Why Fast is a marketing success story
There's much to learn from the one-click-checkout startup's sharp rise (and fall)
The implosion of one-click checkout startup Fast is old news. The tech world’s famously fickle news cycle has moved on to more interesting things, like Musk and Twitter, or the downturn.
Which is why I waited to write this. The news cycle is often a circle of hot takes and replies to those hot takes, followed by sarcasm and attempts to be funny, culminating in something becoming mainstream and then disappearing. To cast a dispassionate eye requires removing oneself from this maelstrom.
Therefore my take on Fast is late, and please be warned, it’s not an especially fresh one either.
Yes, the startup got its fundamentals wrong, probably had no idea about a lot of things they were trying, and burned out quickly.
But what Fast also did is create a great brand even in the short time they were active.
I wrote about the startup almost exactly 2 years go, in How to build a super cool startup.
Here’s an excerpt:
The founders Domm Holland and Allison Barr Allen met on Twitter. They raised a large round from Stripe, the certificate of fintech legitimacy if ever there was one. And they also hired Matthew Kobach, the former social media manager at the New York Stock Exchange and popular social media personality, to lead their content marketing.
How do I know all of this? Because I went and did some deep research? Nope. They told me all this, on social media; I was just there. And am I in any way interested in what Fast does? Not really, except that they are in tech too. But by talking about themselves, telling their story, they got my attention, and I read about them.
Fast is one of the new breed of super-social startups who are constructing world class brands by what they call 'building in public': Being open about what’s going on in the company, talking through their strategies, being responsive, and generally being super friendly to everybody. They run great campaigns and celebrate recruits publicly.
Fast also seem to prove the validity of the idea that the personal brand is as important, if not more important than the company brand, at least on social media. And they are doing a great job at executing on this, in the way its people are amplifying their company’s stories and messages.
How do we know it’s working, though?
Well, we are talking about them, are we not?
Since this was part of a larger essay, I couldn’t spend much time on tactics, though I really wanted to. But if you poke around a bit, you can find out a lot about what they did.
Here’s an example, a breakdown of a small campaign first shared by Facebook user Connor Cameron:
To get more users to sign up, Fast started selling a hoodie with the word FAST printed on it. They sold them for $5 with free shipping, so well under cost. Leveraging their existing brand, they had people fighting for them, and sold thousands. Which also meant they lost thousands of dollars. But, they gained customers.
In order to purchase the hoodie, you had to sign up to Fast.co, meaning that anyone who bought the hoodie was now a Fast user, and it gave them a way to show off the speed of the payments platform.
And they didn't stop there, this is where NASCAR driver Parker Klingerman comes in. Parker reached out to Fast.co founder Domm Holland and they found a way to partner up. If he finished top 5 in a race, they’d offer the hoodie for $1, and despite starting 38th in a field of 40 drivers, Parker did just that.
The result speaks for itself; Parker broke the Fast.co website.
The aggressive marketing paid off; Fast.co somehow used startup merch to grow their customer base by thousands – thousands that are now advertising their company every time they leave the house.
Evidently this didn’t help them much in the long run, but it underlines the point I’m making: With tactics like these, Fast built a great brand very quickly.
Except they didn’t combine that with a killer product and sustainable, repeatable demand generation.
They didn’t, but you can.
How do you build a brand that quickly? What can we learn from Fast?
First, the product had a point of view. It wanted to change something. There was a mission: Changing the way the world shopped. Does your startup have one? Please think about this carefully. Because what will result is a powerful weapon: A story.
Second, as April Dunford says above, marketing and sales have to communicate the story. This is what Domm Holland, the CEO of Fast did so well. He was the chief evangelist for his company and made sure everyone in tech heard about it.
If you have a great story, tell it well, and can get it in front of lots of people, like Holland did, you’ll get somewhere, and he certainly did.
If you want to do this, please read Dave Gerhardt’s book Founder Brand, which I wrote about here. It’ll teach you how.
Third, hire great storytellers in your marketing team. If they have a lot of online influence, even better. I’ve pointed out Fast’s hiring of Matthew Kobach before. There were several such employees and evangelists Fast brought into their fold, and immediately deployed online. This was another reason they became so ubiquitous so quickly.
Of course, Fast’s large headcount and indiscriminate marketing spend was one of the reasons cited for the startup’s demise. But again, done in moderation and with an eye on ROI, there’s no reason why some of these tactics can’t be deployed to great success at better managed startups.
In the end, Fast’s marketing success also became the reason the shutting down was so public and so widely ridiculed. I get that, and I get the point about all those investor dollars disappearing. But most investors wouldn’t be bothered, they know most of their investments will fail. That’s literally the VC business model.
If there were any losers here, they were employees who had to look for new roles. But guess what? The Fast logo on their CV will still help: There will be a story to tell.
Sequoia, Kalaari, Rainmatter, Avaana backed Climes is looking for a head of marketing. You can apply here.
If you want open roles at your company to be featured here, please send the links to me on LinkedIn.