Startup lesson #3: Don’t make up a brand, be yourself

[Editor's note: Seattle entrepreneurs Barry Chu and Dave Cotter share some of their startup lessons in starting the new mobile app SquareHub. The three-part series is running this week on GeekWire, starting Tuesday with their thoughts about minimum viable products. In part two, they talked about figuring out key product features. Part three, running here today, covers startup branding].

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Image via BigStock

Wikipedia defines a brand as “the name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature” that identifies one seller’s product distinct from those of other sellers.

After all, Starbucks isn’t a cup of coffee.  It’s an experience.  The experience is what users feel when they use your product or come to your web site.

Brand mattered for our market, since we wanted SquareHub to integrate deeply with family life.

When we founded SquareHub a year ago, we got branding advice from marketers, social media specialists, ad execs, venture capitalists and fellow entrepreneurs (notice how we didn’t say marketing advice).

Given the overloaded app market, we knew branding was key. Our app is ultimately about family happiness—using technology to help families stay emotionally connected. That became the SquareHub brand.

Branding your tech startup is a matter of art, not science. The advice we got falls into three camps

1. “Build It and They Will Come” — Focus on the product. Forget branding and marketing – a good product is your brand. If you kick ass on the product, people will find it. Example: That hole-in-the-wall restaurant near you that only takes cash and has a line out the door.

2. “Figure Out Your Market and Craft The Brand to Fit”— Do market research. Learn what your customers care about. Craft messaging and product design to fit your demographic and psychographic. Example: Most large consumer packaged goods companies.

3. “Figure Out Who You Are and Shout It Out!” – Forget market research. Figure out the type of company you want to be, your corporate culture and what values you stand for, and be yourself. Examples: Virgin, Kenneth Cole.

We considered them all and wound up in the “shout it out” camp. Hopefully, you can benefit from our hard work (and time spent trying to figure out exactly who we are). To figure out what branding strategy you should employ, ask yourself five questions:

branding-decisionQuestion #1: Are You Entering a known or unknown market? If your market is unknown, focus on building your product. Don’t worry about branding or marketing until you figure out what market you’re in. Stick with “Build It and They Will Come.”

Question #2: Is your competitive advantage based on technology? If yes, and your technology is clearly superior, then focus on your product in the “Build It…” camp. Your marketing should expound on the benefits of your product relative to the competition (for example,, if everyone just cares about faster doodads, you just need to show your doodad is much faster).

Question #3: Are you the target market? If you are building for a problem that you feel passionately about and experience on a daily basis, you probably don’t need to do a lot of research. Instead, focus on verifying assumptions – that tends to be cheaper and faster to do. If you don’t have practical experience with the problem you are solving, you’ll need to understand your market better, so you’ll be in the “Figure Out the Market and Craft…” camp.

Question #4: Do you need high word-of-mouth? How much do trust and word-of-mouth figure in your customers’ decisions? If you are depending on recommendations for growth,  trust is critical. If trust is critical, authenticity is key to growth. Camp “Shout It Out.”

Question #5: Do you have clear corporate values? In some ways, this may be the only test that matters, because if you’re building a product or company to change something or to make a difference, it permeates everything you do. If you are committed to your vision and have a clear view of how you want to conduct business, don’t fool around crafting an image. Embrace Camp “Shout It Out!”.

As with many things we learned from starting SquareHub, being in the “Figure Out Who You Are and Shout it Out!” camp seems obvious in retrospect. But in the early days, it’s easy to second-guess yourself, especially when folks warn you about the risks of “turning people off.” We’re four dads building a product for families, so we heard lots of advice about building a brand geared to moms. It’s a risk, but asking a bunch of dads to pretend they are moms is about as inauthentic as it gets.

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The SquareHub founders

Once we were comfortable with the risks of having the company and corporate values be extensions of who we are and what we care about, everything began to fall into place: Our corporate name, our logo and our marketing strategy.

Our success depends on families recommending us to their friends and other families. For that to happen, we need them to know who we are, understand what we’re trying to do and trust that we will support them. As John Lee at Clickz says: “Being a humanized brand means learning the art of authenticity. It means being genuine, being passionate about whatever it is your brand is and does…Authenticity, in the long run, can’t be manufactured or faked.”

We spent a ton of time thinking about our corporate name (we actually went through six different names in 12 months). Naming a company and a product is always hard. It’s easy to get distracted by the conflicting advice you get (and, frankly, the availability of URLs). We chose SquareHub only after we went through the entire process above. If you’re in a similar situation, we recommend developing the company and product names after you’ve figured out your brand.

Our name is a reflection of our brand and who we are, not the other way around. We’re all a bit “square” (we care a lot about families, for goodness’ sake), we’re technologists and we’re building a hub around which families can connect.

From a pragmatic standpoint, SquareHub has some nice characteristics. It’s easy to search for, easy to spell and, with two simple one-syllable words, easy to remember. SquareHub is an accurate reflection of who we are and what we hope to achieve. With a clear brand and a solid product, we are ready to launch.

Wherever you are in your startup journey, we hope SquareHub’s lessons from Part One, Part Two and this article are helpful. We learned a ton in the last 12 months as we took our app from whiteboard to store. Now that we’ve launched, we’re starting a whole new learning phase, and we’ll be sure to share those lessons as we go.

Barry Chu is a co-founder of SquareHub.com, a Seattle-based startup focused on improving family coordination and communication.  SquareHub co-founder Dave Cotter also contributed to this column. 

Editor’s note: In this post, the SquareHub developers explained the importance of branding. Previously: Startup lesson #2: Don’t ignore the enablersStartup lesson #1: Reid Hoffman is wrong

  • Advanced SEO Tactics

    One piece of advice I would’ve given you was to consider SEO when picking a name. If you google “SquareHub” your website doesn’t appear anywhere on the first 5 pages. SEO is very important because many users type a company’s name into google instead of just typing in the the company name .com.

    • James S.

      Stop hocking your SEO crap. Nobody will hire your agency.

    • nwguy

      It must have been an easy fix; I just tried and they are all over the front page on a search.

  • chuey101

    people still use SEO’s?

    anyways, another good article. I think authenticity is key in the “new world” of almost infinite breadth and depth of options. The only way to stand out above the noise is to, well, take a stand. People know quality when they see it, feel it, touch it. Fakers and phonies will not last in the new world, people can see through it and word travels fast.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasongrimes Jason Grimes

    Hi guys,

    Thanks for the read. I agree with many of the things you said, but “SERVICE” is what’s going to separate you. If you continue to focus on the product and listen to feedback and iterate predictably you are on the right track. Think about what separates @Desk and @Zappos – their model is service first.

    • barry_h_chu

      Hi Jason,

      Totally agree! Part of putting ourselves out there is to enable folks to reach us if they are having problems with any part of the product, but at the end of the day we still need to “surprise and delight” customers with a great product and great service.