For the first time in modern history, most of the world is at a collective stand still. Many industries like professional sports and entertainment are on pause until further notice. The Hollywood Reporter estimates the film industry alone has already seen a loss north of $7 billion, and the industry is bracing to take a total of $20 billion off the books. In the midst of this turbulence, most have not it upon themselves to learn how to build a brand online.
Megan Rapinoe and the US Women’s Soccer team are not most. In this extended period of uncertainty, they are not slowing down. In fact, they’re operating with the same speed and intensity that they bring to the field as venture-backed founders, philanthropists and startup angel investors.
I call this triple threat mentality: founders, creators, and talented individuals balancing multiple careers or creative projects that reflect their multi-dimensional set of skills, interests and values.
Megan Rapinoe and the founding team at re—inc are leading the charge during COVID-19 and taking action in three key ways:
- Learning how to build a brand from scratch. Rapinoe and company scaled a venture-backed startup that’s been fully remote from the beginning. To pull this off, the team used Slack, Zoom and other tools that have been recently pulled into mainstream culture. For the first time in history, Saturday Night Live started this week with Kate McKinnon saying: "And live from Zoom..." To say that we’ve entered a new future of work would be understatement. Work and life have converged in ways that no one could have predicted.
- Angel investing and spearheading philanthropic initiatives. The investments are building the next generation of companies challenging the status quo and these initiatives are supporting non-profit relief efforts for athletes, creators and individuals directly affected by COVID-19.
- Driving political discussion online to educate the American people. Megan Rapinoe’s live discussion with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez served as the first mainstream breakdown of the $2-trillion economic stimulus package passed in March 2020. Rapinoe continues to be a strong voice for the American people on navigating uncertain times ahead.
On Worklife Live, I sat down with Jessica Tillyer, re—inc’s Co-Founder and Chief Brand and Experience Officer, and Jenny Wang, re—inc’s Co-Founder. Our conversation covered how to build a brand online for a values-aligned company that’s challenging the status quo and breaking down stereotypes on what’s possible for triple threats in every industry.
We’ve turned this exclusive interview into an actionable guide for early stage founders and anyone pursuing new creative projects.
Looking for tips on how to build a strong online brand? You’ll find them here, plus learn how to:
- Build a community that becomes a movement
- Adopt the mindset of an athlete: focus, determination, coachability
- Leverage your personal brand, company resources and investor network for good
How to build a brand online: turn community into a movement
The celebrity-led startup isn’t new. Movie stars, athletes, and influencers alike have made forays into business ventures ranging from wine to make-up palettes.
Yet, re—inc and its famous founders have done something decidedly different with their own venture-backed startup. Their clothing is gender neutral and they’ve eschewed cookie-cutter classification by producing everything from artwork to experiences, they aren’t another celebrity selling branded merchandise. In a crowded world of consumer products, where everyone is looking to differentiate, re—inc has created a movement that extends far beyond sports fans into a multi-dimensional battle cry for individual purpose and power.
How to build a brand from scratch: focus on values
Every aspect of re—inc’s model challenges the status quo: values-first, not celebrity-first.
This isn’t coincidence –– it’s by design. re—inc knew the values they wanted their brand to embody before they’d even dreamt up the product or the name “re—inc”:
“We started from a place of brand and business before we even figured out what the product was, which meant when we were from the very beginning, writing what our purpose statement was and what our values were.” –– Jessica Tillyer
The Founding Team at re—inc developed a brand that centered around “equity, creativity, art, and originality” that arose out of virtual white boarding sessions on Zoom. How did they get there? Rather than joining the ranks of just-another-celebrity-lifestyle-brand, they thought deeply about how to build a brand from scratch. This meant digging deep on the core values and purpose of their company and discovering what they wanted to accomplish. They reflected on personally formative experiences that could inform what their brand could represent. A few concrete ideas emerged:
- “Why just resist when you can reimagine?”
- “Reimagine the status quo.”
- “We're not interested in regular.”
These statements and questions inform how re—inc approaches everything they do –– whether it’s bringing underrepresented collaborators to the table or dropping a WFH Capsule Collection to reinvent work culture and create a movement for a more inclusive worklife.
How to build a successful brand online: focus on feeling
Every action impacts your reputation and ability to connect with your community and hire top talent.
Your brand isn’t your logo. It’s easy to think of your brand as a checklist that includes creative assets like:
- Brand colors
These are certainly a part of a brand, but they’re not the only considerations. They also shouldn’t be your starting point. Instead, consider this:
“A brand is really just a feeling or emotion and the impact it has on you.” –– Jessica Tillyer
Startups typically view “brand” as a big company concept that becomes a priority once you’ve scaled your marketing team. But today, every move a founder makes publicly contributes to the perception of the company and its ability to connect with customers and hire top talent.
As you learn how to build a strong online brand, ask:
- Are you listening to your customers?
- Are you watching the macro-environment and ways to support the community around you?
- Are you operating with the speed required to deliver noticeably better customer experience?
- Are you investing in brand identity and creatively expressing your values?
By closely considering these questions, you can develop your brand as a feeling and cultivate a community that scales into a movement and not just a look or marketing tactic.
Brand starts with founders and scales with the company across design, development, customer support, and everyone else whose work impacts the customer experience.
How to build a strong online brand: turn inward first
Examine if your values are internally and externally consistent
To build a values-aligned company, what a company says externally has to be consistent with the experience and values for employees internally. People are increasingly allergic to marketing and choose products and services with honest, transparent, and consistent values. Plus, strong internal values can prevent employee burnout.
At re—inc, values are the foundation of what they share with the world and how the company runs, including who they choose to work with:
“We're so careful with all of the partners that we work with. We created this company to create a new pie, and we feel very strongly in equity and distributing that pie. For example, when we look at photographers, we want to make sure that the crew that we work with are representational of the future that we're trying to create.” –– Jessica Tillyer
"When we raised our first round of funding, we took the same approach. Our lead investor is an incredible woman who was a D1 National Champion in women’s soccer at Stanford, and is today a brilliant investor at one of the best Sand Hill firms and known advocate on sports for social change and impact." –– Jenny Wang
Cultivating a community isn’t just important to attract early users. It’s also crucial for recruiting and retaining talented team members to help drive your company vision forward. When a company’s internal culture fails to deliver what it represents externally, you’ll see dissatisfied employees move on and take their negative experiences with them. By creating a company culture that’s internally and externally consistent, you can build a single cohesive story that scales into a supportive movement that impacts future companies across different industries.
How to build a brand name from scratch: adopt the athlete mindset
Re-inc has been intentional about creating a new category that’s different from other celebrity brands. The company is grounded in modern values and delivers the same work-ethic Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, and Christen Press bring to the field to score goals and win championships:
“I've come to realize, it's all about precision and incredible gut instincts and being able to trust those. If you are the best soccer player in the world, your sense of precision and instinct is probably better than any of the rest of us.” –– Jessica Tillyer
A company’s identity evolves over time and requires founders to be agile, collaborative, and forward-thinking in the same way that they view the evolution of their product.
In the case of how re—inc built a fashion brand online, the team has been fully remote from day one and continues to be ahead of the curve with gender neutral and work from home ready capsule wardrobes.
How to build a strong online brand: be coachable and receptive to feedback
Starting a company is a team sport. Founders need to delegate and trust:
- Designers to create a visual identity and design an intuitive product
- Engineers to efficiently build a stable platform
- Customer support to solve time critical concerns
In tough times, the re—inc founders know to adapt and drive towards the same goal:
“If you have been an athlete your entire life, you're used to being coached constantly and you're really, really open to feedback and coaching. That's something I've really learned from our founders. So often in the workplace, we're taught to protect ourselves from coaching or feedback and say, ‘Hey I'd love some feedback,’ but that's not always true. Something that I've just really, really loved is our company is so open to coaching and feedback. [We] allow ourselves to be very vulnerable in that way and know that we all have each other's best intentions [at heart].” –– Jessica Tillyer
For early stage founders, especially first-time founders, seek out career coaching that can give you honest feedback on personal strengths and ways you can augment the team’s ability through angel investors, advisors and new hires.
In re-inc’s case, they sought out Jessica Tillyer for her background developing new brands for Fortune 100 companies and entrepreneurs, including a client list that includes Eileen Fisher, American Express, and IBM. Tillyer initially joined Re-Inc as a consultant and an advisor, but went on to join their team full time as a Co-Founder and their Chief Brand and Experience Officer.
To find a good coach, start by asking questions:
- Does the current team have the bandwidth, experience, and credibility to deliver what’s expected at this time?
- Are there ways that the team moves faster or more efficiently alongside trusted peers or companies with similar values or strategic alignment?
- Can the team leverage angel investors or advisors with a specific skillset to keep the crew lean and highly efficient?
These honest questions help founders develop a coachable mindset that’s centered on building a top-performing team.
How to build a clothing brand online: hone your instincts for quick decisions
Early stage company building requires rapid iteration and constant and thoughtful reforecasting, especially when it comes to internal culture and team planning. In the world today, companies have to balance speed and iteration on the product side with a thoughtful and strategic approach to how they engage with individuals on social media, acquire and engage individual customers and onboard and offboard individual employees.
Founders today still have to make fast, short-term decisions, however each decision must be calculated and collectively striving towards the same long-term goal.
The Founders of re—inc have this ability in spades:
“The forward mentality is very much an attacker one, but also a try and fail fast one, which I think re—inc has. We've been able to iterate very quickly [and] try and test out new things. We haven't shied away from new maneuvers or new ways of connecting with people.” –– Jenny Wang
How to build a brand online: leverage visibility for good
Building a community or audience comes with an opportunity to do good, whether that’s partnering with organizations to support a worthy cause or driving important conversations forward. As you build a brand online, find the right causes and conversations by digging into your company’s core values and carving out a space where you can pay it forward in a way that feels natural.
re—inc founders like Megan Rapinoe have used their social platforms to be vocal about issues like migrant justice and equal pay. Most recently, Rapinoe recently sat down with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for a discussion on the stimulus package. Founder activism naturally translated into Rapinoe’s company being focused on causes of its own. For re-inc, that was giving back in a way that went beyond corporate activism and was tied to artistic expression:
“We have always been committed to progress in art. That is fundamental to our purpose. We believe to create progress, you also need art and creativity as inspiration.” –– Jessica Tillyer
re—inc hosts art auctions with every new collection they release. Their last one included a piece created by Tobin Heath. They gave 17% of the proceeds to Alternate Roots, a Southern USA based arts service organization that supports the creation and presentation of original art, and an additional 17% to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy organization promoting the rights of domestic workers.
How to build a values-based brand name from scratch: give what you can
In the early days of a startup, charitable giving and partnering with nonprofits can feel like a large monetary and time expense for a small and scrappy team. However, leveraging your network of founders, investors and community for good doesn’t need to become an exorbitant expense to your team –– instead, give what you can.
For re—inc, that was a recent donation to Inner City Arts, an LA-based organization:
“We had a conversation and realized we wanted to do something that wasn't related to our products at all. So we gave $10,000, which was a small donation, but from our perspective as a tiny little startup, it was what we could give and feel really good about”. –– Jessica Tillyer
Consider creative and lean ways your company might be able to help values-aligned organizations or create your own dedicated charitable contribution arm. You can try:
- Setting aside team time for virtual volunteering: 9 places to virtually volunteer
- Giving employees monthly stipends to support local restaurants and cafes
- Using your product for good: female founded, low-alcohol apéritif company Haus launched The Restaurant Project to co-create custom apéritifs with popular restaurants across America.
- Offering your software for free to non-profits and COVID-19 critical projects
How to build a values-based brand name from scratch: put people before profits
“In moments like this, of course there's going to be paralysis from a business perspective. You're going to feel a sense of paralysis. From a personal perspective, it's emotionally really difficult. But I think as leaders, our responsibility is to drive forward. Not drive forward to make sales or anything like that, but to drive forward, to give people inspiration and to help people get through this moment.” –– Jessica Tillyer
With the US Women’s Soccer Season canceled, the player founders are at re—inc are finding creative ways to connect with their fans and supporters using the power of social media:
“When all of this happened and all of a sudden [Megan Rapinoe] was at home, we realized there was this huge opportunity to bring that conversation even closer to our community through Instagram Live. So we started doing these Reset the Table conversations on Live. [Megan Rapinoe] was hosting them and they've been going really great.” –– Jessica Tillyer
At Worklife, we believe work is increasingly multi-dimensional and startups can learn from triple threats from every industry: founders, creators, and individuals balancing multiple careers or creative projects.
Worklife is a way of life.
re—inc embodies this in entirety:
“Our CEO Christen Press [is]...having the absolute highlight of her career. She is outperforming on the field and doing better than ever. Almost every day before she goes into the field, she's Slacking with me until the very last minute. We're working out the final details.” –– Jessica Tillyer
Intersections are where the magic happens and the best platforms have all started with a small number of users and scaled into cultural movements that reimagine both work and life. The best consumer platforms started as entertainment and scaled into new classes of work:
- Streamers on Twitch
- Influencers on Instagram
- Retailers on Shopify
As we see today, the best workplace products can scale into mainstream consumer adoption: Zoom is 2020’s hottest yoga studio.
Watch my conversation with Jessica Tillyer and Jenny Wang on Worklife Live for additional insights on how to start building a community today and the tools re—inc is using to stay connected and productive as a remote team.
As always, I’d love to get your thoughts and feedback on Twitter.
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