With elections now just weeks away, the range of observers who are watching polls and assessing campaign strategies is expanding beyond political wonks and news junkies.
As distinct as the subjects of politics and business may be from each other, they both demonstrate similar lessons about how a politician or entrepreneur can go from nothing to something. While politics has always been an avid spectator sport, lately it’s become a field that offers valuable lessons for startups. There’s a lot that businesses can learn from political campaigns in the heat of national elections about how to identify, reach and motivate target audiences.
Political campaigns, and in particular Prime Ministerial elections, are a hot-bed of on-the-ground strategies, where anything and everything is tested to see what works all with a single goal in mind: to get as many people who will vote for your candidate to the polls on Election Day as possible.
Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) success in the recent Delhi elections is nothing less than a magical and a geeky analogy, quite similar to a consumer startup hitting 1 million unique users mark in just few months of launch. Even though the results of the AAP did not quite meet the results projected by the party, they have been acknowledged as the hero of the Delhi Vidhan Sabha elections 2013. So, we can say Arvind is no less than an entrepreneur and AAP is no more than an early stage startup.
So let’s see some lessons that every startup can learn from the political campaigns:
Money doesn’t guarantee success
As much as we may want to believe that money is power, it is not always true. Whether it is investing 100 million into a political campaign or receiving 50 million from venture capitalists, big money doesn’t guarantee success. On the political front, in Delhi elections, Congress and BJP, both pumped millions of their own bucks into their campaigns and lost their respective elections, whereas AAP took the driving seat with less than half the money. The money is only as strong as the message. If your value proposition doesn’t align with your customers, or voters, you may be just wasting your money.
Demonstrate strength, and then invite stakeholders
One of the big myths perpetrated by the media is that Modi would never get allies because of 2002. For a while it seemed likely to prove true. But Modi did not bother with this theory. He knew allies would come if they saw winning potential in him. Once he demonstrated public support and the opinion polls started conveying the same groundswell of support across the country, allies started trickling in one by one. It is strength that attracts allies, not entreaties. Same goes for startups. Demonstrate your achievements; investors need to see a potential business to invest.
Don’t be afraid to drastically challenge the norm
Challenging the status quo often seems ill-advised; however it can often yield to great results. The Aam Aadmi Party is now a notable political force even though it doesn’t fit the traditional political structure. Entrepreneurs should strive to create products and services that differ greatly than those in the status quo. Furthermore, their method of operation and company culture should strive to break the traditional expectations.
Set the agenda and keep control
Companies which hope to win in a competitive arena must choose their battlefield and the agenda. In this election, Modi has been setting the agenda most of the time. During the Gujarat campaign, he spent more time attacking Sonia and Rahul than on local issues – he took the nation’s eyes way from any nagging issues in his own state. The media labelled him as uncivilized, and pooh-paahed him. He won by setting the agenda to his advantage. After emerging from Gujarat on the national stage, he began talking of the Gujarat model. The agenda excited young voters at a time when Rahul Gandhi was talking elliptically about “escape velocities”.
Take another example: Till a few months ago, the general assumption was that everyone votes regionally – and regionally alone. Indian Lok Sabha elections are about parties and alliances, not about the candidate. But Modi has succeeded in making this election substantially presidential. Over the last few weeks, the main issue in this election is Modi himself. He has not only set the agenda, he has become the agenda.
Get the right team players
This is one of the core philosophies that saw Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, beat Robert Scott to the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen knew that if his team had to make it first, it needed competent people, but more important, he needed people who would fall in line and not try to be too individualistic.
Many brilliant ideas have failed because they were not ‘executed’ well because they did not get a right team in place. However, not every start-up can get the perfect team in place and employees do make mistakes. But your team should ‘own up’ to their mistakes and be ready to try and remove all imperfections.
This is exactly what Modi did. First, he got his bête noire Sanjay Joshi out of Gujarat in 2012. Then he got the party to appoint his key person, Amit Shah. Shah is facing cases against him in some encounter killings, but for Modi his loyalty and political acumen was what mattered. Inside the party, LK Advani has been neutered, and Jaswant Singh shown the door. Everybody knows now who is boss. To be sure, Modi will still face some internal conspirators but he will probably deal with them if he wins. He can’t outplace everyone and still seek to win.
Starting at the grassroots level works
Mobilizing voters and getting customers to buy your product are two very difficult things. Each is possible when the audience is receptive to your message and sold on the value proposition. AAP became a legitimate political force because of grassroots efforts of their members. Local rallies, social media, and an unwavering support for the message is what allowed them to gain such traction.
Similarly, startups should strive to create a grassroots campaign for their products/services, even if they have not launched their product yet. Explain to potential customers what your vision is, why your company can make their lives better, and why you need their support. When your customers get excited about your company, they will become an extension and advocate of your brand.
Grow and evolve
Growth and evolution are two aspects of a start-up that should go hand in hand. No business plan works the way it was conceived. There will be changes in the plan. The start-up might have to completely overhaul its initial idea. It might have to pivot. Not once, not twice, but many times over. An entrepreneur needs to learn as he moves forward and incorporate the learning into the growth path of his venture and evolve from strength to strength.
The AAP started as a novice political outfit and had its fair share of pitfalls. But it evolved along the way and incorporated the same into its growth. The party went ahead and dropped a few candidates at the last moment when it found out there were criminal charges against those. Committing a mistake is not an issue. But not rectifying it, will lead to one.
As the political landscape constantly changes, so does the business environment. Success is based on the politician’s or entrepreneur’s ability to learn, adapt and focus on what makes their voters or customers happy.