Startups and The Power Of Polarization

Written By: Dharmesh Shah September 24, 2008

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.

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