What do Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and RFK Jr. have in common with startups?
More than you might think.
The same forces that are driving the rise of populism in politics are also used by startups to grow their business.
Here's are political strategies that businesses use to grow:
- The power of the outsider narrative
- Single issue voters
- Grassroots Mobilisation
- Narrative Control and Messaging
- Building Alliances and Partnerships
- Segmentation and Targeting
The power of the outsider narrative
The current system is broken and that the only one that can fix it is an outsider. That's the core message of any campaign that uses the outsider narrative.
This is what Donald Trump used to win the 2016 US presidential election. He positioned himself as the outsider who would "drain the swamp" and "Make America Great Again".
The outsider narrative is also a powerful marketing strategy. It's the idea that the current solution is broken and that the only way to fix it is to use a new solution.
Uber positioned itself against traditional taxi companies, highlighting issues like high prices, poor service, or lack of innovation. By doing so, they created a narrative of being the more customer-friendly, innovative alternative.
In general, the "us versus them" narrative, inherent in the outsider strategy, taps into a fundamental human instinct – the desire for change and the belief that there's a better way. It thrives on the perception of a disconnected, out-of-touch establishment and positions the "outsider" as the champion of the people, ready to disrupt the status quo.
Single issue voters
Some people make their voting decision based on a single issue.
They don't care about the other issues. They don't care about the other policies. They don't care about the other candidates. They only care about one issue.
Whether that's abortion rights, social justice, gun control or small government, many voters make decisions based on a party's position on a single policy.
The same is true for customers.
Some customers make their buying decision based on a single criteria. They don't care about the other options. They don't care about the other products.
If you can find that single issue, you can win those customers.
For example, some people only care about being able to self-host, so they will only use open source software. They don't care about what's better. They don't care about what's cheaper. They don't care about what's easier. They value no vendor lock-in above all else.
Companies like GitLab and Mattermost have built their entire business around this single issue.
Another example is Vercel. If you're building an app using Next.js and want to use all of its features like the api mode and image compression you just can't easily use any other hosting provider.
In politics, this is seen in campaigns where volunteers go door-to-door, make phone calls, and use social media to spread their message. A classic example is Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, which were renowned for their effective use of grassroots strategies.
Startups can harness grassroots mobilisation by building a community around their product or service. This might involve leveraging social media platforms to create buzz, encouraging user-generated content, or fostering a sense of community through events and forums. The key is to make each customer feel like they are part of a larger movement or mission.
For instance, companies like Tesla have successfully used grassroots mobilization by creating a community of passionate fans and customers who not only buy their products but also become brand evangelists. They share their experiences on social media, create content, and effectively spread the company's vision of sustainable transportation.
Figma isn't any different. They have a community of passionate designers who not only use their product but also become brand evangelists. They share their experiences on social media, create content, and effectively spread the company's vision of collaborative design.
Narrative Control and Messaging
Politicians repeat the same words over and over again.
They are obsessed with controlling narratives and staying on message. It's not just who you ally with; it's how you talk about it.
In politics, your words can rally supporters or alienate voters. In startups, your language shapes your brand.
Consider Dropbox and Box, both in cloud storage. Dropbox often speaks about simplicity and user-friendliness, targeting individual users and small teams. Box, on the other hand, positions itself with language geared towards larger businesses and enterprises, focusing on security and collaboration.
Linear isn't just another project management tool; it's the go-to for teams tired of slow, clunky, complicated software. They use language that screams simplicity and speed. They're saying, "Hey, we know you're fed up with slow, bloated tools. We get it. That's why we're here."
Even 5 years after launching, their core message is still the same!
This is broader than just how you talk about yourself, terms like Modern Data Stack and Product-led Growth get coined and adopted by people that want to attach themselves to a movement.
In essence, successful messaging in both politics and business is about clarity, resonance, and emotional connection. It's a blend of consistency in your words and authenticity in your story, ensuring that every message reinforces the narrative you want your audience to embrace and share.
Building Alliances and Partnerships
You can't win an election alone. You need the support of others to get to power.
Political candidates are always looking for ways to build alliances and partnerships with others that share similar goals.
The same is true for startups. They need to build alliances and partnerships with other companies with shared values in order to grow their business.
When I first got to San Francisco after starting June I expected cutthroat competition. What I found was a web of alliances. Startups, especially in tech, aren't islands; they're more like intersecting nodes.
I was surprised by how many startups were working together. I thought that they would be all competing with each other, but instead, there are alliances that form between companies that are working on similar problems.
These alliances often work against other alliances. For example, in the early days of Fivetran, they had an alliance with Snowflake and Looker (note: now that Looker was acquired by Google so it’s sold in combination with BigQuery). They were all working on similar problems, so they decided to work together. This alliance worked against other alliances like Stitch, Redshift, and Tableau.
Here’s a conference booth they organised together. The “Modern Data Stack” was a way to frame themselves as part of a broader movement.
Another example we're part of at June is Y Combinator.
Lots of YC companies sell to other YC companies. I know of companies that reach their first million in revenue ONLY selling to other YC companies.
The networks you're part of can really make a huge difference when taking things off the ground.
Segmentation and Targeting
Let’s take a look at Obama’s presidential campaign.
When speaking in industrial states like Ohio or Michigan, Obama's messages often focused on the revival of the American manufacturing sector and job creation. He emphasized policies aimed at revitalizing industries hit hard by globalization and technological change, resonating with workers in these sectors.
In tech hubs like California's Silicon Valley, Obama's narrative shifted towards innovation, technology, and renewable energy. He spoke about fostering a climate of innovation, supporting tech startups, and investing in green energy, aligning his message with the interests and values of his audience in these regions.
While addressing students at universities, Obama often highlighted education policies, student loan reforms, and the importance of higher education in a global economy. This approach effectively engaged young voters by addressing their immediate concerns and aspirations.
In contrast, when engaging with senior citizens in states like Florida, the emphasis was often on healthcare, social security, and retirement security. These tailored messages spoke to the more elderly voters.
Startups segment their market and tailor their marketing efforts to different audiences too.
Take how Headspace segments customers by lifestyle.
They split their communication by lifestyle and stressors. They have tailored messages for various groups like students, working professionals, and even athletes, focusing on how meditation can help in their specific contexts, such as reducing work stress or improving concentration.
Notion does an incredible job here too at promoting the different ways you can use their product.
The key takeaway is that inspiration can be drawn from the most unexpected places. From modern politics and entrepreneurship, there's always something new to learn, adapt, and apply to your own endeavours.
Whether you're seeking to win hearts in the political arena or conquer markets in the business world, you don’t need to look too far for inspiration.