The problem with start-ups: a content marketer’s perspective
The good, the bad, and the ugly
I have around a decade of experience in content and marketing. My first job was in the editorial department of a print publication around ten years ago in Bucharest, Romania, when the digital landscape the way we know it today was almost non-existing. Today, I work as a content marketer for a tech start-up in Singapore, which is often referred to as the Silicon Valley hub of APAC.
In my field, when we talk about the digital space, we instantly think of platforms, distribution models, metrics, tools, automation, optimisation, growth, innovation.
In marketing alone, the keywords that are on heavy rotation are marketing funnel, email nurturing, strategy, inbound, audience, buyer’s cycle, customer persona, lead generation, messaging, promotion, engagement, analytics, growth hacking, PPC, SEM. The list can go on.
Equally, content has evolved tremendously in the past few years and has literally become the foundation of so many companies which now finally see its intrinsic value.
As you know, the phrase ‘content is king’ became the mantra of every marketer out there and, perhaps, the first line in the elevator pitch of anyone trying to convince someone that publishing articles and writing e-books are crucial tasks for their organisation. To be fair, long gone are the days of traditional marketing, pushy outbound calls, and random newsletters — and that’s fantastic.
True, in the beginning, content marketing started as a catchy phrase, a buzzword that everyone adopted because it seemed the cool, new thing to do. But now, with plenty of experimentation, we can see first-hand how effective this strategy is by measuring what works and what doesn’t. Today, we have a myriad of tools that help us track, measure, analyse, optimise, and ultimately prove this strategy’s success.
What’s more, this concept can even pave the way for marketers to understand how it can be leveraged to maximise the ROI for companies in departments beyond marketing.
With regards to content marketing itself, I wrote an article earlier this year that sheds light on the evolution of SaaS marketing from being incredibly sales-driven to its crucial position in most companies today.
But this article is not necessarily supposed to evangelize content; essentially, its purpose is to see through the cracks of an imperfect organisation through the eyes of a content marketer.
Because the truth is that just as content has evolved exponentially, so did people, companies, and working culture.
As a journalist, writer, and later on, content marketer, I’ve come to gradually learn and understand how my content role can impact an organisation but throughout my journey, I’ve had my fair share of challenges that I had to face — both from the direct impact that content can generate (tangible results, engagement, growth) as well as from a work culture perspective.
And because I am a self-proclaimed start-up aficionado, I will share some thoughts on three core pillars that — I believe — can make or break a company.
In Singapore, the tech startup ecosystem has been growing exponentially since 2010, with increased funding, better infrastructure, constant government support, and a high number of jobs created.
According to Bloomberg and INSEAD, Singapore is considered the 6th most innovative city in the world. The Economic Development Board reports that there are more than 55,000 start-ups in Singapore, from deep tech to e-commerce to financial technology that are disrupting industries and bringing new value to the economy by using new tech and innovative approaches.
In the past decades, the numbers seem to have been soaring, with probably the highest number of new company launches, products, apps, and jobs — content marketing being a fundamental role in any start-up.
In the Glassdoor blog article How to Build Company Culture Through Content, we learn that beyond driving awareness, generating leads and establishing thought leadership, content can even help HR departments and shape a company’s culture.
“Because while the focus of content marketing often falls to how it benefits sales and marketing, content can also play a prominent role in expressing company culture and attracting talent that reinforces it.” — Glassdoor
Unfortunately, work culture is commonly underestimated.
In my own case, I chose start-ups because I believe my personality fits the working culture of a small yet fast-paced organisation which fosters growth, innovation, and flexibility.
You see, I am a proud introvert, and I simply thrive in a small organisation where I can closely engage with my team and use my voice to bring value through storytelling. I am a fan of experimentation, I love wearing multiple hats and, and most of the times, start-ups are the only place where there’s room for all of these things to happen.
But the problem is that culture within a small start-up can commonly be non-existent.
We often hear of start-ups located in fancy co-working spaces equipped with the latest gadgets, coolest decor and the ubiquitous foosball table to immediately think that these elements define their working culture. To be clear, wellness and entertainment are great perks that help reduce stress level and allow teammates to bond, but these feel-good activities far from define what a great company culture should encompass.
The reality is that many first-time start-up founders struggle to devote time to define their company’s work culture from the very beginning, only to come to the painful realisation that culture is certainly a crucial aspect that has a tremendous impact on the overall business.
Also, needless to say, that more seasoned CEOs who believe there is room to implement a proper cultural framework from the beginning can benefit from a healthy environment and long-term loyalty from their employees.
During my start-up stint in Singapore, I have often learned that theoretically, companies find that culture is essential, but many seem to be unsure of how to define it and build it.
According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), work culture definitely cannot be built in a day, but the important thing to remember is that a great culture starts with:
A vision or a mission statement
Values that offer a set of guidelines on the mindset needed to achieve that vision
Practices that are reinforced in the daily life of the firm
People who share the company’s core values
Narrative, the unique story each company possesses or the ability to unearth that history and craft it into a narrative
“No company can build a coherent culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values. That’s why the greatest firms in the world also have some of the most stringent recruiting policies.” HBR
Beyond culture, nearly every role at a start-up — especially one that is still in its early-stage — is responsible for single-handedly solving new business problems. Oftentimes, for employees, this means embarking into roles that overlap with other departments due to lack of resources and manpower.
While this is a responsibility each individual should commit to, it’s important for companies to set the expectations from the beginning and offer clarity and commitment on their end as well.
Start-ups tend to hire people who think on their own two feet, have plenty of energy and ambition to carry the company forward, and are willing to roll up their sleeves and go beyond their job scope.
And that’s great, but in order for companies to thrive and grow, we need to find a way for businesses to be reliable and responsible for all aspects of the business — including their hiring process and work culture.
From a content marketing perspective, the playbook can be pretty straightforward — you create content catered to a specific persona, attract prospects, match your content with each stage of the customer buying journey and extend offers that prompt leads to contact your sales/product team for a demo or discussion.
The next step is e-mail nurturing, which can be done using automated tools and segmented lists, followed by optimising your data-driven marketing by tying each piece of content to metrics like opens, reads, downloads, demo requests, etc.
In today’s digital landscape, brands want to stand out through content and create everything from blog posts to e-books to infographics and videos to develop awareness and establish thought leadership.
Professionals and companies are constantly bombarded with content, ads, email newsletters and many become reluctant to click and sign up for yet another product.
Many start-ups have the assumption that their content marketing strategy should be a complex framework to achieve success, churning article after article to stand out from the crowd — in fact, the reality is that when it comes to content, more is not always better.
In HBR’s article Your Content Marketing Strategy Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated, the writer states that:
“although we’re producing more content than ever, fewer marketers have a documented content marketing strategy compared with last year (32% vs. 35%), even though the same research consistently shows that those who document their strategy are more effective in nearly all areas of content marketing.”
If you can offer qualitative, well-thought content that readers will perceive as valuable, then they’ll likely be willing to engage with you and listen to what you have to say.
In this case, there’s another side to the coin though — you need to be able to meet your audience’s expectations over a long period of time, breeding trust, and creating a bond that leads to a loyal audience.
“As Simon Sinek says, we have to start with why. Your reason for doing something. When it comes to your content strategy, your why is your business objective. Why you’re doing this. This is the ‘business centric’ part of creating good content.” HBR
And to focus on quantity over quality, we do need to think like publications. A solution is thinking and publishing like a publication, which is why the so-called brand journalism has seen such an upswing in the last years.
While in yesteryear, journalism and content marketing merely overlapped, today, they’re almost interconnected — and synchronising these two professions is key to achieve a high-quality content strategy.
Another concept which seems to be misunderstood in start-ups is soft skills.
In a world which is heading towards complete digitalisation and automation, with AI and smart algorithms taking over tasks, decision-making, and even jobs, companies need to put more emphasis on soft skills like emotional intelligence, empathy, adaptability, and the ability to reinvent oneself.
Regarding the future of work and education, in the WIRED article ‘Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind’, historian and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari stated that “most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.”
In his book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, Harari says that more experts argue that schools should switch to teaching the four Cs such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, downplaying technical skills and emphasising soft skills.
Therefore, to thrive in the workforce, we must re-learn how to learn, become more resilient and adaptable to new situations, and improve our emotional intelligence to learn how to better cooperate and meet customers’ higher needs.
“In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products — you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.” Yuval Noah Harari
Even though many people seem to be taken aback by the advanced capabilities of AI, we need to understand that machines are still rudimentary in their ability to get the emotional gist of a person or company hence employees with a predilection for soft skills should become a key investment in any organisation.