Startup Marketing and Sales
by April Dunford

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Lousy Marketing Messages: 5 Causes and Solutions


I was chatting with a startup CEO about marketing messages and how important it was to create a great story. His company has an awesome story and even though they only have a junior part-time marketer on staff, their messages are great. “I don’t get it,” he says to me “I see all this lousy messaging out there and yet we manage to do it! What’s wrong with people?”

That got me thinking. Why is there so much bad messaging out there? Here’s what I think:

1/ The Team Stinks at Message Creation - The company has a good story but the team stinks at message creation and can’t translate that story into compelling messages. In my example above, the company happens to have naturally great storytellers on staff so they don’t have this problem. Not every startup is so lucky.

Solution: Hire or rent some marketing talent. If you go with a consultant make sure they come with super references and make sure you stay heavily involved in the process. The output will be better that way and the team will get a better understanding of how to create messages. Caution: keep reading because this might not actually be the problem.

2/ Marketing Doesn’t Get It – The company has a good story but marketing (or whoever is creating the messaging), although great at message creation, lacks the understanding of either the offering or the market to really understand or believe the story. Messages are then created based on this (incomplete or flawed) understanding, resulting in weak messaging.

Solution: Either spend more time with the marketing folk making sure they get it or if that doesn’t work, hire someone with a background in your solutions and your market.

3/ Message by Committee – The company has a good story but everyone (including the IT person, the lawyer, the accountant and the late night pizza delivery guy) is allowed to edit it resulting in a watered-down mess that is a mere shadow of the great story the CEO tells in a sales meeting.

Solution: Let marketing work on drafts and narrow down the reviewers to a couple of folks maximum. In my experience marketing should create the messages with input from the CEO and a review cycle by the head of sales. That’s it.

4/ The Story Sucks – There is no compelling story to tell about the company or product therefore no matter how talented the marketer is, at best you will get mediocre messaging.

Solution: If you have any market traction at all this won’t be the case but some very early stage startups will land here. Usually there’s a story but you will have to talk to a bunch of happy customers to extract it. If there aren’t any happy customers, well, the offering is the problem and all the marketing in the world isn’t going to fix that.

5/ It’s Cultural – In my opinion, truly terrible messaging (from a company that’s not about to die) results from a perfect storm of institutional indifference and lack of marketing talent. First you have (incredibly bad) messaging created by developers, admin staff, indifferent contractors or pizza delivery folk. Next, the company does not believe messaging is important, thus creating the conditions where these lousy messages are allowed to see the light of day. Or maybe the second condition allows the first condition to occur. Chicken meet egg.

Solution: Marketing talent can only take you so far here and in my experience good marketers won’t stay where they aren’t appreciated. If you figure out how to fix this one, short of fixing the culture, I would love to hear about it.

(Side note: I can almost forgive startups for landing in this last state – if none of your founders have a marketing bent you might end up here. Strangely however, I find the worst messaging happens in mid-sized companies that did some great marketing when passionate founders still had a hand in it but later lost their way through a combination of bored/boring management and not being willing/able to pay for and retain decent marketing talent.)

The Ingredients for Great Messages

All of this points the way to how you create great messages. The ingredients are:

  • A great offering
  • A team that gets that message creation is important
  • Someone on the team that’s good at message creation

Marketing talent alone, isn’t going to cut it.


Portrait of a weight loss male with thumb up

Hiring Marketers for Cultural Fit


Culture fit is always a big deal when you’re hiring but it’s particularly important for marketing jobs which are notoriously difficult positions to fill successfully at a startup. Marketers are also really hard to interview – their great communication, interpersonal and sales skills make them potentially full of bullcrap very difficult to read.

I’ve been building a team where culture fit has been one of the biggest challenges. The folks I’m hiring not only need to deal with a TON of ambiguity (and a certain amount of chaos), they also have to be able to deal with a spectrum of language and culture issues in an environment where successful teamwork is critical to the job.

Here are some things I am working into my interview technique to help me asses culture fit that I think would be useful for anyone hiring a marketer at a startup:

  1. Process-related questions – in general I like process-related questions when interviewing marketing folks because anyone can say they did things like “developed and drove programs” but it’s hard to figure out what the person’s exact contribution to the effort was (especially when there was outside help involved). Asking things like “Walk me through the process you used to build that” or “Describe the steps you took to get that project done” are usually good ones to get into the details of someone’s role. They also let you see how a person sees themselves in the context of their own team. Are they working with other folks or just doling out tasks? How are they interacting with their management team? How are they making decisions and moving projects forward?
  2. Have them describe their best and worst jobs – Yeah, it’s a bit of a cliche question but I still like it because of the number of times I get a totally surprising response. Again, pay attention to the people-related stuff. Did they clash with other people on their team? I’m totally sympathetic to folks who have left a job because they didn’t like their direct manager but a repeating pattern of lousy managers makes me worry that the employee is difficult. What were the aspects of the teams and culture at their other jobs that the candidate loved and hated?
  3. Pay attention to the questions that folks ask – Personally I love it when candidates ask a lot of questions about the work and I worry when they ask a lot about the organization structure and/or compensation in early interviews. I find that star employees know that the job is the main thing and compensation and titles are something to sort out after you know the job is a great fit.
  4. Have them talk to lots of people – I think startups are better at this than big companies but sometimes they forget to do it with marketing candidates. Your company culture is the people you work with. If everyone can’t feel good about each other at the end of an interview, they sure won’t at the end of a product launch.
  5. Trust your gut – I have one critical position that’s been open for a while and I’ve interviewed so many candidates that I’m starting to let my guard down on this one. I have had a couple of mediocre candidates slip past the first interview stage because I’m starting to get desperate. The good news is that my team promptly shoots them down but I’ve still wasted everyone’s time with a round of interviews that never should have happened. Interviews are like first dates – everyone is on their best behaviour. If there’s something that rubs you the wrong way in the interview it is almost guaranteed to make you insane 2 months down the road. Always trust your gut if you feel like something doesn’t click.

As I was writing this I was thinking about how both sides (candidate and interviewer) have to be wary of the issue of fit and interestingly I think most of these questions work for both candidates and managers.

What do you think – do you have any interview tips to share?


Back from a Break


About 8 months ago I started a new gig that’s taken up all of my time and attention from a professional standpoint. The company is not a startup but the project does involve launching a set of new products into a space that is new for the company which is why I was brought on board. The organization is also new and from a process and procedures standpoint, so even though the company has been around for while, there is a lot of operational trailblazing going on as well.

My time has been taken up with 4 major activities:

  1. Building out a team of senior level B2B marketing professionals that crosses channel marketing, solutions marketing, marketing communications, analyst relations, competitive intelligence and services marketing.
  2. Working on messaging and positioning
  3. Providing an expert point of view to the broader population of marketing folks at the company who haven’t marketed to enterprises and/or CIO’s previously
  4. Working on a content marketing strategy and plan

I’ve been sitting on a handful of posts wondering if I should change the focus of this blog and in the end I decided not to. I am going to focus on topics I think are relevant to startup marketers, with maybe the occasional big company B2B post thrown in just for laughs. So many of the principles of prepping a marketing and launching a product are the same across big and small companies, I think there is still a lot for me to say (and frankly, I can’t predict what I’ll be working on a year from now).

I am also a bit overwhelmed by the amount of email I’ve gotten in the past couple of months from folks that read this blog and missed it while I was busy doing other things. Thanks so much for your notes (you know who you are) – it’s good to know that when you stop, someone notices.

Stay tuned.

Senior Lady Enjoys Computer

Do Not Build Startup Messages for Your Grandmother


I’ve heard people say that startups should build marketing messages that a grandmother can understand (where “grandmother” is short form for “clueless non-technical person”). There’s some obviously uncool stereotyping going on there (I say that as an engineer old enough to be a granny, albeit only if both I and my fictional offspring had managed to produce kids at a young age, but still) but that’s not the only reason I hate that cliche. I hate it because building messages for a fictional clueless person just doesn’t make any marketing sense, particularly for a startup.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for simplicity and if nothing else, the exercise of “writing for your grandmother” gets you thinking about an audience that might not be as technology-savvy as you are. But at the same time, WHO that audience is matters a lot.

Great messaging starts with a deep understanding of the market you are targeting. A market is defined by a common set of needs primarily, but markets also tend to have a common language, a common level of understanding of a technologies/products/services, and sometimes they have a common set of beliefs, experiences or even iconography. Great messages resonate with target markets when they are built with those commonalities in mind.

Here’s an example. I met the guys from Wave Accounting a couple weeks ago – they are a startup that provides an online accounting solution for small businesses. On their home page is a picture of a shoe box full of receipts (it’s a video but that’s what you see before you hit play) and the following message:

Shoebox accounting stops now.

Spreadsheets and shoeboxes full of receipts are a pain. Wave gets you on top of your accounting, fast and easy, so that you can spend your time on…well…anything other than accounting. And Wave is totally free.

So how do you feel when you look at that page? The answer depends on who you are. I can tell you I’ve run a small business and when I look at that shoebox I feel dread. I hate that frikkin’ shoe box! I’m thinking – Yes, Wave Accounting, solve my horrifying shoebox problem, please!

Do grandmothers get the shoebox creeps? They do if they run a small business. The ones that don’t are likely as ambivalent about that shoebox as neurosurgeons, factory line workers, new reporters, 6 year old boys, and anyone else who doesn’t run a small business. If Wave Accounting tried to message to everyone (or a generic non small business running grandmother) they would get rid of the shoebox, and with it, the magic connection they are making with small business owners on their web site right now.

I know what some of you are going to say next. “That’s fine for those guys but we’re the next YouTube so we HAVE to market to everyone because our market IS everyone!” It’s true that there are products out there that have a user base and a market so broad that they might have to market to pretty much anyone. But that isn’t you. You are a startup trying to get traction. The best way to do that is to focus on the market segments most likely to buy your stuff. At the very early stages you are marketing to early adopters within those segments. Early adopters are by definition not like everyone else! In fact they hate stuff that’s intended for everyone.  You want to construct marketing messages that work for your target segments, not an imaginary grandmother stereotype.

So please, give my granny comrades a break and stay focused on your segment.

Startup Launch Marketing


I think there is a lot of confusion over what the word “launch” means and what marketing things a startup should be doing when they launch.

I don’t believe that demoing at an event like TechCrunch Disrupt is equivalent to a launch. Nor do I believe that a launch ends the moment your product/service is generally available to the public. I’ve done a bunch of launches (5 at startups and 2 new businesses inside a larger company) and I’ve seen a lot of things that worked and didn’t work. In my opinion a launch is a multi-phase event that has distinct phases and there are different things you do at each phase.

I was chatting with a startup founder about this last week and sketched this out. Here’s the picture I came up with:

Note that every stage is inclusive of the previous stage – you continue to do what you were doing pre-release, after you have released, you just add a set of new tactics. The same happens when you move from release to post-release.

Some notes on this:

The idea here was to capture the purely marketing tactics that are executed at different phases of a launch. That doesn’t mean that these are the only things marketing is working on. For example, I would expect marketing to be involved in product development and definition (particularly pre-launch), pricing, channel strategy, etc. That said, I’m sure I’m missing tons of thing that should be on this graphic so please add them in the comments.

I have some big catch-all categories in the graphic such as “outbound lead generation”, and “retention programs” that include multiple tactics (for Outbound that would be things like advertising and tele-prospecting, for retention programs that would include things like User events and rewards programs). Tactics in those categories vary so much from business to business that I thought it made sense to lump them in categories. That doesn’t mean those categories have the same weight as other individual tactics – often they require a huge effort.

There are a bunch of terms on here that might not make sense to people but rather than defining each of them I thought I would just wait and see which ones people don’t understand (sorry, I’m lazy like that). If it’s confusing, ask.

This was inspired in part by Eloqua’s excellent Content Grid which maps content types to a buyer progression. I thought to myself “Hey I should map that for launch marketing activities over the different stages of a launch and make it look way uglier!” and here we are.

I also enjoyed Josh Duncan’s post – A Product Launch is like? that talks about different types of product launches and clearly illustrates the multi-phase nature of a launch.


Why You Can’t Market like Apple (or Why Marketing is Hard)


The reason marketing is equally interesting and frustrating is because you are never exactly sure what will work until you try it (this is particularly true in startup marketing). Contrary to the belief of armchair marketing critics, we can’t simply copy what marketers at Apple or Facebook or Groupon are doing and expect it to work. Heck, we can’t even always repeat OUR OWN successful tactics and be guaranteed good results.

This concept frustrates the hell out of the engineers that I’ve worked with in particular. They want there to be a formula or a textbook that simply tells us what to do and how to do it. Hey, I’m an engineer myself so I understand the desire for a formula but the reason it doesn’t exist is because there are too many variables that impact what works and what doesn’t and many of those are constantly shifting. Some examples:

Markets – Mature vs. new, expanding vs. contracting or consolidating, geographically constrained vs. global, heavily regulated or government subsidized vs. open, big vs. small – markets come in all types. What works when you are selling to banks probably makes absolutely no sense when selling to grandparents, or families or law offices or insurance companies. Except occasionally it does.

Offerings – Marketing tactics for high value items are different for low value deals – smaller deals close faster, are often non-competitive, often only involve a single purchaser, etc. The economics of customer acquisition are obviously different (you can spend $100K closing a multi-million dollar deal. selling a $5 a month subscription, not so much).  The type of product matters too, even between seemingly similar ones such as – feature phones vs. smart phones, an enterprise database vs. a data warehouse, a photo sharing service vs. a video sharing service. They differ in the way you express value to prospects, the needs of customers at different stages of a deal, the importance of partners and channels, and a host of other things. And don’t forget that better products are just plain easier to market period.

Companies – What works for big companies doesn’t always translate to smaller ones and vice versa. An established company can get away with things a new company can’t because of reputation and status. Large companies can sell a vision because prospects believe they will be around in 5 years to execute on it. Big companies can throw dollars at tactics to make them move quickly (I’m doing a series of face to face round tables with CIO’s for a large company that I could never do at a startup for example). On the other hand startups can move exponentially faster on things like content marketing without processes slowing them down. I’ve worked with startups that have launched blogs in a matter of days, where I’ve seen large companies take a week to move a single blog post through their approval process.

Founders/employees – A small company with a famous spokesperson can do things a company with non-famous folk can’t because they come with built-in credibility. A launch event with Steve Jobs just isn’t the same as a launch event with Stephen Elop. It works at startups too – if your founder is Marc Andreessen or Jimmy Wales you can do things that a startup founded by someone like me couldn’t because the world is already paying attention to what they say.

Prospect Behavior – This is the worst one. A spectacularly successful tactic or campaign run for a specific product from a specific company in a specific market may simply cease to work because prospect behavior changes. Banner ads that were novel last year just don’t convert anymore. Events that were crowded are now empty. Your prospects are getting flooded with email and aren’t opening your drip the way they used to. The economy goes soft and customers close their wallets. These are hard to predict (but if you are measuring results you can usually see them coming) and when they happen there’s not much you can do aside from pick up your ball and play somewhere else.

At a conceptual level there are things that are always common to marketing that works (and this is the stuff you read about in the marketing text books): focusing on well-defined customer segments, communicating customer value (vs. feature/function), delivering information that is helpful to prospects, etc. – but these are high-level concepts. The gorey details of HOW you will get that done right now, for this product, in this market, for these customers, is where the marketing magic happens and is a whole lot harder than it looks.

kiss frog

Customer Retention: 7 Ideas for Marketers


As marketers we are often so focused on new customer acquisition that we sometime forget to pay attention to the customers that we already have. That would be a massive mistake.

It costs 6-7 times more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. You are 4 times more likely to close business with an existing customer than you are with a new prospect.

I recently brainstormed with a CEO about programs for their current customers both to improve customer retention as well as to drive new business – here are some of the ideas we came up with:

1/ Give your Newsletter a Kick in the Pants – We all get too much email. Your newsletter is going to have to kick ass just to get folks to open it, let alone take action. What could you give customers that would be so interesting, awesome or remarkable that they’ll say, “Yippie, the newsletter arrived today!” What works for you will depend on your market but I’ve seen good results with sample code, a customer spotlight feature, sharing industry data your customers don’t have access to, interviews with industry experts and video snippets of product managers or support folks sharing their favorite tips and tricks. I’m sure you could come up with a hundred other ideas. If your newsletter doesn’t feel like hard work to create, you could probably do better.

2/ Campaign to your Lost Customers – You are twice as likely to close business with a lost customer than you are with a new prospect. With close rates like that, you should be treating these folks like hot leads. Doing win-loss interviews can help you identify patterns around what went wrong in the first place and get clues as to what to offer them to come back.

3/ Campaign to your Inactive Accounts – These folks are like a loveless marriage – they haven’t divorced you yet but the thrill is gone. Maybe they stopped paying for maintenance during the downturn because of cost-cutting, or needed a feature you didn’t have (or they didn’t know you had), maybe there weren’t enough people signed up at the time to make the service interesting or maybe they were never really “activated” customers in the first place. Similar to a win-loss analysis you’ll want to get on the phone with a bunch of these folks to figure out what the patterns are and how you might get them to, ah, renew their vows with you.

4/ Get Marketing and Customer Service Talking to Each OtherOnly 10% of your unhappy customers will tell you. The others tell their friends. Your communications to your customer base can help keep customers informed and that’s a good reason to get marketing and customer service talking to each other. Marketing can help communicate workarounds for common problems or information about expected fix dates for known issues. And don’t forget to make it easy for people to complain via any of your communications channels (including the marketing ones). The sooner you know, the sooner you can do something about it.

5/ Expand Inside Accounts – Think about ways to expand your reach inside larger accounts if you sell B2B. I once convinced a big retailer that had done a small deal with us to let us do a free coffee and donuts event in their cafeteria that turned into 2 six-figure deals. Don’t be shy about asking your sponsor inside a large account about how you might start a conversation with other groups.

6/ Help Customers Promote Themselves – Smaller companies are looking for ways to promote their products and services and drive links back to their own sites. I once had a Fortune 500 CIO agree to do a video testimonial with me mainly because he was a new CIO and wanted to raise his own personal profile for his next job. I always wonder why companies don’t give more awards to their customers and partners. Everyone loves to get an award no matter who’s giving it out and when they brag about winning the “Excellence in Accounting Software Deployment” award, they’ll likely mention your name too.

7/ Show Them the Love (at least 20% of them anyway) – A few months ago I signed up for a pre-launch list for a new service.  I was asked to Tweet about it as part of the sign-up, which I did.  After the launch I got a form email thanking me for being a top driver of referrals (plus a t-shirt if I sent them my address). A personal email would have made a MUCH bigger impact on me, and how much time would it have taken? I bet I could write 100 of them in a day. I don’t want a t-shirt (side note–if your customers include women, you might want to re-think the whole t-shirt thing), I want to be thanked like a person and not some a faceless “top referrer.” Your business makes 80% of it’s revenue from 20% of your customers. Quit being so lazy – pick up the phone and pucker up.


Apple and oranges

“My Friends” is not a Market Segment


Here’s the scenario. You have a startup that offers a cool new online service. You release it and put the word out to all of your friends. “Hey, do me a favor and please sign up for my new service!” Loads of them do. “Amazing,” you think to yourself, “I’ve got traction!!”

Not so fast bub.

What happens next? You’ve targeted all of the friends you have. Who do you target next? You have no clue because you haven’t focused on a market segment, just a (somewhat) random group of people.

Traction Needs to be Traction in a Market

Not all traction is created equal. In fact, I would argue that you need to have traction in a market segment (or segments) in order for it to be meaningful. And by meaningful I mean the kind of traction that gives you an indication that you can scale and a path to doing that.

What is a Market Segment?

A market segment has 2 key attributes:

Identifiable – I can describe the segment in such a way that it can be specifically targeted. This can be demographics (new mothers under the age of 30 in New York) or role driven (IT managers working at companies with less than 500 employees) or company-oriented (Canadian retail banks with branch offices in different provinces) or even environment driven (companies with large Oracle data warehouses in North America). The more specific this is the easier it is to identify the folks and target them.

Common set of needs – This is the need or problem that your solution solves. Examples would be: a need to share photos with family members; a need to store large amounts of data for analysis as cheaply as possible without investing in training; a need to share data across branch office using the existing bank infrastructure; a need to provide better end user response times so that the sales force can close deals faster and reduce customer wait times. You get the idea.

Coming back to “Your Friends” as a potential segment. They meet the “identifiable” requirement – you know who your friends are. They may even fit into a demographic – 20-something, university educated social media users for example. If I just think about segmentation that way, they would certainly look like a segment.

But unfortunately they are not because of the second requirement. Do they have a common set of needs? You might argue that they do but you certainly won’t know it because you convinced them to sign up for your service. “Doing you a favor” might actually be the need you are meeting and unfortunately they are the only segment in the world with that need. Getting traction in solving the “Doing you a favor” problem does not scale. Once you have signed up as many of your friends as you can, you don’t have any indication of who to target next.

Wait, My Friends Do Have a Common Set of Needs! I’m Good, Right?

What if you could pick a sub-section of your friends that had a common set of needs? Would that be a segment? Now you’re getting warmer.

So you go back to your pals that signed up and asked them – “tell me the truth guys, why did you sign up?” Throw out the ones that said they did it because you asked them to. Then have a conversation with the rest about why they did. What are the patterns? Do those patterns start to look like a segment? For example – your friends with kids signed up because they wanted to do X or your gamer friends thought your product could help them do Y. Then of course you have to go target that segment and see if folks in it that aren’t your friends are willing to sign up too. If they do, chances are you have a market segment you can target. Now you know what to do next. You go out and target more folks in that segment. When you think you’ve tapped that segment out, you target an adjacent segment that is similar.

That’s sort of a B2C example but this applies to B2B in the same way. If you sell a service for IT managers and manage to sign up a couple of IT managers that happen to be your pals, that’s great. But sign up a few that aren’t your pals, and suddenly your business just got a whole lot more real.

The common thread here is that you don’t really know what you have until you move beyond your pals.

Growth moves through segments. You get traction in one segment and then you branch out to adjacent segments. If you don’t target a segment (or worse, decide your segment is “everyone”) you may get traction but you won’t necessarily understand why and you won’t know what to do next.



fighting cat dog

Your Puny Marketing Budget is a Weapon


Did you ever wonder why big companies have such boring marketing? I’ve heard lots of theories about this – they don’t like to take risks, they make decisions by committee and the good ideas get watered down or they do boring marketing because they have always done boring marketing. Having worked in a few big companies I can say I’ve seen all of the above but that isn’t the real reason.

Big companies have boring marketing because their budgets are too big to inspire them to be more creative.

More Isn’t Always More

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with having a big budget and you’d like yours right now thank you very much.  But my experience has been that I’ve done much, much better marketing with almost no budget than I have when I’ve had a massive budget.

Have you ever gotten a big bonus? You’ve seen this happen. For weeks you eat lunch at restaurants and get your coffee at Starbucks. You park in the expensive lot that’s close to work because it’s convenient and buy your friends beer on Friday night. And then slowly your bank balance dwindles down until you’re on your last 200 bucks and suddenly everything changes. You learn how to make a mean pasta salad! You convince your boss there should be free coffee in the office! You notice the two free parking spots on the side street you use for free if you show up at exactly 8:15AM! You discover the dive bar around the corner with the best happy hour in town! You’re getting creative and doing new things in a way your flush-with-cash-post-bonus self never dreamed of.

The Beauty of Constraints

What do we do when there are no constraints? The most easy, obvious, boring thing possible, that’s what. You do what everyone else does because it’s easy and you can afford it. This is a recipe for marketing failure.

I’ve had big marketing budgets and trust me, it’s really hard to motivate people to try new things and be really creative when there are tantalizingly easy options available to you like – hire an agency to do everything or do that thing our competitors are doing or just spend more on customer acquisition.

Taking the money away often takes away all of the really obvious options. And that’s exactly where the magic happens. So we can’t just spend more to acquire new customers. Now what? Well, we could figure out ways to engage them to send more business our way, we could figure out ways to sell more to the customers we have, we could figure out ways to improve our customer retention. There are always a thousand things you can do with a small budget.

Big budgets make us lazy. You’ll start hearing things like: But we have the budget to just keep doing ads, why should we mess with that? We don’t own customer retention. It’s too hard to get customers to refer us and we’ve never successfully done it before. Give a marketing group a budget that’s too big and you’ll here a chorus of lame excuses.

So here’s my advice. Embrace your puny marketing budget. Use it like a weapon against the bloated, ineffective, unremarkable marketing of your competitors. Trust me, they’ll never know what hit them.

Democrat vs. Republican on white

Politics in Startups vs. Big Companies


I’ve heard folks say they like startups better than big companies because there are no politics at startups. When people that tell me that there aren’t any politics at their company (regardless of the size) I think they are either:

  1. New employees that are still in the honeymoon phase of their job where everything looks like a rainbow-covered unicorn
  2. Lying
  3. The source of all politics at the company (sometimes known as “the founder”)

In my experience both environments have lots of corporate politics, but the 2 political landscapes look very different.

I define politics as activities that people engage in at work for their own personal gain rather than to achieve a specific business goal. This can range from telling your boss you like her horrible new shoes hoping she will give you a raise, to sabotaging a coworker with the hopes that he will get fired and you can be his replacement. Even flat organizations have folks with more power than others (meaning people who make decisions about hiring, firing and compensation) and both the powerful and non-powerful people will sometimes make decisions based on factors other than the good of the company. They are human beings after all.

Big Company Politics

At one large company I worked at, a very talented co-worker had her career as an executive derailed when she was passed over for a promotion (in that particular company, those passed over once were never promoted again). Her downfall was the result of a competition between two executives 3 levels above her. I learned that my success in part depended on my perceived alignment with people many levels above me and I needed to manage that perception to get promoted. In large companies, keeping track of who has power over what and whom consumes a good deal of employee energy. The term “matrixed organization” was invented to describe this.

Small Company Politics

Similarly at a startup I worked at I saw a talented, much loved co-worker get fired when the founder felt his authority was being challenged during a disagreement about the strategy. Everyone who worked there learned a lesson – don’t challenge the founder or you might get fired.

At small companies there are usually a handful of people who control/influence hiring, firing, promotions and compensation and they sometimes have weird and wonderful personal agendas or hot buttons. A mentor of mine who worked for a series of very successful yet volatile founders once described succeeding in a startup as “learning how to take a punch in the face.” I disagree with that as a general rule but that said, I’ve ducked a few punches.  And just because you’re the founder don’t think you get off easy. Outside investors are human too and I’ve seen founders pushed out for purely political reasons.

Big vs. Small: the Politics are Different (but Both can be Deadly)

At big companies the politics may seem more daunting because it’s harder to figure out who has power and what you might do to influence it. In startups it’s usually not too hard to figure out who the people are and what their hot buttons might be. Both require a certain amount of political savvy to be successful and in both environments you will at some point be required to do things that are not specifically for the good of the company but very much for the good of your career.

There are many good reasons to join a startup and an equal number of good reasons to join a large company. You might decide you’re better at one style of politics than you are at another. Just don’t tell me there are no politics at a startup. There are, and the outcomes can be just as deadly as they are in a big company.

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