From Bootstrapping to Building a Brand that Scales

All the lessons we learnt along the way.

Back in 2013, Sébastien, my brother Romain and I decided to launch a coding school to teach creative and entrepreneurially-minded people how to code their own tech products through an intensive 9-week bootcamp. At that time, none of us had real design or branding skills. My brother was a lawyer. Sébastien and I were both engineers (French engineers, aka the worst kind in terms of design background 😬).

We only knew one thing: we wanted to build a program to teach people the technical skills and tools to bring their ideas to life. This program would go far beyond “becoming a full-stack developer” or “learning UX/UI Design, HTML, CSS, ruby and Javascript”. For us, these skills were also a prerequisite for anyone who wanted to develop tech projects autonomously in their current job, start a freelancing career or launch their own startup. And we felt that traditional degrees’ courses were failing to provide students with these new tech skills. As we say in French…

🇫🇷 L’éducation supérieure a “un wagon de retard”…

An idiom that could be literally translated into: “Higher education has missed the train”. This was the first time we thought of the word “wagon” for our brand name. After giving it some more thought, it seemed like a cool name for different reasons:

  • It points to this idea of a “missing block” or “missing wagon” in the “train of higher education”.
  • A wagon is a vehicle that takes a group of people (like a class of students) on a journey to a destination. This is exactly what our coding bootcamp is about!
  • We didn’t want a brand name using words like “hack”, “code”, “tech”, “app”, etc… For us, code is a means to develop products and reach your goals, not an end in itself.

So, Le Wagon it was! Vive Le Wagon!

Shipping our first logos 🙈

After a few drawings on a sheet of paper with a designer friend Julien, we quickly realized that a wagon is a poor design object 😬:

  • It has no beginning. No end. No movement to it.
  • It makes you think about underground, work, mine, gold rush, etc… not exactly the images we had in mind for our brand!
Our first drawings of a “wagon”

So, at this point, we just thought:

Why should it be a real wagon?

Why not find ideas from other sources of inspiration and just invent our own “wagon”? After all, no one complains to Github that their Octocat isn’t a real animal (should we tell them?). We decided to explore other directions for our logo: campers and vans. For us, they encapsulated our values and the bootcamp’s ethos way more than a ‘traditional’ wagon:

  • A camper is about adventure. It’s about the journey, like the tech journey our students experience with us.
  • A camper is about community, like the community of talented and passionate alumni we are building.
  • A camper is about freedom, the freedom we want to give our students with their new tech skills.
  • Well, also, our CTO Seb is a surfer 🏄‍ which makes the camper a cool symbol for him personally!
Journey, freedom, community. That’s what Le Wagon is about.

So we searched for “van” examples on The Noun Project and spent an afternoon with Julien designing our own genuine version. We added a random handwriting font (that looks really bad retrospectively 🙈).

Our first logo was born.

Designing our first logo from The Noun Project (2013)

We quickly reworked on this logo for different reasons:

  • The font was really terrible 😱
  • We needed a square version for social media and to separate the van from the text to be able to use both separately.

This gave birth to the second version of the logo, built with Thomas, one of our first front-end developers, who is now a freelance product designer.

Second iteration: better font + separating the icon from the text.

Enough iteration! It was time to teach, improve our curriculum, take care of our students, and make Le Wagon grow!

Bootstrapping our brand

So, in 2013, we started growing our company without any proper brand system: just a logo and a name. As real “bootstrappers”, our approach was very pragmatic, though naive and lacking vision. We were just coming out with a new brand system on the fly for every new increment of our website.

By the end of 2017, this bootstrap approach started being an issue. Le Wagon was growing fast and spreading in 20 cities. These 20 cities didn’t really know how to use the brand, apart from the logo. They didn’t know exactly what colors, shapes, font rules and patterns to use when building visuals.

It was purely our fault! We had changed the design so many times when bootstrapping that — as a result — our brand had spread in various directions without any consistency.

What our brand looked like on the web after too many iterations (2017)

By the end of 2018, we couldn’t wait any longer. We now had 30 cities, nearly 4,000 amazing alumni, 300 talented teachers and tons of inspiring stories to tell all over the world. We needed a strong brand system to showcase all of this. It was high time we refreshed our brand and built new pillars that everyone could use consistently.

Refreshing our brand

For this big brand refresh, we decided not to reproduce past mistakes and to work with professional designers. I had heard very good feedback about Muxu Muxu, a French design agency based in Bordeaux. So we met with Luc and Damien and decided to give it a try!

Let’s revamp the logo

First, we started to refresh our logo. Not an easy task, that took way longer than expected! We tested so many directions: abstract, literal, mascot-like, childish, not childish, 3/4 perspective, front perspective, back perspective, on a road, without a road, in a red circle, without a red circle, etc… I genuinely think we might have built the biggest library of van icons in the history of van icons.

If you need a van icon, we’ve got you covered :)

We were actually following the wrong path, forgetting about the lean approach that had always guided us. If one element of our brand was clear and loved by everyone (our teachers, alumni and drivers all over the world) it was our logo! So why change it? Many drivers (Le Wagon’s city managers) were actually skeptical and questioning this choice. And they were right.

It took us some time (and some work on our ego) to admit that our drivers were right and that we needed to stay true to our current logo. Surprisingly, it was a hard decision. When you start rebranding your company, you are excited about novelty and change. It can sometimes blind you and affect your common sense. After accepting that we wouldn’t reinvent the wheel on our logo, and that we just needed to refresh our existing one, we started all over again from scratch.

This strategy paid off and we ended up with a great new logo. A nice and subtle re-lifting of our “trusty old wagon”, with a more modern and tech font, aligned with the new van design. Most importantly, we were preserving a logo and symbol that everyone in our community loved.

Building a new visual identity

In parallel to the logo rework, we needed to set new design pillars for our brand. We knew we wanted to create a brand system around the “tech journey”, which would nicely connect to the logo. So we started exploring different directions with the design agency.

First iteration: an abstract tech journey

We first started exploring an abstract representation of this tech journey: dotted lines to draw our students’ life path, map contour lines to represent the new territories they explore with us, pictures treated like train windows projecting students on their future tech career, etc…

Looking at these tests, we thought that they were missing the fun & community aspect that was so important to us. We found them a bit boring and not creative enough to represent the strong personality of our community.

Second iteration: an illustrative tech journey

So we decided to test another direction: be more literal and use illustrations to translate this “tech journey” in a very straightforward way. We explored lots of illustrative universes.

At one point, we really got lost and Le Wagon started looking like a SaaS company 🙈. We knew we had gone too far!

We realized we did not want to look like a software where real human pictures are replaced by fictional characters. Le Wagon is about real students, teachers, drivers and alumni. They should be at the heart of the brand.

Our students, teachers and drivers. They are Le Wagon’s DNA.

Here are the conclusions we drew from these 2 first iterations:

  • We didn’t want to translate the tech journey in an abstract way. It was too boring and not creative enough to represent our community.
  • At the same time, we didn’t want a purely illustrative approach where Le Wagon would end up looking like a SaaS company.
  • We are not a software company: we are a school with campuses, teachers, and thousands of students — powered by software. We needed to find a way to balance both of our brand personalities.

Building a tech landscape

As a result, we decided to keep an illustrative approach but apply it only on subtle background objects to keep the focus on student pictures. We ended up building a library of components:

  • Tech items and logos treated like road markers and symbols.
  • Roads, buildings, mountains and other landscape elements.
  • Cloud patterns that looked like maps & territories.
Some of Le Wagon’s brand components

This was exactly the balance we were looking for. Half way between an overly abstract representation and an overly literal & childish one, that connected our logo neatly to the rest of the visual identity. We ended up building a brand UI kit, with components that could be combined to build variants of tech landscapes.

Le Wagon brand kit.

At the same time, we started applying this new brand system to our website’s mockup to see it in action (“in situ”, as our design agency says). And we loved it 😍

Applying our brand system to the website

Finally, we had found the new pillars of our visual identity. A simple logo that stayed true to Le Wagon’s original spirit, combined with an elegant and illustrative tech universe that still kept the focus on the student pictures.

At this point, we simply needed to find the right colors and font schemes to bring a bold touch to this elegant tech universe.

Using developer syntax for highlights

To bring some colors to the new visual identity, we started thinking of a color system that would be:

  • Bright & impactful
  • Easy to apply and scale to our 30 cities
  • A nod to our dev background

We naturally took inspiration from the syntax highlight effects that every developer has seen on a text editor, to create a cool & simple highlight effect. As for colors, we defined a complete color palette, using a bright red as a primary color, a soft cream for backgrounds, and a bright set of secondary colors to create a good balance.

The highlight effect we took inspiration from, and our brand new color palette

To validate this direction, we started playing around with our colors on different visuals:

Our new color scheme used on event thumbnails and our website

Again, the magic happened! It was bringing the missing touch of color to our elegant tech identity. It was easy to use for our 30 cities and it was playing nicely with student pictures. That was it! We finally had a great brand system, easy to scale.

Takeaways from our branding adventure

As an entrepreneur, I have learnt tons of lessons from Le Wagon’s brand history.

Since 2013, we had bootstrapped so many things (if you want to bring your program to 30 cities without raising any funds, you have to!) that we thought we could also bootstrap our brand. The truth is: a clear brand system is a key asset which is definitely worth investing in when your company starts growing. For that, you need to work with professionals. But even doing so, it’s easy to get lost and distracted.

So my advice is this: never forget where your brand comes from. Balance your ego and excitement with the pragmatism of a lean approach, keeping an open mind and listening to the feedback of your community.

Trust your customers, employees and collaborators. Sometimes, you’ll find out that they understand your brand more than you do.

Want to see our new branding in action? Explore our new website.