Start-ups, scale-ups and building brands with Malcolm Fried

  • Author

    D'Arcy Whelan

  • Category


  • Date

    September 29, 2020


1. How would you define a brand?

A simple way to define a brand is this: It is a promise of performance that you have to meet.


2. What steps should early stage companies take to build the foundation of their brand? (Considering they have little budget)

What founders should be focusing on 100% in the early stage is how to make their products and services great, and how to forge trust with customers. Yes, startups need to figure out where their markets are and how to serve them, but this doesn’t mean undue investment in advertising or external campaigns to drive awareness. Remember, the brand is a function of everything a company does and produces. If the service or product is great – if they fill a need and deliver in a distinctive, sustainable and scalable way, the brand will build. As the company considers new markets and ways to breach competitive barriers, it will consider such mechanisms as advertising to enhance the growth.


3. Is the brand a function of its advertising?

Advertising is simply one of the ways a brand offers itself to the market. Advertising works when the products or services are great. What if they are not? Great ads will then draw attention to a terrible service more quickly. When the service is great, terrific ads will help fuel revenue growth. So to answer the question, no. A brand is the function and sum of absolutely everything: quality of product, service and presentation; how we behave, pitch, respond, make calls, talk to clients, show up to one another, and deal with the world.


4. How to strike a balance between the founder’s individual brand vs. the company brand?

I would say the key lever is not how visible the founder is, but how essential the founder is or is perceived to be to the organisation. Consider Elon Musk, a totally dominant founder who portrays himself as, and in fact is, the person who really matters to Tesla. If he were to pull away now, investors would question whether the organisation could survive. Now consider Steve Jobs who, like Musk, formed the epicenter of Apple but over time was able, perhaps because he was obliged by his failing health, to reduce to the risk to the company of losing his dominance and his presence. When Jobs was eventually no longer around, Apple didn’t just survive, it became even stronger. The balance is sometimes forced on the founder. Sometimes the founder looks proactively to achieve it. Sometimes a balance is never found.


5. Hiring advice to founders on finding the right person to lead the marketing/ branding function?

I would suggest an individual who:

  • asks ‘what is the objective that I need to achieve?’ not ‘what is the budget I have to work with?’;
  • wants to understand the business and the market before giving any advice;
  • puts a lot at risk to help the business (driven by equity vs. high salary);
  • has a commercial mind-set – thinking as a business person first and a marketer second.


6. Highlight a tech start up all founders should learn from (good or bad)?

The bad

The notorious WeWork encapsulated all that is wrong with a bad start-up:  pretending there is a market for something when there isn’t; saying you’re actually a particular kind of company – in this case, tech — when you’re not; repeatedly pivoting from one thing to the other because nothing actually works; raising vast amounts of money upon clouds of misdirection and misinformation, and ultimately failing in a very spectacular way. Why? The founders did not hold themselves accountable and nor did investors – everyone got carried away by the hype.

The good:

The greatness in Jeff Bezos and Amazon is that in almost every way conceivable, he epitomised what it was to create. From Day 1, he led; he asked “what if?”; he tested what consumers needed and wanted; he believed in “product and service first”; he demanded to know weaknesses and insisted on exceeding expectations in creating solutions; he created the proposition and platform; he literally put books in his car and he delivered them himself, always engaging with suppliers and consumers to test the service, with insatiable curiosity and desire for feedback; he designed and positioned his business with clarity, simplicity and focus. He remains a permanent student of his market. As a result, Bezos discovered not just what the market needed, but knows what it wants today and is going to require in future.