Startup to IPO: Why Few Companies Make the Leap and What We Can Learn from Them (Part 4: Differentiation & Marketing)

At a time that many people building safe businesses and not enough startups trying to change the world, are we, as entrepreneurs, still supposed to dream big? Should we build a company that will go public someday? Or should an exciting startup define success on a $170 million exits?

While I am happy for Aaron Patzer, the founder of, the world has just lost the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Scott Cook of this generation because of this acquisition. Many young entrepreneurs have to find another role models to look up to now.

Growing a company from a startup to IPO sometimes requires more than ability and knowledge. It also takes a strong will for an entrepreneur to want to build a lasting company. I am sure there are entrepreneurs somewhere building the next big things right now. And I hope this “Startup to IPO” blog post series (Part 1, 2, 3, 4) can inspire them to keep fighting for their dreams.

In this last post, we will look at how these four elite companies (Vistaprint, Rackspace, OpenTable, differentiate and market themselves when they just got started.

Pursue Customers that Competitors Hate

In the printing industry, companies usually hate to work with small business customers because of the low printing volume and low profit margin. They rather go after big companies which spend large amounts of money on printing. Yet VistaPrint had a different strategy. Their founder, Robert Keane, once said:

Our experience gave us confidence that there was a market with micro businesses. Other companies did not want to pursue them. Everyone else thought it was a horrible market. We happened to be in the right spot at the right time.

In order to achieve this goal, they have developed technology to automate desktop publishing and manufacturing so that they can sell products at low quantities and superior prices. However, there were another problem. Another reason their competitors hated the micro businesses market was because these customers are not easy to get to. VistaPrint solved the problem through direct marketing but in an unusual way. They gave their products away for free to generate buzz. According to Robert,

That became a runaway success. At the time, full-color business cards were selling online for $85 and $200-$300 at traditional printers. We gave them away free with a $5 shipping and handling fee. That offer was so successful in getting people to try us that it became an acquisition engine that drove our business. Our business model got to scale very quickly.

This free sample offer also built up the credibility of the company. So the customers will buy other things when they come back for the second time.

Do your company and competitors ignore a portion of potential customers now? In fact, even President Obama targeted a tribe (young people, minorities and the poor) that were usually ignored by traditional candidates during his presidential campaign. If you want to be successful in a crowded market, you have to be creative and do something very different from your competitors. Love the customers your competitors hate. They may just be the ones who help your company grow to the next level.

Must-Have Business

During tough times, if your company was a must-have business for your customers, I am sure your company will do pretty well. OpenTable happens to be that kind of business. Like AdWords and regular affiliate programs, OpenTable’s customers only have to pay for results providing an extraordinary lead-generation marketing tools for restaurants. Like one of their customers said: has given us new ways to understand who our guests are, and what they want. Their system is helping us utilize the Internet to communicate more easily with consumers, and makes it easier to cater to the desires of our regulars…52% of the reservations that delivers to us are first-time visitors to the restaurant, which means that is bringing us significant numbers of new customers, as well as giving our regulars an easy and efficient way to visit us.”

Their system revolutionized the way that restaurants are managed and marketed, and add depth to the way that they welcome and communicate with their guests. OpenTable allows their customers to see who is eating at the restaurant at any given moment. So the restaurants can treat some guests like regulars. Oftentimes, their reservation system is indispensable to the diner, too. Like a restaurant owner said:

Next to the name of one regular, who has a habit of bringing in women he is not married to, is an instruction to make sure the man’s wife has not booked a separate table for the same day…Of another, who takes many of his first dates to Town Hall, the instructions read, “Do not treat like a regular!”

The bottom line: is your product a pain killer (got to have it) or a Vitamin (nice to have)? If you could create values to your customers during downturn, your company will be in a great position to continue to outpace the competition after the bad times.

Specialize in Just One Thing

When asked the key to success for Rackspace to become the fastest-growing managed hosting company, Pat Condon, the cofounder, believes their customers have chosen Rackspace because of their sharp focus.

We specialize in just one thing – managed hosting. We’re focused exclusively on managed hosting with Fanatical Support, and as a result we’re very good at it. Think about it this way: If you needed to have brain surgery, what kind of doctor would you choose? A general practitioner or a brain surgeon? I’d know I’d choose a brain surgeon – a brain specialist.

Moreover, combining this focus with their Fanatical Support, they have created a brand with tremendous value. Whenever potential customers hear about Rackspace, they will have a positive impression of the company. In fact, 60% of their new business comes from referral showing their existing customers are fully satisfied with their services.

For Rackspace, some of their most effective marketing actually came from serving their customers fanatically every day. It’s no surprise that their customer turnover rate is one of the lowest in their industry. Their customers not only stay with Rackspace but also purchase more from them as well. According to Pat,

Our customer base grows organically every month, month-over-month. What this means is that even if we didn’t sell anything to new customers, our existing customer base would keep purchasing additional servers from us. This has caused the Rackspace business to grow at a fairly rapid pace and it is something of which we’re extremely proud.

Rackspace has proven that the most effective marketing strategy sometimes just doesn’t cost you that much. How do your customers feel about your company? Do they have a positive impression of your business now? Do they recommend your services to others? If you want to find out these answers, creating a customer development survey probably can help you get started.

Strong Relationship with the Media, on the other hand, uses a totally different approach in marketing. They do marketing on the cheap through public relations and creating buzz. The company has a reputation of being able to work the media very well, especially for the founder, Marc Benioff. He is very outspoken and not afraid to take on their giant competitors like Microsoft, SAP and Oracle. He once said:

Relationships with the media are really important. The media has a more important voice today than it has ever had. We don’t advertise. We only have one marketing vehicle, which is editorial, and our ability to get our message out and communicate it effectively.

Besides disparaging large competitors as dinosaurs, 20th century fossils and monopolists, is very good at guerrilla marketing as well. They once hired actors to stage mock protest rallies outside a competitor’s conferences, which brought tremendous attention to their company. The reason of doing that? Like Marc said:

In both good times and bad, people are always eager to hear about challenges to the status quo.

After all, does your company have a position in the market? Are you trying to be all things to all people? Find the customers who share your vision and stop blindly follow your competitors in the industry.


After this post series, we have heard consistently that their leaders have defined success on a very big scale. And it seems they are all using similar but actually different approaches to achieve their success. So stop looking for the silver bullet now. There are million ways to scale your business rapidly. Find your dream and fight for it till the end (hopefully).

I would like to end this series with a quote by another highly successfully entrepreneur, Glenn Kelman, the founder of Plumtree and Redfin:

If first-timers don’t create public companies, nobody will.

Telling young entrepreneurs that they’re not ready to be a Jedi yet, just because they’re young” is simply wrong. Fight on to victory!

Photo source: nickwheeleroz @Flickr

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