How to Keep Your Startup, Not Lose It

This column is authored by Raj Mohan Tella, Founding Partner at Brandlogues

StartupA relevant advice? No, actually observations that have immediacy. Those, which can possibly help the startup world to hold on to their dreams and continue to change the game. But how does one do that? Or allow me to say that how does a founder keep an alert eye on those aspects of branding, which can help the startup journey, move smoothly and smartly in the public’s mind.

Sometimes as a startup and more importantly as a founder, you could be missing the obvious. I have observed that many founders believe that the product/service/tech/ idea is the most important piece of ingenuity and the rest of the paraphernalia surrounding it are merely supporting arguments. This general impression more often than not, leads the individual and the founding teams away from the relevance and immediacy of the power of public opinion. It is in the nature of a reality, and sometimes it can be a harsh one.

Travis Kalanick the founder of Uber got the rough side of it.

We all know how the events unfolded. The idea of Travis Kalanick was kept, he was politely told to stay away.

Media have stated many reasons for this departure – shareholder revolt said some, investors’ dissatisfaction cited a few, while others said that the founder was brash, a poor listener and wanted to grow at any cost. Media in the same breath also said that it was unusual for a Silicon Valley startup founder to be asked to step down and actually asked to keep away – ostensibly to embrace a new future…?

From, I quote,

‘Uber’s board said in a statement that Mr. Kalanick had “always put Uber first” and that his stepping down as chief executive would give the company “room to fully embrace this new chapter in Uber’s history.

The same Travis Kalanick who with Garrett Camp changed the paradigm of personal transport in 2008?

From the Washington Post I quote,

The story goes that Uber was born when Kalanick and tech entrepreneur Garrett Camp were attending a computer conference in Paris and tossing out ideas late one night. It is an origin story often shared by the two men. Camp noted how hard it was to get a taxi, especially in San Francisco, where Uber would eventually be based. He floated the idea of hiring some limos and some drivers and connecting them to an iPhone app that allowed for an on-demand taxi service.

From rise to fall and out of the public memory, for all that Travis has done for the world. Frankly, that is not a position any founder would like to be in.

Before I attempt an analysis of what a startup should not do, here is an interesting take on Travis from Uber’s employees, those who believe that Travis still has something in him to lead Uber –

From, I quote,

“Nobody is perfect, but I fundamentally believe he can evolve into the leader Uber needs today and that he’s critical to its success,” Mr. York wrote in an email to fellow Uber employees, titled “Supporting Travis.”

While there maybe many reasons for the resignation and all the inner machinations that led to the event, it seems evident that there was no sync between perceptions of the various key stakeholders. Investors and founders; within the board, employees and leader, women employees and the leadership, public and the Uber taxi driver (especially in India where they were in the news for all the wrong reasons) and many more.

What I think went wrong

  • Enough attention was not given to manage the cultural values of the company
  • Complete breakdown of corporate communication and meaningful engagement with the relevant stakeholders
  • In some cases, even the stakeholders being completely ignored
  • A not too comfortable personification of the founder – his ‘person brand’ not being seen in proper light. The same wonder kid, the same brilliant jerk (part of a headline in the Economic Times)?
  • A mismatch between the external identity and the internal identity of the company and the brand (remember Susan Fowler’s blog on sexism in Uber)
  • Videos of founder seen arguing with taxi drivers
  • A political alignment and expression of support for a particular political party, coupled with reports of sexual harassment leading to a strong #delete Uber Hashtag. (All avoidable situations or should I say things that could have been handled if there was an effective corporate communication framework in place).
  • The cumulative result – a vulnerable brand reputation and a sullied brand voice?

Drawing support for my above observations, are some postulates from corporate communications and branding theory.

I cite Grahame Dowling in Communicating Corporate Reputation through Stories, who highlights the unique relevance of stakeholders by literally elevating them to the status of a ‘court of public opinion.’ My understanding therefore, is that implicit in this position is the moral demand and possibly a larger necessity for managers and brands to ensure their communication efforts are marked with alignment and legitimacy. It is evident that passing the muster with the stakeholders and succeeding with them, obviously holds the key to an effective and continuing result-delivering corporate communication programme.

Further quoting from Van Riel and Fombrun in Essentials Of Corporate Communication -Implementing Practices For Effective Reputation Management,

“To succeed, organizations must therefore develop and maintain healthy interactive relationships with their stakeholders – and the purpose of a company’s communication system is to facilitate that engagement.”

At Uber all of this failed. There was an absence of stakeholder empathy and efforts to mitigate the situation in the first place. The court of public opinion seems to have passed the judgment that all is not well with the leadership of Travis. The same court that lauded him as a pioneer did not give him a chance to explain the happenings. Departure of senior personnel, media reports on sexism and more took the focus away from the founder’s out of the box talent and the impending Uber journey. The result: goodbye founder.

What a Founder should do to remain as one?

  1. Always be in love with the idea but bear in mind you need more than one pair of hands to change the game on a global scale.
  1. While there may be more hands, ensure there is a culture which guards the brand
  1. Alignment on what the brand is has to happen across the swathe of stakeholders
  1. Brand is all about the right associations. Question to ask is do you and the organization have that set of associations in place?
  1. If you haven’t structured those associations (branding), do it yesterday not tomorrow. Share it across the organization. Uber had 14 Core Values but they weren’t enough to protect the founder. Or the stakeholders didn’t adequately accept them, or the stakeholders did not see the sync. between the talk and the walk?
  1. Once the associations are in place, moderate your personality just that bit. A ‘brilliant jerk’ also can be sent out. An acceptable jerk was Travis when he founded Uber. I would say a genius of a jerk was he.
  1. Brand is paramount, even the Founder is subservient to it.

Uber in the dictionary means superlative, the best of the best.

While I am sure it will work towards remaining one, history will always remember Travis Kalanick.

With a little bit of judiciousness and a sound approach to creating a brand in the context of the right and relevant associations, he could have had history remember him differently.

Founders. Losers or keepers? Take your call.

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