Most early-stage startup founders are either hackers, business people or subject-matter experts, and most teams are laser-focused on building something awesome. When is the right time to focus on brand-building and what's the best way for a startup to use its limited dollars on branding?
The most powerful element of your brand in the early-stage of your startup is your reputation. Every interaction you have can positively build (or negatively impact) your brand.
This can't be bought, but can be easily lost. Common ways I've seen start-ups lose their reputation early:
1) Not listening: Startup CEO asks a customer to participate in customer development and spends the entire time trying to convince the customer they are wrong, don't understand the problem the way the CEO does, or spends time trying to sell the potential customer instead of learning and listening to the customer's needs. The same goes with investors and advisers.
Over-promise / under-deliver: This can be fatal and if not, at least set you back several steps and takes many shapes (product functionality and experience, milestones, projections, etc)
Unresponsive or uncaring: Coming across as lacking concern, empathy and/or humility is perhaps the most "viral" way to ruin or lose brand value. It seem as though every week there is a story getting shared via Twitter of a CEO, founder or key team member who is bringing down their brand in this category.
Failing to make customers love you: While all of the above things can negatively impact your brand, if you don't turn people who experience your product or service into true fans (not a like button), you won't build a lasting brand.
Keep your brand focused on your reputation in the early days. Stay laser-focused on this kind of brand-building. It is the surest way to build real brand equity.
Happy to talk through any and all of these points in more detail with you on a call.