Tyler Shields - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Your strategy is like a child. Good luck raising it!

Tyler Shields (EMBA '12)

Tyler Shields (EMBA ’12)

I’m a father of two wonderful children – an 11-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. I have what I affectionately call the “million-dollar family.” I also run marketing and strategy for a venture backed startup based in Los Angeles.

During my journey as an executive, I’ve noticed a couple of interesting analogies between marketing and strategy at a startup and raising children. Besides the fact that they are both extremely difficult, almost impossible to predict success and will cause you many sleepless nights, developing a strategy in a young startup follows similar phases to raising little ones.

Phase one: The toddler market
Toddlers can be a handful. They have a mind of their own and are generally strong willed. They will do what they want, when they want to do it and there is nothing you as a parent can say or do to change their mind. The control is in the hands of the child, and you must learn deceptive tricks to win.

It’s a lot like the feeling you get when marketing the youngest of startups. You have to define your product, understand your market, research your customer and figure out how to tell your company and product stories, all while catering to the whims of a market and buyers that you have absolutely no control – and limited understanding – of. When you finally figure out how to create a strategy to achieve what the buyer says they want and present it to them, they will inevitably change their minds and want something completely different. It’s the toddler way.

Similar to raising a child, the sleepless nights and exhaustion aren’t what will wear you down the most – you expected those nights. It’s the unpredictable, spontaneous crying fits and emotional roller coasters. At this development phase, it is all about getting traction with something – ANYTHING, really. In an agile and lean business world, this is the ideation through minimum viable product (MVP) phase of your company.

The keys to successfully navigating the toddler stage are patience, perseverance and finding the right “tricks.” It is really hard to maintain calm, keep your voice down and show confidence in the face of a screaming and defiant three-year-old. However, that is exactly what a parent must do. Patience and perseverance in trying to find that perfect mix of toy (technology), presentation (marketing) and interest (market readiness) will result in raising a great kid (company).

Go ahead and put the peas in front of your child. If that doesn’t work, point out the window and yell “SQUIRREL” – then change out the peas for something else. Just do it quickly, before things get too crazy to control!

Phase two: The tweenager market
Tweens are in the stage where they still love their parents while simultaneously hating their guts. Once you pass the toddler phase, your child will start to realize that they have a will of their own – and that they can make their own decisions and don’t have to listen to what you say. They will become surly and uncooperative and give you no reason to believe that you will be successful in helping them become productive members of society. Okay, I’m pushing this analogy a little far… but you get this picture.

The tweenager phase of marketing a startup is just as moody and fickle. Sometimes the customers will tell you that something is bad when it’s actually perfect… just because they can. And they will push you to the brink of insanity.

The tweenager stage has to be managed with a research-driven methodology. At this stage of the game, you have customers and are starting to gain confidence as your products and company generate value. However, you must be careful not to rely on the feedback of one major customer – or even a few minor ones. Your sample set is just too small. Continued market research outside of your current echo chamber is imperative to success.

If you asked your tween what he thought of tonight’s dinner, his answer may vary wildly depending on his mood. This is essentially why you shouldn’t follow the advice of a single high profile or major enterprise buyer. The rest of the world may not think exactly like that buyer. Don’t put all of your eggs into a single basket. Remember to get out beyond your small reach and seek feedback from multiple sources. Sometimes (many times), your single child (buyer) will be wrong.

Phase three: The teenage market
Ahh, the age when your child doesn’t like anything you do – the age where they think they know everything and they aren’t afraid to tell you so. Luckily my children haven’t yet reached this age. I don’t have direct stories to go on here, but suffice it to say that if my own “know it all” teenage years are any indication of how most kids act, I’m about to go up against a really formidable opponent.

The teenage market will really test your marketing strategies. At this stage of child rearing, it’s all about building independence and trust. You must begin to let your customers know that you’ve already reached market fit, that you’ve gotten significant traction with your technology and that you have sustainable revenue as a company. You are no longer here to cater to their whims – however, you still want the best for them and they have to trust that you are there to help them be successful. At this stage, they begin to respect you.

By this time in your company’s growth, you have a formalized process for taking input from your entire customer base and a way to determine the market viability and demand of any ask. If the demand isn’t there to produce a significant return on investment, you have to be confident enough to tell your customers no.

You have to build trust with your customers and prove that you know what you are doing. You have to believe that you have created enough value in your company’s products and services that, even without this added value, the teenage customer and market will continue to love you deep down inside.

You might lose a customer or two at this stage. However, if you are listening to the overall feedback trends and comparing them to the required investment, you should be able to continue to grow your business.

Don’t get pushed around by the teenage market. Instead, remember to give it a little firm love and do right for your business overall.

Phase four: The young adult market
Reaching the young adult stage is every parent’s goal. This is the phase where your market and customer have reached maturity. At this phase, the relationship with your child is one of mutual respect. You’ve banged heads enough to know that your young adult has taken on a life of their own, and they simultaneously have come to realize that as a parent you will always be there to guide them and help them get better.

This is the phase we all look forward to when raising children. This is the phase in which we have the best of relationships with our parents. This is the point that both parties have mutual respect, trust and understanding of each other.

The young adult market respects and trusts you as a company. They understand that you are the leader in your space and the innovations that you continue to create will help them be more effective. They will still ask for help every now and again – they are young adults after all. They will still tell you how to interact and communicate with them, but it won’t be so strained. There won’t be the fear that one minor misstep could spell disaster for your entire company.

While nothing is ever guaranteed, this is the phase that we as parents (marketing executives) strive for – the phase where we thoroughly relate to our buyer and they relate to us. The phase where together, we reach a feeling of mutual respect and know that the other will be there to help both parties become stronger over time.

Good luck raising your kids
Tyler Shields - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolThe four phases of childhood and market strategy – toddler, tweenager, teenager and young adult – each bring distinct challenges to the enterprise strategy and marketing teams. Understanding the current phase of your market and your customers will help you determine the most effective way to build a successful company.

It’s never easy raising kids. Over the last 11 years, I’ve more often felt like I was doing something wrong than doing anything right. But every now and again, I get that perfect moment with my kids – the one where they make me feel like I’ve been the perfect father.

Good luck in finding those moments with your children and your business. One day, you’ll look back at each of these stages and miss them.

By Tyler Shields (EMBA ’12), vice president of marketing, partnerships and strategy at Signal Sciences Corp.