September 10, 2015
Earlier this week, I spent an evening with about 20 young entrepreneurs who are aspiring to build great companies. They are members of the current class of The Brandery, a top 15 ranked tech accelerator in Cincinnati. The Brandery is located in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, an urban community going through a major rejuvenation. If that isn’t inspiring enough, the class can step outside and see the tall office buildings that are the result of great entrepreneurs of yesteryear: William Procter and James Gamble, Barney Kroger, and Rowland Hussey Macy.
After a 25-year career building the great brands of Procter & Gamble. I left the coveted position of P&G’s Global Marketing Officer to found my own startup. I learned a lot as a founder, and learned even more over the last seven years working with startups. Many of those challenges and learnings came up in our discussion at The Brandery. Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned and that I shared with the group:
- Startups tend to think about marketing later than they should. Founders spend so much time fine-tuning business plans for investors and often forget about the fundamentals of a brand – What is your purpose? What is your promise to consumers? What are your key points of difference? What is your communication strategy? What is your visual identity? Every brand — b-to-b and b-to-c — should aspire to elicit an emotion from its customers. Emotion motivates purchase. That is well documented in multiple research studies. Think about… the warm feeling you have when you see a Starbucks cup filled with pumpkin spice, the energy and drive you experience when you put on a new pair of Nike shoes, the delight you feel when sending a witty snap on Snapchat. Those are all feelings that drive affinity and sales. Key lesson: Your brand is as important as your product. Take the time to build a brand with a fabulous customer experience.
- Culture is your ultimate competitive advantage. Your job as a founder is to create —and act upon— the North Star of your company. You do that through the team you build and the culture you create. A single employee can make or break you. Spend time on recruiting, take part in interviews, do your due diligence as you scale and build your teams. A bad hire is like a cancer. You should have no tolerance for employees who aren’t fully on board with your values. As Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway says, “culture is the greatest legacy a founder can leave.” Ask yourself: What kind of legacy do I want to leave?
- Have a relentless focus on your product or service. Never be complacent; always be pushing for a better product. Until we sold the company to Verizon, I was on the Board of Directors of Aol with Rick Dalzell, the former CIO of Amazon. Rick had the highest of standards for the company’s products and services. His version of success was traffic and experimentation — he was always concerned about the number of hits to the website and the quality of the engineers building the products. Bottom line: Every situation is an opportunity to improve your product or service.
As you put together your to-do list each day, think about how those tasks fit into the big picture. Are you spending time on the fundamentals of building a great brand? Are you creating a vision and culture that will guide your company in years to come? Do you have a relentless focus on your product or service?