How Our Mission Impacted Our Rebranding Strategy

In the past two years, we’ve experienced a lot of change at Brandcave. Of course, that’s not an irregular thing for a startup. My mentor tells me to expect at least one big pivot in any venture. We’ve had a few; and I’ve learned to accept that fate will play a significant factor in the growth of a company — no matter how crafty the vision.

So, today, we are formerly acknowledging that Brandcave has become a UX design agency (What is UX?).

The Road to Rebrand

When our small team launched Brandcave in late 2014, we had initially intended on building an inbound marketing agency. For more than a year, that’s what we did. It turned out well and, despite some scalability problems, we became profitable quickly.

However, as our clients began to ask us to take on their UX projects, such as redesigning their software or creating chatbots and mobile apps, we began to hear things like “This is where you guys bring the most value to the table.”

As we began to design more software applications, we began to agree. We really are uniquely suited for UX. We have the right talent, size and energy to build really great applications. It reinvigorated our passion and the projects kept coming.

When we decided to concentrate on UX, however, it hit us. We had to change everything. Our mission was incongruent with our new offerings, our messaging was off and our branding did not communicate the direction we were heading as a company. In other words, we needed a rebranding strategy.

No rebranding strategy is born overnight. It’s a laborious effort that often amounts to countless unused color palettes, tossed sketches and internal arguments. It requires building something fresh without being silly or foolish. It’s more than adding a hat on a mascot. It requires creating some kind of connection to what you do.

Brands are Reflective of Their Mission

We didn’t decide to rebrand Brandcave because we wanted to “refresh” our color palette. Although there was certainly a temptation to do that, it came as a result of this change in our business model.

Because, as important as logos are, a brand is much more than a logo. A brand is an end-to-end experience powered by the company’s mission. A rebranding strategy, therefore, has to be centered around an organization’s mission statement.

Our business pivot (and subsequent rebrand) came with a new, laser-focused mission: we exist to make the web a friendlier place. And now that we have officially started our transition, that mission is most reflective of our offerings.

How does a brand communicate its mission? For us, it meant re-introducing Illo, our Shiner-drinking, jean-shorts-wearing Sasquatch.

Original ImageAfter

Modified ImageBefore

Illo was born at the launch of Brandcave, but he had always taken a backseat in our branding. At the time, perhaps, he didn’t fit our mission as well. And, although I love the Brandcave wordmark and it’s Coca-Cola-esque quality, Illo was always intended to take center stage.

When you see Illo, he is either saying hi, opening the door for you, busy helping someone in need or spending time with his friends. He represents the values of friendship and transparency. He lives in a grown-up universe made of childlike illustrations. It’s understandable by everyone.

He bridges the gap between us and our clients — which are sometimes very complex relationships. When we tell you we want to make the web a friendlier place, Illo is the face you should see.

A Rebranding Strategy for the Future

Brands are fluid creatures. You can’t contain them within a style guide and you can’t keep them from taking on the personality of the human faces behind them. There is no such thing as a timeless brand. They are only as useful as their relevancy to consumers. In an ever-changing environment where customer needs change often, rebranding is a recurring task.

This won’t be the last rebrand for Brandcave but we’re proud of the progress we’ve made. Version 3.0 has been an important step for us in the evolution of our company. It’s like fresh air. It’s something new, flexible and scalable that we can actually use to continue telling our story. It opens up a new world of possibilities for us.

Our company is being built on the idea that the web should be great for everyone. If you are looking for a friend to navigate the complexities of UX, reach out. Illo will be happy to talk to you, and we will too.

How a Good B2B Agency Works With Their Clients

The importance of working with the right B2B agency cannot be understated. If you live in the Austin area, there are hundreds of agencies to choose from. Literally.

It may be tempting to think that most agencies operate similarly and your results with each will be about the same. But, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. How should you know which B2B agency is right for you? Consider these three qualities:


This quality seems obvious, we know. Of course you want the people you pay to have a brain. Still, it’s important to look beyond flashy exteriors and lofty promises to discover how your chosen agency operates.

A competent B2B agency will begin any new client relationship by listening to their clients problems and researching their customers pain points.

According to survey from LinkedIn, B2B buyers are five times more likely to engage with a company who can provide new insights about their business. If your chosen agency doesn’t have a thorough understanding of your industry, how can you expect them to develop marketing material that speaks to your audience?

Once an agency understands your customers and their pain points, they should be able to educate you on best targeting practices. Since each business will have it’s own circumstances to consider, it’s imperative that an agency can determine creative solutions. Perhaps you are looking for your target audience in the wrong places, or maybe you have misidentified your target audience altogether. The agency should be considering problems like this from all angles. Once they’ve identified the core problem, their solutions should be personalized to your situation. Some audiences are more receptive to certain types of marketing, for example, so their ideas should go beyond “Let’s move adspend to PPC,” or “Let’s start a Twitter.”

Competence and knowledge are one in the same. Agencies not only need to have a knowledge of the industry, but they need to be able to prove it. When prospects contact an agency, it’s because they are ready to talk about their businesses, not the agency, and if agencies can’t do this in a constructive and candid way, they may not possess this quality.


Following competency, the most important quality in a B2B agency is creativity. This quality is not too difficult to identify — just begin by looking at the happiness of agency employees.

To be at their highest creative ability, a B2B agency need to cultivate an atmosphere of job satisfaction and happiness. According to a study produced by Social Market Foundation, happiness in the workplace increases productivity by an average of 12%, and in some cases, by as much as 20%.

In other words, if employees aren’t happy, their creativity will be stunted. That means they won’t perform best for your company.

Naturally, management will be the highest determining factor on employee happiness. Leonard Glick, Professor of management and organizational development at Boston’s Northeastern University, explains that the leadership needs to facilitate an open relationship where they communicate and keep their employees informed. If there is a lack of communication, not only will the employees feel unimportant, it will slow down the creative process and negatively impact clients.

Creative agencies will have a culture of experimentation and curiosity. Sometimes, agencies may find a formula that works well, and they stick with it, effectively barring exploration outside of this comfort zone. Glick explains that the danger in this is that employees will grow bored and burnt out doing the same thing. He recommends giving them new responsibilities to keep them engaged and challenged to devise creative solutions.

Agencies with a healthy creative atmospheres didn’t achieve that by giving their workers huge pay checks or tons of special perks (Think beer o’clock fridays or foosball tables). It’s about a collaborative environment where risks are taken, and the employees have a space to explore and innovate. If no one is smiling, then the agency will likely not deliver the creative results you desire as a client.


Agencies who can engender a prosperous agency-client relationship are arguably more valuable than even the most competent and creative agencies.

A good agency-client relationship is fostered through constant back-and-forth communication from both parties. For this to happen, your chosen B2B agency should establish a level of trust and policy with you early in the relationship.

There is a right way to do this, and then there is the wrong way.

According to Emily Belden from The Layout, a successful relationship is one with trust. You should feel that your chosen agency is accessible to you and that your feedback is received and considered. Once you feel that you can trust your project in an agency’s capable hands, you won’t feel like you need to micromanage them. Instead, you will begin to see them as a partner. On the agency side, you should feel that their top priority is keeping in contact with you and reporting updates and milestones.

Test your potential agency partners’ accessibility: tweet them. 70% of B2B buyers use social media as a research tool, so it’s a smart idea to test how well an agency can respond on social media.

It is the job of every B2B agency to make you, as the client, feel valued. They should care as much about your business as you do and be reliable and accessible sources of information and insights. Before your first meeting, you should already have the sense that they are invested in your success.

All or Nothing

These qualities are all interrelated. Cultivating and maintaining a good relationship requires competency. In order to trust an agency, they need to first prove they are knowledgeable and experienced. Creativity depends on the agency to listen and accept feedback from clients which cannot occur if there is poor client-agency communication. Competency depends on creativity for innovation and problem-solving.

This is an all or nothing scenario. If a B2B agency is missing one of these qualities, they might as well be missing them all. When you’re looking for the right people to help realize your vision and propel your business forward, just ask yourself: are they competent? Do they have happy employees? Are they accessible? If the answer to even one of these questions isn’t a resounding yes, they may not be right for you.

If you’re looking for a creative B2B agency to help out your business, Brandcave might be what you’re looking for. Decide for yourself if we meet these standards – give us a call.

Your Startup Needs to Understand the Engines of Growth

The concept of the engines of growth is the product of Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup. The engines are metrics that can help you figure out how to create sustainable growth based on customer use of your product or service. There are three engines: the sticky engine, the viral engine and the paid engine. Each engine brings a different trajectory for growth and a different kind of growth. It is a good idea to focus on just one of these engines or you will have a hard time knowing what is working and what isn’t for your startup. Which of the three engines of growth is right for you?

Sticky Engine

Is one of your key marketing goals to retain long term customers? If so, consider the sticky engine. This engine of growth places the focus on delighting existing customers, not attracting new ones. Ries posits that reducing churn rates are key in sustaining growth. How do you do this? By keeping your customers happy. If you aren’t helping them solve a problem or making their lives easier, changes are they will move on. Organizations such as eBay do this really well. When people began using their service, their customer experience was so rewarding (possibly, addictive?) that it invited customers to come back.

Unlike viral growth, which depends on attracting more users via the existing userbase, sticky growth is about increasing usage of the product or service. Users don’t necessarily need their friends to use the same product they use, but if it works well for them, it’s likely they’ll tell their friends about it. Dropbox, for example, used the sticky engine of growth to grow from 100,000 users to 4 million users in only 15 months. They rewarded user referrals by giving more free storage for each new account a user brought to the platform. By making their customers happy and allowing them to benefit from recommending the service, they increased signups by 60%.

To measure how many customers are “sticking,” compare the number of your product’s daily active users to the number of total users. This percentage will indicate how useful your customers find the product. You can also measure customer retention by comparing the rate of abandonment to the rate of acquisition.

Naturally, the goal is to have more customers coming in than going out. The focus, however, remains on pleasing your current customers. If they’re pleased, they’ll be willing to recommend you to others. Once you have a customer acquisition rate that is higher than your customer attrition rate, you start to grow.

Viral Engine

If the sticky engine is fueled by customer retention, the viral engine is fueled by customer referrals. Like a virus, the viral engine places the growth emphasis on increasing person-to-person transmission. It’s all about getting users. Examples of this can include, according to Ries, any product that causes new customers to sign up as a side-effect of existing customers’ usage. Companies such as PayPal, Facebook, Snapchat – basically any product or service that only works if there is a community of users – employ the viral engine of growth.

Facebook is an excellent example of viral growth. They started out slowly, only expanding their user base only after they conquered their existing one. First Harvard, then the Ivy League, then all colleges, then high schools, then Silicon valley and the general population. This slow build allowed word-of-mouth marketing to cause the momentum. This strategy made Facebook a true viral hit. We all want what we can’t have, especially when it’s a service like Facebook.

To measure the virality of your startup, compare the number of referred customers to your total number of customers. The viral engine works great for products or services that fit perfectly with the target audience already. If you’re struggling with where and who your market is, virality will be an unreliable engine of growth.

Paid Engine

The most traditional of the engines of growth, the paid engine focuses on growing your company through advertising in its various forms. Naturally, it’s the most expensive. Since you are buying leads, it’s important that each customer is substantially more profitable. This growth engine is most useful when you are able to turn a profit big enough to invest the difference back into advertising to attract more customers to your business. What you invest in is up to you; SEM, PR, traditional advertising, banner ads – all potential avenues for paid growth.

Getting paid traffic is a bidding war so you need to be able to monetize your customers better than your competitors who are bidding for the same traffic. Companies such as Amazon or Netflix have employed this model of paid growth quite successfully. One company in particular, Groupon, used the paid engine to grow 228% in one year. In a single quarter, they spent $179 million to acquire 33 million new users.

To measure how much monetary benefit each customer provides, just take the difference of the total amount earned from the customer from the cost of acquiring that customer. This can tell you if your business model is producing positive or negative growth. Paid acquisition requires a detailed plan that lays out all of your advertising channels and calculates the lifetime value of each customer against the cost of acquiring them. To use this engine of growth, make sure you’ve done your research and have the numbers to guide your strategy moving forward.

UX Drives Every Engine

The engines of growth are a simple and easy to understand methodology for jumpstarting growth in your business. When first launching a startup, sticking to just one engine is smart, but once your business begins to grow, you can experiment with different strategies. After you have some growth success, you can afford to test different hypotheses to see what the next step will be. Eventually, the engine you focused on in the beginning will stall out and you’ll have to switch tactics.

At the heart of every sustainable growth model are happy customers. No matter which of the engines of growth you decide to focus on for your startup, you first need an exceptional product that benefits your target audience. It should become an asset to their lives that either reduces their costs or risk. No matter which engine of growth you choose, if the customer leaves dissatisfied, your cycle of growth will hit a dead end and your business will stagnate.

All of the engines of growth require a sound marketing strategy and Brandcave can help you with that. Give us a call.

Content Marketing: The New Royal Family

In 1996, Bill Gates wrote and published an article titled, “Content is King.”

“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the internet, just as it was in broadcasting,” wrote Gates. Well, Bill, as per usual, you, sir, were ahead of your time. Today, the ability to produce valuable content is not only a desirable skill; it’s an essential one.

But what does this mean for us as marketers? Well, if content is king then marketing is its queen. It’s a happy marriage but with her keen eye for strategy, marketing rules the roost. So how do these two work so well together? What is this content marketing you’ve been hearing so much about? We’re glad you asked!

Simply put, content marketing is the creation and distribution of content for a targeted audience with the goal of attracting new customers and reaching business goals. It is the use of blog posts, eBooks, slide decks and videos to compete in the new buyer-driven market. Thanks to TiVo and shortening attention spans, gone are they days when intrusive advertisements were effective. Now, it’s up to marketers to meet the consumers right where they are – online.

On top of generating leads, content marketing can help you increase visibility for your organization, aid in SEO, optimize your website or blog with long-tail keywords and create backlinks to your site. With that being said, for content marketing to be successful, the content most be valuable.

To be valuable, content must be three things: relevant, informative and consistent. The goal is never to produce collateral that sells your product or service but instead craft an article that provides applicable knowledge to the reader. Ideally, if you present yourself as a knowledgeable source and continue to deliver this type of content, the prospective customer will reward you with their business. Think of it as a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” agreement.

All of this work will be for naught, however, if you fail to create a solid distribution strategy. Your distribution strategy should not be treated as an after thought but instead be an integral step during your planning phase. Haphazard distribution will only serve to garner less than adequate results. Choosing the appropriate channel to distribute your content is crucial to its success.

The three main categories of channels include:

Owned media: Any channel owned and operated by your organization including social media pages, websites, blogs, email lists and more. This is your bread and butter. The majority of your time and resources will be spent here.

Earned media: Includes any pick up your content gets by media channels, influencers or your social audience. This can also include guest blogging for an influential site in your market. While highly valuable, this is the hardest channel to access.

Paid media: Promoting your content with paid social ads on Twitter and Facebook. This will account for a smaller percentage of your time and resources.

By now you must be wondering how you turn readers into leads. For that, we’ll need to discuss un-gated and gated content. Un-gated content includes any content that you give to your customers and prospects, no-strings-attached. This usually includes your blog and other information on your website pages. This is where you show your expertise and present your self as a knowledgeable and trustworthy source. It gets your readers going down the road towards your gated content.

Gated content is where you can finally gather these leads. Gated content includes anything from videos to white papers. In order to access this higher value content, prospects must provide you with information about themselves – voila, leads! While you should always, at least, require their name and email address, the higher the value of the content, the more information you can ask the prospect to divulge. The more information you have about them, the more you will be able to target your content and nurture your leads thus inching them along in the buying process. Once the lead becomes a customer, you can return to providing them un-gated content to help engage, reaffirm and possibly pave the way to an upsell.

If you have already implemented a content marketing strategy, take some time to evaluate the elements. Is your content providing valuable, insightful information or is it often full of fluff and sales jargon? Are you using the correct legs to disseminate information? Are you giving away valuable content for free? When implemented with strategtic thinking and clear goals, content marketing can be a highly effective tool for your organization. After all, content is king and who wouldn’t want royalty in their corner?

Failing Fast: A Look Inside Four Failed Startups

Earlier this year, HBO wrapped up its second season of Silicon Valley. The comedy series follows a group of engineers through a series of wacky, disappointing and downright cringe-worthy moments as they navigate the ins and outs of founding a startup in the technology hotbed. Whether it is from outside competition, product malfunctions or an unfortunate mishap involving a tequila bottle, more than once you are just sure the young company is on the brink of complete destruction.

Although the show paints an obvious caricature of start-up life, it does serve as a reminder of just how tumultuous it can be to launch a new endeavor. A humbling nine out of every ten startups fail for any number of reasons. So how do you become one of the 10 percent who make it? This blog post takes a look at four failed startups and what we can learn from their mistakes.


First-time entrepreneur Ivaylo Kalburdzhiev thought he’d hit it big when he discovered there was not a product on the market that meshed together the concept of gaming wheels and the iPad. With a few months of research under his belt, he set out to build the first-ever iPad racing wheel. Within a year, Kalburdzhiev had built several prototypes, secured funding and attended major industry conferences. But, he had yet to speak to a single consumer. He had no idea there was no actual demand for his product. Fifty thousand dollars, two crowdfunding campaigns, a few embarrassing reviews and three years down the road, Kalburdzhiev packed up his prototypes and shut down KOLOS for good.

Lesson Learned: Never neglect market research. According to a recent study by CB Insights, 42 percent of startup failure is due to a lack of need in the market. The soul purpose of a company is to create a product or service that people want or need. Without that, you’re dead in the water. Is there a healthy competition for your product or service in the industry? If not, take a good look at both your product potential and the market’s potential. Kalburdzhiev failed to see that the lack of competition was not a sign of his genius but instead a glaring indication that there was not a market for this product in the first place.


In 2008, Springpad sprung onto the scene with their online and app-based platform for saving/sharing web content and managing notes. Despite the company’s six-year run and five million users, the Evernote competitor folded this year due to the founder’s lack of ability to monetize the company. Like with many subscription services, Springpad had a choice between opting for ad support or a premium subscription model. By the time they finally decided on pursuing the ad support route, the company was not built to scale for such a model. In short, they simply did not understand how to make money off their service. “We built a heck of a product,” said Springpad cofounder Jeff Janer, “but we didn’t build the business.”

Lesson Learned: Don’t just understand your product, understand your business. Once you’ve taken time to build a solid product and create a working business model, revenue generation should be your primary focus. Make sure you account for growth when deciding on a revenue model. Being flexible when it comes to scalability is a key element in sustaining the life of a start-up. Even the greatest of products can fail if the business providing them is not well tended.


Jun Loayza, founder of RewardMe, learned first hand that cash is king when it comes to the health of start-up. With a functional product, ample funding and a growing client base, the loyalty platform start-up seemed to have it all. But, rapid growth and overspending drained the company of resources and RewardMe folded in June of this year. The start-up simply got too big too fast, losing their runway in the process.

Lesson Learned: Keep the money in the bank. Loayza suggests that every start-up “stay scrappy.” Instead of spending capital on expensive conferences, early hires and hardware, focus on developing the best business you can while staying lean. This means creating the best team possible with as little people as possible. Start-ups focused on rapid growth, far too often staff up as if the size of a team is equal to the amount of success the business will enjoy. Until you have generated a steady cash flow, invest your funding in your product potential, not your growth potential.


The business world is littered with stories of good friendships going bad over failed startups. The story of NewsTilt is no different. When friends Paul Biggar and Nathan Chong launched NewsTilt in 2010, the goal of the site was to build brands and audiences for independent journalists. Two short months later, NewsTilt went into hibernation. Although the site suffered from a variety of issues, both founders cite a lack of communication and passion as the reason for the failure. Neither Biggar nor Chong was a journalist or had a passion for the journalism industry. Additionally, the two founders continually failed to decide on a shared vision causing internal struggles that ultimately cost the company its life.

Lesson Learned: Build a cohesive, passionate team. While products, funding, business models and marketing messages are all important elements to any business, the people are the glue that holds it all together. Passion is an especially important quality to focus on when hiring for a start-up, which often requires long hours and low pay. This starts from the top down.

Next to stepping in a cage with a live lion, launching a startup is the most terrifying venture anyone can embark on. But, with the right combination of focus, expertise and passion, it’s possible for founders to beat the odds. Or at least that’s what HBO is leading us to believe.

The Weird Relationship Between Startups and Scalability

In the days before electric starters, drivers would need to crank their car’s engine before they were able to drive. Once it was going, it would keep going, but it was a laborious process to get it going. The whole activity of cranking the engine was dirty. It was manual and separated from the automated and efficient activity of running, but it was also a necessary component. Why am I talking about this? Because this relationship is analogous to the relationship between startups and scalability.*

Let me clarify — in the launch phase of any startup, we must do things that do not scale. Nearly all software companies have to recruit users manually in the beginning. That certainly isn’t the ideal growth model. At the same time, we must put the efficient processes in place that make growth scalable. That is, without impediments or bottlenecks. And, eventually, we must ditch these non-scalable activities altogether. It makes for a love/hate relationship with the whole thing.

That’s a strange concept. Our intuition tells us that people will beat a path to your door if you build a better product. If they don’t, it must be because the market doesn’t yet exist. But, this isn’t true. Companies take off because founders make them take off. It usually requires some sort of push to get them going — and it is usually something that is inefficient, not immediately cost effective and requires a huge amount of resources.

Even well-funded startups have this strange relationship with scalability. For example, Airbnb jumpstarted their growth by going door-to-door in New York for 30 days. Today, they boast over 6 million users with more than a 200% growth rate year-after-year. Incredible, isn’t it? For them, those 30 days were the difference between success and failure.

For some of you, that’s a breath of fresh air. You mean those unscalable things I’ve been doing are ok? Yes. For now. But, there comes a point when other areas of your business will require more intense focus. At that point, you need to be honest with yourself. If you’ve come to the point where you can no longer give every task your all and you have the ability to delegate, don’t hesitate. Implement those processes. Scale!

The reason we resist scale is because we are either trying to increase current profit margins or we do not trust others to complete tasks to our standards. Often, it’s both. At the slightest hint of amateur performance from our team, there is a tendency to say, “I’ll just do it.” And, instead of turning those moments into teachable opportunities, we pile on more on ourselves. Ironic.

There is no doubt that any startup founder wears a lot of hats but lack of delegation and process management can create an overwhelming bottleneck for any company. Without it, it can be difficult to focus on the big picture. Instead, our focus shifts to completing tasks and keeping the collective head above water. The result? Unwarranted stress and lack of growth.

At some point, you cannot be both a CEO and a janitor. It’s a necessary function at first, but delay in assigning tasks will hinder your company’s growth. Your role must switch from a doer to a thinker — you must become the strategic manager and the evangelist of your mission. Your team must carry the mission forward.

It is important to delegate. As an entrepreneur, the time you’ve spent wearing multiple hats has trained you for this. Your experience in virtually every department — sales, marketing, product development, engineering, etc. — has given you the experience to recruit the right team. You know what to look for in new team members because you know the skills required already.

We must evolve as leaders. Our inability to scale causes us to see less than the big picture. It keeps us from thinking strategically — for ourselves and our customers. It keeps us buried in work and not in growth.

*This analogy can be first attributed to Paul Graham.

How to Foster a Startup Culture: Part 2

Startup culture is a nebulous term. It means many things but it’s hard to define. It’s clear that the term grew out of a dissatisfaction with corporate culture, and probably with good reason. There is a clear distinction between Silicon Valley and corporate America, and it appears the culture difference is responsible.

Does culture drive financial performance? Yes. That’s what the research says, anyway. According to a study produced by MIT, the value of a company’s integrity (measured by survey responses) directly corresponded to quarterly deviations in profitability. Moreover, research conducted by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett showed the average revenue growth of firms with performance-enhancing cultures was 682% over firms with without performance-enhancing cultures.

Perhaps our obsession with corporate culture might be justified. I’m convinced culture has a direct effect on company performance. It can boost morale by making the office environment more enjoyable, which translates into higher productivity. Here are three more tips on creating what we’ve come to understand as startup culture:

Create a Collaborative Space.

The physical environment of an office is a reflection of an organization’s culture. This is why I hate cubicles. Cattle stalls for the white collar, cubicles are the symbol of office drudgery.

The modern-day cubicle (originally called “the action desk”) was denounced by the man who actually created it, Robert Propst. While the original design for office workstations was meant to create open and flexible workspaces, companies would soon use them to box employees in to maximize on rising real estate costs. Three years before his death, Propst told the New York Times that ‘the cubicleizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”

The workplace is evolving. Companies have begun to adapt the mentality that tech startups already seem to know: employees don’t like being tethered to a workstation. Allowing employees to select the space that best accommodates whatever task they’re working on, companies have begun to offer a mix of unassigned private offices, conference rooms, and formal and informal settings. With higher satisfaction levels in employees, the data doesn’t seem to mind, either.

While a collaborative workspace can mean many things, some of their key features include:

  1. An open office layout that encourages accidental interactions through open areas.
  2. Common areas such as cafeterias and other non-purpose areas that encourage workers to leave confined offices.
  3. An emphasis on areas that hold two or more people rather than single-occupancy offices.
  4. “Thinking” areas that encourage workers to do their thinking in the presence of other people.

Google has introduced another concept into their open workspace, “150 feet from food.” In their manhattan office, there is no point where an employee isn’t 150 feed from food. Whether employees are near a restaurant, a large cafeteria or a micro-kitchen, they’re encouraged to snack often. Google suggests that the snacking causes employees to have “unplanned collaborations” which increases their enjoyment, feeds motivation and causes greater productivity.

Manage employee energy, not time.

I worked in my uncle’s restaurant as a busboy when I was 12. During slow times, we were told “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Of course, I learned fast how to avoid that. Instead of finishing my work at normal speed, I learned I wouldn’t have to do other, less enjoyable things if I just worked slower. That paradigm made me less productive. In the end, those other things still weren’t clean.

When I entered the corporate world, I realized things weren’t much different. The people I worked with were under the same pressure to stay busy and were scolded if it looked like they weren’t doing anything. Of course, looking busy does nothing for the profitability of a company. The amount of time we spend on something has zero relevance to our productivity.

It’s time to rethink our workday. What if, instead of managing time, we managed the energy of our employees? I know it sounds strange. But, if the end goal is higher levels of productivity, what if we just encouraged healthier living?

At Brandcave, we’ve developed a 70/30 principle that governs our workday.  It’s by no means a new concept, but we’ve adapted it to our personal culture. In short, 70% of our workday is devoted to making and creating. It’s the tasks we do for our clients and it’s also business development. The other 30% goes to whatever makes us better at the 70%. For us, that translates to roughly two hours of our day spent learning, working out, reading or resting. It’s dramatically increased our personal moral and our ability to focus. I’m resolved; a culture devoted to our employees’ health pays dividends.

Inspire Creativity.

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

That’s a quote from Monty Python actor John Cleese during his 1991 lecture to a group of Norwegian graduates. His lecture, largely based on the research produced by Donald MacKinnon in the early 60s, reveals several interesting characteristics about creative people.

Some may come as a surprise.  First, creativity is almost totally unrelated to IQ (provided you are intelligent above a certain minimal level). MacKinnon showed in investigating scientists, architects, engineers and writers that those regarded by their peers as “most creative” were in no way whatsoever different in IQ from their less creative colleagues.

How where they different? Well, the most creative had simply acquired an ability of getting themselves into a particular mood, which allowed their natural creativity to function. This mood, or way of operating, is an ability to play and explore ideas – not for any immediate practical purpose but for enjoyment. Cleese refers to it as the “open” mode, which he defines as a relaxed, contemplative, more inclined to humor, and consequently more playful mood.

The open mode is something creative geniuses such as Alfred Hitchcock mastered. One of Hitcock’s regular co-writers described working with him on screen plays:

“When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say ‘we’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.’” And, of course, it always did.

Companies who value creativity should take careful measures to encourage their employees to enter the “open” mode when pondering a problem. It’s a top-down approach that requires executives and managers to change their paradigm about creativity, as it cannot be implemented without understanding it in theory.

It may be easier to tell you how to kill creativity, rather than inspire it.  Again, John Cleese articulately shares three tips on crushing creativity in the workplace:

  1. Allow subordinates no humor as it threatens your self-importance and especially your omniscience. Instead, we should treat all humor as frivolous or subversive.
  2. Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size, so don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ confidence.
  3. Demand that people should always be actually doing things. If you can’t anyone pondering, accuse them of laziness or indecision.

Fostering a Startup Culture: Part 1

If your core values are nothing more than words on a wall, then you can go about your day and do whatever you want. There’s nothing special about words. But, an actual culture has the ability to change your company and the lives of your employees.

I don’t mean the kind of faux company culture that involves Nerf guns, ping-pong tables or beer o’clock Fridays either. Culture isn’t an event. It’s not a product either. Culture is what happens when you know why you’re waking up, tell everyone about it and follow through on it.

Every company has a culture. The question is not whether you have one; it is whether you have the right one. At Brandcave, we value the innovative spirit, collaborative nature and creative thinking that comes from a startup culture. That’s why we’ve decided to foster and nurture those values.

In part 1 of this series, I’d like to demonstrate three ways Brandcave is forming a startup culture while we still are, in fact, a startup.

Keep Teams Small.

As an agency, we’re choosing to keep our teams small. Why? Because, there is a natural tendency to collaborate less when a team increases its numbers.

Small teams make communication easier and leave no room for dead weight. Today, so much more is being demanded of human capital and it’s not enough to have a team of specialists who silo in one core area. In our eyes, every member on our team needs to be as multi-skilled as an MLB infielder.

Besides, hiring a team of experts may not actually be all that beneficial. Research from Harvard Business Review showed that, “the higher the educational level of the team member, the more challenging collaboration appears to be for them. We found that the greater the proportion of experts a team had, the more likely it was to disintegrate into nonproductive conflict or stalemate.”

At the risk of losing valuable talent, we’re also choosing to keep our members local. As teams become more virtual, cooperation often decreases. Compensating for time zones, overcoming technological mediums, and creating a collaborative environment is more difficult when a team cannot work together physically.

Lastly, collaboration is a top-down initiative. At the most basic level, a team’s level of collaboration reflects the philosophy of top executives. When executives invest in supporting social relationships and demonstrate collaborative behavior themselves, they create what is known as a “gift culture.” Gift cultures are introduced when executives embed mentoring and coaching in their own routine behavior. Their investment in the members of their company is seen as valuable or a gift. In my own experience, there has been nothing I’ve valued more than the time previous employers invested in me.

Encourage Side Projects.

In high school and college, I was often teased by my family and adult friends about my obsession with hip-hop. In their mind, a career in rap was a pipe dream (I agree) and I needed to focus on learning actual trades. I listened and got real jobs, but I never stopped making music and producing projects on the side.

I didn’t realize it then, but my commitment to becoming a successful rapper inadvertently gave me all the tools I needed to become a decent creative manager. I didn’t have the money to get a music video, so I learned how to shoot one. I couldn’t afford studio time, so I recorded myself. I needed graphic design, so I bootlegged photoshop. I needed publicity, so I wrote press releases. You get the picture.

Although I’ve never made enough money to rap full-time, I was hired out of college because of these skills – not because of my college degree. That’s why side projects are so important. They make us better at everything. The skills we learn from them extend out and into everything else.

We are robbing ourselves when we do not encourage our employees to have side projects.

In recent years, technology companies and startups have learned the value of side projects. This has resulted in trends such as Hackathons, where employees work together for days or weeks to create a totally new project out of passion and creative expression. In the end, side projects help create collaborative environments because they reinvigorate our employees and encourage them to take ownership of their work. They create shared experiences. And, not only does it raise office morale, but it sharpens their skill sets.

However, most companies still underestimate how important it is to give employees the time and space to explore the things they are interested in. In our corporate culture where everything is data-driven and measured, side projects are hard to understand. But, if it becomes possible to ditch our obsession with growth, scalability, and financing, side projects allow employees to experiment and become better at their real jobs. It can even save companies.

After all, side projects can be credited for some of our favorite applications. Gmail, Craigslist, and even Post-Its can all thank their creators for working out their own ideas on the side.

Keep the Desk Messy.

When I begin the work day, everything is usually in its place. All papers are aligned, not one is askew. I turn on my laptop and immediately open my web browser. All is calm and right with the world. But, 20 minutes and 100 emails later, plans have changed. And, at this point, I have at least 20 tabs open in my browser and every perfectly aligned sheet has now been sprawled across the table.

I can’t help it. I’ve got a problem. At least, that’s what I’ve been taught to believe.

But, when the Carlson School of Management published a study showing that a messy environment is conducive to creativity, my opinion began to change.

What did the study show? A few things worth noting. First, an organized environment contributed to participants following conventional norms. This means they followed the rules and did the right thing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, conversely, an unorganized room actually helped participants break from conventional thinking. It encouraged them to think outside-the-box. Ultimately, their ideas were more creative.

Thinking outside-the-box is essential to a startup culture. That is why we’re choosing to abandon the notion that everything has a place and embrace the idea that inspiration should come from any place.

At minimum, this study should show us that our environment affects our behavior. But, it should really show us that we can tailor our employee’s behavior and encourage the attitudes we want to encounter by the kind of environment we create.

For example, if a bank wants it’s loan officers to follow the rules, we can encourage those behaviors by tidy office spaces. Conversely, a creative agency such as Brandcave needs to have more free thinking, and an unorganized room can help facilitate that.

Perhaps, Albert Einstein said it best. He was famously quoted as having said, “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk a sign?” Maybe it’s an organized one. But, if my messy desks helps put me in the ranks of other messy desk owners such as Steve Jobs, Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Tony Hsieh and Mark Zuckerberg, I guess I’ll take it.

Your employees are making thousands of decisions every day. If your company has fostered the right kind of culture, you’ll know they’re making the right decisions. Stay tuned. Next time, we’ll share three more super important ways to foster a startup culture. Be sure to subscribe to keep updated.

What I Learned Launching a Start-Up

As I write this, I am traveling several thousand feet above the Appalachian Mountains. I am en route to South Carolina, where Brandcave will deliver its first presentation to an international client. My wife is asleep on my shoulder, and my partner Mike is curiously filming out the window.

Without trying to sound too dramatic, the moment is symbolic. It is the calm before the storm. I suppose it goes without saying we are all a little apprehensive; we are not arrogant enough to believe our proposal is a sure-deal. At the same time, I am also acutely aware of the consequences of the opposite. “Winning” this meeting will mean Brandcave has entered that stage where my full-time job is not an option. I will have to leave my current agency.

I’ve been considering my motivations behind Brandcave. Knowing full well, at least in theory, the difficulties and risks of a start-up, why would anyone attempt to do it? After all, I’ve managed to create a comfortable life for my wife and I, given our current lifestyle. We do not hurt for anything. Moving forward with Brandcave would mean I would be temporarily (or permanently) cutting our income in half. The risk is understood.

I’m resolved to say, the motivation isn’t money. It isn’t status either, or a desire to create a better agency than the one that currently employs me. I think it’s deeper; it is something internal that wants to prove to myself that I could do it. Or, maybe it’s a very selfish ambition to become my own boss. Maybe both. Time will tell.

Obviously, this article is very personal. As you’ll come to learn from this blog, most of our attention will be devoted toward inbound marketing insights and research. But, in the months leading to this flight I have come to several very personal revelations that I believe any start-up could appreciate. And, despite numerous meetings with the SBA and hours of their toilet reading material, these 3 points were never touched. Hopefully, this article will be beneficial for others like me, who are willing to risk comfort for reasons they do not know.

Here are 3 revelations I had while launching my start-up.

1. Who We Are is an evolving statement.

At the onset, Brandcave was positioned to be a digital services firm. However, we learned early on that this wasn’t a successful business model. There were two reasons for this, and both now appear obvious in hindsight. First, in order for us to be seen as more than a freelance/outsourcing resource, we needed to position ourselves differently. Second, the early success of our company would require an on-going relationship with our clients, not one-off projects.

Both of these dilemmas were met with one answer, but the initial failure was upsetting. My vision of an entrepreneur (rightfully or wrongly) was a picture of a resolute leader charging forth no holds barred with a brilliant idea, overcoming obstacles with certainty and clarity. Instead, I was reconstructing our company’s offerings with the business acumen of Donald Duck.

Since then, I’ve discovered that everyone feels like Donald Duck sometimes. Moreover, start-ups should not be afraid of changing business models. In fact, it’s a very healthy practice called pivoting. We resolved our initial failure by re-positioning Brandcave as more than a digital services firm, but a digital solutions partner — an integral part of our client’s online marketing. In other words, we would not only undergird marketing departments with services, but ideas and long-term campaigns. Instead of one-off projects, we now offer a collection of services that work together to accomplish larger goals.

In web development, we use the agile methodology to build and test the applications we create. This method is essentially an on-going cycle of analyzing, building and testing. A few years ago, this practice was adopted by start-ups. It’s called the Lean Start-Up. There is a fantastic resource on the subject written by Eric Ries. Read more here.

2. The law is open to interpretation.

For people like me, who follow installation manuals to the letter, the legal aspects of starting a business can be frustrating. This is mostly because every attorney believes they are right, and every attorney has a different opinion. After meeting with several attorneys and CPAs, I came to one conclusion: there isn’t really one right way to do anything.

For example, the partnership agreement between Mike and I turned out to be more difficult than I expected. One attorney told me there needed be at least a 49-51% split. In this scenario, one person would have the majority share and final decision, which allegedly would protect our relationship. Another said we needed to have a 50-50% split and a trusted third-party arbiter to have the final say. Still another (the one we ended up choosing) said that a 50-50% split is fine, and differences should be handled like a marriage. I suppose this means we say passive-aggressive comments and go to sleep early. My wife says Mike and I act like we’re married anyway.

CPA’s were the same story, except their opinion seemed to have heavier consequences. When it comes to taxes (and who really understands taxes), I trust a CPA’s opinion like the voice of God. But, after speaking with several CPA’s, I realized that even taxes are not as cut-and-dry as you’d hope.

I suppose I should have guessed this would happen. As a marketer, I understand spin well. I just didn’t expect to get it from my lawyers and CPAs. The lesson to learn from this situation is that the personality of your legal affiliate will determine how stringent or lenient they stick to the books. While there is a lot of grey area, some will be more conservative than others. We’re pretty even-keel, so we made a team that matched our personality.

3. Solidarity is most important.

When I first met Mike in our high school freshman IPC class, we unknowingly started a competition of one-upmanship that continues even today. We’ve always been friends, but our respect for each other’s work fuels our relationship. I’ve seen Mike in almost every major phase of his life. We lived together in college. We traveled and performed in a band together. I was the best man at his wedding. We’ve been through a lot. When it came to building a company together, there was no one I trusted more.

But, starting a business with Mike wasn’t just between us. As a start-up that began without any funding, we had to invest from our own piggy banks. This meant that, no matter how much we wanted to be autonomous and run our business the way we wanted, our wives would ultimately become our bankers. And, as co-investors, they have a say in our decisions. This has proved to be difficult for me, because I’m always right.

For people like me, who are shrewd and can often be abrasive, the input of others can seem insulting. Isn’t it? I take the time to calculate every step, and it can feel like an attack to be questioned. But, that’s pride and it’s ugly. When I can set myself aside, I realize that there is a wealth of expertise and knowledge in both Amy and Shawna. They are incredible in ways that I am not. Amy delivers financial, legal and organizational clarity; Shawna understands PR and is an expert content manager. They’re not consequences of starting a business, they’re huge assets. They help Mike and I focus on doing what we’re good at.

I realize everyone goes into business to make money, but I’ve learned that solidarity between our partners is most important. I would rather fail as a business owner than become a sucky husband and friend. Who could have anticipated how much our wives’ input would shape our company? And, as mule-headed as I can be, I’ve learned that their opinions are invaluable to me. This was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m glad I learned it before I lost a friend, or possibly a wife.

Update: We won our proposals in South Carolina. We’re taking Brandcave full-time. Pray for us.