Elliott Hauser is the founder of trinket, formerly known as Coursefork, a group of university and online educators building open teaching tools. trinket/Coursefork were winners of Triangle Startup Weekend – EDU in March 2013 and were accepted into The Startup Factory in August 2013

Today we announced that our forthcoming beta will include a new brand: trinket. This is a story of how our team has helped draw this renewed vision, new brand, and new product out of us by asking us important questions and challenging our decisions. It’s a story of needing to shake out of our comfort zone, and for me, personally, it’s required a shift from visionary to true leader. I hope it’s a story that other founders will find useful.

Releasing Early & Staying Open to Change

I’ve written before on ExitEvent about how staying open to change made Coursefork better. But this was a difficult lesson to apply to the Coursefork brand itself. All of the blood, sweat, and tears that we’ve been through had attached themselves to that word. It was very difficult to step back and re-evaluate whether this brand connected with our users and evoked our mission.

Our mission is still to make the world a better place by empowering great educators and we’ve realized that our focus needs to be on open teaching, not open education as a whole. I hope you’ll agree our new brand and messaging state our mission and position in the marketplace more clearly.

The path to this new name and our forthcoming beta release wasn’t a straight line, and three of our new hires each made important contributions in getting us here. My role was to stay open to change and make the hard calls my team needed me to make at the crucial moments.

You Want to Change Our Name? Now?

When we brought on Lead Designer Julia in November, she was already thinking about rebranding the company. I wasn’t prepared for how much emotion the process would bring up for me. Julia did an excellent job shepherding the team through this important process; she is proof that hiring the best pays massive dividends. When my judgement was clouded, Julia was able to keep us headed in the right direction.

You Want To Roll Out the New Brand? Now?

After we chose the new name, Brian and I thought waiting to roll it out would be the best idea. After all, product traction is our most important success metric right now. So the brand rollout can wait, right?

Wrong. Our awesome Head of Marketing Pardees made a convincing and impassioned argument that our users and team need the new brand to understand the shift in product focus. Without a label to unite us, it would be easy to fall back into our old messaging, old way of understanding our customers, and our old product.

I realized that my resistance to rolling out the brand was really just fear or uncertainty that I was trying to call prudence. We had the brand ready to go. It was time to roll it out.

You Want to Rebuild the Product From Scratch? Now?

So we decided to rebrand the company. Brian and I both had the instinct that the code we had could be molded to fit these new requirements, and re-writing the app to match our refined vision was a dangerous move. In our minds the right time for a re-write was going to be after we raise our next round. That felt safe.

Our Lead Engineer Ben persuasively argued that the investment of time upfront would pay dividends of speed for months to come. The refined product design was simpler to build, so starting from scratch wasn’t as big a task as it originally seemed.

Brian and I took stock of what our team was telling us, we huddled for a bit, and made the call to start from scratch the same day — this was not a decision that we could afford to dither on.

It has been amazingly motivating for us as a team to have the freedom to start fresh, using all we’d learned over the past months. In the process, we’ve discovered all sorts of benefits — things that we’ve been able to do better and differently during our redesign.

A Founder’s Transition From Visionary to Leader

This process has required me to transition from a visionary building a team to a leader of that team. In a recent article for Inc magazine, Eric Paley lists three things that you must do as a founder to transform from a visionary to a leader. These are an excellent framing for what I’ve learned during the rebranding:

  • Build trust with talented people – As you’ll read below, the work we’re doing has only been possible because I’ve trusted our team.
  • Determine what’s important – It’s very difficult to sort through what’s critical and what’s a nice-to-have in a startup.
  • Be transparent- When you hire the best, they deserve a clear view into the business and the founders’ decision making. For me that meant owning up to personal hangups I had and being honest with the team when I felt I wasn’t able to be objective.

    In each of the three cases above, one of our team members stepped up and took the lead. In each case it went against my initial thoughts on what we should do. But in each case, it ended up being the best decision for the business.

    Max Levchin has said that “as a startup, you’re underfunded and undermanned… speed is your only weapon. All you have is speed.”A great team has kept us on course and moving at top speed.

    Advice for Founders

    Every startup is different but I hope that some of the experiences the trinket team has gone through may help you.

    If you’re considering re-coding your product after an early release, you’ll have to balance the risks and benefits for yourself. For us, our alpha code was primarily for us to learn from our users. It wasn’t written for maintainability and scalability. And, most importantly, it was full of features that we learned were not core to what our users wanted from us.