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Building your brand narrative with Meeta Malhotra, Founder The Hard Copy

Meeta Malhotra, Founder The Hard Copy chats with Amit Somani, Managing Partner Prime Venture Partners .

On the podcast, they explore the power of personal brand for founders, how to get started with building a brand narrative, measuring branding success and many other interesting things about startups.

Meeta is a brand strategist and serial entrepreneur. She was one of two partners at Ray+Keshavan, India’s leading brand and design consultancy, acquired by WPP in 2006. She then co-founded Kinetic Glue, a SaaS enterprise collaboration platform, acquired by Fortune 500 company, BMC Software in 2013. In 2015, Meeta became one of three partners at Varana, a sustainable luxury fashion brand, with a store in Mayfair, London. She is currently focused on her fourth venture, The Hard Copy, an online publication that chronicles the design and innovation ecosystem in India.

Through her career, Meeta has helped to create industry-leading brands like Airtel, Kotak, Thoughtworks, Ashoka University and Vistara Airlines. She is also an angel investor with companies like YourStory and LetsVenture in her portfolio.

Listen to the podcast to learn about

1:44- Why ‘Brand’ is a misunderstood word

5:00 - ‘If you don’t shape the brand narrative someone else will do it.’

9:00 - How founders can start building their brand

12:30 - How to measure your efforts towards brand building

17:10 - Why B2B startups also need marketing

19:00 - Learning to distinguish between good design & bad design

22:50- ‘Don’t be afraid of AI, learn to work with AI.’

Read the full transcript below

Amit Somani 0:22

We’re delighted to have with us Meeta Malhotra, founder of The Hard Copy. Meeta has been in the startup and marketing ecosystem for a long time. Welcome to the podcast.

Meeta Malhotra 0:32

Thank you Amit, thanks for having me.

Amit Somani 0:34

Meeta, we’d love for our listeners to hear a little bit about your journey since you’ve done so many interesting things.

Meeta Malhotra 0:39

Too many interesting things actually. So I think my journey is just about leaping in when I see the intersect of an interesting person that I want to work with and an interesting area. So I’ve worked in Infosys. That was my first job. I have then been partner at a designs and branding studio for 15 years. Because I’m a closet geek. I’ve actually built a SaaS product, exited that. And now I’m founder of The Hard Copy, which is an online publication, that is focused on chronicling the exciting stuff that’s happening in design product innovation in the Indian ecosystem.

Amit Somani 1:16

Wonderful. This is going to be a very interesting conversation, I hope we can keep it to the time that we intended to. But maybe you can tell us a little bit about brand, I’ve often seen you talk about brand, and building a brand, whether it’s your own personal brand, or your professional brand, or even the brand of your company, maybe just a little bit of what have you seen with respect to startups when it comes to building these various brands?

Meeta Malhotra 1:39

Right. So I think the first thing is that brand is just a hugely misunderstood word. When you think of defining a brand positioning, people think of charts and frameworks and polygons and all on the other extreme, people think of slogans and say, the Nike brand is just do it and both those are actually completely wrong. So I think (Jeff) Bezos summed it up beautifully. He said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” And I can’t think of a more elegant and simple way to think about both your personal brand, as a founder and your company brand. So just ask yourself this, “when I’m not in the room, what do people say about me? And what do people say about my company?” And that’s really the essence of your brand. And that’s your starting point for your brand narrative.

Amit Somani 2:30

Sounds great. Do you think people have awareness even before they decide to go invest into, I want to build a brand or whatever of what their brand stands for?

Meeta Malhotra 2:39

I think people are often surprised because all of us are human beings. And we view ourselves and our companies through this lens. We are too close to it. And I think that a really good way to start even with your brand, right before you employ consultants or marketers or anybody is just ask your five customers or your 10 customers. What do you think of this company? Listen to the words they use, and I’m pretty sure that you will see a pattern emerging. And that’s really where your brand positioning is. It’s not what you’re thinking. a similar sort of framework applies to your personal brand. Get 10 people who know you varying degrees of closeness, and ask them to say, five things that describe you. Again, you’ll see a pattern emerging. And that is what people think of you. That’s your brand narrative currently.

Amit Somani 3:30

And that seems like a very simple brain dead thing to do.

Meeta Malhotra 3:33

It is.

Amit Somani 3:34

And yet, I don’t think many people necessarily do it.

Meeta Malhotra 3:36

No, that actually, in my experience, I think startups. I mean, a lot of people with startups particularly are frightened of this whole idea of brand building, it seems like this large, expensive, resource intensive thing to do, which is best pushed out till they have more money or a larger team or more resources. And that’s not the right way to think about it.

Amit Somani 4:01

Absolutely! And now with the absolute proliferation of social media, whether it is Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. It’s actually not that expensive to build a brand. And I’m not talking about TV campaigns and all that, that you could differ for when you have a lot more money, but just what is it that you stand for?

Meeta Malhotra 4:16

Exactly. I mean, so there are two steps to that, and while it sounds, we can sit and say that it’s why don’t you start a Twitter account? And I’m speaking from personal experience. So, when I tell founders, why don’t you tweet or why don’t you blog, things that maybe seem very easy to us are perhaps not that simple for a founder to start with. And I’ve observed this over the last few years and a founder is juggling with a lot of stuff, and to ask him to tweet, ask him to blog if it doesn’t come naturally to him is a hard thing to do. But I still think that you need to sit down, you need to focus on this and think about how you’re going to get your brand narrative out because if you don’t and here’s the important thing. If you don’t shape the narrative somebody is doing it. So whether you are tweeting or not somebody is tweeting about you.

Amit Somani 5:07

Absolutely! So going back to the kind of reticence of founders to do this one of course is time second, maybe you’re saying sort of personal interest or lack thereof. Are there some other reasons why people don’t go out there and do that? Maybe people are vulnerable, maybe there’s something else right? Are there tips and tricks to sort of overcome that?

Meeta Malhotra 5:26

There are two things, I think you have a set of founders who don’t think this is important enough because they are so occupied with building the business and you know, all respect to them. But I just want to say that, it will get harder if you don’t control it now. If you think that you can put off building your brand and take it up after your whatever next fundraise or your next team hire, you’re making it harder for yourself, you need to start today. How much effort you put into it, you can calibrate that depending on at what stage you are. But you need to start today. That’s number one. Number two, I think I’ve met a lot of founders who are actually sold on the idea. They understand the importance of brand building. But I think they are afraid of being judged. And that’s very natural. I mean, as a founder, you are being judged, and called out every day on 100 things, do you really want to add one more to the pile? So, what I would say in answer to your question about what can they do about it? I would say that anything you put out, anything you say about your brand, or the ecosystem to which your brand belongs, if it’s adding value for even one person, if one person reads what you have said, and takes away something from it, and it can be something to do with the industry that you’re in, it can be something a learning he or she has had from what you’ve written, then you have done immense service to the ecosystem. And, i think that you have to stop worrying about the stuff that’s not important, which is the polish, or the articulation or the grammar or the nobody cares about that stuff. If you’re adding value, you’re saying something that’s important, then people will want to read it.

Amit Somani 7:16

Absolutely! One of the things we tell our founders is, don’t just think about your company, or your professional brand. Think about the industry that you’re in, think about the issues of that industry, think about the customers of that industry and talk about that. Because people want to hear a genuine, authentic point of view from somebody who’s in the field dealing with that rather than, no disrespect to journalists or whatever, because you are living that everyday. So that will be so much more valuable than any sort of second or third party kind of narrative.

Meeta Malhotra 7:48

Absolutely! I mean, and we are still maturing, the startup ecosystem is still maturing having we’ve come a long way. But one of the reasons I started The Hard Copy was because there’s just not enough of what you’re talking about. There are not enough first hand narratives about how you took brands or from zero to one, what you did with the design? What you did with the product? And people don’t want to hear it from a third party, they want to hear it from the company or the founder. And there isn’t enough of that happening. If you’re a founder, I would say to you, think back to when you were starting the company, were you not on the internet looking for the smallest sort of nugget you could find something that would help you something that you could glean some insight from? Well, there are 1000 people out there just like that and some of them are your customers, many of them are your customers.

Amit Somani 8:38

Absolutely! On the practical side, you had two points, One is that they don’t perceive it to be important.

Meeta Malhotra 8:47

Right.

Amit Somani 8:47

And any kind of tips in terms of tools or where to get started let’s say you are one who believes it’s important. I just want to start. So one is you said hey, don’t give a damn right just start. Be authentic, add value. Are there tips, tricks, maybe some tools or some safe spaces to start in? How do you start out?

Meeta Malhotra 9:05

Well I think so, if we’re really talking about the process of brand building, though founders usually have complete clarity on this, there is sometimes a delta between what’s in the founders head, and how they’re able to articulate it to the outside world. So I would say spend a little bit of time on that with your team. Sit down, with some coffee or beer or whatever. And actually think about distilling what your brand stands for. And that is an important exercise. And honestly, at an early stage, you don’t need a consultant to come in and help you. I mean, if you have somebody to bounce ideas off great, but otherwise, you can do it yourself. And I say, think of three things. Think of what you stand for, as a founder. Think of what your company, what the space that you are building, and what it means to your customer. And then think about the competitive landscape. If you can triangulate these three, you can arrive at a proposition for your brand. Once you’ve done that, you can go out and talk about it. And a lot of this comes as second nature to founders, I’ve all the founders that I’ve worked with, I always tell them, you already know what your brand stands for. I’m just going to help you maybe clear away the clouds.

Amit Somani 10:24

Sure! So very interesting. You said you, your company and the competitive landscape, specifically even say customers, or prospects, what do they care about? So let’s say I was a vernacular language startup, and my customers were customers in tier two, tier three cities for the first time on the internet. Wouldn’t I want to know what their worldview is? And that is an aspirational thing. That obviously is not what my brand stands for. I think these are the people I’m serving. So, what would they care for? And am I able to give that or not?

Meeta Malhotra 10:53

Yeah! So I think that when I talked about the company, that’s what I meant. So I’m just saying that when it’s about you, what you want to accomplish, because as a founder at this stage, and as that grows, as you grow, that recedes, because then it’s not about you alone, it’s about the company. But when I’m talking about the company, it is really about the company and what you set it up to serve or who you set it up to serve. So your customers become a very big part of that.

Amit Somani 11:18

Often we find people get very confused with trying to pitch and brand and talk about features and products and widgets, and I do this and that and for this market, and that thing, that’s not really relevant. Who are you serving? What is the benefit? Why should they care? What is their worldview? Often that is left out.

Meeta Malhotra 11:37

And, what is your part in their world? So I think that again is a weak link for me, in my experience. So, I’ve seen startups that will do this exercise, so they say, okay, this is what the founder’s vision is. This is what we set this company up. These are the people we set this company up to serve and here’s the competitive landscape but when you’re talking about the people you set up to serve, you’re assuming that they’re interested in you, that sometimes is a very very false assumption.

Amit Somani 12:07

That’s correct.

Meeta Malhotra 12:07

So, what is your part in their world? And why should they care and pick you over the other 10 options that they have is something you need to think about.

Amit Somani 12:15

Absolutely! Very interesting. How do you know that? Let’s say you buy into all this and you start focusing, you start adding value to the ecosystem, building a little bit of a brand, how do you know it’s working? How do you know you’re making progress? So, I listen to this podcast and I’m excited. I’m going to start working on this. Six months later I want to do a dipstick and see did I make progress? How would I know?

Meeta Malhotra 12:37

So I think there’s, again, two aspects to this, right. There’s a sort of a qualitative aspect. And I think that you will sense that you will sense a little more engagement, you will sense people talking about it. I think you will sense that, particularly if you’re out there on social media or blogging or going to events so it doesn’t only have to be social media. So this is something I want to again, emphasize. You don’t have to have a massive Twitter following to as evidence that you are talking about your brand. I see people agonizing about it. And you don’t even need to be on Twitter. But you need to be somewhere. And that could be an event. It could be a physical event and that’s fine. But I think that when you are speaking about your brand, you need to sort of stay focused on this whole whether it’s in an event or whether it’s on Twitter, you need to stay focused on this single message. And that’s really the important thing.

Amit Somani 13:35

Got it! So you’ll start getting some inbound, some qualitative, some feedback.

Meeta Malhotra 13:40

You’ll start getting, and I think that the quantitative measure for me is organic. I mean, that’s key, and I’ve seen it happen in every case. If you see organic, whatever rising, whether it’s traffic, whether it’s inquiries, whether it’s anything, you will know that you are creating a tiny little ripple and that’s only going to be magnified. So, we used to have a, when I was running the studio, and a lot of people asked me this, what are the metrics you set up for successful exit? I’m talking about studio acquisitions. And to me a metric that I had set up to monitor was inbound inquiries. And I said, it doesn’t, you know, yeah, there’s revenue, profit, blah, blah. But if we don’t get so many calls a week, that means we’re not brand building, why are people not seeking us out? And I think that is something that I would advocate.

Amit Somani 14:30

Absolutely! Now getting a little bit to a later stage company, and now you have, let’s say, done a lot of fundraising or you got a lot of customer traction, maybe some product market fit, and you genuinely want to go invest with bigger bucks behind this or even higher.

Meeta Malhotra 14:45

T.V. ad.

Amit Somani 14:46

Yeah, even well, before the TV ad, perhaps TV ads, hire a CMO, hire whoever, what’s in the next phase? How should one think about it? You’re past the early stages, you’ve got some early product market fit, now you really want to build a brand, that is going to have brand recall, brand perception like what is the path? Still think like B startup not quite sponsoring an IPL team yet?

Meeta Malhotra 15:11

Correct! Yeah. So I would say, again because I really believe in this whole frugal marketing thing, I think that too many dollars have been wasted on silly vanity metrics. So, I would say it doesn’t matter where you are, the first step is to know whether without spending a dollar, have you really maximized your branding and marketing. I mean, has your product done everything that it could, so really start there. Because let’s say that you’ve raised a Series B, I’m assuming that what happens with that is that your your product team becomes more mature and I would say it’s your marketing should start there. Is your product fully equipped to convert to bring in people? Are you doing everything you can if you didn’t have to spend any money, once you’ve sorted that piece out. Then go to the next step of maybe having a marketing budget. But everywhere and this is a very contentious thing people talk about the ROI of marketing. And you know, marketers push back and say there is no ROI on marketing. But I would say when you start, start with some really clear objectives. So, if you say that, listen, we just want to raise brand awareness. That’s one, we’re not converting this to sales. We’re not linking the two. We are saying that in the first phase, just more people should know about us. Even then, create some kind of dashboard. Because you can’t just start with saying that, okay, we’ll spend this money and we’ll see what happens. So even then, start with a dashboard, a hypothesis of where brand awareness is today, then go out and try a few things. And you know what, those things are very specific to you, your industry where your customers are.

Amit Somani 16:10

Very helpful. So, switching gears, one of my other pet peeves, in some sense. Lots of B2B startups, whether they, you, yourself used to run a SaaS Company. SaaS companies, enterprise companies, whatever. We absolutely don’t need marketing that’s for the B2C people. And it sort of drives me a little bit mad. What are your thoughts with respect to B2B in particular?

Meeta Malhotra 17:01

So, again, this is like you said Amit, this is a question I’ve got asked a lot as well. Why do we need marketing in B2B? And this is what I say. So I say, so when your salespeople go to sell, are they selling to like some alien or a robot or the person that you know they’re not selling to a human being?

Amit Somani 17:33

In which case maybe you don’t need marketing and you don’t need marketing? Yeah, I mean AI bots for marketing.

Meeta Malhotra 17:39

The day you need to address your sales pitch to an AI bot, sack your marketer. But until you are selling to a human being, again, it’s the same thing. It’s not rocket science. He has some perception of your company and your brand,

Amit Somani 17:55

And your industry and your customers, competitors.

Meeta Malhotra 17:59

Completely. If you’re not shaping that through marketing, then forget it.

Amit Somani 18:05

Sounds great! Maybe a little bit about since you spent a lot many years in design, switching gears again. What are some of those influences that have led on to your latter career as a marketer as helping other folks and now running The Hard Copy? What are some of the things you sort of learned and remember from the design days that are still so relevant in this new world?

Meeta Malhotra 18:27

So, you know, I’m not a designer, I’m what they would call a suit in the marketing in the design world, sort of, we were scoffed at until they realized how much the fact that we were the ones bringing in the money. So, but my business partner who was also my mentor, and at the studio, and I once asked, I said, you know, I’m surrounded by designers, and what do I need to do like is that of course I can do because I was also very check the box kind of person, and shall I go enroll at an online course? And she said, You know, there’s only one thing you need to do. When I have this advice that I’ve got through my life and would give to anyone who asks me, which is train your eye, there is no book, or course short term that can teach you what is good design and what is bad design. You have to, I would say educate yourself. And when I say educate yourself, it’s not by looking at apps, it is by going to art shows, it is by studying the work of the greatest designers in the world. It is by, going out whenever that is something to see, to theater. When you educate yourself about the world, you will slowly begin to understand what works and what doesn’t work in the design world.

Amit Somani 19:43

Very fascinating! I often think about product management. It’s an area I’ve spent many, many years on. We’re always saying always keep questioning how can this be better?

Meeta Malhotra 19:51

Exactly!

Amit Somani 19:52

And as soon as you get into that mindset, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing B2B or B2C, or designing chairs or running an art gallery. You can keep asking how can this be better?

Meeta Malhotra 20:01

Absolutely! And you know, people get stuck with things like form factor. And I mean, none of that matters. Really, if you have an innate sense of what is good. And again, it’s interesting you ask this question, I’d love to add this here, because we are at a very interesting inflection point in the Indian design world. So the world that I came from, in the 2000s, we were driven by a very Western influence on design. So the Dieter Rams and the Bauhausian schools of thought, where everything should be very clean, and uncluttered. And that’s a good design. And everything that was cluttered and loud and noisy was bad design. And now we’ve come full circle. We are at least in the digital world. We’re now standing at a point where we’re seeing that those principles don’t necessarily apply because the next billion that are coming online, their design paradigm is completely different. It’s vertical, for one to start with.

Amit Somani 21:01

What do you mean by that?

Meeta Malhotra 21:02

I mean, in the sense that mobile phones are their first entry point, we grew up with rectangular screens, like I’m talking about such a basic design principle. And we therefore think in windows, and we like to clean up windows and have white space on either side and all of that. That’s being tossed out of the window as we speak. So again, the same advice which was go out, educate yourself, train your eye applies just as much to this world. If you’re designing for people whose first point of entry is the mobile phone, go out, educate yourself about them and their world.

Amit Somani 21:38

It’s very interesting. We’re recording this on a podcast. And now I think more than 50% of searches on Google are now voice searches. So maybe the next generation, that is born on the internet now or in the last 10 years. There’s going to be so much more on voice.

Meeta Malhotra 21:52

Absolutely!

Amit Somani 21:53

Whether it’s bots or human beings or hybrids thereof. You have to design for the voice world. You’re gonna ask Alexa this & Google that. I’m not even going to type. So you’re not even listening back to a text format response if it’s on a phone, you’re hearing the response. So that better makes sense to you.

Meeta Malhotra 22:10

Exactly! I mean, it’s voice now, who knows what it’s, your human body is the interface next. So it’s very hard to predict. But I think if your fundamentals of design are in place and solid, then you’re not going to be thrown off guard by changes in form factor, then it’s a question of somebody I interviewed for The Hard Copy put it really well, he said that, after World War Two, there were plastics. Now, it doesn’t mean that you need to know how to make plastics, but you definitely need to know how to work with them.

Amit Somani 22:44

Absolutely! I think Garry Kasparov has this beautiful TED Talk where he talks about, Don’t be afraid of AI, learn to work with AI completely missing had this paranoia against AI. And this is a talk like 10 years ago. It was pretty prescient, obviously for even later years.

Meeta Malhotra 23:01

Yeah! I mean, he was the guy who came up with the idea of centaurs, augmented human beings. And we just ran a story on, what are centaurs designers, what could be centaur designers. And it would be really interesting because, while the popular narrative is about oh, somebody will come and they’ll be able to design and you will be out of a job. I think that’s just never gonna happen. I think it’s much more that the mundane will get taken over by AI. And therefore, that augmented designer will be far more powerful than we are today. We hope.

Amit Somani 23:36

So I love this train your eye and your ear. I think that is definitely one of my top takeaways from this podcast. So wonderful Meeta. It was so great to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much. We love for you to share some books. Maybe we’ll include that in the podcast notes.

Meeta Malhotra 23:51

Absolutely! Thank you for having me.

Amit Somani 23:53

Thank you.


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