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Digital marketing as preparation for your startup

Keith Butters, chief experience officer of The Barbarian Group, argues that the benefits of working in the digital marketing field, such as learning from success and failures as well as mentoring, can make you a better prepared designer or developer in the startup world

Ervin “Magic” Johnson is the only player in the history of the NBA to play all five positions in a finals game. His team won the championship that season. If you’re thinking of entering the current start-up gold rush (and some would say you’re already late to the game), you’re going to need to perform a similar feat. If you can wait, let me suggest cutting your teeth in the digital marketing game for while, so you can be much better prepared for when it’s time to dust off the old grey hoodie, and go for it full-time.

Most digital creative agencies are staffed with people from a number of different disciplines. You'll find some great designers and developers: the people likely to be part of a lean startup team. You’ll also find people in account service, production, strategy, PR, earned media/social (if you’re lucky to find the good ones) and copywriters, among others. In a lean startup, you need to be some, if not all of these people.

Learning from others

You can’t learn about most of this stuff from books or blog posts. You need to witness first-hand how a talented account service person turns a contentious conference call around into a cooperative one. Learn how it’s done. You need to actually learn what “strategy” is. Many people think, “Hey, I’m smart and strategic, I can do that.” But, it’s a whole different story when you go to a pitch and see a great strategist set up your work so well that the ideas and execution seem like the obvious things to do – to every person in the room.

I could go on. UX. Presentation. Social. You can’t have all these specialists in a three-person company, but your three-person company can have first-hand experience with them.

Pros & cons

A lot of entrepreneurs that I meet are also fairly early on in their careers. That has its plusses and minuses.

On the plus side, you cannot sleep for three weeks straight and live off energy drinks, cigarettes, and bad ramen, and do great work. In the first few years of the Barbarian Group, I was somehow able to work even after the ability to speak in coherent sentences had long since evaporated. My partners would tell me to go sleep so I could compose myself and explain to them (or the client) what I had done.

On the minus side, you miss out on some opportunities to be mentored by people who have honed their skills in your primary craft over many, many projects. For designers, that could mean having the opportunity to work through a design problem with a great visual thinker who’s worked on countless projects for countless brands. It could also mean being able to walk into a studio and sit with the one person you know who knows almost everything about typography.

You also learn to break habits. You can’t show your creative director a comp that has the same layout you always use, or with the same fancy buttons you designed two years ago, and rely on in a pinch. They’ve seen it. They make you stretch. They make you better.

Developers

For developers, it means many things. One, you also have the opportunity to be mentored by some incredibly experienced people. If you’re lucky, you also get to work in large enough teams that you can do pair-programming, or learn scrum. The big thing is that you get exposure to all different kinds of development stacks: LAMP, Rails, .NET, Python stuff I don’t even know about, all kinds of stuff.

Many marketing clients are already set up, and you have to work within their system. There’s a huge difference between spinning up a Rails box, doing a couple of tutorials, and checking it out, and writing professional production code. When you get to the point of choosing a framework for your startup, wouldn’t it be nice to have played in all of these sandboxes before staking your new company on one?

Fail fast

“Fail fast” used to mean make mistakes early so you can fix them along the way, incrementally, as you work toward a release. Somehow its meaning has shifted to: drive the bus into a tree, and then “pivot.” In marketing, many times, if you fail, you get fired. That isn’t to say you lose your job, but your company loses a client, and maybe loses a potential client.

You don’t have the chance to fail with your photo sharing app, and switch to a music sharing service. It changes the way you approach things. You learn how to back up a great idea with demographic research, market research, UX-style interviews, etc. Stuff you do to make “failing” a far less likely event.

There’s an adage out there that the best time to start a company is two years ago. I get it. If you’re connected enough and can participate in the gold-rush, I say go for it. But there will still be people starting companies two years from now, and maybe you can set yourself up for a better run by taking a detour into the world of digital marketing.

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