What brands can learn from start-ups

Fast CompanyScreen Shot 2013-06-08 at 2.00.00 AM was kind enough to publish some thoughts I had on how brands can learn from start-ups.

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As a Digital Strategist, I’ve been in plenty of brainstorms and meetings where we talk about how we can co-opt popular digital behaviors and mechanics (check-in, badges etc) introduced by start-ups and digital companies. The cross-pollination of ideas and best practices is exciting and I specifically want to share five things start-ups can teach brands, each other and learn from brands.

Positioning: Couch the offering in familiar frameworks

Building on behaviors: Users find it easier to glom on to existing behaviors (badges, points, etc). If you are building a new digital campaign or creating a new product, think about your audience’s existing behaviors and start from there instead of trying to introduce new habits, and concepts. Both start-ups and brands anchor their products in existing behaviors to help explain what they do.


  1. Kickstarter and donorschoose.org have made everyone an “investor”
  2. Weightwatchers turned the idea of losing weight into a game.
  3. Gilt took an offline sample sale and introduced the flash-sale concept
  4. Foursquare introduced the notion of checking-in.
  5. Learnvest has very cleverly used the gym-membership model to create a paid model for its offering
  6. American Express and Kate Spade are organizing their own flash sales.


The 10-word pitch

If you can’t describe the campaign or your product in ten words or less, go back to the drawing board. What’s your product/ app/ idea’s 5 word pitch? Examples:

  1. Kickstarter = “A new way to fund and follow creativity.”
  2. Skillshare = “Learn Anything. From Anyone. Anywhere.”
  3. Dailyworth = “A community of women who talk money”
  4. Tumblr = “Follow the world’s creators”
  5. Weduary = “Make your own beautiful and social wedding website”

Baked-In Marketing: Start-up’s almost always do not hire marketing folks. They let their product do the marketing.

Activating users to bring in new users: Most successful start-ups bake in audience acquisition levers into their product so that the product self-sustains itself and continues to bring in new customers on its own. How is your product bringing in new customers?

  • Everlane has the BEST acquisition levers I’ve ever seen. Most sample sale sites (Gilt, Rue La La, Ideeli etc) started off by offering monetary incentives – $10 for each friend invited and purchased to lure users to bring in more users. Everlane one-ups the system by creating tiers. 5-invited friend gets the user a discount. 10 friends bring the user a free luxe t-shirt, 50 friends – free shipping for life. This is the only site I’ve ever really invited my friends to. What is your strategy to activating your users into inviting more users?

One-step sign-up processes – again, this is something I’m watching most start-up’s get right from the beginning. Check our Tumblr or even Skillshare for how easy to make sign-up. In fact, Skillshare lets you explore the site’s offering and only requires sign-up’s when you want to follow a class or sign up for a class. Is your marketing campaign simple to participate in?

High Value Content

Creating Engagement: What’s the best piece of content that you can create that will make people want to use and become a part of your product experience?  Examples:

These entertaining content experiences invite press, buzz and expose the companies to new audiences. And the best part? Most of these videos are created for a small, small budget!

Demo/ How to use the product videos/ guides: This simple piece of content is the most overlooked and under-estimated. Demo videos or straightforward and simple keys on how to use the product are crucial in establishing trust, forming habit and encouraging new audiences to give the new product/ site a spin.


MVP Filter

This one is a hard one to explain and show examples for. It is more of a process than a visible, tangible principle but I assure you, every successful start-up is successful because they have nailed this.  This principle asks a start-up to consider, what is the single-most important feature without which this product will not be this product? And that’s feature becomes the immediate priority. Once this is nailed, the communications, messaging and branding for the product becomes simple and straightforward.

This is also the most important principle for a brand to understand. A digital campaign cannot and will not hit all your metrics. One campaign will not drive awareness, trial and then purchase. Those are all different mind-sets and it is unfair to expect one story, one mechanic to achieve all three. Bring in the MVP. In my strategy sessions, this is the one tool I keep bringing in again and again. What is the immediate challenge/ problem we want to solve? If so, these are the type of mechanics that will most likely work and hence, this is the type of digital campaign that should be considered.

(Start-ups apply the minimum-value-product filter which is a prioritization tool to help them triangulate what is the one thing that the product must do/ be)

Community Evangelists

For a lot of start-ups, the world needs to be impressed before the users/ customers are impressed. So the right type of press and “buzz” is essential. Trippy.com built an all-star advisory board (Randi Zuckerberg, Soraya Darabi etc) because these advisors are avid travelers. By getting them to use their site, they’ve tapped into their networks for free! (Plus made them feel important by giving them the epithet of advisers) Who are the influencers in the your sector and what is your plan for attracting them in a manner that makes sense to them and to your brand?

In hiring community managers, brands must put in the same level of rigor and monetary investment that they put for other jobs. A community manager is the most important hire a start-up will make. This person makes in-roads into the community, and their presence brings serendipitous opportunities to the brand.

Results/ Impact

I personally love it when start-ups share their impact/ results. Not quite applicable to every start-up or brand but I’m a huge fan of Fab, Kickstarter and CharityWater and how they share their learning’s and metrics publicly. I think it’s a brilliant way of creating and sustaining interest in the company. (Esp when they use beautiful info-graphics)

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