Whenever you start a new venture, you come up with an idea to solve a particular problem. What happens though is that lots of other people will look at your site, think about your underlying technology and deduce that its good for solving all sorts of different problems. If you want to build a brand, you have to have the guts to say no. Or abandon your original problem - you can't do both.
Topix is the perfect example. When we started we had technology that crawled thousands of news sources and categorized stories into literally hundreds of thousands of topics and locations. But the one sweet spot we found from the very beginning was local news. Sounds easy, right? Topix brand stands for local news then, right? Ha.
After our launch, we immediately started talking to lots of people. Potential partners, investors, press, etc. all marveled at our technology. And they asked the typcial questions: can we white label this on our site and use it to categorize ________? Can we tweak this to do _______? How about this market/ application? Is there an enterprise product we can make from this? Ugh.
It sounds like saying no to any/ all of these questions would be easy. But it isn't. Remember, every person who asks these question has a really big check book. Saying no to folks with big checkbooks is hard. Its especially hard when your a start-up burning cash.
What about the user you say? Didn't you focus on them? Well, yes, kind of. Users were finding us predominantly through SEO. But instead of landing on just local pages, they would find the myriad of topic pages (business, health, politics, etc.) we had. It was free traffic - how could we turn it down? Should we just shut off literally thousands of pages and the free, monetizable traffic to them? The natural reaction is to do the opposite - create more pages that you can SEO to even a more diverse set of keywords. (BTW, just one more reason why SEO is bad for brand.)
So of course we left the pages and kept the traffic/ money. The result was that the Topix brand was diluted before it even got out of the gate. It stood for so many types of news that so it ended up standing for nothing. It turns out saying no to users is actually harder than saying no to partners and investors.
The successful sites all have a single purpose. techcrunch, Drudge, YouTube, Facebook, etc. all make a clear, concise, singular promise to users. Note that there's no enterprise or white label facebook application. If I had to wager though I'd bet lots of folks asked Zuckerburg for one. He was smart and said no. Note also, that Facebook didn't make its pages open to search engines until well after its brand had been established.
The first challenge for new start-ups is deciding what it is they want to represent in the mind of the consumer (and preferably in a category not already taken). The second is having the balls to turn everyone down who wants you to be something else. The third is to make sure your brand is BLINDINGLY obvious to people who visit your site - but that's for another post....