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Start Me Up – Marketing in a startup literally very rock ‘n’ roll

Marketing in a startup

This post is by Nicole McInnes – a unique marketing leader, bringing a deep passion for technology and human behaviour to every customer interaction. With 20+ years of marketing and advertising experience, she has lead brands such as Dell, Pandora and eharmony towards transformative growth and financial success.

In a Mick Jagger kinda way, Startups can be very rockstar, even if it is just in the founders’ minds. To be fair it is a select few that have the level of self-belief required to start their own thing from nothing so they can be forgiven for getting a bit over-excited when it takes off.

I’m not a founder but I did the marketing for one. I must have had some idea of the risks as I asked the advice of someone and my self-proclaimed conservative friend surprisingly said to me “Can you go part-time in your corporate role and do the startup job on the side?” I hadn’t ever considered going half in. Now on the other side I wish I had listened… or do I?

Leaving a 400,000 person corporate for a 20 person startup was a bigger decision than I think I realised. In hindsight it was really brave, but as most ‘brave’ people will tell you, if they actually saw the danger they probably wouldn’t be so ‘brave’.

I saw no danger, just a creative and progressive culture, and the opportunity for innovation and growth I’d been missing… oh and less of the most soul-destroying, meaningless wastes of human time I have ever experienced: all day, every day back-to-back corporate meeting. To me it was all rock and not much roll. And although this turned out not to be 100% true, experiencing the two extremes of the corporate world taught me some valuable lessons that made every minute worth it.

Are you Agile™ or agile?

The first thing that you will experience if you work in a startup is everything and anything. If you were a specialist before you automatically become a generalist on day one, and not just in marketing! There are very few processes and resources to rely on, so if you see a gap it is you that has to fill it, and it often has to be done that day.

The great side of this is you can create everything from scratch and do it right without the burden of legacy people or systems to hold you back. You also quickly realise you have ingenuity you didn’t even know existed, because you’ve never had to rely on it so desperately before.

The down side is if you love a rabbit hole you may never see the light of day again or at least a lot less of your loved ones. There is so much to do so you have to be truly fast, I mean agile with a little ‘a’. Creating a prioritisation matrix is paramount, but not on a beautifully post-it noted white board, there’s no time for that, in your brain, (and maybe JIRA) let’s face it, things are changing so fast anyway, by the time you’ve crafted a board you may have changed directions two or three times.

You can’t end up spinning your limited resources on things the company is not yet ready for, or can’t benefit from in the period you spend the time or money. And even though there is a lot not done, you will find yourself incredibly busy and contributing from the moment you walk in. It can be overwhelming but if you love to contribute, are action-oriented and in a bloody big hurry – you will love a Startup.

At the other end of the spectrum big corporate is covered in processes that are unwieldy, endless and full of political trip wires. The legacy approach is often so entrenched even an Agile transformation morphs into a slightly loosened version of the straight jacket that was there before. Rigidity stays but just in the form of following the text book on Agile.

Flexibility is just not something they are comfortable with. It stands to reason though as when you have that many people involved, you do need controls and parameters in place or else chaos will ensue. It is also really hard to change the patterns of decades and decades of “this is the way it’s done” culture.

Unfortunately though it also means that the disruptive ideas necessary for a legacy business to succeed, can rarely surface, and people are distracted by internal minutiae leaving them unable to focus on big strategic outcomes. People are too busy getting in trouble for not emptying their Agile locker or sitting in a hot desk that someone has reserved or using the word “own” in a scrum or sharing their opinion in a meeting with people senior to them.

It is rigid and unwritten, that really the best thing you can do on day one and actually everyday for a lot of months is nothing but observe, build trust with some fairly tricky operators and learn the quirks of what is deemed “right and wrong”.

For those that love just getting on with it, this seems like some kind of water torture, but for those willing to play the long game, who love building relationships and who don’t mind being a niche specialist inside a massive system – this will feel like home for you. And it is extra rewarding when you do get to move the dial because you know the size of the challenges you had to overcome to get there.

Money, money, money

This is often where startups become a little less rock and lot more roll. Funds, investors, debts – all of these things have a huge impact on any marketer joining the business. Not in so much that you will be in investor meetings, you may be, in fact you’ll probably create the deck, but more so in that these three financial things will dictate whether you can actually do your job successfully.

Marketing investment is rarely possible in an early stage startup so look to join when you have assurances from the founders that they have set aside a proper investment into marketing. Marketing in a startup is a growth engine, thus the ill-founded Growth Hacker title making its way out of startups. The problem is what growth hacking implies is that somehow you can magic up demand without much money, because you are some sort of digital guru. In 99% of cases the only path to growth in a consumer-facing startup is a solid couple of million bucks. Preferably five, but you can do a lot with two if you are efficient and clear about what you are not going to do.

Big corporates have more money than they usually know what to do with. But it’s not all high production values, expensive agencies and celebrities. They have the awful reality of still being in the position where they don’t know which 50% of the budget is working.

Their competitive position is so key they can’t risk turning off channels to determine relative ROI, in case they turn the ones off that are working. It’s tough and in a world where startup propaganda is telling c-level and board members in startups and big corporates that all marketing dollars can be accurately attributed, you have your big corporate CMO squarely between a rock and a hard place.

This is where attribution myths that have their beginnings in startups and martech need to be exploded once and for all.

It is easy to attribute in startups because you have the luxury of geo-fencing, turning channels on and off, introducing channels systematically and often you are starting with digital which is much easier to attribute than broadcast. (Notice I used the word “easier” because if you have worked in ecommerce you will know that 60-70% of sales still come from direct and organic non-paid channels, and that is even when you switch on algorithmic attribution models. So we are extrapolating from the minority, even in digital.)

When you do add in broadcast, startups usually can’t afford to have it always on, so you can directionally see the sales impact as you add the new, non-taggable channel in and then compare when it is turned off again.

So next time you look longingly from your measly budget over to someone managing $50-100m, don’t be too envious, you will probably know more about media mix optimisation, growth and moving customers through the funnel to purchase than they ever will be able to see. When you go to the board meeting you’ll have enough numbers that you know are true to keep the most stringent of ROI-obsessive board members satisfied.

Nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide

I love this the most about startups. You have to be prepared to be seen, to be all in and have your sleeves well and truly up. Resources are so tight that you can’t take a little breather, it will be noticed and cause impact. It’s basically like you are in a small band on stage and though you may not be the lead singer, if you stop playing you can clearly hear that something is not right.

I remember one of my ex-boyfriend’s mothers was complaining about the latest symphony orchestra she’d seen (you can see why we broke up) and saying it was now filled with musicians that were pretending to play. When you are in a huge orchestra with multiple musicians for each part you can get away with taking a break and no one but those with the finest of ears will notice you are pretending. It is the same in a big corporate, the contributions of individuals though key and valuable, are usually not integral to the engine continuing to run.

On the plus side, the advantage of being able to take time out is that a big corporate can support a departure from the day-to-day to expand your experience in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a startup. Big corporates are massive supporters of further education, volunteering, giving back, and will often be able to fund or at least part fund further education or an altruistic passion or goal you have.

They are also more and more open to funding wellness programs for employees, so you could have the satisfaction of being the one to lobby the funding of a yoga class or a mediation coach for your team or division.

Same, same but different.

In summary, startups have freedom and innovation but often lack the resources to have it realised to its fullest potential. Corporates have more resources than they need but people can end up actually getting in the way of the change and innovation required to stay relevant.

Startups require action, real agility and high levels of efficiency and accountability to survive. Corporates can often survive, without these best practices in place.

Startups do require a certain type of marketer, one that is willing to learn about things they have never done before, whether that be bringing digital in-house or running your first outdoor campaign. To grow a startup you have to go way out of your comfort zone, as your previous specialisation alone won’t cut it.

Equally you have to be comfortable learning how to ring a courier or order the milk, because there is often no support staff. If growth hacking was a real thing it would be more how to figure out ways to create a campaign without a creative agency on retainer, or ways to buy media directly, rather than magic growth from thin air.

But this doesn’t discount the wholly other set of skills and experiences that are needed to successfully contribute in a large corporate. What may look inefficient on the face of it, maybe a long term play to get something greater approved with a hard-to-convince stakeholder. What may look like a waste of time is the appropriate level of support required to move a large group towards a big change. And what may look hierarchical maybe the necessary levels to ensure the vast amount of work is done on time and to budget as there is little room for error.

In the end marketing in a big corporate and startup are not fundamentally that different, the goal is the same: attract and keep as many customers as possible, paying the most amount, more frequently to you than your competitors. They are just affected by the different dynamics they face, and these dynamics will determine which one is for you.

The startup is definitely a bit more loose with much improv needed, but if you don’t like the risk that comes with that, then the stability and challenge of a corporate may be better. It really depends on whether you draw satisfaction from being a small part in a huge, prestigious, well-known organisation and all the benefits that come from a well-resourced machine, or whether you’d rather be integral to what is an unknown company now with limited resources, that as the marketer you could make famous and eventually big.

Both have challenges and gifts that are worthy of experiencing, if you can do both in your career I’d highly recommend it, as what you’ll learn can be beautifully applied wherever you end up. But whatever you choose, just know the grass is not always greener and we need to share between us to build the best of both worlds, and make sure our businesses, whatever their size, are places people just love to be.

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As creative as she is data-geek, Nicole is a unique marketing leader, bringing a deep passion for technology and human behaviour to every customer interaction. With 20+ years of marketing and advertising experience, she has lead brands such as Dell, Pandora and eharmony towards transformative growth and financial success. Most recently CMO at convergent mobile and media company OVO, Nicole believes amazing growth results come from finding the perfect balance between creativity and commercial acumen applied to both long term brand building and short term digital performance.

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