How to Do Marketing Like a Unicorn Startup

A review of Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

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Startup companies known as “unicorns” achieve huge market valuations, often surprising the business world with the popularity of their products. As a marketer, I’m interested in how these companies tell their stories. Is their success at least partly the result of superior marketing talent, pure and simple?

The book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days suggests that unicorns take a fundamentally different approach to marketing. The book, which was recommended to me by Melissa Z. Moore, co-founder of Lean Startup Co., says that hot startups like Slack, Blue Bottle Coffee and FitStar have made critical marketing decisions by pursuing a highly structured, five-day team exercise called a sprint.

They don’t replicate what they’ve done in the past or or run with the first idea they have. They companies discussed in Sprint operate differently. They turn marketing challenges into engineering problems — and they solve them through the experimental methods of the sprint.

Within this paradigm, the marketer’s expertise is still essential, but only within the context of disciplined experimentation and testing. The marketer’s expertise does not contain the solution; rather, it informs which solutions are prototyped and tested during the sprint.


Turning Marketing into an Engineering Problem

Each company used as a case study in Sprint is backed by GV, the venture capital arm of Google (formerly known as Google Ventures). The authors — Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz — are partners at GV, and they have run hundreds of sprints with their portfolio companies.

When creating websites, product tutorials and basic messaging, the companies in the book followed the five-day, five-step sprint method to arrive at a solution:

  1. Map out the high-stakes problem to be solved (Monday)
  2. Sketch potential solutions (Tuesday)
  3. Decide on the most promising one (Wednesday)
  4. Prototype the solution (Thursday)
  5. Test it with customers (Friday).

That’s the essence of the Sprint. If your solution fails, it fails fast. If  it works, you’ve compressed months of progress into a single work week.

Taken as a whole, Sprint provides a blueprint for thinking and operating like a venture-backed startup. And lest you think a Sprint is cost-prohibitive, the authors insist to the contrary: They use free software like KeyNote to build prototypes (even in the case of a robot!), and they recruit customers for the Day 5 product interviews by placing ads on Craigslist.

It’s Not as Simple as a Purple Cow

One of the case studies in Sprint is Slack, the celebrated messaging service that has shown there are better ways to communicate in the 21st century workplace than email. Prior to reading Sprint, I would have said that Slack is a Purple Cow — Seth Godin’s term for a product so remarkable that it spreads by word of mouth, bypassing the need for traditional marketing.

But Sprint shows that Slack’s promise didn’t inoculate it against difficult marketing challenges. Early on, they faced a real problem: How to explain their product so that an entire team (or company) would be persuaded to use it in place of email. To figure this out, they ran a sprint with GV and prototyped two solutions.

The same goes with Blue Bottle Coffee. The coffee’s great, but it didn’t sell itself — especially online. To overcome people’s skepticism about buying coffee on the Internet, Blue Bottle had to build a website that mirrored its in-store experience. It’s easy to imagine what another company would do in this situation: Hire the best web design agency it could afford. Blue Bottle, however, devoted a sprint to this challenge, prototyping three versions of a new website and testing them with customers. (And as the book explains, the feedback they got was unexpected, preventing them from building a dud website.)

FitStar, the award-winning personal training app, designed a sprint around the following questions: How can we explain a new kind of fitness software? If you came across FitStar in the App Store, how would you decide if you wanted to buy it? I wonder how many apps have taken the time to isolate, and work on, these types of questions.

FitStar’s sprint was well worth it: The app went on to win a Best of the Year award from Apple and was later acquired by Fitbit.
With its many case studies, Sprint dispels the myth that breakout products succeed on their own merits. By taking us inside each company’s sprint, they show us how meticulous these brands have been in identifying their challenges and designing solutions, aided by the Sprint method.

“Unfortunately, we aren’t geniuses” 

One of the most uplifting messages from Sprint is that great marketing and products can be achieved through process, as opposed to genius or luck. (The authors, while no slouches, state upfront that they are not geniuses.) The book is extremely prescriptive about this process and goes into painstaking detail about the schedule to be followed on each day of a sprint, with individual chapters devoted to each day. At the back of the book, there is even a shopping list for mandatory Sprint supplies, which include white boards, masking tape, dot stickers, and something called the Time Timer.

You’ve probably heard of the sprint concept before. It comes from Agile, a framework for product development that stresses incremental improvements and testing as opposed to so-called waterfall projects where design, development, testing and deployment happen in strict sequence. (The sequential nature of waterfall development means the final product is not seen for months after design is initiated, making companies less nimble.)

Sprint’s authors have made Agile’s sprint concept their own, turning it into a five-day process for identifying a commercial problem, creating a solution and getting actionable insight on the viability of that solution. With their case studies, they show the process works not just for product development but for marketing and communications as well.

Marketers might not think to work in sprints if they don’t frame their challenges as specific problems to be solved. The process outlined in Sprint forces you to map out the problem on a whiteboard and pinpoint the thing you’re solving for.

Only then do you contemplate solutions — and this is not to occur by means of group brainstorming, which the authors vehemently reject. Rather, the sprint team does something called “working alone together,” an activity in which team members individually sketch solutions, under time pressure, while seated together in the sprint room. The sketches are then taped to a white board, and the team members vote on the best one using the dot-voting method.

That winning solution will become your prototype.

A Smarter Way of Working

Sprint is ultimately a book about working smarter. In rejecting group brainstorming, the authors cite scientific studies, plus a painful scenario that many of us will recognize: You share an idea at a meeting, only to see it bastardized on the spot as your team brainstorms off of what you proposed. The new idea emerging from this hasty groupthink becomes the consensus, and you’re now responsible for executing it. Ugh.

As the authors point out, discussing and debating problems in the abstract, in unstructured meetings, simply doesn’t work. The sprint is their answer to this all-too-common behavior, and they acknowledge that the very structured nature of the sprint, with its timed discussions and unusual decision-making methods, could feel awkward to some.

That may be so. But the wider point of the book is worth celebrating, and it justifies any awkwardness that the sprint may cause. Sprint shows that the success of at least some unicorn startups comes from a highly methodical approach to work — one that we can all replicate, with the tools provided in the book, if we so choose.