5 Things the Corporate World Could Learn By Joining a Startup

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After many years at marketers such as Heineken and Weight Watchers, Lesya Lysyj began working in startup land. Here are the Cliffs Notes on what she learned.
After many years at marketers such as Heineken and Weight Watchers, Lesya Lysyj began working in startup land. Here are the Cliffs Notes on what she learned. Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

After many years in the corporate world, a year ago I started working in startup land. By the end of my first day, I had a bunch of suggestions to offer that I thought were no brainers. But, to make it look good, I resolved to just wait until it seemed like I had spent enough time listening (I thought maybe a few days would do it) and then impart my tremendous wisdom.

And then something strange happened: I started to watch how things were done, and almost every one of my recommendations was rendered obsolete. And I was faced with this chilling doubt: What am I going to tell them that will actually help them? It was like jumping from a cruise liner to a pirate ship with my "How to Lower a Life Boat" manual. Kind of useless.

In the end, of course, there are lots of things that we so-called classic marketers can do to be helpful to start ups. But after all is said and done, I think I am getting the better end of this deal. I call it my Startup MBA. And here are the Cliffs Notes:

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

Be Paranoid
This is a trait I found sorely lacking in my old world, but which is front and center all the time in the startup land. You are paranoid about your competitive space changing, of new business models disrupting you, of your competitors copying you, of people encroaching on your space. Kenny Dichter, founder of Marquis Jet and Wheels Up and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the aviation space is thinking about self flying planes and whether that could disrupt him.

So what's keeping you up in your space? Is it all the ways your business can or is being disrupted? Or is it things like the upcoming senior management presentation and performance evaluation due date?

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

Live like a millennial (even if you aren't one)
Whether your business targets millennials directly or not, this is such a unique time in the world of brands and marketing where people are dramatically changing the way they behave, and the values by which make decisions. Embrace it, or be left in the dust.

So, for example, if you are in the food space, here are some things to try: Eat clean for a week, subscribe to services like Blue Apron, sample Kombucha, know what macha is and why people want to put charcoal in their beverages (hangover cure). Order everything you consume for a week from Amazon.

And how about investing your own money in a startup? I was told you should evaluate 30-40 businesses before you invest even $5,000. Small companies will gladly take $5,000. What a great exercise to actually force you to look hard at the players coming into new world.

Once you do these things you'll personally be able to visualize that the $30 million brand of today can be the next $1 billion brand in a few years. Then refer back to No. 1.

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

Spend (very) small
Successful entrepreneurs have a reputation of being savvy and street smart rather than book smart, and I found this to be absolutely true. And a big part of being street smart is trying everything on a very small scale before committing to more.

Some examples: Spend $10,000 a month on a digital campaign and evaluate results at the end of each day and week. Place your own media based on your knowledge of the target. Cut by 3/4 your initial 'number' regarding the cost of a new initiative and see what ideas come forward, write your own copy, and the list goes on. You may have to force this behavior in a somewhat artificial way. Maybe get yourself a checkbook and physically make yourself write a check for every dollar you want to spend.

Do whatever you have to do to put yourself and your team on that pirate ship on a day to day basis. (And don't do it with an "offsite." Find the least comfortable space in your office like a hallway and do it from there.)

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

Surround yourself with people who make you uncomfortable
When we're part of a large organization we tend to look for partners who can "speak our language," which is code for "make us feel comfortable." I challenge you to make yourself uncomfortable. Hire people for your team and find agency partners who are actually entrepreneurs. These types of people not only have the entrepreneurial DNA, they probably have other clients who are the ones disrupting you. There is a whole fraternity of agencies and businesses who all work together in this space. Aligning with them can be an incredible window into the new world, and I'll bet they are dying to give you their thoughts if they know you'll be listening.

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

Learn to code
Ok, not literally, but almost. Unless you are under 25 you'll always be a digital immigrant, which can't be helped. But what can be helped is how hard to try to lose your accent.

The best thing you can do is to admit to everyone around you that you don't know this stuff well enough and be clear that you want to learn, not step on their toes. Sit with your digital agency and watch how they track how your A-B test, how they find lookalikes. Understand how a wireframe works. Look at a CMS (content management system) to understand how you can change your content, and how you can't. Ask tons of questions, even if they seem dumb. You will not only earn their respect, you'll build your own personal resume.

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