I started my marketing career working at global technology companies with very large marketing departments. We consisted of a number of specialized teams, like product marketing, communications and public relations, demand generation, customer relationship management and marketing analytics, each responsible for one part of the marketing value chain.
With so many people and groups to coordinate, there were established and structured processes and communication channels that had been refined over time. These were vital in ensuring that market and customer intelligence flowed into all necessary teams, facilitating consistent branding and messaging, and ensuring that larger integrated campaigns were delivered seamlessly across multiple channels.
Later in my career, I had the opportunity to work at my first startup and I loved the fact that I was marketing in uncharted territory, getting to build brands from scratch and create new marketing programs. I didn’t have the resources that I had before, nor were there the proven processes to rely on, but I had built many important skills that helped me in a startup, including stakeholder communication, marketing operations and project management.
However, the processes, systems and philosophies that had enabled communication and coordination across large groups in bigger companies were not effective in these smaller, newer organizations. Conversely, they would have impeded growth.
Having now spent more than half of my career on the startup marketing side, there are many lessons that I believe corporate marketing can learn from startups.
Agility is at the very core of what it means to be a startup. The need to make sure their brands stand out in a highly competitive environment forces startups to be proactive, flexible and progressive when devising their marketing strategies. With limited resources and so much at stake, quickly reacting to things like changing customer needs, a competitor launch or a new opportunity could create a significant advantage or, more dramatically, keep the company alive. Even though larger companies may develop longer-term strategies and plans, it is important to build in enough flexibility to take advantage of opportunities or adjust to mitigate risks.
The ability to go to market quickly is also another great strength of startups. The speed at which these companies can build and launch not only products but marketing programs and campaigns can be incredibly daunting to larger companies. However, the fact that these are unchartered waters encourages startup employees to test and learn, put things out, quickly garner market feedback and then iterate. While it might not be practical to always move so fast in a larger organization, speeding up certain activities and processes might land you a first-mover advantage or even help you garner stronger customer loyalty, so it’s worth evaluating whether you can streamline established processes with technology, different resources/teams or a new approach.
3. Risk Taking
Startups are faced with so many risks, some controllable and others uncontrollable. This typically makes them more comfortable with taking calculated risks, which can sometimes have huge payoffs. In a larger company, taking risks can be more challenging. There is a lot more at stake, and there may even be risk guidelines or a risk committee. However, we’re all familiar with the phrase “no risk, no reward,” and this is true in marketing as well. Innovation cannot happen without some level of risk, and taking chances with your marketing can help you stand out.
With risks comes the need to be resilient as not all risks will pay off. No one is immune to failure, and startups are no exception, especially with those embracing the “fail fast” attitude that comes with the test and learn approach. However, I’ve noticed that they tend to bounce back fast and usually treat challenges as valuable learning experiences. There will always be obstacles and losses that come up in both larger and smaller marketing teams, and being able to bounce back from things that do not go according to plan, like startups do, can help larger organizations keep going in the face of hardship.
5. A Growth Mindset
Most startups encourage a growth mindset as a part of their culture. This continually pushes their teams to innovate, push through difficult times and find ways to grow. Contrary to those with a fixed mindset, those with a growth mindset embrace challenges, thrive from constructive feedback and like to try new things. They’re optimistic that with smart and hard work, they can achieve anything. Having a growth marketing mindset requires marketers to continually challenge themselves to push their boundaries and test new channels, keep a constant eye out for new opportunities to engage their clients, and not just reiterate programs and strategies that worked last year, but build, improve and innovate.
Over time, many startups will mature and become larger companies that add in the necessary bureaucracy to enable them to run successfully and grow. However, holding on to some of the things that enabled them to grow in the first place can allow them to thrive as larger organizations, and I think corporate marketers can learn from this.