Naeiri Zargarian of Interbrand: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
10 min readFeb 27, 2022


I would say the biggest mistake I have seen is CEOs and founders not paying attention to internal culture. In the last few years, it has become evident that you cannot only project a brand externally but must live it internally as well. This had led to the diminished reputation of many beloved startups in the past few years (such as Away or Thinx).

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Naeiri Zargarian, Strategy Director at global brand consultancy, Interbrand.

Ms. Zargarian is an Director of brand strategy at Interbrand. She has spent the last decade working with clients like PlayStation, The Ritz-Carlton and Truist to help them harness the power of brand. For the past two years, she has led the development of Interbrand’s annual Breakthrough Brands report which highlights the 30 challenger brands set to disrupt the US market.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Much of my perspective and thinking has been shaped by my Design education at OCAD University. Human-first, design-thinking processes and values underlie my approach to strategy.

After spending several years as a brand strategist in advertising, I wanted to move upstream and into more fundamental brand-building work, hence joining Interbrand three years ago.

When it comes to building brands, I believe in the power of design, learning from the edges of consumer behavior and the importance of being part of the cultural conversation.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Although I’m not a founder, I did have an ‘aha moment’ when deciding that I wanted to work with companies to identify their purpose in the world. For me, it was when I realized that brand strategy is like defining the soul or philosophy of a brand — and if done well, it could have a positive or meaningful impact on the lives of the employees, consumers and communities that interact with the organization.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Although I’m not yet a founder myself, I have worked closely with many business leaders and there are so many I admire. Ana Andjelic is a real inspiration to me because she is championing brand thinking in the fashion and luxury space which have been traditionally more short-term, pr-centered. This is an arena that I think is full of opportunity.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I have a slightly different perspective, having worked with and closely followed the trajectories of a lot of start-ups, founders and entrepreneurs. From my experience, I think the thing that really helps a founder or new business stand out is paying attention to the customer experience end-to-end. It is the overlooked pain points, the unspoken needs, the perceptual barriers that are ripe for innovation, and in turn capture the love and loyalty of customers (think what Nest did for thermostats).

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My company, Interbrand, works with brands of all sizes, but what I really love is working on our annual report on the emerging brands that are on the cusp of breaking through into the mainstream. It’s a fantastic opportunity to highlight brands that are doing some really amazing things (like Apeel which is creating edible coatings for produce). I hope that my work on this help in some way to propel them to that next level of success I know they’re destined for.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

This is a really interesting question from a slightly external perspective. Having worked with business leaders throughout my career, there are a number of traits that make a good leader. I’d say the top three are (1) they have strong foresight. (2) They have big ambitions yet are honest about where they are currently (like the founders at Air Company). (3) They are clear about who their customer is and more importantly, from whom it isn’t.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

This is advice that I have gotten but never followed: that I should be a better bullshitter — I’d rather be thorough and have integrity in my work, thanks!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I’ve worked with brands that have been a big success, and those that have face more challenges. Some of the most common challenges I’ve seen brands face are (1) scaling while maintaining their authenticity and cult-like status. (2) Maintaining coherence and consistency as their product portfolio becomes more complex. (3) And becoming too many things to too many people and losing their single-minded focus.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

From my experience working with brands, I’ve found that leaders often use some of the same strategies to overcome their challenges. Most commonly, being open to and soliciting feedback, showing vulnerability and being transparent with your team on how your approach to solve the challenge. As Brene Brown would say, the power of authenticity and vulnerability!

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

One of the most important things, other than to enjoy the ride, is to believe in your founding story, “your why” and have conviction about it even in the face of doubt.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

I’ve worked alongside brands that have used both methods and they both have the potential to be successful. But ultimately, the advice depends on the person asking. To make this decision, I think a founder needs to consider; what is the ultimate goal? How quickly do you want to scale? Are there any resources beyond capital you need to make your idea a reality?

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

Interbrand’ complies a list of ‘Breakthrough Brands’ each year, highlighting the 30 companies that best exemplify brand growth. Having led the development of the Breakthrough Brands report for the past two years, there are a few things that we look at when assessing the long-term trajectory and success of a startup (the brands on our list are usually between pre-launch and 5–6 years old).

  1. First, they are born out of a strong insight or human truth. It is crucial that they are solving a real consumer need or changing category dynamics for the better. They are shifting customer expectations of the category and setting a new standard. A strong example of this would be Frida Mom, which has created a range of post-partum care products for women that weren’t available past the hospital stay.
  2. They prioritize the brand experience. They activate the brand throughout the user journey and prioritize it when making business decisions. An example here would be Omsom — it is on a mission to change stereotypes about packaged Asian food and “reclaim Asian flavors”. This is executed by celebrity chef partnerships, bold rectangular packaging, little printed recipe cards, and its influencer strategy.
  3. They balance their grand visions with the reality of the present day. They inspire people through their long-term purpose but are also honest and transparent about where they are in their journey. An example here would be Air Company which has created a carbon-negative manufacturing process but has so far only applied this to its vodka. Or Apeel which has created plant based coatings for produce extending its shelf life (only available for avocados and mangoes).
  4. They start to build community pre-launch. Glossier (Breakthrough Brands alum 2016) and Rivian (alum 2020) have both had success building momentum, excitement, and garnering early feedback with fans before launching a single product.
  5. They keep focused on the core. They focus on creating brand love and advocacy with their early, core consumers. Creating champions of the brand does more work driving growth than doing mass awareness campaigns in the first few years.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One common or more obvious one is scaling too fast. Not only are there operational and financial challenges, but there is also a risk of losing the essence of the brand. When companies move into too many verticals too quickly, they appear inauthentic and create confusion or distrust.

I would say the biggest mistake I have seen is CEOs and founders not paying attention to internal culture. In the last few years, it has become evident that you cannot only project a brand externally but must live it internally as well. This had led to the diminished reputation of many beloved startups in the past few years (such as Away or Thinx).

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

I’ve been looking into what makes successful brands for a few years and have seen a real change in attitudes towards wellbeing. A number of Interbrand’s Breakthrough Brands 2021 were brands who have an offering in the health and wellbeing space.

One thing that comes up time and again as a foundation of successful brands is good leadership. And it’s difficult to lead if you don’t take the time to look after yourself physically and mentally. There has been a renewed focus on how this is true especially for female founders who are criticized from every angle; their performance, their attitude, their physical looks, their management styles, their personal lives (and the list goes on!).

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

We saw COVID expose the stresses of modern parenting, particularly on working mothers. This is particularly pronounced as women transition into parenthood (and experience physical, emotional and societal changes).

I would love to start a movement that helps modern moms — starting with better maternal leave, childcare support and programs designed for transitions back into the workplace. Breakthrough Brand 2020 alum, Maven Clinic is emerging as the healthcare brand working with employers to achieve just that.

I truly believe there is so much more employers, policy makers and the media can do to change these societal norms forward — and move us closer to our peers in western countries.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Marc Andreessen, of Andreessen Horowitz — both for his visionary understanding of markets and his keen sense of the future. I am curious to know how he thinks about brand, and how assessment of “brand” can be better incorporated into venture capital decision-making process.

Venture capital can be a hype-machine and we’ve seen the fallout of that. I would also like the discuss the broader opportunity of shifting towards more sustainable understanding of growth. As we move into more expertise-based innovation (science, healthcare, legal) companies need more time in their growth cycles. The pressure for growth shouldn’t be put on the founders and then down to employees, creating unhealthy work environments.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For more inspiration from startups poised for growth you can download the full Breakthrough Brands report:

Or follow us @interbrand and my personal account @nzarg.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!



Authority Magazine
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