By Daria Gonzalez, founding partner and CEO at Wunderdogs, a brand consultancy focused on technology and innovation. Former early-stage VC.
Great brands are not an accident — they’re built early and by design. Yet, storytelling and branding are two often misunderstood elements of building a great company.
When we think of “branding,” most of us envision the Coca-Colas of the world, spending millions of dollars to pick the right shade of red. This isn’t entirely false — it’s just one of the elements that are most visible. Branding is far more nuanced with much more that isn’t immediately visible. It’s a vast category that one can easily drown in.
I’ve worked with startups for the last seven years. First, as an early-stage VC in B2B tech. Now, I run a brand consultancy for high-growth companies. Most of the entrepreneurs I work with (especially, non-consumer founders and engineering teams) find branding highly confusing — so much so that many think it’s worth putting off until series B.
Why does branding matter sooner rather than later?
Interestingly enough, branding for early-stage startups matters a whole lot outside of the consumer vertical. A well-crafted brand helps its founder across three main categories: hiring a great team, raising money and building partnerships. These audiences, as much as any, are composed of people who want to feel connected to your mission and your brand when making a life-changing decision to work with you.
An early-stage brand not only provides you tools to connect with others on a deeper level, but also a framework to help replicate those connections as you scale. An early-stage company grows on the strength of the product and the founders’ ability to sell. But your business will plateau if it always depends on you being in the room to drive the conversation with potential customers from beginning to end. In a way, building a brand is like scaling the best of you, the founder, so you can actually be in many places at once.
When does it bring the most value?
An easy way to wrap your head around building your brand early is to think of a branding road map in connection with your product road map. Think of a brand as the interface between your product, business and market. It’s critical for the two — your brand and your business — to be in sync.
You have a problem when you have a great “narrative” that outpaces what you actually deliver. The risk you incur when your brand and business are out of sync is a dissonant user experience that sinks understanding and excitement before it ever gets off the ground. The biggest value of good branding lies in managing expectations and delivering a clear experience while keeping people excited.
What constitutes a successful early-stage brand?
A common misconception is that a brand is essentially a collection of important artifacts — mission, vision, a tagline about making the world a better place and a logo. There’s hope that these individual artifacts will add up to a greater whole.
But these are just means to the goal, not the goal itself; they have to be in action. In action, through interactions and feedback, playing offense and defense when competing for talent and funding, they become your levers of authenticity. Otherwise, your best bet will be becoming one of the lookalikes documented in Ben Schott’s article published by Bloomberg called “Welcome to Your Bland New World.”
Having a mission, vision and values written down is not wrong. At the end of the day, well-defined brands do have those. But more important than the artifacts is the substance, however, you decide to make it clear to your audiences.
So, when thinking about your first stab at building a brand, keep your early adopters in mind — your investors, partners, talent — and answer these questions:
1. What is my way of seeing the opportunity?
2. What gives me the advantage to capture the opportunity?
3. What is the job to be done on my audience’s behalf?
4. Why does what I build matter?
Fancy artifacts — mission, vision, purpose, etc. — help explain those things, but they are not the substitutes for them. As much as with product building, or anything related to entrepreneurship, building your early brand requires a great dose of humility. But do not hesitate. Focus on your substance, and let it guide the rest of your actions. Artifacts will come; the logo can be typed in Helvetica Neue, the pitch deck can use a template. Differentiate with your substance and your idea — and your brand will follow.