Marketing from First Principles

Use this to solve any problem

Happy Saturday to every unicorn in the universe.

If you’re like me, you probably read too much of what I call “startup porn”: founder success stories where outliers reveal their paths to success.

But reading these can feel like eating candy - it gives you a little burst of hope but ultimately fails to change your startup’s trajectory.

Not to say that learning from others isn’t useful: it’s invaluable.

But without understanding the principles behind why something worked once for someone else, you’re left mimicking the surface of something far more nuanced.

Fortunately there’s an alternative.

Today we’re going to look at what it is and how to use it to come up with solutions to any problems your startup faces.

Today’s growth strategy is First Principles Thinking.

Growth stage: Any

Difficulty level: Medium

“We [already] have flying cars. They’re called airplanes.”

- James Clear

Introduction to First Principles Thinking

Why do people (like me) subscribe to Indie Hackers and fawn over successful entrepreneurs on Twitter who share their war stories?

Because they’re hoping for a magical insight, that one key to unlock exponential growth.

The reality is - each anecdote reflects someone’s unique circumstances, skills and luck.

It often sounds easy on paper, but it’s hard to replicate timing, tenacity and good luck.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to increase your odds of success in building a startup.

That’s where first principles thinking comes in.

What is First Principles Thinking?

I like to think of first principles as “how+why things really work”. By really work, I don’t mean singular anecdotes you read on Reddit. Instead, it means understanding the variables at play within a dynamic system. How the components interact, what the sources of leverage are within the system, etc.

Here’s a more formal definition:

First principles thinking is a problem-solving method that involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic, fundamental parts.

Instead of relying on what other companies have done or the “proven” way of doing things, you question assumptions to understand the underlying mechanisms and how to influence them.

In other words, throw out conventional wisdom and common practice, and question everything. Then assemble a plan based on an ideal outcome and your assessment of what can can produce it most effectively.

First Principles vs. Analogous Thinking: A Comparison

While first principles thinking breaks down problems to their root, analogous thinking solves problems based on how similar problems have been solved before.

For example, if a particular marketing strategy worked for a similar product in the past, analogous thinking suggests using that same strategy again. While this approach can be effective and more efficient in certain circumstances, it often leads to incremental improvements rather than major breakthroughs.

On the other hand, first principles thinking, by questioning every assumption, allows for innovative solutions that can uncover orders of magnitude gains.

Using First Principles in Startups

The best way I’ve found to produce outsized results in startups and marketing is to apply first principles thinking to everything.

There are plenty of successful copycat businesses. And a lot of businesses are standardized and operate similarly, such that you don’t really need much creativity.

But startups often involve doing new things.

And doing new things brings new problems that require new ways of thinking to solve them.

The people most likely to come up with a new (and better) way of doing things are those who can move beyond copying tips, tricks and hacks to understand why those may work in the first place. And then use that understanding to propose new ideas.

First Principles Thinking in Marketing

Suppose you are entering a popular space and you notice that most of your competitors are active on Google Ads.

A derivative approach would be to copy the ads and landing pages of your closest competitors and establish a baseline of performance.

There is a lot of value in the derivative approach, because it will give you a feel for conversion rates, your CPA and ROI.

But to really own paid search, you need to build a strategy based on the mechanics underlying the auction.

As you explore what variables govern success in paid search, you come across quality score.

Then you ask: what factors influence quality score and how do I influence those factors maximally?

From there you would investigate each of the components of quality score to understand what they are and how you as a marketer can influence each of them:

  • Click-through Rate

  • Ad relevance

  • Landing page experience

Starting with the first component, you would then brainstorm as many ways as possible to increase Click-through Rate. If you’re thorough, some of your ideas are bound to be new ones that your competitors haven’t tried.

Only by exhaustively considering each element of success in turn can you derive a potential set of approaches to your PPC challenge.

The competitor who tests the most high quality ideas will usually win. And in the world of ad arbitrage, novelty is margin.

Applying First Principles to Advertising

One of the first principles behind all great ads is that they get people’s attention.

The only way to do that is to stand out.

The way to stand out is to be different.

You usually won’t come up with different ideas that stand out if you’re copying your competitors or best practices.

Every aspect of your marketing strategy can benefit from a fresh approach built from first principles.

First Principles Thinking Frameworks

Here are my two favorite approaches for understanding problems at a deeper, fundamental level:

The Five Whys Technique

Originating from Toyota's lean manufacturing philosophy, the 'Five Whys' technique is a simple yet powerful tool to uncover the root cause of a problem.

By asking 'why' five times, you peel back layers of symptoms to reveal the core problem. This method aligns well with first principles thinking, and encourages a deeper understanding of problems before you throw solutions at it.


“Our customers are churning because they are unhappy.”


“They’re unhappy because the product doesn’t work as well as they expect.”


“Because our ads show X but in reality it does Y.”


“Because we were afraid Y was underwhelming so we embellished it a bit.”


“Because it doesn’t work as well as it could.”


“Because we didn’t have enough time or money to make it as good as it could have been.”

Insight: now you realize you’re setting inaccurate expectations with your customers, and you can choose to either a) solve the product problem and build what they actually want or b) re-do your marketing to accurately show what the product actually does to see if it’s sufficiently appealing.

Elon Musk's Three Step Process

Elon Musk, a vocal advocate of first principles thinking, outlines a three-step process to apply this approach:

  1. Identify and define your current assumptions.

  2. Breakdown these assumptions into their fundamental truths.

  3. Create new solutions from these truths.


  1. Building rockets is really really expensive

  2. The materials that comprise rockets are relatively cheap in comparison

  3. SpaceX developed their own rockets to drastically cut costs

While you might not be building rockets, asking WHY and questioning your assumptions can take you far.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes…

For more on first principles, check out my SEO First Principles guide.

Which of these guides would be most valuable to YOU?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

✨ That’s it for today!

I hope this helps you in your growth journey.


PS - for more on first principles thinking, check out James Clear.

Recommended reading: