In our eighth episode, Parna Sarkar-Basu, CEO of Brand and Buzz Marketing, joins Paige Moscow to discuss the pivotal role a founder’s market credibility plays in propelling startups to success. How does it impact the fundraising process? Why should companies with technical innovations care about their brands? What value is there to putting a human face to a startup?
The below episode transcript has been edited for clarity.
Thanks so much Parna for joining me today to talk about founder branding. Before getting started on introductions, I just wanted to say how excited I am to have you join me on Foley’s [Innovative Technology Insights] podcast today, not just because of your expertise in this area, but also because it was so wonderful to reconnect with you at our Women and Venture Capital event last year.
So, I’m going to turn it over to you briefly to introduce yourself and tell our listeners a bit about you and what you do.
Paige, it’s an absolute privilege to be here. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about one of my favorite topics: How do you build market credibility for founders? So, I am the founder of consulting firm called Brand and Buzz. We primarily work with technology companies and CEO’s to either build and/or support their business strategy, their expansion plans, as well as help them get ready for their fundraises, acquisitions, and so on.
But one thing I do want to point out is that we are not the ones who are having conversations with the investors, bankers, or funding agencies; it’s all the behind-the-scenes work that we do to help the founders or executives get ready for whatever their business goals or exit plans are. I also have the privilege of working with a lot of women in tech and women entrepreneurs helping build their market credibility to spotlight the expertise they have and showcase that with the world.
Thanks so much Parna. Before we dive in, I’ll just introduce myself briefly as well. I’m a corporate attorney here at Foley and a large portion of my practice focuses on advising founders of startups, both emerging and later stage, on general corporate matters, including and navigating through rounds of financing and ultimately the sale process. So, part of your focus really resonates with me and I’m looking forward to diving into some questions.
First, I’ll just ask you – in your written pieces and speaking engagements, you talk a lot about building a founder’s brand. So, what does that actually mean in practical terms?
Sure. So, building this brand is really about building credibility for the individual. It’s about showcasing their expertise, their knowledge in a specific field and when appropriate, also sharing some of their personality with the world because at the end of the day, it is the humans that you’re interacting with. Having that credibility and market visibility for a founder, I feel is extremely important.
One thing that I would like to clarify if I may, is that oftentimes I hear people confusing personal brand with self-promotion and bragging. But what we do and what we recommend as part of our strategy and what we also execute for the founders really has nothing to do with self-promotion. It’s really about developing a strategy for the founder, but most importantly positioning them. It’s similar to how you would position a company, right? Every founder that we work with has a three-word positioning where we go through a major process, but in short, I would say I founders brand is key to success.
And so, when you talk about founder brands, maybe you can share some examples from clients you’ve worked with in the past or success stories of branding founders.
Let me step back and ask a question to your audience. I’m sure a lot of people have heard about Richard Branson, right? But I wonder if they can name the 400+ companies that are owned and controlled by the Virgin Group. Or even Rihanna, we all know her as an entertainer and musician but she’s also an entrepreneur and founder of a couple of companies.
So my point being, most of the time we recognize people by their personal brand about who they are and what they’ve done and less of it is about how many companies or what product they’ve built. Now if we look at just stats alone, I’m sure this number has changed but as of 2020 there were more than 518 million entrepreneurs worldwide and about 30 million of them were in the U.S. And last year there were more than 5 million business applications filed and this year there have been 1.74 million business applications to date.
The reason I bring this up is to show that if you are one of those 5 million plus entrepreneurs, how do you stand out? And I think that that’s one of the reasons why when we work with companies, especially first-time entrepreneurs, we find it to be extremely important that we build out the “who they are” and also think about it as a political campaign. If you’re looking at a personal run, for example, you know the field is crowded and we are voting for a candidate based on what we know, how visible are they? Are they credible enough that we know that they are going to actually get the job done for what we vote for them. I feel like that is what I think about when we are building out the brand.
So, like I said, almost every founder that we worked with or every executive we worked with, they all have a personal positioning to start with. And case in point, one of them, we worked with them for over 3 1/2 years and he was the face of this particular company. And the reason we positioned him as a CX [customer experience] connoisseur was because one of his biggest strengths was how good he is with customers and closing deals. And if there’s a problem somewhere with the customer, he knows exactly what to do. We also considered his personal goals, which is something we look for what happens when he is no longer with this company.
I believe personal brand must be portable. Whether you are no longer with the company or your company gets acquired, if you are too tightly tied to a company then you might have to rebuild your brand again, right? And in his case, we positioned him as the CX connoisseur and everything around the company positioning was also around customer experience. Given his personal positioning as a CX connoisseur, everything that he did, said, wrote, or spoke about had to do with CX.
It was all CX and digital transformation, CX and entrepreneurship, CX and STEM, etc. Everything revolved around that. That is also very important piece because you have to be on message and if you are positioning a certain way, you need to make sure that you stay that way. To kind of conclude this example, we worked with him for about 3 1/2 years and the company got acquired. One of the signature programs that we created for him, keeping in mind that brands need to be portable, was a podcast called the Science of CX.
So, when the company got acquired he was saying “Hey, what am I going to do next?” He kept his podcast going. That’s an example of how we do personal and executive positioning, help build their credibility, something that they can take with them, whether they’re starting another company, trying to do consulting work, or what have you.
You know, I think that’s really interesting because I feel like a lot of times when you think about the word marketing you think about trying to market a company and a product. A lot of folks who are starting companies are thinking about “how do I market my product” at the entity level. And you bring up a really good point that oftentimes the focus has missed that the individual who is running the company needs a brand of their own. That’s a very powerful piece of the whole branding effort.
So obviously one of the main goals for many emerging startup companies is to bring in funding from venture capital firms or other high net-worth individuals or investors. So, can you talk a little bit about how founder branding intersects with the fundraising process?
Great question, Paige. Yes, the two absolutely intersect. Investors invest in founders and customers buy from people so that human angle is right there. Based on my personal experience and also having spoken with several investors, I often say “what do you look for when you are looking at a company or you want to fund a company or invest in a company?” One of the answers always is “we look at the founder and they believe.” I don’t want to speak for all investors, but at least the ones that I know and have spoken with, they know that the founder or the founding team is very good at the technology that they’re building. It’s innovative and they have competitive advantage, etc., etc. But at the end of the day, they want to know that the founder, who will eventually become the CEO of that company most of the time, is savvy about running a company, is a savvy entrepreneur, and knows how to scale the business because when investors are investing in your company, they do want return on their investments. When I was talking to investors about this very topic, they said that the technology is pretty cool, we know that it can evolve, and we can hire engineers and AI experts to help, but we need a founder who has the passion and vision to not only focus on the technology but know how they’re going to grow the company.
So, I would probably say that for investors to invest in a company and the founder, I think founders have to be more than the product they’ve built. Especially if they’re looking for investment – having worked with lots of tech companies and supported dozens of entrepreneurs I feel that is a very common thread, at least the clients that we’ve supported. If I look at the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with five companies that were acquired.
I mean, it connects to what we were just talking about. When you’re pitching a VC firm or investors, you are really pitching a personal brand. You are pitching the founder’s brand, so the focus isn’t as much on the technology or the product, which obviously is important, but a huge piece of it is you pitching yourself as the founder.
Yes, you have to show your expertise not just in building the product, but also showing your entrepreneurial skill in that you are looking ahead with the investment dollars. How are you going to scale and where are you going to go? Who are going to be your customers and how quickly are you going to give me the return on my investment? I mean, at the end of the day, it’s about money.
Interesting. Okay, so backing up a bit. We were talking about the funding stage when you’re pitching to investors, but is it ever too early to start thinking about putting together a founder brand, even when you might not have a product yet? Is it ever too early?
The short answer is never too early. As of last year, we’ve been working with three companies, one is in stealth mode. The other one has a product that’s gone into testing at airports, and one that is still deciding if the product is viable – they don’t have a prototype in essence. So, we have worked with each one of them to build out their product positioning. While they’re building the product and testing the product, we are absolutely focused on building out the CEO’s brand and the market credibility.
One of them in particular is in robotics, but the person does not have a high profile in the robotics industry. So, we’ve been working a lot with this individual to build out and spotlight her knowledge. She has the knowledge, but the world doesn’t know that. So, even though the product will not be ready for prime time until later in the year, we started working with this group while they were still developing.
The whole point and the premise here is that we have to spotlight the people behind the product. And show the world that they know what they’re doing. So when the product comes out you already know the human behind the company, right?
Right. So, you’ve talked a little bit about different strategies you’ve used for branding but do you use different kinds of strategies to develop market credibility for founders versus CEOs of more established companies?
So, what we don’t have is a cookie-cutter strategy for every company. We also don’t have a cookie-cutter strategy for startups versus large companies because I believe every company is unique.
Every team that’s running a company and building a product is unique. So, it’s really important that we understand their business goals. We understand the market, we understand what their competitive advantages are. And then we create a highly customized program for each of the companies and the founder(s). But there are a few similarities, and when we go about the process, not only do we have to understand what the business goals are, but we absolutely have to understand what the personal goals are of a founder of a CEO of a large company. Because in fact, I almost always feel like I have to sign an NDA because I learn so much about someone, half of which I cannot use because it’s personal information. But what that does is that it allows me to know the person, know their passion, know what their weaknesses are, and then package all of that up and spotlight nothing but their expertise.
And when you’re building the strategy, you also make sure you know what they hate, where they don’t want to go, what they don’t want to talk about. When you are creating this package, you are always able to stay away from those because you know that’s not going to be helpful for other individuals or for the company. We intimately know the person’s character, history, and experience in addition to the business world, and that is one of the key factors that plays into our positioning strategy. That is kind of the consistent theme, whether you’re a startup founder or your large company founders. But the difference is that, as I was saying, brands have to be portable.
If you’re looking at the likes of an IBM, the founder isn’t there now and as the company grows or scales you bring in the CEOs or the business leaders who can take your company to the next level. There aren’t too many like Salesforce with the founder still there. Oftentimes, they’re very focused on promoting the product. It’s all about the speeds and feeds. It’s all about the technology, and yes, they’ll do customer service, but it’s around case studies and it’s like very technical, very deep in the weeds.
So how do you position a 55-year-old company or 100 plus year company? You have to essentially bring everybody along with you while you are building a new strategy in conjunction with all the stakeholders obviously. But what we’re also doing is humanizing that brand by putting faces or a face to the company because people are not buying from logos – logos don’t sell, it’s the humans that sell.
So analyzing the brand is kind of a consistent theme for us because that’s one of the key things that we do, whether we’re rebranding, getting them ready for fundraise, acquisitions, or what have you and it’s a hard process; but I cannot see myself doing anything else.
You’ve obviously given a lot of advice and tips today on branding for founders and CEO’s of large companies that kind of spans the underlying themes. But so, if I were an entrepreneur just listening to this, what’s one tip you would give? Kind of a practical step that they can take to start working on their personal brand.
The one tip that I often give to entrepreneurs and founders is, be the face of the company, because that humanizes the brand. And building your founder’s brand is not about you really. It’s really about building market credibility for your company, building market credibility for yourself. So that investors are going to invest in you and your company and also it helps you reach your customers. They need to know who you are. You need market visibility and market credibility, so being the face of the company, I think is extremely important, especially for first time founders.
Well, thank you Parna. So I don’t know if you have anything else that you wanted to share to conclude, but I really appreciate your time today and this was a great conversation and I hope that it was helpful for any entrepreneurs or founders who are listening.
Thank you so much, Paige. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thanks again for having me.
Foley & Lardner’s Innovative Technology Insights podcast focuses on the wide-ranging innovations shaping today’s business, regulatory, and scientific landscape. With guest speakers who work in a diverse set of fields, from artificial intelligence to genomics, our discussions examine not only on the legal implications of these changes but also on the impact they will have on our daily lives.