Strategy to Startups

October 16th, 2013

It’s one thing to teach a client how to use the next big app or social media platform, but it’s another thing to actually build one. While many agency people have wondered about life in a startup, a few brand strategists have used their skills to step out and start their own tech companies.

Skillshare and Percolate are successful New York City startups co-founded by former brand strategists. Earmark was also founded an ex-planning director. When Droga5 wanted to launch a startup studio they picked their head of digital strategy to run it. Here are a few things agencies can learn from startups and what you need to know if you decide to make the leap.

Specialists and Generalists

Agencies generally favor specialists over generalists. It’s a machine that works best when we avoid stepping on each others toes (and egos). The account people talk to the clients. The strategists write briefs. The creatives come up with ideas. I’ve yet to meet a copywriter who doesn’t mind an account manager rewriting their headlines or strategists who have their briefs rewritten by the creative team.

In a startup environment you can’t always predict what you’ll be working on in a month, so you need to be prepared for anything. The people who thrive in a startup environment don’t silo themselves. It helps to be a T-shaped person. This means being great at one thing, but willing to learn about anything (I like how this former IDEO designer explains being T-shaped, skip to minute 12). One week everyone has to chip in with customer emails and the next week your designer is helping push out code. A famous example is the original Foursquare app being designed by one of their founding engineers.

Ask Why

The programmers are focused on their code. The designer makes sure every icon and image is pixel perfect. But before you mock a page or prototype a feature, how do you know if this is the right feature to build?  The engineers and designers will ask how to create the right feature, but someone needs to ask why this feature needs to exist. It may not be anyone’s explicit responsibility to be the closest to the users, knowing exactly how and why they use your product, but why not you?

Here’s where learning UX becomes an invaluable skill. Think of it like learning a new language, you may not become fluent but it helps to become proficient. Hack Design is a great place to learn about design. Or if you’re feeling really brave, bentobox is a great resource if you want to learn how to code.

Beyond the Brief

Leaving the agency means you no longer write briefs for others to solve. If you spot a problem, you’re welcome to solve it. Aside from being the closest member of your team to the users, there are other places you’re uniquely qualified to help out. Help build a brand. Does your product tell a story bigger than itself? If you’ve spent your career building brands for corporate clients, you may be most qualified to do it for a small tech company.

While agencies fill out time sheets to bill by the hour. Startups try to do as much as possible, as fast as possible, with as little as possible. If the long hours and fast pace sound more exciting than intimidating, then an early stage tech company might be the place for you.


HJ was an aspiring strategist when he joined DE-DE, a digital product development studio incubated by Droga5. He tweets from @HatcheJota

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