Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Orly Zeewy.
Orly is a brand architect, author, public speaker and educator. She builds the DNA of startup brands and helps founders break through the noise with messaging that attracts their ideal clients so they can scale in weeks, not months.
Orly has lectured at Wharton and taught in The Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She has led workshops for REV Ithaca, Rise Up Philly, Startup Leaders Philadelphia, Venture Café. In 2020, nearly 200 people from across the country and around the world attended her brand storytelling webinar for Creative Mornings Global.
Her book: Ready, Launch, Brand: The Lean Marketing Guide for Startups was the #1 New Business Book Release in April 2021.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Istarted out as a fine artist but quickly discovered that I preferred solving other people’s problems rather than my own creative ones. That led me to a degree in graphic design from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, one of the best design schools in the world. I founded and led an award-winning design and marketing communications firm for 14 years. This was before the Internet so our work was primarily in print. When everything shifted to digital, I decided to focus on strategy instead of moving into web design. I went back to school to earn an MBA when my oldest son started college so I could help startups get clear on their business model in addition to developing their messaging and improving their user experience.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I come from a long line of educators (on my mother’s side) and entrepreneurs (on my father’s side). I’d been doing both my entire career and realized that my end goal was to be an entrepreneur. I’ve been an academic for 25+ years so for me the two go hand in hand. Before I started my brand consulting practice, I had 20 years of experience in design and marketing communications. I took a couple of years off to have children and in 2000, I wrote myself a mission statement to determine what my next career would be. I opened a consulting practice focused on brand identity which was a holdover from running my design and marketing communications firm. My “Aha” moment came when I watched the YouTube video of Simon Sinek and the Golden Circle. I realized that this was what I wanted to do — to help companies find their why. In 2010, I stopped doing brand identity work and shifted my consulting practice into brand strategy. In 2015, I decided to focus on startups because the best time to clarify your company’s why is at the start of your business.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My dad is retired now but he was an inventor and entrepreneur for most of his career. He has 17 patents, including one for the first instrument to measure the temperature of molten steel. The Z Meter is now in the Lukens Steel Museum in Coatesville, PA. I grew up watching my dad use his creativity to solve very complex engineering problems. I also saw him struggle with building a viable business and that stuck with me. I spent several years developing a build-a-brand process for startups because I wanted to help companies like my dad’s to thrive and flourish. That process is the foundation for my book, Ready, Launch, Brand: The Lean Marketing Guide for Startups.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are a lot of marketing consultants and a lot of brand strategists but my consulting practice is at the intersection of design thinking and business. What makes my consulting practice stand out is that I can communicate effectively with both creatives and business leaders. Most creatives don’t speak the language of business and most business consultants don’t fully understand what makes creatives tick. I am a bridge between the two. A few years ago, I led a day-long brand building workshop for a national non-profit. Twenty-five people attended, including their creative team. At the end of that day, everyone was on the same page about the organization’s vision and why it mattered. I then worked with the designers to help them integrate the new messaging into a redesigned website. Because I speak their language, I could expedite that process. Often, when business leaders try to work with creatives, it takes months to build a website because they tell them what they want it to look like. They send them links to sites they like and say things like, can you do something like this, and this, and this? It’s what I call the Chinese Menu of art direction. Use this font, oh and make it blue not purple. Nothing shuts down the creative process faster than telling a creative person how to think. What I do is provide a creative brief with a clear outcome. I include the key messages that were developed in the brand building phase, and the voice of the brand that needs to come through. For example, if your core value is community building, use pictures of real people, not corporate stock images. I don’t tell a web designer what images to use. I let them figure out which images fit the creative brief we agree on from the start. It’s amazing what results you get when you allow a designer the space to solve a creative problem with the road map they need to solve it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I often get to work with disruptors who are doing amazing things in the world. I recently worked with Anne Gemmell, a future of work pioneer and social entrepreneur who is building an innovative non-profit organization in Philadelphia. Her goal is to bring together people with diverse racial, ethnic, economic, and educational backgrounds to design an equitable “future of work” playbook for the Greater Philadelphia region. As a result of our work together, she is now viewed as a leading voice in the Future of Work. She is 70% towards the goal of 76 Founding Members and has built a 14-person Advisor Board of regional public and private sector leaders. I am currently using my messaging expertise to help her start-up organization develop the long-term marketing plan for the consulting arm of Future Works PHL.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
As a child, I grew up in four countries and three continents. My formative years taught me a lot about reading people and understanding the subtext of what was being said in languages I didn’t understand. That’s great training for someone who makes their living translating vague information into clear, marketing messages. Living in different countries taught me to appreciate new cultures and that’s been instrumental in my ability to make people feel comfortable when learning a new way of speaking about their business.
Grit and resilience are the last and most important characteristics that have helped shape my career and success. When I was 6 years old, I got lost on my way to school. This was in Lausanne, Switzerland, and at the time I only spoke a few words of French. An elderly woman found me and put a sign on her lawn with the only information I could give her, my name and my age. My dad eventually found the house and took me home. I still have the little stuffed animal the woman gave me. I firmly believe that even when things look hopeless, good people will show up to help you and things work out for the best. That positive mindset has helped me through a lot of challenges.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
My high school counselor told me that I should be a teacher because I’d get the summers off and be able to raise a family. Instead, I followed my passion for art into a career that allowed me the flexibility to raise my children while building a business. As a young adult, I was told repeatedly that working for myself was too risky and that I should get a full-time job because it was more secure. When my children were young, I took a job in a financial company and lasted a year. Turns out I’m not cut out for working 9–5 and I love the fact that every day I get to do something different.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I started my design and marketing firm I made the mistake of forming a partnership with a friend who, like me, was also a designer. She hated the business development side of running a business so I ended up taking that on even though I’d never done it before. I soon realized that I was the one bringing in the majority of clients and could hire a young designer to help me do the work that was coming in. The partnership ended after a year and I successfully ran my new company for fourteen years. I learned that what you want in a co-founder is not someone like you but someone who compliments your skillset so you’re able to cover many sides of running a business.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
In my chapter on brand identity, I share the history behind my family name. When we immigrated to the United States, people had trouble with the original pronunciation of my last name Zevy. They kept pronouncing it Zeewy and eventually that became my name. As a result of my personal identity experience, I learned the importance of matching your company’s name with the brand it stands for. Your name is the first thing that people learn about your company so making sure it’s memorable, easy to pronounce and fun to say are key. Most people don’t know that Nike was originally called Blue Ribbon Sports. They had that name for ten years and no one remembers it. The wrong name is soon forgotten but the right name can build a multinational corporation.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
When we talk about startups, there’s often the myth of The Lone Genius that comes with it. This idea that one person, with a great idea, and only their genius vision to guide them, creates a company and builds into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Think Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. That idea is perpetuated by the fact that the founder’s name is the only one that is visible to consumers. The Lone Genius is a myth. No one person can or should do it all. Wearing all the hats is exhausting and leads to burnout. And no one talks about the culture at Tesla. There’s no denying that Elon Musk has done a great deal to move America away from gas guzzling cars to electric ones. But he didn’t do it alone. One of the founders I interviewed in my book is a former student who launched his startup while still in school. He realized too late that he needed to build a strong team and a sustainable culture if the company was going to grow. He closed his company after three years but as a result of that experience, he was hired by a startup to help them manage their marketing. He told me that when his startup failed it was both devastating and liberating. His experience helped him grow as a leader. He is now using the lessons he learned to help another startup succeed. In addition, the technology that he and his team developed is being considered as part of a white label product for a large corporation. You never know where your ideas will take you but if you keep an open mind and learn from your mistakes, you may find that there’s life after failure.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
The best advice I can give a young founder is to look for people who not only believe in their vision for their startup but also believe in them personally. Investors invest in people, not companies.
I’d also encourage them to build good credit and save as much money as possible so they can bootstrap their startup for a year or two. VCs typically invest in companies where they see massive growth potential and that’s not typically the case with most startups, especially in the B2B space.
Angel investors may be a better choice than a VC. In that case, I would advise them to get really clear on their story and build a killer pitch deck that connects their story with a real need/problem that they are solving. Do the research and make sure you understand your market, your competition, and have a growth strategy.
Being passionate about your startup, having a strong team and a compelling minimum viable product (MVP) help Angel Investors connect with your story. It shows them that you’ve not only identified a real problem but how you’ve solved it.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Get clear on why you’re launching your business. What’s your goal? Making money is not a mission statement. It’s a side effect of having a successful business. Toms is a great example. Founder Blake Mycoskie started his company to provide shoes to children who couldn’t afford them. Children without shoes pick up diseases and this results in a higher mortality rate. Having shoes doesn’t eradicate poverty but it addresses one side effect of it.
- Identify your early adopters. Not everyone is going to want your product or service. Do your research to identify that ideal customer, the one who will love what you do and be willing to pay top dollar for the value you bring them. Airbnb is one of the most successful startups in history. They were crystal clear that they wanted to attract customers looking for an immersive travel experience. They didn’t try to be a better Holiday Inn. They set out to disrupt the entire industry by creating a new model for travel. They built their company on the idea that people would want to share their homes and their cultures and they now have 100,000+ monthly users on their site.
- Niche is better than general. Too often a startup is a solution looking for a problem. Instead, focus only on your ideal customers. Don’t try to solve 10 different problems. Start with the one you can solve better than anyone else. Eventually, people will come to you and say, I know you do x but would you consider doing y? These are people who want to work with you because you’ve shown what you can do. Chances are you can do more than one thing really, really well but at the beginning, you have limited resources so focusing on one thing also makes business sense.
- Identify and live your core values. Take Nordstrom. They embody customer service. In my book, I share the story of a customer who came into Nordstrom to return a set of tires. The store employee took them back and gave the customer a full refund, even though the customer didn’t have a receipt — no questions asked. Nordstrom has never sold tires. Unless you’re offering that level of customer service, it’s not your core value.
- Don’t “do” marketing. Invest in marketing. Marketing is the engine of all successful companies. Trouble is that startup founders often believe that they have to get to a certain level before they can “do” marketing. One of the myths that I address in my book is the idea that “we’ll pay for marketing” when we have money to pay for marketing. But in working with dozens of companies, that never happens. Marketing is not a “nice to have.” The most successful startups integrate marketing into the DNA of their company. They understand that marketing is not a widget. It’s not something that lives on your balance sheet. You don’t spend x and expect a double-digit return. It’s an investment in the growth and success of your company. If you follow the lean marketing principles I outline in my book, your business will grow.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
In my experience, there are two types of founders. One likes to wear all the hats and do everything themselves because no one can do it as well as they can. The second typically starts with a co-founder or two and builds a team. They also have an advisory board so they can benefit from those who have more experience than they do. The first type of founder falls into the Loner Genius category, which I talk about in my book and mentioned earlier. They don’t share the spotlight with anyone else because they are the focus of the company. They are also more likely to build toxic workplaces. If you want a sustainable company culture, build your startup based on entrepreneurial thinking. One where mistakes are a path to growth, creative people have blue sky time (think Google) and the company is not focused on the founder but on the growth of the business. Everyone in the company knows how their job is a critical piece of the whole and they are motivated and inspired to be part of that. The goal of a startup is to scale quickly; because that’s how you’re able to make a difference. You need people and capital to impact change.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Remember that your family is on this journey with you. Making sure you make time for your family and loved ones is important to your health and that of your family. The divorce rate is especially high for startup founders so making time for your significant other and children reminds you why you’re putting your all into the company. Find people to help you as soon as possible so you’re not wearing all the hats, all the time. This will reduce burnout and keep you focused on building the company, instead of running it. I’ve also found that having a spiritual practice and a daily exercise routine are also critical to my mental and physical health and well-being.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d like to create a community for single moms with access to a wide range of support and services. I raised two children on my own and I remember thinking how great it would be if there was a community of other single moms where we could come together to share child-rearing responsibilities and provide a safety net for each other. Single moms are the unsung heroes of American society. They should be treated like the rock stars they are. Free daycare should be available to all families but especially to single moms. It is in other industrial countries. I hope to see that happen in the United States someday. It’s long overdue.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to have a private lunch with Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code. I grew up in Switzerland at a time when girls were taught sewing while boys learned math. It made me determined to break out of those gender roles and the limited expectations that my teachers had for me. Ms. Saujani built her organization to help girls find their voice. I can relate to that mission on both a personal and professional level.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can follow me on
They can also purchase my book to learn more about my brand building process.
On my website: zeewy.com
Or through my publisher: https://bit.ly/3qKNXqR
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!