Getting your project off the ground is always a long and difficult process. My current company, a logo and brand design start-up, Tailor Brands, had to change its story & website dozens of times before we started seeing our dream turn into the reality of thousands of customers using our branding. Getting to the point where a firm has a corporate story to tell can be the most frustrating part but it is the critical chapter that dictates how the story unfolds.
Before you start finding your market fit, you need to find the first person to back your project. This first backer is critical because they are the core of the snowball you’re trying to create. In August 2013, I was in charge of producing a major event in collaboration with Columbia University. The event evolved into an educational grassroots movement with thousands of participants and chapters in Hong Kong, Sydney, London, San Francisco, and NYC but two years ago we were struggling to get it off the ground.
We knew that if we wanted anybody to take us seriously we had to recruit top-tier talent to be the face of the event but, in order to recruit that talent, we had to affiliate ourselves with a major research institution. To start we needed the name of Columbia University as a sponsor. Universities are often very hesitant about putting their name on any external project and we found ourselves ping-ponged between different offices of the school for over 2 months. On November 22, we finally received an invitation to attend a final meeting with one of the deans that were supposed to sign on behalf of the University. An older, rather jolly dean entered the room sporting a stylish cane and suspenders.
“So,” he asked as he grabbed the agreement, “is this approved by the University?” “We were told that you are the person to approve it”, we answered with confidence. “Well”, he muttered, “In order to get a Dean’s signature you’ll have to have University approval.” “Okay,” we continued carefully, “and how do we get the University’s approval?” “That’s simple”, he rejoined, “You’ll have to obtain a Dean’s signature.”
As funny as it may sound, this sort of catch 22 is often the first hurdle that entrepreneurs encounter trying to get their project off the ground. Whether it’s a design startup like Tailor Brands or an event like the example above, you’ll have to get funding, partners, or clients but nobody wants to be the first one to bet on you.
Over the years I developed a personal recipe to avoid Catch 22s and get my projects off the ground. Although this method doesn’t work in every scenario, it has been useful in most ventures I’ve taken part in, and I encourage you to try it for yourself:
Step 1: Build a Team
Most big venture firms invest in teams not ideas. Great teams can succeed, even after an initial idea fails. There are two fundamental reasons why building a team is the first thing you should do to put your project in play.
The first reason might seem counter-intuitive. In most cases, junior projects favor scale over precision. While too many people can turn into trouble later on, more working hands are a blessing in the early days, even if they sometimes overlap or cause damage. In order to get something off the ground, you have to be willing to break things up. You have to try everything because you still have nothing to show for. If someone willing to join you, let them climb aboard. They might end up being a one-trick pony but that trick might get you from zero to one.
The second reason building a team is so important is simple: people find it easier to believe in organizations. You’ll find it much easier to recruit partners and potential clients when they’re not receiving all of their emails from you.
Step 2: Make it Credible
Once you’ve assembled a team you need to establish a degree of credibility. Remember, nobody wants to be the first to place their bets on you. To increase your project’s credibility you should create a brand, preferably one with an online presence. You’ll be surprised how many more replies you’ll receive using your own logo and domain for email rather than a Gmail address. You’re doing this without substantial funding but that’s OK. Think of a name for your project. Once you have that, create a logo and buy a domain. A logo functions as a seal of approval, a signal that your project is more than just an idea or a group of people. Tailor Brands can give you a simple and easy solution to creating your logo in under five minutes.
Once you have a logo, set up a simple website. The website doesn’t have to be highly detailed but should include a mission statement and some contact detail. Use the website to build a story people can fall in love with, and make sure you are always sending emails from the business domain.
Step 3: Get the Story Right and Name Your Characters.
Whether you are promoting an event or opening a bakery, you want to create hype so start using your new email addresses to contact thought leaders in your space. At this point, you need their names and not a lot more than that. Whether it’s a big a partner or a famous chef, using names will help you attract the real partnerships, the press, and in turn the clients. A bakery mentored by Jamie Oliver, (perhaps educating school cafeterias on healthy eating), is bound to generate more hype than an announcement about another French bakery selling pastries will. At the end of the line, the quality of your product will be the only thing that counts, but in order to prove the quality of your products, you’ll have to attract attention first.
Finding someone to lend his or her name to your project is always difficult. It’s important not to give up and contact as many people as you can. Remember that you can get thousands of “no’s” but all you need is one “yes”. If you need, look back at the “Mommy & Daddy” technique we used as kids. Leverage half-baked commitments as much as possible, nobody wants to feel he or she is backing you alone, and the best way to avoid it is to assure them they are not. Name drop if you have to.
A final note. Please remember the old rule of Money vs. Time always applies. Anything you’ll try to achieve will require a combination of both and, when you’ll subtract one you’ll have to add the other. My recipe for getting projects off the ground has a very simple approach; focus on building a brand that people can support. Having the organization, online presence, big-name backing, and right story are the first crucial steps in making customers walk in the door.