The Marketing Genius of TacoCopter

What robots bearing tacos can teach startups about navigating the Trough of Sorrow.

Some companies are born great, some companies achieve greatness, and some companies drop greatness on your face -- in the form of a taco.

The latter certainly applied to one of the greatest fake startups ever: TacoCopter. The prank company drew headlines with its stated plan to use "flying robots" to deliver tacos to smartphone-ordering customers. Basically, they wanted to use automated helicopters to reign deliciousness down on people. It was genius.

It was also illegal. A short brainstorm of air-dropping tacos on customers uncovers a number of drawbacks, including but not limited to: What if the tacos hit somebody else? What if somebody steals your taco from the toy helicopter? What if the copter crashes into a building? What if the FAA opts to clear the skies of Mexican delivery? But all of this was besides the point.

The real key is marketing. This brouhaha is exactly the kind of publicity that can help a new startup get traction. I know from personal experience. Out of college, a couple of friends and I co-founded a social gaming company. After the initial burst of attention and exhilaration that comes from launching, there was ... nothing. Users disappear. It's all about iterating, and trying to build something that people want. Of course, it's hard to know if people really want what you're building when almost nobody knows about you. It's what Y Combinator's Paul Graham calls the "Trough of Sorrow." 
TroughofSorrow.pngThe Trough of Sorrow is where most startups meet their demise. It's easy to give up when nobody's paying attention. Anything that kicks the company out of the shadows during these lean months (or years) is by definition good. Even if that means floating outlandish plans to parachute tacos down to customers.

There's an obvious caveat here: TacoCopter isn't real. But there easily could have been a legitimate company behind the farce. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine a taco food truck equivalent of The Melt. Smartphone ordering may not seem all that innovative, but it's the kind of incremental improvement that can make a difference -- with the right marketing.

None of this is to subscribe to an Underpants Gnome theory of startups. It's slightly more complicated than a three-step process of 1) Unleash a viral marketing campaign 2) ??? 3) IPO! There's no substitute for the grueling work of iterating and slowly figuring out what it is that people actually want. But eyeballs are precious. If promises of robots dropping tacos from the sky gets people on your app, so be it.

Brands are a powerful thing. Usually it takes years, if not decades, to cultivate a brand that customers remember. The power of the web is such that a single memorable prank or video can launch a brand overnight. Just ask the Dollar Shave Club. The Internet has disrupted many industries, but one of the most important industry it's disrupted for startups might be marketing. The barrier to entry for going viral is the ability to upload a funny idea to the Internet -- which benefits the landscape for all upstart companies.

Expect smart companies to keep dropping those tacos.
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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