Should we all be thinking more like start-ups?

The best new companies are masters of innovation. Maybe it’s time we emulated them, says Storm Brand Design strategy director Paul Stallard

Sponsored by Storm Brand Design


Design is the business of invention and reinvention: creating new brands to meet user needs in new ways and repositioning existing brands to better meet those same needs. 

It is now largely founded on a rigorous process of research and development. We carefully size market opportunities; scientifically define and segment target audiences; deeply research their behaviour and their needs; and tailor the brand to meet these needs, testing all the way for engagement, differentiation and relevance.

Then we launch our primped, preened and perfectly tuned brand into an unsuspecting world. An unsuspecting world where people peruse it alongside the vast proliferation of brands that surround them and, just conceivably, greet it with a shrug of: “Ah, another brand a bit like those others.”

Is it time to consider whether our rigorous, detailed, structured development process is the problem rather than the solution?

We are trying to design our way to something new. But we are using a process that in reality was designed to optimise a business model that already understands its product, audience and proposition. Traditional development processes are really designed for companies that already know what works.

Businesses that genuinely create something new are creating a new configuration of these elements. They’re finding new needs to meet, new audiences to reach, and the ideal configuration of their product or service to meet those needs. They’re innovating.

Usually, they’re also start-ups. And maybe everyone trying to innovate needs to behave more like they do. There’s a growing consensus that their way is the right way to innovate.

In their book The Start-up Owner’s Manual, Steve Blank and Bob Dorf show how the process-driven approach to brand and product development can be disastrous in terms of innovation: “A start-up is not a smaller version of a big company,” they note. “The traditional [approach] to running large companies like
IBM, GM and Boeing does not work in start-ups. In fact it’s toxic.”

Big companies design and then launch. They try to identify what will work and then invest heavily in delivering at scale to a pre-planned model. Start-ups iterate. They proceed by trial and error. Then, when they’ve really figured out what works, they scale up. Big companies write a business plan and stick to it. Start-ups have a business plan that evolves as they do.

The digital world has provided a big boost for start-up thinking. The ability to build and rebuild at speed and to convert user experience into product adaption rapidly enables iteration to flourish. Businesses are engaged in a constant process of learning and evolution.

Start-ups – like the businesses in Shoreditch’s Boxpark – are constantly learning, revising and evolving

Google is a master at this. It defines itself as an ‘engineering’ company. Every product is first and foremost a test. Learning from the test might be fed back into making that product better and better. Failures by the standards of other companies are seen as successful by virtue of the learning they provide to power future products.

While the ease with which one can think of successful brands that came from nowhere in the digital sector shows the power of start-up thinking, its relevance goes beyond digital. Red Bull has retained the start-up attitude of doing things its way, reinventing the conventions of its category and keeping the experience
of its audience at the heart of everything it does.

And start-up mentality seems almost essential for the age we live in. Things happen fast. Ideas can cross continents before breakfast. Memes can come and go with the speed of a Gangnam-style dance move. There’s not enough time to plan and deliberate and ‘get it right for launch’ without the risk of being outplanned and outlaunched by someone quicker and smarter.

So how should companies wanting to use start-up methodologies to power innovation behave? At Storm Brand Design, we think there are a few basic principles from which any brand invention project can benefit.

Be visionary

Start-ups begin with a powerful founding vision for what they want to achieve. Often they end up achieving something completely different. But by setting out to revolutionise a sector, meet an unmet need, challenge convention or change the world, they instill a commitment to thinking differently at the heart of everything they do.

Be agile

Traditional design processes take too long. Start-ups work by making stuff happen quickly. Getting stuff out there. Learning, revising, evolving. Scaling down or up. Iterating their way from first idea to optimised model as quickly as possible. The same principles apply whether they’re rapidly prototyping a new product for a real-life market test or fundamentally changing a product or target market from iteration to iteration.

Create with real people

Conventional research-led design development is a bit like buying shoes online. Crudely, we hold up some pictures, ask which ones they like the most and sell them those, hoping that they fit and feel comfortable. Start-ups are tailors. They develop a strong vision, spend time with real people understanding what their needs really are, test their hypotheses by using prototypes in real-life situations and then adapt the solution based on what does and doesn’t work, potentially being prepared to change the approach completely before scaling up to reach larger and larger groups of real people.

Learn, learn, learn

Start-ups never stop learning – from failure, from success, from big issues, from minute details. Everything is a test, everything can be an insight. Failure can be a route to success.

Work with people who think like a start-up

At Storm we’ve re-engineered our business so that our processes, attitudes and resources can support ‘start-ups’, whether they’re lean new ventures or departments in large businesses aspiring to be truly innovative. 

From committing to our own start-up businesses to challenging the often slow, expensive and over-engineered processes of design development in our own industry, we think it is time to start celebrating start-ups as the heart of brand innovation.

Paul Stallard
Strategy director
Storm Brand Design

81 Rivington Street
London EC2A 3AY

T: 020 3375 2233

Twitter: @stormbrandesign




Back to reality

Michael Barnett

The most valuable insights come from actions, not words, says Matt Michaud, global provocation director for insight and innovation at Elmwood


Does your brand look good naked?

Michael Barnett

Stripping away the graphics, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish a brand from its competitors. That’s where structural packaging comes in, writes Heidi Maxwell, managing director of Touch Design.


    Leave a comment