When people are building startups, they often jump the gun on branding. Branding is the fun, glamorous part of building a startup. It’s easy to see your progress and it’s validating to see a polished logo and your company name up on a website or business card. We get it, we work on branding projects pretty much every day. However, if you do too much work on your brand too soon, you’ll just be wasting your time and money, two things that are probably in short supply for a fledgling startup. Even worse, you could unintentionally be more resistant to change despite what potential customers are telling you because you feel that you’ve invested too much in your idea.
Disclaimer: This guide will provide the most value for high-growth, scalable businesses. If you’re starting something like a restaurant or retail store, the process is a bit different.
This process assumes you’re building your startup using the lean startup methodology. Some of the steps below will mimic the lean startup process but we’re leaving out a lot of details so we recommend looking into the lean methodology further if you’re unfamiliar with it. The short, oversimplified explanation is that it’s a process of constantly validating the problem you’re trying to solve and making frequent adjustments to your idea for how to solve it based on feedback from potential customers.
Step 1: Define the problem you’re trying to solve.
The problem comes first. If you’re making something that doesn’t solve a problem, you’re probably not going to get very far. Think about what problem you’d like to solve and write it down.
Step 2: Validate the problem.
Get out and talk to people who you think face the problem you’re trying to solve (in other words, your future customers). Don’t go in and say “Hey look at my idea, do you like it?” or “I think you have a problem with this, wouldn’t it be nice if that was easier/better/cheaper/whatever?” Instead, ask probing questions and let them identify the problems they encounter. If nobody mentions the problem you’re trying to solve, the problem may not exist or you may not be talking to the right people.
Really listen to what people are saying. They may be validating the problem you’re trying to solve or they may be bringing up other, bigger problems that you could solve. This is why you don’t want to build a brand too soon. You may stumble onto a gold mine that you hadn’t thought of before and change your idea completely.
In addition to listening for what problems people are having, listen to how they’re talking about the problem. Write down the key words that keep coming up. When you’re ready to start marketing, you’ll have a better chance of connecting with your target audience if you use the same language they do.
Pro Tip: End each interview by asking if you can reach back out to them with more questions later. This makes the next steps much easier and, if they say yes, it shows that you probably struck a chord with them and you’re on the right track.
Step 3: Start with the brand basics.
Do enough of these interviews until you feel comfortable that you found a problem you can solve and that you can build a scalable business around that solution. There’s no magic number but 10 interviews is probably too few and 100 is probably too many. Once you’re done with that, it’s time to get the very basics of your brand established. Things may still change after this step so don’t invest too much time here. At this point you should create a working name and you should be able to clearly articulate the problem you’re solving and how you’re idea solves that problem. WRITE IT DOWN and keep it to just a few sentences or less. You don’t need a logo or company colors or anything like that just yet.
Step 4: Validate your idea.
Get back out there and ask more questions. This time, talk to people about your product idea and how you think it solves the problem you’ve identified. Make it a two-way conversation and encourage them to challenge you and poke holes in your idea.
Don’t let us fool you just because we ran through steps one through four quickly. Those steps should take some time and it is usually not a linear process. If you’re doing it right, you’ll probably need to validate, make adjustments, validate again, make more adjustments, and so on until you’re comfortable moving forward. It can be difficult and frustrating at times but you’ll have a much better chance at success if you do things this way rather than just building your idea and hoping people will buy it.
Step 5: Build the brand.
If you’ve made it to step five, you’re in a pretty good spot. You know that you’re solving a major problem for a specific segment of customers and you’re pretty confident that those customers will like your solution. The chances of needing to make major changes to your brand are much lower now than they were when you started. Start by taking a look at your working name. Does it still make sense for the idea you ended up with? If it does, cool. If not, change it.
Now is the time to consult with someone who has some experience in marketing such as a cofounder with a marketing and sales background or a marketing agency that has experience working with startups. You’ll want to start by creating some detailed customer personas. You can find some more information about how to do this at our blog post on the subject. After that, you will want a logo and design standards such as fonts and colors, but make sure you don’t stop there. The more valuable part of the brand you’re building is the messaging behind it. When we do branding for our customers, we select a brand archetype for overarching guidance, write a description of the brand voice and personality, and then write a brand story utilizing that information. The end goal is to create a foundation that helps you ensure that all of your marketing from here on out is consistent and connects with your target market in the most effective way possible.
Once you’re done with this, you’re ready to build your minimum viable product (MVP) and go through some more rounds of customer validation. Your end product will probably look a little different than what you’re imagining at this point so make sure you keep looking back to your branding foundation and make tweaks if necessary. Aaaaand that’s the end of the easy part, now you get to tackle the joys of finalizing your product, acquiring customers, and scaling your business. It will be hard but there’s nothing more fulfilling or rewarding.
Owner // Director of Strategy