13 Books My Friends Think I Should Read (and Maybe You Should Too)

by Patrick Woods on


We had a lot of fun in 2014 at archer>malmo ventures. We created the Brand Strategy Canvas and conducted workshops for some of the best startups and accelerators in the world. We started working with some great friends. We were also named a top 10 agency for startup by Agency Post.

On the other hand, I’ve had this feeling lately that I’m on, or arriving at, a plateau. archer>malmo ventures is in its third year, things are going well, and I can’t help but sense that things are getting a little too comfortable. Never a good sign.

I’m a reader, so I always look to the written word for guidance and inspiration. I’m also lucky to have a lot of really smart and creative friends to turn to for input and advice in times like this. So I reached out on Twitter to get their thoughts on what to read next.

Here’s how I got the conversation going:

And thankfully, within an hour or so, I had more than a dozen recommendations from friends and strangers alike. It’s a great mix of fiction and nonfiction, with challenging reads on topics ranging from creativity to productivity to philosophy.

Without further adieu, here’s the list (in chronological order):

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Tips for Maximizing the Brand Strategy Canvas

by Patrick Woods on


The Brand Strategy Canvas removes the guesswork from developing a brand strategy. Here are a handful of tips that will help your team get the most of the Canvas.

Garbage in, garbage out

Like any process, the tool itself useless without deliberate and thoughtful effort. Done casually, the canvass could be completed in as little as 5 minutes. But it’s not a race. If you want results that are true and actionable, you and your team must be willing to ask hard questions, push your assumptions, and move past the obvious.

Work alone

Startups are naturally collaborative, so the the tendency will be for everyone to work on the canvas together. That’s okay, but it’s not the whole story. In our experience, the best work is down when you work as a group to discuss big ideas and general direction, then send everyone to work on their own. After everyone has had time to work through the canvas individually, only then should the group come together to compare notes. There are a couple reasons for this.

For one, you’ll be surprised how different each team member’s canvas will be. It’s common that a team will say “We’ve got a pretty good handle on our brand. We’re all on the same page.” But after comparing canvases, it becomes clear that there’s a lot divergence in critical areas of the startup’s brand strategy.

Additionally, working alone during the exploratory stage of the creative process is simply good practice. In a group discussion, it’s impossible to achieve deep focus, think intently, and explore the facets of a particular direction. Once everyone has spent some time in solo exploration, you’ll find that the group discussion is more informed and more fruitful.

Put it all on paper

Since the notion of “brand” is abstract and esoteric, people love to talk about branding. It’s easy, even fun, to talk about big ideas. But simply discussing leaves plenty of wiggle room in your execution. Specificity is where the power lies. The canvas asks you to commit to specific choices about who you are and how you fit into the world. The simple act of writing it down forces you and your team to explore concrete examples of how those choices affect your brand.


The canvas is meant to be printed, reworked, and reprinted. Try different angles in the positioning statement, and explore how the various elements interact. Hang prior versions on the wall to gain an understanding of how your thinking has evolved and become increasingly focused.

These are just a few tips to get you started. For a 40-minute walk-thru of the Brand Strategy Canvas, checkout our workshop video.

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Brand Archaeology

by Patrick Woods on


I’m jealous of writers. Fiction, history, biography, short stories—I envy the good writers across genre. Writers tell stories, they convey information, they move their audiences from one point to another, leaving them changed in the process.

That’s why I love reading about how writers write. When they write, the process they follow for arriving at a narrative, even the tools they use and the desks where they sit.

On of my favorite accounts of a writer’s process is Stephen King’s class On Writing. King starts with the story of his childhood, college, and early marriage. After providing this humorous, sometimes moving, look into his autobiography, King moves on to the details of how we works. Where he sits, when he writes, how often he writes.

In one section, he unpacks what amounts to his view of Story. Where do stories come from? How do you know a good one?

In King’s view, stories are fossils. In other words, the stories exist already, much like Michelangelo would say the sculpture is there, waiting, inside the block of marble. The ideas have been there since the beginning of time. Someone just needs to uncover them. In this sense, authors are archeologists.

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Safe Return Doubtful

by Patrick Woods on

Shackleton Expedition

A few nights ago, Netflix, in its infinite wisdom, suggested the delightful indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. The story begins with a curious newspaper classified that reads:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

As the film unfolds, the viewer uncovers what one critic deemed a “plaintive underlying theme about the fading dreams of those aspiring professionals in their 20s and 30s not swept up in the high-tech and financial gold rush.”

In other words, ours is a cynical-yet-hopeful generation. If wealth is no longer an attainable analogue for happiness, we’ll redefine happiness by emphasizing experience over possessions.

While this attitude seems thoroughly post-modern, the desire for meaningful experience isn’t unique to the 20- and 30-somethings of the past decade.

Consider the following job posting, which sounds a lot like the one above, dating from 1912:

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In a Two-sided Marketplace, Build a Hen House

by Patrick Woods on

When building a two-sided marketplace, the chicken vs. egg anology

“No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” as the saying goes.

IBM here is a metaphor for the safe choice. For jumping on the corporate bandwagon. For following the trends of business.

Trend following might be safe for corporate types, but for startup founders, “safe” is a four-letter word.

Just ask legendary ad man George Lois:

Because advertising and marketing is an art, the solution to each new problem or challenge should begin with a blank canvas and an open mind, not with nervous borrowings of other people’s mediocrities. That’s precisely what “trends” are—a search for something “safe”—and why a reliance on them leads to oblivion.

Despite the risks of trend following, startups are notoriously bad about doing so (see my post Why Does Your Startup Sound Like a Startup? for more). Startup trends appear in homepage layouts, messaging, user acquisition plans, and even approaches to company culture.

But your runway’s shrinking and everything’s on fire and how are you going to make payroll?

This is no time for the safety of other people’s mediocrities.

Lois, again:

In any creative industry, the fact that others are moving in a certain direction is always proof positive, at least to me, that a new direction is the only direction.

Sounds a lot like the startup worldview. So it’s weird that, when, it comes to branding and messaging, so many startups fall into the trend trap of mediocrity and then oblivion.

Disruptive technology, you say? Too bad you look and sound like every other player in your space.

What if your messaging and marketing were as disruptive as your technology? What if your team put in the effort to tell a truly compelling and meaningful brand story that did justice to your product?

Leave the trends to the bloggers and journalists; they need something to write about come January.

By the way, when asked for insight into the coming year’s trends, Lois says:

My answer is always identical to what I said the previous year: “Beats the shit out of me. I’ll know it when I do it.”

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