The Secret Weapon Allowing Startups to Compete with Fortune 100 Giants



  • In order to compete against established networking companies, Aruba Networks turned to its competitive edge: culture
  • The company disrupted the networking market by creating the Airheads online community to better support customers

Lessons in building a grassroots movement to face an entrenched competitor

There's little margin for error when competing with the Fortune 100. Nimbler than ever and increasingly efficient at scale, these megacorporations are adept at scuttling even the fastest-growing competitors. In the notoriously competitive networking hardware business, the battle around high-end corporate routers has proven to be one notable exception.

As with other successful startup stories (think Whole Foods or Southwest Airlines) this tale begins with culture. Aruba was disrupting the networking business by focusing on the customer, and they were producing innovations that customers wanted. But inertia and advertising dollars favored the competition, decades-old Big Box vendors who were beginning to launch initiatives to regain market share. Aruba was at a crossroads.

The traditional play for Aruba would have been to carve out a niche with a band of customers who - for whatever reason - were unsatisfied with these large companies, then move on to the next island of customers. But in todays CRM-powered offices, sales teams have become adept at clawing back errant customers and concocting the right incentives to make them stay. Aruba would need a faster, more potent solution if it was going to hold its ground, so it turned to its competitive advantage: culture.

The company decided to launch the Airheads community, a support portal where Aruba engineers, customer support staff and customers could get together to train, talk and troubleshoot. Customers immediately embraced it, and goodwill began to grow. In 2015 the community is on track to grow 25 percent year-over-year.

"This portal is really about customers and partners helping themselves and helping each other, says Sean Rynearson, Arubas chief Airhead and overseer of the platform. It lessens the money that we have to spend on support itself, and we have a great model around that, he says. But being in the wireless community this way doing events and surveys is very, very important because it shows customers that we care about what they are doing, and that we want to know exactly what they need."

Doubling down on the community bet, Aruba marketers began constructing a customer mega survey to find out what sort of challenges network engineers would encounter in the future. The resulting findings, which Aruba has dubbed simply #GenMobile, allowed the company to steer product development toward networking equipment optimized for smartphones, tablets and embedded computers that IT professionals believe will soon flood our offices.


With those findings published, the content on the Airheads boards began to organically reflect the same topics and concerns, with more and more discussion focusing on mobile networking. That topical immediacy is important, says Rynearson. "It's an incentive to keep using Aruba gear because they know we have the community backing them up as technology changes."

The impact isn't just better products, but the assurance that products are set up and used as intended, all the way to the last mile. "If we can give these engineers access to the training they need", Rynearson adds, "then it's a lot less likely they'll make a mistake during the install, and that means our customers will stay happy."


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