Building A North Star For Your Brand

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Today I had an “epiphany”.

I was writing a lead magnet for the top 10 mistakes I see technology companies making when it comes to their marketing and wrote down the lack of a strong brand as the number 1 mistake.

Since I typically work with companies in a post-branding lead generation capacity, I don’t necessarily think about “brand” a whole lot, but I recognize that it’s a very important consideration that underlies everything a company does and I’ve put a considerable amount of thought into what the Tortoise and Hare Software brand means.

A brand is a lot more than just the visual identity of your company. It’s that, but it’s messaging, it’s a set of beliefs, it’s a set of core values, but most of all, it’s a collection of representation’s that you use to communicate what your company is all about with visual, and audio queues that help create an emotional connection to your target audience. How do you create a brand tough? How do you formulate what this actually means? Well, you should start with your “North Star”. Today I’d like to tell you a little bit more about what a North Star for your brand is, how I came about finding one and hopefully inspire you to find a North Star of your own.

What Is A North Star In Branding?

I’ve come to see a number of successful mid-market companies experience explosive growth by being purpose-driven in their actions and attracting people to their cause by being able to share a strong brand story and having it resonate in a way that just can’t be done by just selling a product or service. They typically have a “North Star” for their brand that guides all their decisions, keeps them focused, and inspires prospects, employees, and other collaborators around them. A couple of good examples from more recognizable names include companies like REI, Apple, & Nike, but my favorite example is from Jason Swenk’s smart agency masterclass podcast.

Jason is a fellow Seminole Alumni and agency owner who built and sold a multi-million dollar agency in the ’90s and early 2000s. After selling he wound up starting a podcast, interviewing other agency owners, and creating a set of frameworks and blueprints for other agency owners to use to build their own and all this came out of one brand North Star. “To create a resource I wish I had when I was building my agency”. I love it! It’s very simple, easily understood, and conveys the underlying north star of the brand in one sentence. I haven’t purchased the framework as of yet, but I’ve listened to probably close to 200 episodes of his podcast interviewing other owners in the mid-market and nearly all of the best interviews and most successful businesses have some sort of purpose underlying their business. If you’re in the agency space, I highly recommend checking it out.

To create a resource I wish I had when I was building my agency

Jason Swenk

Finding The North Star For TNHS

I’ve been running Tortoise and Hare Software here for 3 years now and have pivoted multiple times throughout the years. Along the way, I’ve struggled immensely with who I’m selling to, what I’m selling, etc. As a small business, keeping the cash flowing is very important, and sometimes working on deals outside of a target market or service offering is a necessity. It’s one thing to generate leads, which actually isn’t that difficult, it really just takes a bit of effort. The grass is greener where you water it and if you have the expertise, and share it, people will naturally find you.

It’s another thing however to understand what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis outside of trying to make money, create an audience, build rapport, inspire people to actually work with you, close the right deals, and build a company. This is where having that underlying North Star comes in and today I think I found it.

To help technical founders move up market and build the long term success they deserve.

Why Technical Founders?

Although this company is at this point a marketing agency, it wasn’t always like that. The progression has gone something like SaaS company > Software consulting > Started building business websites > started doing marketing work > general-purpose marketing agency > marketing agency for service providers > marketing agency for technology service providers.

My career for the 10 years leading up to starting the company was primarily focused on building software. I spent 5 years as an analyst implementing software (marketing analytics software) and 5 years as a .NET developer. Along the way, I also attempted an e-commerce store for gamers.

In many ways, I am a technical founder, that has found their way into marketing simply because I love the challenge and variety that running a business provides.

I understand what motivates a lot of tech founders to start a business though. Something that’s not talked a lot about is that there’s a lot of discrimination when you go into a technology career. I’m not talking about race or gender here, but that certainly exists as well, but rather a luddite level fear and discrimination of tech resources within a company. There are of course companies like Apple and Google that understand how to value tech resources, but in a lot of companies, the devs and the IT resources are treated as second-class citizens and are just thought of as the tech nerds.

Nerd Computing GIF by Verohallinto
Source: Giphy

In many cases, tech projects are scoped by people without any knowledge of the underlying tech, what an accurate estimate is, or the complexity involved in completing an initiative. There are often times 8 non-technical resources such as PMs, QA, analysts, managers, etc, all with different desires and ideas of what a system should look like, providing input, and requesting time from techs. Because of these constant estimates misses and lack of understanding of underlying complexity, there’s insane levels of overtime required to meet deadlines. Burnout is a huge problem in the industry and is only growing. In a lot of ways tech resources are the anus of the business and get crapped on from every direction in the company. It’s even worse if you’re in a technical support position (god bless you if you are). I think this will change as millennials and generation Z age and start getting into more leadership positions, these generations were born natively into the digital world we live in, but the problem will always exist to some extent.

This is a powerful motivator for technologists to reach a certain point of expertise and financial stability in their careers to decide to step outside the FTE workforce and start their own companies to do things differently. I salute them for it. A lot of tech guys can pull a few contracts out of their network, maybe even a previous employer, and get started. If they do good work they might even be able to hire a couple of people on staff and reach 1MM ARR. Some people are content to hang around this zone, but there’s another group who decide they want to keep the growth engine going and scale up into a real business, create a brand, and just do more. To make this transition though, you’ve got to make a lot of changes from just a handful of techs hanging out in an office taking support calls and building out a couple of projects. You’ve got to build processes and systems around sales, marketing, hiring, finance, etc, but everything starts with generating that new business to keep moving up market.

This is where I envision Tortoise and Hare Software coming in. The new north star for the brand is to help those technologists, those technical leaders, move up market and generate the long-term success they deserve. Sales and marketing is not easy. It’s a different skill set than the problem-solving that comes with technology. While there is still a lot of analytical thinking involved, you have to embrace creativity, you have to embrace communication, and you have to take things down a level that makes the products and services you provide accessible. There are also about 15 software products you need as a baseline to even get started building a modern digital marketing stack, and trust me they are a lot to implement and configure, while thinking about positioning, messaging, etc. I’ve been there. I’ve made the transition. It’s taken me 3 years to build this business into what it is today, and I’ve learned a ton along the way.

The new North Star for Tortoise and Hare Software is going to be to bring that experience to those technical founders, who want to change their lives, move up market, and build a business that affords them a lifestyle that reflects the hard work and immense intellectual drive that is required to be a top tier technologist.

It’s taken me 3 years to get to this North Star, but I’m super excited about it, and I feel more invigorated than I have in a long time about the future of the business.

So if you’re reading this and are struggling to find the purpose in your company, I encourage you to start thinking about it. Finding one will re-ignite your passion, and give you the drive to take your company to the next level.

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Hunter Nelson

Hunter has more than 10 years’ experience building web applications and crafting digital strategies for companies ranging from scrappy startups to Fortune 50 household names. When not on the clock, you'll find him spending time with his family and pups, relaxing on the beach, or playing competitive online video games. See LinkedIn for more.

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