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Branding a Startup – Bring in the Pros or DIY?

Do you need any agency yet?


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Denver Startup Week is coming to a close today, but all week long, in every corner bar and coffee shop entrepreneurs can be found bringing new businesses to life. This week is billed as the “largest free entrepreneurial event in North America,” last year attracting more than 13,000 attendees, this year adding more than 5,000 to that total. Tracks were designed to appeal to startup businesses from nearly every industry sector. There’s much to be learned, with sessions that inform on finding initial office space to exiting. And, in nearly every conversation, branding and advertising come up. Startup organizations need to know how to gain awareness, preference, and usage for a brand-new brand, and that’s assuming they’ve had time to even create a brand. Questions like, “When do I bring in an agency?” and, “Do I need an agency?” are regular occurrences during Startup Week.

These questions warrant significant and individualized consideration. In fact, in many cases, the answer might be, “No, you don’t need an agency – not yet anyway.”

Here are some initial questions to ponder when thinking about inviting an agency partner onto your startup team:

  1. Can you afford it?

If you aren’t funded, and your total annual marketing budget is less than $10K, you may not get enough bang for your buck from an agency. In this case, consider hiring a freelance designer. Don’t hire an agency–yet.

  1. Is there fierce competition in your niche?

If your brand needs to compete in an already-cluttered market, an agency partner is invaluable. A less-than-compelling brand is a big barrier if someone else offers what you offer and presents it better. If your product has to fight for mindshare against a sea of others–hire an agency.

  1. Are you too close to the situation?

Often for entrepreneurs the company concept is a life dream, and after spending thousands of hours thinking about it, it’s difficult to be fully objective about the benefits to the consumer. An agency will help you pull back and look at your business from the perspective of the target audience. Great brands belong to users, not founders. Partnering with an agency will help get you into the minds (and ultimately hearts) of buyers. If it’s time for an outside perspective–hire an agency.

  1. Do you have a website? Does it work?

It’s a common myth that websites are a commodity, and can be bought off the shelf with little need for customization. In reality, if your business doesn’t have a polished, well thought-out website you will lose credibility with customers, investors, partners, and even potential employees. A website that works well and converts prospects is the price of entry in nearly every industry category. If web development, design, and user experience aren’t your core competencies–hire an agency.

  1. Are you willing to spend now to save on backtracking later?

Startups are often running at lightning speed with limited resources. It’s hard to take the time (or money) to develop a brand that has staying power. The cost? It’s sometimes even harder to wipe the slate clean from having a brand that isn’t working well after it’s been in use for some time.  If you can afford to save on customer confusion later by starting out on the right foot now–hire an agency.

  1. Are you a marketer yourself?

If you’ve spent years in the marketing trenches, already understand how to position your brand, and have established which key insights matter to your audience, then you can do the initial work with the help of a great freelance designer and a web developer. Marketing professionals can often wait to hire an agency until it becomes a time burden, or outside help is desired for a media buy. If this is your story–don’t hire an agency. Yet.

In many cases a strong brand is the difference between a company taking off or losing steam. If you’re not ready to hire an agency of record, you can certainly request a consultation, or do project work. There are many insights to be gained by contracting a short-term project to explore brand possibilities. Seeing through the lens of your customer is always beneficial.

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Cassie Augustine

Cassie Augustine is a partner, and the chief strategy officer at Agency Zero in Denver, providing insights that turn consumers into brand advocates.

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