Run your marketing organization like a startup

It’s easy—particularly on a Monday chock-full of back-to-back meetings, where administrative asks and bureaucratic burdens give rise to grass-is-greener fantasies—to imagine that the tech startup environment is different, or even better, than that encountered by a marketer of professional services.

For some, this may be true.

However, it’s important to recognize that there are similarities between startup and structured marketing environments. It’s also critical to note that marketers at mature organizations can actually behave like they would at startups, at least in certain circumstances, and benefit from incorporating some common techniques used by their counterparts.

First, let’s consider how they’re similar.

Both must operate within resource constraints. Venture-backed startups may have significant funding behind them, but they likely have limitations even if they’re not financial. They typically have aggressive deadlines targeting near-term goals, and probably don’t have sufficient talent to do everything well. This means that the available team must wear multiple hats, be flexible, and do what they can, as best they can, to complete tasks usually tackled by specialists.

Beyond resources, both must cope with internal and external pressures. Their respective leadership teams may report to an investor group, or be the investor group itself, meaning the urgency and pressure to perform is acutely felt by the organization’s marketers. Results must be demonstrated quickly because investors aren’t a patient bunch, and sometimes the future of the organization itself depends on what’s happening right now.

Do these dynamics sound at all familiar to you?

While the stereotypes associated with startups—think ping-pong tables and pets at the office—may not be culturally acceptable within more established organizations, we believe there are certain processes and practices that can be incorporated into everyday work activities. In doing so, marketers at established firms can increase their velocity, helping to deliver results faster and, hopefully, perform better.

Here are five recommendations that you should consider:

1. Adopt a framework with testing and iteration at its core

Today’s marketing teams are tasked with increasingly complex initiatives, often involving new technologies and fastidious attention to detail through the course of project management. This can create gaps and oversights, inviting unforced errors, setbacks, and other undesirable outcomes. To help mitigate risk, we suggest adopting a framework to guide the process.

Scrum and Kanban methodologies are two. Scrum applies feedback loops during which participants inspect and adapt, allowing teams to be more malleable and protected from risk. Kanban is a way of systematic thinking that can enhance how teams approach knowledge work.

Our team utilizes a proprietary framework called I.D.E.A., which guides us through Ideation, Definition, Execution, and Assessment, while incorporating continuous iteration throughout. While none of these may be appropriate for your team, we recommend trying one and then evolving it to suit your needs.

2. Try an agile approach for one project

Agile software development is a process that embeds constant iteration into a team’s workflow. By integrating this practice into ongoing software development the best outcome is, theoretically, pursued and achieved faster.

Of course, there are risks associated with continuous iteration—among them the possibility of losing focus and missing the target.

While it may take time to perfect your agile approach, we recommend carving out a single project, forming a small team, and having them work via an agile process. Digressing briefly, this is actually how we started using agile methods more than a decade ago. We identified a specific initiative, gathered together a team, assigned a scrum master, and got to work. We learned countless lessons doing this, and have refined and revised our methods over time.

3. Find ways to test and fail…fast!

We recommending failing. Not only that, we believe you should do it as fast as possible. Failure represents empirical proof that an idea won’t work, and having clarity on what not to do can be as valuable as having a well identified path forward.

You may have to train your teams, and more critically the leadership team, that failure is an effective (and frequently cost-effective) way to learn and progress.

This concept is also part of taking an agile approach, and it's highlighted in books like The Lean Startup, Lean UX, and others.

We agree: managing failure can be challenging, and even culturally unacceptable. How can you make it okay to fail?

4. Request a small research and development budget to experiment

For that, we suggest asking for a small research and development (R&D) budget to prove concepts and test minimum viable products (MVPs). MVP, another software development term, applies to creating just enough features or offerings to satisfy early adopters. Using this R&D budget, create an MVP—whether its a blog page, an initial podcast episode, or a social media persona—and test it out.

Plant a seed with your team’s stakeholders from the beginning: R&D is about experimentation and it’s okay to fail, provided that the team learns, grows, and improves on the next iteration—and that there are multiple iterations to be had.

5. Consider newer options for communication

If none of the above are practical for your team or firm, you can also consider more modern options for communication, which may help to speed up internal decision-making. For example:

—Agile teams frequently have a daily “stand up” meetings. These may be held in-person or via a telephone dial-in. Just touching base and connecting can facilitate greater cohesion, buy-in, and accountability.

—Try workshopping, either internally or facilitated by a third-party. Directed brainstorming sessions can invigorate your team, while also directly addressing challenges and quickly resolving—or, at least, identifying—obstacles.

—Moving beyond Microsoft Word to flexible documentation systems like Wikis, Kanban boards, or tools like Trello.

—Focus on tools that centralize marketing information and democratize access to enable all members of your team easy access to key content and the ability to contribute to your marketing knowledge collaboratively. We’re biased, of course, but we believe that RubyApps, and the legal industry-focused version, RubyLaw, are great options.

—Realtime chat systems like Jabber, Slack, and others have spread through many enterprises. Using these to foster faster communication is key to disseminating information across your entire marketing team and individual project teams.

With all the time you save, you and your team can get back to the important things—like playing ping pong at the office.

Want to know more? Watch our webinar, Run Your Marketing Organization Like a Startup.

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