I get pitched by more than 20 early-stage entrepreneurs each week for my pre-product accelerator, Tacklebox. I hear tons of unique ideas, but there’s one common thread: Whether the founder is building a B2B SaaS product or organic shoes made of seaweed (I tried them on last week, wildly comfy), everyone says they’ll prioritize brand and design to stand out because they’ll be the “simple, beautiful” X.
“Beautiful” is hard; “simple” is harder. At their core, these founders want a clear brand that resonates. They want people to feel something when they interact with their companies. They assume they’ll be able to do it and assume their competitors haven’t tried.
It’s no secret that connection to a brand wins in 2019. But how do you break through with limited resources, limited touchpoints with your customer, and limited budget when competitors are spending thousands of dollars a day on ads?
Baron Fig is a New York City-based company that sells “tools for thinkers.” The brand was built on selling notebooks—you know, the ones everyone has had since the black and white marble composition notebook you got in first grade. But Baron Fig has had a remarkably strong brand from day one, which allowed them to grow with no venture funding and comparatively very little ad spend. I recently spoke with Joey Cofone, Baron Fig’s founder, to hear about the three-step process he used to create such a strong brand in a seemingly crowded market. (Not to be clickbaity, but the third strategy has become an invaluable part of my workflow.)
Validate the need
The first question entrepreneurs need to answer is the seemingly obvious one that way too many people ignore. In Cofone’s words: “Does anyone care a lot about what I’m doing?”
Entrepreneurs are often optimistic by nature, but you’ve got to be skeptical of your own ideas early on. You need to make customers prove to you they care about the problem you’re solving before you spend too much time solving it. This requires transparency and a difficult mindset shift from reactive—get an email or request, answer it, go back to email to see what’s next—to relentlessly proactive.
Where do you start?
Cofone’s approach with Baron Fig was tremendous.
His initial lightbulb moment came during a university design class. He looked around and noticed every student had two things: a laptop and a sketchbook. Every laptop was identical—they were all MacBook Pros. But every sketchbook was different. Why hadn’t someone cracked the sketchbook nut the way Apple had?
Noticing this gap is nice, but the real value came when he answered his own question: “Do people care a lot about sketchbooks?”
To find the answer, Cofone compiled a list of 500 “thinkers” who were the smartest and most creative people he’d known or admired from afar. He scoured the internet for email addresses and sent each a personalized note containing a simple question:
“What do you like in a sketchbook or a notebook?”
He figured he’d get a few responses; he got 400—people waxing on about what they liked and didn’t like in a notebook, voluntarily offering to schedule follow-up calls. Answering emails and connecting with this group became a full-time job, so he quit his day job and spent four months speaking with these potential customers, understanding exactly what made the perfect notebook.
Startups fail because of customer indifference. Four months of emails ensured people were passionate enough about their sketchbook for a real, differentiated brand to emerge. And Baron Fig was born.
Very important footnote: Humans constantly overestimate the potential risk and underestimate the potential gain of any activity. Cofone could’ve said, “I’ll email 10 people I know. I don’t want to bother anyone.” The risk of sending an email is low. The upside was a huge factor in determining how he built his company.
Make an (ugly) thing
Your startup doesn’t start until you’ve got a proxy or representation for the product you’ll build. Cofone’s advice is to give yourself something to edit as quickly as possible. Build an ugly representation of your product, so you can poke and prod and get feedback.
He built the first Baron Fig notebook prototype by hand. He’d tracked all the features his “thinkers” mentioned in an Excel spreadsheet and tallied up the features mentioned the most. The first notebook was built with scraps, including a cut-up cereal box for the binding.
It was miles away from the product they’d launch with, and it wouldn’t ever be sold to a customer. But it was a huge step. It made everything real. Cofone and his cofounders had a data point with a version 1.0. Now, they could talk about improving something that wasn’t theoretical.
I get tons of pushback on this step from founders. They don’t want to make anything unless it’s “perfect,” because they have a picture in their head of what they want the brand or design to be. Products don’t go from zero to 10; they go from zero to two, then to four, and so on. Holding off to invest heavily in something fully baked is way too risky. It’s usually a subconscious defense mechanism, too. Anything to keep yourself from putting something out that might be critiqued.
But if the whole point is to build something for critique, the cognitive load is easier. Prove people care. Build something ugly. Then, focus on getting attention.
Understand the attention pie
Cofone has a fascinating way of thinking about how his customer views Baron Fig. He thinks of each product–and Baron Fig itself–not in terms of the sum of the products he’s built but in terms of his customer’s attention. He visualizes it as a pie chart he calls “the attention pie.”
The Confidant Notebook has all sorts of terrific features. It lays flat. Some have dot grids instead of lines. It has cloth on the outside and feels durable. It has a ribbon to hold your place. The paper is perfect, etc. Every feature is thoughtful.
But, if Baron Fig’s marketing said: “We make beautiful notebooks for thinkers: they have dot grids, lay flat, and are made here in Queens,” your attention pie chart would have lots of small slices. Each new feature he mentions devalues every other feature. The fact that they’re made in Queens is going to be lost on more than 25% of people. So if that was what mattered for the brand, they would need to rethink their strategy.
Branding is about consistency. It’s saying the same thing over and over, making a promise, and keeping it. If people think there are four different promises, they’ll have four different views of the brand. It’ll be impossible to keep ambitious promises because everyone will see them differently.
This happened to me. When I advertised “Tacklebox is an accelerator for founders with full-time jobs that has content, speakers, investors, and an awesome alumni base. We also sometimes invest,” we got sporadic signups and disappointed founders. They either ignored it altogether or grabbed one concept like invest and were upset when they didn’t get it. The attention pie was crammed with information, none of which got enough attention to spur a decision.
When we simplified to “Tacklebox is an accelerator for founders with full-time jobs looking to validate their idea before they quit,” we had 10 times as many applications.
Strong brands are about relationships. Baron Fig made sure people cared about their product, whittled it into something customers would love, then messaged it tightly to ensure they broke through the fray and got their customer excited. Using this framework will give your startup a great chance at a meaningful brand.