How To Solve Big Marketing Problems By Thinking Like A Startup

You could probably name off a bajillion marketing problems in five minutes if I let you.

The thing is, you can solve a lot of those problems by thinking a little more like a startup and a lot less like a corporate company.

Trust me on this.

It’s been a year and a half now since I became employee #5 at a then-one-year-old startup called CoSchedule. Before that, I was one of 2,000+ employees in a corporate company.

Talk about a change of pace.

What I used to do in seven months in a corporate marketing team, I was now doing in three days. Literally.

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Looking back has been super eye-opening. And that curiosity got me thinking:

How is it possible that a startup with way less resources can create effective content more efficiently than a corporate company with seemingly endless resources?

Answering that question led me to analyze some of the biggest marketing problems behind prioritizing work, managing projects, and hitting deadlines.

So here are the biggest truths corporate marketing teams could learn from a marketer in a startup to:

  • Empower every member of your marketing team to become a rock star.
  • Create content better and faster than ever before.
  • Foster a disruptive culture that publishes consistently and free of office bureaucracy.

It’s going to get deep here.

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Problem #1: “You Need A Documented Marketing Strategy Before You Start”

The thing that sucks right now: Without publishing any content in the first place, that documented strategy of yours is just a big huge guess.

That’s a lot of effort you put into an internal document that doesn’t directly reach your audience. And that means there’s absolutely no payout from it right now. :/

The startup solution: Start with clearly defined goal and a minimum viable plan. Give your team a purpose and let them loose.

Here’s something for you to chew on: Some people have a vested interest in selling you on all the reasons why you need a documented strategy. That’s because that is the service they sell you through content marketing.

Marketing plans are a nice way to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something without actually showing your audience the value. There’s no way to literally know if the strategy in your plan will be successful or not.

The truth is that you need to publish, analyze your success, and learn from your mistakes and successes to improve.

Quote from Seth Godin's "Poke The Box"

In Poke The Box, Seth Godin advocates this idea by writing:

If you don’t ship, you actually haven’t started anything at all. At some point, your work has to intersect with the market. At some point, you need feedback as to whether or not it worked. Otherwise, it’s merely a hobby.

In reality, you can start now by simply defining your goal—the purpose—of what you’d like to accomplish with content marketing.

Then you can simply brainstorm the ways you could accomplish that goal, prioritize your project list, understand how you’ll measure success, and start creating content.

Quote from CoSchedule co-founder Garrett Moon

Our co-founder, Garrett, constantly reminds all of us at CoSchedule that:

The simplest approach is often the best place to start.

So this isn’t about creating content without strategy. It’s that your strategy can be as simple as focusing on inbound traffic to start because you can’t convert readers who don’t exist.

You can use survey data or blog comments to understand your audience without writing formal personas.

You can prioritize your projects using an Evernote note and a few bullet points instead of investing in a professionally-designed strategic document that essentially carves your project roadmap into stone without wiggle room to analyze what works and what doesn’t.

You can improve your strategy as you analyze the results from the content you publish.

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From there, look at your content’s success or failure, learn from the data, and iterate.

This concept is an applied theory from Eric Ries, who wrote The Lean Startup. In that book, Eric mentions that startups can move faster with a simple, iterative process that helps your customers participate in building your product or service.

It looks a bit like this:

Minimize the total time through the loop.

When you apply that concept to managing your marketing, it looks a bit like this:

Lean Startup Loop for Content Marketing flow chart

Focus on publishing content and iterating on what you know really works. The best time to start is now.

Problem #2: Prevent Fires Instead Of Putting Them Out

The thing that sucks right now: You feel like you need to take on every project you get asked to help out with. It’s tough to say no to one-off projects when you’re seen as a service center instead of a strategic part of your company’s growth.

In other words, you can’t complete strategic projects because emergencies consume your work week.

The startup solution: Rock an agile scrum and sprint process that prevents your team from being pulled off of your strategic projects because of someone else’s lack of planning.

Startups are known for being disruptive. One of the ways they make sure they’ll ship on time is by following agile processes that keep them 100% focused on projects that will make a measurable difference.

Prioritize Your Most Important Work With A Sprint Planning Process

This process is often sprint planning combined with daily scrum meetings. And you can apply this same approach to your marketing:

  1. A scrum master, most likely you, assigns the team the complete list of projects they’ll take on in a certain period of time. That’s usually the next two weeks.
  2. The team works together to agree on what projects will get done, when they’ll be done, and how much effort it will take. Once the team commits to the projects and deadlines, they will ship on time no matter what.
  3. When other hot projects come up, only the scrum master has the ability to stop or change projects in mid-sprint. That means that no one—not even your CEO—can steal time or take your team off the current sprint.

That means your team stays focused while you plan the new requests into upcoming sprints. That helps everyone focus on the right projects and gives you time to strategically determine which new projects to take on before you jump into executing.

There’s a saying I’ve seen around that goes something like this:

Your lack of planning doesn’t mean an emergency for me.

Plan your work. Work your plan. Avoid the fire drills.

Problem #3: “But That Would Never Work Around Here” And “Projects Get Thrashed The Day Before Launch”

Here’s a two-in-one for ya:

The thing that sucks right now: You just read through the solution to problem #2 and you thought to yourself, “Yeah, right! If I told our CEO that I wasn’t going to complete her project first thing, she’d be pissed.”

So the real problem is that you haven’t gotten approval to manage your team your way without exceptions.

The startup solution: Thrash your projects before you create them. Then get your sign-off—in writing if you have to—that you’ll ship your way and on your deadline.

Seth Godin has worked with huge corporate companies and came across this problem a lot in his early professional life. His solution?

  1. Define the day you’ll ship. You’ll publish on this day no matter what happens.
  2. Write down every single idea that could possibly funnel into your project. Get anyone involved who wants to be. Seth says, “This is their big chance.”
  3. Thrash and dream. Seth says, “People focus on emergencies, not urgencies, and getting yourself (and them) to stop working on tomorrow’s deadline and pitch in now isn’t easy.” Help your team decide what they’ll create in the time frame available.
  4. Enter all of your ideas into a database. Then let everyone thrash your project before you even begin. Seth says, “Make sure everyone understands that this is the very last chance they have to make the project better.”
  5. Create a blueprint of all the remaining ideas that will funnel into your project.
  6. Show the blueprint to the big wigs and ask, “‘If I deliver what you approved, on budget and on time, will you ship it?'”
  7. Don’t move forward until you get your yes.
  8. Once you get your yes, build your project your way and ship on time.

This process, as Seth outlines in Linch Pin, works well for both laying out how you want to manage your team (with sprints and the agile scrum process) and for managing single projects.

Get approval—even if you have to get something signed—then build.

In their book, Sprint, Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz explain that getting approval to create projects that are on point from the start and end with a thrash-free process begin with approval from a Decider.

In this context, the Decider is someone who has the potential to call shenanigans at the end of a project.

So Jake and Co. went so far as to get written confirmation that their project would ship on time:

In one sprint, the CEO send the design director an email that read, “I hereby grant you all decision-making authority for this project.” Absurd? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. This official power transfer added tremendous clarity…

While the process that Seth follows and the special design sprints that Jake and his team run are dramatically different, they have one thing in common: Get approval, then work. Ship on time, every time.

Problem #4. Your Team Isn’t Focused On The Projects That Produce Repeatable, Measurable Results

The thing that sucks right now: You have so many things you could do, you have no idea how to prioritize them. To top it off, you have goals—like selling more—but you have no idea what specific projects are producing the best results and which ones you should stop doing.

The startup solution: Concentrate 100% of your resources on your 10x growth projects and nothing else.

I had the opportunity to listen to a chief financial officer speak about setting goals. This guy talked about knowing your number, essentially saying:

Everyone on your team should know your goals and how they contribute to them. The only department excluded from this is marketing.

I remember getting super amped about becoming a data-driven marketer, and then being super disappointed by his last sentence. I even argued with the guy about it after he spoke!

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The truth is, marketing can and should be very data driven. And every project should be measured against a clearly defined goal or you shouldn’t do it.

The first step is assessing what your gut is telling you is working, and understanding what’s just a bunch of busywork.

Create A List Of All The Projects You Do On A Regular Basis

Create a list of all the projects you do on a regular basis, then ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. Is this on my to-do list simply because I’ve always done it?
  2. What would happen if I stopped doing this project?

From here, determine which projects are generating the biggest results toward your goals and replicate their success.

Set up and track your goals for every project you take on with a tool like Google Analytics. Then simply stop doing the projects that are dead ends.

Problem #5: Your Content Approval Process Needs An Approval Process

The thing that sucks right now: The content you publish on a regular basis takes forever to finalize because you have too many people involved in your process.

The startup solution: Give total publishing authority to your editor. Take everyone involved in an “approval process” out of your workflow.

I’ve been loving a post from Jay Acunzo ever since he published last year. Jay used to work at Google where he saw a pod structure applied to the sales team, and he wrote about applying that same idea to a content marketing team.

Here’s a very memorable quote:

…team be huge, team be slow, team is gonna totally blow.

Strategist, Producer, and Marketer

So Jay advocates removing any unnecessary people from your process and focusing on three key roles:

  1. Strategist: You, the person who has the vision, knows what to measure and how to do it, and plans the sprints your team will take on.
  2. Producer: The creative folks who actually make your content a reality. They turn strategy into assets.
  3. Marketer: The person who shares your content with the world.

While you might have a few producers (let’s say a writer, designer, or videographer), you’ll notice that Google doesn’t focus on an approval person. The strategist—or editor—takes on that role by analyzing what works and what doesn’t.

Approval processes slow you down, make you miss your deadlines, and create a negative culture that feels like, “They don’t trust me.”

Use the steps from problem #3 to give yourself 100% control over what you create. Publish now, apologize later.

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Empower your team to lead, make mistakes, fail fast, learn often, and repeat. Shooting for perfection is imperfect.

Problem #6: Foster A Disruptive, Creative Culture

The thing that sucks right now: Your company expects creatives to maintain status quo, work in a drab office, and show up from 8–5.

Since you’re a creative reading about marketing problems, you probably don’t want to be doing whatever you should be doing right now…. so does being physically present in an office from 8–5 really make you more productive?

The startup solution: Value diverse experiences and working styles. Look for team members who have more ambition than you. Don’t track vacation time. Don’t demand that your team be omnipresent from 8–5 in the office.

Jason Fried gave one of the most popular TED Talks of all time:

You know what Jason found? Being present in an office does not necessarily equate to being productive.

Go figure.

Instead, look to build a team of people who have never fit in anywhere else. Find the misfits who just may work well together. They’ll be the ones who challenge the status quo to create something you never thought was possible.

Here's to the crazy ones ...

So your designer wants to work from a coffee shop once in a while. Great.

Your marketer needs to work from home because day care fell through. Fine.

4 p.m. on Friday rolls around and the team wants to share a beer together. Excellent. That’s actually been proven to increase creativity, by the way.

Quit thinking there’s a difference between work life and personal life. It’s just one. And you choose to do what you do every day.

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Foster an environment that your team will love to come back to every morning. Respect their opinions and let them complete their work the way that works best for them.

After all, does it matter how things get done as long as you reach your goals together?

What Are Your Marketing Problems?

These were some of the marketing problems I’ve experienced in the past and the ways I’ve overcome them since joining CoSchedule.

I’d love to hear more about the challenges you’re facing and your plans to resolve them.

Let me know in the comments!

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