What happens after the startup phase is over? Phase II, The mini-brand

17/11/2020 | By Pieter
What happens after the startup phase is over? Phase II, The mini-brand
Summary points:
  • Many startups reach a point after 2-3 years, where the initial hype is starting to cool.
  • At that point it's time to turn things around. It's time to grow up.
  • The phase II of a startup is about branding, you want to build a mini-brand
  • There are 4 stages of adolescence → Consolidation, thinking bigger, brand upgrading, growth.

Seems like many startups —especially bootstrapped ones— hit a plateau of sorts after a year or two in business.

When you’re just getting started, the whole idea experience is exhilarating, much like a new love: it’s exciting, it’s new, and it’s challenging. In your marketing, you lean into the fact that you’re young and under-experienced. And thank God society views startups as something cool and exciting.

But here’s what I notice: that energy —the energy of youth and “lots of potential”— wears off after a while.

Makes sense of course. You can’t be young and exciting forever.

So at some point, a plateau hits your growth:

You’re not really a young startup anymore, but you’re not really a “real” business yet, either...

Call it the adolescence of business

Puberty for startups.

Here’s what the symptoms often look like:

  • You reach saturation limits on the marketing channels that drove your initial growth—e.g. you started with Facebook ads, but it’s getting too expensive to scale

  • You’re extending your product range, but the sequels aren’t as successful as that initial “signature product”

  • Neither investors nor customers are impressed with your “potential” anymore. They want to see real results, and real numbers. It’s time to deliver.

Sounds like you?

Don’t get me wrong: you might be doing anywhere from $10-50k per month in revenue. It’s not that you’re exactly small anymore… but you’re certainly not “there yet”, either.

It’s not your vision yet. It’s not wildly profitable yet. It’s not a sell-able business yet.

It’s only the beginning.

What’s the pathway to breach through this plateau?

To invest in branding, and build a mini-brand

Right now you know—much better than you ever did before—who your audience is, what they want, and what makes them tick. You know the strengths of your product, but also it’s weaknesses.

Now is the right time to consolidate what you’ve got so far, and plot out a path to achieve 10X growth in the next 2-3 years.

You do that through a process of consolidation & reorientation:

Step 1: Consolidate

The first step to building a stronger brand, is to better understand who you are. To properly take stock of what you’ve got: the product concepts that are working, the audience that’s responding, the stories that are resonating.

Often, the “less is more” adage applies here: it’s good to tighten up your story, to better bring together your product offering, to cut down on features that nobody really needs or wants.

It’s about trimming and reducing, until only the essential remains. That’s where branding starts.

  • Tighten up your value props and copywriting
  • Kill under-performing products and features
  • Articulate the core story that drives your vision and your business
  • Cut out unnecessary costs, unnecessary commitments, unnecessary anythings
  • Go “back to the essence” in everything you do

Step 2: Think 10X bigger

Chances are that in the previous period you’ve been able to growth through incremental improvements: better copy, better landing pages, better onboarding flow, better ads.

But what got you here, won’t get you there. A big part of why you’re in a rut right now… is because what used to work at a smaller scale doesn’t really work anymore now (otherwise you wouldn’t have stagnated).

What would your business look like it it would be 10X bigger, doing 10X more revenue than it does right now?

  • What kind of acquisition channels do you need to get to that scale?
  • What infrastructure do you need to support that scale?
  • How would your brand and your products evolve, if you’d be 10X bigger?
  • What other markets or segments could you cut into, if you’d want to be 10X bigger?
  • What growth loops can you devise to drive sustained, stable growth over time?

What does a 10X bigger business look like? How would it be similar to what you currently have? How would it be different?

Once you know that, you can start planning accordingly. If you don’t aim for 10X growth, you’ll never get there, either.

Step 3: Upgrade your branding

Branding isn’t just your logo. Branding is how people view your business, and how they would describe it to a friend.

Good branding means that you’re carved out a clear, distinct position in the market for yourself… that’s both unique, and valuable.

That doesn’t mean that nobody else can be doing what you’re doing… but it’s got to be unique enough that it feels to them that whatever it is they want, they can only quite get from you.

Point in case: I’m writing this from what is—to my taste—the best pizzeria in Canggu. It might not the best pizzeria in the world, but it’s the best one available within a reasonable distance from my house.

When I think “I want to eat a pizza”… I think about them first.

That’s what branding is about.

Now back to you… what’s your branding? Why do customers come back to you? What can you chose to be uniquely known for?

Pick an angle that’s both valuable & unique, and run with it. Go all-in on it.

And at this stage, make the resources available to make that happen properly:

  • What sales narratives can best support your branding?
  • What unique signature stories can you tell, that support your branding?
  • What tone-of-voice aligns with your stories and your brand?
  • What visual style matches and strengthens what your brand stands for?
  • What sort of pricing aligns with what people would expect from your brand?

All these questions are fluffy and abstract when you’re just starting out. So better not worry about it. But when you’re at that plateau stage it’s different—because you’ve been in business long enough now to know the answers. And at this stage all these questions are worth answering, and worth obsessing over.

So gather the team together, and do that.

Step 4: Shift into growth again

After you’ve worked through your rebranding, you’ll find that your company is in better shape now to keep expanding.

In particular, you’ll find that all channels that depend on any sort of “recommendation” will work much better. That could be channels like word-of-mouth and referral marketing, but you’ll also create better opportunities for biz dev partnerships, affiliate channels and brand ambassadors.

With that newfound power, you’ll find that new acquisition channels open up for you. Most likely it will be exactly these new channels that can drive your next growth phase.

  • Stop trying to optimize the channel that got you to this point. Instead, pivot to new, bigger channels
  • If you’ve grown based on outbound channels (e.g. paid advertising), find ways to shift towards inbound or product-based growth engines
  • If you’ve been thinking about raising outside capital, this would be the perfect moment to do so
  • Invest in building out that brand: if you’re an introvert like me, go out and connect with other bigger players in the market. Look for partnerships. Look for opportunities.

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