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Startup Marketing Lessons from Donald Trump’s Surprise Win

When you step back from the rough business of politics and the awful things said along the way during the campaign, Trump and his team deserve a lot of credit for pulling off the US election win
President-elect Donald Trump gestures toward reporters as he arrives for a party at the home of Robert Mercer, one of his biggest campaign donors, December 3, 2016, in Head of the Harbor, N.Y. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President-elect Donald Trump gestures toward reporters as he arrives for a party at the home of Robert Mercer, one of his biggest campaign donors, December 3, 2016, in Head of the Harbor, N.Y. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

I’m still digesting Donald Trump’s surprise US election win. Even his top aides were surprised. When you step back from the rough business of politics and the awful things said along the way during the campaign, Trump and his team deserve a lot of credit for pulling this off. The media had them tagged as failures and Team Trump showed them a thing or two.

There are huge startup lessons to be learned from Trump’s big win.

Do It Yourself and Retain Your Independence

Even the Republican Establishment was against Trump. He and his team had to be self reliant. Now that they’ve won, they owe nothing to the elites. For better or worse, Team Trump will be able to craft policy as they wish. Trump himself is speaking to foreign leaders without going over State Department talking points.

Self reliance isn’t always possible, but the more you know and can do yourself, the better equipped your startup. Vendors won’t always tell you the truth. When you work with vendors, the more you know about what they do, the better.

This is especially challenging for startups. A core group of 3-5 people can’t possible do everything, but they need to be experts on everything. The first skill you look for is “versatility”. A startup CTO can’t just be familiar with one programming language, or one aspect of technology. He has to know all of them. Likewise, a VP Marketing at a startup isn’t an enterprise politician who delegates work to others – he or she has to be fully capable of deciding where to allocate budget, create campaigns and content, analyze results and continually improve the funnel.

Think Outside the Box

I love the Taco Bell slogan, “Think outside the bun.” (I’m a big fan of both Taco Bell and McDonald’s — both have decades of introducing out of the box ideas.) Team Trump lived and breathed outside of the box.

No other US presidential candidate did this. He Tweeted raw remarks, he started public battles with everyone — even a Gold Star family. Instead of long, boring policy speeches, he talked about how much he loves to win, and how he wants to “stick it” to the establishment.

How many of your startup marketing activities are really outside the box? When is the last time you took a risk on a new idea? Trump may be on the conservative side, but his marketing was out in left field. He liberally broke all of the rules, on the way to the White House.

Trump spent less on TV ads and other traditional advertising platforms. He built a direct connection to his audience via Twitter. Saturday Night Live recently spoofed it — hilarious skit! — but Trump has less need for a middle man than other candidates.

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

Don’t give up until it’s over. Had they listened to the media, Team Trump would have slowed down their pace the last few weeks. Why work hard when you have no chance to win? They didn’t. Hillary Clinton’s team didn’t slow down either — even when they were certain of victory. That they worked hard in the wrong states was an error that few foresaw. Both teams had a smart culture of insulating themselves from outside noise.

Both Sides Got This Right

Both campaigns had a strong ground game. Trump used a “secret technology” to locate potential voters, and the Democrats are known for having a stellar election day “get out the vote” machine. The closer we got to election day, the more both campaigns focused on election day results and less on policy nuances. Exactly.

With startup marketing, eventually all that matters are qualified leads and sales. eBooks, whitepapers, campaigns and blog posts are just a means to that end.

I know those of you on the left and right will come up cynical lessons. I’m just not there. This campaign will be studied for centuries and I had a great time following it.

About the Author
Kenny Sahr is a startup marketing executive. His first startup, founded in 1996, was featured in Time Magazine and on 60 Minutes. Kenny moved to Israel from Miami, Florida. In his spare time, he is an avid music collector and traveler.
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