Your Big Advantage over the Big Boys.

business difference

How StartUps can make the most of the blank canvas.

It’s easy for a StartUp to feel intimidated. To think you are not worthy. To look at the big boys with awe, with all their resources, their profile, their confidence, their relationships. You might assume that if they chose to confront you, you’d stand no chance.

But I’ve worked with them all my professional life and guess what? You’d be wrong.

The truth is that their disadvantages might just outweigh their advantages. Corporations are a complex battle of interests, laden with conservatism. They are risk averse…in fact, worse; often they are decision averse. Often the mindset is: doing something new creates the potential for risk, whereas doing nothing avoids that potential…so stick with doing nothing. And in that environment, that’s actually smart: because that’s how the corporation is often structured, that is the reward mechanic and behaviour follows.

There’s some talk about corporations beginning to be more like StartUps. But in all but the rarest of situations, this misses the point. Corporations are bureaucratic because they have to be. They have due diligence and institutional investors, they have heavy structure, processes, organograms…but more importantly they have a hive of people and a culture.

Legacy system buries itself deep within an organization. You can’t unpick it. You can’t alter the mechanics and expect a new mindset. That’s the wrong way round. (Personally, I believe that once an entity becomes a corporation, it creates the conditions for its own demise. But more on that some other time.)

StartUps have no legacy. They have a blank canvas. They are free to do what they want. And this can be the biggest advantage in the world.

But you have to focus on the areas where this blank canvas can lead to the greatest advantage. That’s not going to be product, or supply chain, or sales, R&D or talent.

The two areas they will find it impossible to beat you are:

1. They can’t think as small as you.

2. And they can’t think as holistically as you.

To the first. You can target a tiny but perfectly formed audience. In fact, you must. Not just focus better but show them the love. Find – or create – a gang. Not an audience, a gang. A gang is about belonging, about having something you are anti and about feeling special. Prove to them that you were designed for them and only them. You can grow from here, not by compromising but by pulling more and more people into that gang.

To the second. You can aggressively deliver your brand concept through every element of your brand. Corporations find it so hard to control this, on a practical level and on a human level. But it’s easy for a StartUp once they think not as a business but as a brand that does business. Change the experience people have when they connect, buy, use and share your business so it captures the uniqueness of your brand idea.

As I’ve written before, Airbnb does this as well as any StartUp. But using an existing brand makes the point more clearly and I’ll use the most famous brand in history, Coca Cola.

We are told the brand idea of Coca Cola is happiness. But you know what, it’s not really.
It’s brown sweet fizzy drinks. Which they then use to lay claim to happiness.

It’s a critical distinction. The product drives everything, not the brand.

Take the brown drink away and what have they got? Nothing. The brown fizzy drink is their legacy system. But what if Coca Cola was a StartUp? What if they had the same blank canvas you have?

How can you build a business around Happiness so it lasts forever, not matter what trends there are in product use? Here’s my back-of-a-fag-packet thinking.

Coke should have started to build from Happiness Factory and position themselves as an experience brand.
Happiness isn’t simply about taste and mouth feel, it’s about entertainment. Coke should have bought Pixar.
They should own theme parks and days out.
They should have acquired/built the play-centre ecosystem that’s growing so quickly in Asia.
They should own handshakes, smiles and jokes.
But they didn’t and they are becoming less and less culturally relevant.
(To be fair, their bar was very high….and their Christmas play is good, you have to give them credit for that. And they do lots of great tactical work like this in the Philippines…but I’m making a point.)

The StartUp lesson is: use your blank canvas to create a branded business – not just a brand image – that reeks difference. Then you can slap that big bully right back in the face.

What StartUps can learn from airbnb about brand building

BHAG
Why the StartUp of 2008 might be the brand of the 2015

I’m a nomad. And I force my wife and son to be nomads. Such is the price we pay for trying to do a StartUp. It’s not pleasant but hopefully that will end soon and hopefully it will have been worth it. But as a result, I’ve become an expert in all things airbnb. Now I’m evangelist.

I might even invest if they go to IPO this year. And I don’t do IPOs. They’re all hype, CNBC up-to-the-minute bulletins and over-valuation. They have 700,000 rooms, making them the biggest lodgings provider in the world and the hard business case is strong. But what really excites me is the potential of the brand they are developing and the way they understand what the brand is. This is a StartUp that is just over 6 years old but with the brand wisdom of maturing years.

Sure, they can do brand awareness – they built that very well in the first year or two – but what they’ve always understood better than most StartUps is that it’s the brand experience that matters more than anything. The brand must look good, it must communicate well, it must have solid marketing but a modern brand is not this. A modern brand is the unified rich experience people have when they use any and every part of your business. The brand is everything you do, certainly everything that is visible.

Take the language. They have ‘hosts’. They talk of feeling at home, not of ‘staying’ somewhere. This cleverly positions themselves away from their enemy, the hotel industry

That’s another thing: they have an enemy. The don’t bad mouth them, they don’t need to, but it’s clear that they want to be seen as a genuine alternative, not more of the same. We don’t do that, we do this.

They feel different. It feels like a genuine community. We review hosts. But they review us. We introduce ourselves. We get to know each other. airbnb helps us become short-term friends.

It makes you realise that the booking.com’s and expedia’s of the world might have seemed to offer something new but really are only an extension of the old. They have value but they lack the depth of airbnb and in time I think that will be a problem for them. It’s hard to care passionately about an extension of the old. But the new creates evangelists.

It isn’t easy to avoid being like your competitive set. People huddle together for safety. Often investors, managers and stakeholders like conventions; they call it ‘best practice’. But here everyone has been smart enough to see the value of difference. (That’s something the marketing client community need to learn from as they become more and more convention bound.)

It’s clear what they are against but in terms of what they stand for, airbnb are using ‘Welcome Home’ as a tagline at the moment but Brian Chesky, the CEO, touched upon the broader (and bigger) purpose in a recent FT interview when he talked of ‘creating a world where people can belong anywhere’.

Words are important so let’s break this sentence down.

‘Creating’ tells me that they make a distinction between where they are now and where they want to get to. So it’s a vision, not just a summary of what they do now. It also tells us that it’s unclear what that is exactly. It’s much bigger but not yet defined – and they are clearly comfortable with the fact that they don’t know exactly what this is but do know in a general sense. I’ll come back to this.

‘World’ is clear. They see no limits (other than the world…for now). This is evidenced through their creative output. This is worth commenting on because too many US StartUps think the world is the US.

‘Belong anywhere’ is the substance of the purpose. It implies that, in the current lodging/hotel model, people do not feel they belong and that only the airbnb model can deliver belonging.

This is their benefit: belonging anywhere. The reason to believe is that real people with real apartments/homes provide the product, not de-personalised hotel rooms. This is reinforced through the style of reviews, the nature of the properties and the nicely shot Welcome Home ‘advertising’ campaign running on their own website header and so on. Basically, everything the business does.

But it’s the room to grow in that statement that fascinates me. What other ways can they help people feel they belong?

Later in the interview he touches on what that might be when he aligns with the idea of ‘bring(ing) back the idea of cities as villages’ by making more of all available space. Wow. The high street has lost its humanity; it has become a homogenous block. Imagine a world in which individual businesses had access to the same enormous audience as the current airbnb hosts, an audience willing to try something new, who crave something distinct…you might just see a renaissance of distinct, one off shops and cafes, of cities.

As a brand person, I love this. It’s the kind of idea we’d pitch to clients but often they’d shy away from because it doesn’t talk about the product enough, because it’s too conceptual, too warm and lovely and exciting. Business people still think this stuff won’t sell: airbnb are here to prove them wrong.

What can we learn as StartUps? Lots but the headline is this: look to develop a brand vision that recognizes your competence in a bigger way than is currently delivered. Give it room to grow. Who knows how you’ll see things once the business is rocking?

Why StartUps should be outraged by Christmas

brand consistency

The brain science that shows why consistency helps people understand what your StartUp stands for

If you want to shape the way people understand your StartUp you have to start with the human brain. When you’ve got the spanners out on the day-to-day operations, it may not seem like it but as a business leader, you are a brain surgeon.

We learn through repetition. But the brain has a lot to do. Much of its energy is simply dedicated to keeping us functioning at the most basic of levels – keeping us breathing, our organs operating. Keeping our senses active and responsive puts an added burden on the system. So when it comes to actively thinking about stuff, figuring out day-to-day issues, making decisions…well, that really pushes us to the limit.

So you can imagine how much energy the brain wants to dedicate to figuring out what to buy. Much, much less than traditional economists would like to believe.*

The brain deals with this by simplifying wherever it can. As a boy my mum used to berate me for doing things the easy way (such a mum thing, as if making it harder was somehow better) but clearly that’s what nature seeks to do. The brain is designed to work that way.

The relatively new science of neuroscience has shown that our brains look to create patterns to simplify understanding. This is physiological. As we digest information, synapses fire and as they repeat this process, that information becomes more established in our brains. Or as Steven Pinker, the famed writer on neuroscience, puts it: the synapses that fire together, wire together.

Which is why Christmas is a brand disaster. Christmas is probably the most mismanaged, chaotic and complicated brand construct there is. There have been way too many brand managers trying to get clever with the core concepts, no quality control and clearly no budget restraint. Is it trashy or upmarket? Religious or for everyone? About parties or about family?
Consumer driven or a chance to reflect? Father Christmas, the elves, reindeers, snow, Dickens, Only Fools And Horses, the right potato dish….it’s all over the place. The final nail is, of course, hipster Christmas sweaters. Different synapses are firing all over the place. It’s chaos, like the firework mayhem on a Shanghai street at Chinese New Year.

The Christmas brand is saved though by having not one but two of the greatest brand ideas of all time: a saviour was born on that day and it is a time for goodwill and critically therefore presents to all humankind. (See my earlier post ‘Why Christmas can be an inspiration for StartUps’), And because of that, we let it get away with the bad stuff. We are so engaged in it, our brains make the effort to process and join together this disjointed randomness.

The question you have to ask yourself is this: is your brand idea so strong that it can get away with a lack of consistency? The answer of course is NO.

You don’t have two of the greatest ideas of all time (apart from you at the back, well done) so you have to deal with the realities of the human brain. And those human brains want things to be simple so they can’t stop thinking about it and get on with the important stuff like breathing, running, interpreting the inputs from your senses and so on.

And consistency is the bed-fellow of simplicity. Your job is simple: this is what our brand stands for, told time and time again, maybe in different ways but never in contradicting or conflicting or ways. Christmas though is full of contradiction and conflict (not just the dinner, but the concept).

So don’t do what Christmas does. Learn from the error of its ways and deliver your concept consistently and simply across all of your business.

* If you are dubious about this, please refer to any of the following: Heath on Low Involvement Processing; Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’; Coates ‘The hour between dog and wolf’; anything by Steven Pinker. Or indeed any credible book on how the brain works.

Why StartUps should love Christmas

Brand evolution

How you need to let your brand evolve rather than pivot.

Christmas in China is, well, weird*. Lots of lights, fake trees, fake carols and lots and lots of shopping. None of that Jesus stuff. Just a chance to consume. It’s proof that what was for much of history an esoteric idea is now truly a global, mainstream one. But if we apply this to our various StartUp ventures, the insight is that it did this by evolving. It did not lose its fundamentals, it did not pivot.

You might know this but Christmas started off as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. As simple as that. It is believed he was born around September but the celebration has always been in December. That’s because the emperor who introduced Christmas was a smart strategist and saw that the ‘easy-win’ (something we should always aim for) was a Competitor Hijack. Which meant he put it at the same date as the old world and no doubt old tech festival of Saturnalia (when we worshipped Saturn, something I endorse given how cool it looks). He gave it some new bells and whistles but maintained the bits of the old festival that people liked: the fact that people could gorge themselves and get drunk for days on end, hierarchies were forgotten and everyone went a bit mad. So nothing has changed.

Some people might be a little touchy about this next point (my mum included) but it isn’t the birth of Jesus bit that gives Christmas it’s modern power. The bit that gives this power is the bit that was added on, the bit about the three kings and gifts. This is the viral element, something that creates a dramatic network effect.

Like Twitter, etiquette has been layered around this core concept, where you are expected to behave in a certain way, which involves things like:
1. No matter how grumpy you feel you must be seen to embrace the seasonal goodwill/love-in vibe.
2. Which means that if you get, you give: presents must fill at least one room of a house.
3. No matter how wrong the present is, you must say that it’s the one thing you dreamed of.

It’s a concept that creates the conditions for it’s own stellar success. Everyone has to join in.

That’s the brilliant development in the Christmas concept. StartUp culture celebrates the pivot but this is not a pivot. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a creative extension of the initial concept that then goes above and beyond that concept. Rather than turn your back on the initial idea, it teaches us to delve deeper, stick by our conviction and make the idea work better by identifying an additional delivery mechanism.

This gift-giving bit wasn’t especially important until late on. In the 19th Century writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, in an effort to create drama and romance around Christmas and therefore sell books, begin to celebrate the human goodwill aspect and the role of gift-giving within it. In the 20th Century a whole industry was spawned around it, to the point now where, frankly, we have to question the unhealthy degree of consumerism that now surrounds the event.

I’ve met StartUp teams who have what I’ll call Completion Bias. They expect their brand concept to be complete to begin with, to be perfect from the outset…but don’t know what perfect is so never agree to anything. They are paralysed by Completion Bias. In the real world, brands can only start with an ambition about the kind of brand they want to be and a supporting framework to help bring it to life. The more complete brand will then emerge from the confluence of this ambition and the way people respond to and connect with that brand.

So the Christmas StartUp lesson is figure out the brand now, go through the exercises to give it depth and meaning, but get it out there ASAP and accept it will evolve, that it is not complete. And like that present from your favourite Auntie, as you unwrap it, something brilliant will emerge.

* Yes, it is more nuanced than that. But I lived there for 3 years and can now confirm it is not like the west.

What StartUps can learn from idiocy

New York City

How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity.

Dear Mr Dean & Mr DuLuca*

Sometimes I wake up on Writing Day not knowing what I will write about. But then, as if by magic, I stumble upon some sort of business idiocy and I thank the Lord/Vishnu/John Lennon for that.

My wife is 7 months pregnant. And we have a highly energetic 1-year-old son. Going to a café or restaurant can be a little stressful.

I first went to Dean & DeLuca over 20 years ago on an early trip to New York. For a boy from the crumbling post-industrial north of England it represented the New York I had dreamed of. I spent more money than I could afford and told people about my experience for years. I’ve been back several times on my New York trips.

So when we saw one in Singapore, we went in and I told my wife about that distant memory.

Very soon it was obvious that’s all it was, a distant memory.
It lacked that energy and ‘click’ of the New York experience, that professionalism and conviction.
The food was average at best and over-priced, in that way you only get in Asia, when companies come in, see the wealth and cynically inflate prices and/or reduce quality.

My wife asked for a glass of ice-water to compensate for the over-salted eggs.
The waiter said he could not give her ice-water, she would have to buy a bottle.
In Singapore it is standard to offer ice-water. Regardless of that, one would expect an upmarket café to have an instinct for hospitality, rather than obsess about the cross- and up-sale, especially for a pregnant lady.
I tried to encourage the waiter to rethink.
He made it clear that he wasn’t allowed to rethink.
I asked for the manger.
He came and said it was management policy not to give ice-water ie. it was policy to drag every last cent out of the customer.
So as the manager, can’t you change it?
No, I’m not allowed.
But you are the manager, right?
Yes, but not that manger, it’s a different, more senior manger.

So the guys who aren’t on the ground tell the guys on the ground what to do at every turn and do it in such a way that it’s going to lead to annoyed customers on the ground.

Meanwhile my pregnant wife remained unquenched and 1-year-old got more agitated, put his hand in the ketchup the waiter had thoughtlessly put in front of him.

To his credit (or once the embarrassment of what he was doing got too much), the manager eventually brought some ice-water. I worry he’ll get a slapped wrist for that.

I’m sure there are various issues you could cite about corporate structures but I’m not interested in those. I bought into – and spoke in glowing terms of – the good names of Dean & DeLuca, the brand.

I’m going to post this on my blog under the title: How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity. You’d think that was so obvious it didn’t need saying. Isn’t it depressing that it does?

I hope this motivates you to address what is both a structural and a policy issue. Give the guys on the ground a chance to do a good job. You might be surprised.

Otherwise, as unassailable as you might think you currently are, those various smart StartUps who seem irrelevant now are going to catch up quickly.

Best wishes

*Dear reader. This is not a real letter. I’m trying to make a point. But it is a real experience. I was going to email them this but then I thought they’ve’ already proven they can’t really be arsed how I feel – and I normally get paid for this stuff so I’m not going to give it away unless it is deserved. But apparently there was a real Mr. Dean, who was from that most venerable of vocations, the cheese merchant, and Mr. DeLuca, a publishing man. I hope the StartUp lesson is obvious: be human, we don’t need any more corporate idiocy.

The Questions You Start a StartUp with

brand difference, brand behaviour

Why you should be thinking about your brand idea as soon as you have your product idea.

You have that moment, when a bunch of thoughts, ideas, fluff and anti-matter coalesce and BOOM, your Big Bang. There’s a surge of adrenaline, you stop still and it hits you: This might just work…I’d start with content….I’ll use an API…and I can own the search terms…and if we did x then y would happen…and we’d have a network effect and, OH MY GOD, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!!!! Quick!! LEG IT!!! How do we build the #*#?in’ thing?

You spend the next year thinking about the product, the broader offer, operations and money.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the world, there’s another over-excited human being going through exactly the same thing. Maybe not that moment, but in the grand scheme of things, when they make the Internet Era start at 1.5 minutes to twelve on the civilization clock, it’s around the same time.

The fact is we live in a world of over supply. It’s too easy to make stuff, especially digital stuff. Whether it is copying or just landing on the same idea, you won’t be alone.

The first questions StartUps ask themselves tend to be about product, or business plans, or traction. But once you have you’re big idea, your first question should be this:

How can I defend it when people are copying me?

The answer to that is to do something that can’t be copied.

The one thing that is nearly impossible to copy is the bundle of intangibles, mental associations and gut feel about your business that exists in customer’s heads. What we call a brand. You can leave that for customers to create on their own or you can try to shape it yourself and that is what we call a brand building.

Brand is difference, brand is emotion and logic, brand is complex, brand is everything the business does. To use Warren Buffet’s vernacular, brand is your moat. There are other moats but they are harder to control yourself.

So once you have the big idea, you should ask yourself: how does my big idea translate into a brand concept?

Once you have a point of view on that (and yes, it can iterate to begin with, just like a product) you should ask a second question:
how does everything the business does deliver that brand concept?

This will result in lots of things in lots of places. The product will change, the offer will change, operations will change. It will be infused with a unique spirit.

So with two questions, you’ve created something that is very hard to copy.

Why StartUps need an old fashioned thesaurus

brand positioning a StartUp

How language can dramatically effect perception.

I’ve got a good idea how I want to position the product I’m developing for next year and it uses the word ‘brand’ but a very smart local StartUp founder asked me if maybe I should use a different word.

He’s the first to suggest this. Lots of other StartUp people gravitate to the word ‘brand’ because they immediately know the brand is important to their business and they also know they are not doing it properly.

But our founder friend’s point was this. He felt that the word ‘brand’ is both devalued and potentially a misrepresentation. Devalued because, to him, brands are too often vacuous, over priced and even dishonest, the very opposite of what I am building. A misrepresentation because too many people associate ‘brand’ only with the logo, name and maybe look. Nothing deeper. What I’m seeking to do is to get StartUps to recognize that a brand is a summary of all the experiences a person has of a business service or product. So a brand is a summary of every piece of that business they come into contact with. Using the word ‘brand’, he suggested, is too reductive. What I will offer has much greater value to the whole business and needs a better descriptor. His suggestion was to use terms like ‘company DNA’. I understand the logic but I worry that is even more open to (mis)interpretation. So I’m sitting down with my thesaurus and having a good, hard think.

Way back when, I worked on the launch of Sega Dreamcast and to begin our thinking I interviewed gamers. They told me how they played with their mates on a Friday night, drank some beer, smoked some weed, competing and trying to outsmart each other. One of them said: “it’s the only time of the week I use my brain”. Everyone nodded. Then he said: “yes, but I get told off for playing so much when my girlfriend wants me to do other stuff. People think you’re a loser.”

Then we interviewed an Oxford academic, who looked at the role of play in the animal kingdom. He told us that play was key strategy in the animal kingdom for learning and developing skills – social skills, physical skills and mental skills – and a way of making social conflict safe. So: it is a good thing.

So why was our young gamer so down on ‘play’? In reality, he was not just apologetic for playing, he was apologizing for developing his metal and social skills. Which is crazy. But that’s because the word ‘play’ has been hijacked. Good for kids, bad for adults. It had become word that was stopping the category from growing. Incidentally, in an attempt to make the word positive again, our strategy became about the power of playing together.

My current dilemma is this: has the word ‘brand’ been too devalued to be of use…or is it, perhaps even despite being devalued, the simplest and most direct way of saying what I do? If anyone can help, I’m all ears.

So I don’t have answer yet but the lesson is this: words matter. Think hard about them. What are the different ways they can be interpreted? Are there better words you can use? Or can you guide your audience to the interpretation you want? If you don’t know, get out that old paperback thesaurus you thought you’d never need again, it’s the best tool you have to win the war of words.*

(*Yes, I know the there are internet versions but paper is best. Trust me.)

What StartUps can learn from REM

motivation for new companies
Why delusional optimism is more powerful than failure for a StartUp

‘That’s me in the corner.’

When I first heard that song way back when, I was about to set off across Europe with a mate and our guitars, the world at our feet. We intended to hitch around Europe and busk to make our bread money. As it turned out, we got as far as Paris, tried to get a ride down south but, after 15 shitty hours at the side of a motorway and a night trying to sleep in the Gare du Nord whilst being threatened by skin heads with mad dogs, we gave up and decided to blow the last of our money on a train to Amsterdam where we’d artfully relax for a time before heading home.

But we changed our plan, pivoted one might say, and stopped to see some people we knew in Bruxelles, who rallied the boho crowd there and within an afternoon we’d been found a whole house and plenty of great Belgian cheese and beer.

That night, we headed out and for the first time sang ‘Losing My Religion’ by REM. It had not yet been a hit in the UK but we soon realised it had already been a massive hit across Europe. What we thought of as an obscure song drew a crowd of dozens and provided us with a hatful of change, enough to send us out drinking until the small hours. We looked at each other and grinned the grin of those who know that everything IS awesome.

So we decided to stay and not return to the UK. We spent the rest of that summer living the young bohemian dream, hanging out all day at our new friends’ houses, reading, talking, eating, drinking wine, enjoying the wonderful weather; then we’d busk for a couple of hours, playing our five songs, one of which was always Losing My Relision, making enough money to go out drinking again and have some fun. Rinse, repeat, everyday. For the rest of the summer. Oh, to be young.

In the StartUp scene, people talk about the power of failure. I’m sure there is power in failure. But I prefer the power of optimism. It is the – often delusional – power in optimism that keeps us going. Failure nearly sent us home that summer. It doesn’t matter if it is delusional, it matters that at that moment we believe in it.

And so I associate that lyric with rampant optimism, something great is going to happen. And in a way that’s what the song is about, albeit focusing on the uncertainty and occasional collapse of belief that goes hand in hand with hope.

I’m reminded of that as I sit in the corner of another café, and the song comes on my iTunes. I’m a very businessy area, not my usual. The suits talk Important Business and that’s me in the corner, looking like I’m on holiday, shorts, baseball cap, beard. I feel I’m being looked down on, just a little. Everyone talks business and looks business and no doubt feel important. They have the validation of a big company and of big deals.

It’s just me and my laptop. I’m just writing down ideas, thinking stuff through, for free. But you know what, I’m the guy in the corner, the odd one out, the who might just be doing something special, creating it from scratch, full of optimism…and occasional doubt. We StartUppers should revel in our corners, in our outsider-ness.

So whenever I hear those words ‘That’s me in the corner’, a shiver goes down my spine – and yes, a mourning for that life -but I do feel rejuvenated, I’m reminded of the joy and the drive of optimism and now I feel it again. And you know what, as I sit here with no income but with a hatful of creative energy and new ideas, I thank the gods for Buck Mills Berry Me.

What StartUps can learn from modern art.

The Best Naming Tool for StartUps

There are two broad ways of naming your brand: literal naming or imagery naming.

The literal describes literally (not surprisingly) what you do or offer: Salesforce and Compare the market – and at the slightly more imaginative end: Band-aid and Rubbermaid. For that reason it can also be called descriptive naming. But this group can also include eponymous naming ie. after a person, usually the founder; so would include Levi’s, John Lewis, Bloomberg, Marks & Spencer. You could claim some of these actually fall into our second group and I think that’s especially fair for a name like adidas, which although short for the founder Adi Dassler is so meaningless on its own, we can call it an imagery name.

Imagery naming is a much broader and more abstract group. It would include metaphorical naming, which has an actual meaning even if it’s hidden away – like Monopoly, Shell, Land Rover. There’s subset of this group: the mythical. So Prudential, Nike, Ariel. Or there are those with no meaning but are suggestive- like Aviva and Google (although dictionary.com tells me it was ‘introduced by U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner (1878-1955), whose nine-year-old nephew allegedly invented it’.)

There are those names that sit somewhere in the middle, other than the adidas type of name. I’d put Pinterest in this middle space although it clearly has a literal, descriptive element. You pin your interest. But they didn’t call it Pin Your Interest, they deliberately removed meaning by crunching the words together like a crisp sandwich. LinkedIn also sits in the middle. Instagram too but I think it is closer to Imagery with a dash of literal (or you could argue it’s metaphorical I guess?).

So there’s a spectrum. Which do you choose?

I’m not going to get into the relative merits of these two directions right now. But there are a host of things to think about and work through. That’s for another time. You might already know which type you want to build upon. My point here is: you don’t need to know before you start generating names if you have the right tool.

And here’s the right tool.

new business naming, entrepreneur naming

This is The Great Bear, by Simon Patterson, which I saw at The Tate Modern, I think in 2001. In his excellent piece, each underground (or metro as they say elsewhere) line is built around a theme, usually a profession – philosophers, musicians, film stars, engineers – but sometimes not – planets. What you need to do is this. Take the same logic and start generating names. Meaning, instead of a profession, you might start with user benefit and create an underground/metro line of names around user benefit. As you move along to the suburbs, stretch the meaning and exaggerate, more and more. So just as suburbs have exaggerated names like Sunshine Gardens, you might have turned a humble user benefit into World Changer. Unlike the real world, the suburbs might end up being the more interesting place.

Then develop another theme. Like user description. Or technology involved. Or product description. The point is to have as many underground lines as you can think of.

Of course, because you can use any type of theme for a line, you can mix both literal naming with imagery naming. You’ll have lines that cross, and nodes that start new themes and therefore new lines. Clearly it won’t actually look like the London Underground but it will have lots of names, good bad and many completely daft. But that’s creativity. Write everything down.

Do as many as you can. Go back to it a day later and go again. See if there are any new lines. And maybe go back the next day. Until you’re done.

Sleep on it. Then evaluate. And we’ll talk about evaluation tools some other time.

What StartUps can learn from our Neanderthal cousins.

Strategy for fears, entrepreneur fears, new business fear
How StartUps need to identify and compensate for their fears.

If you haven’t listened to Seth Godin’s podcast from 2012 on Starting Up, you should. He’s not only a smart man, with some great experience and supporting anecdotes, he’s a really engaging teacher. It still leaves some questions unanswered as far as I’m concerned (and I’ll come back to that in a subsequent post) but he covers much of what you’ll face, from the practical, to the strategic, to the emotional and human.

In episode 12, he talks about fear. He tells us: Be clear and precise on what you fear because it’s that fear that will derail you.

Kennedy was wrong when he declared, like a New Age life guru, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. No. Fear is human. We are hard-wired to be fearful when we embrace opportunity…because back on the savannah (or wherever Neanderthals lived…I’m too busy to check that…), when we went out to find our food, there was always a chance we’d get killed. And that fear, over thousands of years, became part of our hard-wiring. Fear goes hand in hand with opportunity, because opportunity involves risk. The hard-wiring still serves a purpose. Which is good because it won’t go away soon.

It seems to me Seth Godin is not saying rise above fear or challenge fear, or anything as dramatic and heroic as that. He’s way too practical and real for that. He’s saying: plan for fear, have worthwhile insight into yours and deal with it strategically.

For me, a lot of my experience is in pitching to win big pieces of business. You need to be right. You need an answer for everything. In short, it needs to be complete and you need to be the one saying what is and what isn’t. If they disagree, that’s fine, it’s just a difference of opinion but you have to show that at least it’s all been thought through. And I’ve been the so-called expert in the room at my discipline so that puts me at an advantage.

So what I fear is not having the answer, of being seen to be still working on it, of making it up as I go along. But Lean StartUp thinking tells me I have to embrace incompleteness, or at least a recognition that things will need to change and I must get the idea in front of people – generally strangers given I’ve just moved here – for them to pull it apart.

Added to that is the simple truth that as an entrepreneur, you don’t know it all but at this stage you are doing it all. You have to get the best answers you can get despite your ignorance. So you know you’re walking into a conversation with ideas outside of your area of expertise.

I fear incompleteness I guess because somewhere in the back of my mind I think it makes me look ‘less’; less proficient, less likely to succeed, to attract belief, support and so on.

The StartUp lesson – from Seth – is to really be honest about what you’re fearful of, and that includes your own – and your partners if you have them – very human, very real personal fears – and then plan for them and find a way to compensate.

Where does that leave my fear? At the moment, I’m going to attempt to pre-empt the failings of the idea, be clear on everything that’s bad about it, what areas will probably change, what is still being worked on. That’s the plan anyway but it might not be that smart a thing to do. In fact, I might be making that up as I go along.

Too many StartUps, too little difference.