Start-up Corner: Helping Startup Founders Create Their Own Brand, No Designer Required

Alex Ray, Contributor
David Klein, Contributor

David Klein and Alex Ray (MBAs ’20) share how their startup, Parade, combines machine learning and design theory to help founders launch a professional brand online in minutes.

What is the problem that you are trying to solve?

Startups spend $3,000 to $20,000 to develop a brand identity. It is so important to have an attractive brand to get customers and investors to take you seriously, but that price tag prevents a lot of new companies from making the investment. 

Even companies that do spend thousands will receive their brand identity (logos, colors, fonts, visuals) as a static PDF brand guide, and they still need to hire a designer to turn that into a website and other assets. 

As companies scale, the problem grows. People in customer-facing roles like sales and marketing often face a tradeoff between waiting weeks for the creative team to make collateral they need or hacking something together themselves to meet an urgent opportunity. They burn time building ineffective, off-brand materials, and the brand team gets frustrated that their guidelines were ignored.

What is your solution?

Through a series of simple questions, Parade’s machine learning-based software helps startup founders articulate the vision for their company, translate it into a design aesthetic, and launch it online in under ten minutes. 

Once your brand is on Parade, it is easy to create a website, marketing emails, social media posts, and more, all without a graphic designer. On Squarespace, Webflow, and Canva, founders have to search for a generic template and then edit it to look like their brand. That process is time-consuming and requires design skills to do well. Parade’s technology helps you define your brand identity based on how you want to be perceived and then uses your choices to generate on-brand templates for you, letting you focus on the specifics of your content.

Parade is fun and empowering, and our customers love feeling proud of their brand.

What was the inspiration behind your company/idea?

Alex: At HBS, I saw some of my classmates struggling to go from an idea to a real business. Design was their key blocker—they knew what they wanted to work on and generally how they wanted it to look and feel, but didn’t have the skillset to make it themselves or the extra cash to pay a designer. I hated that for them, so I helped several of my classmates set up basic websites to help them sell their idea to customers. 

Since college, I have been fascinated by algorithms that create art using machine learning. While helping classmates get their companies set up, I realized that creating brands would be a really interesting problem to solve with an algorithm. During the Field Y class at HBS, I started building software that generates marketing collateral for companies after someone answers a few easy questions, no design skills required. The tech really started coming together around April of last year, so I pitched David on ditching his plans of finding a “real job” and instead working on turning this concept into a business.  

David: At a philosophical level, there is a lot of talk about how machine learning is automating away people’s jobs, but I am really interested in applications of machine learning that augment human capability, increase joy and job satisfaction, and empower people to be more creative. When Alex told me about his experiences as a brand designer and the opportunity he saw to bring machine learning to this domain to help founders, it immediately clicked for me, because I have felt this problem many times from the customer perspective. Before HBS, I built a new business unit at General Assembly from scratch through product-market fit, selling to hundreds of the Fortune 500 around the world. As we scaled, we constantly faced the tradeoff between hacking together visual assets to get in front of customers quickly, or waiting for the design team to produce quality assets for us. 

Who is the team behind your startup?

In addition to the two of us, we also have a Head of Design, Ben Barrett-Forrest. We met Ben through one of our close friends from HBS and we hit it off immediately while getting Ben’s feedback on our product. Ben has deep expertise in Typography and Branding. He is the producer of a series of educational playing card decks on Design and Typography, and his animated short film called The History of Typography has 1.6M views on YouTube. We’re growing quickly! We recently hired another product designer who is starting soon, and are currently seeking an MBA Intern to help with growth, strategy, and operations this summer!

How did you get started?

Alex started this during Field Y in the Spring of 2020, and David joined before they graduated in May 2020. Things really took off last summer when we did Y Combinator, served a cohort of beta customers, and raised a venture round. One thing worth noting—we committed to start working together before we really knew in earnest what the business was going to become. If we had one piece of advice to give to HBS students thinking about starting a company, it would be this: it matters way more who you are working with than what you are working on. Find someone who you like and trust and who has complementary skills, and go for it! 

What’s next?

This month, we are launching a completely new experience on Parade that is the fastest way to go from an idea to a fully-branded, live website collecting leads in 10 minutes. If you are reading this and have a business idea, go try it out. It is insanely fun and just might inspire you to go start that company. You can even do it from your phone. We will be expanding that product this summer and adding tools to create on-brand social media posts, email newsletters, and pitch decks right from Parade. 

Alex Ray (MBA ’20) is from Jackson, Mississippi. Prior to HBS he worked in tech and venture capital. Parade is his third machine learning startup. He lives in Seattle, WA.

David Klein (MBA ’20) is from Washington, DC. He has worked in product and strategy roles at General Assembly, Strava, and Techstars. He lives in Freeport, Maine.