One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever gotten was from a mentor who told me that the absolute worst mistake a startup founder can make is when they experience an explosive move up and to the right, with any growth metric, and then assume that move is the beginning of a long cycle of growth. 

2 People You Need for Growth and Why You Need Them

  • Marketing/communications tactician: Knows how social media and influencing works, how to measure return on ad spend, how to get earned media, and how to enable SEO within messaging.
  • Strategic industry insider: Knows about your target market and industry, including who the players and decision makers are and how to reach them.

In fact, these days, a nagging voice in the back of my head keeps telling me that if a huge windfall happens, something must be broken somewhere. And that voice is usually right. 

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The Truth About Wins and Momentum

The frustrating Catch-22 of innovation and disruption is that you need big wins to grow, but you can’t rely on those big wins from one to the next. So what do you do when they happen? How do you capitalize on windfalls without setting yourself up for a fall?

Last week, I got a question from a longtime member of Teaching Startup, my project to democratize startup advice where expert entrepreneurs answer member questions for all members to see. This member runs a tech company that serves both B2B and B2B2C markets within a specific industry. He had just landed his third major business customer, one he felt could help him open the more lucrative but much harder-to-crack B2B2C market. 

Things were happening. The excitement was such that he could barely sleep — well, excitement mixed with the adrenaline of wanting, no, needing to strike while the iron was hot.

And he had no clue how to do that. A friend recommended he hire a public relations firm, like yesterday, and put them to work getting that needle moving.

The truth is that the wins that seem enormous to the people on the inside usually aren’t nearly as interesting to the general public, especially the kind of consumers that your average PR firm is going to reach. 

A big deal is a big deal. But the big deal here isn’t about spreading the news of the win. It’s about learning the lessons from it.


Flywheels and Dominoes 

Anyone who has ever thought about starting a high-growth company has been told about the flywheel effect as it relates to growth. The conventional wisdom is that a series of events (wins) is necessary to get the flywheel of growth moving, and then at some point I think a common misunderstanding is that flywheels can ignore physics and just keep spinning perpetually on their own.

I don’t know. I don’t even think the initial high-growth spark is like a flywheel. It’s more like dominoes.

The energy released by the tipping of a single domino isn’t very much. If you were instead to tip, let’s say, a person-sized domino, you’d get much more energy, but the same exact amount of momentum. Zero. Just a lot of noise.

But if before you tip a domino, you strategically place another domino in front of it — or better yet two dominoes side by side — you’ve increased energy, momentum and most importantly, reach. Now before you tip that domino, set up 100 more. Again, strategically, like a horizontal 2D pyramid. One, then two, then four, then eight, and so on.

The next question: How do you set the dominoes?

Energy and Direction

In this analogy, the strategic placement of the dominoes depends on what you learn from each win, whether it’s small, medium or large. Big wins are necessary and obviously far more valuable, because they’re easier to reverse engineer and usually the lessons learned lead to more big wins, but every win can tell you something you can use to get to the next one.

So yes, do the PR. But don’t blast your news into the void. Instead, do the PR strategically.

These days especially, a PR firm might not be what you’d expect it to be. Mainstream media has splintered so much that the powerhouse type of firm with connections in broad-based, mass-market-reach media, like newspapers, magazines, television and, dare I say radio, are fewer and farther between. If you’re releasing a Hollywood blockbuster or the next version of the iPhone, these are the firms you want to work with. And they cost a fortune. And they spend big money to make bigger money.

So let’s just take that off the table. That’s not what you’re after. You want the energy of a PR firm combined with a direction that aligns with your company’s target market. You can and probably should do this in house, and at this stage of your growth, it should be a perpetual part of your growth plan, building on the lessons learned from those small, medium and large wins to get the flywheel moving or dominoes strategically set.

More Startup advice6 PR Tips for Startups


You Need Strategic and Tactical Expertise

The hands-on tactical communication you hire a PR firm for is not that difficult, but still very time consuming and the ROI on those tactical moves is, at best, puzzling. 

So you need a marketing/communication tactician and you need a strategic industry insider. Can that be one person? Well, yes, but I’d rather make a marketing/communication tactician out of an insider with industry connections than have someone with top-notch communication skills try to force their way into a specific, and often closed, industry. 

That means the first person you need is someone who shares your knowledge about your target market and your industry — who they are, what is important to them, how they operate and ideally, who the players and decision-makers are and how to reach them. This is your industry insider. I would run an industry-focused constant communications campaign, with your insider telling you where to lay the dominoes.

Now, who is actually tipping the dominoes?

This is someone who knows the tactics and the tools — social media, how influencing works, how to measure return on ad spend, how to enable SEO within messaging, how to bug a publisher until they agree to write an article about you — all that. 

Spend some money touting big wins. Go big but do it within the industry, because that’s where the ROI is.

This is someone maybe less experienced, but much more tech-savvy and much less expensive, who, when paired with the industry strategist (or even you) can run multiple, interconnected, industry-specific marketing and communication campaigns.

Either of these people might be consultative, maybe even freelancers. Because when you get into the “firm” aspect with marketing and PR, you’re paying for a lot of overhead you don’t need. 

Until that flywheel is spinning or a lot of those dominoes are falling, the audience any startup really needs to reach is super niche and targeted, not broad-based and mass-market. You might find PR experts who can target that kind of audience with a firm, but I feel like they’d probably be missing that industry expert guidance and direct reach to decision makers. 

To build on any kind of win, a constant stream will always work better than a big splash. So yes, spend some money touting big wins. Go big but do it within the industry, because that’s where the ROI is.

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