New projects are exciting. After leaving a kickoff meeting with a client, it's impossible not to get amped about the work that is going to be created. The problem is that all the excitement propels my lizard brain to override anything strategic and necessary to ensure the project runs smoothly. This rarely happens because I have checklists and things of the like reference, but it happens.
Here is the number one thing I've learned this month from a design project: get ALL the copy finalized before handing off to a designer.
Before starting, it is completely my fault as the designer if I don't ask for all the necessary materials upfront to get the project moving and on track to be seamless. With that in mind, here is why it's important to get all the copy needed for a project upfront and ready to go:
Type rules the design
Because typography is the core of all graphic communication, if the verbiage changes, so does the design. For example, developing a series of covers for a magazine is going to be seamless if all of the titles have a similar structure (say a 1-2 word headline and a 3-5 word subhead). Easy to manage.
But if the headline length varies from 2-20 words, more thought will go into the initial strategy of making all the covers uniform.
Things fall through the cracks if not packaged succinctly
Hand a designer one word doc with final copy and the transition from ugly word doc to beautiful PDF is easy. Multiple docs with Frankenstein-like parts that need to be communicated in separate emails, things are bound to go haywire. Granted, things do change. But the point is to get as close as humanly possible to final copy before handing off to a designer.
This small shift of getting finalized copy will save you weeks on your next project, guaranteed. Whether you are a designer or someone working with a designer, everyone involved in the project will be happier with getting all copy before moving into design.
It's rare that I would ever post something along these lines, but I've gotten asked about the tools I'm using as a one-man show to make my life easier. Without further adieu, here are my favorite seven.
G Suite by Google
A client of mine recently indicated that he had purchased G Suite but was not using it to its fullest potential. Since it's the base layer for all of my administrative and business responsibilities, it seemed like a great place to start. The core features that every startup should take advantage of are Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive. By getting your whole team on these, the organizational integrity of your startup will get better. No more housing files on individual hard drives or trying to keep up with each other's schedules. It's all put right into a shared system. Apart from admin uses, services like Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides are suitable replacements for Microsoft Office. Think about all the burritos you could buy with an additional $7 per employee a month. That's a lot of frijoles.
As for tracking projects, posting work for clients, and documenting approval, Notion has been a gem. For starters, it's free software that combines the best elements of Trello, Evernote, and Google Docs into one, malleable software. Granted, the drawback is that there is a learning curve to really making this software work its magic for your team. Anyone working on product design, or long-term internal projects would get a kick out of Notion's visual layout for tracking progress.
Sometimes typing out a message just ain't enough and your collaborators need to hear your voice. What Loom allows me to do is send videos to clients to explain my thinking and giving in-depth walkthroughs of a particular project element. It's especially helpful when going over designs, website projects, and giving feedback on other items. The kicker is that it's free and since all of the videos are distributed via URL, it makes for an easy send on any communication or project management platform.
You've got a lot of important shit to do and not a lot of time to do it. Any chance you get to automate a routine process is a chance to get back something invaluable: time. Because of Zapier's no-code principles, it allows users to connect independent web-apps based on a series of "if this, then that" operations. Whether you are looking to do simple things like automatically respond to a website form submission, or doing more complex stuff like webhooks, Zapier is the jam.
Good stock images are hard to come by, and it's even harder to find free images. Unspalsh has been a gem for finding high-resolution images to use on websites, within marketing collateral, or any other task where a good quality image is needed. There is a fault, in that since the images are free, it's easy for others to use the same ones. However, I've found that the workaround with this is to get creative and not be so literal with the images you're using. For example, if you're talking about a business crisis, don't use an image of a business person cringing at their desk. Find a picture of something on fire, or an earthquake to connote the idea of frantic chaos.
Going back and forth trying to figure out a time to meet up with someone is a pain in the ass. Use Calendly instead.
The no-code era is upon us. It's no longer necessary to bring in developers to build out custom websites or online applications. I have little to no code writing expertise, but I can build websites that include upvote features, sell tickets to events, and make it possible for marketing teams to work efficiently within a well-designed website. All without writing code. From a business perspective, this cuts out major bottlenecks like passing designs back and forth between a designer and a developer. Give developers the freedom they need to do heavy lifting on your startup team, let designers make the damn thing beautiful, and allow your marketing team to fire off content without worrying about how it will affect the site.
Links to each of the tools below:
A brand identity is the elements that make up a brand's manifestation in the tangible world; things we can see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. It's commonly limited to a logo, and while a logo is an essential piece, it's the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath the surface is what gives it the ability to rise above the surface.
Defining the brand
The entire purpose of brand identity is to have tangible manifestations of the gut feeling you intend people to have about your business. So, you must first define it. This is done through a brand discovery. If done right, these collaborative sessions between a branding expert and client unearth the business' values, story, voice and tone, purpose, and how they are different from their competitors.
Auditing the brand
Upon defining the brand, the branding expert and client will go through the current branding efforts of the business and check for alignment. This involves everything from marketing collateral, stationery, social media posts, email newsletters, the name of the company, even the services and pricing are on the table. The key is that regardless of the touchpoint, all elements must point to the defined brand. Anything misaligned is put up for redesign.
Brand Identity Design
This is where the foundation of the brand's look is laid. It involves the creation of a name (if needed), a logo, color palette, typography, photo styling, illustration and pattern examples, and iconography.
With the core elements of the brand identity laid out, marketing collateral, a website, and other touchpoints can be created without looking scattered.
Here's where this goes wrong: when you try to build the top of the iceberg without giving it the support it needs.
It's a common misconception that you have to be a designer to be a branding expert. False.
Branding is the art of making people feel a certain way about your business. Design is crafting with intention, be it in the physical space, digital, interior, whatever.
The point is that they are different skills. And while they do overlap within people, they are not the same. For example, if you know your values, who your customers are, and how you make them feel, you've got a solid understanding of your brand. But, it doesn't mean you've got the creative prowess to translate those emotions into a logo, a website, or any other marketing collateral. Likewise, you could be the best designer in the world and not know a damn thing about positioning, user profiles, deriving brand values, or even navigating the process of extracting them from a client.
Branding is king. If you had to forgo knowing your brand and being design-conscious, the brand is more important. But, that doesn't mean you can expect to achieve greatness without design. Why?
Because design turns something ordinary into something spectacular, makes complicated things, like a website, easy, and adds the spark of delight that makes a brand irreplaceable.
It's kinda like this: you want a significant other who is a good person and well-intended. Someone who is confident in themselves and has a spirit to match. That's the brand.
But it'd make it easy to start the conversation if they were attractive and well put together. That's design.
When you are creating a startup, it's easy to get sucked into the mindset that your product/service is needed and that everyone could benefit from it. Regardless of how true that is, people just don't seem to get it. You drill down on your marketing efforts talking about the features of what you offer, but no one understands.
You're bitter. You're frustrated. And it's also your fault.
Yea. It's your fault. It's your fault people do not understand the value of what you've created.
"Zach, that's pretty harsh," you might say. But, I believe it's better than the alternative.
Here's the thing: if it's your fault people don't understand the value of what you've created, then you can change. If it's everyone else's fault, you're shit outta luck.
It's never too late, it's all your fault, but that is the absolute best-case scenario. The question is: what are you going to do about it?
The past two Saturdays have been awesome. A client of mine and I have dove deep into the brand of his meal prep company and developed an outline of what his website should look like. It's safe to say that he and I are on the exact same page as to who this website is for, how it should feel, look, and the expected path this person will take. Before diving into the brand discovery, he asked something I thought was fascinating, "do you think we are putting the cart before the horse doing the branding before we do the website?"
I thought about this for a bit, and replied: "not at all."
Looking back at what we've done and the order in which we outlined these deliverables, we are both glad we started where we did.
Currently, my client's branding efforts are minimal and veer toward a male audience looking to get ripped. During the brand discovery, we unearthed that his most successful clients were busy, professional women who valued an easy-going, Southern California lifestyle. Diving deeper, my client had deep connections with farming and the peace that comes from working with your hands. That's a totally different story to tell, for a different audience, and so great a chasm between his current brand and those it was meant to serve.
How would we have come to that conclusion by focusing on building his website first? In short, we would have had a hard time getting aligned and the project would be a bust. We'd still be trying to talk with dudes who want to be ripped. We are going a whole new direction with the entire project. Hell, we're even changing the name of the company.
Here's the thing:
Whether you're building a website, designing a business card, marketing collateral, writing messaging, or coming up with the name for your company, understanding the brand you are trying to build is the foundation for a fluid design process and seeing results.
Yesterday, I wrote about how good logos do not make more money. The essential premise was that a good logo is not meant to earn people more money, but counters the cost of having a bad logo. Such as having to reprint collateral when a good logo finally emerges, losing equity in an image that changed, negative impressions, or having to repurpose/reconstruct the logo for various applications (social icons, favicons, app icons, small scale, etc.).
It got me thinking though, isn't all design about mitigating risk or cutting cost? Some would argue that design can earn more money, like going through a rebrand to appeal to a more affluent market, designing an ad meant to drive revenue, or building a streamlined website to increase conversion. But, I'm not convinced this means design's core function is to earn more money.
When you're rebranding to appear to a more affluent market, what you're really doing is mitigating the risk of appearing cheap or scammy.
When designing an ad to increase revenue, what you're really doing is mitigating the risk of being off brand or having a Peleton faux pas.
When you're building a streamlined website, what you're really doing is mitigating the risk of user confusion and discomfort.
Focusing on how you can make more money is great, but that doesn't seem to be design's core capacity. Design is meant to mitigate risk.
The risk of appearing unprofessional.
The risk of having a rigid, difficult identity system.
The risk of looking dysfunctional.
The risk of making a user's experience negative.
Whatever it may be, good design is about mitigating risk.
Business is comprised of two key objectives: saving money and earning money. So, if you are in a B2B industry, it is crucial to understand how your service aids a business within these objectives. As an identity and web designer, I'd like to think that my work has an impact on helping businesses succeed. But, I'm not one to throw around lies about my craft either. Which brings me to the point of this punch: good logos do not make more money.
Believe me, it was hard writing out those words, as I'm sure I've got a target painted on my back now because of them. Sorry design friends, but it's true. A logo is not a magic bullet that suddenly gives businesses a truckload of new revenue. We're not done there though, as logos are important in business, but not in the way we'd think.
What a good logo does is mitigate loss. Do you hear that? It's not about what is gained, but about what you keep on the table now and for years to come.
Here's an example:
Put yourself in the shoes of a SaaS startup founder. She has set a few goals for herself.
Right now, her goal is to have business cards, a website, social profiles, and an email newsletter set up for her SaaS product.
1 year from today, her goal is to have 1000 paying customers, an expanded product line, trade booths, monthly investor meetings, and a suite of marketing collateral in addition to her previous goals.
5 years from now, she wants to have an office, 20 employees, run daily content marketing campaigns, expand the online tools for her users, and also product merch in addition to her previous goals.
10 years from now, she could potentially exit the company but hopes to leave behind a legacy.
Let's break this down:
Right now, her goal is to have business cards, a website, social profiles, and an email newsletter set up for her SaaS product.
Attaching some numbers to this, let's say she gets 1000 business cards printed for the year, gets 80 visitors to her site per month, has 10 visitors between her three social platforms per day, and has 30 subscribers to her weekly email list. In the first year, that is over 7,000 touchpoints and the logo is on every single one of them.
Now imagine this: the logo is hideous, poorly designed, and sticks out like a sore thumb on all 7,000 of those impressions. Whether consciously or subconsciously, all 7,000 of those impressions could have been better, if it wasn't for that hideous logo.
I was thinking that'd I'd do the math on every single one of these milestones, but let's just imagine the number of touchpoints increases by 25% each year for those entire 10 years (remember this is impressions, not sales, paying investors, or paying users). At year ten, that's just over 65,000 touchpoints. 65,000 opportunities to make an impression on a potential user. Now imagine 30% of them go away because the design of the logo reminded them of something scammy. Or maybe because it looks like a phallus flying across the sky.
Is it worth the risk of putting all of that revenue at stake because your logo makes people feel gross? Or what about the cost of having to reprint 6,000 brochures because the logo was not delivered in proper formats?
It's not about earning more money, it's about keeping what's on the table. Do not let your logo be the Achilles heel of your business.
It's hard to understand how some fads become established. Across all levels of business, I've seen a formulaic headline being used in ads, on websites, and anywhere else copy is used.
It goes something along the lines of this:
"Our (insert service/product here), your (insert benefit here)."
Most recently, I saw it in a Hootsuite ad that stated "Our social media tool, your success," to provide a concrete example.
There is something about this that feels off. Partly because it feels like I'm being lead by a carrot on a stick. Use our tool and all of your dreams will come true, they say. The thing is that no one actually believes these kind of statements because they know the real meaning behind them is sales. No one likes to be sold to, it seems needy.
What makes this distaste for a "salesy" ad even greater is when it's used over and over again in the form of a cliché. Think about it, how many times have you seen an ad that touted a similar phrase?
"Our team, your peace of mind."
"Our social media tool, your success."
"Our burgers, your satisfaction."
The list goes on and on and on, and for what? In the hopes that someone is going to feel something from a plug-and-play slogan, they've heard four times in the same day?
This phrase is for companies that don't have anything better to say or the courage to be authentic. Don't let that be you.
"What do you mean?" is the most common response when I tell people I work with rebels.
I proceed to tell my core belief that being different is more important than being better. But there's more to it than that. What drives this core belief home is that I live it. Perhaps not in gigantic ways, but here are a couple examples:
I refuse to be on Facebook and Instagram.
I don't drink or partake in other substances.
I rarely take calls or meetings in the morning.
I plan on staying a small company for the foreseeable future.
These are stories about who I am as a person that seep into my business as well. Stories like these are strong because they are genuine, I don't have to put on a face to live out the truth I proclaim.
When you build your brand, tell your story. Open up your ugly, the things people will think you are weird for. I guarantee there are people who will not like it, but the flip side is that there will others who appreciate it.
Tell YOUR story. Not the one you think people want to hear.
Last year, I was talking to a man at a networking event. He asked what I did for work and I told him, "I work with rebels. Rebels are the startups challenging the status quo. I help them gain more confidence through branding and design."
He paused. "Ok, how would you help me?"
I told him that a brand is a person's gut feeling or perception of a business. The art of branding is using the business's personality, image, and beliefs to foster that gut feeling. This creates trust and an emotional attachment between the customer and the business.
He told me he had named his company Best ______. He said that his industry wasn't exciting, his business couldn't have a personality and that the only actionable "branding" route for him to take was calling himself "the best." His next sentence was what shocked me the most though:
"If I was to build a brand, I'd have to lie."
"You'd have to lie?" I questioned.
He believed that creating a brand would mean that he'd have to create a false personality for his company. I kept talking with him, asked him what he liked to do in his spare time, and what he valued.
Turns out, he builds full-scale medieval catapults in his spare time. He loved comedy. Diving deeper, his greatest desire was that his team would show up to after-work team-building events.
I looked at his logo, the name of his company, their colors, and the way they presented themselves online. Nothing about those elements aligned with who this man is. The brand was stoic, staid, and lacked any character.
What he had built was a brand that others would expect of him. He was putting on his business face, trying with everything that he could to be something he isn't.
If that's not a lie, I don't know what is.
Branding is not covering up who you are in the hopes of appealing to somebody. It's the direct opposite, it's showcasing who you really are and going all-in on it. That is what creates an emotional connection with someone else.
Routine is what produces results. Consistent dedication to a series of habits will beat talent any day of the week. Personally, my morning routine consists of the following:
Obviously, I'm not perfect so this routine gets muddied on occasion. But, it serves as a solid compass for letting me know when I've derailed. So why would I completely forego this routine during the last two weeks of the year? Most productivity hacks will tell you that you should always stick to your routine regardless of what day it is.
I'm gonna be honest and say screw that.
Routines are effective during normal times of the year, when I've got client emails to answer, phone calls to make, and, of course, design work that needs to be done. Here's the difference: none of that happens regularly during the week of Christmas or the following week for New Years. Could it happen? Sure. But the truth is that it doesn't.
This presents two opportunities: stick to your routine despite the change in circumstance or let it go for two weeks. Neither option is wrong, they just present two different outcomes and that's where it gets interesting.
When I give myself these two weeks to completely let go of my routine, I give my willpower a rest. Furthermore, with all of the bustle of the holidays and trips to Las Vegas and Mexico on the horizon, those routines quickly find themselves going out the door.
That's not an excuse to let any obstacle get in the way of your routines. There are 50 weeks out of the year where I don't see a valid excuse to let go of routine. But failing to recognize the significance and abnormality of the holiday season is a recipe for self-defeat. Things will happen and routines are good, but they also become a rut. In the spirit of creativity and constantly adapting, ruts must be broken.
Can you think of a better time to break a routine than two weeks filled with festivities, good food, and time with people you care about? Didn't think so.
So what are my plans for the next two weeks? Eat some good food, stay up late watching Star Wars movies, see my grandmother, and think about all of the good things that have happened to me this year. Lastly, think about my routine and what could be improved for 2020 ;)
That being said, it's time to take a break from these as well. Have a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Check back in 2020 for the MF Punch.
The obsession people have with SEO is mind boggling. It's as if SEO is a silver bullet to make up for having an undefined audience and not knowing what they want. I've seen a lot of marketers and the work that they produce. Most of the time, I'm disappointed because it's obvious what game they are playing. They write keyword stuffed blogs with no soul and refuse to write copy that engages people on an emotional level in the hopes of pointing Google searchers to a page.
It's not that I believe all content should be that way, but in order to actually connect with someone so they convert on your page, you can't write for a search engine. Search engines operate entirely on rationale, humans invest emotionally.
As such, both creative messaging and effective SEO need to be in harmony. You can write for search engines until you're blue in the face, but a search engine is not going to have the emotional nuance as the human who will be making a buying decision. You have to trigger them beyond having all the right keywords on your site.
If I had to put my finger on specific things that focusing solely on writing for search engines fails to consider, it'd be these two things:
In short, make awesome content for humans. If possible, make it search engine friendly.
I was giving an identity presentation to a client today and everything was going phenomenal. He liked the strategy behind the mark, thought it had a lot of character, and he was overall pleased with it. He did ask if he could see a slight variation of the mark.
What he had asked for was not going to work (I could see it in my head and it would've ruined the integrity of the logo). But, in the spirit of transparency, I replied with "let's try it out, right now."
Within five minutes, we had the options side-by-side and could clearly see that the previous mark was the better option.
If I had said, "ok let me get back to you in a day with these revisions," we both would have been frustrated. It's an unfortunate trope within the design community to never show the client your workspace or your design files. Which I don't understand, because I certainly feel engaged and have more respect for other craftsmen who show me their process. More important, it helps me hold it in reverence and respect the decisions they make.
Design is no different. If we are willing to be transparent and walk clients through the entire process, show them how our opinions are formulated, and talk through the solution, everyone is happier.
Show your work and talk about it. Being creative is simply not enough, you have to be able to articulate your thinking.
I go on a run in the morning every Monday-Friday. I frequently pass by a woman who always seems to be loading her kids in her car for school as I run by her house. As she got in the car, she rolled down her window and said, "you should do crossfit!"
My response, "I like to keep it minimal."
What she doesn't know is that I've been to crossfit gyms before. They are expensive and truth be told, the workouts are outrageously intense. Could I do them? Maybe. But that's beside the point. The point is that it is a step I'm not ready to take and taking it would do me more harm than good. Crossfit is designed for people who are looking to go to the extremes of human fitness. While it certainly won't take me there (yet), I've got a good routine that is affordable, keeps me in shape, and that is patiently scalable.
The same principle applies to startups and developing a brand. While your brand is always there, since it's the gut feeling someone has toward your startup, you do not need a fully-fleshed out brand from the get-go. You don't need to hire a full-time designer, you don't need a flawless identity system, and you don't even need a formalized brand strategy to get started. There are many reasons for this but here would be the top three:
If you are getting your startup off the ground, you cannot expect that it will be perfect or that you will be successful overnight. It takes time. So when you hear people selling you services like design, SEO, digital marketing, business planning, and the like, ask yourself: "do I really need this to get started?" Chances are the answer is no. Those things are important and, if you can afford to do them, it would be worth it. But you do not need them to get started.
Caveat: this is not an excuse to release something you are morbidly embarrassed by. You should always do the best you can and be honest with yourself about the quality of what you put into the world. But do not bite off more than you can chew and have the fortitude to be patient.
In Genesis, the first sin recorded outside of the Garden of Eden is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Whether you believe the story to be historically accurate or not, there is a provocative truth to it. Cain had become extremely bitter and resentful of his brother, as Abel's offering to God was accepted and Cain's was rejected (due to his lack of reverence and thoughtfulness in the offering). These emotions boil to unrest as Cain wields a rock to bash in his brother's skull. He rids the world of his competition so that his own subpar efforts have nothing to aspire to.
What does this have to do with branding and being rebellious?
While competitive analysis and an understanding of the market is a good thing, comparing the shortcomings of your brand to others is a recipe for bitterness and resentment. If Cain had instead looked inward and been in competition with himself, he would have slain hi sown inadequacies instead of his brother.
Rebellious brands inherently take on a different mission from the rest of the world, and without a doubt there will be times when it seems like the competition will be doing it better.
Let them. Make friends with them and leave behind the scarcity mindset.
Focus on improving your brand, having a greater understanding of your faults, and figuring out how to be better than you were yesterday.
Logos are tricky and inherently subjective. Not only that, but with a slew of vendors like Fiverr, Upwork, 99Designs, and friends/family who do design work as a side hustle, it's hard to figure out navigating a new identity for your startup. So, here are the top five things all startups should consider when deciding whether or not it is time for a new logo.
Is your logo descriptive of what your startup does?
Descriptive logos detail what services/products a startup provides. For example, if you owned a computer hardware startup and your logo was a monitor screen, that is a descriptive logo. The issue with descriptive logos is that they focus on what you do rather than why you do it.
Logos should be somewhat representative of the fundamental purpose behind your startup and the emotional resonance of your brand (more on this later). Furthermore, descriptive logos are a terrible solution in the long-term, especially if they are focused on a particular technology. Reason being, we don't know how long any particular products or services will be around.
Does your logo look like all of your competitors?
Everyone loves to chalk up Apple as one of the greatest brands of all time. While the logo is the tip of their branding iceberg, it successfully demonstrates the need to stand out. Here is an example of what I mean:
You see, it would have been easy for Apple to create a blue logotype just like their successful competitors, but they would not have been identifiable at all. They would have been pegged as a copycat. The goal of a logo is to be an easily identified mark that helps people recognize your startup. If your logo looks just like all of your competitors, then your logo isn't doing its job.
Did you receive all of the proper formats of your logo when you first got it?
We're diving into the weeds here, but this is an important part of logo design. The downside to sites like Fiverr, Upwork, and 99Designs is that they do not guide users through the proper ways your logo should be distributed. For example, the logo on your website should be in an SVG (scalable vector graphic) format, not a PNG or JPEG. It's not your job as a startup to know this, but you should be informed by the designer which one to use. They also do not develop variants for specific applications like social media, favicons, or different lockups for different applications. In short, if you find yourself scrambling to make your logo work in different contexts, it is obvious that the logo was not built with those applications in mind.
Is it legible and memorable?
Effective logos are simple. The reason for this is so that they can be easily recognized in a crowded market and distinguished from other marks. Simplicity, in the context of logos, could be distilled into two key components:
Legibility (how easy it is to read)
Memorability (how well you, your team, and your customers remember it).
Your logo is not a place to get fancy with grandiose illustrations or granular details. It needs to be just as clear at .5 inches tall as it would be on a billboard.
A simple test to check for these qualifiers is to try and draw your logo from memory. Ask your team and some of your loyal customers to do the same. Are they completely off? If they are, it's time to change.
Has the brand of your startup changed?
Your logo is not your brand, the brand is the gut feeling someone has toward your startup. This feeling is hard to pinpoint without walking through a formalized brand strategy process, but it is found and felt over time.
While logos are not meant for communicating everything about the company, a good logo will be appropriate for the brand. For example, Metallica's logo would not suite a company like Gerber Baby Food because the emotional qualities are at ends with each other. Gerber wants people to feel happy and cared for, while Metallica wants you to feel the wrath of heavy metal.
The first step is understanding what the feeling you want someone to have toward your startup is. Once you can define that, you can see how your logo matches up. If they are in contention with each other, it's time to change.
How does your startup's logo stack up against these questions?
A week ago, I had spoken with a digital marketer who expressed concerns in working with a designer on websites. Main reason being that he had seen projects go awry because most designers don't care about the canonical structure of link building or using a website as a sales/marketing engine, they just want it to look pretty. When I probed for specific examples of problems designers had caused for him, he put up a wall and said, "you just need an SEO partner."
That didn't help me at all. It would be like me telling someone their branding sucked, not telling them why, and saying they need to work with me.
Still, it sounded like I needed a second opinion on my site structures and how using SEO could make these designs better. I reached out to my network and was referred to a guy named Tyler from Socratik, by a larger branding agency.
Oh man, it was like night and day. In an hour Tyler gave me a rundown of best SEO practices, showed me tools to use, and clued me in to some of his personal tips for building out content on websites. He lifted the curtain and showed me what went on behind the scenes. Needless to say, he earned a substantial amount of my trust and I will send anybody I meet that needs SEO services his way.
Now, what about rebellion? Tyler is a rebel. Here's why: I have not met an SEO strategist who was willing to sit down and talk shop like this, ever. Since rebellion is contextual, Tyler sticks out because he did something genuinely different than the rest of his peers. That is what makes him rebellious.
In my newsletters, I do a segment every month called the Brand Spotlight. Within these emails, I go over a brands positioning, messaging, visuals, crafted experiences, and what could be improved. Today, I was able to speak with my good friend, Melinda Livsey, about a recommended brand for the spotlight: Thuma.
Thuma sells bed frames. Really nice, easy to assemble bed frames.
When Melinda and I were discussing the things that made the brand impactful to her, we centered their success on one thing: the intention and thought that was put into every aspect of their experience makes them worth a premium and telling others about. Thuma showed they cared through their website, their product design, their packaging, instructions, and delivering on their promise as an easy to assemble product.
Think about it, if you encounter an amazing experience, even if it's more costly, you will tell others about it. In turn, putting more resources into the experience your customers have makes it so you don't have to spend so much on advertising. You've already paid for it by creating something worth telling others about.
The headline (H1) on your site could be the most SEO friendly on the planet, but it will not outdo a pleasant, worthwhile experience.
I love backpacking. Nothing makes me feel more alive or at peace than sitting on top of a mountain with no one around me for miles. Backpacking requires a substantial amount of gear for surviving out where there are no grocery stores or hospitals nearby. It's safe to say that the needs of a backpacker are vast. Backpackers need food, they need water, and they need shelter. Those are basics. If you don't have those, you're screwed.
So why did I bring a tactical axe with me on my last trip and why did my friend Joey bring a huge buck knife? Sure, we could use them to cut fishing line, chop up firewood, and my axe even doubled as a hammer, but the truth is, we really didn't need either of those things. We wanted them to feel manly and adventurous. Our wants justified the need of bringing along these items for the tasks they could accomplish.
We conjured logical needs to suit an emotional desire.
You could argue that this doesn't apply to everything, but I'd beg to differ. Even the essential needs we had like food, water, and shelter were all emotional decisions. If we were logical, we probably wouldn't have even gone backpacking because we would have saved money and subjected ourselves to less risk. But we decided to forego those essentials in the search of greater adventure. That's why we bought a $110 water filter and why I bought a bunch of compact, lightweight food for a premium price. Essential needs, but definitely an emotional decision.
The needs were simple, food, water, shelter, but the want was freedom, adventure, and camaraderie.
Ask yourself, what is the want behind the need people are looking to our startup to fulfill? Build your brand around it.
My mom is a sales rep who works with pet store retailers. Some small and some large. She told me recently that a store she visits has over 6400 items on sale. 6400!
But that means they sell a lot of stuff, right? They probably need all of those items. Still, my curiosity wasn't satisfied. I asked, "why sell so many?"
Apparently people are more picky about their dog's food being gluten-free, paleo, with/without certain ingredients than most people are with their own nutrition. In short, they are trying to please everyone by having all of those needs met. No matter what pet you have, no matter what its needs are, they are trying to sell it.
I can't know for certain, but I'd imagine 80% of their sales comes from 20% (or less) of those 6400 products.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the first thing he did was strip away 70% of Apple's products and got them focusing on what really mattered. Surprisingly, despite getting rid of a bunch of products, Apple turned its first quarterly profit the following January (see timeline for comparison). Apple didn't even have 50 products and they still struggled to keep their head above water. Can you imagine the crippling weight of 6400 products?
In-N-Out, the most successful burger chain on the west coast, sells cheeseburgers (with varying amounts of meat/cheese), french fries, shakes, and soft drinks. Each store does about $4.5M in annual sales and they have over 300 across the country. When people come to In-N-Out asking for a change to a menu item, they say "sorry, this isn't for you."
By turning away some people, they have a streamlined business offering and they become known for it. It exudes confidence and even people who can't or won't eat a cheeseburger respect that. The same could be said of Apple and people who want to change their offerings.
In the words of Seth Godin, have the courage to say, "this is not for you, but it is for someone who believes this."
When the Superman comics were first introduced in 1938, the hero was a success. Mainly because no such concept had been created or seen before. Superman represented humans in an ideal form, without fault and with extraordinary abilities. However, after a couple issues, you get kinda bored seeing him win all the time, it's as if there isn't anything worth challenging him on.
10 years later, the writers of Superman introduced kryptonite, the only material substance known to weaken Superman. This single foil within the character kept the series alive and gave him something to wrestle with. It made him more human and therefore more relatable.
The point is this, as a startup, you will have an urge to puff up your chest and broadcast yourself as impervious. Apart this being false, it makes it impossible for other humans to connect with you. Do a good job, strive for greatness, but never shy away from your imperfections. Your kryptonite is what makes people love you.
I take criticism very seriously. It's not that I get offended or that I curl up into a ball and cry, but I always think about it deeply. Mostly, because improving on myself and expanding my capabilities is of the utmost importance to me.
Yesterday, my punch talked about a digital marketer who had expressed concerns regarding my website building capabilities around an SEO focused, digital strategy. From my standpoint, it sounded like he inferring I had no idea what SEO was and that it was impossible for me to learn more about it. This is the kinda shit I think deeply about. SEO is important to the web design process, so when someone tells me I'm not good at it, I think about it. Probably more than I should.
I was thinking about it all day. Am I really that lost on SEO? I thought I had a decent understanding of how it worked and how sites should be structured accordingly.
Last night, when I was at a UX event, I told some trusted colleagues what was concerning me (many of whom are in the digital marketing space). By putting these thoughts out there for other people to address, their gravitas was minimized. They didn't seem that bad anymore. Certainly not something to dwell on any longer.
Point being: find a tribe of good people who've got your back. Rebels are nothing without an alliance.
I spoke with a digital marketer yesterday and he had expressed concerns working with designer on websites. He'd seen the results go haywire in the past from an SEO perspective because most designers use tools like Squarespace and Wix without considering how their pretty site will play into the overall digital strategy.
When I pushed for specific problems, the only answer I got was, "you need an SEO partner," which is pretty convenient considering that's what he does.
Here's the thing: if there is truly a better way to do something, it is your job to articulate those details to someone in need of your help, especially if they are willing to learn.
If you're a chiropractor and you don't share your method for making others feel better or coach them, how will they trust you?
What about a SaaS startup that doesn't educate users on how to use their platform?
A designer that doesn't articulate why a design is flawed and coach better design practices?
There is no trust built up keeping your knowledge behind closed doors. If you are an expert, prove it. Better yet, teach it.
Most of the startup world is focused on getting bigger, expanding, scaling, and a long list of adjectives all pointing to gaining more.
Unfortunately, this mentality leaks into startup branding efforts as well.
Have more colors, have a bigger logo, more subbrands, more typefaces, more messages. More, more, more, more, more.
The issue with this mindset is that it is the complete opposite of scalable because you are reinventing the wheel every time you embark on a new branding effort.
Ask yourself, what is in the way of us getting our point across and connecting with our tribe? Then get rid of it and cut straight to their hearts.
Everyone loves ice cream, but getting people to agree on a flavor is difficult. You gauge a room of people to see what they want and no one will seem to agree. Especially if someone suggests mint and chip.
My guess is that most people are indifferent, but there are those who vehemently oppose the flavor with everything they've got. Hell, someone even wrote an article on how terrible is it.
Here's the thing though:
One of my closest friends absolutely LOVES mint and chip ice cream. It's her favorite, she will go out of her way to get it and she'd happily argue with the author of that article about why it's a good choice.
Branding a startup works the same way. Some people will love it, some will not. You have to be ok without pleasing everyone.
You could have the coolest product in the world, but if you don't show up to help out the community of people you want to serve, you're going to lose them.
I'll give you an example using Webflow, my favorite web design tool.
They continuously post new videos on how to use their software, they host local meetups to help others improve their designs, and they even went as far as hosting a "No Code Conference," to empower designers on the web.
That is showing up everyday to serve. How can you do the same thing to help your group of rebels?
The downside to being an advocate of change is that it is hard to see past the muck blocking you from the finish line. What's more, is that the muck might not even be your doing, it's just there.
Most would see the obstacles that lie before them as excuses to turn back and give up. But that is not the rebel way.
Rebels cannot let go of their vision, it is as much a part of them as their skin, hands, and feet.
No one said doing things differently would be easy, or that everything and everyone would be in your favor. Quite the opposite actually.
It may not be your fault where you are at and no one blames you for the external things that have blocked your path. But it is your responsibility to make the next steps. Will they be forward or backward?
Though you may believe the world can be a better place, though you believe there is much that could be done differently, though you seek to be an advocate of change, never forget that there is plenty of good all around you.
Take today to reflect on what you have been given. A true rebel remembers their blessings.
When you run your own company, the outside world ends up demanding a lot from you. Certainly in time and more importantly in creative energy. Because most startup founders are constantly seeking ways to grow their company, spending time on to focus and unleash their own creativity seems selfish.
"There are so many things I have to get done today, how can I possibly afford to indulge my own creativity?"
Because if you don't, you will lose the spark that had you create something in the first place. That energy from within that granted you the courage to go out and make something new. The minute that inbox is opened or your messages are checked, creativity goes out the window and it will not come back.
When you get up in the morning do something creative for yourself. Write, draw, play music, anything to use that creative resource before it is thrown to the wolves that would seek its end.
That wave of creativity is for you and you alone. No one else can use it the way you can, nor should they be granted access to abuse it. How can we even think to let such divine potential slip away?
Guard your creativity with your life and do not let the world take it from you, they can have what is left.
The startup world is cut throat. It seems like there is always some kind of monstrous competitor lurking around the corner ready to devour your company. At least, this is what a scarcity mindset would reinforce.
The sad thing is that even if that monster is beaten there is another one ready to take its place. Concerns about competitors are like a hydra. Cut off one head and two more take its place.
What are we to do?
Walk past them. Don't engage. Your brand has one enemy and that is who it was yesterday. The bliss embedded within such a mindset is that whether you win or lose, it's all up to you.
A common occurrence I hear from clients when discussing the attributes of their brand follows something along these lines: "We want it to look professional, but still playful."
Reading between the lines, what they are saying is this "we don't want to turn anyone off, so we are cool without adorning a personality that would offend anyone."
You cannot build a brand off that. Professional and playful are polar opposites on the spectrum. Your brand becomes a tied to two horses pulling in opposite directions and you go nowhere.
This comes in common forms, like companies that tout innovation and creativity, yet stick to a corporate blue because it won't offend anybody. Or the companies who claim to be different but choose to speak and act like their already successful competitors.
What would have been an otherwise inventive and distinct brand is torn in half by a lack of commitment.
Rather than trying to be everything, be something.
Building a brand is about connecting people to a company at an emotional level. What do people connect with? Other people and their stories. No matter how lame and uneventful you believe your journey to have been, your story as a founder, entrepreneur, and business person is exciting to someone else who has never lived it. Every detail is a new experience for them.
For example, I've lived in San Diego my whole life. Naturally, the beach and amazing weather don't surprise or excite me anymore because I've seen them so much. But to someone who lives in Canada who has never seen a wave, felt sand between their toes, or spent an entire day playing beach volleyball, it's completely foreign and interesting to them.
Set aside your products for a second and think about your story. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you? Lastly, how can you embed that story into your brand?
The brand of a startup is almost always a mirror of the founder. If you want to build a stellar brand, you must know yourself first.
Almost every startup has a difficult time honing in on a specific target audience. True to their nature, founders of companies believe so much in the success and impact of their product that they believe everyone could benefit from it. They probably could, but it is impossible to build a brand and targeted a message to someone that doesn't exist.
"But won't I be limiting the amount of people I could help by picking someone so specific?"
YES! That is the point. And I'll give you an example using a YouTube channel I came across recently.
This channel has over 90,000 subscribers and each video now boasts 500,000 or more videos. What is it a channel about?
A Scottish dude who trims the hooves of cows. Yep. He crushes it. All because he makes videos specifically for dairy cow farmers.
Here's the thing, I guarantee that not everyone who watches his channel is in need of his services, but if even 1% of his 90,000 subscribers need his services, he is set for life with a solid base of customers.
If this guy, who targets dairy cow farmers can get this many people to buy into what he's doing, so can your amazing startup. You just have to pick someone who needs your services and cater your message to them.
A few weeks ago, I saw the new, "live action" Lion King in theaters with a friend of mine. While I wasn't necessarily disappointed, it felt like something was missing that was inherent within the original. I couldn't put my finger on it, even though the new movie had far better animation, a higher budget, and an opportunity to improve on something that was already there. It just wasn't the same.
Disney + launched recently and after watching the original, I got it. The new version's characters were so realistic that they couldn't convey emotion (hard to make a lion cry or show happiness), but cartoons make it possible.
Watch any scene from the original, be it Mufasa rescuing Simba in the gorge, Scar and the Hyenas' ghoulish anthem Be Prepared, and the return of Simba as king, and it's impossible not to become emotionally invested. That is what was missing from the new rendition.
The point that I'm getting at is this: you can have the fanciest tools, the best animation, or a better mousetrap so to speak, but if you miss out on getting emotional buy-in, it falls short.
Story beats features.
When we think of the most confident people we know, be it a politician, an entrepreneur, a mentor, thought leader, or a friend we admire, I'm willing to bet they never claim to be the best at what they do. If they did, it would be hard to respect them as much because it feels like they have to puff up their chest to make an impression. What's strange is that most business owners take this approach in branding their company. They plaster words like "best," "quality," "choice," "preferred," and a gaggle of other superlatives that hold no ground. Why?
I believe that asserting claims like this is done to veil the flaws of these organizations. They can claim to be the best all they want, but it doesn't take away from the fact that they cannot be everything to everyone. Or that new companies with new ideas come up everyday that can beat them in price, speed, and accuracy. Their claim of being the best loses its validity the minute they stop thinking of themselves. As for consumers, the claim loses its potency once they see 30 other competitors that claim the same thing on Google.
Claiming you are the best is a feeble means at persuading someone to do business with you. Is that really the extent of your personality? Do you lack so much confidence in your brand that you have to cover it in a lie? Nothing connotes a greater lack of maturity and competence than such action.
Confidence is not saying "we are the best." Confidence is saying "we know we can't do everything and we can't help everyone, but this is who we are. Whether you like it or not is cool with us."
So, are you going to be the best or be yourself?