Every year, entrepreneurs with the most disruptive seed-stage ideas are selected from ZX Ventures and AB InBev's teams around the world. They come together in New York City for only 11 weeks to validate and develop their business models. ZXlerator takes each team through a lean startup approach of learning about the market and customer, testing prototypes, and failing fast. It's not just tech—previous cycles have launched new beverages (some you may have seen in your local Whole Foods), mobile apps, appliances, and interactive entertainment experiences. This culminates in Demo Day—when teams pitch their startup to peers and senior leadership, hoping to secure funding to grow with support from the global company.
It was T-8 days to demo day. Brewgorithm had a killer product. Problem: it's really hard to visualize for a pitch format presentation. Unlike other teams with tangible products to show or web/mobile apps to demo, Brewgorithm is an API that works invisibly in the background. It's learned to taste—and use that understanding to power beer recommendation engines on eCommerce, help restaurants suggest beer pairings, and buyers with their inventory assortment strategy.
I came in to help the team make this intangible product tangible—and to help consult on their pitch deck, website, and swag for Demo Day.
I've helped create the brand visual identity for companies, products, events, and even people—but this was the first time I was ever asked to help create a visuals for an algorithm that only exists virtually as code.
Having worked with visionary entrepreneurs who are particular about every aspect of their new company, they often have a spidey sense of what their brand should be, and they'll know it when they see it. I always feel like I'm channeling Miss Cleo—trying to conjure the same image as the one my client's mind. Depending on the client, I've developed different tools in my designer toolkit to help with this ESP-like process—from surveys to interviews. But all of these tools serve the purpose of turning their vision into words, the words are then interpreted by me, I turn that interpretation into a design (mood boards, sketches, mock-ups). Hopefully, things didn't get lost in translation in each of these steps and the final result resonates with the founder.
But there are a few risks with relying on a direct translation of founder vision to brand:
The client may default to personal preferences. Branding isn't just the logo you throw onto the corner of your products. It's a piece of the overall business strategy. Does it demonstrate the unique business value proposition? How would this brand be positioned against their competitors? Should it stand out or fit in with its competition? Should it look expensive, or would that be alienating? Sometimes, strategy dictates the "right" look and feel, or cancel out overused colors, even if it's the founder's favorite.
The right words are hard to find. It's difficult enough for trained design professionals to describe branding, so asking the team to vocalize how they envision a brand can often be unhelpful. The result is often too general (I want it to look modern and to pop), or had gone to thesaurus hell and back, or a distracting fiction when people are forced into a position of brainstorming designery-sounding terms. I tend to trust the founder's gut and judgment, but not their descriptor words.
Words are easily misinterpreted. Does "clean" mean minimalistic in terms of visual ornamentation? or were they just partial to a monotone color palette? Don't even get me started on design terms which we take for granted to mean something very specific (like saturation), which a client could say to convey they want something darker, as in tone.
Inspired by Jake Knapp's Three-Hour Brand Sprint, the approach I use now is to use descriptors and their antonyms, each accompanied by an example, to help characterize the brand in the dimensions that are most relevant.
The original examples are excellent at pinpointing the personality and tone of the brand. Beyond these five sliders, we introduced a few more to help make decisions on otherwise hard-to-articulate issues, such as:
- balancing conflicting extremes
(for us, high tech vs organic)
- additional personality dimensions unique to your business
(for us, rational vs magical)
- targeted disambiguation around business strategy
(for us, literal vs abstract)
Lean into its electronic, high-tech nature.
Think: The Matrix, 1s and 0s, Minority Report
Explore what human needs it drives—something that feels natural and organic.
Should it feel mathematical and logical?
Or feel like a magical black box?
Growth may depend on companies who add a "Powered by Brewgorithm" badge on their site. Should the mark have a literal association to aid recall?
Or should the mark be abstract to allow for future expansion into more verticals beyond its current focus? And also allow the team and customers to imbue this blank symbol with their own meaning?
Without hesitation, the team knew what they wanted:
organic, rational, abstract—leaning hard into each extreme.
Demo Day was waiting for no one. I was getting legitimately nervous trying to connect the dots of all of these data points. I knew the business, I knew the audience, I knew the team, I knew the values, and I understood the core of how the brand should feel. But it was just not crystallizing. There was no "mark" that could mean everything we now pressure it to mean.
Sometimes, inspiration really does strike when you least expect it. It was August 21, 2017—the day of the total solar eclipse. TVs around the office that were reserved for data dashboards were tuned to live news so we got up-to-the-second updates on the path of the eclipse. We watched on with as much anticipation as I did as a kid monitoring the NORAD Santa Tracker on Christmas Eve. I underestimated how excited everyone (including myself) would be.
When it was finally New York's turn, we raced to the rooftop, took turns borrowing the three pairs of solar safety glasses between all of us. The sky grew dark. The moon, earth, and sun aligned. And then it was over.
A photo I took of the 2017 total solar eclipse from the ZX Ventures rooftop.
We were all (surprisingly) a little emotional that day. None of us anticipated this impact—but there's something awe-inspiring about taking a moment in the middle of a work day to appreciate the scale of our universe.
Just as an eclipse occurs when the earth, sun, and moon are in perfect alignment, Brewgorithm finds meaning by bringing data nodes into alignment. From all the noise of data generated, Brewgorithm is able to isolate the key pieces, and display them: you + Goose Island IPA + Aged Cheddar Burger = perfection.
Just like how humans have made sense of stars in the night sky by connecting the dots to create mythical creatures, Brewgorithm makes sense of disparate data sets by connecting the dots to form new patterns.
Just as the sun powers the solar system, Brewgorithm powers initiatives from personalization in eCommerce to assortment strategy for B2B.
Illuminating the night sky from midnight, sunrise, daytime, and sunset.
The primary solid color palette comprises softer, warmer colors (in contrast to the dark blues of most "technology" stock photos). Together, they blend to create any spectrum of the sky—from hopeful dawn to hazy dusk, from a clear midday sky to a dead of night.
Knowing the deck would be projected on four (!) giant screens behind, flanking, and on top of the stage, we knew we needed to keep the content simple. The presentation was a continuous narrative, and didn't need constant reference to charts and figures on screen. People always read faster than you speak, and it was pointless to distract eyes away from Eric, the former debate champion nominated to represent the team on stage. The slides were instead treated as a supporting backdrop to inspire the vision.
Congratulations to the Brewgorithm team: Conrad Barrett, Jacob Carpenter, Eric Zhao, Patrick Scott.
Brand and pitch deck design: Meng He.