You’re an entrepreneur. You’ve identified a gap in the market and come up with a product with huge potential for growth. The problem? You’re not the only one.
If everyone is trying to solve the same problem, then what’s going to make you stand out and be different? This is a tricky question for startups to answer, as you do not have the same history and heritage to draw from as the Nikes, GEs and Microsofts of the world. It’s a future-facing question that requires you to think about the principles that make your business special and unique.
Your principles should come out of your purpose – your reason for being. They should be equally inspiring and strategic. They should get you up in the morning, but also act as a guiding compass that drives decision-making. They should define your product experience, company culture, and communications.
Skillshare is a great example of a startup that has created set of principles that clearly define what makes them different. There are many wonderful startups that are trying to re-think education, from the Khan Academy to Coursera to the School of Life. What makes Skillshare different from its competitors is its commitment to principles that include “everyone is a teacher”, “teaching isn’t what you think it is”, and “learning by doing.”
Startups in other industries could learn from Skillshare’s example. I recently was on vacation in San Francisco where rideshare services are all the rage. Lyft. Uber. Hailo. Without googling them, I’m unclear on the differences between these businesses. I know that one has a pink moustache on its cars, but that’s the extent of my knowledge.
The issue of differentiation goes beyond transportation; it can also be applied to startups in crowdfunding (Indiegogo v. Kickstarter), ecommerce (Gilt v. Myhabit v. Rue La La), travel (Kayak v. Hipmunk). The list goes on.
You might be first to market, but defining what makes you special becomes especially important as your industry becomes more complex and competitive.
Where failure is the rule, not the exception, it’s important to start thinking about this question now rather than later.
Melissa Andrada is a strategist passionate about creating businesses that inspire people, do good, and make money. In her spare time, she teaches classes on branding for startups at General Assembly. @themelissard
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 definition – at 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.
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.
What does one do on maternity leave? Beside the obvious which is having a baby, transforming your entire life and learning how to be a mother…you start a business of course!
Well, at least that is what I did. After being on maternity leave for about a week, a germ of an idea which I had been developing, began to take flight. After finding a computer in our trash can, my partner and I began an intense conversation about how a business could begin to address our disconnection with technology. In addition, my growing belief that enterprise is the key to unlocking some of our most fundamental social issues gave way to our business,Technology Will Save Us.
TWSU is a haberdashery for technology and education. We design and manufacture DIY technology kits to help demystify technology and help people become creative and productive with it, not just consumers of it.
All of our kits are vehicles for education that help people to learn skills as well as create something useful and fun with technology. They range from experiences like Electro Dough Kit - which is conductive play dough that helps you learn basic electronics; to DIY Speakers Kit where you solder an amplifier and make speakers out of any material!
In just over a year we have designed 10 kits, sold over 40 products and tools, built 4 kiosks (shops within shops) and host regular workshops in London and globally.
Our latest kit, Bright Eyes, is our first experiment in teaching programming through a kit experience. We at TWSU believe programming is a hugely useful skill that goes far beyond apps and websites into our physical world. These skills are often challenging to pick up when people do not have a project or a specific idea in mind. Bright Eyes is a platform to help inspire people to learn programming because it is so cool!
It is a pair of glasses which have 174 LEDs (light emitting diodes) on them for you to program. These LEDs can play back graphics and videos off a micro SD card (video player), or be controlled using any microcontroller platform. Best of all, we’re making them Arduino compatible! So, if you want to add a microphone or an ambient light sensor to make them more responsive – you’ll be able to. If you do not know what Arduino is you should learn it!
We have launched a Kickstarter campaign to coincide with the launch of Kickstarter in the UK. There is only 2 more days left for us to raise the funds we need in order to bring Bright Eyes to the world.
We think this a perfect accessory for any budding techie or a fabulous holiday gift for someone special. If you’d like to support us on Kickstarter or buy any of our other kits online, please do!
Bethany Koby is a social impact specialist at Wolff Olins London.