Blog post

How to Market Like a Startup

By Jake Sorofman | March 28, 2013 | 3 Comments

digital marketing

I’m a dyed in the wool startup guy. I’ve spent the better part of my career trying to turn nothing into something (with varying degrees of success). In retrospect, it was both exhilarating and exhausting.

Why? Because as a startup CMO, you’re handed super-sized expectations along with snack-sized resources. You’re asked to move mountains by sheer force of will and by dint of creativity. You’re expected to sense and respond, quickly learning your way through the darkness to find a market fit and a repeatable business model. You’re asked to drive big-company awareness on a dime-store budget.

While it can feel intractable at times, signing up for the startup game can be the ideal training ground for big-company marketing. Why? Because, as a recent HBR post suggests, big companies that embrace the heart and soul of a startup can substantially outperform their slower-moving brethren. Also, because digital marketing techniques are forcing brands to become more agile, responsive execution machines.

The HBR post offers some interesting tips. It suggests getting serious about “test and learn”; working faster, not harder; and embracing experimentation. All sound advice. In another recent post, my Gartner colleague Julie Hopkins reminds us that, in basketball and in business, we miss every shot we don’t take (leave it to a Dukie to impart basketball wisdom!).

As a CMO, I always set aside 8-10% of the marketing budget to try new things—new media, new tactics, new techniques—following the mantra that you need to test and fail to learn and scale.

Also, I tried to inculcate a bias toward action with my team by asking everyone to measure themselves by a simple standard—asking a simple question: “What external impact have I made today?” It’s remarkably easy to lull yourself into the false comfort that busy equals productive, but the reality is that impact happens on the outside—not indulging in corporate rituals and engaging in corporate theater.

I also promoted this ideal by doing my best to walk the talk. Too often, executive roles become removed from the action, where dictating replaces doing. Be sure that, while you may be the foreman, you’re also swinging a hammer.

Here are some of my favorite startup marketing tips, offered in no particular order:

  • Develop a point of view—whose life do you make better? What issues do you advocate for? Answering these questions will probably help to figure out what your brand stands for.  
  • Become a storyteller—craft a narrative arc that lets audiences internalize your point of view. Be passionate, but authentic. Speak with a human voice. Craft words and images with great care.
  • Produce prolifically—create something every single day. Publish it externally. Blog, tweet, agitate, debate, engage. Ideas, inspirations, opinions, rants and wild hairs.
  • Don’t scale too early—place small bets as a market probe. Don’t crank up your investments until you’ve validated that you’ve found a rich vein (read my post on agile marketing).
  • Find opportunities for leverage—team up with a partner to go to market or to promote a program or campaign and you’ll benefit from incremental resources, scale and reach, instantly.
  • Partner in threes—consider turning a partnership into a coalition. It creates more leverage and often unlocks a magical multiplier effect through the signaled commitment of three companies.

What are your startup-inspired marketing tricks? Please share them here!

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Comments are closed


  • Hi Jake – great post, and enjoyed the links as well. At ReadyPulse we we had three marketing ‘tricks’ that worked wel early on. First was embedding ourselves in with one customer early, going very deep with this customer created a successful case study and lead to several references. Second, we went to where our market was – literally. Instead of hanging out at tech trade shows, we went to surf and fashion shows, which proved extremely fruitful. Lastly was we told our story through data – infographics to be specific – which continue to be an effective lead gen asset today. As you also mention in your article – these were three successful tricks – but we also had plenty of unsuccessful efforts, but luckily we didn’t repeat those mistakes. -Dennis

  • Jake Sorofman says:

    Thanks for the comments, Dennis. These are excellent ideas!Working closely with an initial customer as a “design partner” is a great strategy.

  • Aline Kaplan says:

    Jake: I blogged on this topic and offered four reasons from my own experience why startups work smarter and faster. You can read my post on The Next Phase: