Brand, or not to brand, it’s not more an option. It’s just whether you manage it or not!

Gone forever are the days when doing business meant focusing only on your product, while ill-informed customers had little choice other than to buy it, whether or not they were really satisfied.

The digital age, globalization and many innovations, especially in IT, have resulted in dramatic changes in the way we do business. Today’s consumers have (too) many choices – they are very informed, engaged and connected, and they tend to share their experience with others. With new tools and media, they can do this very effectively – so effectively, in fact, that one negative review, comment or post might be enough to bankrupt your business. They are also more demanding than ever before, even to the point of becoming co-creators of the products and services they buy. Their overall experience, from the first moment they hear about your brand and your promise to them, through the moment they buy it, use it, service it, and even get rid of it (from an ecological perspective) should be satisfying and unique. This means they can identify themselves with your brand, and that the brand has met their initial expectations, which leads to their recommendation, loyalty and repeated purchase.

But, you might ask, do I really have to do all these activities? To inform, work with social media, communicate, collect feedback, and prepare a story?

The answer is yes. You have to do all this to hack your growth and even to survive. With all the changes described above that affect customer behavior, you need to start managing your brand. Today, whatever you do or don’t do leaves an impression and a message to you potential customers – a message about whether you “care” for them and their experience or not, because they want to be engaged, informed, and heard. They want to co-create your brand! For this reason, branding has become dynamic, evolving from initial visual elements and simple advertising to the level of relations that need to be managed. Relations are not static, so whether to brand or not brand is no longer the question. It is not optional. Branding is happening all the time, irrespective of your activities. The only question is whether you will manage this process or not!

Okay, you say, let’s start branding! But how should you do it? Where should you start?

We have developed an easy-to-follow framework, a tool that we have named STARTUP BRANDING FUNNEL, or SBFUNNEL , that will help you to understand, develop, implement and maintain strong brands that deliver a unique customer experience. You will need to start actively managing you brand, from the vision onwards, if you have not started your business yet. The core of your efforts should still be a good product that fits the market, but this is not enough for success. You might help yourself with the lean methodology to develop it, but you need to go further and develop your brand market fit, including a story that will reflect your unique advantages and be evident in your visual elements. Then you need to spread it within the company, communicate it to your customers, and deliver your product to customers. Meanwhile, you need to continuously validate and evaluate the elements with customers’ experiences and feedback. You might use different metrics for this. This is a never-ending story, since you might get new competitors and industry trends and customer preferences may change, which will force you to adapt or even change some elements of your brand. We are sure that using our SBFUNNEL to develop, implement, and maintain your brand will help you to hack your growth. Good luck, and let us know how are you doing!

P.S. Why a FUNNEL?

We have called our framework a “funnel” to remind you that relationships (and brands) mean two sides of the same coin: the narrow customer perspective, which is focused on the unique experience he gets by using your product from the first moment he gets in touch with it, and your broader entrepreneur’s perspective, which includes all the organization'’ activities (e.g., technology, finance, marketing) that customers don’t care about, when they buy, use or recommend your brand.



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Startups and the digital age

Have you heard of Uber or Airbnb? Both are so called “unicorns”—companies that have soared to USD 1bn in value or more based on fundraising. The billion dollar tech start-up was once the stuff of myth, but now they seem to be everywhere, even in industries (Uber in transport, Airbnb in tourism), which seem to be somewhat traditional. The question is what are the reasons behind this and what will be next? At least two reasons should be highlighted: a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology arising from the unlimited challenges the digital age has brought to companies.

Today, companies have two possibilities: either to ignore the significant changes or adopt and even innovate new ways of doing business. The consequences of the digital age are not only evident in marketing communication due to the significant impact of word of mouth and interactive marketing present across the variety of social media, online communities etc., but also in other elements of the marketing mix and in business models. Marketing channels are becoming more diverse and innovative, prices are much more dynamic, in part because of improved transparency, products and services are being upgraded into unique experiences and packaged as powerful brands which enable unique relationships among diverse stakeholders. Customers are no longer passive observers, but rather active players, even brand co-creators. The change in customer behaviour is just enormous.

Understanding the changes in the environment, while profiting from technological novation, seems to be the greatest advantage of start-ups. No history and tradition but instead fresh ideas, an open-mind, an understanding of the modern customer and thinking outside the box are just some of the common characteristics of today’s start-up. It appears that start-ups are gaining a significant share of the world economy and expressions like ‘innovate like a start-up’ are even being used in large corporations.

 Having conducted more than 40 in-depth interviews with successful start-up founders and other stakeholders in the start-up ecosystem, presented in our new book Startup branding funnel, we concluded that everyone is aware of the changes to business resulting from the digital age. Amongst others, many Slovenian start-ups or rather, start-ups with Slovenian founders and co-founders, take advantage of these changes. Some of them were ahead of the competition and have become co-creators of global digital change, for example Celtra and its co-founder Miha Mikek. Celtra, a young and passionate team, are shaping the landscape of digital display advertising. Slovenian founders are also responsible for start-ups whose primary business is not related to the digital world however, digital change indirectly impacts their business. In many examples, such as BellaBeat or the FlyKly, products are closely connected to new technology (apps etc.) which upgrades the original function of the core product. In addition, due to digital changes, start-ups have the opportunity to reach a global audience, engage them as brand co-creators and create worldwide business.

FlyKly has made a significant innovation in urban cycling and is dedicated to making bicycle friendly cities. Its founder, Niko Klanšek, listened to potential customers from the beginning and today engages customers from all over the world to share their ideas, thoughts and opinions to develop and improve their products. Having a worldwide community is not related only to communication, but also to understanding what international customers really want and are prepared to pay. More and more, everything is data driven and supported with analytics. This is possible because of the expanded technological environment, including phones and wearables. Going beyond Slovenian customers and their thinking is therefore imperative for a business to be global.

The digital age opens new opportunities for (Slovenian) start-ups, but only those who have enough knowledge and are able to understand modern customers and invite them to be their co-creators, can gain. In a digital world, not only Slovenia but the whole world is becoming a small and connected village! And start-ups are becoming a serious threat to well-established companies!

Original article published in:  The Slovenia Times: Startups and the digital age, Autumn Edition 2015, Volume 12.

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Combine Technical And Marketing Knowledge Within Your Startup Team

You’ve probably heard about Bellabeat, FlyKly, or Layer? Well, three years ago they didn’t exist! Now they are at the top of their industries, but how did they do it? Was it enough only to have the right idea or did they also need to have knowledge to conduct business in today’s competitive environment? Specifically, what kind of knowledge do startups need to succeed and not repeat the many mistakes of the 90% of startups that fail?


This was one of our main questions in developing the Branding funnel, the approach that helps companies develop successful brands. We conducted in-depth interviews with more than 40 successful startups and stakeholders. We investigated some of the most successful startups from the region (like Bellabeat, Degordian, and Celtra) as well as startups from the world’s leading entrepreneurial ecosystems, like Silicon Valley (e.g., GoOverseas, MyTraining, Teaman & Company). Initially, we thought that only some specific knowledge was needed. However, we were surprised (positively) at the diversified, deep, and up-to-date knowledge successful startups actually possess. They need this knowledge to remain within the 10% of startups that survive.

Most successful startups had founders (and other team members) with a good and deep industry understanding, as well as the capacity to “predict” trends. This means profiting from the latest technology that changes user behavior, either business or final customers. The founders do not focus on the present state but try to think of what will come next.  So, their teams need good technical knowledge, as well as an understanding of how to upgrade their products from a business perspective. In practice, this means that they were able not just to develop excellent products, but through a good understanding of their present and future customers upgrade and transform their products into great brands that deliver unique experiences to their customers. In many circumstances, the initial idea was to transform, upgrade, or sometimes even change in this process.

Mix of right skills is the key to success

The startup team needs to possess an appropriate mix of relevant knowledge and skills whichcombine technical and marketing perspective on doing business. A great combination within a founding team (many times even a real-life couple) is technical or industry-specific knowledge and marketing know-how (e.g., to understand customers and their behavior, to understand social media and be able to write and present a great story, to be able to find customers and make sales). In addition, startups mostly need other knowledge and skills like design. If possible, startups prefer to have all this knowledge within their team members, as it’s important also for a designer and social media strategist to understand the essence of the brand and its story.

However, of course it is not possible, especially with inexperienced founders and other team members, to have deep knowledge from the beginning. It is important to have some knowledge and to start applying it as soon as possible to obtain feedback on ideas, prototypes, and other items. Startups’ success will usually be determined by how fast they learn from experience, upgrade products with insight, and learn new knowledge and retry in the next iterations until they find the right brand-market fit. It is important to “run” fast and for all team members to understand in which direction they should “run!” In doing this, most startups will be able to access new markets, investors, and information and, with the right brand, will be able to hack their growth.

No one succeeds just by luck

The right idea, some knowledge to start, preparedness to iterate and learn, a lot of hard work, and some luck – all are needed! Miha Mikek, founder of Celtra said in our interview that Celtra had luck. Yes, it probably did have (some) luck, but before and in addition to luck, it had and still has a great team, which is capable and skillful in transforming Celtra’s vision into reality.

The takeaways: 

  • - Knowing and understanding the industry, customers, competitors, as well as yourself (skills and resources) is essential for startups!
  • - Take all the time you need to validate your steps with potential customers, try to understand them, learn fast, and implement changes.
  • - Within your team, have diversified knowledge. A team of only skillful technical people is not sufficient to compete in today’s circumstances!
  • - Combine technical and marketing skills within team members!
  • - No one succeeds just by luck. Before luck, people put in a lot of work and develop the right knowledge regarding how to implement a vision!
  • - Upgrade your product to a successful brand. Help yourself with the Branding funnel approach.


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Big thanks to all our book co-creatoors!

We started our journey to answer the problems many startups encounter in their process of product development. By working with startups and observing them, we came to two important conclusions. First, that many of startups manage to find their initial product-market fit, but then are not able to communicate their story to their target customers in order to hack their growth; and second, we felt that this was mainly because of their too narrow understanding of brands and the branding process, usually associated only with visual identity elements. This was the basic understanding of the context we needed to start our journey.

Customer validation should be a crucial part in each brand development. In our journey, we discovered that most of the successful startups validate their branding activities among their (potential) customers. The majority of those that don’t do it, soon run out of their seed money and never reach their first or second year of operations. Some of them even declared customer validation as a waste of time, especially founder’s time! Since we want to follow the path of the most successful startups, we decided to validate our book on our potential customers.

The approach we took in preparing our book is also a kind of startup. Our broader vision was to develop a widely applicable approach for startups, which would help them to develop their brands from scratch. An approach that would upgrade their product-market fit into the perfect brand-market fit to help them hack their growth, reflecting the main steps and building blocks of the branding process. Even if us authors have had previous entrepreneurial experience, some successfully books published locally and the knowledge of the overlapping areas of marketing and entrepreneurship, we ware most afraid to miss the core message that we want to deliver to our customers, since not having a personal experience as founders of a global successful startup. So, we decided to involve in the book co-creation different kind of stakeholders involved in the startup ecosystem: startup founders, venture capitalists, non-profit startups, professors, incubator’s and accelerator’s managers and students (the potential founders), to precisely understand different aspects of branding in startups and to validate all the steps of our proposed approach, we named THE STARTUP BRANDING FUNNEL, shortly SBFunnel. We did this by spending numerous hours speaking with them personally (or by skype, since they are spread around the globe), integrating in the startup community of Silicon Valley by living and spending time in incubators and accelerators, making presentations of the approach…We hope we got the point, but time and market will give us the real feedback!

For the amazing job you co-creators of our book did, by sharing your experience, up-to date approaches, information and knowledge with us, we would like to express big thanks to all of you! Even if not all of your examples ware directly included in the text of the book, they helped us to understand the branding process in startups and to validate our proposed model, while all co-creators are named at the beginning of the book. In this process we also discovered that startups across the world are facing very similar problems, challenges and needs. This was a confirmation we are on the right way in our process!

Maja & Mitja

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Why another book on startups?

The trend of startups has become a global phenomenon, able to make also global impact by disrupting many traditional industries (e.g. Uber, Bellabeat…). It seems is going hand in hand with the digital revolution, affecting modern consumers’ lifestyle behavior, with even more dynamics and personal engagement. New approaches of customer development methodology, lean methodology and canvas business models that are partly reflecting such changes, have significantly affected new products creation and are widely spread among the startup community.

Above concepts teach us how to develop great products and how to find the right product-market fit, but we know we need also great stories, which are appropriately communicated to all brand stakeholders in order to succeed. Many times also good products, which fit well to modern consumers, but are not appropriately communicated, cannot survive. Our book helps startups to upgrade their product-market fit into their optimum brand-market fit. So, we are stressing the marketing perspective of how to develop and strengthen startup brands in today’s hypercompetitive environment. Here, the emphasis is oriented toward building unique relationships among all stakeholders who are involved in brand creation and form a startups’ unique culture.

The proposed approach upgrades also the prevailing, mainly static models of brand development used in larger and established companies as a need to adapt to the faster pace of changing conditions internally in companies, and in the external environment. We do it by inputting the dynamics and bringing in the customers to the process from the early beginning at level of brand vison. The customer as a final evaluator of a brand success is now involved in such approach also as brand co-creator before the brand is launched to the market and becomes its validator during the process of its development.

Startups are a reality all over the word, not just in USA, or specifically in Silicon Valley! Their number is increasing from month to month all around the world, but not because they are becoming fancy, a way of life, or just a buzzword, it’s because of people. Especially the young ones that want a better word, and have a dream how to do it, while leaving some personal impact in it! The difference is that they are taking now an active role in this process and are prepared to work hard for their dreams. Therefore, in our approach of book co-creation we invited startups and other stakeholders from different continents and parts of the word, to validate our approach that could be applied widely, optimistically speaking universally. In this process we have discovered that startups across the world are facing very similar problems, challenges and needs. This was a confirmation we are on the right way in our process.

 Sharing above reason of many ambitious people, we also wanted to contribute something for a better word. So, the reason why of this book was to increase the success of thousands of startups that start their journey filled with passion, but too many times without the right approach. If we contributed to lower their failure rate and helped increase their success, we have reached our goal!

“Join us in our journey along the startup branding funnel!”

Maja & Mitja

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About authors

Maja in Mitja Ruzzir
Maja K Ruzzier Mitja Ruzzier

Maja & Mitja, wife & husband, marketer & entrepreneur, mother & father of two children.

Maja is an associate professor of marketing (at Faculty of Economics, UL), specialized in branding. Mitja started his career as an entrepreneur with his own company but recently moved to academics. Currently, he is a professor of entrepreneurship (at Faculty of Management, UP). Maja is systematic and a good observer of people and their changes in behavior. Mitja is a visionary and creative person. They have also joined forces professionally at the intersection of their primary professional areas as well as their different personal characters. In addition to being lecturers, researchers, consultants and speakers, they are the authors of several books, including Marketing for Entrepreneurs and SMEs. Lately, they have begun to observe startups and their approach toward branding. In doing so, they have travelled to and visited many startups around the globe, including startups from Silicon Valley and the East Coast in the USA as well as startups in different European countries. Their passion lies in discovering the challenges of branding – specifically, how brands evolve into dynamic entities and engage entrepreneurs and modern consumers to become their co-creators. This was also the approach in their latest book, Startup Branding Funnel, which they prepared together with more than 40 co-creators (successful startup founders and other stakeholders) around the globe.