I’ve been critical of startup CEO’s whose startup has traction, but they can’t seem to rise-up to make their company great by recognizing that elevating their company’s brand is their job, not the marketing department’s.
Traction, users and early revenue is a God’s gift to a startup, and it is a fuel that lets you go to the next level. How you take advantage of that is a key question.
It was heartening to read that Brian Chesky, one of my favorite startup CEO’s has 3 priorities he passionately focuses on: Product, Brand, Culture. It is no coincidence that these 3 areas represent the 3 poles of a company’s structure: its users (product), its market (brand), and its employees (culture).
In addition to the confirmatory point that Brian Chesky is pro-active at being the bearer of the Airbnb brand, it is not a coincidence either that Airbnb’s valuation ranks as one of the highest among startups, on a per employee basis, with a respectable #4 position in private companies (behind off-the-charts Snapchat, then WeWork and Pinterest, and ahead of UBER). This confirms pretty much what I have recently written in my post, Why a Strong Brand Means Higher Growth and Better Valuation for your Startup.
The Fortune article that chronicled The Education of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky is a fascinating read, offering an insightful roadmap and inspiration to any young startup CEO who needs to rise-up, and has a calling to become a leader. In my opinion, Brian’s self-aware roundedness is the new Tech CEO archetype, not someone who came from product management necessarily.
Brian Chesky self-educated himself at age 33, as a first-time CEO, as he became obsessed with figuring how what he needed to learn. I know that exact feeling, because at 27, when I became a young manager at HP, I started devouring every management and leadership book I could find, and got help from other more senior managers. As a manager, if you don’t obsess with mastering Management, then I’m not sure what is more important than that.
The other key thing about the Fortune article is that Brian Chesky decided to take his mentorship up, not sideways. I see a lot of emphasis in startups on peer groups for support and learnings, and although peer groups are great, you won’t learn something if your peers haven’t yet experienced it, and you certainly won’t get the depth and breadth of knowledge from more seasoned mentors. Brian Chesky went to Warren Buffett, George Tenet, Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Disney and Jony Ive chief design officer at Apple.
Back to Chesky’s 3 priorities (Product, Brand, Culture), it is not unusual to see Product and Culture on the list of other startup CEO’s priorities. But it is less likely to see Brand on it. “Brand” is that blindspot that many startup CEO’s have if they don’t value its importance. Brand pulls you forward and it helps you grow. It is the CEO’s responsibility to be the brand ambassador. If they can’t, they have a problem. It is not just up to the marketing department. At some point in time, when your product/market fit is helping you grow, it is time to Focus Your Startup Marketing on the Mind, not the Product.
To all tech startup CEOs, my archetype is Brian Chesky. I previously lauded Airbnb for consciously working on their brand as they positioned themselves to be in the Hospitality business, and not in the spare room or sleeping-on-the-couch service. I am now impressed to see how Brian Chesky has become an original, self-taught, rounded leader that values the importance of his brand.
I will end this post with my favorite Brian Chesky quote from that Fortune article:
“Usually in a crisis you have to go left or right, and everyone wants to go middle. And middle is the storm…and they’re usually the worst decisions.”
Marketing is the same. You don’t get to it by consensus. You take bold positions with bold statements, and you forge your own path in the marketplace.
I hear a red flag when I ask a startup CEO about their marketing, and the answer I get is “my team will figure it out, they are working on it”, or “my team did a great job with the website”, as if they have outsourced their marketing. Well, as a CEO, if you are leaving marketing and your market perceptions to the marketing department, you are failing to rise up and be your own, authentic brand’s ambassador.
No one else but the CEO can be the standard bearer for their brand. Don’t let it be your blindspot.