Some Thoughts on Branding Startups and Communities

Posted on Apr 17, 2012 | 78 comments

Some Thoughts on Branding Startups and Communities

Brad Feld visited Los Angeles this past week. I always enjoy spending time with Brad as the antidote to the echo chamber. He is a unique human being with original thoughts & ideas and very limited concern for having to fit into other people’s narratives.

And I’ve always remembered a quote from high school, “Non Conformity is the Highest Form of Social Attainment.” That always stuck with me. That seems very Brad to me. It’s what I strive to.

We threw a Launchpad LA dinner to bring the community together as we tend to do 6-10 times a year. Brad was our guest of honor.

After a great 30-minute talk he took questions. Somebody asked the question, “What do you think about the term ‘Silicon Beach?” It was not a planted question by me. My views are pretty well known.

Brad wrote up his answer here – you should read it because it’s very instructive for how I believe communities ought to think about naming conventions.

In his blog he says,

“I responded that I thought it was stupid. I hate Silicon Whatever. LA should be LA.”

Many people on the Westside of Los Angeles are using the term Silicon Beach these days to describe the amazing renaissance that is truly happening here. That’s OK with me. But I think Brad actually has a point. I kind of think LA is just LA and doesn’t need some clever marketing term.

If I were to think about branding our great city I don’t think I would chose the Silicon Beach moniker myself. The way I think about branding anything is simple:

Define the Attributes You Want to Project
The first rule of choosing a brand for anything is to figure out the image you want to project. I recommend that you start by writing down the attributes you would want people to think about when they think about your brand.

Let my try those for Los Angeles as an example:

  • Second largest city in America with 13 million people
  • Third most powerful economic city in the world after NYC & Tokyo.
  • Diverse – in terms of industries, ethnicities and environments
  • Creative – we’re a place of writers, directors, producers, musicians, costume designers, make-up artists, graphic artists, 3D modelers.
  • A market leader in content, music, entertainment, textiles, engineering, aerospace and trade.
  • An innovator in technology, especially monetization. The birthplace of sponsored search (Overture), semantic search (Applied Semantics which became Google AdSense), comparison shopping (ShopZilla, PriceGrabber) and many others.
  • World-class education including Caltech, USC and UCLA
  • Home of JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), which helps put rockets into space
  • Home to the Internet’s first true “accelerator,” Idealab led by Bill Gross
  • And of course a place of idyllic weather, culture and a lifestyle

This is the list I would start with. If I took more than 5 minutes I’d fill it in with all of the wonderful things I’m forgetting.

Whatever you’re trying to brand – your company, your community or yourself – this is the first exercise I would recommend that you start with. Outline your key attributes.

For me Silicon Beach doesn’t quite encapsulate the wonderful, dynamic, creative, large, thriving community that is the 13 million proud Angelinos any more than Silicon Alley captures the bustling 2012 community of New York City.

If anything using the word “Silicon” seems a bit derivative to NorCal. Don’t you think?

Interestingly, nobody I know in NorCal EVER calls it Silicon Valley, “Silicon Valley.” It seems to either be “The Peninsula” or “San Francisco” or even just “The Bay Area.”

To me, LA will always be a creative hub for TV, film, music, video games and now technology. We need to be different & unique. Not derivative.

And then there’s “Beach.” I love the beach. I live right near it and I drive by it every day. But “Beach” emphasizes the worst perception that people have about Los Angeles. It emphasizes that we’re not serious. That we’re a party. That we chose to live here simply because of lifestyle, babes, sun and nightlife. Our Bay Area brethren think, “you can have your beach, LA. We’ll work our asses off and build huge companies that will define the next generation of American’s lives.”

And of course it’s not a true assessment. The people I know in LA building serious companies ARE working their asses off. That’s how we’re producing many interesting companies like I’ve never seen before in LA. Here’s a short list that are decidedly East of the 405 freeway (i.e. not near the beach):

  • Factual, founded by Gil Elbaz who built AdSense [Century City]
  • ZestCash, founded by Douglas Merrill, former CIO of Google [Hollywood]
  • Deviant Art, led by Angelo Sotira, which is one of the largest online communities on the Internet [Hollywood]
  • ReachLocal, founded by Zorik Gordon, publicly traded company helping small businesses across America use the Internet for marketing [Woodland Hills … North of the 101]
  • Idealab, led by Bill Gross, who founded Overture, CitySearch and MANY other business [Pasadena]
  • Oblong, led by Kwin Kramer, which houses more MIT grads per startup than probably any other in LA. They designed the next gen UI for the film The Minority Report. And do so in real life, too. [downtown LA]
  • Maker Studios, leading YouTube producer, generating hundreds of millions of video views every month [Los Angeles, near Culver City]

Also East of the 405? Caltech. UCLA. USC.

So, yeah, I would like LA to be LA. I guess Santa Monica is officially “Silicon Beach” in the local people’s minds. Still, I kind like the name, well, um, … Santa Monica.

NYC has gotten a lead on us in the perception of creating a next generation technology hub and with good reason. Every time I’m there I’m blown away by the renewed energy and the thriving communities that have formed around the Flatiron District, Brooklyn and elsewhere. And I never hear local people touting “Silicon Alley” as they did 12 years ago. They’ve grown.

Some Other Thoughts on Branding / Positioning

Think about venture capital. Those that were around 30+ years ago never had to think about branding – there were hardly any other VCs. So many had names of partners (Kleiner Perkins) or local favorite identifiers like trees (Sequoia).

But if you were going to start a venture capital fund today, you’d want to stand out. Of course if you’re already known you could put your name or location on your fund name. But consider the following:

1. First Round Capital – No prizes for guessing what kind of firm they set out to build. You could argue that choosing the name “first round” paints them into a corner in case they want to ever do a late stage fund, but I suspect they named it FRC precisely because they wanted to excel at early-stage investing. And because they’ve been so successful / dominant in this space you could argue that even now they could do later stage with this brand if they ever chose to.

2. IA Ventures – Roger Ehrenberg was doing angel investing before he became a VC. And before that he worked years at hedge funds and more broadly in the financial services industry. He was one of the first guys that I know who laid out his stall and said I want to do “big data” investments that take advantage of the explosion of data now available on the web. So his Twitter handle is @infoarbitrage and his excellent (must read) blog is Information Arbitrage. So no prizes for guessing what IA Ventures stands for. Still, he probably chose a brand like IA that allows the firm to broaden if it needs to at some point.

Whenever I have a business that is big-data oriented and financial services focused he’s my first call. There are other great ones out there but his focus, his relationships and the brand he has built seem to make me think of him first.

3. Founder Collective – If you were an early-stage startup and wanted to be funded by entrepreneurs who had walked in your shoes before, you wouldn’t have to stretch the imagination far to think of what “Founder Collective” is meant to stand for. The two managing partners are Eric Paley & David Frankel (both former entrepreneurs) but they have also aligned themselves with some of the best known startup savvy entrepreneurs including Chris Dixon (Hunch) and Caterina Fake (Flickr, Pinwheel). A quick survey of their portfolio tells you just how many high-profile startups have included them in their rounds. I know that I call them often to co-invest.

4. True Ventures – When I was raising capital for my second company back in 2006 I had talked to many brand-name VCs and had several term sheets. I had decided I wanted to work with a small VC I had never heard of where I would be their 8th investment for this fund (they had previously worked at other VCs). I chose them because they were the most transparent and because they gave me the cleanest term-sheet in an era when most VCs still tried to screw you. The name “True Ventures” sounds very Howard Roark-esque but in fact that’s how dealing with Jon & Phil seemed. Like they truly understood entrepreneurs. And like they were building a next-generation firm. Alas, I sold my company so I never became company 8 but have been a fan ever since. And the name to me speaks of clarity.

5. Andreessen Horowitz – Ok. So if you invented the browser I think you get to name the firm after yourself. The name, the person, sort of speaks for itself. And if you were right there along side the man building companies you’ve also earned the right to the logo 😉

For many companies having “functional names” that encapsulate your key characteristics in the title can be powerful.

And for me. When I chose a name for my blog, I spent days thinking through what I wanted to represent. I thought about some Southern California angle, because this is where > 50% of my investments are. But I thought, “nah, people will figure out that I’m in LA on their own. I want to invest in the best entrepreneurs in the country – regardless of where they’re located.”

So I thought about what was unique about me. Not versus every other VC but versus many. I was a former entrepreneur. I had run 2 companies. I wanted to be hands-on. I wanted to be transparent. I wanted to model myself after Brad Feld and provide advice on dealing with VCs because that is what made me want to work with Brad when I was an entrepreneur.

And I wondered how to best represent that in a brand. I chose Both Sides of the Table because I thought it emphasized this point. I played around with shortening the URL (you can use or by the way) but I figured having the name in full would help people to remember how I wanted to be positioned. And I think it has mostly resonated.

In Summary
When you think about a brand you need to create a name that will represent the kind of organization or community you want to build. You can either have a functional name (i.e. Instagram) or a nonsense name that doesn’t paint you into any particular corner (Twitter) or even a generic name where you fill in the marketing messages to define that brand (Los Angeles).

I can’t help but think that Brad’s words of wisdom to our group were apt – brought on by 20+ years of seeing naming conventions come and go and traveling tirelessly to all regions of the country. I know that the proponents of “Silicon Beach” will continue to promote their term.  That’s fine. I’ve come to accept it.

I’m stick with the un-branding. And letting the amazing performance of our growing community of startups filled with creative professionals, talented engineers and entrepreneurs who have a bias toward monetization – speak for itself.

  • JamesHRH

    Siobhan – based on your Wyndham Hill story, you will like this (not new, but still true!):

  • Yaniv Tal

    Choosing a city is really hard. We’re still deciding between NY, LA, and SF. We’ve narrowed it down really far right..? Two of us went to school at USC and love LA but there are 2 big factors holding us back: 1) fewer tech startups than the other two cities 2) less VCs. You’re obviously working on both of those but the city still has less momentum and I’m sure GRP’s a finite resource. On the other hand with LA you can get affordable space and great quality of life. God damn it’s hard!

  • Cookie Marenco

     Thank you, James, I have fond memories of that book.  After Windham Hill, I worked with Liquid Audio, the first downloadable audio company.  I remember long conversations with Gerry Kearby, the CEO, about what to call his new company (back in 1996, being a martian made more sense to people than downloading music.. :) 

    Gerry became an adviser to my startup label, Blue Coast Records.  I remember the day he went to Amazon and had the 22 Laws sent to me.  I have since bought it for several others.  Now, if I could only get the artists to read it, my life would be set!  :)

  • Yaniv Tal

    If we moved to LA we would probably locate our offices in Culver. It’s become pretty nice, has some of the lowest prices, and is right by the 10 and a quick zip to hollywood.

  • ab workout equipment

    This blog is a good one! Its original, thanks for the info! Is there a way I can tell my people about this post. 

  • leeweinberg

    Dauntless Founders Fund has a nice ring to it even though we are and worry about being confused with Founders Fund (we have a lot less money!)….  Anyway, big +1, Mark, on fund naming thoughts. I also
    agree with you regarding the limitations of Silicon Beach moniker, even if clever (hey, the beach is
    made of the sandy stuff, but I am truly Switzerland on this one, to mix a

    Now the flipside: No matter what the Santa Monica explosion is called, while it is great to see GRP and you in Century City (and we love it
    here too), you have to admit we do bump into a lot of folks when we
    walk down the street or have a bite to eat in Santa Monica!

  • John Bastian – Machine Parts

    I actually laughed a little.” JPL helps put rockets into space.” Without the propulsion systems, I don’t know how much of a chance they have of succeeding. Apologies. Not really contributing, just enjoying the read.  

  • Matt McLean

    Hey Mark – Do you do This Week in VC anymore ?

  • Tim Leon

    Some great wisdom as usual. The points about LA may all be true but I would question the length and detail of a list like that. I would rather see a list that only contained a few of the most hard hitting, impactful and memorable points about LA. Simplicity and focus are important.

  • Requirements Tracker

    You know this is a very good post i hadent thought about this for quite a while and you have like sparked me to look into it further and re educate my self in the subject….thanks,hope to see more of your posts soon.

  • William Mougayar

    Every city can claim to be #1 or #2 at something, but in the startup world, what really matters is how the people in that city work together. Silicon Valley has an inner working culture that’s unique to it, and that is something that needs to be replicated albeit with an original local flavour.

  • MicroSourcing

    The moniker “Silicon Beach” isn’t a good idea for branding because it associates L.A. with Silicon Valley. It’s self-defeating because L.A. should be known as business hub in its own right, something that’s distinct from the Valley.

  • John @ Touch Screen Displays

    More an more there are so many “un-brands” from the Twitters to the Starbucks of the world. Defining yourself and having a great product or service is really what makes the brand. No one buys Nike because the shoes suck, they buy them because they have proven to be the athletic go-to for major sport franchises. When you do something and its inflecting your brand, OWN IT! Live or die, the brand is what people will remember.

  • Donna Brewington White

    Once again your marketing chops are apparent.  

    As a native Midwesterner, I was drawn to Los Angeles as a place where you could write your own script, create your own identity.  Years later, I now realize that this is based more on who you are than where you live…but nevertheless, that sense of vast opportunity is part of the Los Angeles legacy.  This needs to be part of the brand.  I would argue for the beach being part of the LA identity.  It is an influencer…just knowing that it’s there.

     The vastness inspires.  We need to claim that.  And I say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it!

  • Michael

    Tim Berners-Lee invented the first web browser (in addition to actually creating the World Wide Web). Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina created the first browser to use inline graphics and it was easy to install, which was no doubt a big part of popularizing the commercial web and making it mainstream.

  • Mark Essel

    I’ve been away for too long while buried in work, and side work. Refocusing on just One Thing, glad to be back in the comment section of both sides (brought back by @donnawhite:disqus ‘s tweet).

    Dig your review of VC branding, and sorry to derail slightly but what do you think of Brad’s insaniton jogging now, 50 MILES before his dinner with you guys? He’s going into ultramarathon mode, and I’m afraid there’s no turning back.

    It’s gratifying to recognize immediately which VC partnership and the specific partner who will best be aligned with a particular startup as I review/read and study them.

  • Donna Brewington White

    “Silicon Valley has an inner working culture ”
    Strong insight, there, William.  From my distant vantage point, that “inner working culture” seems to be coming alive in NYC as well.  

    I wonder if @msuster:disqus sees this as a need in the So Cal startup scene?  From my limited view, we are developmentally challenged in the area of “community.”

    What about Toronto?

  • Donna Brewington White

    The beach I know is a place to exercise and work out.  Occasionally, to clear my mind and get fresh vision.  And I am inspired with all sorts of entrepreneurial analogies watching surfers. 

    All this aside, your points on branding are well-taken.  Although, I’d love to take the stereotypes and turn them on their heads.

  • M Elayan

    Down here in Orange County, it might be worse. We tout the beach as a selling point to everyone (“the beach only a 2 minute drive a way!”). I agree with what you said. The beach makes people think we’re just laid-back surfers who don’t take our jobs seriously.

    To me, the beach is not a selling point. I want to work. I only care if there is a late-night coffee and food joint nearby :)

  • Chicago Garage Builders

    Ever read an article and realized you really need to evaluate what you are doing with your company? Lightbulb! Thanks Mark, great stuff as usual.

  • Scott

    Great post, Mark. All the ‘silicon’ names are getting ridiculous. Thanks for (hopefully) urging some of these cities to reconsider.

  • Michael O’Neill

    It’s software technology, browser delivery. I have developers looking at it now.

  • Terry juegos de vestir

    yes Narikannan have a good idea for try it Have you seen Pirates of Silicon Valley??

  • Aminuddinimam

    Every place has real business potential and the idea itself, depending on one’s perspective, recalling the old story when two shoe sales people from different companies to fly in Africa many years ago, one person said “There is no potential for any shoe sales in Africa, because they is still primitive. “Another man said: “The potential is huge because we are the first company to sell shoes in Africa”. Perspective it is also the tool to find the right brand that we want to work on, thank’s for the article …

  • SGBlackArmor

    The suburbs like Sta. Clara, in the Northern California Bay Area is near a lot of technological sites such as Silicon Valley. There are more people living the suburb lifestyle so in effect most companies would want to set up in places where the market is.

  • Brian

    How about Silicon Metropolis, Silicon Entropolis?

  • Eric Pinckert

    I understand Brad Feld’s antipathy to referring to LA’s startup scene as
    “Silicon Beach.”  But it could be worse.

    There’s a popular misconception in business that nothing matters more than differentiation. Indeed, standing out is critical, but a brand does not have to carry the full burden of setting a company, product, entity or even a city’s entrepreneurial scene apart from all comers. Sometimes, it’s more important that the brand helps get the company, product, entity or scene into the considered set – then, as audiences peel back the layers of the onion they can discover for themselves what’s different. It’s why the movie Speed was pitched as Die Hard on a bus. It’s why there’s a palpably similar silliness to the vast majority of start up names in Ycombinator, Techstarts and yes – even GRP and Foundry’s portfolios. For new companies, products etc. that are unknown quantities, there’s a strong case to be made for using a brand identity that fits in sensibly rather than stands out at all costs.

    It’s also a matter of perspective. Feld and Suster are VC’s. They swing for the fences. They know that, to say the least, not everybody makes it. The majority of the companies they invest in will fail or return moderate capital, but if only a handful make it big (the NVCA estimates that 20% or less of investments produce high returns) they’ll have achieved success. Los Angeles’ entrepreneurial scene can’t afford a 20% chance of success – it must adopt a safer brand identity strategy. They’re also insiders, privy to the rich, textured fabric of startups.

    The term Silicon Beach may not be as useful for someone with their expert knowledge of SoCal startups, but it’s a good way to be understood and noticed by the mainstream press, domestically and abroad.

    Finally, this isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one. There’s no reason people can’t refer to Silicon Beach to communicate quickly and succinctly that there’s vibrant startup activity in Los
    Angeles while at the same time talking about the specific activity in Santa Monica, West LA, WeHo, Hollywood, etc. Those neighborhoods, coincidentally, benefit from a brand identity that encompasses all of them, since individually they don’t have much critical mass. Further, there’s no reason the name can’t go away once Los Angeles is more firmly established as a hub of entrepreneurship.

    The name “Silicon Beach” is obviously a derivative to capture the entrepreurial magic that transformed “The Valley of the Heart’s Delight” into Silicon Valley innovation and riches beyond compare.  But it isn’t a tragedy either. Rather, it’s a simple, pragmatic, low-risk approach
    to branding that attempts to ride the coattails of the Big Dog to the north. It’s not exactly the kind of stuff that gets VC’s out of bed in the morning, but it just might be simple enough to work.

  • scott

    Branding is never easy, the good thing about today though is you can see what message work more quickly by using social media sites.