Want to Be A Better Marketer? Act Like A Startup Founder


Let’s talk marketing gurus. Name all the ones you know.

Seth Godin’s probably on that list, plus Gary Vaynerchuk and Guy Kawasaki. Add in Jay Conrad Levinson, Martin Lindstrom, a dead copywriter or two, and then you’re all set.

Now that you remember those gurus, forget them.

Forget Permission Marketing, Influence, Buy-ology, Guerrilla Marketing, whatever.

Forget everything but one name: Paul Graham.

(You’ll meet many other people in this article, but focus on him for now.)

Anyway – Paul is one of the people behind Y Combinator, an incubator which has funded companies like Airbnb, Dropbox and Stripe. Ask anyone who pays attention to the startup space, and they’ll know who the man is.

“But I’m a marketer,” you say. “Startups? Not my shtick. I don’t give a crap about Paul.”

Well, you should. Because here’s my claim – if you want to be a better marketer, you better act like a startup founder. And not just any type of founder, but the best kind.

And if there’s anyone who knows good founders, it’s Paul Graham.

On his website, he even has a post on it, called What We Look For in Founders.

That post lists qualities necessary to founder success. I’m transplanting that today.

In this post, I’ll show you what those success qualities are, and how to make sure you apply them in your work. We’ll also visit the stories of real startup founders, and apply that to marketing. Don’t you worry. Plenty of examples here.

Anyway, you ready? Down the rabbit hole we go.

1. Determination

As long as you’re over a certain threshold of intelligence, what matters most is determination. You’re going to hit a lot of obstacles. You can’t be the sort of person who gets demoralized easily. – Paul Graham

If his advice sounds familiar, it should be. Marketers are a lot like startup founders.

They’re intelligent people.

(Can you say Seth Godin isn’t? Guy’s got like, more than ten books to his name.)

But as Paul says, over a certain intelligence threshold, it’s determination that matters.

So let me ask you – what’s your definition of determined?

Are you determined if you pitch to five blogs, and give up when the five don’t respond? Is determination writing ten blog posts, not seeing comments, then deciding that blogging is a waste of time? Is it signing up to Twitter, and then giving up, because you’re not getting followers?

Is that how you see it? Because if it is, I’m sorry. You’ve been wrong all this time.

Determination isn’t pitching to four or five blogs, and then giving up when those don’t reply. It’s pitching to 20 for one post acceptance if it comes down to it. It’s writing content for years, like Ramit Sethi has done since 2004.

(Check it, it’s 2014. That’s ten years of writing. Ten years! Let that sink in.)

Still not convinced? Look at these stories from 18 different founders.

Pay special attention to the Productive Web Apps story:

We didn’t market the product well and ended up paying a fortune for too much advertising that never turned into sales. We’d spend hours choosing certain colors for a banner and focusing on tiny details which in the end made little difference. On our very first sale we had the wrong price listed on our site by accident, which meant we had to charge them at 60% off. – Scott Purcell, Founder

Imagine if he’d given up after all the mistakes – failed advertising, wrong price listings, doing things that resulted in nothing, etc. He could have given up. But he didn’t.

That choice not to let go is determination in action.

So, as a marketer, take a page from Paul Graham, Scott Purcell, and Ramit Sethi.

If your idea is sound, you’ve done testing, and you’re making progress, don’t give up.

2. Flexibility

The best metaphor for the combination of determination and flexibility you need is a running back. He’s determined to get downfield, but at any given moment he may need to go sideways or even backwards to get there. – Paul Graham

Probably the best word to pair with this idea is “pivot.”

The Financial Times Lexicon defines pivot as “the path most startups go through to find the right value proposition, the right customer, and the right positioning.”

Lean Startup‘s Eric Ries reminds us that pivots imply keeping one foot in place as you shift the other in a new direction. Put simply, pivots are examples of flexibility.

That said, let’s apply it to marketing.

Say you’re testing out new methods of advertising.

You try physical flyers and Google ads at first, but they don’t work. Your ROI is nonexistent – you’re actually losing money. For the first month of loss, you decide to try for 60 more days, just to be sure. Ninety days in, it’s clear that it’s hopeless.

Your ROI remains at “nada.”

In this kind of situation, it isn’t determination you need.

No matter how determined you are, if you lose money month per month, you need to consider a new direction. Recall what I said earlier: only use determination when the idea is sound, you’ve tested it with the market, and you’re making forward progress.

If you’re going backwards, time to pivot.

If Google ads don’t work, try Facebook advertising. Try reaching out to blogs, or reaching out to your network first, before putting up cold ads on the web. If you boil this down to a single sentence, it’s this: do what works, discard what doesn’t, and pivot if you need to. You’re a marketer, not a captain. You don’t have to go down with the ship.

Need more examples? Copy Cue’s founder, Daniel Gross.

According to the founders post on Paul Graham’s site, Daniel first applied to Y Combinator with an e-commerce idea. They said they would fund him if he did something different. So Daniel cycled through 2 more ideas before settling on Greplin, which became Cue. In the words of Paul Graham, “He [Daniel] always seems to land on his feet.”

Do you get what I mean now? If the first idea or approach doesn’t work, change things.

Want yet another example? Study Groupon’s pivots via this FastCompany article.

Before it was ever a deals site, its history began as a social advocacy company, called The Point. When the founder, Andrew Mason, realized that his business model wasn’t working, he turned things around, and Groupon was born.

A pivot if there ever was one.

Now, just to imprint it on your brain, say it with me: if your strategy is making forward progress, the market is showing interest, and yet the world is going against you, use determination. But when it’s clear that the target market doesn’t care, pivot.

Be flexible like a piece of bamboo.

3. Imagination

Intelligence does matter a lot of course. It seems like the type that matters most is imagination. It’s not so important to be able to solve predefined problems quickly as to be able to come up with surprising new ideas. In the startup world, most good ideas seem bad initially. If they were obviously good, someone would already be doing them. So you need the kind of intelligence that produces ideas with just the right level of craziness. – Paul Graham

Imagination. This is going to be the hardest quality to pin down concretely.

Let’s see. Paul Graham defines it as the ability to “come up with surprising new ideas.”

One example he points to, as proof of imagination, is Airbnb.

According to him, “When we funded Airbnb, we thought it was too crazy. We couldn’t believe large numbers of people would want to stay in other people’s places. We funded them because we liked the founders so much.”

If you dissect that account, let me point out one key thing. The Airbnb idea was thought crazy, but it was funded anyway on the strength of the people behind it.

(Of course, it turned out just the right kind of crazy. Airbnb’s valuation now nears $10B.)

What does this tell you about imagination?

It tells you that imagination matters, when it comes from the right person.

Look at Airbnb. They were funded because Y Combinator liked the founders. So there must have been something in, or brought by those founders worth banking on, their crazy idea aside.

Translating that to other people, if a less intelligent (or whatever other good quality) person had pitched the idea of Airbnb, it might have been deemed a crazy idea from a person equally as crazy. Then, it might not have been funded at all.

Goodbye, $10B valuation.

So the lesson I see is this – have something else to back your imagination.

If the idea is deemed crazy in any way, have something that says, “Yeah, it’s kinda out there. But so-and-so quality or so-and-so data mitigates the craziness. It’s out left field, but there are precedents/research that give this some mettle.”

Want an example? Take the Germanwings Planemob marketing campaign.

Passengers were planted by Germanwings into a Ryanair flight, back in April of 2010.

As others in the flight started settling in, the planted passengers started holding up cardboard signs that read, “I hate this ‘choose-your-seat thing” and “Look out the window, at least that’s free.” (In response to Ryanair restroom charges.)

This whole campaign was capped by a final planted passenger, holding up a sign that said, “Next time, let’s just fly Germanwings.”

Now, if somebody had randomly got up, went to the marketing folks at Germanwings and said “Hey, let’s basically hijack a Ryanair flight, hold up mocking signs, and have it all recorded”, how on Earth would that’ve sound?

I’ll tell you how it would’ve sounded. It would’ve sounded cuckoo.

But to mitigate the novelty and craziness of the idea, precedents probably helped. After all, what is the Germanwings campaign, if not just a flash mob that happened in the air?

(And if it’s a flash mob you’re talking about, here are 7 of the best, with views ranging well into the 20-million mark. If that’s not virality, how do you even define virality?)

Anyway, my point is this: success in marketing will rely a lot on imagination.

Campaigns like Planemob, and the success of ideas like Airbnb, show you that surprising ideas can be at the root of massive successes. The key is to allow yourself to imagine in the first place. Without it, you’re selling yourself short.

And again, remember – if you’re going to be crazy, try to be crazy with something to back you.

If you can find a precedent to take away some of the sting, all the better. And as the flash mob idea shows you, it’s good to look at what other people have done, and connect the dots as to how you can apply that to your own marketing efforts.

4. Naughtiness

Though the most successful founders are usually good people, they tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye. They’re not Goody Two-Shoes type good. Morally, they care about getting the big questions right, but not about observing proprieties. That’s why I’d use the word naughty rather than evil. They delight in breaking rules, but not rules that matter. – Paul Graham

Okay, let’s be clear here. You need to pay really close attention to the last parts of that paragraph. As a marketer, you can break some rules, but there are things that can’t be tampered with. (Case in point, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Don’t even try to skirt it.)

Having established that, what does naughtiness mean in marketing?

To me, it means staying inside the uncrossable lines, but then playing with all the others.

And if you’re asking me, nothing quite exemplifies naughty marketing like AppSumo.

Why does it exemplify naughty marketing?

Well, just look at this sales page for their Kopywriting Kourse.

It’s freakishly informal, with words like ‘monaaayy’ and ‘fat-ass’ and liberal misspellings of words. (Just look at what it’s called – Kopywriting Kourse.)

They also have a section there, asking a big question for all business owners with their copy: WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU WRITE LIKE THAT? (Good question, too. I’m looking at you, stuffy bank websites!)

Anyhow – if you show pages like AppSumo’s to business folks, it isn’t what they’re used to.

I mean, we all want to be professional, right? We all want to be credible? So we think, “I won’t spell money as monaaayy. No way. I’m not high.”

And what do we do instead? We stick to our old marketing rules, about being credible-looking, about impressing our prospects, and things like that. We recall how we were taught to write in English 101, and then use that for web copy.

We remember the ‘rules’ of everything, from social, to email, to content marketing.

But as this article proves with content marketing, this article does with email marketing, and this one does for social marketing, most of what we hold as sacred is breakable.

Most of the supposed rules are just guidelines you can bend.

AppSumo’s funky sales pages are proof that marketing rules are breakable.

For example, I’m sure your English teacher taught you not to use conjunctions at the beginnings of your sentences, and not to use prepositions at the end.

But hey, I started this sentence with a conjunction.

I just broke a rule! Will the marketing gods smite me? Uh, no they won’t.

My point is this – most of what you think is sacred, actually isn’t.

Many marketing rules can be broken, and broken to success. (Check out the preceding links I put in for proof.) So you need to be a bit naughty. Most rules are negotiable.

As long as you know what lines can’t be crossed, go play with the other lines in the sand.

PS. Wondering what uncrossable lines I’m talking about? See this list of offensive ads you shouldn’t mimic, no matter what. And also, CAN-SPAM. Again, don’t jerk that around.

5. Friendship

Empirically it seems to be hard to start a startup with just one founder. Most of the big successes have two or three. And the relationship between the founders has to be strong. – Paul Graham

To prove this point, think of startups that have made it big: Dropbox had two founders, and Airbnb had three founders. And lest you forget, Facebook was a startup once, too.

With 5 on the founding team, no less.

Mark Zuckerberg certainly didn’t go at it alone. Zuck had Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Andrew McCollum with him.

As you can see, the data proves Paul Graham’s point when it comes to startups. The road to success is indeed easier to pave, when other people are laying bricks, too.

But what about marketing? Is collaboration needed?

The answer is yes.

Just look at the GEICO ad campaigns, or the Dove Real Beauty campaign, which was named one of 2013’s most unforgettable. Even assuming that the campaigns were the brainchild of one person, the ads were still ultimately executed by an agency.

(The Martin Agency for most of GEICO’s ads, and then Ogilvy and Mather for the Dove campaign.)

This proves that marketing, especially on a large scale, needs the effort of more than one person. Even the emphasis on guest blogging proves that relationships matter, when it comes to making marketing succeed.

So if you’re considering going at it alone, you might want to pivot. (See what I did there?)

If you’re a copywriter who’s good with words but not with design, partner up with a graphics pro. If you’re good at design but you suck at writing, find a scribe to link up with. The talents of one are less than the talents of a pair, or a group.

Remember, you are not alone. And you certainly don’t have to be.

Want an example of this team-up approach?

There’s Corbett Barr and Chase Reeves, who united writing with design. And there’s basically every guest blogger out there, who hooked up with another blogger to increase the reach of their content.

These are just two of the examples of friendship in marketing.

To a large extent, like the other qualities mentioned in this post, friendship constitutes common sense. If you can knock two heads together, why persist with one, right?


I made a claim earlier, didn’t I?

I said, if you want to be a better marketer, act like a startup founder.

So again, for emphasis: be determined, be flexible, imagine what could happen, be a little naughty, and remember to make friends. Keep those points in mind, and you’re set.

Actually, wait. No, you’re not set. You’re not set, because info is only half the battle.

The actual wins will come from taking action. I mean, sure. You could end your journey here, with this conclusion, and then do nothing. Or, you could study everything I just gave you, and then make something of yourself.

(Just in case you’re wondering – I’m pushing you to Option 2.)

Act on what I’ve taught. Don’t just sit around. Because if you choose to just sit around, no amount of principles, examples, or stories will ever make you any progress.

Want to show me that you aren’t lazy? That you can actually take action?

Here’s what you do: pick one of the five qualities, and tell me how you’re going to take them for a spin with your own work as a marketer. If a certain point I made trips you up, comment too. We’ll knock heads and I’ll help you.

Ready? Go.

Disclaimer: As with any digital marketing campaign, your individual results may vary.