6 Killer Startup Tips From Shark Week

The deadly traits that make sharks a top ocean predator are keys to your startup’s survival.
August 29, 2015

There’s no week like Shark Week.

In July, Shark Week made a huge splash as the highest-rated Shark Week since its conception in 1987. So, finally, the Discovery Channel’s wild success has inspired an all-new, special shark-filled weekend—“Shweekend” debuts August 29. And ravenous viewers are clamoring over the news. With 20-plus million viewers chomping at the cable network’s bait, Discovery has taken a relatively small, cult-culture trend from the ’80s and propelled it into a mass-media frenzy, turning this into the “Summer of the Shark.”

All punning aside, what does Shark Week have to do with anything? Well, it can actually teach us a lot about startup success. Don’t believe me? Here are six killer insights every entrepreneur could use, directly from Shark Week:

1. Speed

Speed is one of the shark’s deadliest traits. For example, the shortfin mako shark tops the charts at over 60 mph.

In the same way, success as a startup hinges on your ability to think, act and respond quickly. Why? Because, as entrepreneur and author Eric Ries puts it, successful startups aren’t “about cost” (aka spending less), they’re “about speed” (aka moving faster): “[The lean] process involves rapid hypothesis testing, validated learning about customers and a disciplined approach to product development,” Ries says.

Simply put, if you want to survive, you have to be faster than your customers. Where many startups fail is in proactively connecting with their customers. It’s easy to think that just because someone bought your product, you can ignore them, or at least take them off your active to-do list.

Instead, startup sharks connect early and often. This means getting out in front of your customers in practical ways, like creating an automated email sequence to welcome, onboard and guide your customer into using your product’s best features.

It also means reconnecting with them strategically using event-based triggers. Naturally, these triggers should start with lead generation, like email sign-ups, but they should also extend to real-world scenarios, like specific page views, follow-ups, feature updates—even events in your customers’ lives, like birthdays and special occasions.

2. Ecosystem

A shark’s ecosystem can transform its physiology in radical ways. Just take the hammerhead for instance, which developed its unique shape for better eyesight in cloudy ocean surroundings.

Ecosystems are equally important to startups. It is what Forrester Research calls the “Customer Experience Ecosystem”—the alignment of interdependent ecosystems between your employees, your customers and your allies.

Unlike sharks, in addition to adapting yourself to your market, startups can actually play a creative role in establishing customer experience. Entrepreneur Adam Benzion puts it like this: “The outside world will help you define the experience you need to deliver in order to succeed.”

Remember, the first place a customer will experience your ecosystem is not through your product, it’s online. Creating a responsive, easy-to-navigate and brand-saturated experience is essential. According to Google, visitors make aesthetic judgment in as little as 17 milliseconds. So make sure your ecosystem connects—immediately.

3. Instinct

Millions of years of survival have shaped instincts that allow sharks to remain a top ocean predator. Unfortunately as a startup, you don’t have millions of years before you launch. When this fact hits the day-to-day requirements of starting a business, it’s easy to make a mistake.

That mistake is not trusting yourself, or staying true to your instincts. As Henry Ford is often quoted, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

In fact, there’s a degree to which you can even ignore your competition. Keep this in mind when it comes to the semi-neurotic compulsion you may develop to try to watch every move of everyone else in your market. Like entrepreneur Andrew Montalenti says, “You don’t need to kill your competitors. You just need to leave such a huge gulf between you and them in the marketplace that people forget they exist.”

The animal kingdom is unkind to creatures that lack instincts. Just like your speed and ecosystem, staying true to your instincts can be the difference between life and death, success and failure.

4. Adaptation

While following your instincts is key, true sharks have mastered the ability to respond well to changes, particularly those that are out of their control. If you want to last, you have to learn from mistakes and duplicate successes—and staying agile demands pivoting to fit your customers’ and the market’s actual needs.

One of the best ways to get to know your audience’s personalities, buying habits, triggers and lifecycles is by investing in a customer management tool that includes a loyalty program. Vend, for instance, which specializes in both online and offline point-of-sale transactions, creates an adaptive atmosphere that enables you to track, survey and incentivize customer feedback.

Just as sharks adapt to fish locations rather than waiting for fish to come to them, startups gathering more customer data will build an adaptive relationship that survives.

5. Niche

Sharks are creatures of habit, and for good reason. One female shark, Lydia, has been tracked swimming more than 20,000 miles in order to return to her favorite hunting ground.

The important startup lesson here? Riches are in the niches. This is exactly how to avoid settling for subpar customers who will drain your time and energy. Having one clearly defined target audience (aka a niche) is exactly like Lydia’s returning to the same location year after year… after year.

6. Strength

Sharks are synonymous with strength. In fact, University of South Florida researchers have found that blacktip sharks can chomp with a force of about 243.5 pounds. For comparison, a dog bites with around 58 pounds of force.

For startups, strength really comes from your team. To keep your team communicating, brainstorming and focused amidst the day-to-day struggles that all startups face requires an action plan.

Patrick Lencioni, best-selling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has host of valuable insights into developing a strong team, but top on his list is building trust: “Team members need to be able to admit their weaknesses and mistakes, to acknowledge the strengths of others, and to apologize when they do something wrong.”

Is your startup a shark? Just keep swimming, and you’ll get there.

Can’t get enough Shark Week? SUCCESS Shark Week is coming… Take a sneak peak of the October 2015 cover of SUCCESS magazine featuring the predators of Shark Tank, on newsstands Sept. 8.

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