Brand: What’s missing from your startup strategy


By Sam Wilson

Another acquisition, another day: early this week, Yahoo snatched up Summly, a mobile product startup. Since falling under the leadership of Marissa Mayer, the struggling Internet giant has been making aggressive moves to bring in killer talent and innovation by acquiring the rising star startups. But in a world where every three out of four startups fail, how can new companies boost their chances of not just surviving, but thriving in a way that captures the attention of loving customers or big buyers? 

For budding businesses focused on creating and innovating the next big thing, brand couldn’t be more important. And I’m not talking about the traditional ‘positioning + visual identity’ model of brand. I’m talking about a model that requires a clear definitionat the start of the business and product strategy – of what your business stands for in the world, what needs you’re meeting, and how you’re making an impact – commercially and socially. Here are some ways to get started: 

1. Articulate your vision, attract the angels

Oren Bass, co-founder of Pave, a new business that helps ambitious young people crowdfund their careers and give back to society, said it best: “if you don’t know who you are, then how can anyone?”

You’re young, the talk of the Valley, can code like a wizard, and you may even be solving a great problem for humankind. Still, mere mortals are struggling to really get what you do and it’s not quite raining angels and VCs yet. You need brand to translate your vision into something people can understand and buy into.


2. Bulletproof your brand

Last year Facebook infamously bought Instagram for $1 billion. Instagram’s brand was young and hip and the mobile product outshined Facebook’s. There are a million photo apps like Instagram on the market – but this one continues to prevail because it means something important to its loyal customers. 

Most things are cheap to make these days. But however cool or innovative your product might be, it can always be imitated. Brand will separate and protect you from pretenders (e.g. Kickstarter vs Indiegogo), making you exciting for your consumers and attractive to the Googles and Facebooks of the world.


3. Filter and focus

Refinery29 is making a concerted effort to turn content into e-commerce. The business was built on engaging content creation and has developed a strong community of users. This gives them a leg up on traditional media companies and they’ve recently secured $3.5 million of private investment to flesh out their commerce business.

Like them, you probably have an endless source of ideas for things you could do (note: that doesn’t mean you should do them all), yet limited resources. Brand is your much-needed filter to help you focus your development and make decisions. Having a clear brand will make you more efficient and help you progress further, faster.


4. Talent talent talent

Mark Zuckerberg is open about the fact that Facebook acquires companies solely for their talent. This goes for all the successful giants – much of their acquisition strategies are based more on talent acquisition than business ideas. So use your smart startup idea as a demonstration of your smarts. 

Talented people want to work for a business that has purpose, aligns with their values and allows them to take part, and complements their skillsets. Many will even accept lower pay if it means they are doing something they are truly passionate about. The proof is in the numbers – 79% of millenials are looking for purpose and 50% would accept less pay to do ‘meaningful’ work. A strong brand will ensure sure you attract and retain the top 0.1% of talent you need for your business and make you more attractive to buyers.


5. Pivots

Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking you are building an app. Instead believe you are building a company, driven by a clear purpose. We’ve seen top players like PayPal, Twitter, Groupon, YouTube all have to pivot over time in order to maintain relevance. While this can be off-putting to customers initially, those moves clearly worked well in the long run.

If you’re up and running and things are looking good, but people aren’t using you like you thought they would, you’re going to need to change course and shift your message while bringing everyone along with you. You might have to make decisions that make you unpopular with some, but if you have a strong brand, people will stay loyal and give you their trust. 

In short, brand shouldn’t be an afterthought, but a driver for innovation and a platform for the long-term survival of your venture.


Sam Wilson is managing director of Wolff Olins New York. 

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