The 5 things that startups can learn from Lady Gaga (cc @ladygaga)

I’ll admit it: Everytime I hear that familiar “Ra-ra, ah-ah ah-ah, Ra-ma ra ma-ma, Ga-ga ooh la-la”, I crank up the volume.  The outlandishly costumed fellow former Upper East Side prep schooler has garnered some serious mass appeal over the last two years.  But what can you attribute Ms. Germanotta’s success to, and moreover, what can the average tech startup learn from it?

Yes…  I’m totally writing this post, and you can’t stop me.  There will be no more stops on this trainwreck, so you’re on until the end of the line.

1) Be remarkable.  People forget what that word actually means—to Two words: bubble dress.  It’s so outlandish that you can’t help but notice.  “Is she really wearing… a bubble dress?”  You want to force your users to stop for a moment and actually take note of something you did for them.  “Was it really that easy?”  “How did they figure that out?”  You want them to turn to the next person and say “Hey, check this out.”  I think too often people add “share on Twitter” buttons to their apps without first adding something that people would actually want to share.  What is it about your service that will make people stop and notice?

2) Repeat the message as often as possible: “Pa-pa-pa-Poker Face”, “Ra-ma ra ma-ma”, “Papa-paparazzi”, “Let’s play a love game, play a love game”…   Many of Gaga’s lyrics and sounds are repeated one right after another—simple, but memorable when listened to over and over again.  Figuring out what your simple message is and repeating it across your site, your marketing copy, PR, and in business development meetings is a way to build brand awareness and clarity.  Too often, I hear from startups all the things they could possibly be instead of hearing the one simple thing they want to be, over and over again.   Your audience looks at a million brand messages a day and to cut through, you can’t be a different thing everytime someone experiences you—or worse yet, everything to everyone.  Sometimes, broken records aren’t so bad.

3) Be relentless.  Startups, like a lot of music acts, are often one hit wonders.  They make a big splash upon launch, everyone fusses over them, and then they have no follow up.  They quickly lose momentum.  On the other hand, just when one Lady Gaga song starts losing steam—BOOM—here comes another tune that you just can’t get out of your head, seemingly once every couple of months.  Startups need to do this more with both their product and their public relations strategy.  You might be the new new thing now, but what’s going to be your next hit?  A big business development deal?  A killer new feature?  Rarely are startups ever made on their launch, and neither are lasting music careers.  You can’t ever rest on your laurels in either game.  Always be raising the bar.

4) Create something bigger than just the individual.  At some point, you go from two developers in an apartment to a real company—and things take on a life of its own that is over and above the individual identities of the founders.  Lady Gaga did this by creating a persona separate from her real self.  I’m pretty sure her family still calls her Stefani, but Gaga has become larger than life.  For a startup, this happens when a company actually starts to act like a real company—getting outside board members to regularly report to, taking strategy and process seriously, maintaining consistent corporate identities.  It also means delegation of duty and responsibility, adherence of procedure.  The earlier the founders of a company act like they’ve created something bigger than themselves, the sooner they actually get there.    

5) Respect success.  Lady Gaga has clearly been influenced by Madonna, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and others—and she seamlessly and subtlety incorporates little homages to these superstars into her performance.  On the other hand, some stars pick fights with those who have come before them or portray themselves as a replacement instead of recognizing that there’s a reason why others are successful, even if they aren’t always the most innovative.  This is something I wish more startups would do—see what’s working for other companies way more successful than you are and adopt well executed strategies used by others.  Too many times I ask a company about some feature or strategy that the industry leader has, and the startup is quick to dismiss it.  They mistake different for new and better.  It’s as if they think I won’t be interested in an investment unless they’re going to crush the leader feature by feature with a whole new approach.  If you can’t recognize greatness, and build off of it, then you’re going to be unlikely to be great on your own.