How to Market a Product No One’s Seen Before That Solves a Problem No One Knows About.

Strategy > Branding

OMG the world needs this early-development technology. I’m dead serious. But even though this revolutionary wearable looks simple, how it works is actually pretty complicated. And did I mention the results aren’t immediate? (Just wait, I’ll get there). But one thing is absolutely clear – the result of using this technology means your child will get a substantial educational head-start over his or her peers. That head-start begins in infancy, and keeps distancing your child ahead of others for life.

PRODUCT:  This is the Starling. So tiny, so cute, so powerful.

PRODUCT: This is the Starling. So tiny, so cute, so powerful.

FINAL:  One of the first things I made at Versame – a 6”x9” two-sided handout for parents touting the Starling’s benefits.

FINAL: One of the first things I made at Versame – a 6”x9” two-sided handout for parents touting the Starling’s benefits.

The great advantage of doing what I do at this point in my career is being able to choose the projects I work on, and the people I work with. I really liked the people at VersaMe before I even knew about the product. Chris and Jon, two of the company’s founders, contacted Kelly and I out of the blue. They had left Silicon Valley like we did, and now lived just a couple of towns down the I77, in Huntersville. They explained that they were fans of our parenting board book, Safe Baby Handling Tips. In fact, the bit about Playing with Baby was one of the early slides in their investor pitch for a startup they were launching with a third partner, Nicki “The Money” Boyd (the nickname I gave her). Nicki controlled the finances and managed the development team back in Redwood City, while the rest of the team worked out here in NC.

BEFORE AND AFTER:  The original packaging on the left didn’t communicate the product or it’s value. My  redesign  on the right led with the value proposition and steadily unfolded the whole story in easy-to-digest snippets.

BEFORE AND AFTER: The original packaging on the left didn’t communicate the product or it’s value. My redesign on the right led with the value proposition and steadily unfolded the whole story in easy-to-digest snippets.

Kelly and I met Jon and Chris for coffee and they explained what they were making. They had a passion for early education and learning (it ran in their family). They knew that the education system was not only broken, but historically broken and getting worse. From studying years of scientific research they concluded the only way to nip the problem was, literally, in the bud. They sought to jump-start the learning process as early (and as correctly) as possible. This was the problem they worked on at Stanford and they already went through a successful round of funding. The hardware and development infrastructure was built, and they were about to launch on Kickstarter. The three had a lot of the planning done (and it was good) but they asked us on to help them out with tightening up the branding and early messaging. That’s when we learned all about the Starling.

The Starling was a beautifully designed, high-tech wearable for children 0-4 years old. When you clipped it to your child’s clothes, the Starling would count every word spoken to your baby throughout the day. It did this in virtual real-time, without recording, and sent the data to your phone with beautiful graphics telling you how many words your child heard that hour, that day, that month, that year. It let you set word count goals to challenge you every day. Anticipating how hard it can be to carry on a one-sided conversation (Chris and Jon were also parents), the app gave you fun daily prompts to help you keep talking to your baby at every occasion - in the car, during your afternoon run with the jog stroller, at bedtime, etc. Feeling competitive? There was even a leader board that you could use to see how much quality engagement you gave your child compared to other Starling parents. Amazing, right?

I bet I can guess what you’re thinking right now. “Why?”

Why all this technology to talk to a newborn? It’s not like I’m NOT going to say anything to my baby, so why all the extreme fuss? You’re not wrong to think that. But here’s a big fact – the more words you say to a child from 0-4 years old, the more likely they are to reach their full potential. And the “to” is super important. You can’t just talk “at” your child, like over your shoulder while you’re doing the dishes. No, doing that doesn’t work the same way. Think reading, with the child on your lap. Or telling a story while making lots of eye contact. There you go, that’s the right stuff. It’s about engagement. Feed a child’s brain enough words like this and soon you’ll find yourself with an early talker. Then while other babies are still learning to talk, yours is busy learning to read. Get it? And while other people’s kids are learning to read picture books, yours is reading chapter books. This goes on for their whole life!

FINAL : For professionals who already understood the importance of verbal communication, I created this  “bookshure”  to introduce them to a powerful new tool – the Starling.

FINAL: For professionals who already understood the importance of verbal communication, I created this “bookshure” to introduce them to a powerful new tool – the Starling.

But understand this – doing all this talking with engagement doesn’t mean every child can grow up to be Einstein. It’s all about maximizing your child’s genetic (not economic) potential. If it’s only within a child’s genetic capacity to be average smart, they’ll get there faster and stay there for life. This can make a huge difference to a child’s quality of life, considering where they could end up without the benefit of this help. And I can’t stress this enough – I’m talking about  ALL children. Not just poor children. Or special needs children. ALL CHILDREN. (If you’re a parent reading this, please note your feelings right now. I’ll get to them later). 

Finally, dear reader, here lies the rub. Look how long it took me to explain the Starling to you and the problem it solves. My expertise in working with clients in San Francisco was taking really complicated concepts and making them dead simple for a consumer (best example here). I worked on the Starling for two years and what you read above is the shortest I think I’ve ever gotten the complete pitch. So as a marketer, here are your options:

  1. Explain how The Starling works, and then explain why it solves an early-education problem you didn’t know existed

  2. Explain how you need to talk to your baby as much as possible from 0-4 years old, and then explain what the Starling is and how it could help you do that

You can’t do one (explain the Starling) without the other (how early development works). 

The three founders had become early-childhood experts, for real. And their research scientist, librarian, pediatrician, speech language pathologist, mentors and partners were all in touch on the regular, keeping tabs on the Starling’s progress and correcting messaging when necessary so that everything stayed absolutely factual. We needed to look like experts, but not scientists. The messaging had to be intriguing, inviting and fun – but not misleading or fantastical.

FINAL : A  one-sheet  for interested schools to get a little more detail on how the Starling can help their mission.

FINAL: A one-sheet for interested schools to get a little more detail on how the Starling can help their mission.

The Kickstarter launch was a success in that it did what we needed – raise as much awareness as cash. (As I said, VersaMe was already funded by an investment group). Our mailing list blossomed. Sales started coming in. But that’s when the real work began.

I’ve worked on big tech in San Francisco. A lot. Sun Microsystems, Borland, Sybase, Veritas, Dell, Adobe, blah blah blah. That’s not including all the dot coms. I was there for the first big boom, and the first big bust, working freelance for almost every agency in the City. Startups are different. It’s EXACTLY like in the show “Silicon Valley” (the first season, anyway). It’s crazy and confusing and exciting and hilarious and scary and frustrating and fun as hell. You’ll NEVER pack more work into a shorter span of time than when you work for a startup. Because even though we were focused on who we were, and which audience we were talking to, we were saying it all - in every conceivable way. And we had practically no budget to do it with. Even though there was $10M in seed money, you gotta watch like a hawk how you spend it (right, Nicki?). Because it’s only going to last so long. So we were begging, borrowing, and stealing while testing the messaging multiple time a day, every day, everywhere. And once we saw progress in any direction we’d run after it full speed.

There’s no way I can ever tell you everything we did. It was so much! But one of the first things  was to use everything that inspired the creation of the Starling to build a giant online resource center for new parents, filled with published studies that prove the benefits of direct, verbal communication. Then we published articles and how-to’s on our blog everyday giving tips on how (and why) to maximize your baby-talking skills. Our newsletters were going out weekly to new parents, filled with communication tips and info on developmental milestones. I found out that the founders had invested in a HUGE AdWords ad buy that included a lot of YouTube videos. I had two weeks to deliver finished product and there was nothing in the works. We set up tents in shopping malls and Nicki and I did the ABC show in Vegas (to have a meeting with Barnes & Noble, who said no, then inexplicably sent us a huge order two weeks later). We got into a hipster tech showroom in Silicon Valley. I totally redesigned the packaging. I made an online school for new parents. We developed a custom Reading App that you could use with the Starling. We hired influencers on social media. We created a mobile app game based on the Starling. We brought on a respected social media agency to give it a go. We. Tried. Everything.

WORK:  And lots of it! This is probably about 2% of the things we did to position, explain, and sell the Starling.  Clockwise from top left:  Dumbing it down, we created multitudes of info-loaded landing online campaigns and landing pages, we created and ran an online school, we sent the founders to present at indie book stores, parenting groups, schools and libraries. I made a Starling Honors program for little students, we made an educational mobile game, we tried multitudes of simple online campaigns and landing pages, we gave away free information (so much free information), we changed the whole website, we started  marketing the platform  the Starling was built on, and we developed ridiculously complex email newsletters and campaigns.

WORK: And lots of it! This is probably about 2% of the things we did to position, explain, and sell the Starling. Clockwise from top left: Dumbing it down, we created multitudes of info-loaded landing online campaigns and landing pages, we created and ran an online school, we sent the founders to present at indie book stores, parenting groups, schools and libraries. I made a Starling Honors program for little students, we made an educational mobile game, we tried multitudes of simple online campaigns and landing pages, we gave away free information (so much free information), we changed the whole website, we started marketing the platform the Starling was built on, and we developed ridiculously complex email newsletters and campaigns.

Nothing worked. At least, not on the level we wanted it to. It was just too much for people to wrap their heads around. Most thought it was a great product...for terrible parents. And of course, THEY were all excellent parents. There’s actually a study that exists which found 90% of parents thought they were parenting in the 5th percentile of awesome parents. Which, of course, is mathematically impossible. So we pivoted to focus on Starling Partnersschools (public and private), libraries, speech pathologists, pediatrician clinics, non-profit organizations. Frankly, any group that already understood the importance of early learning. Most ended up being too outright dysfunctional, painfully slow to act, or too strapped for funds to make a difference to our bottom line. Our biggest success came from developing a program for libraries to loan Starlings out to patrons. We got ourselves into a lot of libraries but not enough, and not fast enough. In the end we had to stop. There was nothing left to try. This amazing technology is now in the hands of the scientific researchers who inspired it. They’re using it to further understand how we can make our children better, smarter, happier people. I’m 100,000% sure that someday you’ll see this product (or something like it) make a huge consumer splash in the future. Sometimes a good idea doesn’t make it simply because of something that no one can foresee or control  – timing.

DAVE SOPP – Creative

Yep, that’s me. I’ve got over 20 years of marketing strategy, graphic design, advertising art direction, and illustration experience. Want to use some of it? Email me at dave@davesopp.com