A couple of weeks ago the 99designs team invited me to write a post for the blog and share my branding story, and as a startup founder I will never ever pass up an opportunity to talk about my company.
So here’s the story of Hecate, a suite of GitHub apps to help software engineering managers do their job better. There are two reasons you might find this story interesting.
The first is that I was the VP of engineering for 99designs itself. It’s always interesting to hear how a former employee uses their old product. Knowing the ins and outs of 99designs helped me get a great result and hopefully you can pick up a pro-tip or two.
The second is around how I’ve tried to use branding to drive company culture, particularly around diversity and inclusion, from day zero.
Taking the first step
Like all good startups, Hecate began as a side project based on my own experiences running the dev team at 99designs. I began tinkering to find a simple way to let engineering managers know what their team is working on, a seemingly simple task that gets harder and harder as a team grows.
Beyond understanding the problem of communication in product teams, years of working for 99designs and seeing all of our customer’s success gave me a strong appreciation for branding work and I couldn’t get myself motivated without one.
Examining my branding influences
I was binge-watching the TV show American Gods around the time I got started on the initial idea. The TV series is based on a book by Neil Gaiman, and it draws heavily on Norse mythology. I found that inspiring and wanted to follow suit. In Norse mythology Huginn and Muninn are a pair of ravens who fly all over the world, and bring information back to Odin. The imagery fit my business idea perfectly, but unfortunately someone else had the same inspiration.
I needed to keep going though, so rather than abandon the idea, I decided that the working title would be GitRaven. I bodged up a placeholder logo using a logo maker and then switched my focus back to prototyping the first version of the product.
After my initial nudge towards all things Norse, some nagging thoughts pulled me back—more than just the embarrassingly low quality of the logo and genericness of the name.
Working at 99designs meant that I was surrounded by branding for tech companies. I had already identified three typical ways that startups went with their branding: run-of-the-mill bootstrap theme, mid-century Scandinavian vibe, and dark background deep-nerd culture.
What I was seeing was a distinct lack of diversity in the way that tech startups were branding and presenting themselves. I’m a big fan of Amy Wibowo, computer scientist and founder of Bubble Sort Zines and her writing on diversity in tech and in the way products are presented has been hugely influential for me. I discovered her through her computer science zines, but Coding Like a Girl is a great place to start with her work.
When the organisation Code Like a Girl published a thinkpiece calling for an end to ‘pinkifying’ tech, that is designing platforms and tools in a way that they might be more appealing for a female-identifying audience, there was an accompanying Twitterstorm, and hurt feelings all round.
For me, it was disappointing. This debate made me determined to be better. My company was my chance to create diversity in way that I believed in and I wanted this built into the brand. I decided to pay homage to Amy’s work, and worked to completely flip my branding instincts. I switched my naming search from gods to goddesses and worked my way through the Greek pantheon. Hecate emerged, the Greek goddess of crossroads and witchcraft.
With the name in place, it was time to consider a visual identity. I decided I was going to do a logo design contest with Hecate.
With a brief taking shape, I pulled ideas together on Pinterest. I tried to keep a pretty open mind while I was pinning things I liked, but by the time I had the board together, it was pretty obvious I was leaning towards developing a character or mascot for Hecate.
So I came up with a brief: I need a vector character/mascot design that can do double duty as a logo with a complementary colour scheme. It should be either a girl or a cat in a witches hat in a kind of bright pastel colour scheme.
However, this brief never saw the light of day because I saw this Instagram post from 99designs. It was almost bang on.
When I contacted the designer—NataMarmelada—I discovered that the character design was an ‘off cut’ from a 99designs contest and that she was open to selling it.
I wanted Hecate to be a little more ‘witchy’, so she got a little update, and a hat. I’d asked for the hat and coat to sit halfway between a traditional witches outfit and kind of a classic lighthouse-keeper raincoat and hat for a little bit of nautical feel.
The final version is exactly what I’d hoped for, she’s the perfect representative for my tech brand.
Playing against type
While the majority of my budget for branding had gone on mascot development, it was worth it. Unfortunately there’s quite a bit more to branding than just a mascot and with the budget gone I had to switch to a “beg, borrow, and steal” mentality to get the rest done. The book Design for Hackers was a great resource to help finish the job.
I took the colour scheme from the mascot design and plugged it into the various colour pickers recommended in the book like the Adobe Colour Wheel (formerly known as Kuler) until I had a pallette I could work with.
I was also missing a wordmark to go with the mascot. Thankfully I had a friend who is a massive typography nerd who owed me a favour. He gave me a bunch of type foundry recommendations which I browsed through until I found Chapeau from Milieu Grotesque which was the perfect blend of professional and friendly. To finalise the wordmark I just needed to tweak the crossbar on the H a little to line up with the e.
Branding for tech startups: top tips
Reflecting on the whole process of developing my branding there are a few takeaways I can share:
- Pro-tip number one is to follow the 99designs instagram. The designer marketing team is always trying to show off some of the best work on the platform and it’s a great way to find talent on the up and up.
- Contests are still probably the best way to get a logo done, but if you’ve found someone with an aesthetic you’re really compatible with you can save a lot of time and a little bit of money working directly with the designer
- It’s worth putting in the extra thought up front on your brand. If I hadn’t questioned my own default assumptions on branding I’d have ended up with something that wouldn’t stand out in the market.
If you’re a founder, definitely keep these things in mind when you’re developing the branding for your tech startup.
Hecate is open for business already. If you’re an engineering or product manager with a tech team in the range of ten to thirty engineers come and check us out at https://hecate.co/