get the budget to do an out-of-home campaign for over nine months. I knew the only way we could execute properly is if I had a killer negotiator by my side. I convinced someone that was highly regarded to help us out, and we got in all the right places with a limited amount of cash."

And the result?

"I think it was epic. That perception we were able to create, with the small budget we had... that was the goal."


About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year