Startups are hard.
After three and a half years that is something I can certainly appreciate. We’ve evolved from a service agency to a technology company twice over. We’ve launched multiple products with several iterations and business models. We’ve learned, a lot.
In October 2011 we attended a Startup Weekend in Columbus, Ohio. That was the weekend our company was born. We had a general idea of what we were going to build, but we were clueless when it came to branding. Thankfully one of my friends from high school, Vince Smigiel, was a designer and offered to help.
Vince and I have been best friends since the 8th grade. Today when I describe our working relationship I like to say he is the Jony Ive to my Steve Jobs. Back in 2011 I explained that our vision was to help small and medium business owners with digital marketing. After brainstorming a few ideas we settled on cocoon. It stuck.
The only problem: cocoon.com was being sit on by a domain squatter who had “received several 6 figure offers and didn’t plan on selling the domain.” So we figured why not spell it how it sounded? “Kuh-coon.” It was whacky, but it worked.
We were 20 years old and admittedly none of us knew much about branding. We figured it would work for the purposes of participating in the Startup Weekend. Three and a half years later, our business had evolved and outgrown the Kuhcoon brand. The original mission to help business owners market themselves online had not changed, but the product we built to accomplish this mission was vastly different. It was time for a brand that reflected that change.
Step 1: The Domain
Regardless of what any “branding expert” will tell you, the most important part of branding is securing a domain name. I pondered different ideas for weeks, but one sleepless night would be the key to discovering our killer new brand. As I laid in bed hopelessly staring at the ceiling, it hit me. What does our product do? What makes it unique? What is the core of our pitch? We automate the management of digital ad campaigns. Automate Ads. Bingo! When the domain was available I wanted to scream in excitement.AutomateAds.com. How on earth did I just land this domain name for $12?
Step 2: The Twitter Handle
Another important step in the rebranding process is acquiring a Twitter handle to match your domain. I searched @AutomateAds on Twitter. Nothing. A good sign, but no guarantee. It was 2am and I was painstakingly creating a new email account as fast as I could to check the availability. It was available. Unbelievable. This brand was destiny.
Step 3: Typeface
Vince was leading the rebrand. This much was clear. Outside of that it was up to his creativity to lead the way. He knew our product. He knew us. He built the original brand 3 years ago. He would build this brand and make it great. Soon, he had concept one:
We reviewed with the team and were instantly sold on the typeface. Simple, clean, and beautiful. Precisely what we were looking for.
Step 4: The Logo Concept #1
For the first logo concept Vince wanted to pay tribute to the original brand. The idea is actually brilliant: take the two lowercase a’s in Automate Ads, mirror them and create a moth/butterfly logo. From a design standpoint it was great, but after looking at it for an extended period of time we didn’t fall in love. We wanted something new. Something that spoke for itself, not something that necessarily paid tribute to our original brand.
Step 5: Logo Concept #2
A few days later Vince came back with his second concept.
This time he played around with the idea of inverting the capital A’s in Automate Ads. It created an interesting series of designs, but something else caught my eye. If you remove the “X” through the center of the design above you’re left with what looks like a gear. Google the word “automate” and you’ll discover a sea of images with gears. While this gear representation of the word automation didn’t fit our sense of the word, we had a stronger starting point to continue building on our creative process.
Automation or automatic control, is the use of various control systems for operating equipment such as machinery, processes in factories, boilers and heat treating ovens, switching in telephone networks, steering and stabilization of ships, aircraft and other applications with minimal or reduced human intervention.
Step 6: Logo Concept # 3
Getting closer- but it is still missing something. We want to avoid being lost in a sea of gears and basic symbols that represent the term automation across the web. Thus, the gear became a double-edged branding sword. Back to the drawing board.
Step 7: Logo Concept #4
By placing six capital A’s side by side we can create a beautiful hexagon. The hexagon mimicked a nut/gear shape that is traditionally associated with the term automation, but the object itself is meant to represent one of our automated ad campaigns. The center dot represents the perfect ad placement, which is the end goal of our ad campaign automation system.
The more we looked at it and asked for feedback, the more we realized this wasn’t what we were looking for. That being said, we knew we were moving in the right direction and continued to connect the dots, literally.
We loved the idea of a graph with individual nodes as a logo. We played around with this idea and ended up asking friends from our Y Combinator batch for feedback on this approach. The biggest feedback we received was that in terms of performance, having a graph that spikes up then flattens isn’t a good sign.
One of our good friends, Gregory Koberger of Readme.io, made this quick mockup with a different approach. As a side note, this is a great example of the power behind the YC community. Gregory didn’t need to take the time to do this, but did so anyway simply for the sake of helping a fellow entrepreneur. While we weren’t sold on it completely, it helped us get to the next step of our creative process.
Closer. But still not right.
This was it. We found it. This was our new brand. Now it was time to build.
We put our heads down and did what we do best for six weeks straight. By the end of those six weeks we had a new brand, a new business model, web, iOS, Apple Watch, and Android apps built from the ground up; all done by a team with three engineers.
Startups are hard.
Sometimes as an entrepreneur you need to make tough choices, like rebranding your company and redesigning your product from scratch. When you make those choices you need to convince your team, shareholders, and advisors that this is the best possible move for the company. As soon as you finalize that choice and get everyone on the same page, you move heaven and hell to execute on that decision.