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7 min read

Going from 'Big Tech' to a pre-seed start-up as a product marketer

Start-up | Enterprise | Careers

Hello! I’m Vincent – currently serving as Chief Operating Officer at AetherIoT. We’re a deep-tech start-up physically based in Singapore, but serving customers worldwide.

In this article, I'm going to be talking about my experience going from a Big Tech company (Google) to a pre-seed startup (AetherIoT) as a product marketer. I'll be covering:

My role at AetherIoT

Quick context on what we do at AetherIoT: as the name suggests, we focus on driving innovation in the IoT (Internet of Things) space – specifically helping companies and enterprises track the location and condition of their assets in real-time.

Think: Amazon warehouses, hospitals, construction sites, oil refineries, etc. – each day, thousands of pallets and assets move about, but tracking these items today is mostly done through manual means (pen-and-paper).

By replacing all the manual work with automated, Real-Time Location and Sensor Solutions (RTLSS), businesses are well-positioned to cut costs (drastically at times – in excess of 30%), optimize operations (e.g. increase asset utilization, carve the most efficient transit routes), and improve workplace health and safety.

We’re a B2B business, with clients mostly consisting of enterprises and/or big organizations; some entities we’re working with include the Port of Singapore Authority, Petrobras, and Halliburton.

My product marketing background

Prior to AetherIoT, I worked at Google – taking on roles in Strategy and Operations, Product Marketing, and Strategic Partnerships. I focused on Google’s Android business (both its mobile and IoT subdivisions), where I first saw the vast opportunity in building a world of interconnected smart devices.

I had an absolutely amazing time there; it’s where I picked up most of my foundational ‘corporate’ skills and met many of my closest friends to this day.

Earlier this year, however, I decided that it was time to leave the comfort of the nest and try building something of my own. Of course, I decided to become an entrepreneur in the IoT space – I see it as a natural continuation of what I had focused on at Google.

The biggest challenge going from Big Tech to a pre-seed startup

As you can imagine, my transition from Big Tech to a pre-seed startup has been deeply fascinating, to say the least. The biggest challenge for me, however, was getting used to the sheer diversity in my responsibilities, which consists of:

  1. Marketing
  2. Strategic Partnerships
  3. Sales
  4. Finances
  5. Business strategy
  6. Misc. others; you name it – investor presentations, drafting legal contracts, etc.

In a nutshell, I’m responsible for leading all workstreams outside of product and engineering. The diversity of responsibility is one that I had never experienced before, but wake up excited every single day to tackle, learn from, improve, and repeat.

My days, furthermore, can look drastically different – from writing contracts one minute to scoping out our upcoming marketing webinar the next, to jumping on investor calls the next ... and so forth.

Among my responsibilities at AetherIoT, however, I’d say the two I spend the most time on currently are Marketing and Strategic Partnerships – which happen to be my primary focus areas at Google as well.

As such, I thought it’d be interesting to provide you all with my perspective on key comparison points across my experiences – what it was really like for me as I transitioned from a Big Tech Marketing and Partnerships to that of a start-up.

Let’s get into it!

First, on resourcing

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that Google has an abundance of resources that are simply not conceivable at a start-up. For example, we’d sometimes spend in excess of five to six digits on a single piece of consumer research, and multi-fold that for an end-to-end marketing campaign.

At AetherIoT, I’ve had to adapt to budgets that are mere single-digit percentage points of what I had at Google. To make the most of my situation, I adopted three key mantras:

“Mindset is everything”

If you don’t think you can accomplish something, you won’t. For me, it’s as simple as that. I could spend my time sulking at the lack of budget, wondering how I can possibly get something done... or I can adopt a positive/optimistic mindset and believe I can figure out a way around anything.

I see it as almost a puzzle to solve – e.g., “hmm... how can I get enough consumer insights to structure my next marketing campaign without spending any money on research? I don’t know just yet, but I’m excited to tackle this and see how I can wiggle my way into a viable solution.”

This leads to my next point.

“Creativity and nimbleness win the game”

Always think outside the box. For instance, if we were to continue with the example “how can I run a viable marketing campaign without the budget to conduct user research, hire agencies, etc.?”, the process I took was to actively brainstorm.

I.e. talk to friends in the industry who’ve had to go through similar situations, research on the web, etc., and, at the end of the day, come up with multiple ‘creative’ workarounds.

Instead of paying a research agency thousands of dollars to interview users, I’d rely on free Google surveys or recruiting friends/friends-of-friends to be in my focus group. Instead of running ads, I’d find opportunities to run free webinars. Instead of hiring an agency to sketch creatives, I’d rely on Fiverr artists with good reviews.

The list goes on, but the message is simple – there's almost always a way to spend 20% of the amount of money (or less), and accomplish 80% of the same thing.

“Persist, persist, and persist”

Without the ability to spend indiscriminately, I find that I often have to invest much more time and patience to overcome humps. For example, relying on friends/friends-of-friends for consumer insights (as opposed to hiring research agencies) saves considerable money, but I’d need to spend a great deal of time reaching out to folks – many of whom will say ‘no’.

I’d probably need to reach out to 100+ folks if I want to find 20 who I can interview. Good old persistence has been my best friend here – repeatedly rinsing off ‘no’s’ with an unabashed attitude, constantly following up (in a respectful way, of course), and just plain ‘keeping at it’ until I’m able to secure what I need.

Secondly, on turnaround time

As with most start-ups, AetherIoT moves fast – we simply can’t wait for things to be “100% perfect” before launching something, nor would it make sense to. Rather, we’d get something in as good of a shape as possible (usually just 70-80% of the way there, if even), launch, receive immediate feedback, iterate, and repeat.

This has proven to be the most effective way of gathering and maximizing market feedback, ensuring we meet near-impossible deadlines, and truly ‘learning by doing.’

Of course, this level of scrappiness is not possible at a place like Google – due to a number of factors (e.g., stringent internal approval processes put in place to ensure we abide by brand guidelines), a typical piece of marketing creative or partnership contract can take months to be signed off on by all stakeholders.

In comparison, the same pieces of work might be approved and launched within the same day at a start-up.

As a side effect, transitioning into start-up life after working at a big corporate can be a real struggle when it comes to overcoming the ‘perfectionist’ mindset. I still cringe a little on the inside when I put out something that I know I can improve by another 30% if I just had a few more hours or days, but this is often the time flexibility that start-ups don’t have.

To overcome this, I’ve found that constantly reminding myself this is an evidence-backed ‘right way’ to steer most successful start-ups, as well as disclaiming (whenever possible) that a piece of work is ‘just a draft’ (e.g., when I send something to other teammates over email), have helped me quite a bit to ease off the ‘perfectionist’ mindset.

Thirdly, on problem-solving.

Capping it off with an area that’s actually surprisingly similar across Big Tech and my current start-up – how we approach, tackle, and solve problems.

Tactically, this means that when faced with ambiguous business problems such as “which market(s) should we invest in next?” or “how do we increase revenue with product X?”, to resist the urge to do the first thing that comes to my mind, but rather, to adopt a methodical framework that looks something like this:

Step one – understanding the current state

Evaluate and find the answers to questions such as “what’s been done before?”, “what’s worked/hasn’t worked?”, “what’s the development and growth status of the product/market?”, etc.

Step two – (always) lead with evidence

What does the data say – are there particular markets or products that are experiencing below-average sales? Do thorough qualitative interviews/quantitative surveys indicate the culture, climate, and consumer appetite of a particular market is ripe for more product investment? Etc.

Step three – arrive at a strategy & execution plan

Based on the groundwork from steps one and two, what is the go-to-market strategy, and how exactly will you execute (for example, specific marketing campaigns or partnerships) to bring the strategy to life and drive tangible business impact?

Step four – launch a small-scale pilot to assess the viability of your strategy and execution plan

Consider launching something with just 5-10% of your overall target users or geography to test how your ‘theoretical’ strategy and execution plan fares in the real world!

Step five – tweak and scale the execution plan based on learnings from the pilot

This, or, scrap the original plan altogether if it’s totally south of what you expected. The latter may be disappointing, but on the bright side, at least you learned something.

Imagine if you just decided to go full-scale launch first (which surprisingly a lot of marketers do) only to find halfway through that the impact is a lot lower than what you expected.

Of course, per my points on ‘resourcing’ and ‘turnaround speed’ earlier, how I go about each step above may look different at Google vs. AetherIoT.

For example, on step two, we’d probably spend thousands to conduct research at Google, vs. taking a much scrappier approach at AetherIoT. But the framework is, by and large, the same. This is to say that being ‘nimble’ and ‘resourceful’ at a start-up should generally not excuse shotty thought processes.

There you have it!

A high-level comparison of my experiences at Big Tech (Google) vs. start-up (AetherIoT). I hope the takeaways have been an interesting read. 🙂

If you’re keen, look forward to more articles by me on Product Marketing Alliance in the future – I’m already thinking about deep-diving into other experiences I’ve had at Google and AetherIoT to unpackage more learnings and insights that may be helpful for you all.

Stay tuned!

Written by:

Vincent Xu

Vincent Xu

Vincent is a COO at AetherIoT, a deep-tech start-up based out of Singapore.

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Going from 'Big Tech' to a pre-seed start-up as a product marketer