Like people, start-ups usually have their go-to role models for who they want to be when they grow up. They compare themselves to and aspire to be like the market-disrupting or quickly profitable or still-growing-at-some-crazy-rate big guys (read: Amazon or Apple, Nike or IBM).
But what start-ups don’t always realize is that loads of big brands are trying to figure out how to be just like them. These big brands are building incubators and ideation labs, doing away with cubicles, and trying to flatten out their org structures—anything to become more “innovative” and “creative” and “disruptive” and “[insert buzzword of the moment].” In fact, in a former creative consulting role, I was asked in a strategy presentation meeting with a top three consumer packaged goods brand, “I love this thinking. Will it make us more start-upy?”
Turns out, “start-upy” is code for adaptable, risk-taking, and fun. And if you, too, are trying to bring any of those qualities to your team, here are a few things to learn from up-and-coming companies.
1. Look Inside Yourself
There’s a fantastic lesson, once told so eloquently by Mufasa to his young cub Simba, that’s been perfected by some of the most successful start-ups: Your company is who you are inside. In other words, your employees.
Look to your team as your litmus test, your B.S. filter, for everything you do. If everyone from your junior developer to your VP of Sales doesn’t believe in what you’re building, what you’re saying, and how you’re building and saying it, don’t build or say it. Seriously. If you do, it’ll end up, at best, half-hearted and half-assed.
Instead, use your employees. Find the best people on your team, look at the qualities they have and the way they build your product, and the things that they believe about your company. That’s how you understand who you truly are and what you should do.
Start-ups like MailChimp have done this well. From its early days, MailChimp was never a suit-and-tie culture, so it doesn’t try to represent itself as a suit-and-tie brand. Even though loads, if not most, of MailChimp’s clients are now buttoned-up businesses, MailChimp has remained true to itself as a team and as a culture, and isn’t afraid to extend that experience and service to its clients.
Often, brands will shy away from this approach, saying they must be just like their customers. If their customers are hyper-professional, buttoned-up companies, then they expect the same: They won’t take a company that doesn’t use the industry jargon or sound like the competition seriously. But brands like MailChimp have proven that you don’t have to be your client to understand them and deliver an incredible product for them. It’s more important to remain true to your culture, your roots, and your employees.
2. Spend Like it’s Your Very Last Dollar
Sometimes having billions of dollars at your disposal is the worst thing that can happen to a brand. I can think of some incredibly cringe-worthy ad campaigns and weird attempts at forcing a flash-mob about five years after flash-mobs were a thing. I’m sure you can, too, so I’ll spare those brands the reminder. The point is, throwing money at a marketing challenge is rarely the best way to solve it.
Start-ups don’t really have that option anyway—they’re generally pretty cash poor. When they’re just starting out, bootstrapping, or trying to make that seed round last until next year, they really have to make every buck work for them. Even after raising a round, that money is usually pretty clearly mapped out for new hires or server space or a bigger office—not for mass ad spend or even general marketing efforts.
Instead, they focus on delivering their message in the simplest and most creative way possible. Take Help Remedies, the first-aid start-up trying to dethrone the likes of Tylenol and Band-Aid, which recently launched two new products with little spend to incredible end. Instead of pushing out a press release, lining up a $5M display campaign, sending a street team out to hand out fliers, or devoting months to launching that perfect 30-second TV spot, the company rented out a single Manhattan Ricky’s store window, and hired two guys to sleep and walk on a treadmill. That’s it.
Of course, the guy napping for eight hours was really demonstrating the effect of the Help I Can’t Sleep sleeping aid product, and the man on a treadmill was walking in high heels, making a great live demo for Help I Have a Blister. It was a simple, creative, and inexpensive way to get thousands of press pick-ups and social media love based on one message: When you need specific help, Help Remedies has the product that will do just that.
The lesson: Have one simple, understandable message you can prove to your audience—and figure out how to say it really, really well. Start-ups do this well because, frankly, they can’t afford to do any differently.
3. Trust Your Team to Act Autonomously
Giant companies are notorious for their bureaucracy. Ask most former corporate suits now at start-ups why they left, and I can almost guarantee they’ll tell you about the fact that it takes weeks and dozens of management layers to get anything approved or accomplished.
Big brands put these layers in place for the right reasons: to protect their brand, to make sure they’re covered from a potentially damaging product or campaign getting out the door, and to ensure that what they’re putting out there is on strategy and that everyone from the top down is happy with it. Problem is, when you have to get something approved by 20+ people when major news breaks or you run into a real-time Twitter opportunity (or crisis), there’s little chance all of those 20+ people will agree on and approve something in a matter of seconds or minutes or even days, really. And you’ve missed the opportunity.
Start-ups, on the other hand, don’t even have 20+ people on the team most of the time, so they’re almost forced into autonomous working. Everyone is trained up front to know what the strategy is and what they need to accomplish. Everyone is armed with the data they need to make smart decisions. And most importantly, everyone is trusted to make those decisions. Some start-ups go so far as to have an entirely flat organization, others follow principles from agile development practices, and some just believe in hiring and onboarding smart people and getting out of their way.
While these approaches might not entirely work for you, think about how you can get your team to move more quickly. That’s exactly what companies like Radian6 on the social front and Chartbeat (disclaimer: I work there and love it) on the real-time data front exist: to give front-line teams the intelligent information they need and the power to take action when it matters.
To be fair, start-ups are often a chaotic mess, and there are plenty of established brands with their act together to a T. There’s a lot we can learn from each other when we look outside ourselves and our competition to check out the smart things companies of all sizes are up to.