3 strategic moves startups can utilize to challenge industry titans

It’s 1am, and myself and 10 other women are running down the Las Vegas strip. Together, we’ve run a collective 340 miles from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and are moments away from setting a course FKT (fastest known time). We’ve been awake for 44 hours straight, and thousands of women are awake with us in the dead of night, virtually cheering us on as we claim the win along the home stretch.

I’m not a professional runner, I’m the director of marketing for a women’s running apparel company, Oiselle (pronounced wa-zelle). Nights like these—when we’re out in the world, not bound to our desks—are how we survive in one of the toughest retail markets in the world.

We’re a small team of no more than 30 women, but we have the best customer engagement in the business. So how does a startup like ours challenge the titans of retail? I can’t reveal our entire playbook, but what follows are a few moves that help us do what we do.  

Move # 1 – Speed Is a Resource. Use It.

What helps you get noticed in an incredibly crowded marketplace? A really big advertising budget, or an incredibly relevant marketing approach. Don’t have a billion dollars? Looks like relevance, a tough combination of customer interest and timeliness, is the name of your game. Speed is born from a team’s ability to both understand and agree upon strategic direction up front, and delegate decision making to tactical executers. What does this look like operationally? Briefings at Oiselle are mandatory, and intense. They’re the meetings where we look at data together and hash out directives. Because when we leave, we leave together. Collectively having decided on the best way for us to accomplish our goals. And after this, we let the team run—make their own calls in the moment, or based on data in the channel, or real-time customer feedback.

Our briefs, marketing calendars, tactical plans are all shared documents—edited and updated by channel leads in real time. We live and die by live links and uploading our assets into the cloud. We train our team not on what to execute, but how to make decisions and think strategically. The goals are fixed, but the approach is flexible. Because we move fast, and avoid bottlenecks, we get to situations first, and reap the benefits of real-time relevance in an always-on, social marketplace. In a small company, agility comes from trust, tools, and knowing your true north.

Move # 2 - Show Up. They’ll Notice.

It’s hard to connect with customers when you’re a million miles away, and it’s easy for a brand to feel “one-dimensional” when most of a customer’s touch points are with pixels, and not people. We believe in a different approach—we show up. You’ll find members of our company at the starting lines and finish lines of races around the world. Hosting meet-ups and IRL events and experiences. We meet weekly at our store in Seattle for our open group run (all ability levels and paces welcome!), and spend an exorbitant amount of time-sharing miles and memories and meals with our community.

Our hope is that every customer can at some point or another, have an in-person conversation with a Oiselle employee. Share their personal stories and wishes for the brand, so we can build that back into the company and our collective future. It’s a beautiful idea, but also becomes operational issue: we must be able to work from anywhere. Our team has launched campaigns from the trails of Montana, announced our athlete’s achievements faster than sports reporters, and solved a customer issue on a water break of a long run. If you want to be there as it happens, you have to be able to tell stories and solve problems on the go. Here, our devices matter more than you’d ever know. To be mobile, you have to invest in mobility, plain and simple.

Move #3 - Be a Part of Something.

I hear it all the time: “How did you do that? Create that community? What’s your secret to amassing that following?” Community isn’t something you have, it’s something you build. Some community principles are simple: talk to customers like people talk to people. Other principles require more work. As far as we’re concerned, each of us works in customer service—hopping into social media, on email, or onto the phone to answer questions on behalf of the brand. We understand that these people who have joined this community are an extension of the brand. In the real world, they’re the leading marketing vehicle, and anything we say follows. This relentless fight to stay human, in an industry that pushes companies to transform into efficient machines—creates a culture of transparency, openness, and reciprocity—and often produces some pretty magical experiences for customers. Magic they’ll remember and recall, when asked “hey… those are cool shorts… who makes them?”

Here’s the catch. If you’re doing it right—speed, showing up, and creating community—your team is exhausted. It’s a blissful burnout, but burnout nonetheless. We call it getting “Oiselled,” and it’s leadership’s job to solve it. My most critical role is helping my team prioritize the opportunities we chase, and finding ways to work smarter, not harder. Finding our advantages, doubling down on the moments that make a difference, and acknowledging the moves we’re not (yet) ready to make. Looking at the intersection of “feels good for our community” with “works hard for the business”—and fighting every day to expand the real estate there. Because when the destination is defined, the runway is clear, and the whole team is working toward the same version of a better future. Opportunity is everywhere—you just have to get there first. You may even make some magic along the way.

Go fast, take chances!

About the author

Megan Murray is a Strategist and Experience Designer. Her work spans the strategic process and includes research, brand strategy, digital strategy, and experience design. However, Megan's passion is human behavior. "I'm deeply interested in how experiences can change minds, encourage behavior, and help people accomplish their goals." A practiced strategist and proven team leader, Megan has a knack for bringing people together around design challenges that matter.

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