Tim Smalley is no stranger to disruption. Early in his career, he launched and grew two online magazines from zero to over a million monthly active users before they were acquired. The best part? He didn’t spend a penny on marketing.
But when his life was disrupted by the sudden loss of two close family members, his career path changed. Tim went on to larger companies—including ASUS and UK2 Group—where he led massive product launches and helped triple revenue.
Now he’s building his next business, Stratomic. As a product marketing consultant, business mentor, and keynote speaker, Tim helps other companies build their brands by getting inside their customers’ minds.
I caught up with Tim to talk about launching businesses, creating brands, and how he’d spend your $10,000.
EJ: Branding has become a complex topic, and it means different things to different people. What does branding mean to you?
TIM: It’s not really what branding means to me, it’s what it means to the audience. The brand should reflect the values of the company, but it should also be a reflection of the customers you’re trying to attract.
This has changed a lot over the years. Whereas branding used to be just a distinct name and fancy logo, now it means thinking about the thoughts and feelings of your target audience. We’re in a place where people are actually looking for an experience. They want to build a relationship with the brands that they choose to associate with. So it comes down to relationships, and being able to deliver an experience.
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EJ: So then, how much is branding truly about being authentic—expressing the true vision or mission of the company, founder, or CEO—versus finding a story that really resonates with your target audience?
TIM: You always need your truth. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not, at least not for long. People will figure out if you’re just saying something because you think it’s what they want to hear, rather than what you actually believe.
I cofounded my first business when I was 18. We built a brand that we believed in, that reflected our passion for tech, and it became my kind of truth. Other people shared that passion—they believed in our story. And this truth helped the business grow entirely by word of mouth.
Sure, at times you embellish the story to make it less mundane, kind of like a documentary versus a film that’s based on a true story. But it still reflects your truth.
“Start with your truth. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not, at least not for long.”
So if people call you on it, you can say “that’s my truth.” And if you don’t deliver on your brand promises then you’ve failed, because you’ve failed on your truths.
EJ: Let’s imagine I’m an ambitious entrepreneur with a big idea. I go through the steps to validate my idea, and I’m ready to launch into the market. At what stage should I be thinking about my brand?
TIM: Ultimately we all have our values, and the business values should reflect the values of the founders or the leadership team. This really is the foundation of the brand. And it’s important when hiring to make sure the inner circle surrounding the founder reflects those truths and enhances those values.
As the business starts to grow, things change. And the messaging might change too. But as long as the fundamentals are established, and you bring in people that reflect those values, then the brand can grow while maintaining those core truths.
EJ: Imagine my business gets some traction, and I know I need to take this brand image thing seriously. You’ve got $10,000 to help me build my brand. What do you do with that money?
TIM: I actually went through this situation. When I joined my previous company, UK2 group, I joined to rebrand one of the six businesses that made up the company. Here’s the approach I took in that situation.
- Internal interviews – How does the business see itself?
- External interviews – How do customers see us?
- Make the connections – Where’s the disconnect?
First, I spoke to every single person in the business, over 270 people. I especially spent a lot of time talking to the product, marketing, and executive teams—the people building the product, communicating with customers, and leading the business.
Second, I interviewed as many existing customers as I could. I also managed to speak with 10 or 15 ex-customers. I spent two or three months trying to build context around where this business was internally and in the eyes of our customers.
Then I compared the two, trying to understand where the gap was between how we saw ourselves and how our customers saw us. Where did they connect? Where was the disconnect? In a business, the reason for a rebrand is usually because of some form of disconnect.
Another approach is to focus on brand image and advertising. Go spend $2K designing a new logo, or $20 on Fiverr, then build a brand book with a copywriter from the Philippines that costs you five dollars an hour. After that, spend the rest on developing some kick-ass Facebook ads that are designed for direct response conversion.
Now, is that the right way to go? Personally, I think no. Because the brand should be the foundation of everything. You’ve really got to get the fabric of the business right, and there’s no substitute for spending money on creating the right fabric.