Three Lessons from Internet Startups

By Joe Cardillo

Last week marked three full months of working at a startup.

In that time I’ve learned dozens of things, ranging from email marketing and lead generation to biz dev for tech, and even a little bit about database queries / SQL (don’t be jealous).

I don’t come from a startup background. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever worked for one.

I’ve always been an entrepreneur though, and have gravitated towards jobs and activities where I get to be in charge of my time, and have the opportunity to define my own goals.

You could say I was sort of born for this. I love building things, and then stepping back to watch them flourish. I like working with people, but I am obsessed with – and loyal to – ideas above all else.

Perception is Not Reality

There are plenty of things about Internet startups that seem counterintuitive from the outside. “You guys take too many risks” is a common complaint from friends who work for more traditional and/or larger organizations. I also hear a lot of, “Yeah, but not everyone has the luxury of losing clients if things go wrong.”

When I’m done swacking my fist on my forehead, there’s only one response I can come back with: You got us all wrong, people.

To clarify, my personal opinion is  no business can afford not to take risks. And no one can afford to lose clients, so that’s also bad soup to spoon feed someone.

A whole bunch of large corporations that you know and maybe even love are going to go out of business in the next 10 years. And don’t get me started on PR agencies, many of whom are refusing to change and adapt, even though the writing is on the wall and has been for a while.

But, there is a way out.

It involves learning from the leanest segment of the economy – startups!

Three Things Internet Startups Can Teach Big Business


People talk about priorities all the time. But when was the last time you actually prioritized, I mean hardcore made some serious decisions about what was necessary and what was nice to have? In a startup environment there are often four or fives times as many problems as solutions. Sure, there are 20 things worth doing this week – but which three absolutely have to get done to move your business forward, and at what cost?

If you can figure that out, you will make serious changes happen faster – and end up bettering the health of your organization.

Momentum / Moving Quickly

I’ll come right out and say I think this is the hardest one for most people. I’ll tell you a secret about the human brain. Actually, I’ll tell you two secrets. The first is the processing power of the brain is vastly underrated. If you give your brain a goal it will immediately start calculating how to get there, and begin to build a framework for achieving said goal. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime, and tell me how it goes.

The other secret is that it very rarely matters if you figure something out in full right now because your brain (and your metrics) needs to make connections over time in order to truly validate something. That’s where moving quickly and momentum come in. The hot word / concept right now is “pivoting” but you’re far better off with “testing.”

If you identify what can be pushed forward by moving right now, you accomplish two things: One is instant feedback ,and the other is giving your brain the instruction this matters, it’s worth coming back to! Moving quickly, and then maintaining momentum is huge.

Make Time for Insight/Step Back

This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Someone quoted a piece of data to me last week about the number of videos uploaded to Instagram the first week they had video uploads enabled. I don’t remember the exact statistic, but it sounded really impressive. That’s the thing about stuff – anything can sound impressive when you don’t have insight.

A much better question to ask would be, what’s the trend over time? Are there core users uploading the most video? Are they influential? If 500,000 people uploaded a video in the first week what’s the drop-off rate in weeks two to six?

The only way you can find these things out is by stepping back for a moment. I think this applies in a couple of areas, one is the gut check where you ask yourself “how does this feel” and “is this all working well together” and the other is being a data-focused organization that steps back, and learns from the information gleaned.

What do you think other businesses can learn from startups? Is there anything startups can learn from larger companies and other organizations?

Joe Cardillo

Joe Cardillo is a product/ops guy turned marketer and digital evangelist for San Francisco based design marketplace Visually. He digs writing, journalism, media, PR, design, rocanroll, startups, anything science-y, and thinking about how to become a better human.

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