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There are at least a hundred reasons to quit your day job and start a company.
On one hand, there is the entrepreneurial drive and the need to innovate and build something awesome.
On the other hand, there’s the undeniable fact that startups are sexy (at least this season). They promise freedom from bureaucracy and millions, or better yet billions, of dollars in your bank account.
And although every founder will tell you that the reality of going startup is harsh, many people still fail to recognize this fact.
But even assuming that you’re in for the right reasons, there are still things you need to understand to survive and succeed at building a company.
And this is why I want to share with you four vital lessons that every marketing professional learns after making the startup switch.
Please note that although I do look at this from a marketer’s perspective, you are likely to find these lessons useful if you’re on the tech side as well.
3… 2… 1… Let’s do this!
Lesson 1: You have the freedom to do anything. Use it.
In his bestselling book, Poke The Box, one of the things Seth Godin talks about is the way most great developers learn to code.
Turns out that the best way to learn how to code is… well… to code. Simple as that. Of course, the theory can be really helpful, but the actual learning happens when you put it in practice.
And when you code, things don’t always work. But that’s ok.
The only way to find out if that new function or that CSS style do what they were intended to do is to test them out. So you try; you fail, and then you try again. You try until it works. You “poke the box.”
Unfortunately, a vast majority of marketers (the ones with business degrees like myself) learn their craft differently.
First, you deal with a lot of theory — the Ps, the Cs, and a whole bunch of consumer behaviour insanity, — while the opportunities to “code” some real-life campaigns or strategies are rare.
Then you go into the workplace, but it turns out that the real world isn’t exactly what the school led you to believe. And so you’re told to throw away your rulebook and are given a new one, courtesy of your managers.
As a result, many marketers who have never worked at a startup aren’t used to the freedom this environment offers.
Here’s what you need to learn, understand, and internalize. Your startup is like a blank sheet of paper. There’s no brand yet; there’s no reputation yet; there’s no Wall Street on your back (yet).
There is no rulebook, and you can literally do anything. You can try new things and see what works and what doesn’t but that requires a mindset different from the one you’ve had before.
If it’s your first time marketing a startup, you must embrace a developer’s approach to learning. Targeting TechCrunch for reviews or starting a blog are all fine tactics, but the roads uncharted can also yield fantastic returns.
This is why I urge you to get out of your (infamous) comfort zone and attempt something that hasn’t been done before.
For example, in 2008, Dropbox did something remarkable. It made an exclusive video filled with geeky Easter eggs and carefully posted it on Digg. The video exploded, resulting in idea validation, enormous attention, and 75,000 users overnight.
What really matters, however, is that Dropbox did something new and unique with its marketing. There was no textbook to teach its founders how to do it. They didn’t ask for anyone’s permission. They just did it.
And even if they had failed, there was nothing huge at stake. They could’ve tried again on a different platform or with a different story.
Failing doesn’t equal losing.
Now ask yourself:
What can I try today that hasn’t been done before?
Lesson 2: Writing is your most essential skill. Perfect it.
Whatever your startup is about, writing is now your number one skill. Data analysis, market research and other competencies are great too, and you will get a chance to apply them.
However, without being able to write well and fast, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble, because whatever you work on — content, PR, sales, social media, copy, email — everything comes down to writing.
Leo Widrich of Buffer, for instance, used guest blogging to attract new users and increase public awareness. At one point, this strategy accounted for 70% of Buffer’s daily traffic. And to get such amazing results, Leo “would spend literally all day writing [guest] posts.”
Luckily, this strategy payed off as Buffer has now become one of the top social media tools on the Web.
Don’t worry if you’re not great at writing just yet. You can improve a lot by mastering the following two components: process and practice.
1. Process. Before any musician can start improvising, she learns chords and scales, and other practical theory. Samy applies to writing. Research best practices, discover frameworks that work and learn to apply them to your case.
2. Practice. The more you write, the better you become at it. So establish a routine of writing daily. Set goals and keep pushing harder and harder. On top of all that, read more of both fiction and non-fiction literature.
Trust me, with time you’ll get good. Not “Hemingway kinda good,” but good enough to be dangerous.
Lesson 3: The reports aren’t going anywhere. They’re just evolving.
You may think that once you make the switch, the days of Excel spreadsheets and reporting to management are over.
You’re in for a disappointment.
Sure, you no longer need the bureaucratic delivery, but you have to stay accountable to yourself.
This is why I believe that it’s best to get into a habit of reporting to yourself early. Set up a regular schedule for checking your metrics, taking measurements, and learning from the results of your campaigns.
Once a week should be frequent enough to balance usefulness with a healthy dose of obsessiveness.
Side note: As your company grows, the processes you’ve established will help you stay accountable to the board and your co-founders. Needless to say that the bigger you get, the more structure your reports will require.
Lesson 4: You (still) have to do the things you hate. Get over it.
Even if you are the most niche specialist today, tomorrow you’re going to be a generalist.
Startup founders get to wear many hats, and growth hackers (that is you) often end up having the most versatile “wardrobe.”
Customer support, sales, and even HR could become parts of your day-to-day tasks, which means that you’ll be doing less of what you love, and more of everything else.
It also means that you’ll have to quickly adapt and eliminate your weaknesses.
During my time at HootSuite (back when it was just a 20-people startup), one of the activities I had to perform was media logging.
It was a task that involved visiting dozens of media articles and blog posts that mentioned the product, and adding them to our database after tagging them thoroughly.
As you can imagine, media logging wasn’t a particularly inspiring duty, but it had to be done as a part of our community outreach, PR, and content curation efforts. And so we did it.
When you’re at a startup, you get to drive the bus on a lot of exciting projects. But unfortunately, that bus is also full of boring stuff, and there’s no escaping it.
So be ready to become a master at persevering through the tedious parts of the job.
Music helps, and so does coffee.
But the biggest inspirations are the feeling of ownership and your vision of the future. They, and only they, will be getting you out of the bed each morning.
Have you gone startup after working a regular marketing job? What motivated you? What lessons did you learn? Or are you planning to make the switch? What worries you? What excites you?
Let me know in the comments!
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