Life of a startup at SXSW

At SXSW this year, I had the unique opportunity to understand “brand” from the perspective of a startup. I spent much of SXSW with two unique startups, and Both of these are distinct products with quite different founders. Giftopera was founded by a developer I’ve known for years named Vineet Choudhary and his business partner Simon Tiemtore. It’s a group gifting application that, once built, will allow people to pool their money to buy a gift for a friend. Voyurl is founded by Adam Liebsohn who has seemingly scraped every dollar he has into the creation of Voyurl while maintaining a full-time job at an award-winning ad agency. Voyurl allows users to elect to be tracked as they move around the Internet with the trade off that they can then see their own stats and compare them with their friends’. The idea is to even the playing field against Google, Facebook and others who are tracking our online activity with every click.

Vineet, Simon and I rented a house from HomeAway for the week of SXSWi. They have been working on GiftOpera for a couple months now but the product isn’t online yet. Vineet, the quietly-social father of two, is able to build much of the framework for the product on his own, but has chosen to bring in some outside resources from India and Sweden to work on the development and design of the app. Simon, a magnanimous finance guy originally from Burkina Faso, heads the business thinking and sales side of the company. Over the course of 6 days, I watched them give out over 500 business cards, with Simon chatting up everyone he met while casually explaining the product to a captive sidewalk audience. Their goal for SXSW was simply to raise awareness about their infant brand and sign up users for a future launch. Both of them worked hard exploring and learning everything from the SXSW panels to talking with venture capital managers to make sure they were at enough events to make their presence known. This meant building brand awareness through fairly traditional means; shaking hands, passing cards and sitting with influential decision makers. Their brand is about bringing groups together who want to achieve a common goal, it is as personal a brand as the relationships they are looking to build.

On the contrary, Adam texted to tell me he’d be coming down the day before SXSW. Adam’s application has been in private beta for over a month and has built up a solid following that’s garnered him several high-profile interviews with publications like the New York Times. (Private beta is where friends and friends of friends are invited to test the product while the dev team releases new updates. For the user it usually involves a lot of patience balanced with the trade off that they were “first”). At the conference, I first ran into him outside the convention center with his messenger bag pulled around over his military jacket. He was handing out printed tags and preparing to give out a couple thousand stickers in a traditional, but effective, guerilla marketing tactic. Like Vineet and Simon, Adam’s goal was also to raise awareness, but he had to go about this in a different way.  His stickers, with the tagline “prove you weren’t looking at porn” found their way into nearly every available space at SXSW. His brand isn’t about shaking hands and handing out business cards, it’s about building buzz. It’s the kind of non-traditional product that wants to be promoted as something secret so new users want to have an invite.

These two startups say a lot to me about where the Internet has led us as branding professionals. We can’t assume all websites are the same. We can’t decide that just because someone talks “tech” that they fit into a single category. We can’t assume that simply because startups aren’t treating “brand” with marketing directors and brand managers that they don’t have just as much of a need for it. Brand in the startup space begins with the founders’ vision and then grows and defines the experience of using the product. The logo is both placeholder and promise that must encapsulate both experience and future growth. Voyurl and GiftOpera are different in their brand because the people behind them are different. Yet as each company evolves, their challenges will center around the traditional pressure points of any company; how to create growth and how to ensure the company doesn’t lose what made them succeed in the first place.

Our challenge, as brand leaders, is to understand this offer and redefine how we help these future companies achieve the growth they aspire to.

(this post is pulled from my posting on Wolff Olins blog from 3/23/11)