As Brand Shepherd has worked with product makers – tangible and digital products alike – over the years, we know that product people are our tribe, and it will be an honor to help build, brand, and guide Knoxville maker brands.

Tennessee’s Blount Partnership’s Chamber of Commerce has gained Brand Shepherd a new member after co-owners Andrea and Dan Crask relocated to Maryville with their businesses and family.

Knoxville Entreprenuer Center (KEC) and Brand Shepherd have partnered to offer mentorship to startups within the accelerator.

Brand Shephed co-founder and creative director will have monthly on-site office hours for startups meet and work through challenges they face for their products.

Startups of a variety of points in their development have sought Brand Shepherd’s branding guidance over the years, especially those that make a product.

Some startups come by way of our volunteering and mentorship with various accelerators, and others by way of referral and our reputation.

In recent years, we have become more selective with what startups we work with, as we saw that some startups we had worked with had less-than-stellar results, while other startups thrived from our guidance and collaboration.

We set out to learn why.

After examing our work with startups, we saw that the startups that thrived after working with us had 3 consistent things or ways about them. These 3 things are even still present in these companies, now out of their startup phase and becoming mature product brands.

Having learned this, we now use these 3 things as a way of knowing in advance if working with a startup will be a good fit.

This post will share those 3 things a startup needs for Brand Shepherd to help them thrive.

Let’s count them down…

THREE // The startup plans for success through brand growth, not acquisition.

There needs to be a systemic mindset among the founders and funders that the startup brand’s success is growing into a mature brand.

When the systemic mindset is acquisition = success, Brand Shepherd’s guidance is often sidestepped or outright ignored, and understandably so.

The startup that seeks acquisition is one that has no long-term plan, which is antithetical to our approach.

We have learned that when a startup’s founders and funders see an acquisition as a form of success or even an end-goal, it infects the entire organization and brand from the top down, all the way to its end-users.

There is a tendency to make decisions about products and brand messaging that is short-sighted and lacks depth. Startups that want their brand to be bought as a means of “success” tend to lack processes for understanding and empathizing with their users.

This yields a lot of friction with Brand Shepherd’s processes because everything we do is for the long-haul growth of the products and brand.

Our core clientele has entrusted us to help grow their brands for many years, and it’s our mutual commitment to that growth that makes for such thriving brands.

So, any startup that seeks an acquisition instead of long-term growth of its products is not going to be a good fit for Brand Shepherd.

TWO // Funded for brand development.

If one follows the startup community of their nearest metro area, they cannot go a week without reading a headline about a startup raising millions of dollars in a funding round.

Raising a lot of money for a startup is its own kind of accomplishment, but if those funds are not earmarked for the development of its brand, then that startup is not a good fit for Brand Shepherd.

The startups that fund the development of their brand go hand-in-glove with the lead-off point about also having a long-term plan for growth and maturity.

The startups that focus on operations, distribution, and other non-brand activities (chasing scale), leaving brand development out, are almost always the brands that are chasing acquisition.

Not funding brand development usually means we are not part of the conversation, but one might be surprised by how often branding agencies are asked if they would like to do some quick hit work for these types of startups, which speaks to the myopic, short-sighted mindset behind those types of startups.

So, you can see clearly, if the startup is raising a lot of funding, but it’s not for brand development, then that startup should not seek to work with Brand Shepherd.

ONE // Brand has a seat at the leadership table.

“Design Thinking” has been a practice and buzzword for several years now, and it is overall a positive thing: For startups that understand the power of their brand, the brand development leader has a seat at the leadership table, right alongside every other core leadership role at that table.

When brand is seen as “just marketing,” or relegated to a sub-department of operations, it’s going to create a lot of friction with how Brand Shepherd grows brands.

A big red flag is when we hear that the funding sources for a startup do not see branding as a priority, as mentioned in the second thing above. And if it is not funded, brand development will always be second-tier. We don’t work well in those conditions.

We work with brands – startups and mature alike – that get it: They understand that the age we operate in is one where brand is everything.

And this can only be done when brand has a seat at the leadership table, helping guide the products as much as any other leadership role.


You can see how these 3 things work together to form a type of startup that has an operational philosophy that jives with how Brand Shepherd works.

You can also see why sometimes it doesn’t work, and perhaps one outcome of this is to help startups that are considering contacting Brand Shepherd to learn this about us first to know if it’s worth the time to chat. We respect the time of professionals too much to be coy about it.

If you are part of a startup that has these 3 things, we would enjoy the opportunity to chat with you and see how we could help make your brand thrive.

This post was originally published on our co-founder/owner and Creative Director’s website on May 30, 2013. Its truth is evergreen.


A True Believer is a person who has both a personal and professional belief in all of the product brand’s value propositions. The true believer not only works on the product as a profession but also uses the product in their home and personal life, and is exuberantly evangelical about it.

We have lost bids on projects because the business we were courting could sense that we were not True Believers in their products.

When a brand requires its creative team to consist only of True Believers it should be regarded as a red flag of troubled logic and problems ahead.

The brand that only wants True Believers working on their products is a business that wants a team of “Yes People.” This brand will get results that is produced in an echo chamber of nodding heads where no push-back is heard, no ideas challenged for the overall good of the product, and no sharpening of the concept through the process of critical thinking.

If this brand were a person we could see the obvious insecurities of only hiring True Believers. This business is myopic at best and should be approached with great caution and a healthy up-front deposit on the total budget, with full compensation paid before any final files are released.

It’s a big deal.

So, does the creative team for products need to be made up of only true believers? No.

But does the creative team need to consist of people who push back at every turn, a bunch of Debbie Downers? Heck no!

The team simply needs to be what true creative professionals are: Creatives who can think from the perspective of the customer persona and are informed by data at every point.

Personally, these creatives do not need to be True Believers in the product. If they happen to be, that can be a benefit in some cases, but it should never be criteria for a product’s team.

In my mind is carved the words of Walter Gropius, a famed architect and founder of the Bauhaus school of design:

“Art is self-expression; Design is problem solving.”

Problem solvers: That’s what a quality team of professional creatives consists of. Having some True Believers on the team is useful – we shouldn’t keep out that perspective. But making True Belief criteria for being on a brand’s team is likely to result in limited success, and only for the short term at that.

The creative team is there to bring ideas to life and to solve problems. A competent, mature creative team will offer their recommendations throughout the process. Yet, at the end of the process, you need to believe in what has been created. If you don’t believe in it, you will start using something that doesn’t have your full buy-in, and your customers will smell it a mile away.

It’s worth mentioning that timing is one of the top relationship killers between creative teams and those they serve.

Whom we get feedback from is equally important as getting the actual feedback, so it is important to ask the right people for feedback. There is a temptation, however, to ask the nearest trusted warm-body: The spouse, co-worker, best friend, trusted advisor, etc.

“I’ll know it when I see it” is a phrase creatives hear a lot, and it’s a phrase we can usually resonate with quite well. Sometimes we don’t know, specifically, what we are about to create. We just have a hunch, intuition, or shadow of an idea. The end result will show itself along the way. We completely understand the “I’ll know it when I see it” mentality. It is a perfectly normal creative process.

If there’s one thing professional creative teams loathe, it’s being hired for a gig, then being directed, step-by-step, how something should look or function.At best, it sends contradictory messages.