5 Things I learned from a Mid-Sized Startup

Posted by | Startups | No Comments

In one of my previous posts, I wrote about leaving a company called Acquia. Acquia is a mid-sized startup that provides support for an open source platform (Drupal) for enterprises. It had experienced double digit growth in revenues pretty much since it’s inception. While on track to be a major contender to the likes of Adobe and Oracle for web CMS vendor, there were many many learnings along the way, even with my short time there. Here are some that stood out to me the most:

Breaking the norm can have great results:

When things are working we often have a hard time changing the tune to try new things. It’s the danger of entering paralysis and accepting the usual. I learned that staying too long in this box can have negative effects on learning about your customers, becoming more optimized, and stagnating in market relevance. Breaking the norm can often lead to going against what some higher ups or cross divisional leaders believe in. One of the most prominent memories I have was a marketing campaign I created at Acquia called “Evolve or Die”. The notion of the campaign was to raise awareness to enterprises that they need to put digital transformation at the forefront of their business strategy.

Our conventional marketing campaigns had, I felt, a lack luster alertness to them which caused people to not pay attention. I coordinated with my marketing and demand generation team to commit to a different title for the campaign, then switch last minute to the “shock” title before sending off. While I couldn’t get buy in from leaders (another learning), I went ahead and had them pushed it out. After a big backlash that it was too “forward”, the campaign started to take off. We had incredible response rates on our email campaign, a webinar that went viral, and datasheets that were downloaded in droves. It helped changed the marketing culture to be more comfortable with trying and “failing fast” vs. not trying and all and being complacent. Break the norm within reason and when your gut tells you to.

Getting buy in is key… And hard.:

This seems like an obvious statement but coming from a very small startup, it was quite the shock. I was used to being very autonomous and pushing forward was fast as possible. When I got to Acquia, while we worked at speed, there was a lot of cross division back channeling that needed to happen to get stuff done. It required a dedication to building relationships with key players, gaining respect through hard work ethics, and create compelling reasons for people to agree with you. I was initially a bull in a china shop upon arrival but have shifted my mindset to understanding what matters to other people within the company. While a long ways to go here, it was interesting to see more corporate dynamics at play compared to what I was used to with smaller startups. Learn how to build these critical relationships with stakeholders and people of influence early on.

Teams are everything:

This might seem obvious but I experience a new level of tight team cohesion at Acquia. Acquia was absolutely phenomenal at hiring amazing talent to drive the company forward. Within the marketing department, it felt less like colleagues and more like friends. We often talked about personal lives, went out to eat/drink together, went to events together, and more. While not the entire company was like this, a good portion of it was. In an interesting way, it helped keep teams focused and dedicated to their work. Everyone pitched in and offered to help each other when one was swamped. I vividly remember one night that I was about to walk out the door at 7pm on a Friday night and saw one of our incredibly talented content writers still hard at work. Turns out, he needed to have a keynote done for our CEO by Saturday and was running behind. We cracked open a bottle of red wine, threw on some music, and jointly hammered out the keynote which was highly received by the audience. I had more fun doing that than going out to a bar that night. That content writer and I, while a worlds difference in age, grew very close throughout the year and he was one of the people that made it incredibly hard for me to leave. Take the time to build personal relationships with your team because it is worth every minute in the long run.

Creating SaaS products that run in external environments is a no go:

Acquia launched a product line geared towards the marketing audience that helped them do personalization and contextualization. I ended up joining that product 9 months after it was developed and launched as one of the product managers. The product was to be inserted into users Drupal environments which we found out was incredibly hard since users can build Drupal 1,000,000 ways to Sunday. This made it hard to control our look and feel, product functionality, and compatibility. It forced us to pivot hard and push the product into a different type of integration that allowed us to gain a hold and offer a true SaaS product. The lesson here was to make sure that SDKs and APIs are robustly built, create guardrails around installation/validation of your product, and create a way to protect yourself from hostile environments (email clients, CMS’s, apps, etc.).

Growing up has big growing pains:

Like any company that is going through big growth, there are many growing pains that you have to keep a close eye on. What I believe is more challenging is a mid sized company growing up to be an enterprise company. The changes are much more broad, require heavy lifting to enact them, and have many moving parts in order to make the shift. We went through numerous process changes on the engineering side of the house to stay compliant with different certificates we needed. The marketing tactics we used from $5M revenue to $100M revenue don’t work the same when you still need to grow in double digits. They require long lasting vertical based content, industry expertise, crucial industry relationships, and dare I say “thought leadership” because it actually works.

Additionally, creating an organic engine that feeds users to the site with a tailored experience to their roles turned out to be incredibly key in identify great prospects. We also went through shifts in HR, slowed velocity in engineering for additional quality assurance and compliance, became more tight lipped on internal affairs, and a whole plethora of other changes. What I found to be the most prominent and challenging was getting people to realize that a shift needed to happen as opposed to actually making the shift. Employees were required to learn new processes, adapt to them, make the shift, and sometimes learn new skill sets. Ensuring that your marketing tactics create true pipeline through targeted marketing versus broad market blasts was huge for Acquia in their transformation from mid market to enterprise driven. When you start feeling that “pain” (and you will), first look to organization mindset and processes to then asses how you need to shift (not pivot) in order to alleviate the growing pains. Just hiring more people isn’t always the right answer.

“If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

There are thousands of other areas that I gained experience from but these 5 are the most prominent in my memory. Having been through a baby, small, and mid-large sized startup, I’ve learned a lot about the uniqueness of each of the stages and the different challenges they face. Startups are hard. The old saying goes “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it”.