For years I have heard the mantra “Act like a startup.” Often said by people that have never worked at a startup. People like me. It was something I said to bigwigs at big brands. The sort of brands that are encumbered by their own success. #1 in their category, they think they have little to gain, but everything to lose. Now, loaded with process, approvals and red tape, they squash creativity with an overabundance of “common sense”. You know—12 rounds of feedback and a multitude of gatekeepers for every decision.

Everyone has the power to say “No!” but very few can say “Yes!”

This, of course, slows things down to a crawl. The rough, interesting edges of creativity are smoothed down to a nub of nothingness. Things become anemically vanilla. Worse still, any small, scrappy startup, with a good team and good instincts, can get ahead and disrupt your status quo in the blink of an eye.


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Therefore, on occasion, I have found it useful to repeat the mantra “Act like a startup” when trying to knock down the bureaucracy of big business and cut through the layers of middle management. And it’s through its recital that I have helped large organizations innovate with accelerated optimism.

But that isn’t what this article is about…

It’s about something else. The opposite in fact. Now that I have worked with real startups, I realize the reverse can be true as well. I have therefore on occasion said this:

“Stop acting like a startup."
~ me

At some point, any startup should move beyond scrappy, hustle-done-cheap and start acting like a real, best-in-class brand. Why? Because brands are important. Brands are the (sometimes subconscious) qualities people associate with your company. Think of Rolex and you probably think of timeless luxury. Think of Coca Cola and you might think of uplifting happiness. Think of Audi and you probably think of design and innovation. These companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their brands—every message, every product placement, every product experience is crafted to make you think and feel these things.

But do you want people to think “Scrappy” or “Cheap” when they think of your brand? I highly doubt it. You probably want them to feel like your brand is quality. Like you’re treating them with integrity and respect. Like your product is worth a lot more than they’re paying for it. These are the things that will inspire loyalty among your customers.

It’s well proven that good design can be a competitive advantage. AirBnB, Warby Parker and Casper have all differentiated themselves with design…and seemingly overnight they have turned into real, world-class brands. And few people saw it coming.

So my advice to you—if you’re a startup looking to make it to the next level—is this:

Don’t cut every corner.

I get it. You’re not made of money. You need to strategically think about where to save and where to invest. But sometimes, a penny saved is a pound foolish. Customers can see when you have papered over the cracks. And it can make your brand appear sloppy. It makes them feel disrespected. And they will leave to go somewhere they feel more valued. Some corners can be cut. But some strategically important corners should be invested in. To repeat the AirBnB example, it was their decision to hire professional photographers to take pictures of their inventory that arguably was their biggest distinction in a crowded, short-term rentals market. It elevated their brand to its own level. It propelled them towards becoming a multi-billion dollar company.

Of course, it’s important to think about how to save money. But it’s just as important to know when to splurge.

So, next time you feel an urge to act like a startup, consider this: What would the world’s best brand do in your position? And how can you create the impression that the world’s best brand is, in fact, you?