Startups and The Power Of Polarization

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Startups and The Power Of Polarization


Startups, particularly those world-changing, curve-jumping, bet-the-farm kind are a tricky business.  The temptation for startups is, as Seth Godin would say, “to create average products for average people”.  The reason is simple, there’s a massive market of average people.  And, they want average products.  Nothing too controversial.  Nothing that makes them too uncomfortable. 

Guy Kawasaki, one of my favorite business authors addresses this in a recent article titled “The Art of Innovation”.  Here’s #4 from that article:

Don't be afraid to polarize people. Most companies want to create the holy grail of products that appeals to every demographic, social-economic background, and geographic location. To attempt to do so guarantees mediocrity.”

But, my advice would be to not try and “solve for the middle” — but strive to polarize an audience.  If you’re really looking to make a big difference, you want a group of people that passionately disagrees with your idea/approach/business.  Why?  Because when you’re doing something that polarizes, and you have a bunch people that passionately disagree with you, you have a chance to find people that passionately agree.  It is these passionate people that help fuel the growth and help spread your idea.  And curve-jumping companies almost always have an idea that spreads at their core.  Your enemy, as in many walks of life, are not the ones that hate, but the ones that are apathetic.

In short, have the courage to take a stand even if it means you’re going to make some people uncomfortable or annoyed.  Of course, you actually have to believe in the stand that you take, but the idea is that if you believe in it, push towards the edges even if it causes a big rift in your community.

So, let’s take a look at a small, recent example from my own startup, HubSpot.  I’m using the HubSpot case because I know it well and have been on the “inside” of (as a founder and Chief Stirrer of Pots).  It also just happened yesterday as part of our own internet marketing efforts.

The quick story at HubSpot is simple:  We believe there’s a massive transformation going on that is causing people to move from outbound marketing (advertising, direct mail, telemarketing, etc.) to inbound marketing.  Inbound marketing is about increasing the chances that people that actually give a flying flip about your offering will find you.  (Not to hunt down masses of people most of whom don’t give a flying flip and interrupt them with your message).  The idea itself is not that controversial.  But, this video that we created recently is.  It’s short, and sort of funny, so go watch it and then continue.

So, here was our issue.  When building this video we had to decide:  Are we really advocating that companies throw away all of their old marketing methods (including telemarketing) so they can switch to our way (inbound marketing)?  It’s just not practical.  If we asked people to do that, we’d risk losing a bunch of prospects that just wouldn’t take us seriously.  We’d risk a bunch of our prospective customers thinking we were a whole lot of clueless.  But, we did it in anyway.  Then, we went a step further.  When we created the associated blog article, we gave it a controversial title “Dude, Cold Calling Is For Losers”.  Now, not only are we making fun of people that are doing cold calling, we’re actually calling them losers.  Remember, we have 5,000+ people that are subscribed to this blog, many of them are marketers, and most of them likely do some sort of telemarketing. 

So, what do you think?  What are you doing to “take a stand” when it comes to the vision of your startup?  What was the last risk you took online?  Something that would really irritate a big batch of potential customers?  Share your experiences here.  I promise, we won’t hate you.

Apologies for those that think this is article too self-promotional.  I try to keep OnStartups focused on things that I think will help other entrepreneurs.  Often, my best exampes are from my own personal experience.  Nudge me back if I cross the line.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Sep 24, 2008


In my post about this video, I called cold callers - luddite idiots.  
I think there is an art to exaggeration in marketing so that it's true but still slightly ridiculous for most. And although HubSpot's sales team doesn't make cold calls - because we have many inbound leads - this is certainly not the case in 99% of companies out there.  
Without actually "experiencing" it, it's probably hard for any successful salesperson or business owner to imagine not doing what has worked for them in the past, and probably still continues to work for them.  
I got push back along these lines on my blog from someone. They said, "I understand that this video is aimed at timid salespeople who don't know how to make an effective outbound call and NEED the phone to ring or they'll starve, but is it really appropriate to lead them to believe that all of the inbound calls will result in Red Sox tickets?" 
If the video is taken literally, this response is appropriate. And in years to come, HubSpot and other inbound marketing experts might make our video seem like a much more common scenario.  
Until then, most companies will need to include some telemarketing in their mix of lead gen activities until they can prove to themselves that inbound marketing is better and will provide as reliable a growth strategy as what is working for them now.  
All this said, one of the most respected sales experts in the country who has published that "cold calling is the only reliable way a salesperson can build their pipeline" also linked to our video and is a big proponent and practicer of inbound marketing. 
If the video gets people to react a bit emotionally, that'll probably be a pretty good outcome... because atleast it struck a chord.

posted on Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 12:43 PM by peter caputa

Innovation is the way to go and yes...trying out the unexplored areas for business has been the most rewarding one...soon everybody is gonna be doing that.

posted on Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 2:25 PM by flingcom

I do agree that the percentage of leads turning into order is high in inbound marketing compared to outbound marketing, for the very reason that the caller believes on whatever is advertised in the marketing gimmick. But there are many leads that turn into orders from outbound marketing who could not have called-in unlike the customer in the YouTube video for the obvious reason that the inbound marketing does not reach 100% of target market, leave alone the mediocre crowd. Else the traditional outbound marketing method would have died long time ago or at least when the inbound marketing became vogue. 
Even though the phrase “outbound marketing” is used lately, I feel that companies have been practicing it indirectly. In my opinion all the “Television” “Radio” or “Billboard” ads are kind of inbound marketing. For that matter any type of marketing without the advertiser knowing who is reading or listening to the ad about my company or product could be classified as inbound marketing. Another scary thing about the inbound marketing is the internet and TV is with huge number of untrue and “between the lines”, “hidden cost” ads, people are scared to make an attempt to find out if their products are genuine and do not get cheated. 
I feel the main reason the companies go for inbound marketing compare to outbound marketing is the cost factor. When you go for automated computerized outbound telemarketing, it might workout a lot cheaper and also the companies get to fish only the ones who are caught on the hooks like the inbound marketing. 
Another point I want to mention is that the human eyes get so immune to total dump of inbound marketing ads on the internet, people don’t even bother to pay attention to such ads even if they try desperately with dancing girls to sell mortgage. To check this out I asked a few of my friends if anyone remembers the name of the company for which the ad is for, only a few remember and some of them could recollect that it is for some kind of mortgage company. None of them clicked on the ad to get to know more about their product. Of course some desperate way below mediocre crowd would have clicked on it and only a small percentage of them would have actually perused to purchase the product or service. 
I am a strong believer that the best quality of your product with matching price is the best marketing trick for any product or service. There is no need to spend much on the outbound marketing as your current satisfied customers would do the inbound marketing for you. Moreover, people trust more on the products or service recommended though the word of mouth than any other form of ad. 

posted on Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 6:35 PM by Dot in da galaxy

I'm in the UK and the term inbound marketing is yet to take off as much as it has in the U.S. however it will grow as it is language that is easily understood.  
Easily understood language is something that all Marketers should strive for as I have heard horror stories such as the one where a Small Business Owner was on the end of a fascinating pitch about the merits of latent semantic indexing <yawn> cue glazing over of eyes..... 
I like the terminology as it is easily understood by people I talk with.  
I agree with the polarisation and avoiding the average. This segment often means you end up competing on price alone and who wants to be there? 
I have an analogy which is that if you are creating average products for average people you are indeed sitting on the fence. And there are two things that happen when you sit on a fence. 
1. You get splinters in your ass. 
2. At some point you'll fall off the fence (go bust)  
Choose the side of the fence with the people who really need your product / service as you've packaged it and don't worry about the people on the other side of the fence who don't like it / want something else. 
Mike Ashworth 
Small Business Marketing Coach and Consultant 
Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK 
p.s. I'm slightly biased in my views here as I think Hubspot rocks :-)

posted on Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 3:21 AM by Mike Ashworth

I like it. Just yesterday I was talking with someone about making our marketing message have some "attitude".  
If you think you are a job posting or can be described by a few key words, go to or Indeed. If you are looking for your next great company and want to do it in a smarter more efficient way, a try" I think it will work, especially with people that have the startup mentality. 
As Mike said in the last comment, sitting on the fence has consequences.

posted on Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 7:24 AM by tom summit

Is Guy's article that recent? It from 2006.

posted on Friday, September 26, 2008 at 6:48 AM by Yura

I really agree with this. Failing to create a focused offering is the difference between striking a log with a small hatchet and swatting it with a huge feather. In the first case, you'll eventually break through to the other end. In the second, you'll only get the dust off, at best. 
Here's the issue though. If I'm in an organization where the culture is pretty fond of "targeting the middle" because its "safe," how do I sell this? Any hard numbers, studies, etc.? 
Feedback appreciated. I've selected to receive replies to this post by email, so your response would truly be valued.

posted on Wednesday, February 04, 2009 at 6:58 PM by Alex Pyatetsky

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