Inside the Marketing Playbooks of Unicorn Entrepreneurs: Lessons for Your Startup

Jamie Russell-Curtis

6 April 2023

In today’s competitive business landscape, startups must prioritise their marketing strategies to create a lasting impact and establish a strong foothold in their respective industries. 

And one way to learn about creating a lasting impact is to look at how successful entrepreneurs have achieved that goal already. 

That’s why, in this article, I will explore five key factors that have driven the marketing success of renowned entrepreneurs, such as Alexis Ohanian, Steve Huffman, Garrett Gafke, Joe Procopio, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman and Brian Chesky. 

Many of whom sat down with our CMO & Partner, Rui, to share their advice. 

By delving into their experiences and insights, I’ll share their marketing lessons on building authentic customer relationships, focusing on product benefits, crafting captivating brand stories, leveraging networking and collaboration, and mastering distribution strategies.

Starting with taking the time to build real relationships with your customers.


1. Take the Time Build a Real Relationship with Your Potential Customers

Fostering authentic relationships with potential customers is a critical aspect of marketing success. If you want to build a successful startup, it’s vital that you delve deeper than superficial interactions and genuinely connect with your target audience. This approach has the power to create lasting connections, driving long-term loyalty and trust.

Take the founders of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian & Steve Huffman as examples here. In the early days of Reddit, the co-founders personally interacted with users to create a sense of community and understand their needs better.

They participated in discussions, submitted content, and responded to user feedback on the platform. By directly engaging with users, they were able to shape Reddit into a vibrant online community and create a sense of belonging among its members. This personal approach helped Reddit become one of the most popular social media platforms today.

Serial entrepreneur and 25-year Silicon Valley veteran, Garrett Gafke also put great importance on building relationships with potential users. He pioneered digital identity back in the early 2000s. I recently sat down with him to talk about how he built his startup, considering that at the time the concept of “digital identity” barely existed:

Ultimately we got our first customer because I previously invested in an e-commerce company and they were getting killed by fraud. So, naturally, we needed to help them.

They were a pretty good-sized company at the time. They were selling directly to consumers online and experiencing some of their own fraud issues.

They had ridiculous chargeback issues and we convinced them to use our platform – to become our beta customers.

They agreed and the amount of fraud that they were able to capture and stop out of the gate was fantastic.

By prioritising genuine relationships with potential customers, Garrett was able to convince them to give his company a try.

This step is one of the best ways to establish a solid foundation of trust, create brand advocates, and ultimately drive long-term success. 

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2. Focus on Benefits, Not Features 

When it comes to enticing potential customers to adopt your product, you need to focus on the benefits it will deliver, as opposed to the features you built into it. 

To do this, your marketing efforts should focus on conveying the value and advantages that customers stand to gain from using the offering, rather than merely enumerating its attributes. 

Emphasising how your product or service can address specific pain points, enhance customers’ lives, or fulfil their needs can be a potent strategy for capturing their attention and ultimately driving sales.

Steve Jobs, the iconic co-founder of Apple, was renowned for his exceptional ability to communicate the benefits of Apple products. He inspired customers to understand and appreciate their potential impact on their lives. 

Jobs’ marketing genius lay in his aptitude for storytelling and framing Apple products as tools that empowered users to unleash their creativity, become more efficient, and improve the quality of their lives.

Take, for example, the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. Instead of focusing solely on its technical features, Jobs highlighted the iPhone’s ability to revolutionise the way users interact with their phones. Bringing together three devices – a mobile phone, an iPod, and an internet communication device – into one sleek and user-friendly package. 

By emphasising the benefits, he created a sense of excitement, anticipation, and desire among consumers that led to the iPhone becoming one of the most successful products in history.

We recently sat down with startup founder, advisor and product expert Joe Procopio, who had similar advice when it came to ensuring you showcase your product’s value to potential customers:

You have to give your customers a quick understanding of why they need your product. And it has to do this flawlessly. Remember your product won’t work if your customers can’t see any value.

Focus on providing the most value with the least friction.

Highlighting the benefits and value of your product or service will help you create a compelling marketing message. Allowing you to capture attention, generate excitement, and ultimately drive sales.

3. Create a Compelling Brand Story

Creating an authentic and captivating brand narrative is essential for establishing an emotional connection with your audience. Successful entrepreneurs, such as Richard Branson and Anita Roddick, have expertly incorporated their personal values and beliefs into their companies’ brand stories. 

They’ve then combined this with points one and two, by first reaching out to their customers with their narrative to promote loyalty and foster long-term relationships with them. Then, they’ve emphasised the unique benefits they provide, rather than simply listing product features. 

This approach allows customers to appreciate the true value of a product or service, ultimately forging a robust brand identity.

When crafting your brand, you need to showcase your company’s values, mission and personality. Moreover, you need to incorporate emotional appeal into your story. People are naturally drawn to stories that evoke emotion. 

Richard Branson is a great example of this. It’s well known that he struggled with dyslexia as a child, leading him to drop out of school at the age of 15. Now he’s one of the most well-known entrepreneurs in the world. 

But the key reason Richard Branson’s story resonated with customers across the globe is because not only is it, inspirational, it’s authentic and transparent. Your story also needs to be authentic, and you need to be transparent with your audience about your company’s practices. 

Elon Musk is an excellent example of an entrepreneur who has created compelling brand narratives for his companies. Musk has consistently communicated a clear and inspiring vision for a sustainable future powered by clean energy, which resonates strongly with his target audience.

For Tesla, Musk’s vision of transitioning the world to sustainable energy sources has been at the core of the brand’s narrative. Tesla’s mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” The company focuses on developing electric vehicles, solar energy solutions, and energy storage products. Tesla’s brand story is not just about selling electric cars; it’s about driving a global movement towards a more sustainable future. This powerful narrative, combined with a strong brand identity and innovative products, has contributed to Tesla’s success and its cult-like following.

Similarly, SpaceX‘s brand story revolves around Musk’s ambitious goal of making life multi-planetary and colonising Mars. This grand vision, rooted in Musk’s passion for space exploration, has captured the imagination of millions worldwide. SpaceX’s brand narrative transcends the company’s achievements in rocket technology and space transportation; it tells a story of human progress, adventure, and the pursuit of a better future for humanity. This emotional connection has made SpaceX a widely recognised and admired brand in the space industry.

Creating a powerful narrative that resonates with your audience, establishes an emotional connection, and ultimately, builds a strong and successful brand.

As successful entrepreneur Jan-Philipp Kruip mentioned in a recent conversation with my CMO, Rui: 

Focus on getting the narrative incredibly clear. If your grandma doesn’t understand it’s probably not clear.

Crafting a clear marketing message on what you’re trying to provide takes a lot of time. But it’s very important, it will serve as a guide for you so don’t skip it.

4. Leverage Networking and Collaboration

Building strategic relationships, partnerships, and alliances is crucial for extending your marketing reach and influence. Successful entrepreneurs, such as Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent venture capitalist, have emphasised the significance of networking and collaboration, using their connections to forge mutually beneficial opportunities that fuel growth and enhance their businesses.

Reid Hoffman is well-known for his extensive network and the value he places on building and maintaining relationships. He is often referred to as the “startup whisperer” due to his ability to spot promising startups and help them scale. Hoffman has actively invested in and mentored numerous successful companies, such as Facebook, Airbnb, and Dropbox. His approach to networking is rooted in the belief that creating a robust, supportive ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors is vital for individual and collective success.

One of Hoffman’s key principles when it comes to building relationships is the idea of “paying it forward.” He encourages entrepreneurs to adopt a proactive mindset when engaging with others, looking for ways to add value and support their endeavours without expecting immediate reciprocation. This attitude fosters goodwill and trust, paving the way for future collaboration and opportunities.

Strategic partnerships and alliances can open up new markets, enhance product offerings, and improve brand visibility. By collaborating with complementary businesses, entrepreneurs can leverage each other’s strengths and resources to drive growth and innovation. 

For example, Apple’s partnership with IBM allowed the tech giant to expand its presence in the enterprise market, while IBM benefited from Apple’s expertise in user experience and design.

Another example is the alliance between Spotify and Uber, which enabled Uber passengers to connect their Spotify accounts to the car’s audio system, personalising their ride experience. This partnership not only enriched the user experience for both platforms but also allowed the companies to cross-promote each other’s services, expanding their marketing reach.

Building strategic relationships, partnerships, and alliances is essential if you want to broaden your marketing reach and influence. By following the example of successful entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman, you can leverage networking and collaboration to create mutually beneficial opportunities, drive growth, and secure long-term success. 

Although it often isn’t easy for entrepreneurs to go out on a limb to build a network. As Ali Halabi noted in a recent conversation we had, it can be tough to put yourself out there, but it pays off: 

Having the right contacts and the right network really goes a long way when it comes to getting the product into the hands of users.

Building that network only happens after you get very comfortable with rejection.

Because to get in front of the right people, you have to be ok with being rejected.

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5. Master the Art of Distribution

An often-overlooked aspect of successful marketing, especially for tech startups, is establishing an efficient and effective distribution strategy. Even the most innovative products or services can falter without a well-planned distribution network. By ensuring your offerings reach your target audience through the right channels and at the right time, you can significantly increase your chances of success.

I’ll use Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, as an example for the rest of this section. 

Tech startups have the advantage of operating in a digital landscape, where traditional distribution barriers are significantly reduced. 

By leveraging online platforms, social media, and targeted advertising, tech startups can reach a global audience with minimal investment. 

Airbnb has capitalised on the power of the internet to connect hosts and travellers worldwide, disrupting the traditional accommodation industry and becoming a dominant player in the process.

The next key to successfully distributing your product is by creating an intuitive and engaging user experience is crucial for successful distribution. By simplifying the process of accessing and using your product or service, you can attract and retain customers more effectively. Airbnb’s user-friendly platform enables users to quickly search for and book accommodation, facilitating seamless transactions and fostering loyalty among its user base.

Successful tech startups harness the power of data analytics to optimise their distribution strategies. By analysing customer behaviour and preferences, startups can tailor their marketing efforts and product offerings to meet the unique needs of their target audience. Airbnb utilises data-driven insights to personalise user experiences, offering tailored recommendations and promotional offers that resonate with individual customers, thus driving engagement and conversions.

Successful tech startups remain agile and responsive to shifts in the market landscape, adapting their distribution strategies accordingly. By staying attuned to factors such as technological advancements, emerging trends, and changing customer preferences, tech startups can maintain a strong distribution network and secure long-term success. Airbnb, for instance, has expanded its offering to include experiences and long-term stays, catering to evolving customer needs and staying relevant in a competitive market.

Wrapping Up

By taking the time to build real relationships with potential customers, focusing on benefits over features, crafting a compelling brand story, leveraging networking and collaboration, and mastering the art of distribution, businesses can set themselves on the path to success. 

Just remember, the road to achieving results in marketing is very similar to achieving results in entrepreneurship in general. It’s paved with continuous learning, adaptability, and innovation.

Thanks for reading. 

Jamie Russell-Curtis
Head of Content
Jamie is the Head of Content at With a background in Theatre and Marketing for the Arts, he’s now turned his attention to the Startup World, committing to creating valuable content for entrepreneurs with the help of industry leaders.

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