In the heart of the Triangle, where technology and medical startups seem to rule, comes... an early stage luxury brand? Yep, Baltz, which started in late 2011 with a successful Kickstarter campaign, has hit the marketplace with a series of handmade wooden pens.
Over the last few months I've gotten to know Bart Creasman and Cass Baltz, the co-founders of Baltz, and have seen them work hard to compete against venerable luxury brands like Montblanc. Trying to beat a multi-national company that generates billions of dollars a year in revenue is far from easy for a start-up from Raleigh. But they're succeeding... and in there lies the story for all of us entrepreneurs.
I spoke with Baltz co-founder Bart Creasman the other day about what its like to tackle the challenges of acquiring customers and building a company while establishing your brand. It's definitely doable if you're smart, focused and don't overspend on the wrong initiatives.
It all starts with the experience
Baltz has a good idea: Build high quality and visually attractive products that their customers not only love to use but want to show off. They did this by using exotic woods, beautiful design elements and a lot of elbow grease.
But whether you're building fine writing pens or the next great web product, the lesson is the same - you cannot have a great brand if your product gives your customers a lousy experience. Branding starts with product development and carries through every interaction that a customer has with your company. 'Cause it's easy to have one small element (like poor customer service or a frustrating website) ruin your brand loyalty.
Public Relations is your friend
Baltz first gained traction with a Kickstarter campaign. They raised nearly $20,000; got national press coverage and thanks to the associated buzz landed funding with Plus One Inc., a rather below-the-radar venture capital group in North Carolina.
Even better, their press coverage helped them sell pens right away while establishing their brand for the long-term. Who did they pay to do all of this? No one. They did it themselves. They told their story to journalists they thought would be interested. It worked and has helped them take the steps they needed to launch nationally.
Branding is often time and cost intensive. Find the balance between long-term awareness and short-term sales.
You won't have a brand in the long-term if you can't find customers now. Not tomorrow, not next week... but NOW.
Baltz was smart enough to recognize this and captured customers through smart online marketing, public relations and partnerships. And if two guys who met on the soccer team at Davidson College did it, so can you.
Look at every selling opportunity as an opportunity to also make the experience of interacting with your brand unique and different. Depending on your business, this can manifest itself in lots of different ways - awesome packaging, a killer user interface, a fun tone of voice on your blog, a super nice customer service team... the options are endless.
Make your brand larger than life
But their vision for the brand is about much more than only the logo. It extended to the cursive B on their first series of pens and is now expanding into other product categories that they intend to tackle in the coming year.
The lesson here is that strong brands are an outgrowth of the vision of the founders. Distill what your company exists to do into a single statement that is a reflection of a huge idea. Then find interesting ways to visually and creatively articulate that idea.