With a background in consumer brands and communications, Joanna Christie has helped scale a series of well-known and loved brands at various stages, from Lyst to TreatWell. Now she is a VP of Brand & Marketing at Seedcamp-backed company Gaia – the world’s first IVF insurance product – where she is tasked with creating an industry-defining brand for a highly complex and first-to-market product in a highly emotional space. 

With over 10 years focused specifically on marketplaces, she has performance-led experience in building, communicating, measuring, and marketing brands B2C, B2B, and B2B2C. 

In a deep dive Q&A with our Head of Brand and Network Natasha Lytton, Joanna shares her best insights on how to lay the foundation for your startup brand and think strategically about the brand as you scale up.

At Gaia, we’ve chosen a brand that’s so at odds, so different from anything else in the fertility space. There’s no pink, there’s no blue, and there are no babies being dangled. That, again, is a message we’re putting out there to say this is different in a space that, sadly, is one that hasn’t got a great reputation. We want to stand out by being different and strong. 

Joanna Christie, Seedcamp Mentor and VP of Brand & Marketing at Gaia

Key takeaways:

  1. Brand is the first building block for anything you do as a business, not just marketing 
  2. When done right, the brand plays an important role in customer acquisition and retention
  3. Brand equity is built on consistency and it evolves
  4. Ideally, you want a brand guardian in-house
  5. Brand equals recognition equals trust
  6. For B2B2C marketplaces, you don’t need different brands (e.g., supplier-focused vs. demand-focused). It is one brand, and you just have different audiences

Listen to the episode or read the full conversation below. 

Brand doesn’t need to cost a fortune but it’s the first building block for anything you’re doing as a business, not just marketing. 

Joanna Christie

Why do you think that brand is foundational for early-stage companies?

JC: Brand is your guide. That’s why you need to nail it very early on. It helps you make decisions, be that product, how you’re pitching, or your customer service. It’s your reputation. You get one chance to do it. So, it’s core to everything. It’s not just the marketing. It’s how you speak, how you interact, and how people interact with you. And it makes you, you.

I don’t often quote Jeff Bezos when it comes to brand necessarily, but he famously said that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

Being very clear early on about what it is you want people to say when you’re not in the room and building everything around that is really, really important. There also seems to be this trend that people think that brand and growth are mutually exclusive. They fundamentally are not. You take something like paid social, for example, it’s 80% creative or brand and 20% buy, and they support each other beautifully.

Brand doesn’t need to cost a fortune but it’s the first building block for anything you’re doing as a business, not just marketing. 

How do you manage founders when they come and say we just need growth, and we’re not willing to invest in this brand piece? How do you help them understand why the two are so integrally linked?

JC: First of all, you point out the brands and the companies that they all aspire to be. You take someone like an Airbnb. It’s taken a while, of course, but they’ve now turned off all of their paid marketing and are growing faster than they ever have before.

Founders are becoming much more aware of efficiency and sustainability. I think we’ve all seen, sadly, over the last few months how companies can fall foul when they go after that hockey stick and it’s all about growth and not caring about unit economics and not thinking about lifetime value and retention – which are the goals of brand as well.

The beauty of brand is that it ticks everything. Brand can do your acquisition in a much more sustainable way than performance is going to do. Whereas, of course, there is always, a place for performance marketing, brand can do that and it also does a retention piece for you. 

It does LTV. If you do it well, it’s doing referral for you. That’s where you get a product so good it’s marketing itself, when the brand is really core to that. Many founders would aspire to create the types of companies that the best brands in the world are. It’s as simple as that.

Education in terms of what brand means is core to that.

What do you believe are the key elements of a powerful brand, and how can you create standout in the early days when you are so constrained from a budget and a resource perspective compared to others?

JC: Byron Sharp, who wrote the book, The Marketing Bible, talks about mental availability and physical availability. From a mental availability point of view, it’s all about this concept of building memory structure. It’s very simple to choose one element and lean hard into it. Make it your hero. It could be a logo, or it could be a color.

For Monzo, it was a hot coral card, and they lent so hard into that. Consistency, consistency, consistency. If you believe in the seven-touch rule, which is that somebody needs to see something seven times before taking action, consistency is core to that. Understand what that element could be within your own organization.

Be consistent with whatever it is you decide to get behind. It takes a while and that’s why it’s so important that there’s real integrity to it and it’s true to the values and who that brand and business are. You need to sit with it for a while.

So, take a risk, and again, when you’re early, what’s the worst that can really happen? That’s the fun bit about being early stage.

Joanna Christie

Choose one and back it. At Gaia, we’ve chosen a brand that’s so at odds, so different from anything else in the fertility space. There’s no pink, there’s no blue, and there are no babies being dangled. That, again, is a message we’re putting out there to say this is different in a space that, sadly, is one that hasn’t got a great reputation. We want to stand out by being different and strong. 

So, take a risk, and again, when you’re early, what’s the worst that can really happen? That’s the fun bit about being early stage.

When you think about building out the brand function, how should startups be thinking about bringing support in? Should this be in-house support, somebody like yourself that they’re looking to hire from the start, or is it easier and better to work with agencies or freelance talent in the early days?

I’m biased, obviously, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have a job and a career, but ideally, you want to have a brand guardian, an advocate, and a protector in-house. I think I’ve seen too many times when a founder or a business will retain an agency to build a brand. The agency hands over this sort of glorified PDF, and they think that’s the end of it, it’s done. 

Whenever you get your brand, whether it’s from an agency or not, that’s just the start. You need someone in-house who’s driving that. Now, that can be the founder themselves, or that can be a CTO. I’ve worked with CTOs who love brand as well, but you need to have someone internal. 

Again, to my point, because brand is not just an advertising creative, it is the product journey, it’s the words that you use in that piece of UX copy. It’s the user experience, it’s how you invoice people. It’s your paywall, whatever those pieces are.

You need to have that golden thread because what a brand does is builds the trust that people will have in you. So I would always advocate bringing someone in-house because you’ve got that nailed, and you can trust them entirely to take that PDF and make it a reality and start to build something distinctive and sustainable.

When you think about the role that trust plays, how important is that, and what are some of the best ways to get real insights from customers and integrate that into your marketing and brand strategy early on?

JC: Brand builds trust, and bad brand experience breaks trust, period. Brand equals recognition equals trust. Gaia is a really interesting example because we’re trying to bring up a completely new product to market. So, we have that challenge in itself. The market is one where there’s very little trust, it’s very opaque. No one trusts anyone. And thirdly, people are so desperate for any sort of solution, specifically in financial support for IVF, that people are willing, in a dichotomy, to trust anything because they need as much help as possible.

For us at Gaia, it’s been about being as open as we possibly can be. We talk a lot about surfacing our Ts and Cs (Terms and Conditions) as early on in the journey as possible because our members, our prospective members, are having enough doubt and confusion and uncertainty about lots of other things we don’t want to add to that.

So, being clear about when people are eligible or not eligible for risk insurance has been really high in our priorities from day one. Also, there’s this wonderful piece around being in a startup where you can appeal to people’s kinder sides. There’s a whole sort of Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True fans, or how the SoulCycle girls started.

You ask. You say, “We’re small, we’re learning, give us feedback.” At Gaia, we have a WhatsApp group of what we call our alpha members. We push for honesty, we don’t want to hear all the lovely stuff. It’s great to get those real insights by being as obsessed about why someone hasn’t bought your product and asking them directly. 

It’s important to hear from the detractors as it is from the promoters because we can all sit there and glorify ourselves with all the happy stuff. But listen to why people don’t want to use your product, and you’ll get much more powerful insights. People will tell you because, as we know from reviews, it’s polarizing. If people love you, they’re gonna tell you about it. If they don’t like you, they’ll also tell you about it. So take the time to listen to that, and don’t be defensive about it. It’s very powerful. Feedback is a gift, whatever it is.

How do you balance the gift of feedback and the ones to action and the potential impact that will have and its relevance to the brand and the goals and where you wanna get to, and the stuff that’s just an opinion? 

JC: This is where data comes in. You can take a signal from a piece of cold feedback or insight. And then that’s the beauty of working in digital and tech products. We can either take it and put it on an ad and go to Meta and give them a bit of money and put it out there and see how people respond to it. We can do AB testing with certain ideas. 

Usually, you look for a trend. If several people are saying the same thing, that’s something you need to sit up and take notice of. We’re all smart, instinctive people. You can tell when there’s just vitriolic outpouring because somebody’s had a bad experience, but where you see a trend and where there’s an easy way to then test that with, on a more quantitative level, that’s where it gets interesting and you get some real beauties then that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of before. 

Also, that feedback loop, being able to change something small and say to someone, “Thank you for your feedback.” You’ve got an advocate for life right there. It’s a very small thing to do. 

How do you keep early power users involved and engaged as the brand moves on?

JC: At Let’s do this specifically, we created this persona group called the Enthusiasts. They were those people who, very early on, were using the product. They loved running. They loved doing triathlons, they loved swimming. They loved the whole experience of it, they loved the community, but more importantly, they were those people who would start a WhatsApp group and put five people on it and say, “`Who’s up for doing the ASICS 10 K in July?” So not only are they great advocates, and they’re giving us great feedback, but the viral coefficient, the value of them at that level because of the referral power they had, was huge. 

Bring those early advocates in, involve them, ask them for feedback, create a shadow board if you really wanna be as customer-obsessed as so many people claim to be, and make it tangible.

With crowdsourcing, there’s the opportunity to actually have people involved and have an investment in your business. It’s a fun thing to do, and you just never know what they’re gonna say, which is wonderful as well.

At Gaia, because this is a community where people want to help people, the alpha users are helping the next generation of members that are starting their IVF journey. So there’s this lovely sort of kindness that is a huge value for us, and how we fulfill that for our existing members and the members that are coming through and supporting each other. In the words of Kevin Kelly, if you find those true fans, the product markets itself.

Especially in the very early stages, it’s getting to that product market fit and finding and identifying who those people are. And you maybe don’t have as obvious a product market as you have at Gaia. The customer could be so many different things. Do you move the brand around who the customer is, or do you make the brand far-reaching enough to encompass all? How do you think about that?

JC: You have to make the brand far-reaching. One of the biggest pieces of advice I would have for founders as you scale – and I’ve been very lucky to work with incredible founders, and I’ve been with them as businesses have scaled – is you need to back your brand, whatever that foundation is and be smart about the foundations you lie.

Don’t just choose a color because you like that color. Be thoughtful about the competitive piece. Any other colour that there is, any brand equity you need to be aware of in terms of the brands you’re going up against, that you’re gonna be trying to take a share of wallet from.

Once you have decided what it is, give it a chance. There will always be a level of flexibility. You have different personas. 

For every brand I’ve worked in, there are different personas. Whether it’s the guy who just wants to get that quick haircut at Treatwell or someone like me who is in their beauty salon every minute. The brand Treatwell didn’t change. We had eight colors, so with eight colors, we were able to use different colors. It just gave that level of flexibility. 

Definitely think about that because the reason you exist is your brand. It is the “why” and the “how”. The “what” potentially will change. There are different propositions, and it’s a living organism. There will be an evolution within it, but it can’t change every time you worry about something or you get a piece of bad feedback. 

And it also shouldn’t change every time you bring in a different CMO. That’s something else I see time and time again. I’ve definitely done it a few times, but that’s because of the stage that I’ve entered businesses. 

Brand equity is built on consistency and it evolves. If you look at Airbnb’s first website versus where they are today, you’ll see that there are elements of that brand, that identity that stays true, and a lot of the stuff that changes, thankfully, to how Airbnb looks today.

It’s that consistency piece again because you pay for recognition, and if you lose it because you change things, you’ve just thrown away a load of equity that’s very hard to build up.

If you are going to use agencies, don’t go to the ones that everyone else has used and pay the big bucks for them. There are so many amazing agencies that are smaller that will care more and do more stuff. You don’t have to chase after the big ones. It doesn’t have to cost an absolute fortune.

What do you see as some of the main challenges for double-sided B2BC marketplaces, and how can you overcome them?

JC: The biggest issue is disintermediation, which effectively means that if you’re a supply-driven marketplace, your suppliers don’t necessarily trust you in this. They are worried that they will be removed from their customer’s journey. The way to overcome this, from my point of view, is to be as obsessed with your supply value proposition as you are with your demand value proposition.

People think about the demand piece, and they don’t think about the supply. And you could have however many people come into your website for a curry. If there are no curries there, you’ve lost them, they’ve gone off somewhere else.

Disintermediation is the big one, and being very thoughtful about what the concern would be for your supply. For Treatwell, it was a lot of SMEs and they were worried about paying a commission, time and time again, on new clients, and also that they were getting extradited from the relationship between them and their client. And clients were so important to them.

Spend time, be thoughtful, ask for that feedback, and make them feel like they’re part of the business as well because they fundamentally are. In the perfect world, when marketplaces work, it’s glorious because you become this highly efficient acquisition machine for them.

You’re bringing a true value proposition to the market for consumers, and everyone is gloriously happy. There is this level of when it works, it’s perfect. And at a brand level, B2B2C is the Holy Grail. 

B2B2C is product market fit at the end of the day for marketplaces. Definitely, the challenge is disintermediation. So the way to think about that is, “How do I make my supply feel like they’re part of my business and they’re front of mind for me?” and they’re not just a cash cow that I’m gonna take a commission from every time I send someone to them.

How can a brand, in those instances, maintain the trust and the relationship so that you still go through via their service versus going direct? 

JC: It comes down to, again, this idea of advocates. how do you find those suppliers or those partners who do get it and love it? 

Very early on at Lyst, when fashion was really starting to understand online and data, I remember we partnered with a website called Business of Fashion. Every single CEO and CMO was reading it because that was the source: What are people doing? What are Burberry Top Shop and Net Porter doing? They were leading the way and everyone was following them. We did that partnership with them because we knew that if we were in there, people are going to sit up and take notice because we’re spending money, and we’re taking the time to be thoughtful and to build thought leadership in those places as well.

Again, finding those advocates, finding those few that if you really focus on them, the others will come because you just need that one case study. You need to show success. You need to show you are supporting their conversion rates by doing X, Y, and Z. Be thoughtful. Treat them as an audience.

This is the other thing with brand. People often talk to me about “I need a supply brand or need a consumer brand, and then I’m gonna need an employer brand, then I’m gonna need an employee brand because employer brand is different to employee brand”. It is one brand, and you just have different audiences, and that’s where the flex needs to come through as well. You can speak to even those four as separate audiences and of themselves. 

One of the biggest challenges that startups have is attracting great senior talent, especially when they’re in the early days and building, and there’s not much yet to show, and they just can’t compete on the same level that the big dogs in the world can. What attracts you to join those brands, and what can companies do so that they can stand out when it comes to appealing to executive marketing talent?

JC: I think an understanding of brand and growth marketing. From very early on in my conversations with most of the founders I’ve worked with, there was this immediate understanding of how important brand is. You definitely have those founders who just want hockey stick growth. Unit economics isn’t a phrase they wanna hear about, nor is sustainability and efficiency. They care about getting that growth to go raise that A or that B round.

Being a lot more thoughtful and having a much long-term view – brand and marketing do not sit in a silo and can’t sit in a silo – is what I look for: a founder who understands that brand and marketing are as best mates with customer service as they are with the product, as they are with everything else. And a level of understanding of what sustainable growth looks like and that it isn’t growth at all costs is really important.

So there’s a level of patience in that because brand takes time, and it takes patience. SEO is exactly the same, but once it works, you’ve absolutely nailed it. So that’s what I’m looking for in that understanding of the power of brand to support performance, but not performance at all costs.

Brand ticks off so many boxes because it does the acquisition, it does the retention, it does the LTV, it does the referral. You just need to be patient with it and let it do what it does best. And also, just think about the last brand that you talked about or the last brand that got you to buy and why.

It’s very simple. We’re all consumers, so don’t overcomplicate it, either. A brand is a very simple concept. It just requires consistency, shepherding, and someone who is that busty. And ideally in-house to make sure it works. It can work and you can use data to make sure it works.

Brand and data are not mutually exclusive either, which is an important point as well. People think it’s this sort of dark science that you can never attribute anything to, and you absolutely can. You just need to be creative and smart in the way you’re doing it.

Check out our growing Seedcamp Firsts Library here.

In Part II of his piece on building your early engineering team, our Expert in Residence, David Mytton, walks you through the five stages of selecting engineers. If you’ve missed Part I on sourcing engineering talent, you can read it here

Once you’ve sourced candidates, the next part is the selection process. I’ll break this down into five separate stages:

Stage one: Application

The best people never apply for jobs because they already know people internally, so they skip that process. However, that tends to be lower volume and you will still want to have brand new applicants applying through a normal process.

People applying will be sending their CVs through so you can do some very basic screening. A lot of companies just ignore the CV or only use it as a simple filter. Something that I used was to have a keyword that I required all applicants to put in their cover letter, even if there was nothing else in the cover letter at all. The keyword was in the middle of the ad, and that tested to make sure that the applicant had actually read the full advert. It allowed us to screen out most people who apply using a shotgun approach of sending applications out to hundreds of companies.

Stage two: Writing exercise

There is a direct correlation between the ability to write prose and the ability to code. The next stage that I always used was to have a short writing exercise. I asked them to compare MongoDB to MySQL or some other relatively easy technical analysis. 

Ask candidates to write a couple of hundred words and spend 20-30 minutes putting together a short article on the comparison. With this, you are checking for the ability to explain and write without mistakes. If you can’t write a couple of hundred words without making grammatical and spelling errors, then the quality of your code is also going to be poor.

Stage three: Coding exercise

A coding exercise is a good way to test whether someone can actually do the job. It should be very short, just a couple of hours (so someone can do it in an evening or weekend), and it should be compensated with a reasonable fee. It is important to make sure that you are not just doing random tests. It also needs to be representative of what they might do in their day job, which could be building a simple client for your public API or fixing an issue in a open source repo – something relevant and easy to do.

Stage four: Meet them in person

After you assess their technical ability, spend a bit more time by actually meeting them in person. This is a good way to assess them for cultural fit, but also just to see what they’re like to work with. Even if you have a remote team, doing this in person has significant value. Some kind of pair programming session on a call is an alternative to that, but really try to do it in person if possible.

Remember that you’re still selling. The person has applied to you, but you still have to sell them on your company and why they should join. Make the process very smooth. Show candidates that they’re completely looked after – any travel is organized, and it feels like they’re a VIP. Showing that you actually care about them is a good way to persuade them to join!

Stage five: Have a quick response

Then, finally, have a quick follow-up. You don’t want to rush a decision, but it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to run through the entire hiring process. 

Avoid puzzles and tests. Whiteboarding a theoretical technical architecture might be acceptable, but writing code in anything other than a fully set-up editor with the internet is a waste of time and not representative of real-world development. So is anything that is going to take more than a couple of hours to half a day. Remember, people have real jobs, they have families, and they have other things they would rather be doing.

Going through a very lengthy process is something you want to avoid. Also, don’t ask about salary. Ensure you have a realistic market salary range decided up-front and in the job ad before people even apply. 

Conclusions and key takeaways

The selection process must be well-defined, representative of real-world development, and lead to a quick follow-up. 

Meet the candidates in person to see what they’re like to work with and assess the cultural fit. A pair programming session on a call is an alternative if meeting in person is impossible.

Remember, you are still selling, even though the candidate applied for the job.

If you’d like to learn more about hiring engineers, read David’s additional notes here.

Check out our growing Seedcamp Firsts Library here.