For over twenty something years I've been a hired gun to help companies create and build brands, which is great fun. And yes, while I've been on the executive team in many cases, I rarely shared the risk and liability of the owners' circle.
So let's change that. I'm a serial entrepreneur and every ten years or so I get bit by the start-up bug. What starts as an idea, quickly moves in to a new venture.
In this month's column, I'm going to start a series of articles sharing with you the play-by-play experiences of a start-up brand. They may not be consecutive. Because I will only dedicate a column when I believe there is worthy content for you. I'll cover candid missteps and meaningful insight. Hopefully you can apply these real world pearls to your situation and reduce your new crop of gray hair.
How a start up starts
Our concept was birthed during a work/play excursion to New York City with my colleague Jocelyn in December, while splitting an incredible piece of flourless, dark chocolate cake and drinking a fine cabernet at Nolita House. Nolita House is a campy joint that feels like a schoolhouse — you can write on the walls, misbehave and drink good vino, nosh on sweet stuff and cook up big ideas.
After the second glass of wine came our epiphany: how cool would it be to have a community for people like us — smart, fun, brave, always curious and a bit odd — where you could express yourself, get inspired, find uncommonly cool things, resources and content, and meet others?
From that day our ideas scribbled on a white bev napkin, came to be our new obsession. In early January we filed the legal docs, structured the ownership and Oddpodz became an official start-up.
So what was an Oddpodz and how would our pile of crazy ideas turn into a successful business.
Lesson 1- Do something you love and do it with someone you trust
Jocelyn and I have worked together for over two years on branding projects. She came from investment banking and was a 20-year branding guru. We were two different, but complimentary peas in a pod and shared the same work ethic — stay paranoid, think big and work like a smart dog.
This is where the serious brand planning started. We listed what was important to us. Both partners believed if you don't love what you do, it's not worth doing.
So what did we want to get from our efforts? Was it money? Was it pleasure? Was it more freedom? Power? Maybe it was a little of all of them.
From here, we needed to figure out what the market was hungry for, and what would be a sustainable business model.
Lesson 2- Do something you understand
Our gut feeling was to build a community like myspace, but focus on a more narrow and defined group of people. Instead of a space for everyone, be a relevant space that appeals to like-humans and humans like us, the creative class. And then from there we'd build extensions of products and services.
With our general direction in place we started an intensive research program. We studied other communities, the creative class sector, information trends, consumption patterns and what the investment market was interested in seeding. We bought reports, we conducted focus studies, we talked to a lot of people and asked a lot of questions. We read hundred of articles and case studies on other related business successes. Early on we build databases journal our findings.
After a couple of months of research, we were convinced that our idea had legs. Especially when our left-brain friends heard about the Oddpodz idea and said, "I don't get it," we knew we were on to something big. Now we needed to document our mission, plan, and start protecting our ideas.
Lesson 3- Start with the end in mind
We capsulated our company vision in an executive summary. Which is usually the last part of a business plan. However, we believed in order for one to achieve greatness, you must know in your mind what full success looks like before you achieve it. The executive summary was a work in progress document. It has changed many times and will likely continue to be modified. Our executive summary clearly defined the brand essence (our purpose, points of difference, personality and promise) the market opportunity, revenue streams, competitive landscape, and growth strategies.
Lesson 4- Protect your ideas, invest in an expert
The name Oddpodz was developed in our early stages of planning. We thought it was catchy, memorable and leveraged the popularity of the pod generation. But until we really knew what we were doing with it, we only registered it for business usage. After we had a clear map for our business, we hired a lawyer to help us protect our intellectual property. This was our first costly mistake. We hired a general, small potato lawyer. She ended up being a total waste of money. No sense of urgency, lack of expertise in the area, and we ended up switching to a trademark specialist and forfeiting all of our up front payment to the general legal disappointment.
Early in the game, you need a crystal ball. Protecting your brand trademark property means, securing not only URL's, related URL's but, registering many items in projected usage categories, which can get expensive. Basically you have to look in to the future and determine what you will be doing and selling with your brand's likeness in the next 10 years. If you don't apply for protection in several classes, you could have trademark troubles in the near future. We protected our brand names, the visual marks and a character. We selected the priority classes for each item. As we grow we will likely add classes. Short cutting IP protection is not recommended. Thoroughly conducting due diligence is vital if you plan to be in the game for a while.
Back to the plan
Whether you are going to be raising outside funds or not, you need a comprehensive business plan. There are companies that can help with this, but I believe it's an important exercise for the company leadership to produce. In our case we decided that in order for us to build our venture at the speed and size we wanted to, we would need outside funds. This biz planning process actually helped produce many new ideas for the company and it's marketing. Here are some of the by-products of our efforts, a branded T-shirt line, a venting section, a weekly ezine, a blog, and a social network.
After completing our plan we focused all efforts on creating as much tangible value and proof of concept as quickly as we could.
We knew we needed two working sites. One for the community, which is content driven (oddpodz.com) and one a pure ecommerce play for the pure shopper (odditeaz.com), both interlink. Our business plan, and more importantly, our brand essence guide proved invaluable as the litmus test for all major decisions.
The branded product line
The deeper we got into the development of Oddpodz and its future, we soon discovered that T-shirts were a $18 billion industry in the U.S. alone. What a great way to make money and build a brand. To support the odd mantra of our company we needed something different, not just another cute T-shirt. So after much thinking we came up with Odditeaz, T-shirts with Latitude. The cool thing about these shirts is they totally speak to the brand. Off beat, creative and unexpected. To garner publicity and WOM buzz, we created packaging in oversized, earth-friendly tea bags — the shirts are all printed inside out and sport right-brain taglines and interesting graphic images.
From February 30 - July 5 we built out two working sites, created, manufactured, and packaged a 39-piece collection of very cool shirts, secured relationships with designers, programmers, content writers and providers, assembled a kick-butt advisory team, wrote 250 pages of site content and a 120-page business plan all while doing other jobs.
By July 1, an ad we produced hit 250,000 mailboxes. And we were not ready to flip the switch on. We started getting our first cranky mail, "Shame on you, don't buy an ad in a national publication and not be ready for business," a visitors screamed. They were right if we lived in a perfect world.
Lesson 5- Be ready for the unexpected
We quickly posted a note on the slash site, apologizing profusely. Along with promising a gift once we were live. All was calm for a couple days.
July 5 came, and of course we are nervous — we not only had our blood, sweat and tears and cash in the deal, but we were about to expose what we think is cool to the world.
We soft opened with the one ad, a press release and some prayers to people who are not in our inner circle. Will they come? Will they buy? What will we do next?
Stay tuned for next month's article. I will talk about product development, open source branding, sticky technology, easy fulfillment, viral marketing and producing a weekly ezine. In the meantime, if you have any questions, shoot me an email.