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Why Startup Studios Can't Afford to Overlook Marketing, With Michael Van Lier Founder and MD at Builders

November 15, 2023

A common misstep is unfolding amongst new studios — an oversight of the critical role of branding and marketing.

Marketing and branding are the beacons that can guide the right entrepreneurs and investors to your studio. Yet, so many new studios naively push these to the back burner. So, I sat down with Michael Van Lier, Founder & Managing Director at Builders, to dissect the why and how of prioritizing these essential tools from the outset.

Imagine a world where your startup studio doesn't just churn out businesses but becomes the hub of innovation that every investor talks about and every entrepreneur dreams of joining. This isn't a pipe dream—it's the power of strong branding and focused marketing.

The Stakes of Ignorance

As startup studios proliferate globally, the art of branding and marketing remains woefully undervalued. New studios are particularly prone to ignore these disciplines, often considering them as afterthoughts to the 'real work' of company creation. This is a big mistake.

Branding isn't about slapping a trendy logo on your website or crafting a catchy slogan. It's the essence of your studio's identity, the story that resonates with your audience—investors and entrepreneurs alike. Marketing isn't merely advertising; it's an ongoing conversation, a relationship that you build and nurture with your community.

Reframing the Studio Model Narrative

To avoid the misconception of self-sufficiency, it's crucial to create a clear, compelling narrative that differentiates your studio from others. Begin by articulating your unique value proposition: Are you specializing in a particular industry? Do you offer unparalleled support services? Define what makes your studio stand out and communicate this narrative through all your channels. Use case studies and success stories to demonstrate your model's effectiveness. These stories should highlight the journey and the transformation that your startups undergo, which paints a picture of your studio's impact.

First Impressions

There’s an obvious part of this section and a not-so-obvious part. Let’s start with the obvious one:

Develop a well-defined identity that encompasses your ethos, culture, and approach. This identity should be communicated clearly on your website's home page, 'About Us' section, and in every interaction with the external world. To ensure your first impression is impactful, invest in professional design and copywriting services to articulate your studio's identity. Create a brand style guide that includes your logo usage, color palette, typography, and imagery to maintain consistency across all materials.

And here’s the not-so-obvious part:

There’s a huge difference between your identity, your brand, and your marketing. Your identity is your logo, color palette, and website design. This should all be developed by a professional, world-class designer. Your brand is not your identity.

Your brand is how someone feels when they think about your studio. Yes, your identity will play a large role in this, but it is definitely not the entire role. How you speak, how you host events, how you fund companies… this all impact your brand.

And lastly, your marketing; this is how you communicate your identity and your brand to the world, whether it be through events, ads, viral content, a podcast, etc.

Invest in all three in order to be sticky.

The Art of a Sticky Narrative

A narrative that sticks is one that tells a story and connects on an emotional level. For a startup studio, this means sharing the stories behind your startups, the problems they're solving, and the impact they're having.

It's also about humanizing the studio experience. Host regular content series such as blog posts, podcasts, or videos where you discuss industry trends, the studio's philosophy, and founder stories. Becoming a thought leader in your industry is a massive leg-up. Unsure where to start when it comes to content production, distribution, and becoming a thought leader? Talk to our sponsors at Thursday Labs on that one ;)

This ongoing narrative creates a thread that investors and entrepreneurs can follow and engage with over time, building a deeper connection with your studio.

Content Consistency

Develop a content calendar that outlines what will be shared and when, ensuring a regular cadence that your audience can rely on. Collaborate with thought leaders within your network to contribute content, providing a variety of perspectives and expertise.

Use tools like Assembly to schedule your content across different platforms and track engagement. Content should be tailored to each platform, leveraging the strengths of each medium, whether it’s in-depth articles on LinkedIn or quick insights on Twitter.

Thought Leadership as Studio Currency

Establish yourselves as startup-building experts in your industry by publishing white papers, conducting webinars, and speaking at industry events. Make the studio part of your narrative, but not the entire narrative.

Develop partnerships with media outlets and industry associations to contribute content or offer expert opinions. Encourage your leaders to engage with the community through forums and social media to build a personal connection with your audience. This thought leadership builds authority and trust, which is essential for attracting both investors and entrepreneurs.

Michael, in particular, locks himself in a room for hours every week to write a huge bank of content. But that’s the medium that works best for him. If you’re not much of a writer but are a great voice for a podcast, lean into that. Or are you better hosting IRL events and speaking to a crowd? Do that. Either way, pick the medium that’s most exciting and comfortable for you and your team and double down on it. Every week.

Leveraging the Visual Medium

Visuals can communicate complex ideas quickly and effectively. Invest in high-quality photography and videography that showcase your studio environment, your team, and your startups in action.

Please, please, please. Don’t use anymore cheesy stock images. If you need a good website for royalty-free images, check out Unsplash.

Create original infographics to explain your studio’s process or to share industry insights. Visuals should tell a story on their own and be consistent with your branding. Ensure that all visual content is optimized for the platform it’s being shared on, whether that’s detailed images for Instagram or professional graphics for LinkedIn.

By overlooking the finer details the details on these minor posts, you’re signaling to the world that you’ll overlook the details in the startups that you build.

Investing in Digital Presence

Optimize your website for search engines to improve visibility and make it easy for investors and entrepreneurs to find you when they search about your industry and about startup studios. Utilize Google AdWords and social media advertising to target your key demographics. Engage in retargeting campaigns to capture the attention of visitors who have already shown interest in your studio. Make sure your website is mobile-friendly and that your contact information is easy to find.

All sounds pretty obvious, right? Go ahead and look at the websites of 100 studios. You’ll be shocked.

Cultivating Studio Ambassadors

Your team should be well-versed in the studio’s narrative and trained to communicate it effectively. Create an ambassador program that encourages team members to share studio content and successes on their personal networks. Provide them with pre-made social media posts and graphics to make sharing easy. Recognize and reward the most active ambassadors to incentivize participation.

Embracing Agility

Stay informed about the latest marketing and branding trends and be willing to pivot strategies if something isn’t working. Experiment with new platforms and mediums to reach your audience, and analyze the results to understand what resonates. Hold monthly reviews of your marketing strategies to assess performance and adjust tactics as needed.

The Role of Events in Brand Building

Plan events that align with your studio's brand and values, whether it's a hackathon, a seminar series, or networking events. These events should be designed to provide value to attendees while also showcasing your studio's culture and expertise. Follow up with attendees after the event, offering additional resources or opportunities for engagement to extend the relationship beyond the event.

The Investment in Branding and Marketing

Set a budget for branding and marketing that reflects its importance to your studio’s success. This budget should cover everything from website maintenance and content creation to advertising and event sponsorship. Track the return on investment of your marketing efforts to understand where your money is best spent and adjust your budget accordingly.

Overall, your innovative business model, your disruptive startups, your brilliant team—all remain in the shadows without the spotlight of branding and marketing. Invest in these disciplines early and wisely, and watch as the right investors and entrepreneurs navigate to your studio. Ignite your studio's story, amplify your presence, and let the world know not just who you are, but why you matter. It's not just about making noise—it's about making music that the industry can't help but dance to.

Enjoying The Gallery? I’d love to hear from you! If you have suggestions on topics you’d like me to cover in the next few weeks, or specific guests that you’d like to see, please drop me a line. Not enjoying The Gallery? Well, then I’m not sure why you made it this far, but I’d still love to hear from you with your constructive suggestions as to how I can improve.

— Jake Hurwitz

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