09/26/2013 03:06 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Connecting the Dots: Startups, Viral Marketing, and Early Stage Success

Startup enthusiasts are enthralled by fast startup stories like Snapchat's $800 million valuation, Instagram's two year path to a $1 billion acquisition, and Groupon's three year run to $1 billion of revenue. These stories can stir excitement for aspiring entrepreneurs. Data and common sense say "fast startup" stories are outliers. Is there a rhyme or reason to viral success? Products can be built with inherently viral features that propagate massive growth or startups can incorporate viral marketing as a form of advertising that contributes to top line growth.

Products built with a viral engine of growth:

Startups such as Snapchat, Instagram and Groupon earned ubiquity within a relatively short period of time. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, defines the viral engine of growth as when customers contribute to the overall marketing effort for a company.

For example, Groupon's deals become activated after a certain amount of people agree to make the purchase. People who purchase early on are incented to tell their family and friends to make the same purchase. The organic spread is the viral engine of growth.

Using viral marketing to reach an audience:

Among the outliers are those startups that benefit from a viral marketing campaign in grand slam fashion. DollarShaveClub is a startup that reaped massive sales and brand awareness from a video that seemed to go viral on its own. DollarShaveClub's viral video Our Blades are F*cking Great resulted in 12,000 orders in 48 hours in March 2012

The DollarShaveClub viral video was a combination of a paid advertising buy and good content. A seemingly accidental viral marketing campaign can be supported by paid spending to help support the effort. The success after the paid ad buy is determined by the quality of the content itself and how willing people are to share that content.

Thales Teixeira, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, coined the idea of "advertising symbiosis" as a key to viral success. The idea is advertisers and consumers should mutually benefit from the act of sharing the advertiser's content. DollarShaveClub met the advertising symbiosis criteria because it was amusing and people enjoyed sharing it with their peers. Professor Teixeira categorizes viral videos as a form of lean advertising because of its cost saving and highly effective nature.

While DollarShaveClub was a one hit grand slam, there are other businesses that routinely hit singles and doubles. Those companies regularly produce viral content and have reaped major rewards. OraBrush, the tongue cleaner company that fights bad breath, famously made their first $1 million of revenue by posting funny videos on YouTube. Now with over 100 videos uploaded on YouTube and 191,000 subscribers, OraBrush has proven the success of video as an integral part of their marketing strategy.

Early stage success as a result of executing against strategy:

Whether a startup builds a viral engine of growth into their product or incorporates viral videos in their marketing strategy, it will not be the only driver of success for the business. Making clear strategic choices and executing against them on a daily basis is the ultimate driver of success.

Early stage success is a result of executing against a compelling strategy. Building viral components into a product or using viral marketing can help in reaching company goals whether it is revenue, users or social impact. Ultimately, inspiring your customers to share your product or marketing content helps, but going viral is only the means to the end. Building a brand that people love starts with a big vision, taking daily steps toward the vision, and paying attention to the product and marketing message.

This post was produced by The Huffington Post and MassChallenge. MassChallenge is the largest-ever startup accelerator and the first to support early-stage entrepreneurs with no strings attached. See which startups will win $1.5 million in grants: