Branding, VCs and the ‘Uncanny Valley’

“The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics which holds that when features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers.” – Wikipedia

While the term is most often applied to robotics or 3D animation attempting to mimic people or animals, I want to stretch a bit here and talk about the Uncanny Valley of Branding. For me, this is when an entity – whether person or company – tries to build a brand that rings false and inauthentic. The execution might be flawless but there’s ultimately something a little bit off. A glitch here or there. A word that lands with a thud as opposed to a pop. I’ve found historically this occurs when the brand is the byproduct of a strategic process and not of core, closely held beliefs.

So what’s the Uncanny Valley of VC Branding? The rush in our industry to build very public facing brands – out of both opportunity and necessity. Many firms and investors are doing amazing jobs of putting themselves out there and creating valuable content/franchises/relationships in the process. Others stumble towards desired attributes – “founder friendly,” “kingmaker,” “deep thinker” – without committing at heart to what these terms actually mean. Content marketing, social media, events and public speaking – there are lots of activities being executed well but the challenge at the heart is “what do you stand for? why do you exist?” If you can’t answer this question, you leave founders (your customers) in their own uncanny valley.

We’ve been upfront about our marketing goals for Homebrew’s first two years, specifically to “Close the brand awareness gap between ourselves and the other top seed funds (who are 1-3 fund cycles ahead of us).” While ultimately exceeding the expectations of the founders we’ve backed will be our true strength of brand (and failure to do so would doom us), Satya and I weren’t ignorant of the need to tell more people about Homebrew. We’ve done it largely in our own voice, on our own blogs and via Twitter. We’ve not tried to be all things to all people – a good brand helps customers self-select. We’ve also tried to not trade on being YouTube/Google or Twitter prognosticators, hitting the tech sites to provide our review of their recent earnings or executive changes. We did our work there and out of admiration and respect for the current teams, they should be able to to tell their own stories.

As we approach our third year of existence (and with a new fund raised) our goals and tactics will evolve for ensuring great entrepreneurs understand us and can find us. Some principles that I’m resolving to stay true to:

  • Grow the Pie, Always Grow the Pie: Help to make more early stage founders successful – whether we funded them or not – but lean-in hardest for the ones we’ve back.
  • We’re Accessible: We publish our contact info and hope to respond at least once to any email that seems at least minimally customized to us 🙂 (I’ll have a story to tell later this spring about a company we funded after their founders sent a ‘cold email’)
  • Homebrew is a Partnership, Not a Just Collection of Partners: Homebrew can’t be – will never be – a stapled together collection of “Hunter’s thoughts + Satya’s thoughts” or “Hunter’s deals + Satya’s deals.”
  • Let Founders Take the Victory Lap: Our first two years have been very promising but crowing about a bunch of “hot” investments and writeups? Please no. I’m sure some of my enthusiasm can come off as self-promotion or grandstanding but I’ll be very clear: our success is going to be reliant upon amazing founders and teams, not retweets.

So if you’re an investor worried about your brand, I’d start first with the values you hope to embody, then make sure you’re modeling them in real life because if those two aren’t consistent, you’ll end up in the uncanny valley. And I hope anyone who reads this will keep me honest if they think I’m sliding into it.