• by William Mougayar
    Venture advisor, 4x entrepreneur, marketer & strategist. I live in Toronto, curate a lot, blog a bit, and help startups.

The Biggest Blindspot of a Startup CEO is Ignoring Their Brand

Ceo leadershipI’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).

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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.

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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.

  • Just to play devils advocate… what areas of the business are not related to Product, Brand, Culture? Or.. any there any CEOs that come to mind that don’t focus on those? Maybe Ballmer?

    • I was focusing my post on the startup CEOs that are fairly new to being CEOs, and to some extent the ones that Fred mentioned in his post yesterday. It doesn’t appear that these have marketing genes that are visible.
      Question is not – what areas of business aren’t related to product/brand/culture, but rather: is the CEO specifically making it a priority to see the Brand as an essential element and a priority for them?

    • I’d agree with William that very few if any startup CEOs understand, focus even believe in Brand as a driver of product/customer experience. :)

      • awaldstein

        I think that the more CEOs think of their usines is discrete pieces as a continuum from product to brand the more they end up with product searching for a market and the more they stack the odds against them.

        • i’m being stupid Arnold – i’m not sure what you mean?

  • Great post William! I agree that Chesky’s self-awareness and leadership style is the new archetype for startup success. He has said that the buck stops with him. My favourite quote from him is to build something that 100 people love – early advice from Paul Graham that he took to heart. How easy is it to transfer the leader’s brand (self-awareness, purpose and values) and empower other departments (that are growing) to the same degree, such that potential horror stories are mitigated and addressed quickly and properly? While AirBnB’s brand will get past the story below, it is a challenge for the leadership to deal with ongoing challenges that can and should be resolved by a customer service rep.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/15/your-money/airbnb-horror-story-points-to-need-for-precautions.html?_r=0

  • Twain Twain

    Really interesting because I liked AirBnB until…this weekend I saw this poster on a bus shelter. Notice a few things which feel “off” about its brand communication:

    (1.) It assumes its redesigned icon(*) is instantly recognizable like Apple’s when it’s not.

    (2.) Nowhere does it say AirBnB or have a call to action like “Belong anywhere, visit AirBnB.com.” = wasted marketing opportunity

    (3.) It says “man” instead of “human”.

    (4.) It doesn’t show, it tells.

    (5.) The text proportions are weird; the AirBnB logo and “belong anywhere” should be bigger.

    (*) Wrt the logo, it’s so NOT feng shui. Just as in Western culture it’s really unlucky to have an upturned horseshoe because this means your luck is running out, an upturned heart means your love is running out.

    Plus a Techcrunch article about the redesign said this: “Apparently no one in on the design process asked themselves, in this guy’s parlance, “Does this logo look like a boobs and a butt and a hooha?”

    • *facepalm*

      • Twain Twain

        Haha, quite!

        Apple didn’t start out with the brand identity and values it has today.

        • awaldstein

          Actually the core value and positioning of Apple with the Classic and today is not that different.

          Sure the world has changed but the empowerment of the person not the cult of tech has been there from day one.

          what the logo looks like is not that relevant.

          • Twain Twain

            Thanks, Arnold. I get what you’re saying about the deeper resonance of a brand that transcends what it may look like.

            Still, I remember the failures re. Gap’s logo re-design:

            * http://adage.com/article/behind-the-work/gap-wrong/146393/

            In terms of Apple logo’s evolution, one designer explains it as: “In the Eighties, Apple was positioned as a rebel, raging against an Orwellian corporate machine. Their rainbow-colored logo reflected their counter-culture positioning. However as Apple’s brand personality evolved, so did their logo… along with the rest of their marketing.

            Today, Apple is seen as a maker of more high-end, sophisticated products. Thus their logo is more refined and understated, mirroring their current status.”

            * http://blakedesignsolutions.com/2013/whats-a-logo-worth-an-examination-of-the-true-value-of-a-well-designed-logo/

          • And thus why Apple may be in trouble. It means they have lost sight of their mission IMO

          • The core value of an apple is the pips !

          • Steve Jobs said on a Youtube video that apple stood for “People with passion can change the world” best brand positioning EVER and nothing to do with product specifically

    • ha, had never seen that. kinda love it even though it may in fact look like boobs, a but and a hooha ;)

    • I agree, it is a bit of a stretched implementation of a brand strategy. That part is when an advertising agency got involved, and presented a few options, and they chose that direction.
      It’s not very clear or friendly.

  • awaldstein

    Misunderstanding the value of marketing I can see. Understanding the value of marketing enough to spend scarce cash on a marketing department yet refusing to participate in the process seems a bit odd honestly.

    There is not PR agency servicing startups that doesn’t expect and require the CEO to speak to the press.

    Guess I”m not understanding.

  • One of the challenges facing startups is their focus (obsession?) with product and features. To them, this is branding. As well, they lack an understand of the importance and function of marketing so branding is likely an alien concept.

    • True. You nailed that description which is why I wrote this, and a previous post, Don’t focus on product, but rather on the mind.

  • Excellent post, William (as usual).

    When I read Paul Graham’s most recent essay, Change Your Name (in which he wrote that if you’re a US startup called X it’s important to have the domain x.com), I noticed that he didn’t refer to branding. To me it would have been a natural reference, but the audience he’s writing to may not respond positively to it. I’m wondering whether the blind spot may partly result from how the let’s-disrupt-everything startup culture likes to avoid things that are associated with the corporate world that it’s competing against: I personally now have a negative emotional reaction whenever I see the term “brands” (which is used by marketers to refer to corporate brands). To me the terms “brand” and “branding” are entirely different from “brands”, and are positive and crucial things, but to other people there may be some spillover, and the branding baby may get thrown out with the brands bathwater.

    • Yeah, well it has to be authentic, original and organic. You can’t manufacture the way a brand is communicated to the market. That’s where some mistakes are made.

      Also, that’s why in a previous post I said to wait til the product/market fit before formulating the shape of the various brand elements.

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