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The story of how I designed a brand to support early stage startup founders

By Beau ter Steege

”Make the new online validation program for startups, StartupLeap, look professional”, was the task assigned for my graduation project at UtrechtInc. I focused on creating a brand identity that relates to starting entrepreneurs.

In the form of a platform, participants get support from a community of founders, learn from industry experts and discuss progress through mentor-backed peer-to-peer sessions.

Process overview

20 weeks

  1. Sprint 0 / Orientation: My insights into the Dutch startup community
  2. Sprint 1 / Concepting: Notable findings from user interviews, introducing competitors and the initial designs
  3. Sprint 2 / Testing & personality: Additional user interviews and shaping our personality
  4. Sprint 3 / Brand identity: Designing the expressions, including the logo
  5. Sprint 4 / Platform: Creating sketches, wireframes and a clickable prototype, iteratively testing with the target audience
  6. Reflecting: Outlining the importance of the brand

Sprint 0 / Orientation

I was assigned with the task to create a brand identity, including all of its expressions, from scratch. The only restriction was that the name ‘StartupLeap’ had to stay the same. While StartupLeap recently finished its first iteration, supported by twenty stakeholders in the Dutch startup community, it has been fully designed with incubator UtrechtInc’s assumption and expectations in mind – being the initiator and funder of the project.

Even though the current program undoubtedly supports early stage startup founders, the goal of my job is to build a brand that caters truly to the needs of the users. Which resulted in a stand-alone identity that represents a space where founders feel supported. Backed by research and interaction with our users instead of assumptions.

“How can founders be best supported in their first step towards entrepreneurship?”

UtrechtInc

Being the initiator, UtrechtInc plays an important role for Startupleap. Not only therefore, but also to emphasise StartupLeap as a separate entity, it is important to to take a look at its background.

 

Startup community *

* This information is gathered by visiting various startup incubators, co-working spaces, and other communities.

The Dutch startup community consists of a ton of local and regional locations, where early and late stage startups, service partners, and freelancers come together for workplaces, events, and support. Proactively getting in touch with other residents. What’s unique is that all local communities have their own expertise and focus. Which results in an absent feeling of competition.

 

 

The customer

After getting to know the startup community and its target audience, I was able to draft initial personas, including their needs and characteristics. By implementing earlier research on StartupLeap’s first participants, the personas were refined and already increasingly represented actual customers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These findings closely resemble the initial assumptions, on which its first customer journey was based.

 

 

 

 

 

Through surveys and interviews with the previous batch of participants, I thereafter tracked down the pain points in the current customer journey – what emotions it triggered and what participants thought about the program.

 

Sprint 1 / Concepting

After several weeks in orientation, I used the design thinking methodology for this and future sprints to create an identity that is human-centred and closely connects to its target audience and stakeholders’ expectations. This process includes, but is not limited to, iterative problem definition, solution creation, and testing & learning.

User interviews

After getting to know the startup community, I was able to move on to user interviews to get a better sense of what early stage startup founders are looking for, and how participants evaluate StartupLeap so far.

First, I reached out to all participants in the first batch with a survey. My goals was to find out about their motivations, expectations, experiences, and opinions. With this information, I was able to fit the new identity and brand with the expectations of our target audience.

After a total of 15 surveys, here is a rundown of my most valuable takeaways:

  1. Input from mentors contributes more to a startups’ development than other participants.
  2. 100% preferred following the course on a laptop
  3. Many signed on to be inspired, to get coaching, to receive feedback, but also because it pushed them to move forward
  4. Many were looking for 1 on 1 support
  5. Many expected a more focused program
  6. Many hoped for more active networking between the startups and the partners’ current networks of mentors, partners, and investors
  7. Several startups missed background information on their peers

Most participants would like to see more interaction between group members. Most groups actually started a private group on WhatsApp or Slack to increase communication with their peers.

“You can definitely boost interaction amongst the group members, or even between all participants in the StartupLeap program.”

In contrary to our believes, all participants preferred to follow the program from their laptops. This was confirmed by data from Google Analytics.

Next to information on participants and their thoughts on StartupLeap, I researched preferences and associations with regards to words, shapes, and colours like ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘startup. This resulted in:

  • Colours associated with StartupLeap were combinations of green and blue, and red and yellow
  • The winner amongst shapes was the circle, which, according to the recipients, stands for the continuous process startups are in and the dynamic and flexibility of their own company

Competitive analysis

I chose to conduct an extensive analysis that consisted of research into similar programs and tools, and website reviews of fast growing startups. Looking at their colours, shapes, layout, branding, and tools.

 

Below, I’ve included my comparison.

Marktonderzoek

 

I found that:

  • Blue and red are popular
  • The majority uses a fully typographic logo. In colour
  • The majority of logos reflect any form of movement

 

 

Visual results

By conducting a competitive analysis, I was able to learn what might be missing, and what the StartupLeap brand should aim for. Based on newly formed guiding principles, through brainstorming and ultimately sketches, guidelines appeared.

  • We are professionals
  • We are friendly, approachable and caring
  • We are innovative and continue to innovate
  • We are different from other online programs
  • Movement and stimulation is reflected in our visual brand
  • Our platform is scalable and therefore usable on different devices and screens

Related to the guidelines, and through the combination of colours, typography, and a logo, I created three propositions – ready to be tested with our target audience.

Sprint 2 / Testing & personality

After our comparative analysis, I was able to move on to user interviews to get a better sense of what resonated with early stage startup founders, and if the concepts created suited their expectations.

Through Facebook groups for starting entrepreneurs, I collected 54 responses. Of which most voted favourably for concept #3. However, it wasn’t clear why. So I split the initial test into one about the logo and one about the colours. I also asked the UtrechtInc team, being experts in their field, about their thoughts. This eventually led to more questions than answers. Back to the drawing board.

Make sure you know who your brand is, what it stands for and where it’s going. Brands that know where they’re going, inspire people to follow.” – Houraghan

Reflecting on the interviews and the following guidelines, I was able to connect the caregiver and the sage as StartupLeap’s main archetypes.

 

Based on Jung’s archetypes

From this perspective, I formulated our mission and vision.

Mission

We are an involved organisation when it comes to validating scalable ideas and we are an accessible supporter who connects and lets others help each other. Because we feel where there’s a need, we clear the path for personal development. We do this by giving first-time founders the needed knowledge, connections, and space to lead their concepts into success. We push startups to go for the best and we support them to a point where they can continue on their own.

Vision

New ideas are crucial to innovation and of great value to the economy. Our startup platform connects people with different expertises for valuable collaboration. This offers new ideas a bigger chance to solve complex problems. The platform has a coaching role, passes on knowledge, and builds a startup ecosystem to change the world for the better.

While both archetypes and the mission and vision are essential, in this stage, they opposed the choice for the initial colour – orange – that our target audience chose for our brand. More related colours would be green and blue.

 

However, studying the triadic colour scheme, which means the colours are equally distributed on the whole spectrum, shows that the green and blue are directly related to orange. Furthermore, the colour psychology of the tested palettes resemble the words our target audience associated to entrepreneurship.

 

 

 

 

Sprint 3 / Brand identity

Once I decided on the colors, I started to imagine what the expressions would look like. Starting with text, icons, illustrations and photography.

I selected Georgia for the headings and Manrope for any other texts.

The colours outside the box reflect the mindset of an entrepreneur.

 

I selected a diverse group of people, to reflect the diversity of StartupLeap’s target audience and to make it relatable to them

Logo

Even though our target audience favoured one of the logos, it was also associated with health care and a well-known bookstore. Therefore I designed a new logo that shows StartupLeap as a place where things grow from energy, knowledge, experience and inspiration. Connected to the digital world the program aims for.

 

Sprint 4 / Platform

While testing and interviewing, I realised many in our target audience, were curious as to what an actual platform, using the branding expressions mentioned above, would look like.

 

 

 

Using these sketches, I designed wireframes. Focusing on the platform’s functionality and how certain goals can be achieved as easy as possible for the user. I turned them into a clickable demo to conduct user tests, using Figma.

These tests allowed me to watch users physically clicking through the prototype. I gave them assignments, asked them to think out loud and observed their actions. This lead to insights into where users expected certain functions to be found and where the platform did not match a great experience.

With minor improvements, I set up a prototype in Maze, which allows you to record user sessions while they perform tasks given to them in the testing environment. Testing iteratively with our target audience, design experts and my client, I was able to quickly visualise any needs and take away potential thresholds.

User testing lead to the following design (opens in Figma).

 

 

 

 

Reflecting

“Make the new online validation program for startups, called StartupLeap, look professional”

I’ll let you be the judge on if I succeeded in my task.

As far as the brand goes,

  1. the clear brand identity shows who StartupLeap is and who they want to connect with. Because the brand experience resonates with the ambitions and needs of the target audience, they feel it’s appealing to them;
  2. attracting a diverse audience increases the strength of the program and therefore the success rate of its participants;
  3. a higher success rate will increase the number of data points, which will provide better insights into how to improve the program. Which, in return will lead to more applications, a higher success rate, and so on;
  4. attracting a diverse audience offers opportunities for starting entrepreneurs who would normally not get the support they need through one of the existing (offline) programs;
  5. further development of a standalone platform, through a progressive web app, would further strengthen the relationship with StartupLeap’s members.

Overall, I received tremendous feedback on the brand and its expressions.

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