Startups should believe in the power of branding

Good branding is more than just your logo

While I was attending innovfest unbound earlier this year, I met a lot of Singapore start-ups – both those exhibiting in booths and pitching at start-up challenges. I noticed that many of them do not pay enough attention to building or leveraging their brand. When compared with their U.S. counterparts, Singapore start-ups fare badly, when it comes to creating a corporate identify, investing in the look and feel of the company, and continuously managing the brand.

The leader of a company must understand the value of branding, right from day one. Your company’s brand is basically what the public thinks of when they hear your brand name. And while many entrepreneurs may think developing a brand means creating a company logo, good branding involves a whole range of items that are associated with the company, such as product names, designs, symbols, colours, or phrases.

Building the brand of a company is similar to building your own personality. It sets the company apart from others, and enables people to understand the company based on its values, character and expected behaviour. In the crowded start-up space, this is critical for establishing trust, loyalty and competitiveness. However, a reliable brand is relevant to everyone – not just the customers or prospective customers. For investors, it provides a sense of stability; for employees, it gives them a sense of direction and purpose; and for strategic partners, it offers a sense of fairness.

Also read: I have a question for startup founders – Are you a brand?

And while larger companies often outsource their brand development strategy to expensive consultancy companies, start-ups wanting to get their brand right, should focus on three key areas:

Choose the right company name

The name of your start-up should be easy to pronounce, not sound similar to any competitor and preferably have a linkage to the business you are in. Where possible, do not choose a generic word for your company name, otherwise imagine the nightmare a customer will have when doing a simple Google search on your company. Many technical founders choose strange names that only have meaning to a small group. This is a mistake. The name (together with message, logo and other branding mechanisms) must be easy to remember, clear and striking.

In some cases, the right name can instantly provide the right association. For example, the VC firm Sevin Rosen was known for investing in and renaming start-ups to begin with the letter ‘C’, such as Cypress, Cyrix, Compac and Cienna. I was an early investor with Sevin Rosen in Cyrix, and this resulted in a very satisfying win for me. Whenever I would encounter a new start-up starting with a ‘C’, I would quickly do a background check to see if Sevin Rosen had invested in them, as if they had, the start-up would be of immediate interest to me.

Think through your logo and design

Your logo and design should be symbolic of your company’s identity, broadly conveying what the company stands for. Where relevant use appropriate imagery, so the brand establishes the right identity in people’s minds. The brand should also resonate with your customers, evoking a certain response.

Protect your brand

One reason why brands can accumulate such value over time is because they can be protected. For example, the Tiffany brand, which associates with the robin egg blue box and luxury items, is over 170 years old. In order to maintain your brand identity, start-ups should develop an active and co-ordinated marketing strategy. There is a symbiotic relationship between the brand and marketing, where the company’s brand is used to assist marketing, and marketing is used to further strengthen the brand. Through pushing out consistent and regular messages about your brand image, the message will be perceived and embraced by a prospective customer.

Before you dismiss the value of your brand, think of Google, which according to a recent study is the world’s most valuable brand, estimated at more than US$109 billion in 2016. By having a well-planned and co-ordinated strategy, you could develop your brand into one of your most valued assets!

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Ike Lee is an executive advisor to NUS Enterprise, a Visiting Professor at the NUS Business School and the CEO of LTC Innovations. He has extensive experience within the entrepreneurship sector, as an angel investor, venture capitalist from the Silicon Valley and mentor to numerous start-up management teams.

Start-ups ‘cannot run on just passion’

Veteran venture capitalist shares message at NUS Enterprise event

By GRACE CHNG 

SENIOR CORRESPONDENT

FOUNDERS of start-ups usually have plenty of passion but their in­ability to roll out viable business plans and tendency to focus on short-term success rather than long-term strategy means failure is often inevitable.

That is the sobering message from serial entrepreneur and ven­ture capitalist Ike Lee, who has al­most 30 years of experience in the tech industry.

The US-based Mr Lee, 59, said: “They (may) have the right idea, passion and business plan but the wrong timing, like the 9/11 terror­ist attack in the United States which impacted the economy. There’s nothing you can do in such a situation.”

He told about 200 students, en­trepreneurs and academics at the National University of Singapore (NUS) last Friday that successful founders are those who live “it for 25 hours a day for eight days (a week)”.

“They have focus and failure is not an option. This is what it takes to succeed,” he said.

Successful founders are also not afraid of taking that first big step, said Mr Lee, who was born in South Korea and is now an American citizen.

Once they know they have good ideas, they seize the moment and launch their start-ups.

Mr Lee was speaking at the in­augural seminar for Global Start-up@Singapore, a new net­working platform to help local start-ups and entrepreneurs ex­pand overseas.

It was organised by NUS Enter­prise and the NUS Business School.

NUS Enterprise is the universi­ty’s start-up incubator.

Its director, Professor Wong Poll Kam, said Singapore has de­veloped a good ecosystem to nur­ture start-ups over the past 10 years with strong government sup­port

“The next phase is to go be­yond by helping Singapore-based start-ups to grow by going glo­bal,” he added.

Besides bringing in experienced investors and entrepreneurs like Mr. Lee to inspire local start-ups as well as provide mentorship and contacts, NUS Enterprise will initi­ate how-to workshops on a series of topics start-ups need to know when they go international.

The first, in August, will deal with crowdfunding, followed by one on how to tap the expertise of NUS Enterprise overseas offices in Silicon Valley and China. 

Another workshop will be held on international regulatory com­pliance for biomedical devices and electrical/electronics products, he added.

Networking that works: Lessons from a career in Silicon Valley

Ike Lee, Lee Technology Consulting and adjunct professor in the Department of Strategy and Policy at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

More than 20 years ago I landed for the first time in Silicon Valley speaking barely a word of English and not knowing anyone. Since then I’ve built up my own tech business, launched dozens of startups and seen them through to IPOs worth billions of dollars.

Underpinning all of this is a carefully nurtured network of contacts.

In the business world, “networking” has become something a cliché. Executives swear by it; marketing and sales professionals claim it is their only job; and MBA students, such as those I meet as an adjunct professor at NUS Business School, take courses to learn it.

Done right, networking can deliver an exponential increase in impact and efficiency. But it is important to remember that effective networking is an ongoing process – establishing and maintaining relationships with relevant people whom we can rely on to further our goals and who, in turn, can rely on us. 

Those in our network need to derive benefits from being connected to us as much as we derive benefits from being connected to them. So relationships must be continuously built and maintained.

Here are eight lessons I have learned in my entrepreneurial journey about building a strong and efficient network.

Step #1: Do your homework

Networking consumes time, energy, and resources with often indirect and uncertain benefits. You do not want to be wasting those on networks with little probability of improving your own success. 

The Los Altos Golf & Country Club is a vital node of the Silicon Valley tech network. When I moved to the Valley, I quickly realised that being part of this club would be a catalyst to success.

But before joining, I researched the club extensively and mapped out its influential members. 

Once I had identified the president of the club’s board of directors, I learned all I could about him, his successes, and his plans. I did my homework first and when the opportunity came to meet I was fully prepared.

Be informed, be choosy, and be prepared.

Step #2: Actively seek out gathering places

Once you have identified the network you want to be part of, locate its gathering place and then actively seek to be part of it.

Physical gathering places include clubs, conferences, social associations, meet-ups, non-profit events, sports venues, local joints and popular restaurants. Virtual gathering places include online blogs, social networking groups, mailing lists, online forums, bulletin boards and WhatsApp groups. 

A gathering place acts as an efficient way to connect people with like-minded objectives. To derive the benefit of a network, you need to be at their gathering place and be actively present. 

Step #3: Know what you bring to the table

A network link is a two-way connection. It does not matter if the person you are trying to connect with is the President of the United States – you need to demonstrate the value you bring to the relationship.

This is often hard, especially with people who are in position, job or wealth higher than you. But consider what you can bring to the table: your own experiences, ideas and observations; your background, culture and beliefs; your feedback on their interests; or your own contacts.

At the same time, bring to the table only what you can really deliver. One of my evergreen wisdoms is: “It is always better to under-commit and over-deliver rather than over-commit and under-deliver.”

Step #4: Be prepared and rehearse

Preparation is key to a successful meeting – this means taking time to think through what you expect from the meeting, who will be there, what topics may be discussed, and what your desired take-aways are.

Failing to think these through risks damaging your credibility and position in the network.

Even once you are prepared, rehearse! Rehearse the talk you need to give, the key point you need to make, the idea you may need to explain. 

It usually takes time to even get a meeting and you do not want to lose this critical opportunity to make a bond.

Step #5: Tell stories

Storytelling is as an ancient social skill and is as relevant as it has ever been. It doesn’t mean embellishing the facts or overblowing your abilities, but framing your message in a narrative that is impactful and easy to digest.

A common trait among entrepreneurs and engineers is to try to win attention through data. In my experience quoting metrics and numbers from the start rarely works.

A better way is to frame your message in a narrative that the other parties can both emotionally and rationally connect to. Connect to your listeners at a personal level, then craft your own narrative weaving your message into the conversation. 

Step #6: Be yourself

In a job interview, the person seeking the job is always emphasizing how good they are at everything. Many people tend to do the same thing when networking. 

But networking is not a job interview. It does not help but rather hurts us when we overstate our experiences and extend the truth. 

Successful leaders can easily detect when someone is telling the truth or when someone is embellishing facts. To be successful at networking, always be who you are and understand your abilities and limitations. Listen attentively, think before answering and when making a point, remain humble and respectful. 

Step #7: It takes more than one meeting

Networking is more art than engineering. Often times it costs a lot of money and time, and there is no formulaic path to certain success.

Let’s say you finally meet an individual who can help you achieve your goal. It is, of course, very exciting and you want to move forward and achieve your goal immediately. But rarely, if ever, does that work. 

Imagine someone trying to meet you solely for information. Would you want them to approach you with only one goal in mind, with only one reason to meet? 

Instead approach networking with the objective of building trust, growing confidence and friendship. Go into a networking event with the mindset that the event is one step in many to come – the perfect opportunity to present your case will come eventually.

You will then not try to achieve everything in that one meeting, rush your objectives and burn bridges. 

Step #8: Refresh your network

I keep all the business cards I receive in a big shoebox. Every other year, I go through them and I toss a large number of cards away. People change roles all the time and our relationships change too. 

To keep a network healthy, pruning the network is as important as adding to the network. It is important that you regularly take an overview of your network and decide who should you un-friend. This is not a mean thing to do—it is a wise thing to do. 

One of the issues I have with large social network sites like Facebook and LinkedIn is that they do not encourage un-friending as much as they encourage friending. 

An unruly large network is very inefficient. A great network is like a bonsai tree—it is healthiest and lasts longest when it is carefully pruned. 

Singapore’s entrepreneurship X factor

It should not aim to become like Silicon Valley but exploit geography and cultural mix to become a world-class launch pad.

I’ll confess, I am a late adopter of Singapore. Although originally from Asia, I had not set foot here until April last year, when I was invited to speak at NUS Enterprise’s Innovfest conference for entrepreneurs. Since that first visit, I have been back eight times and, each time, I notice something special; something that gets my heart racing.

It’s the same feeling I got when I first arrived in Silicon Valley in the late 1980s – a buzz that comes about when a place has achieved a particular critical mass of physical, human and intellectual infrastructure. Like a chain reaction coming alive, this magical formula is the X factor that powers entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s what has made Silicon Valley the global ground zero of the tech industry.

I travel tens of thousands of kilometres every year and wherever I am, at every entrepreneurship event I attend, the question is asked, “How can we be more like Silicon Valley?”

The answer I give is straightforward: don’t be.

EIGHT TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS:

1)  Focus on the customer: Every decision and every feature of your product should be assessed and framed according to how it improves the customer experience.
2)  Target the small but significant: Many big successes come from making small changes, reinventing something used every day.
3)  Soak up advice: Networking is crucial; absorb as much knowledge as you can from others. Learn to process and sort through that advice and how to apply it to your business.
4)  Practice your pitch: There is no set format to a successful pitch but learn to tell your story in 10 seconds or less. It helps focus your mind.
5) Have a plan: Do thorough market research, build a plan with short-term and mid-term projections. Put down on paper a process that shows your concept works.
6) Trust your instincts: If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. This is especially true when choosing a business partner, mentor or investor.
7)  Avoid talk of failure: The start-up industry is driven by results and track record. Mistakes happen but failures – especially avoidable ones – will be held against you.
8) Don’t be discouraged: Knock-backs are inevitable; some people will underestimate or look down on you. Take this as a challenge.

The Valley is unique. It’s a standalone ecosystem that grew organically from a particular local culture and circumstance. It is not something that can simply be copied, lifted up and transplanted to another place on the planet.

Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learnt and applied elsewhere by those with experience of the way the Silicon Valley works.

With that in mind, I recently took up the offer of an adjunct professorship at NUS Business School, furthering my association with the university as an adviser to NUS Enterprise.

It’s an opportunity for me to share my expertise, to help support ambitious Singapore start-ups and scale them into world-leading enterprises. And it is an opportunity to uncover some “diamonds in the rough” – the emerging business ideas that need that extra little lift to truly shine.

Singapore has already built a solid foundation for its own entrepreneurship ecosystem. It will not be a facsimile of Silicon Valley, but by developing and nurturing its own magic formula it can be part of a new generation of “Valleys” based upon its own culture and circumstances.

With government support and its strong educational infrastructure, Singapore is well past the early phase of generating excitement about start-ups. Its world-class universities are investing heavily in supporting entrepreneurs, fuelling the flames of creativity and turning ideas into viable businesses.

Now the challenge is to focus that energy on developing ambitious entrepreneurs and businesses with regional and even global reach. Doing so requires individuals willing to take that risk, who can develop networks outside of their home turf and are willing to accept and adapt to different ways of working.

It’s also important to seek the advice of others, listening to and understanding what they have to say. As the old Cub Scout motto says, “be prepared“.

PASSION AND PERSONALITY

As an angel investor, it’s exciting to see in Singapore so many optimistic, energised entrepreneurs, eager to bring their products to market. All too often in many parts of the world, scepticism is what dominates. A tendency to find reasons why something won’t work – rather than reasons why it will – spells death to creativity and innovation.

Having instead a positive mindset – a passion for your product – is critical for entrepreneurs to succeed. Passion is about having a belief in your product, that it can change lives and that it is the best it can be.

Equally important is the personality to convey that passion to others, to those who can help bring dreams to reality.

But passion and personality alone are not enough. Dreams, however big and potentially world-changing, can quickly fade or run out of steam, and too often great ideas die because the entrepreneurs behind them are dazzled by short-term success.

Almost always this comes down to the simple reason of failing to set out a viable business plan.

A willingness to take risks goes with the territory of being an entrepreneur. But youthful ambitions must be tempered and risks must be calculated, aligned with a strategy, and drafted into a comprehensive plan.

To experienced business leaders, this might seem obvious. For headstrong and ambitious young entrepreneurs, however, this can often be ignored in an overconfident rush to get their product to market.

FEAR OF FAILURE

Among many of the younger generation, especially here in Asia, there is a drive to start a business simply because everyone is doing it. Enthusiasm should be encouraged, but it should also be moderated – passion must be balanced with pragmatism.

Increasingly, I read articles or hear talks saying entrepreneurs should not be afraid to fail, that a cultural fear of failure – especially here in Asia – is what prevents many from realising their entrepreneurial potential.

I believe this risks encouraging the wrong mindset.

If you think about failure and you have a safety net, people begin to think, “Oh, I can fail, and there won’t be any consequences”.

Many Asian cultures have an inbuilt aversion to failure – I don’t believe that is a liability; instead, it is an asset.

In the hundreds of start-ups I have mentored, we never talk about failure, only success. To borrow a phrase from Apollo 13, failure is not an option.

Yes, mistakes are inevitable; but I believe that over-emphasising failure encourages the wrong mindset.

In Silicon Valley, companies are born and die every day. There is no safety net and that is a powerful influence pushing entrepreneurs to succeed.

LAUNCH PAD

Singapore’s prosperity comes in part from its fortunate geography, placing it at a key strategic trading crossroads. It is still an important asset. Today that position and Singapore’s cultural mix are competitive advantages that can help it become a world-class launch pad for entrepreneurs and their ideas.

Generating the critical X factor energy to fuel this means adopting and adapting aspects of Valley culture, and then fusing them with Singapore’s own unique strengths and advantages.

After 30 years in the start-up business, I am excited to bring my advice and experience to NUS Business School, helping to bring this into reality and mentoring a new generation of global entrepreneurs.

The writer is Adjunct Professor of Strategy & Policy at the National University of Singapore Business School, CEO of Lee Technology Consulting, and an angel investor, venture capitalist and mentor to start-up management teams.

Ike Lee’s Eight Tips For Aspiring Entrepreneurs

Serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and angel investor Ike Lee recently joined NUS Business School as an adjunct professor. Here are Ike’s top eight tips for aspiring entrepreneurs eager to bring their game-changing business idea into reality:

Focus on the customer

“Successful businesses are always built around the customer and the customer experience. Give total attention to meeting your customers’ needs and develop your idea and product from there. Every decision and every feature of your product should be assessed and framed according to how it improves the customer experience.”

Target the small but significant

“Most entrepreneurs want to change the world, to come up with something completely new. In fact most of the biggest successes come from making small changes, reinventing something that is used every day. Home automation start-up Nest, which was bought by Google in 2014, took a boring and neglected piece of technology – the everyday thermostat – and turned it into a multi-billion dollar business.”

Soak up advice

“Networking is crucial and it is important to meet as many people as possible, absorbing as much advice as you can. Learn to process and sort that advice, see through the noise, and think clearly how you apply it to your business.”

Practice your pitch, and practice again

“Elevator pitches have become something of a Business School cliché but are very useful for a variety of reasons. There is no set format to a successful pitch, but learn to tell your story in 10 seconds or less. It not only grabs the attention of a potential investor or mentor, it also helps focus your mind.”

Have a plan

“Do your market research thoroughly, know your potential customers inside out, and build a plan with short-term and mid-term projections. Put down on paper a process that show your concept works, and that the risks will pay off.”

Trust your instincts

“If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. This is especially true when choosing a business partner, mentor or investor. Often I hear people say ‘I felt something wasn’t right about it, but I went ahead anyway’ – 99.99 per cent of the time, that’s when everything starts falling apart.”

Avoid talk of failure

“The start-up industry is driven by results and track record. Mistakes happen, yes, but failures – especially avoidable failures – will be held against you. Many people think there is a lot of money going around looking for new businesses to start and it doesn’t matter if you fail. But that is someone’s money. And it does matter.”

Don’t be discouraged

“Knockbacks are inevitable and some people will underestimate or look down on you. Take this as a challenge. Entrepreneurship is about believing in yourself and constantly pushing forward. I actually came to enjoy it when people looked down on me; it made me more determined to work harder and prove myself.”