Confidence, Conviction, Communication: 3 Ways Startups Can Step Up Their Game

Last month, I wrote an article about what large, established companies could learn from startups--lessons on remaining nimble and creatively driven at any stage or size. As the founder of a branding and design consultancy that works almost exclusively with startups, but also having spent years in advertising working with corporate clients, I've seen both sides. And while there is much that large corporations can take away from startups' approach to innovation and creativity, the same is true in reverse.

While startups are all the rage these days and everyone's turning to them to see how they operate, there's still much to be learned from the more established players--even in the realm of creativity. In fact, whenever one of our startup clients has the good sense to hire someone with a corporate marketing background, I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that certain principles I used to take for granted will once more be put in place. So what are these lessons that are better off learned early? What can startups adopt from their larger, more established counterparts along their journey to (hopefully) one day becoming one?

1. Learn how to give feedback

When I worked in advertising, we used to laugh to ourselves during creative presentations because our clients were so regimented in how they gave feedback. We could always predict the exact order in which they’d speak--starting with something positive (even when we could tell they weren’t happy), following with concerns, ending with a thank-you, always exceedingly polite.

I never thought I'd miss it, but I didn't know how good we had it.

The marketing teams at these large corporations had clearly been trained in how to give feedback to creative teams. And it's training we could all benefit from. Whether internally or externally, there's an art to giving feedback, and it can make all the difference in getting to desired results.

The most simple rule, and the easiest to embrace, is to start by saying something--ANYTHING--positive. It may sound so obvious, but I was amazed when I began working with startups by how many times this didn't happen. And it's not because our startup clients were unappreciative tyrants--it's simply that they hadn't been trained. We're all extremely busy, we're racing the clock, and everyone is under an incredible amount of pressure to make this new business succeed. I can understand that the first instinct is to jump right into what needs to change, what needs to happen next. But starting with the positive isn't about stroking egos or wasting time. It sets a positive tone for the meeting. It acknowledges the incredibly hard work that went into whatever work is in front of you (and I promise you, even if the results aren't there yet, the team worked hard). And most importantly, it puts the whole team in the right frame of mind to hear whatever feedback follows and collaborate toward a solution, because we're all on the same side, working towards the same goal.

There are other tips to giving feedback: speaking in terms of objectives instead of directives, trying whenever possible to avoid mandatories and maintain an open dialogue, occasionally succumbing to pushback and trusting in your team. You shouldn't pretend to be a democracy by letting every single person voice conflicting points of view, when the decision boils down to a couple of key people (this actually does waste time, and it's confusing). But honestly, if you start with something positive, you can get away with pretty much anything else.

2. Stick to your guns

Before I started working with startups, I don't think I had ever heard the word "iterate." Now my partners and I joke about starting a drinking game where we take a shot every time this word comes up in meetings, but I don't want to die of alcohol poisoning.

I kid, and clearly there are many cases when startups' ability to make changes on the fly, to pivot (another startup favorite term), to avoid getting stuck, leads to their incredible success. But there are times when set steps and forced decisions lead to better work. When a large company makes a branding decision, they stick with it (barring disaster scenarios like the Gap logo, but I don't think anyone would argue that was handled well). They stick with their decisions in part because change is expensive to implement at that scale, so once they head in a new direction, that's the path they're on.

Now maybe for a new startup that only exists as a website with a small community of users, the financial burden of swapping out a logo, or a name, or key messaging, is fairly small. But there's another cost, which is your users' ability to understand early on what you stand for, establishing a sense of connection and loyalty. If every time you interacted with a person they had a different look and personality, you'd likely stop trusting them (at best it would just be annoying). Same goes for companies. So yes, by all means iterate--even pivot! But do so from a firmly established foundation of values. Work through a strategic process that establishes the core of who you are and what you stand for, and let that strategy permeate all that you do, even as you shift direction. If you can't pivot within your initial set of values, at a certain point it's time to acknowledge that you're starting a new company.

3. Act big

This one's a little unfair, because big companies ARE big. And with being big comes a certain level of polish, of craft, of confidence. But I say it's never too early to start acting like a category leader. They say dress for the job you want. I say brand for the annual revenue you want. This means not falling into so many of the pitfalls so common among startups. Except in rare cases, I always advise my clients against selecting a name based on a cutesy misspelling, or a totally made-up word with absolutely no meaning, or a URL from some foreign, potentially unstable land (dot-com or go home, people! and no, dot-biz is not okay either). Yes, it's crucial to build a community, and blogging is a key part of that strategy, but let your blog be focused on the product and the category, not which snacks your developers prefer after midnight. And most importantly, don't be afraid to look like an established company. Invest early on in a strong branding system that brings an added layer of consistency and polish to everything from website to presentations to business cards, and everyone from investors to consumers will take your offering that much more seriously. After all, the best brands establish trust and makes someone want to interact before they've even had a chance to.

Maybe none of us in the startup world ever want to be "corporate." But I think we'd all like to be big. And the fastest way to get there is to start playing the part, immediately.

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[Image: Flickr user Hydo Young]

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2 Comments

  • Christine Krason

    Great article !!! I have been a part of several start-ups and the common thread is that they know that they know that they know that this is the path that they HAVE to take - there is no Plan B and failure is not an option! The most successful startups also have a huge element of individual character - they are not "business as usual" and they typically have a very unique culture that shows through in everything they do.

  • mae postcard printing services

    I agree. Whenever we have our business meeting, we try to start with a positive feedback. This is not to impress our client and to earn their approval but because we want to set the tone. No matter how awful a project looks, we make sure we identify the good points. Well, it boosts the team's confidence and it prepares them to listen to the critical comments.