Lessons from Google’s CMO or Sean Heads to In-N-Out Burger, Again

Less than a week ago I was soaking up the sun on the west coast, again a proud attendee and supporter of Startup Grind’s Global Conference, the 6th annual affair that brings together the 600 chapters across the globe for two days to share, connect, and hopefully, just hopefully, walk away with potential investment or business opportunities.

For those of you not in the know, founded in 2010, Startup Grind is the largest, independent startup community in the world, boasting a membership of around 1.5M entrepreneurs spread across 105 countries. Kapowza’s been a proud sponsor of Startup Grind’s Columbia and Baltimore chapters for over two years and has no plans of stopping.

Main marquee and site of the conference.

This year, I, along with about 20 others from the three Maryland chapters — Baltimore, Columbia, and Frederick — made up a strong contingent from Maryland, and our friends at Technical.ly were happy to share our story (which you can read here) before the event started on February 12th.

Now, I could regale you all with my event highlights, as I did last year, cataloged through overhead quotes; tell you about the new code words I learned to order at In-N-Out (“light well” for fries), or the fact that I found the best tacos in a truck parked outside of a Planned Parenthood. No, this year, I’d like to share with you the best talk I caught during my two days at the event.

This is not to say that all the other sessions weren’t valuable (they definitely were) but I think 2018’s Cannes’ Creative Marketer of the Year Lorraine Twohill’s, Google’s Chief Marketing Officer, discussion with Bridgette Beam, Head of Programs & Operations at Google for Startups was one of the best. Their talk, “How to Build a Brand like Google”, was chock-full of great advice for all the young and established startups in the crowd, and I was rapt the entire discussion, hanging off of every word, gaining inspiration at every step.

Couldn’t get close enough.

And what worked for this talk, wasn’t just about building a business like Google, but something that companies of all sizes can strive for. The lessons, advice was universally applicable, in my mind, and I’m happy to share it with you all here.


Start with a Purpose

Gordon B. Hinckley, American Clergyman, and guy cited on BrainyQuote.com, once said: “You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation.” Twohill spoke a bit about ensuring future success by building a strong foundation from word go. On day one, once you know you’re going to take the leap into building something with some staying power, it’s important to start off on the right foot.

Twohill suggested you need to define what kind of company you are going to be, what type of leader you’ll be/have, and, most importantly a good answer to the question: “Why?”

“Everyone focuses on the what typically,” said Twohill. “When you change the approach and focus on why you do something, focusing on the problems, both big and small that you’re trying to solve, that’s where you’ll truly make a difference.”

Get Out of Your Own Way

This is one we’ve definitely learned and preach to our startup partners and clients. It all boils down to a little something called opportunity cost. As a startup or a small company, you get used to running the show, getting the coffee, buying the hardware, etc. You do it all, as much as you can because the idea of spending money on anything outside of yourself is a ludicrous concept.

The problem with that becomes, as you grow, you’re not going to have the same amount of bandwidth to run the show yourself. In fact, the time you spend doing things that aren’t necessarily within your skill set may actually end up costing you more in the long run, especially when you’re doing things that don’t immediately benefit the business. You need to know the best time to pull the trigger and get out of your way.

As you grow, delegating responsibilities is also important. Define the roles of your staff adequately, and avoid creating a bottleneck that might stifle your growth.

Try Everything

This was another one that just made a ton of sense, so it was encouraging to hear that a company as big as Google still worries about this: with a plethora of platforms out there to try and distribute your marketing or your message, how should companies approach the market with so much noise in it already?

The answer was surprisingly simple: try everything. But Twohill took it a step further with this: measure everything.

The only way to really learn from your mistakes and your missteps is to analyze the end-results. Consider doing some A-B Testing, as well, to further hone and shape your stump.

Be Specific

Whatever you do, there’s a reason you do it. You can be your industry’s biggest fan, know your product or service frontwards and back and be able to explain it, in as much detail as you have possible to.

Except in advertising.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see in startup advertising is they overload their message with features,” Twohill said. “Companies need to simplify their language, pick a few winners, and lead with a single idea.”

With a crowded marketplace, it’s also very critical that your copy is on point. You need to hook folks in a quicker way now, there’s too much clamoring for your market’s attention, you have to figure out how to rise above the fray.

Respect Everyone’s Contribution

Twohill spoke very highly of Google’s 56% female workforce, typically unheard of in tech, as well as advertising. She went on to talk about how Google approaches diversity and accepting that the world is much more “multicultural” than ever before, and how can you adequately reach your audience if your internal staff doesn’t reflect that diversity.

Putting it simply, Twohill said: “Diversity breeds better work. And that starts with recruiting, making it intentional in getting different and diverse viewpoints will lead to future success.”

It’s not just about hiring though.

Respecting that everyone can have a seat at the table and a voice on where the company is going is a great way to uncover the true strengths of your venture. As startups, it’s easy to work remotely; have staff spread across state lines or country borders. Perhaps, financially speaking, it’s almost impossible to not.

Twohill warned this: “Collocation is so important. If you have to split up your team, try not to do it across function lines. Businesses are reignited, every day, from the serendipitous conversations that happen outside of meetings, walking to cars, and across the lunch table.”

Use Emotion

It’s probably no secret that this is something we wholeheartedly agree on. Any work that can make you feel something, reach through the screen or any other medium your message appears on, to tug at the heartstrings and evoke some empathy is the most effective way to build a brand.

It’s not an immediate effect, however, which is where some companies may jump ship. You have to understand that affinity for your brand accrues, slowly, over time.

Twohill suggested that your marketing should be a mix, short-term more technical and sales-messaging to draw results, balanced with longer-term, emotive work that draws brand affection and shows off the humanity behind the company.

“You have to understand, what’s the main purpose of a piece of marketing,” said Twohill. “If it’s to drive traffic or build your brand, adjust the message and soul of the tactic as necessary.”

Give Back

One of the most important things you can do, as you grow, demonstrates that you know you have an obligation to be more responsible, through contributions to society. In a world of tax shelters and climate change, another way you can help your brand is with being a net positive, thoughtful local partner to wherever your business resides.

This can be done through charitable contributions of your company’s money or staff’s time, or, supporting a worthy non-profit with some free work.

It may take you a while to engage in pro-bono, but — and I’m speaking from experience on this — if you do the free stuff well enough, you’ll eventually get to the paid work.

Companies and clients with low-to-no budget really appreciate the investment you make with them early and the payback is often tenfold. Proud to say Kapowza is at this point and have begun to offer some great pro-bono assistance to some truly deserving organizations.


And that was that. Of course, I’m leaving out the part where I waited to meet Twohill after the talk. I was honored that she spent some time listening and hearing from little ol’ me about what we’re building here at Kapowza.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t leave you all with some shoutouts to the great startups that joined me and the rest of the MD delegation, give them some love by checking them out:

Also, I accidentally left my official Startup Grind hat in my Lyft on the way out of town so if you find that, pay it forward or hold onto it for me as I’m sure I’ll be back in 2020!

Me (before I lost the hat) with Derek Andersen, Founder of Startup Grind

Were you at Startup Grind this year and didn’t see me running around? Drop me a line here and let me know what you thought of the conference.