Marketing and growth at a startup remains a top challenge for founders. As they say fist time founders focus on product, while second time founders focus on distribution. No matter how good your product is, if no one knows about it, it’s dead in the water. But where do founders begin with startup marketing? This can be overwhelming with many up coming platforms and limited resources.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Daniel Francavilla. He is a top Brand Strategist and Marketer who has spent over 10 years in this space, helping number of tech startups launch successful campaigns and scale global brands.
What was your inspiration into starting your own thing?
I didn’t take a typical path to building my business and there was no grand plan — it was heavily based on exploration and inspiration.
The first thing I started was a nonprofit organization called ACCESS, early-on as a high school student. I was in grade 10 at the time in Brampton, and the specific inspiration was an exposure trip overseas to a developing country (in the Dominican Republic’s non-vacation resort areas). There, I got to learn about what life is actually like for the majority of the world, outside of the comparatively more privileged area that I grew up in the GTA (Brampton and Toronto). This trip was my inspiration to take action and start fundraising and programming, which stemmed from meeting young Dominicans and Haitians who expressed their desire to get an education and learn English — to enable them to have a better life and support their family.
When it comes to the agency Now Creative Group, my first incorporated business after being a freelance graphic designer, I was inspired by being part of the entrepreneurial journey of other founders and changemakers. Early on I found that I was energized helping entrepreneurs tell their story and support in bringing their vision into life. That’s essentially what I was unofficially doing as a freelancer in the early days — equipping these people with their first business card, or the first ever logo for their new small business. The inspiration to launch the agency in 2013 was to bring the various talents from different individuals into one place and process, to be able to serve entrepreneurs and changemakers on their mission.
Connecting back to my first venture, I was able to continue working with other nonprofits and charities through the agency, and became very passionate about helping them to communicate and showcase their impact — something I still do today.
We know marketing at a startup is a struggle. How has King Street Media been helping startups launch and scale their marketing effort?
Marketing is a very broad term, which includes everything from advertising to branding to social media. Within it there’s of course the technical side (like SEO and web development), and the content side (including videos, photography, graphics and animations). With the really wide spectrum that marketing covers today, there are very few people I’ve met who are super proficient in multiple categories. There are of course those who understand what they are and how they work together, but very few can execute all these areas themselves, nor do they have time.
As an agency, King Street Media has been helping startups launch (we’ve done product launches and crowdfunding campaigns) as well as scaling their business. When it comes to growth marketing, sometimes we’re the first agency or vendor that really helps a startup reach their growth goals (such as doubling the amount of restaurant locations or increasing conversion rate on an eCommerce store). We’ve been able to optimize the process for startups and founders. For example, we helped one of our clients in the tele-health space expand to several provinces and broaden their product offering. King Street Media takes a really consultative approach when we work with startups, whether you’re a founder or the Director of Marketing at a company, and establish how our agency can best contribute to your specific goals. Sometimes we take on the whole project and other times we work collaboratively with an in-house team — and we’re not afraid to work with other agencies who specialize in different areas.
Based on your experience, what tips do you have for startups when it comes to marketing and branding?
Based on my experience, it always comes down to authenticity. That means being real and honest from the beginning and being open about things. Not everything is perfect for startups, from team challenges to product delays, for example. Authenticity looks different depending on what the medium and situation is, and your business model and industry (for such with financial, where it’s critical to maintain credibility and professionalism), but authenticity still allows people to connect with you and build trust.
The second tip I have for startups when it comes to marketing and branding is that you should invest in your brand early on. That doesn’t mean hiring a super expensive logo designer, but rather developing the actual brand. (Does it have meaning, does it have values or legs behind it? Or is it just an icon that you downloaded from somewhere?) Investing in the brand allows people to buy-in, and it allows you to build a community of fans and followers. Especially in the competitive startup space, a strong brand allows people to identify you from the early days, and be able to follow your story and recognize you later on.
My third tip is that you do not have to be everywhere all at once. As a startup, you need to pick platforms where your audience actually is. You can still have a presence on other platforms for searchability, but pick the platforms and places to actually invest in, and really go in on those. That’s where your customers, audience or community are going to come from.
While working on your own company, you’ve done a lot of non-for-profit and philanthropy initiatives, which is incredible. Tell us about your latest projects.
I launched my non-profit organization ACCESS way back in 2006 when I was a grade 10 student, starting off with international education and empowerment work. The first half of ACCESS’ existence was primarily fundraising for international education projects in countries like Dominican Republic, Colombia, Haiti, Tanzania and Jamaica, and it has expanded to the overall goal of youth empowerment.
Recently the focus has been on local initiatives (supporting local youth led nonprofits and youth focused social enterprises —often started by students or recent grads). The key initiative for this is the ACCESS Bright Ideas Pitch, which has taken place in-person in Toronto and Bramptonand virtually during the pandemic. For the pitches, there is an online application and a live judging panel. We offer some mentorship to the groups as well to point them in the right direction. This initiative has been a great bridge between the worlds of entrepreneurship and social good for me personally
Your firm has been hiring and growing your team. How’s your traction been so far? What do you look for in your new team members?
King Street Media is growing and yes, we’re hiring! Over the past year, we’ve expanded the depth and breadth of our team, while growing out different areas of the business and refining some offerings. It’s great because pre-merger at Now Creative Group, it was primarily creative, branding, communication and production, while King Street Media focused heavily on the digital side of advertising, web and growth marketing. It’s exciting for me now because we’re able to bring in some more creative team members.
When it comes to what we look for in new team members, it starts with the entrepreneurial mindset. You don’t have to actually have your own business to have entrepreneurial drive and spirit. We give our team members the opportunity to get involved in client projects and company initiatives. And if they want to earn more, or take on different client projects, there are opportunities within our company to do so. In addition to this, we also look for people who are passionate about their craft. Our agency has a wide range of offerings, so we don’t necessarily have someone to mentor and be an expert in every one of those areas. We value people who are very passionate about their craft and are hungry to learn more on their own so they can better themselves. Continuous learning has always been a big one for KSM.
What’s next for you and the firm? Are there any exciting partnerships, products or features we can look forward to?
We are in the process of opening a content studio, a physical space in Toronto. Our team has been fully remote for the last 2-3 years, but we’re opening up a space in the financial district at Wellington & Yonge Street called CreatorClub Studios. This is a partnership with Globalive, the firm founded by Canadian venture capitalist Anthony Lacavera.
CreatorClub is essentially a hub for entrepreneurs, business professionals and leaders with a story to tell or a message to turn into engaging, sharable content. We’re solving a problem that many busy founders and leaders face: lots to say, but no easy way to efficiently, professionally capture and distribute it.
We built a podcast studio with a photo and video studio on the way, and will also be hosting learning and networking events at the space. We’re also producing our own shows and podcasts. It’s an exciting initiative, and we are hiring — we’re building a talent roster and recruiting creators of all kinds. You can find out more at http://CreatorClubStudios.com.
What challenges do you see in your industry? What does the future of marketing look like?
There are 3 challenges that come to mind for me right now when it comes to the marketing industry.
One challenge is for both companies and talent to remain innovative and on top of the technology, new platforms and tools that are becoming available to us. Some things change very quickly in this industry, but it’s not instantaneous adoption — some business models rely on older processes, and some large agencies may take too long to adapt. There are many digital-first and future-focused agencies, but the talent doesn’t always have the necessary tools and context coming out of school, and the right combination of skill sets may not be available. Fresh talent need opportunities to get into the workplace to face situations head-on and learn on the go — much like I did as a young entrepreneur, starting an agency without prior industry experience, and learning every step of the way.
The second challenge I see is to get everyone to prioritize and take diversity, equity and inclusion seriously by default, at all levels. From the client side to the agency side and all their stakeholders, we need to effectively communicate and acknowledge the need to respect, value and include all people — and be aware of what’s been underrepresented in advertising and mainstream media. Despite the progress made over the last 2 years, it’s still a challenge the industry faces. There are some agencies, teams and companies that are doing super well with this, but others have failed very publicly (see: cancel culture). While at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity with my fellow King Street Media partners this summer, we witnessed a big emphasis on DE&I. As part of a recap article by the Cannes team, this intro gives great context: “To take a deeper, multi-dimensional approach to DE&I, industry leaders and Lion winners emphasise the need to go further and co-create with communities. Put the focus on helping create generational wealth and understand the implications of appropriating culture. With a burgeoning metaverse, purpose-led brands must avoid mapping biases and inequalities onto new worlds too. Until now, the narrative of DE&I has exceeded the action. There is an urgent need to build back better and create new ways to benefit the communities we’ve traditionally marginalised or ignored.”
The third challenge in the industry is around content. The ability to produce high quality content and creative marketing that’s genuine, authentic and that resonates is a challenge. It’s not all about advertising, it’s also about positive brand-building. Many audiences are more aware and suspicious of advertising today. There is an increasing emphasis on user generated content, which can be very effective in many cases — butit’s not to be mistaken with the fact that you still need a strategy and a brand behind it. An approach that goes far beyond saying, “we’re just going to get some local influencers or actual customers to create all our content” and solely relying on that. In a world where people are very aware of branding, and where people don’t want to be sold to and use ad blockers, one tactic doesn’t necessarily solve everything.
What is one piece of advice you have for founders and aspiring entrepreneurs to grow their businesses?
Rather than one, I’ll share 3 pieces of advice — and then 4 more.
The first is to try to focus on areas that are going to be the most impactful. Set the foundation first and focus on one or two ideas or initiatives at a time. If you don’t have a solid foundation, and you don’t fully develop out some of those offerings or productsfirst, it’s going to be very difficult to make traction quickly enough and you may lose momentum.
The second piece of advice is to communicate your brand. Clearly communicating your brand, product or offering can seem obvious, but it’s not always top of mind for founders (who already have the vision clear in their mind, or are focused on building). From day one people do not know what’s in your head and they can’t see your full vision. If you are not able to communicate your brand or your offering clearly, concisely its benefits , or who it’s for (appealing to a specific audience or specific user). Remember that when you are deciding on demographics and psychographics to target, when you try to speak to everyone, you’re not really resonating or speaking to anyone.
Finally, my third price of advice is simply that networking can actually play a huge role in your success. It’s underrated, especially when we’ve had this virtual world. But I grew my nonprofit and my business very much based on networking, genuine connections, and relationships which led to partnerships and collaborations.here’s a ton from a networking standpoint and relationship building standpoint that goes into making progress in the entrepreneurship and the nonprofit space. Both of those are not things we do in silos or alone. Community is very important.
If you’re a startup founder or considering launching your own venture, I also shared 4 things founders need to know about marketing here.