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5 Marketing Lessons You Should Learn from Startups HRTech

HR Technology is big business – we already know that.   We also can clearly see there is no shortage of money in this space – just ask one of the equity or VC firms, anyone in silicon valley with half a decent (well, maybe not even decent) product idea or attend any party at HR Technology Conference.

Unfortunately, money doesn’t always lead to sales and positive brand recognition.

Sometimes when working with a traditional HR Tech vendors I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them a little and yell  “Just because you have a big budget doesn’t mean you should spend it on stupid stuff.”  But I don’t, I say it tactfully, gracefully and help them see other options – ones that actually better impact their bottom line and buyers.

If you are an HR Tech vendor, your buyer is probably not a F100. (There is only 100 of those and the sales cycle is painfully long)  It’s definately not anyone that cares about your $7.50 glossy brochure they will throw away the second they leave your generic overstaffed booth at (fill in any trade show name here).

For all the innovation and change we preach in our space one of the biggest mistakes vendors make is wasting money on things that no one other than analysts and a few old school folks really care about.

Guess who is buying your product?  Not them.

Like others, it wasn’t that long ago when this industry required nothing short of a kiss of Pope Borgia‘s holy ring in order to get any acceptance.  But today’s HR Tech buyers are more saavy, expect more than a thought leader endorsement and want to be woo’d.  Today’s buyer is a consumer – a consumer of television, technology, music, food.  They love ipods and iphone and droids and kindles.  They talk about their kids and vacations and cats.  They get bombarded with the same marketing images you do.  And can see through the BS of yesterday as quickly as you can.

I spent early March in Austin, TX at SXSW (South by Southwest) – the launching point for some of the “next big things” in consumer tech – by both startups and “traditional” companies. I ate lunch with 20 something millionaires prepping to sell their third and fourth companies.   Had drinks with old school companies that have recently started running hackathons for the next big talent.  Danced with one of the pioneers of technology blogging and hung out in the Klout House enjoying fajita’s and talking with VC firms.

Regardless of how experienced they were, or how long they had been around the industry, one thing remained the same about all their thoughts of successful marketing strategies – think like a startup.

Here are 5 Simple Tips to Marketing Like a Startup:

  1. Consumerization of Technology – Its Simple.  Make stuff people want to use.  Then market it to them the way they are used to being marketed to.  Hint:  That no longer includes a folder full of sell sheets in high quality, high gloss paper.  That is the marketing equivalent of pink or grey card stock resumes with matching envelopes.
  2. Quick & Agile better for Launch – Highlight did an amazing job of this at SXSW.  Day 1 – the product sucked.  Lets face it, the concept was great, but the user interface was lacking some basic features that would have really made it useful.  So you know what they did?  They fixed it.  Night 1.  Day 2 – It was better.  Amazing actually.  In most companies it would have take a roadmap and a new scheduled release and a press release and focus group and analyst opinions and blah blah blah – everything that would have just resulted in another failed product they can chalk up to “mobile not working in our space”
  3. Developed Technology how people want to work – See #1.  Continue to actually understand your users and WHO will be the user of the technology.  Make it simple. Don’t make stuff that is lame or boring.  In fact, ask someone who looks nothing like you for their opinion.  Then Listen.  Start-ups thrive because it fills the gap.  In HR, often by replacing gaps in integrated solutions.
  4. Engage.  At SXSW a VERY large vendor in our space had a taco truck.  Brilliant idea.  People wanted taco’s and were asking about the product.  They staffed it with the dumbest people in Austin they could find I’m pretty sure.  They were so busy re-applying lipstick and talking about the parties they were going to they didn’t even say a word other than “Go ahead and grab one” without making eye contact.  Do you know what startups would have done?  Had their CEO, Founder, Product Guy, Sales Person – anyone that actually gave a crap about the company- there to make sure that didn’t happen.   You can’t pay for passion or engagement.
  5. Its not all about the Money – A company yesterday told me that they scrapped the idea to build the 100k iphone app to view content, because they couldn’t come up with ROI.  Holy Heck.  For what they were wanting to do the app should have been 10-15k.  Like all other things, just because something is most expensive, doesn’t mean its the best.   Seriously people.  Have some common sense.  There is always a less expensive option – ask any startup who has bartered, hired a kid in college (who is probably who that large firm was outsourcing to anyway), scaled their initial concept down, etc.


In the end its pretty simple.   The world has changed.  Its not about keeping a few at the top happy anymore – its about getting your brand and product accessable for the masses.

Your buyers are people.  Not HR people.  Just people.  People who like to not be sold to – but do like to buy.  Possibly, just not from you. 




Sarah Brennan

Sarah Brennan is a recognized HCM industry analyst and advisor focused on improving the impact of technology on people, business and the future of work.  Sarah Brennan has been named a top global influencer in HR Technology by more than 50 publications and shared her insights at speaking engagements around the world. As Chief Advisor at Accelir, she partners with HR Technology vendors and investors as an advisor, interim CxO role and on engagements focused on growth strategies, product roadmap & market education/evangelism. She also works with corporate teams enhancing talent strategies.

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  1. Jemma Taylor December 20, 2012

    Good insight – I work at a start up that is run by people who don’t know how to treat people. That’s a good way to make your start-up a stop-up. The employees are all disgruntled and morale could not get lower. I think one of the draw backs of working with visionaries is that they didn’t necessarily take HR classes in college…


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