Think Big: What your startup can learn from Pufferfish

Gal Gitter
5 min readMar 10, 2021


Pufferfish are considered one of the most notoriously weak and slow fish in the sea world. Often surrounded by predators that are much stronger, bigger or faster than they are — they deploy a technique so unique that they’ve become named for it in most languages: filling their elastic stomachs with sea water until they are significantly larger than their true size, thus scaring away many predators.

The southern puffer, Sphoeroides nephelus, is a species in the family Tetraodontidae, or pufferfishes

So why am I telling you this? One of the primary issues startups have to deal with is to seem serious or well-developed enough to close enterprise clients early on in their journey. Very often, this becomes a “Catch 22” that stalls their growth: You need to seem like a significant contender in your market to gain your first clients, but you also need to gain your first clients to become that significant contender. So how do you navigate this predicament?

There’s one main element that’s working to your advantage, that we all very often forget: No one outside of your company actually knows how big you really are. Outsiders can see how much funding you’ve raised (though, newsflash: most clients will not search you on Crunchbase), but that’s basically all they can know. Your prospects and customers will thus feed off the signals you send them to assess how “big” or “serious” you are, either implicitly or explicitly.

So what are these signals? And how can we all take a page from the Pufferfish’s survival handbook to portray ourselves as the best and biggest version of ourselves? There’s 5 main elements we’d recommend thinking through:

  1. Get top reference clients: The easiest method to gain credibility is to have credible clients. But… you still don’t have those clients, so what do you do? We’d strongly recommend that early on in your journey to penetrate an industry, you don’t solve for revenue, but rather for getting the right names on your resume and obtaining the right feedback. Many enterprise clients, assuming they think you are interesting of course, will agree to highly discounted or free packages/PoCs/Design Partnerships, in exchange for their brand mention, reference on your website and honest feedback. Its usually a win-win and we’d recommend not only taking those deals as they come but also proactively trying to create them in most instances.
  2. Create the best possible external posture, specifically on your website or app: If you have 30 seconds, please conduct the following experiment: pick you favorite eco-system/industry and go to the website of an early stage player vs. an incumbent or late-stage disruptor in that industry. Notice the difference? Exactly. Your website is your business card. And more developed players will typically have much better ones, but why not change that? I’d almost always recommend significantly over-investing in your website as soon as possible, investing both in content (your use cases, product differentiation, explainer videos, etc.) and design, both of which have to be consistent with what you’d like to be known for in the marketplace. Oh, and it needs to be completely error-free. That goes without saying.
  3. Snag media mentions and accolades: One more important signal is your references in the media. After all, what serious media outlet would report/cover/feature a small or insignificant fish (though, of course a lot of times they do..)? We’d recommend proactively writing stories that specific outlets could be interested in, and starting to pitch them in a consistent and well-though out way. Since this is a very tall task for many startups, I’d consider finding the right PR agency in your market to help you do that. If you find the right partner, the impact could be significant. I haven’t yet met a startup that does not have the potential to generate an interesting and newsworthy story in the right publication, if that story is positioned or packaged in the right way. Oh, and especially in some technical spaces — your relationships with industry reviewers (i.e., Gartner, Forrester), competitions or notable thought leaders matter a great deal. Its never too early to invest in those relationships, and make sure you are both on the radar and can provide the necessary information clearly enough. You may be surprised at how quickly you see results.
  4. Enlist the right Senior Advisors — If you’re not big yet, how about associating your company with someone who is? Senior Advisors can come in all shapes and forms, and many times will be current or former C-level executives in your broad industry or function. These are folks that are usually provided with compensation from your ESOP pool, and will provide you with few or many hours of advice, create some connections for you and can sometimes even join your board. Note: I am not recommending retaining a Senior Adviser that sounds impressive for their credibility but will not actually help the company. That’s a waste of your precious stock options. I am recommending that you strategically consider several applicants, and align on someone who you believe can both help the company, and is potentially a great “brand” to be associated with. And don’t be afraid to think VERY big - you’d be surprised how many ultra-senior CEOs or C-level executives will both enjoy working with you and would like to have some exposure to your upside.
  5. Practice “A Pufferfish Mentality” — By far the most important tip of the bunch is your mentality. Quite simply — If you act small, you’ll be perceived as small. And, much like the Pufferfish — if you act like one of the big fish in the sea, that’s what your prospects, partners or predators will perceive you to be. What that essentially means is that in every interaction in the market, act like you deserve to be there — don’t continuously thank prospects for agreeing to meet with you, don’t “beg” for them to just give you a chance and don’t treat them in a way that puts you at a disadvantage. This does not mean you should not act in a respectful and professional way of course, but it makes a world of difference to come to a sales or investment meeting intending to strike a partnership of equals, than from a mindset of a small player just looking to get their shot.

Remember — the main heuristic the market will use to know how big you are is the signals you chose to send. So until you truly are a big fish, remember the Pufferfish. If it can do it, so can you.



Gal Gitter

Venture Capitalist; Enthusiastic about helping things scale.