Why Every Startup Needs a Mascot

What exactly do mascots do in a startup?

Good question. We didn't really know either, but we did know that our own mascot Owlbert gave us the opportunity to make our users smile. We thought he might even be able to help us grow. So we put Owlbert to work on our login page.

When a user clicks the password field, Owlbert covers his eyes. (This is still true today, go check it out here.)

This was never a marketing strategy or a branding play. We just wanted to set the tone for the experience with ReadMe. What happened next kind of blew our minds.

People loved it. Some really smart designers like Vitaly Friedman, Marc Edwards, Pablo Villalba and Jonathan Shariat shared it. The design blog Little Big Details liked it so much they came out of retirement to post it. (It’s still their most-liked post ever!)

We were really surprised by how much people loved this little touch. I created Owlbert on a whim and all of a sudden, people were talking about our company. At the time, the login page was seen by just under 1,000 people each day. In the 48 hours after the story went viral, 77,652 people visited what otherwise would have been the most boring page on our site.

Owlbert's been on quite a journey since then. He's been a factor in marketing, product, support and, of course, our office decorations. I realized recently that his impact is unique in the startup world and that it would be fun to share his story.

How to Solidify Your Startup's Personality

I decided that ReadMe needed a mascot while the product was still in beta.

Without a deliberate effort, I was afraid we'd become just another dry software business. Plus, I've been a doodler all my life and thought it would be fun to inject a little personality into our young company.

Developer documentation isn't the sexiest business. I'd watched how Github used Octocat to keep things interesting and thought we could benefit from a similar idea. The fact that they can sell Octocat figurines and mugs proved it was at least worth trying.

So in 2014, I sat down and sketched out the first version of our company mascot Owlbert.

Drawing of Owlbert by our current illustrator, Paul Cox.

Owlbert's been busy ever since. The Portlandia “Put A Bird On It!” sketch accurately sums up how we’ve approached Owlbert’s role. (“What a sad little tote bag. I know, I'll put a bird on it. It's flying, it's free!”)

Here are just a few of the places you’ll find Owlbert these days.

On our About page:

In our customer support:

On our blog:

On our signup page:

All over the office:

(Belated!) ReadMe Christmas stockings

A photo posted by Gregory Koberger (@gkoberger) on

In our presentations:

And in our fridge:

The essentials

A photo posted by Gregory Koberger (@gkoberger) on

The Business Case for a Mascot

Startups need a lot of things to grow and thrive—product-market fit, great employees and a little luck for starters. But they also need a personality. A mascot represents our commitment to that. “Whimsy” is a word you don’t hear much in the startup world, but it’s a word we use a lot. It means playful and odd, and we think that’s just what the tech world needs a little more of.

The more jobs we give Owlbert, the more I realize how vital he is to our company. It's hard to quantify, but here are just a few ways we've benefitted from a mascot:

  • It’s the personification of our startup.
  • It gives us (and me, in particular) the ability to flex muscles that don’t get much attention in our day-to-day work.
  • It’s a great excuse to order t-shirts, stickers, iPhone cases and custom beer labels. (A little owlcohol, anyone?)
  • There are so many good owl puns.
  • It’s just fun.

And that's just inside the company. He's also been a mainstay in our public perception since we launched, adding to the list of reasons we love Owlbert.

  • It differentiates us from competitors.
  • It gives the company a distinct voice on social media and in customer support.
  • It gives us the chance to have fun with an unsexy tech product.
  • It’s a great way to get press.
  • It’s a fun way to surprise and delight our users.
  • It’s an excuse to send little gifts to our customers.

While it may seem like a distraction from the work we’re doing at ReadMe, we’ve found again and again that a mascot unifies our team and makes sure we don't take ourselves too seriously. Our customers know Owlbert now, but more importantly, they know that our company is a little different.

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