Why I love working with founders

And how niching down has made all the difference

Founder-led brands

Almost three years ago I did something to my own business that is usually reserved for my clients. I repositioned, renamed and rebranded my offering – going from being an agency business to a brand consultancy, supported by a team of freelance specialist collaborators.

Sitting on the ‘other side’ of the table proved to be both interesting and a little daunting. It was definitely a good thing to do because I now have some idea of how it feels to be my client! One of the most important things I did during this process was define my market – who I was a good fit for. In The Co-Foundry’s case, it’s mission-led organisations – founder-led, privately-owned tech and creative businesses, and third sector organisations.

And the first lesson I learnt? As I wrote back in the summer of 2021, defining the ‘who’ makes you much better able to articulate your ‘why’ because both you and your ideal clients care about the same things.

Positioning post


An entrepreneurial heritage

Looking back, I can also see that the connection with founders goes deeper than the discovery stage of my own rebrand. Although I’d never really connected the dots before, I come from an entrepreneurial family, from a grandfather who was a tomato-grower on Guernsey to a father who started his own business in his 40s, not to mention the years I spent running my design agency. I guess you could say that I get it – that need to establish and run a business to your own special recipe.

I can’t deny that working directly with founders offers some significant and immediate advantages – you get to sit shoulder to shoulder with the decision-makers, you can be pretty sure that your creative won’t be subject to the dreaded design by committee revisions and, because you already know they’re not averse to risk, a bold design approach, when appropriate, is more likely to be embraced.

But more than that, their having ‘skin in the game’ and being so focused on the longer-term means there’s something very special about working with founders. Perhaps it’s similar to the difference an architect or designer encounters when they work with someone who’s after creating their dream home rather than just an investment vehicle.

They love what they do

I love what I do. For me, it’s not just work but a driving passion and so it’s no wonder that I relate to others who love and care for their businesses too. These are people who want to get it right, who recognise they can’t do it all themselves and so build a team and a culture, and through that a future that demonstrates these wider ambitions.

The mission-led businesses I work with embody their founders’ singular vision. They’ve developed something that meets a need or solves a problem in a way that delights their customers. It’s something they keep top of mind but may have trouble articulating and reflecting in their branding. But of course, that’s where a good brand consultant comes in…

They’re creative (even if they don’t always know it)

Design is easily identified as being part of the creative economy but, to my mind, entrepreneurship and being a founder is (no matter what field you’re in) a profoundly creative act.

As Bernie Goldhirsh, founder of Inc magazine said, creating a business from nothing is ‘a kind of artistry…based on an ability to see what everyone else is missing.’ He also believed that entrepreneurial management required far more creativity from a founder than the grounding in rational skills that traditional management courses teach.

Founder-led brands


There’s a buzz

I found that reading Bo Burlingham’s book, Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great instead of Big really chimed with my thinking. In the same way that I see the founder-led companies I’m lucky enough to work with, Burlingham identified the ‘small giants’ in his book, as working to more than just financial objectives, ‘They were also interested in being great at what they did, creating a great place to work, providing great service to customers, having great relationships with their suppliers, making great contributions to the communities they lived and worked in, and finding great ways to lead their lives.’

All of this drive, enthusiasm and purpose means founder-led companies have a buzz about them, something that the book refers to as a state of being ‘totally in sync with [your] market, with the world around [you] and with each other.’ Getting your branding and values aligned is vital in maintaining this consistent emotional connection with your customers, team and community. It’s why our Values in Action workshops are so popular with the founders and third sector organisations we work with. The workshops ensure that branding is more than skin-deep – it becomes a code of conduct that’s embedded and lived by.

They understand that things take time

It seems that founders have quite a few things in common with branding consultants: They understand the importance of having a perspective or point of view on their market and a value proposition they believe in.

As Danny Meyer of now, not so ‘small giant’, Union Square Hospitality Group, points out, ‘At first, [your value proposition] is a monologue. Gradually it becomes a dialogue and then a real conversation. Like breaking in a baseball glove. You can’t will a baseball glove to be broken in; you have to use it. Well, you have to use a new business, too. You have to break it in. If you move on to the next thing too quickly, it will never develop its soul.’

They may be driven to succeed, but founders understand that brands take time to bed in – that brand-building is a long-term strategy – because they’re in it for the long term too. This makes working with them hugely rewarding, not least when you see how a rebrand revitalises a business or helps take it in a new direction.

How The Co-Foundry helps founder-led businesses

Our collaborative approach to working with our clients is in our name. As The Co-Foundry we work closely alongside our clients because we believe that branding is never something that is imposed or done ‘to you’. Our process is comprehensive and thorough and, as we’re reliably informed, time and again, great fun – with the workshop stages offering a chance for teams to bond and remind themselves of why they do what they do.

Over to the founders…

The clients we’ve worked with put it much better than I ever could (or should!):

Our new branding and messaging communicated that providing an ongoing, long-term relationship was central to how we work and this made what we offer different to what he’d get from another recruitment company. And that is exactly what we’d wanted to portray. I feel confident we’ll get a tenfold return on our investment over three years and, in addition it’ll stop us losing business.

Alan Furley, ISL Talent

We have true standout now. Before, we looked and sounded like any other web dev company – we needed to be bold, express our opinion and demonstrate our personality. we’ve got that now and it’s really getting us traction.

Simon Best, CEO, BaseKit

Together we were able to bring some much-needed clarity to our positioning and identity. I’m thrilled with the results and can’t wait to continue growing the business from the solid base they have helped us build.

Harry Cobbold, Unfold (digital agency)

You can’t be for everybody

As the saying goes, you can’t be all things to all people. Finding ‘my people’ – the clients I most enjoyed working with, that I could bring the most value to, has been the most liberating of the changes I made when I went from design agency to brand consultant.

Niching down and targeting founders (as well as mission-led third sector organisations) has not only increased my job satisfaction, it’s also helped me refine my processes and make more of my voice in the industry. And for those who might think that working with the same type of people is repetitive…?

Every client is different and so requires a carefully tailored approach. What your clients do all get to benefit from, when you niche down, is someone who truly understands their concerns and issues, and the values that are important to them. The patterns I see emerging add greater depth and meaning to the work we’re able to do with our clients, and so make for better branding all round.

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