5 Lessons for Startup Success

Startup Success

We’ve been fortunate enough to work with several startups over the last decade, across several different industries.  Some of our clients have experienced a wide range of successes, while others have not met with the same outcome. Quite often new clients come to us and ask, “What makes a successful startup?”, so, we’d thought we’d summarize some of the characteristics and trends we observed for you.

Understand Your Market and Strategy

Most startups have a singular, narrow focus on their own product, technology, or service and don’t make enough effort to evaluate their position relative to the market or competition. We’ve found that teams that approach their market as a whole, using strategic assessment tools (like Michael Porter’s Five Forces and “SWOT” analysis), often have a better understanding of their situation and can successfully seize on opportunities that may not have been readily apparent otherwise.

Identify the Right Customer for Your Business

Having a team clarify their market and strategy often leads to a better focus on which customers the business should target. Not only do firms need to understand who are these customers, but they also should know what they are willing to do for them. Identifying the right customer for the firm is a powerful exercise in helping define a firm’s brand.  A customer who demands a level of service or a type of product you aren’t willing or capable of delivering isn’t the right customer for you.

Know Your Customer’s Definition of Value

Understanding your customer, identifying what’s important to them, and defining what features and benefits matter to them is often critical to a firm’s success.  The only way to not be surprised by what’s important to your customer is to talk to them (early, often and lots of them). Too often, clients miss opportunities to enhance their business by only having a myopic focus on their own product, service, or technology.

Design a Great Customer Experience

Create a customer experience that builds value for you and the customer. A great customer journey takes effort by a firm to translate their understanding of customers’ beliefs in value into an experience they feel good about when they use your product/service. Teams that are able to align their customer acquisition strategy to product/service delivery help build the right kind of customer relationships that are necessary to drive growth and demonstrate the potential for growth to investors.

Excellence is Ongoing

Market dynamics are changing faster than ever, which means firms have to combine experimentation with educated guesses and constant iteration. Teams need to constantly anticipate, create, innovate, and iterate on their initiatives in order to succeed. While innovation can happen anywhere, and everything can be tried, tested, and changed, many firms are recognizing they need to prioritize their efforts where co-creation innovation techniques with customers are used for strategic areas of differentiation, and research in the lab is used for fine tuning.

Startups work in a world moving at an ever-increasing speed and nothing should be more important to the team than delivering on the company’s main idea. In most instances, a firm may not have the time, resources, or expertise to accomplish the activities we’ve described. If you decide to use outside help, work with principals of the firm. Hiring a big-name firm means that most likely you’ll end up working with junior staff that you’ll need to mentor or train.  Small, expert firms where you work with the principals can be much more effective in helping you achieve your goals.

Getting an initial product-market fit is just not enough anymore. Firms have to continuously monitor the market, engage with their clients, and keep tweaking their formula.

Design Thinking & Innovation Creativity as a Strategic Advantage

Strategic Advantage   Photograph Credit: Choralnet

Today’s business environment has never been more volatile or unpredictable. Businesses not only have to account for traditional sources of competition across their products, services and technology, but they are experiencing disruption from new sources, such as channels to market, human resource talent, brands, and supply chains.

More and more, organizations are realizing that being competitive requires increasing the creative capacity of the firm. Building a creative, innovative workforce requires a mindset shift that begins with a leadership that reframes challenges and encourages ideation and experimentation.

Design Thinking is one innovation tool that forward thinking leaders are using to expand the creative capacity of their workforce.  Design Thinking, or co-creation methods, help organizations change the way they solve problems and encourages a “fail fast” attitude that jumpstarts a firm’s innovative proficiency.

Evolving How to Capture Value

A management mindset on solving problems often creates an environment focused on “Doing Things Right”.  These efforts have been described as The Efficiency Movement and have manifested themselves in several different initiatives, including: Outsourcing, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Corporate Redesign, Market Segmentation, Line Extensions, and Diversification.

These efforts Capture Value for the organization, which can be essential to a firm’s competitive position.  The evolution of Analytics and the use of Big Data has only increased the opportunities for firms to leverage these efforts into sustainable competitive advantages.

Increasingly, creative organizations are applying tools such as Design Thinking to help employees turn insights about these initiatives into “how to win” strategies that impact business results.

Focus on Value Creation

Design Thinking challenges organizations to see the world through the eyes of their customers every step of the way.

This user-centric approach attempts to better understand what problems to focus on, the nature of a problem, and why problems exist for the user.  The result is to help companies identify if they are “Doing the Right Thing”.

By focusing on what’s important to the user, organizations can learn to define value from the outside in.  This approach helps firms identify ways to attack their challenges and focus efforts on generating more users, increasing usage, and adding benefits for users.

Strategic Advantage

User-centric approaches, like Design Thinking, help organizations become more agile and better able to cope with rapidly changing markets and new competition.

A firm’s ability to develop and grow its creative capacity, to focus on “doing the right thing”, combined with an ability to execute on “doing things right” will increasingly help separate the winners from the losers.



Design Thinking…less time planning, more time doing

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is revolutionizing work.

This human-centric, possibility-driven, option-focused, and iterative approach to problem solving is allowing companies to deliver truly innovative products and experiences.

Embrace Challenge

To stay ahead in today’s complex world, organizations need to constantly generate and execute on new ideas.

Design Thinking is a great innovation tool for tackling some of these difficult challenges, those hard to start problems.

User Driven Insights

Discover insights through user engagement to reframe how your team thinks about a challenge, generates ideas, and experiments with possibilities.

The approach builds momentum through prototyping, but also strengthens insight around what works (and what doesn’t) to create effective solutions.

Better Solutions

Step beyond the obvious, increase innovation potential, harness the collective strengths and perspectives of your teams to uncover the unexpected.

The combination of ideation and experimentation increases your innovation options and drives beyond the norm into the exceptional.


We’ve used an Applied Design Thinking approach across a broad range of business challenges.  The process is efficient and effective, helping teams gain insight they can leverage, and provides a framework to experiment their way to a solution.

Design Thinking allows teams to spend less time planning, more time doing, while building towards success.

Learn more:

Three lessons from Mattel’s Rebrand of Barbie®

There’s a “comeback for Barbie®”, Mattel shares are “soaring”, Barbie® sales “beat estimates” with a 16% increase for the Third Quarter, and sales reports describe this as a huge success for Mattel.

How did this transformation happen to such an entrenched brand and American icon as Barbie®?

Here’s three lessons I took away from how Mattel achieved their recent success:

Turn Feedback into Insight

With more and more available entertainment outlets, aggressive toy merchandising, and the attraction of electronic games, the competitive pressure can be tremendous.

Per consumer feedback from parents and children demonstrated that, Mattel must have learned how to listen to kids and parents to learn why children were looking elsewhere and heard Barbie® was a great brand; but it wasn’t something they could identify with or didn’t match many consumers’ values.

Mattel faced a major decision on how to make the brand more relevant, but that comes with risk in changing an icon.

Mattel then got to work. What we see today are the results of a company working simultaneously on strategies across brand, product, and imagery. Mattel built on the inherent strengths of the brand while leaving nothing untouched, creating a revitalized brand that included an overhaul of Barbie® across her shape, skin, eyes, and hair; the fashion and jewelry accessories available for Barbie®; the career options and choices for Barbie®; and the messaging behind the Barbie® brand.

A lesson here is ongoing contact with our customers provides us with an incredible opportunity to uncover new learning about our products and services, as well as offer us insights into our consumers’ minds, if we are willing to listen.

Adapt and Evolve

After two years of declining sales, Mattel was willing to make changes to Barbie® that expanded their audience. Mattel’s 2016 line of Barbie® Fashionistas® includes 4 body types, 7 skin tones, 22 eye colors, 24 hairstyles, including curvy, tall and petite dolls body types with several on-trend fashion and accessories. This line extension now offers children choices that are more aligned with the world they live in and it expands Mattel’s business opportunities.

The company also changed their marketing strategy, focusing on the potential of Barbie®.  Mattel launched an “Imagine the Possibility” campaign that was tied to a “You Can Be Anything” messaging, all designed to highlight the potential of various professions.

Taking feedback about Barbie® to heart, the brand, the product, the marketing campaign, and the company’s image all received a makeover.  This transformation builds on the brand’s values and has enabled Barbie® to grow to previously unseen heights.

The lesson here is that no matter how new or old our business model is, there is always an opportunity right around the corner.  Watching the market, listening to the customer, letting the user define the problem, are all examples of ways we can adjust and modify not only to modernize, but to fulfill a need.

Think Forward

Mattel also has initiated a limited edition launch strategy to keep current and boost interest in the brand.  In 2016, the Barbie® “heroes” campaign focuses on inspiring the young and encouraging potential. The launch of a Misty Copeland doll was in such high demand that Mattel had to schedule follow-up production.  Mattel also indicated we should expect to see an Olympian Gabby Douglas doll hitting store shelves in Spring 2017.

Mattel’s restaging of Barbie® is only one example of how companies can be successful in turning consumer feedback into deep learning and innovative thinking.  And it’s clear this is an ongoing process for successful organizations. Sejah Shah Miller, Vice president of Global Marketing at Mattel recently indicated “The brand is continuing to listen and make sure that it’s reflecting the world and trends. We are going to continue to evolve.”

The recent success for Barbie® may be an opportunity for the rest of us to focus on “how is our business evolving”?