4 startup lessons from Rustin Banks


This article has previously been published in Dutch marketing magazine Adformatie.

In recent years Boulder, a little town at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, has developed into one of the main advertising and technology startup hubs in the US. In this column I’m highlighting some of these startups, in the hope to provide some inspiration to industry peers in The Netherlands.

Last week I met with Rustin Banks, CEO and co-founder of TapInfluence, a software company that started in 2009 as social content marketing agency BlogFrog. The initial idea was to connect brands and bloggers more efficiently through technology, offering more effective influencer marketing than traditional agencies. Brands could connect authentically with their target audience, and influential bloggers could generate revenue from their content. In 2012 BlogFrog changed their business strategy, abandoning the agency model for that of a software company, and changed their name into TapInfluence. I discussed with Rustin what we could learn from his experiences and the following 4 principles rose to the top.

1. Pivot

It’s not uncommon for startups to change strategy along the way. Twitter started as podcast service Odeo, Groupon as petition service The Point and YouTube as dating site Tune In Hook Up. In the startup world this is known as a Pivot: a change in strategy without a change in vision. A pivot is not a complete startover but a shift in one aspect of your startup’s focus based on validated learning. In the case of TapInfluence the learning was that content marketing had become so core to agencies that they increasingly did it in-house. Rustin: “Our clients were becoming our competitors. We came to the realization that our DNA was technology. We said, this is our passion, let’s use it to give them the tools to do it themselves.” So far the new strategy seems to pay off. Nearly 100 brands and agencies are now using TapInfluence, including Microsoft and Coca Cola.

2. Focus

TapInfluence moved from doing two things (content marketing and software development) to doing one thing. They put all their effort in the one place where they knew they were the strongest: cloud-based software. This allowed them to raise more capital and invest in rebuilding the technology from the ground up. The improved software enables users to identify influencers, co-create content, distribute content across various social platforms and access real-time analytics and ROI metrics – all from one place.

3. Mentors

TapInfluence didn’t make their decision in isolation but surrounded themselves with a diverse group of advisors in different industries – varying from online maker community Craftsy to security intelligence company LogRhythm. Being located in Boulder really helped. Rustin: “Everyone here has a vested interest in making it work. We call it ‘Team Boulder,’ the startup community here is banding together and helping each other out. You do see the same thing happening in other places such as Seattle, Austin, Portland and even Las Vegas. Whereas, there is no such thing as team Silicon Valley.”

4. People

It’s not enough to have a good business idea, you need to continuously invest in your employees and culture. Rustin: “Half of our success is our strategy, the other half is managing and developing our people. We only hire A players who embody a spirit of entrepreneurship. We could not have achieved what we did without them, for which I’m truly grateful.”

I think that many established Dutch agencies and their clients might benefit from a more lean and flexible approach. Thinking like a startup may be the only way to stay ahead in today’s complex business environment. Don’t let what you’re doing right now cloud the core idea of what you are and therefore prevent you from becoming more useful, profitable or engaging.