Can Startups Learn Something From the Tea Party?

Startups can apply many of the same strategies as grassroots organizations.

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Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.

In 1954, a man lay dying in the road after a violent accident. Eventually, an emergency vehicle finally arrived at scene with a transport crew lacking in any first-aid skills. The crew literally picked up the victim, placed him in the back of the automobile and drove off to the hospital.

Less than a week later, six men gathered at a local inn to discuss the incident and come up with an alternative to the slow response rate of ambulances. The result: They committed to forming a volunteer rescue squad, recruited members from civic organizations and raised enough funds to purchase a converted 1945 hearse. Each member, 35 in all, was trained in first aid and emergency driving.

Today, almost 60 years later, the rescue squad continues to serve the county that co-author Jake lives in (and he has been volunteering with the crew since 1986). This is an example of a successful grassroots initiative. No easy task, but with passion and commitment it is achievable.

Nonetheless, grassroots movements are ubiquitous. They can and do pop up everywhere for any reason. There are grassroots movements in politics, patient advocacy, government lobbying, community groups, neighborhood groups and a plethora of other sources. All grassroots groups have one thing in common: They do not want their cause to be ignored anymore. For whatever reason, the groups feel their topic has not been the focus of enough attention and their group will rectify that inadequacy.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

A central theme which runs through all grassroots initiatives is the passion that group members invest towards their goal. They are committed and ready to take on the world, local town council or community board – whichever is appropriate. In the rescue squad example, those six men were dedicated to finding the human and monetary resources to supply the county with a volunteer emergency response team. They attended civic groups meetings to present the case for their cause and ask for funding and volunteers.

West Coast Managing Director for Inward Strategic Consulting, Rick DeMarco says,

Typically with resources that are somewhat limited, grassroots initiatives and entrepreneurs must make a commitment to both engage and align their organizations around a common vision, strategy, brand positioning, and culture. They must educate, inspire, show relevancy, empower and provide the right tools and resources [to] create exceptional experiences at every single touch point with the organization.

Grassroots movements are organic and do not report to overseeing bodies such as political parties, government entities or any other traditional controlling authority. Concerned citizens are spurred into action at a local level when a void too long ignored, unanticipated or overlooked by some controlling authority is discovered. As put it, a grassroots movement is "self-determination by engaged citizens."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

DeMarco explains, "bureaucracy and politics of large corporations often get in the way of actually putting actions in place. Entrepreneurs and grassroots initiatives are free from such restrictions, and have the ability to act decisively and quickly to create an engaged and inspired team that will drive quicker growth, and higher loyalty and retention."

However, some grassroots movements will succeed while others fail. Many groups face the Goldilocks Problem. Is the solution too soon or too late; too wide or too narrow; too hot or too cold? Finding the sweet spot of just right is a challenge, and there is no way to predict success.

For instance, you may be trying to advance a movement at the wrong time. Suppose the tea party, one of the most successful grassroots moments in memory, tried to start in the mid-eighties during the Reagan presidency – It would have been seen as redundant and failed. However, 30 years later it is well received.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from successful grassroots initiatives. Successful startups will apply many of the same strategies as successful peer-led communities:

  1. Identify a problem you and others are passionate about solving. Find a solution. Without a solution, your movement is a complaint. Your grassroots movement or business is really selling the solution to the problem.
  2. Envision a future where the world is a better place because of the solution. Decide how to get from here to that better future, how to deal with obstacles and just as importantly, how to deal with success. Then inspire others to join you in implementing the solution. Provide your team with meaningful work to do that advances the solution within clear guidelines.
  3. As the movement or business progresses, build the brand. Standardize the message, create a logo, and get well-versed members to make speeches and conduct interviews. Expand the following and enlist brand advocates. Use every tool can to get the message out: Press releases, direct mail, rallies, social media – anything to influence the public and consumers.
  4. Jake (@JakeW12401) is his own best example of a successful grassroots movement. When Harvard Business Review decided to take a summer hiatus from running #HBRchat, Jake asked fellow participants if they would like to go "rogue" and fill the vacated space. The group responded with an overwhelming yes. Jake then selected a core group of people: Judy (@jgombita), Joy (@VizwerxGroup) and Kavita (@kavita1010) to help him run #HBRogue.

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    With a clear vision of the niche to be filled, #HBRogue attracted like-minded people to the weekly business Twitter chat that takes place on Thursdays at 1 p.m. The group spreads its message out through social media including Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus. It is currently formalizing its brand. Ironically, one indication of a grassroots movement’s success is when it becomes the controlling authority. This past summer, #HBRogue trended on Twitter several times.

    DeMarco concludes,

    Engaging and inspiring customers, employees and volunteers requires a long-term commitment of both time and resources. Larger corporations are often slaves to quarterly earnings reports and Wall Street analysts and are sometimes hesitant to invest in efforts in which the payoff is longer term. Entrepreneurs and grassroots initiatives may be less restricted by quarterly goals and objectives, and can invest time and resources in building an engaged workforce to create long-term customer loyalty and satisfaction, sustained growth, and profitability.

    Jake Willis is the Manager for ISG (Information Solutions Group) at WFofR. He has worked for WFofR, a media buying and planning agency started by his father, for 23 years. Jake holds a Masters in Information Technology Management from Virginia Commonwealth University & Willis.

    Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business Strategy at Baruch College and The New School

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