Startups: Stop Romanticizing Your Brand and Tailor it for Early Adoptersby@taboca
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Startups: Stop Romanticizing Your Brand and Tailor it for Early Adopters

by Marcio S GalliMarch 8th, 2022
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Watch out if you judge an inferior brand of a start-up. Although founders are not branding experts, what is apparently a poor start-up brand might have had a strong appeal with their audiences.

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Many companies, as they grow, figure out the need to change their brand identities. But we should not assume that they evolved their brands because their original one was simply poor. Have you ever considered that an inferior brand that a start-up uses makes a lot of sense to their initial user?

In this essay, I want to focus on the importance of having a brand that speaks the language of your early-stage customers. To get started, let's look at the story of Stripe:

Stripe(.com) is a growing payments service. Now, a nice name that is easy to type and speak over the phone. It could be more beautiful and it suits well to the stage that they are at - an at-scale stage.

But it wasn't always like that when they started, as revealed by the company's co-founder Patrick Collison:

Stripe wasn't called Stripe back then… It was called /dev/payments because we, you can tell, we were great branding experts. (Greylock, 2015, 0h4m30s)

Calling a company "/dev/payments" would not indeed make much sense - using the general branding hat as we know it. But luckily they were not branding experts at the time, as they were appealing their initial service to high-tech start-ups that needed an easy payments solution for their Linux systems. For that community, "/dev/payments" was an expression that made a lot of sense with their crowd; it fit with the domain's language.

Perhaps they didn't notice what they did, fine. But maybe also the very fact that they were not branding experts, as pointed out by Patrick, perfectly helped them at that moment. They did not have the time (or branding expertise) to screw things up.

Taking inspiration from Stripe's case, the following are a few points for entrepreneurs looking at how to better position their brand at the early stage:

Don't spend time seeking a romantic "at-scale" brand

Trying to look for your future brand, such as a lasting brand, would be a waste of time and it could even take focus away. Instead, come up with a culture-fit brand or, at least, try not to find a brand name that is too neutral or distant. If you have both, of course, go for it. But also remember to try out the different brand directions as you are running your many MVP experiments.

You should think of your initial brand name as a test: if you have one that is meaningful and ridiculously nice for a niche of people, then you may be using your time correctly.

Your brand may not be perfect, it’s necessary

When looking at a brand that helps connect with a niche of users, and their culture, we create an initial story, a discussion. More importantly, it reminds us that everything is yet dynamic in the early stage, that much more will come as we learn with the initial customers, when we find them, the real or right ones. A name, a prototype, an early product - these things not perfect - exist to let us open the discussion with customers.

Customers are the ones that can help us to understand the language. And that language is key to the development of the ultimate brand.

When started, it wasn't Instead, and as part of many experiments, they launched their initial service as tailored to a neighborhood at Menlo Park, California - a network called Lorelei neighborhood:

And, we were very lucky, we found a community down in Menlo Park, willing to be her guinea pig. It's the Lorelei neighborhood, this is a photograph that I took one afternoon when I was down in Menlo Park one of the four times that I had to go down and pitch the idea of next door to a group of 10 folks that represented the homeowners association in Lorelei. (Sarah Leary, ProductSF 2016, 0h10m14s)

The future brand name will naturally come

"The name resulted in misspellings and confusion to those outside the company, so the company renamed itself Stripe" says Wikipedia.

If you have a good reason to change your name, you are doing things correctly. Therefore, seek an initial culture-fit representation and drive it to the next stage! In the end, changing it or not won't be up to you - your audience will make that call.