As a marketer, I often wear two hats. Much of what I know about marketing comes from my years spent guiding the digital strategies of the world's largest companies, from both brand and agency perspectives. I've also been incredibly inspired by the startups I've worked with as a co-founder of The Brandery, the first startup accelerator focused on applying principles of brand marketing to startups.
Like similar groups across the country, The Brandery was founded with the goal of helping entrepreneurs turn great ideas into successful startups and find their footing, solidify their brand, and find success when launching in the marketplace. Along with my three co-founders, we introduced the first class of six startups in the fall of 2010 and set them on a 12-week program that included both a structured curriculum and deep expertise and mentorship from industry mentors.
We now select 10 companies annually, who each receive seed funding, mentorship and a partnership with a leading branding agency -- and the opportunity to pitch angel investors and venture capitalists at the end of the program. Since our founding, 26 startups have graduated from The Brandery program (and applications are now open for our next class).
While it's often the success stories you hear most about, I've also seen some promising young entrepreneurs fail. That is part of business, and especially so in the startup world. The bright side is that even those who fail learn valuable lessons along the way -- sometimes even more than the founders who quickly find success.
What can we learn from entrepreneurs and startups? It's more than just taking risks and staying lean to get off the ground. Startups bring passion and determination into every business decision, and that's an approach that can benefit all of us as marketers.
Here, I've distilled my experience in the startup world into 10 tips that every marketer can put into play in their own work to stay inspired and ahead of the competition.
Keep your employees happy
Make smart hires and you can trust your employees to do their best work. Don't micromanage -- instead, promote autonomy. Let employees set their own schedules, work from home when necessary, and set their own deadlines. Online test prep startup Magoosh lets employees work on their own schedule, setting their hours whenever they feel they're the most productive. The only requirement is a 10-minute daily meeting before noon.
Also think about offering perks that speak to who your company is. Clif Bar has a 40-foot bouldering wall and space for yoga. Foursquare offers employees free Rdio accounts, Tumblr hosts gaming and movie-watching nights, and Evenbrite offers in-office massages and yoga classes.
You may not be able to offer these premium extras, but think about how you can create a culture that keeps employees happy and speaks to your organizational mission.
At Rockfish, our employees tell us when they need time off and there's no cap on allotted vacation time. We're hard workers, so we trust our staff to strike that balance. We also feel strongly about recognizing and rewarding our employees, so we developed Rockfish Rewards, an internal online platform that encourages employees to recognize each other with points that can be used for prizes of the employee's choice. We loved the idea so much that we spun it off into its own Rockfish Labs company, YouEarnedIt. The platform is quickly being licensed by organizations across the country that see the value in employee happiness.
Fail fast and fail often
While many brand managers worry about failure of a product or idea, in the startup world, entrepreneurs worry about not failing fast enough. Failing fast means you're making progress. In the breakneck pace of today's business world, speed and fearlessness are no longer optional. For venture capitalists, the thinking is that if you place your bets on 10 startups, one or two will deliver a great return, while three or four will break even and the rest will completely fail. Failure is part of the equation, but it doesn't mean future success is not around the corner.
Act like a founder
You may not be the CEO -- you may not even be the head of your department. But take pride and ownership in your role and bring ideas to the table every day that go beyond fulfilling your job title and benefit the entire organization. Funnel your passion into a sense of ownership. Believe in what you're doing and make sure everyone on your team does too.
Don't just adapt to change -- embrace it
Most great companies were founded on the idea of a major cultural shift -- an idea that changed the way things are done or introduced a much better way of doing things than we were used to. Think of heavyweights like Apple, Amazon, and Starbucks for starters; think of ZocDoc and Instagram on the smaller end of the spectrum.
Someone needs to be the champion of change in your workplace. Think like an entrepreneur and produce, recognize, and encourage groundbreaking ideas to really shift the needle for your brand.
Employ quick development phases
When introducing a new brand to market, a tight deadline can be a great thing. Because startups are lean operations and operate on tight deadlines, they've learned how to capitalize on stress.
We saw first-hand how a looming deadline can inspire creativity, agile development, and innovation when we hosted our first ever Rockfish Hackathon earlier this year. Our teams had 24 hours to ideate and create a minimum viable product (MVP). By focusing on the problem that needs to be solved and quickly developing a product that solves that need, your brand can quickly learn what's working and what's not.
Innovative companies don't wait a year to gather feedback and update their products or mobile offerings; they release new versions weekly and experiment regularly. Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, said it best:
"I believe the new skill in leadership is leadership by experiment…decisions made by having a hypothesis that you then test."
Consumers are voicing their opinions in new and louder ways every day and it's important that marketers figure out new ways to listen and use that data to reiterate again and again, until you get it right.
Scratch your itch
Do what you love; pursue the things you're curious about and bring that passion into your work. And keep learning as you go. Think of this as the Swiss Army Knife approach. Don't view your job as just a title or a rung on the corporate ladder. Learn everything you can about not just your position, but also the roles of the colleagues with whom you interface daily.
Tap into what inspires you. For Jack Dorsey, founder of cultural game-changers Twitter and Square, a childhood obsession with city maps and transit -- coupled with a talent for art and math -- drove his curiosity for how cities worked, and inspired his path into programming.
Encourage employees to learn new skills and rethink responsibilities. If you want to learn a new skill, do it. For example, learning how to code can help you understand how developers and web designers think -- this is knowledge you can then incorporate into your web-based projects.
Tap in to your community
Network with other entrepreneurs, learn from others' mistakes and leverage help when offered. I find inspiration from talking to my colleagues and attending industry events like SxSW and Big Omaha. Participate in your community and learn through participation.
Feel a sense of urgency
Don't put your good ideas on a shelf and wait for a better time to attack. Now is always the best time to run with your good ideas and breathe new life into your brand. Startups don't have time to wait for Q2 or Q3 -- they have to prove themselves at every bump in the road. Bring this urgency into your work and see how it energizes your brand.
Don't accept "good enough"
In the startup world, mediocrity is uncovered quickly. When small teams are hacking away at seemingly insurmountable projects, it's imperative that everyone on the team brings their A-game. Less than stellar performance is obvious in that setting. You want experts in the room with you -- or, at the very least, people who are willing to go the extra mile on every project.
Think of your vendors as partners
The entrepreneurs I know don't talk about vendors -- they talk about their partners. It's not just a question of wording; it's a mindset that speaks to a collaborative spirit.
Anyone you bring into your world as a marketer can potentially drive your business beyond the obvious avenues. See how else you can help them and they may help you in return. Think of your work collaboratively and see how others want to pitch in.
While nothing's certain in the startup world, being an agent of change and staying passionate about your work will always set you apart from the crowd. As you tackle new challenges in 2013, find inspiration in the startup community: Be lean, be quick to innovate, and develop relationships that are mutually beneficial and fulfilling.
Dave Knox is Chief Marketing Officer for Rockfish.
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