Sales in startups: think differently

Do you remember the Apple Computer ads from 1984 that said “Think Different”? The one where the woman throws the hammer at the screen while an audience of zombie-like users jumps into the air.

There is a reason this ad was effective. Not only was it asking the viewer to think differently, but the ad itself was different. Wildly different.

In the early 1980s, computers and their advertisements were boring, beige experiences populated by idiots in jersey vests. Apple presented a stark contrast between its vision for computers and that of the computing titans of the time (namely IBM). In a single ad, with a single message (“Think different”), Apple changed the entire computer market.

Of course, Apple would fire its founder and nearly destroy the company, but that’s another story with another leadership lesson.

However, in 1984 Apple innately understood an important rule for running a startup: Don’t play your competitor’s game, make them play yours.

When you run a startup, you are always at a disadvantage. Startups lack the staff, money, time and recognition that larger, wealthier companies have. Large companies will always use their dominant position to crush smaller startups. Any competition with larger, more established companies is inherently unbalanced and unfair.

Additionally, buyers are also predisposed to select products and services from larger companies. Smaller startups are riskier, for the same reason stated above, limited resources. In the early 1980s, IBM dominated the computer business. Customers believed it was safer to buy from IBM. Thus, their size only helped them become bigger and therefore eclipse any competitors.

Apple was a small computer company at that time. He had a respectable reputation among computer enthusiasts. Their products were more advanced than those of IBM and the various PC clones, but they were also more expensive. IBM owned the market. Apple was playing a game that only IBM could win.

The 1984 ad appears. Suddenly, Apple becomes the hottest thing. Everyone wants one. Where other computer companies struggled, Apple saw an opportunity. There was untapped potential that IBM was not addressing. Buyers wanted to be special, unique and… different.

Apple’s ad offered the market an exceptionally clear choice: we’re cool, they’re not. The contrast is extremely attractive to buyers. When the options are clear, buyers can associate their identity with the product. Buyers are not mere computer owners, they become owners of Apple, which is different, special and unique.

Apple has changed the rules of the game. By the way, Apple did the same thing in 2007 with the iPhone. That’s why the rectangle in your hand looks the way it does.

The lesson for startup marketing and sales teams is this: don’t do what everyone else does. It’s a sure way to disappear into the market noise. You have to stand out from the crowd. Even a poorly organized marketing effort that is unique and attention-grabbing is better than a well-crafted one that is just like everyone else. Be different. Intentionally different.

How to do it?

To start, you need creative people and an environment that inspires them. Easier said than done. Creative people are unpredictable, strange, and sometimes terrifying (if you want me to prove it to you, check out any art school). Anything that is truly unique is inherently terrifying, because it has no predecessor to prove it works. That’s why it’s easy for critics to label creative ideas as stupid, dangerous, or destined to fail.

Creativity can be uncomfortable. Investors, especially those who are convinced they know it all, may aggressively question creative messages. Some investors have this malformed methodology where they invest millions of dollars in a disruptive and creative company, and then crush all the disruptive and creative ideas. They suffocate their own investments.

Likewise, employees may become scared when presented with creative messages. It is also a fear reaction. When people reach a level of comfort in a job, they will fight hard to maintain that comfort. This means rejecting anything that threatens to disturb that comfort, such as a new and strange idea.

As a leader (founder) you must not only sell your creative ideas to clients, but also assure the people around you (employees, investors, partners, etc.) that it will work. You won’t know if it works until you do it (or don’t do it). When people ask you for data or proof that your crazy idea will work, you can only point to other cases, like Apple’s 1984 ad, where a creative and disruptive idea did work.

Unfortunately, not all creative and disruptive ideas work. The history of marketing is littered with creative ideas that failed shortly after their launch. One that comes to mind is the LifeLock ads from 2007, where the CEO dared people to steal his identity. It was certainly different. He also challenged the hackers to prove him wrong, and they did…quickly.

How to cultivate a creative space without falling into a creative crater? Railings. The Lifelock idea failed because it forced people to do the wrong thing. The Lifelock team needed some basic guardrails around their messaging.

It is a curious contradiction about innovation and creativity: to encourage innovation you have to be open-minded, but not so open-minded as to do crazy things. Guardrails place reasonable restrictions on messages to ensure they remain in a productive and practical space.

What do these barriers look like? They are unique to each company, but here are some generic ones you can take into account:

  • Do not ask the public to do anything illegal, immoral, unethical or unpleasant. Lifelock had to follow this barrier.
  • Don’t associate your product with something repulsive, cruel or oppressive. Apple’s announcement did exactly the opposite. He associated his product with freedom, beauty and self-expression.
  • Avoid taboo topics: sexuality, religion, politics. These topics are too emotionally charged to be addressed effectively today.
  • Don’t insult people’s characteristics. It’s not fun or smart to insult immigrants, disabled people, or redheads, for example.
  • Don’t trivialize things that cause people pain, suffering or misery. For example, slavery is never funny. Never use it, no matter how cute or sensitive you think you are.
  • Tempt, do not excite. You don’t want your audience to feel awkward, embarrassed, or awkward. What you want is for them to feel curious, inspired and/or excited.
  • Do not use content protected by copyright. You can hint at it. The best way to do this is to use similar words or designs.

The firewalls have a limit. And every time you create one, you may quickly find yourself breaking it. The goal of any disruptive message is to want people to know more about you. Whatever images, phrases or concepts you have, all of them should leave your audience wondering: “I want to know more about them, they seem interesting.”

Thinking differently is vital if you want to stand out from the crowd. Regardless of what your competitors do, you must be intentionally and overtly different from them. Otherwise, there is nothing special about you and therefore no reason to choose you over a more established brand.