What working with +200 startups taught us

October 2, 2023

7 minute read

What working with +200 startups taught us

There are several reasons why young startups and large corporations tend to adopt distinct communication styles.

Early-stage companies often need to capture a market, while well-established enterprises have the luxury of taking a more defensive approach. Established businesses are held to higher standards of responsibility and gravitas, while startups can afford to inject a bit of cheekiness and playfulness into their communication.

That’s how it’s all supposed to be. There is nothing more cringe than large corporations trying to act counter-cultural (Remember this?). And it’s lame (and possibly illegal) when startups pretend to be bigger than they really are.

That said, we believe that there is ample room for mutual learning between startups and corporations.

Over the past years, COPUS has worked with more than 200 innovative growth companies. From international tech juggernauts like Binance, Gorillas or Swapfiets, to local heroes such as Soundboks, Contractbook, ZeroNorth and Corti. All those companies, characterized by their transformative nature and challenger mindset, have taught us to be creative, to slash the agency bullshit, and to help cut through the noise.


In many cases, our advice to these startups and scaleups has emphasized the importance of cultivating trust and credibility in competitive markets. In certain respects, we’ve encouraged them to take a few cues from the corporate playbook without letting go of their edge.

However, rarely do we delve into what large corporations’ communications teams can glean from the more youthful and innovative startups. That’s a shame. There is more than hard flash photos, brutalist web design and Y2K aesthetics that corporations can steal from startups.

So let’s explore.

1. Speed

Startups usually work with a higher sense of urgency. Of course, allowing time for second thoughts prevents mistakes. But startups have less bureaucracy, fewer redundant meetings, and no time for pseudo work that makes projects expensive and slows down processes. Startups react faster when something is trending.

Seize the moment, act with urgency.

2. Sticking out

Newly founded companies are used to stand out in crowded markets. They’re used to pitching themselves, justifying their existence and making an impression quickly. They bring their core narrative into play and dare to be provocative. Step out of the white noise of empty and exhausted cliches. Allow yourself to be memorable and interesting.

Don’t be a wallflower.

3. Creativity

Startups are notoriously poor. They can’t afford to spend big on advertising which means they must be more creative to attract attention. Nothing like restraints can kick-start a creative process while large budgets make one complacent and unimaginative. You see it every time a good indie film-maker goes to Hollywood.

Let your imagination be the limitation. Not your budget.

4. The informalities

Startups have a younger, more informal way of communicating which typically feels a lot more approachable and personal. On the other hand, some corporations have a tendency to be solemn and a bit stiff because they believe that is professional. Startups know that being straightforward is the most effective way to build trust. The wheel of history has moved towards the informal since 1968.

Loosen up.

5. The faces

Startups skillfully position their founders and use their personal stories in their communication. They do so because they don’t have a well-established brand to rely on. But now, they’ve managed to turn the entrepreneur into a heroic figure.  Grown-up companies could give their top leaders more prominent roles, let them take the stage, show personality and represent the company.  

After all, we relate more to humans than to companies.

6. The calculus

Corporations have more to lose than startups. They benefit from the status quo and have a lucrative position to protect. That’s fair. Being risk-averse is just not very inspiring. We love those who dare to attack the market and communicate like a challenger. Defence wins championships…

…But offense sells the tickets.  

7. The rulebook

Startups are usually not as trained and formally skilled which is not always an advantage. Sometimes it works though. In the startup world, there is usually not this hard distinction between B2B and B2C, for example. B2B brands have benefitted from the more emotional and inspiring approach of the lifestyle brands.

Step out of your comfort zone, once in a while.