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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Building a Collaborative Branding Platform and Serving Unicorn Startup Brands

Janis Verzemnieks
Janis Verzemnieks
January 26, 2022
Category of startup
Design
Country of startup
Latvia
Revenue of startups
No Data
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Building a Collaborative Branding Platform and Serving Unicorn Startup Brands

Janis Verzemnieks
Janis Verzemnieks
January 26, 2022
Category of startup
Design
Country of startup
Latvia
Cause of failure of the startup

Janis founded Corebook, a collaborative online brand guidelines platform. With clients like Miro and M&C Saatchi Group, Corebook has earned some success, with many investors lining up and believing that this could be the next big thing in the brand design management industry.

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Hi Janis! Who are you and what are you currently working on?

I'm a 31-year old European digital nomad, cherry ice cream lover, failed garage rock band guitarist, and CEO & Co-founder at Corebook. It’s a startup in the branding industry with a mission to ensure that by 2025, fixed-format PDF brand guidelines will have become a thing of the past.

I recently sold the majority of my stuff, downsized 4x to a modest studio flat on a Mediterranean island Mallorca to lead my team fully remotely, and spend more time outdoors on my way to co-working spaces.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

In 2004, I discovered computer software, artsy-type peers on the internet, heavy metal music, grunge fashion, and boys' ability to grow long hair (the start of my rebel going against everything teenage phase).

In 2008, I spent one month in the hospital because of deep pain in the chest every time I breathed. Doctors never really figured out the diagnosis but assumed it was caused by anxiety in a school system where I felt I didn't fit in. I spent most of that time looking out of the hospital window at a lonely tree and wondering about life and stuff.

A year later, I dropped out of art school, and I learned what my condition "autodidact" means. Then, I started teaching myself design. I founded my first business (graphic design studio) by helping out friends who played in rock bands by designing gig posters, album artworks, band logos, and Myspace layouts. In parallel, I tried to co-found another marketing agency startup. I failed fast because of a lack of money while bootstrapping.

In 2014, I began traveling around Europe with nothing but a backpack, rollerskates, and freelance design gigs. My most extended stay was in Venice, Italy, where I lived with local art academy students. Two years later, I returned to Riga, Latvia, and co-founded a time management product startup. I failed fast because of personality conflicts between co-founders.

In 2017, I accepted a creative director job offer at an advertising agency, and a year later, I quit the job because of shitty products I had to advertise, and my inner urge to still make f’n amazing sh!t happen through entrepreneurship. Soon, almost like from a scene of The Matrix movie, I met two bright gentlemen who later played a crucial role in my life as my business partners. We started working on a small startup idea called Corebook to disrupt how the industry creates and uses brand guidelines because it bothered us throughout our previous professional lives.

In 2020, together with the other two co-founders, we managed to launch the public Beta of Corebook, officially registering the company as a legal entity and raising our first investment capital with a $1.2M valuation. Last year, I set up my second home in Spain’s Mediterranean island Mallorca and got a matching tattoo with a random stranger. Corebook is now used in 30 countries by the most influential brand studios and world-renowned brands.

How did you go from idea to product?

Without a doubt, it's a universal law that great ideas must be materialized by the right makers, right timing, and the right approach. Our idea was fortunate in meeting co-founders with the matching competence and experience, favorable context in our personal lives, and strong friendship.

It took two years of building a product from scratch till public beta launch and two years after that, until this moment when we are confident about what we're building, how to bring value to our clients, and finally, become interesting for VC investors.

After we committed to the idea, we gathered building resources — a real challenge started with endless creative possibilities on how to be sure what to build and what not to. I created an internal methodology called Core Truth as a solution for the team. It's a collaborative cloud document, a dedicated place to figure out Product-Market fit and be in tune with the reality of our audience. The document consists of guiding principles for customer interviews, industry insights, user persona archetypes, customer feedback archive, and product-market fit validation methods.

Corebook Core Studio

We have defined 5 core principles that are guiding us for every ideation and prototyping process:

  1. We should feel uncertain about everything we make, yet confident about how we gather feedback. 
  2. Feedback and debrief hierarchy — Problem, Connection, Vibe
  3. Wishful thinking must not become the attribution of Corebook reality to what product makers wish to be accurate or the tenuous justification of what one wants to believe.
  4. We're not looking for opportunities to build new features; instead, we're looking for opportunities to create new experiences.
  5. Don't fall into the mental trap that learning about the customers' world is something we can finish.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Since we are designers and branding thinkers ourselves, we know where creative-type industry folks hang out, what websites they are reading, which thought leaders they are following, etc.

One example: right after our product Beta launch, we created a beautifully crafted product landing page that got a web design award in a particular award organization we picked out to be showcased. It created traffic and interest. The first paying client was impressed by our design craftsmanship and customer service.

And above everything, I was personally talking with every user in the early days, which formed trust and confidence in the product although it was in the MVP stage. 

Corebook Platform


How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

We are growing 20% MoM. Today we are honored for a chance to serve unicorn startup brands such as GoPuff and Miro; world-leading brand agency networks M&C Saatchi Group and McCann; and onboarding Instagram and Unsplash logo designer Mackey Saturday as one of the early clients who eventually become our official advisor.

In January 2022, we partnered up with our heroes — The Futur (a leading education platform for creative entrepreneurs). In the first week alone, the campaign video hit 29K views on Youtube, and we set a new sales record with 30% revenue growth.

What's next (6–12 months):

  • Expand product with more collaborative features, mobile responsibility, and UX improvements.
  • Attract new talents to the core team, foster a viable ground for them to do the best job in their careers, and be engaged with the company's future by earning employee stock options shares.
  • Find new investment partners for the upcoming funding round who are passionate about the Corebook vision and understand how brands are built.
  • Strengthen relationships with our international board of advisers.


Since starting Corebook, what have been your main lessons?

My main lessons have been:

  • Be open to advise from mentors. Nevertheless, if you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.
  • Create your own rules.
  • Tomorrow you will be paid for what you do today.
  • Your product will never be finished (deal with it). 
  • Integrate failures as a fun activity for team building.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

Bugs works in mysterious ways. Once, we lost a significant partnership deal because of the random sequence of bugs when our potential partner was testing our product. They postponed the partnership for one year, yet we still needed to pay half a fee. Core takeaway: develop a robust testing system as soon as possible.

Human errors also work in mysterious ways. We are such losers sometimes, like that one time when we launched a marketing campaign with the wrong URL as a call to action :) Core takeaway: invite your family and friends to click everything clickable before launching anything.

Bad investor's deals work in disguise. Core takeaway: a) hire only those lawyers who understand how startups work; b) don't hesitate to ask for help from fellow founders. 

Investor soft commitment is not done deal. We have experienced investors retreating from the deal at the very last minute of finalizing the investment round. Core takeaway: don't stop pitching until the money is in the bank account. Also, remember It's okay to break up; life's full of failed relationships and full of new opportunities.


What tools & resources do you recommend?

I highly recommend becoming that one weirdo in your team who is losing sleep figuring out how to integrate 3rd party apps into Slack.

Favorite podcast: On Being with Krista Tippett

Favorite entrepreneur and newsletter: Sophia Amarouso, Sophia's Diary

Favorite startup content: Justin Kan Youtube channel

Favorite Instagram account: @animalsandsynthesizers

In general, I don't read classical business and design books. Instead, my work is defined by different philosophy publications and rockstar autobiographies. That said, here are three books worth a read to anyone who is considering building something for other people:

Music industry's unicorns biographies you should google it (to explore what it means to polish innate talent, gain lifelong fans, and scale it globally by keeping the core team together for decades):

  • Incubus
  • Linkin Park
  • ABBA


Where can we go to learn more?

I'm using Linkedin as my main personal social media platform; therefore, my Linkedin engagement rate is very high :)

On my personal website, I have a cool footer featuring a floating list of my social and portfolio links.

Listen to Corebook mixtapes on Spotify curated by me.

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