Building a startup brand; lessons learnt by starting from scratch
| 5 minutes
How would you feel about building a brand from scratch, does the thought fill you with fear, or is it an exciting possibility to shape and build something, out of nothing?
Whether you’re a marketer like myself, an entrepreneur or founding member of a new startup, if you’re anything like me, the very very honest answer to that question, sits somewhere between the two.
I think that if you didn’t approach a ‘task’ like this with a healthy amount of trepidation, then you’ve probably completely underestimated the potential challenges and curveballs that lie ahead.
The core challenges for marketeers at any bootstrapped, self-funded startup relates back to the challenges a startup faces in general; resources, or lack thereof, both budget and people. Despite the challenges there are many examples of amazing startup marketing; think Pinterest’s super-user campaign which helped them scale from 3000 users to more referral traffic than Twitter, Reddit, Google+, and LinkedIn combined.
Nevertheless, this is exactly the challenge that I undertook when I joined Confido as Head of Marketing, in January 2019. After being approached by Craig (a previous colleague) and JD, I was interested to hear that they thought marketing was a key growth accelerator.
For such an early stage startup, this really showed their long-term thinking, beyond just the usual ‘sales ROI’ mindset that is typical in recruitment businesses. This, plus the proposition to help tech startups scale really appealed to me and the rest as they say is history.
What is brand building?
Before I jump into what lessons I’ve learnt along the way and how I’ve developed the Confido ‘brand’, it’s important to stop and think about the phrase ‘building a brand’ in itself.
“Your brand is the single most important investment you can make in your business” - Steve Forbes, Editor in Chief, Forbes Magazine
What do I really mean when I say this? To add value, a business needs to first understand its audiences’ needs and pain points. It can then develop compelling messaging and a proposition that clearly highlights the benefits the business can bring to this intended audience(s). These are the fundamental building blocks every business need to consider when creating a market presence.
For the purposes of this blog, that’s what I mean by ‘building the brand’. And, the importance of this can’t be underestimated, according to a survey by CBS Insights of 101 failed startups, poor marketing was the main reason for the failure of 14% (so we had to get this right!)
Over the past 9 months, I’ve taken the fundamental steps, based on my experience, prior knowledge and best-practice examples, that I believe would get us to the best ‘market-ready’ position, in the leanest way.
- How does the brand ‘look’ visually?
- What does Confido stand for?
- How do we ‘sound’?
- What value do we add for our respective audiences?
- What are our main differentiators in the market?
- What content should we be producing?
- How should we most effectively engage with and build our communities and where?
Obviously, the job of ‘brand building’ is never truly over. I’m under no illusion that the proposition, branding itself (in the truest sense of the word, think logos, fonts etc.) and approaches won’t continue to change and evolve over the coming months and years. And, so it should!
So, where did I start ‘building a brand’?
Anyone else that works as a marketer for a very early-stage startup will appreciate that you have to be lean and agile in your approach. And, very hands on. It’s not for everyone.
First of all, I had no resource to pull on. As someone that left a business where I had design resource, juniors and dedicated external support, I knew I’d be back to doing most of the tasks I’d ordinarily ‘delegated’ myself. Secondly, I was now part of a small team that had no prior experience working directly with a ‘marketing’ person. Thirdly, there was no plan in place and I was literally starting from scratch.
Daunting, yes, but also exciting.
I actually relished that challenge. It’s easy to become wrapped up in the Strategy and Plans and you can lose sight of the hard work that goes into the day to day execution of content creation, social posting and SEO research.
It’s also easy to become embedded in the mindset of ‘I know best’, so it’s great to start thinking about the ‘why’ again. It ultimately helps you become a better marketer, but importantly justifying your plans and actions is key to get buy-in from those stakeholders with minimal marketing experience.
"People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it" - Simon Sinek
So, to answer the question, ultimately, I broke my time down as follows.
The first month was spent primarily learning and understanding. I spent hours with Craig and JD, getting to know their ambitions, ideology and thinking, to fully understand the immediate business priorities and wider business goals and ambitions.
Then came a solid month of research and planning, followed by the next 6-9 months of building and then execution.
I won’t go into detail about the actual tasks, but essentially the key projects I’ve completed so far:
- Identifying, researching and analysing the competition / market
- Identifying our unique value proposition
- Defining the brand messaging, mission, vision and values
- Creating a tone of voice and visual look and feel – ‘the brand’
- Creating a new website to take our message to market
- Creating and executing a content plan
- Engaging with our audiences online
So, what have I learnt?
Build an ‘MVB’
If you’ve never worked at an SME before, startup life might be a bit of a shock to the system for you.
Having come from a Software Technology background myself, I’ve been around agile product-led teams for most of my career. I’d never worked for such an early stage startup before, but I think my background was a distinct advantage to knowing what lean project management looks like.
Essentially, I approached building out the brand, as you’d approach building an MVP. What were the minimum stakes in the ground that we needed to put in place to have a ‘functioning’ brand? Logos, tone of voice, our desired audience personas, mission statements, an ‘offering’, a new website, a content and social marketing plan.
Once we had that MVP or ‘MVB’ (Minimum Viable Brand), we could develop, refine and tailor our approach. Now, we can change direction depending on business priorities, tailor the content we need at any one time, or tailor our service brochures and PDFs, target our advertising based on a meetup we’ve decided to sponsor… etc.
As you build your MVB, it’s important to manage internal expectations with your leadership team and key stakeholders. They need to fully engage with the creation process and have visibility and clear expectations of the work undertaken – one, for buy-in to make it easier, and two, so that you don’t spend weeks and months developing something that could be vetoed in seconds…
If you have the MVB, you have the main stakes in the ground, you have a brand presence and you can iterate it as you go.
Yes, you could spend a whole year building a whole brand book, recruit an agency that’ll charge you £1000s for the catchiest slogan around and look ‘shit hot’. But, my view is it’s better to get your MVB to market – to build, measure and learn, in the wise words of Eric Lies, ‘The Lean Startup.’
You’ll get to know your audience better, so if you decide to invest in these elements later, you’ll 100% get a better outcome.
Learn from the competition
When you’re starting from ‘nothing’, your only real point of reference (beyond the ideas you share around the team) is competitor intel. What came before you?
When I say competitor’s, I don’t just mean in the traditional sense of ‘direct’ competitors. When you’re working for a startup that often has a unique offering or is looking to disrupt the market, you must open up and think ‘outside-the-box’ when you start your research.
You shouldn’t just worry about the few niche companies that have the most similar offering (although of course they’re important), but you should also consider the wider market. I think it comes down to an analogy that came up when was speaking to Product Manager Stu Crew for a Q&A. You shouldn’t just compare Coke with Pepsi. Think about the customers ‘need’ rather than the solution you’re offering. What are all the other products, processes, services and solutions out there that will deliver the same outcome. These are ALL your competition.
So, what did I actually do / look at when it came to the competition?
Well, beyond the usual SWOT analysis, it’s important to continually follow and track what they’re doing. What initiatives do they have in place, how are they positioning their services, who is advocating what they’re doing?
This could be anything from events or meetups, through to content (from social to video, to in-depth blog strategies) and followers, advocates and influencers in their networks and monitoring overall engagement.
I guess what I’m saying is, don’t just do that one-off piece of research when you start brand building, but always keep your eye on the competition. That great idea for an initiative you’ve just had… likelihood is someone is already doing it. And, unless you can do it 10x better, or you know there won’t be much crossover, you really should consider if it’s worth doing, or going back to the drawing board.
Work smarter, not harder
When you’re starting out, especially with a very small team and modest budget, it can easily seem like a daunting task.
This links into the next point about not being too proud, but who better to help you work smarter, not harder, than your existing network?
Whether that’s asking for feedback (which we’ve done a lot, so thanks to our contacts for their continued patience, understanding and useful opinions), asking for an introduction to a relevant contact, or asking for shares on social media.
In a few short months we’ve managed to build some great partnerships, with the likes of Benefex, a leader in the employee experience space, who are helping us amplify the reach of our content with social shares and backlinks (thanks guys!)
It’s also about having an impartial listening ear that can offer constructive and unbiased opinion on an idea, initiative or approach. It’s easy to become quite insular in a small team, so it’s invaluable to get that outsider’s opinion (even if you choose not to listen to it!)
That being said, it’s also important to remember how busy your contacts probably are with their own priorities, so don’t become a pest!
Don’t be too proud
Am I a qualified graphic designer? No. Is Canva, my best friend? Yes.
Can I create images for social media and decent branded documentation? Yes.
Does this mean I should try to design a new company logo? Probably not.
But, I did try anyway. And, I failed, miserably. I won’t be putting logo design as a skillset on my LinkedIn profile anytime soon. But, with hindsight (and it is a wonderful thing) I should have just outsourced that task from the get-go.
It can be difficult when you are so hands on, and naturally a doer, to take a step back and say ‘I’m not even going to attempt that task, we can pay someone to do that.’
Know when to pick your battles and when not to waste your time. What could take you a whole week, might take a qualified expert a matter of hours. Value your own time too.
Celebrate the mini-wins
It’s easy to let small successes and mini-wins pass you by when there is always something else to do, or lessons to learn, but I think its important to acknowledge them. Given the first 6 weeks are mainly planning, don’t expect to see major wins early on, but instead celebrate the mini-wins along the way.
Major wins, like launching the website in the July, or sending our first external newsletter in August, have been interspersed with mini-wins like getting 100 followers on our LinkedIn company page and releasing our first Q&A on the blog last week.
Celebrate the successes. Whether that’s a shout-out to the team mate that helped you with a blog, a thank you message to the account that re-tweeted your tweet, or just a fleeting happy dance in your desk chair (a perk of remote-working is that there are no witnesses…)
It’s important to remember that when you start out, you won’t be working with huge organic numbers (unless you’re planning to throw a tonne of money at targeted advertising and incentivising engagement).
Yes, one re-tweet a week or 50 views of a blog post might not seem like ground-breaking figures. But, acknowledge that you didn’t even have a Twitter account 2 months ago, and your blog didn’t have any traffic the last quarter!
Analytics play a part here in tracking ongoing growth of your audience. The best way to view this (and to report back to get management buy-in) is to track the % growth in followers or % increase in engagement (likes + shares + follows) over time, instead of total numbers to see a true reflection of growth.
And, remember, don’t get bogged down in the numbers - it’s about the engagement and the consistent improvement over time. The standard marketing ‘get out of jail play’, but all good things take time, when your primary goal is brand building, not direct lead-gen.
It can be hard to track ROI, but continued improved audience engagement is a good way to start to see you’re making headway.
My 5 key learnings
To summarise, my pieces of advice:
- Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help
- Use productivity tools, like content aggregator Feedly, to free up your time
- Be realistic – consistency is key, so create a social publishing schedule that’s realistic, it’s better to publish 3 times a week every week
- Build positive relationships with people in your network – they become your biggest champions, sharers and knowledge-base
- Be willing to move quickly and change direction – manage your diary by weeks and months rather than halfs and years
- Keep learning, researching, analysing and improving – invest time in attending meetups, reading thought-leadership materials and keeping an eye on the wider market
If you’ve found my musings useful, or at least reassuring if you’re in the same boat, I’d love to hear from you.
I’m happy to have a chat to share more specifics around how I’ve approached each area. In future blogs, I’ll be covering topics, from educating a team about the ‘why’ of marketing, working in a small team, to creating a content plan for a startup, so keep your eyes peeled.
If you’d like to see more blogs like this or there’s a particular topic that’d be useful to cover, give me a shout, otherwise, please give this a like or share on LinkedIn.