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Hitting The Mark

Author: Fabian Geyrhalter

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Conversations with founders and investors about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success with your host, brand strategist and author Fabian Geyrhalter.
21 Episodes
Music to me is, and has always been existential. From when I was a little boy growing up with a concertmaster – in many of the world's most famous orchestras – as my dad, in Vienna, and constantly visiting his workplace, the famous Musikverein, to today where I am a music aficionado, an avid vinyl record collector as well as a (fairly amateur) music producer. Music is a passion, or 'addiction' as my wife would say, and a great source of joy for me.Having Till Janczukowicz on this show was a big personal pleasure. His classical music streaming app, IDAGIO, is constantly running a fine line between catering to the young and the old, the classical novice versus the expert, and it is a fascinating branding game.Till discusses how classical music, as a brand, was intimidating, and how he and his team are breaking that wall down, out their offices in Berlin, Germany. And how classical music's role and perception in society has changed over the years, and what role technology played in it.We discuss how to showcase music visually, with all of its nuances, is an extremely difficult task, one that IDAGIO mastered from day one.So many fascinating takeaways in this conversation, one that struck with me, and that should give you an idea on how deep we are diving into not only the brand discussion, but also the entrepreneurial journey as a whole: "The bigger you grow as a corporation, the more you have to bring things that are on a subconscious level to a conscious level."A delightful conversation that truly inspired me, and I believe it will do the same for you.To support this show, please head to Patreon.____Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter: Welcome to HITTING THE MARK.Today we welcome a guest who I have been looking forward to for a while now. The subject hits home in many ways. Not only is this founder based in Berlin, Germany, hence you will get a double-German accent episode today, but his is the world of classical music, which is the same world in which I grew up in, back in Vienna.Till Janczukowicz is the founder of IDAGIO, which is often described as being the Spotify for classical music.Till has more than 20 years of experience as an artist manager, producer, and concert promoter. In 2000, he established the European office for Columbia Artists Management, heading it up as managing partner for 11 years. He was responsible for organizing several of the Metropolitan Opera’s European tours, and his personal clients included conductors Christian Thielemann, Seiji Ozawa, André Previn, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, as well as pianists Ivo Pogorelich and Arcadi Volodos. In 2008, he founded the Abu Dhabi Classics, a performing arts series merging culture, education and tourism for the government of the United Arab Emirates. That is where he arranged debuts for the New York, Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics; the Bayreuth Festival; and Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, Yo-Yo Ma, Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons, and countless other musical and artistic luminaries.I am thrilled to welcome you to the show, Till!T Janczukowicz: Great, pleasure to meet you and to be here.F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. So as I mentioned in my intro, this is truly a pleasure for me since my father was an amazing violinist who spent most of his life as a concert master and some of Vienna's best orchestras from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra, the Kammer Orchestra, all the way to the Vienna Philharmonics, and appeared on over 50 records and radio productions. So he was also a sound purist who loved his audio gadgets the same way that I do now. He would've cherished to hear this conversation today.So listeners who are not classical music fans may wonder why. Why was there a need for classical music in an app form when you can find plenty of classical options on Spotify, Apple music and Tidal? Let me quote an article from Vogue that explained it perfectly well, "It all comes down to Metadata." While Metadata for most popular music is quite simple, there's the artist, the song, or track, the album it's from. Classical Metadata might encompass everything from the composer, the orchestra, the conductor, the choir, which may have its own director, various soloists, the title of the piece, along with perhaps some sort of number or nomenclature to indicate it's placed within the larger symphony of work.Then artists opus number, or in the case of composers like Mozart Bach whose works are ordered by their own system, their Kochel or BWV number. So it's not simple. Yes, there is a big need for it.Till, your biography talks a lot about the amazing journey you have taken prior to starting IDAGIO in 2015, but tell us a bit about the founding story behind IDAGIO. How did it all start? Give us the romance, the hardship of your startup's early days.T Janczukowicz: So where to start? Let's start with the Romance, maybe-F Geyrhalter: That's a good place. Let's start positive.T Janczukowicz: The very early Romance, but what I would say is that I was lucky and only looking back, I understood that I was lucky. I was offered to piano when I was six years old and that captured me immediately. So once I started to play the piano for the first time without knowing anything, I knew and felt, "Well, that's my life. I'm going to spend my life with this music that fascinated me.I could even say, probably I've never worked. I never felt I was working in my life. At the very end, it comes down to a variety of attempts to promote what fascinated me, in a very, I wouldn't say egoistic way, but it was a very obvious thing for me. Classical music captured me. It opened stories for me. It created images and so on.So I started to be a pianist at the beginning. Thanks god I became friends with a real pianist, Krystian Zimerman, when I was 18 years old, who by the way... You are from Vienna, it's probably you were even still in Vienna these days. He recorded the Beethoven Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonics Leonard Bernstein in the 80s. So Christian became a good friend. I saw what he did, I saw what I did and said, "Okay, he's a pianist." So next step for me was then he wanted to push me into management. It helped me a lot.But first of all, I started to be a teacher during my studies, made some money. But I'm coming from a family of teachers and so, "Okay, my dad was a teacher, my mom was a teacher, my grandfather was a teacher. So do you really want to sign a contract at your end of your 20s and that's going to determine what you're going to do until the end of your life?" The answer was no. So I didn't want to become a teacher. I wrote a little bit, but also as a writer I saw, well, you can speak about it in part, but you can't really change things.So then I went into management and now I'm coming to your question to the necessity of IDAGIO. As a manager, my perspective was always a B2B perspective. If you manage a great conductor, or a great soloist, your touring orchestra, it's about, first of all, building brands. Any young artists you see or any unknown ensemble or new music you see, as a manager, you have some possibility to make these people famous, to assist them to find out how they work and how you can help them.What I saw then having spent my life in management, putting on concerts in all parts of the world and we can cover that a little later because there were many fascinating learnings. But the main thing for me was that, if the future of music listening is streaming and the all-genre streaming services aren't designed for classic music because as you said, they are around pop music and they're pop driven where you only have three criteria: The song, the artist, and the album, my clients are going to be invisible in the digital ecosystem.So the moment there is no digital structure that could trick down a recording where you have a conductor, you have an orchestra, you have singers, you have a soloist, you have the composition, and so on. The moment that doesn't exist, I saw that as a luxury problem from the user's perspective because you can still curate and so on. Maybe yes, it's a problem for aficionados, but at the very end, I want to push a button, and I want music to play without a huge cognitive investment that I like, fine, but even there is a huge group of aficionados worldwide that suffering from bad metadata, and bad usability of classic music streaming platforms.But if you look at it from an artist perspective, this is a real threat because if you can't be tracked down in the digital space and people don't find you, you cease to exist and with you, the entire genre ceases to exist. That was a motivation from you, I said, "Well, you have to do something." The main question at the beginning for me was, "How can we use technology in order to maintain that music genre that was the passion since I first encountered that.There was not at the beginning, the idea of, "Well, I have to found the best streaming service for classical music." That was the result of a chain of it durations. For us it's rather the beginning than the end.F Geyrhalter: It was really more of an action cry, right? It needed to be done in order to... in the biggest terms possible, save classical music for generations, right? To me, that's where it gets really interesting to think about who the audiences. When you think of classical music, many think of an older audience, but you're obviously a digital tool that already eliminates, I would say, the too old for tech audience, right?T Janczukowicz: Yeah.F Geyrhalter: You also clearly understand that you have to capture the hearts and souls of the next generations as the IDAGIO or IDAGIO... You and I had a little chat prior to this, it could go either way. So I don't feel guilty. The IDAGIO Instagram account, for instance. It nicely shows that it's going for the next generation. It's 29,000 followers. You have features like a relax playlist, which are perfect gateway drugs to anyone regardless of musical preference, right?T Janczukowicz: Sure.F Geyrhalter: Who do you cater to and how do you capture them in your brand communications? Do you constantly run that fine line between young and old, and classical novice versus expert?T Janczukowicz: Well, there are various levels to answer that. When I left my peer group, the classical music world that had been spending my life in, and started to enter into tech, I was, of course, reading a lot and all these blogs and I traveled to San Francisco, went to Silicon Valley just to be there to talk to people, to understand what it's all about.The first thing I learned, or the first thing at least that I remember is that one of the most failures of startups is to solve problems that don't exist.F Geyrhalter: Right.T Janczukowicz: For me, it was obvious that this problem does exist, both from a customer or user perspective and also from an artist perspective. So that was the beginning. Based on that, we did build our own technology, make a data model and so on and so on. Based on that, we can now, answering your question, cater for all varieties of audiences.What was interesting for me to see that after having spent 20 to 25 years in that world, more or less looking at things and reacting to things through my instinct, the assumptions I got over the years, they were confirmed in real numbers. Because the classical world is not really about numbers, it's about opinions. It's about being right, everybody is right. Everybody knows everything, it’s very controversially, very ego driven also.Now, I entered in a world where its numbers, "Okay, what you say is nothing more than a thesis, let's prove it." So that was totally new to me and very fascinating. What we found out that there are five, 10, 15, 20, maybe 50 use cases of listening to classical music and you can, of course, go and start segmenting classical music listeners.But interesting, is also to me that you can probably break it down into use cases because there are use cases that you would probably apply to an aficionado that sometimes also apply to a millennial listening to classical music and vice versa. So, for example, you mentioned this mood search we have and why do we have it? I wanted a tool where everybody, who opens the app and comes in contact with classic music, they can execute an action, move something, just touch screen with a finger, remove the finger, but already make a choice. So it can go to relaxed or meditative or joyful and so on. Then it's simply a playlist opening up with joyful or relaxing or focusing music.However, this is a use case and also some aficionados' life, because also aficionados are sometimes, I don't know, ironing their shirts, or cleaning the home. So this is the first thing I wanted to highlight because it was very interesting to me.Secondly, there are, of course, the obvious different segments. You have, the fact that classical music around the globe as a genre that's aggregating the high achievers. Classical music has always been, the music genre of the emerging communities. If you look at South America, you give underprivileged kids instruments and playing Beethoven makes their lives meaningful from one day to the other. So this is still system up. Gustavo Dudamel is one of the most known represented-F Geyrhalter: Well, he's here in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's now. So yeah, he's close to home.T Janczukowicz: Exactly.F Geyrhalter: Yeah.T Janczukowicz: Yeah, exactly. This is something that at the same time you have 50 million piano students in China these days. [] for example, used to say that the future of classical music is in China, which I wouldn’t say the future of classic music, but also be in China. But we see that a lot of young people in the Nordics, in Europe, but also in the United States are more and more turning to the classical, but they see and look at classical music in a different way, because especially in Germany... You're from Austria, central Europe, classical music is a heavy, serious thing. You have to gain some knowledge before you really understand it, which I believe is total bullshit. If music is great, everybody understands it immediately.The new use case that's coming up that I am listening to classical music because it helps me focus, it helps me calm down. But another word that I see in classical music as belonging, because if you listen to classical music and if you listen to a great concert with friends and a social environment, it also makes you feel connectiveness. You are connected with other people, you're connect with the musicians on stage. You are connected with the people you are listening with.So there was a very nice quote, which is very famous, but I heard it first from Yo-Yo Ma who once said, "The great thing about classic music is that it makes you part of something bigger than yourself." This is a very, very needed and a great value proposition.F Geyrhalter: I think, playing devil's advocate, that could be said about pretty much every musical genre, right? Because it is a very communal tribal idea. But with classical, just the idea that a lot of it happens in ginormous orchestras. There's so much where one person talks to the other via their musical instrument and jazz is kind of one step up from pop where you've got a couple of people that need to perfectly sync in an orchestra, make this 10, 20, 30 fold. So there's something by just the structure of classical music where it's more communal from the get go, I believe.T Janczukowicz: Yeah, I mean, jazz, I would say goes very much in the same direction, because it has various levels, but if you're looking at what is constituting music, first of all you have a melody, number two, you have rhythm, and number three you have harmonies. Then you can have one melody, which is the case in pop music, but then you can have two melodies, two themes.Then it starts with something that probably 70% or 80% of classical music have in common, which makes it so fascinating. You have two themes, and very often in the Sonata form, the first theme is male and the second theme is female.F Geyrhalter: How chauvinistic?T Janczukowicz: It's very chauvinistic, but everybody apparently seems to like Beethoven sonatas or Mozart symphonies where exactly this is happening. Then you have an exposition where the first theme, the male theme is being presented and after the female's theme is presented.Then you have the second part where these themes start to interact and to talk to each other. Sometimes there is tension and then comes down and so on. So it's very, very close to storytelling without words. This is something, probably, I said that earlier, what captured me at the very beginning, and I think it's a fascinating role because you can close your eyes, but you see stories, you feel stories, but you don't need to know when Beethoven was born, you don't need to know what is an overture. You don't need to know what is an aria. Just close your eyes and listen to it. This music is so appealing to everybody.I think one of the mistakes that classic music or classical music has made over decades is, is building this huge wall around it. Because if you go back to Mozart or Bach, it was entertainment music. It's agenre that comes from the courts and the people were eating and drinking and laughing and walking out and coming back. Something that the middle-class that occupied classic music for themselves, started to forbid. This created an intimidating...Let's say when we speak about branding, a part of this brand that is intimidating and it's not necessary because it's so embracing, and it's such a great genre.F Geyrhalter: I so agree with you. I so agree with you. Coming from a household where we constantly went to the Vienna Musikverein to see my dad play and others, it was always a big deal. Even though it's my dad on stage, and it's just normal, we go to his workplace, right?T Janczukowicz: Yeah.F Geyrhalter: There's something, there's an aura around classical music that feels like it's a cloud that should be broken. It feels like... I love how you talk about it. Even though I did not really realize that, but as I started looking through your brand work, through your website, through your app, it actually really is what you're doing. You're breaking that stigma. You're breaking that wall down, and I think it's beautiful.While we talk about musical terms, let's talk about IDAGIO, the brand name, for a second. It sounds a lot and pretty obviously to me like ADAGIO, which only has one letter replaced. ADAGIO for our non-musical listeners signifies a music played in slow tempo. So what was the inspiration for the name? Walk us through that a little bit.T Janczukowicz: It's very end simple. We needed a name, first of all, and we wanted the name to be self-explanatory. So we wanted something that people around the globe would associate with classical music. So ADAGIO, as you said, it's an international word. Many albums are just having one title, which is ADAGIO. If you have music that calms you down.At the same time, we wanted something that people understand context of technology. This is, I. The funny thing is that we had a law firm working for us this time and they were also representing a very famous American brand that has created many new devices that are starting with an I-F Geyrhalter: Whatever that could be.T Janczukowicz: Whatever that may be, and they called us back after three days said, "We checked it. You can use the name. No problem at all." So IDAGIO was born. That was the funny incident.F Geyrhalter: That's hilarious. Yeah, and it's not always the case. I heard of other firms that try to use names that started with I, and couldn't do it based on that same conglomerate that tries to own that one letter. But obviously, those are words where the, I, has more of a meaning in front of it with IDAGIO. It is a word. The, I, itself is not as meaningful.So, great. Well, I'm glad I got that quiz right. I'm proud of myself. How did you and your team obviously derive the brand's visual aura, so to speak? I use the word aura specifically since the gradient based imagery surrounding your brand has a very meditative feel to it. Even talking about IDAGIO, the idea of slowing down. Then you have the nifty mood selection feature, which we talked about in your app. Overall, you really crafted a beautiful slick visual identity that mixes the atmospheric, like in many of the Instagram posts with the harsh and crisp in the actual logo or the line work that apps dimension to the gradient artwork.Now, for everyone listening, unless you're currently driving a car, head on over to @IDAGIOofficial on Instagram to see what we're actually talking about. Till, how was the look derived? I think it just really found its groove, no pun intended, back in May on Instagram where everything started to have this very distinct and beautiful look. Can you talk a little bit about how this came about?T Janczukowicz: I think there are three factors probably, and, of course, none of these factors was conscious during it was there. Only looking back, you're connected in a meaningful way. Probably the first thing is that my grandfather, who offered me the piano, he had a Braun stereo system at home. We all know that Braun was one of the decisive branding and visual influences for this very, very famous brand we have been speaking about. I remember it was that it was the first thing.The second thing, as an artist manager, I was always in the second row. So that means you work as a catalyst. You are doing a great job if you work invisible. So you mentioned the Abu Dhabi Classics I created. The star was the series. If you manage an artist, if you build the career of a conductor, the conductor is the star, not yourself. You are always in the background.I think this is a thinking that also my co-founder was aesthetically a very big fan of minimalistic architecture. We said, "We want a look and feel that really highlights the musicians and the music and that's not dominating them. I think that's the second aspect.The third aspect is that, we had, at a very, very early stage, I think, our designer was a part of the founding team. He started on day one. I think he was one of the third or fourth people we hired. Because we believe it's very important that you reflect the beautiful and fascinating and special role that you also described. We were just speaking, that you going to the Musikverein with family when your father was playing. It's a fascinating thing. We wanted to translate that into a user interface and into a look and feel that respects the music and the artists.F Geyrhalter: Which is really, really difficult to pull off. It's very easy to look at and then criticize or get your own emotions about it, which by the way, I would never criticize because I think it is brilliant. It is so easy to look at something after it has been established. But to showcase music visually with all of its nuances, is an extremely difficult task. So bravo to that. It's really, really well done and it was one of the reasons why I got sucked into your brand.So while we talk about that, we might as well talk one more second about the actual icon, about the logo. It's a play on the play button and there is a horizontal line to the right of it, right below it. Tell us a bit about the idea behind it. Obviously you are not the designer, but I'm sure that that you played a role in signing it off and adopting it. What is the key idea behind it?T Janczukowicz: Well, I don't want to take a credit of others. My role was to not say no to it. Let’s put it like this, which at a minium I disliked it or I liked it, but my thinking here is rather, and thinking big, I was designing all this myself five, six, seven years ago. I had the first ideas of IDAGIO and I was very proud of, I don't know, copying some letters from an Italian luxury brand and I showed it to our designer when we hired him and he laughed at me. He was right there laughing at me.So I understood. I don't really understand this. I can express what I wanted for the brand and I could express how I believe it may look like, but he really did it. Then I think it's at the very end minimalistic thinking. I think when it comes down to that. Not something that disturbs and then some people get some agencies from outside before and they we're proposing a logo with some music scores and all this, a key, so it's really...I think we are in a different world.F Geyrhalter: Yeah.T Janczukowicz: Yeah. The icon that we have. Maybe one other thing. It's a little bit high level, but I was thinking when you were talking about... Again, I'm seeing in front of me your dad sitting on the stage of the Musikverein and what was the classic music 20, 30, 40 years ago, and what has really changed? Because also we were talking about different customer segments.When I started to work as a manager, that was '96, that was still a period where a conductor was still a maestro. He was the icon, you couldn't reach him, you couldn't talk to him. The entire management approach was to create a myth, create something that's unavailable because the less it's available, the more people want it. This is something, and this is an understanding of value. It's to the old world, which is an old world value thinking.I think in the digital world, and this is a big shift, in the digital world value is being created by being visible, by being transparent, by showing with as many people as possible what you are, who you are, what you do. So this is a total paradigm shift. If you look, for example, at a Karajan, you could not reach out to him. A Schulte was the same running the Chicago symphony orchestra for many years.If you now these days at young comebacks like Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director of the Philadelphia orchestra, music director of the metropolitan opera Andris Nelsons, music director of the Boston symphony and the Gewandhaus orchestra in Leipzig Germany. It's a new generation of open minded and more communicating conductors.What was very interesting to me, I had a meeting with the Juilliard School of Music in New York some months ago. I didn't know that when you are making your degree there, if you leave school, you don't have to only play, you also have to moderate the performance. The way how you talk about the music you play, as an artist, is also being judged. I think it's a very interesting thing.But this is all owed to transparency that came through technology. All the scandals that we are seeing and witnessing these days, it's not that humanity has apparently become immoral, just our ways to measure things and to see things are much more granular than 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago.This is also an aesthetic shift in classical music and this is also creating a new type of classical musicians. I find that a very interesting thing to see how technology even has some impact on the way you perform classical music.F Geyrhalter: That is absolutely fascinating. I agree. I've never thought about it that way. But just like everything else, classical music is being touched by it and it's great to be on the forefront of that like you are. While we were talking a little bit about philosophy here, what does branding mean to you? The actual word, branding. How do you see it?I know we talked a lot about emotion, we talked a lot about how people feel something rather than just listen to something. But maybe even in the classical arena, like where you are, what do you think when you think of branding?T Janczukowicz: Well, I would spontaneously say branding is an aggregated public perception. If it goes well and first of all, you have a good intention and you succeed in running the brand, the way you want, then it's probably aggregated trust that says, "Well, yeah, I can turn into this complex thing without making a mistake, without failing."Because I've heard of the brand from, whomever, my brother, my peers these days, then through, through, through advertisement because I think trust is getting more and more local, and we less and less trust governments and we less trust corporations. So I rather trust my peers because I'm so over flooded with information and bombarded by visual things that want to get my attention.But I think branding for me done right it's something of, well, yes, I can go. It's a safe harbor, safe place for me. I can recommend it. I can package that when I talk to other people pass it on to others and recommend to others.F Geyrhalter: You talked about trust and failures. I'm not as familiar with the entrepreneurial scene in Berlin, but here in the US we love to talk about failures. There are entire business book sections dedicated to it. Even though in my eyes it's blown way out of proportion, there are great things to be learned from mistakes that startup founders have made or witnessed during the early days of the brand formation.What was an enormous fail that you went through with IDAGIO in the very early days? Was there something where you just look back and you're like, "Okay, that was a fail, we could have prevented this, someone can learn from this?"T Janczukowicz: Well, I have to say, I think we were lucky in leaving out many mistakes you can potentially make. But, of course, there were mistakes, but there is not this story where I would say, "Well, this is really, really, really, I'll never forget it." I think it's rather a pattern.What I've learned over the years is that, if you do something for the first time and being an entrepreneur and forming and building something new has to do a lot of with trial and error. Probably the biggest mistake that I'm trying to avoid more and more is that I wasn't listening early enough to my natural instincts. I don't know if it's right or wrong, but I'm more and more convinced that this is the right thing. It sounds like cliché, but this is a principle that you can break down into any daily decision. If you feel something, but...and this is a personal problem that I have because everybody is, of course, different. I'm coming from the world of the arts. I'm rather intuitive, some people say visionary, but at least I have ideas. Some of these ideas have worked out in my life so far.But I'm also analyzing it. But if I feel that something is right, I start to do it. The bigger you grow as a corporation, you more and more have to bring things that are on a subconscious level to a conscious level. Then it has to arrive on the conscious level and then you have to explain it to everybody. Then you have to also give ownership to the people with whom you work with your team, because you are nobody with a team.You can form the North star, you can say that the direction and give a vision and the mission, I think in our company everybody is on that mission and people coming to the office, to our premise here in Berlin they say, "Oh wow, this is a great chemistry here. It feels good to be here." So that's the thing.But we're not talking about the good things, we're talking about failures. Of course, at the very end, nobody wants to fail. But thanks God, I was brought to this life by really an American entrepreneur, who was the owner of Columbia Artists, Ronald Wilford, and he was a typical American self-made man. One of his quotes was, "I didn't learn anything and that's why I can do everything."I think this is a good thing and this, and the combination that when I met him after our job interview in '96 where we even didn't perceive it as a job interview, but afterwards we had the first meetings. They will tell, "We are in an industry of ideas." Usually, we all have a lot of ideas and if you fail with 10 ideas, it's bad, you're gone. If you make one of the 10 ideas work, it's really great. If you make two of your 10 ideas work, this is highly above average.I think this is a mentality that's very, very un-German and having inhaled this kind of thinking for 16 years, I got more comfortable with the idea of making failures because, a young artist is like stakes you buy a company, you see something and you believe all to be there in two, four, six, eight years. Sometimes you're right and sometimes you are wrong. Then you have principles to figure out and to understand why you may be right.But going back in a nutshell, re-listen to yourself and if you feel something, you're really convinced, do it, whatever others say.F Geyrhalter: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely.T Janczukowicz: But listen to them, then think, but then do what you feel.F Geyrhalter: And the same holds true for data, because I'm sure, at this point, your app has been downloaded over 1.5 million times, I think it's the latest in 190 countries?T Janczukowicz: Yeah.F Geyrhalter: So you must have so much great data about your users at this point, and I know you're using it and you have studies made about listenership and about what classical music means today. But on the other hand, you have to balance that out with not always listening to customer data and just solely basing decisions on your instinct as well. It's always a fine line that an entrepreneur walks.T Janczukowicz: Yeah.F Geyrhalter: On the flip side now, we talked a little bit about failures. Now, let's climb over that hill to success. When you look back, what was that big breakthrough moment where you felt like, "Okay, the startup is slowly moving into a brand." People start using the name, the app becomes part of daily life. When did you know that you had something that would become a major player in the music world? No pun intended. May it have been a funding round or the Salzburg Festival where you launched or early user feedback. What was it for IDAGIO where you knew that this will actually be a success?T Janczukowicz: Well, I think in order to do something like that, you need a certain, what we call... I don't know how you may be able to translate that in German. There's a nice word, Gottvertrauen. I don't know how you translate it. You put your trust in God. You have to do something. Everybody was, "Oh, you're going to fail, you're stupid." But to trust, you trust that it will work.So this is something that was always there. However, I, would say two things. One thing was quite early. It was that we were indeed launching, not the app, a minimal viable product, even not the beta at the Salzburg festival in 2015. We were launching there and we were sitting on stage in the premises of the festival upon invitation of the Vienna Philharmonic.Then some days later there was an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. They wrote, it was 2015 and they wrote, "If they're not going to run out of money, they could change the way how people listen to classical music." This is something, I remember, we were by far not yet there, but having read that and then securing the next funding round, the combination of those two things that we say, "Okay, we are on the good way. Let's put it like that."F Geyrhalter: Right. That’s amazing. For our international listeners, which is not the majority of our listeners, I think we have 6% German listeners. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is the authority, not only in Germany but it reaches through all of the central Europe. So that is a huge deal. To go back to when you talk about Gottvertrauen, the idea of you trust in God, just to make it universally accessible. It's also for atheists. That idea that you just trust in the universe, right? You have this ideology where you trust in the universe.All right, Till, we're coming slowly to a close, but none of my guests can get away without answering this particular question. Mainly because I believe it is such a great exercise for any entrepreneur to give some thought to as they keep building their culture and brand. I gave you a heads up on that. If you could describe everything about your brand in one or two words that would turn into your brand's DNA, as I call it, what would it be like? Examples could be freedom for Harley Davidson or happiness for Coca-Cola. What would that brand DNA be?T Janczukowicz: I have to answer that with an anecdote and then I try to answer your question.F Geyrhalter: Perfect.T Janczukowicz: There was a young Romanian conductor, Sergio Celibidache, amazing, amazing conductor. Was for many years the music director, legendary music director of the Munich Philharmonic. He believed he would get the job of the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, then Karajan got the job. I just have to say that because he said Karajan is like Coca Cola.F Geyrhalter: I think I know that story from my dad actually because it's so classic.T Janczukowicz: Yeah, exactly. So sorry to... But it's not exactly an answer to what you asked, but I had to raise that. If you would allow two words that are not very romantic, I would say, what people should think in three, five, 10 years when they hear IDAGIO, it's classical music. If you would ask me to really distill it down to one word, then I would rather turn to what the classic music does with people. Then we could say happiness because it brings happiness. It gives people a more happier life because it makes you healthy.There are all these studies, classical music connects when you're growing up the right and the left half of the brain in a more meaningful way. You learn empathy, the social skills and so on. You could say health, but probably if we could nail it. Ask to really nail it down to one word, I think it's belonging.I think it's belonging because, if you look at what happens, we come alone, we go along but we have this 60, 70, if you're lucky, 80 years. To overcome this, this illusion of loneliness and classical music has this power to really connect you with other people. You don't need to touch them. You don't need to look at them. You close your eyes, but you feel connected with other people. I think this is probably best described by the word belonging.F Geyrhalter: That's beautiful. I knew that belonging would come back up because you had talked about it in the beginning. It is such a perfectly emotional word to really capture the brand beyond, right, really the entire genre. Where can listeners find IDAGIO if they are intrigued enough after listening to us for the last 45 minutes to give it a try and perhaps even become converts to the magic of classical music?T Janczukowicz: Very easily, on the internet, In the app store, there's an Android version. Anybody, for example, who has a Sonos device. There's been Sonos implementation of IDAGIO. But I would say go to the internet and there you'll find all the app stores to find IDAGIO and the different partnerships we have also with hardware manufacturers. Yeah, that's probably the easiest way.F Geyrhalter: Excellent. Excellent. That's the beauty of owning your name online. So I know you launched the company at the Salzburg Festival or the Salzburger Festspiele in 2015.T Janczukowicz: Yeah.F Geyrhalter: That is exactly what I would be heading next week. So watch out for me Till. If you're in Salzburg, you might run into me at one of the many Festspiele locations.T Janczukowicz: Cool.F Geyrhalter: Thank you so much for staying late at your office in Berlin to have this conversation with me today and to share your stories and your thoughts on branding with me and my listeners. We really appreciate your time.T Janczukowicz: A great pleasure. Thank you so much.F Geyrhalter: And thanks to everyone for listening, and please hit that subscribe button and give the show a quick rating - it only takes 5 seconds and it helps the podcast’s visibility and growth.And if you really enjoy it, please head on over to to become a sustaining member supporting this show.There has never been a more important episode in which to give the theme music some credit. It was written and produced by Happiness Won. If you want to know who is behind Happiness Won, then also head on over to and you may find what you learn amusing.I will see you next time – when we, once again, will be hitting the mark. 
If you look at a cannabis product by Beboe you would not think of weed, rather of art, design and fashion. This was derived through great brand thinking and design.Clement Kwan has reached great heights of success yet decided to follow his heart and, together with Co-Founder Scott Campbell, launched a luxury brand in a segment that has not seen much sophistication before. Today, the Beboe brand has its own store within Barney's in Beverly Hills and has also carved out its own clientele.Listening to Clement's fascinating story from growing weed in college to make tuition, to becoming an M&A investment banker in Silicon Valley, to holding the president of Net-a-Porter position and learning how he yet turned to where his heart told him to go is inspiring on many levels.But it is also an episode about the sheer power of great design, honest storytelling and how having a deep understanding of a particular audience can make any product succeed, even in a market that did not know it was ready for it.____Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter:Welcome to Hitting The Mark, episode number 20 of Hitting The Mark to be exact. What an inspirational journey it's been for me, and I hope the same holds true for you. I know for a fact that it has been an inspiration for the latest supporters of the podcast, Nathan Cain from Little Rock, Arkansas and Lav all the way from Serbia. Both are monthly supporters on the Brandster level, which means they will partake in my next monthly group call in September, which I'm greatly looking forward to. So thank you Nathan and Lav for your support. And I'd love for you too to turn into a Patreon by clicking the support button on, so we can try to keep this show advertising-free and community-supported. For this special 20th episode, I'm thrilled to welcome our first guest from the new green economy. Indeed, we are talking THC and CBD, a space that has been on a fast rise and one that has been a fertile playground for entrepreneurs with a keen sense for branding. On the forefront of this movement is the bespoke brand Beboe and Co-founder Clement Kwan. Beboe is a lifestyle cannabis brand founded in 2016 which the New York Times has called the Hermes of Marijuana. Beboe includes cannabis vaporizers and edible pastilles and caters to discerning consumers. Beboe merged with Green Thumb Industries in late February of this year, 2019. Kwan started his professional career in tech mergers and acquisitions and transitioned into business development and executive roles across the fashion industry working for companies such as Theory, Diesel, and Dolce & Gabbana. In 2012, Clement joined the YOOX group as President of U.S. Operations. Kwan graduated from UC Berkeley. Welcome to the show, Clement.C Kwan:Thank you very much, Fabian.F Geyrhalter:Let me start off by saying what a great pleasure it is to have an entrepreneur like you on the show who clearly understands and strategically utilizes the power of brand in everything he touches. So without going any further, let's start off with the question of all questions, what does branding mean to someone like you?C Kwan:Having worked in the fashion and luxury world for so many years and having built Beboe with Scott Campbell, branding really is emotion, and it's a incitement of emotion, which is really, I think, fascinating to see. Not to go off into a tangent, when I was at YOOX and running the U.S. operations, I decided to chat with and communicate with our 10 largest consumers. These are people who spend at least $250,000 per year online. And I decided to call and/or have tea with them. And what I realized was one lady in particular, who spent exactly $274,000 per year, told me that she doesn't drink. She doesn't do drugs. What she does is shop online as it makes her happy. So from that moment on, I really realized that a brand incites emotion, and any good brand incites emotion either through aesthetics, story, or just some X factor that you can't really describe. So not to get really hippy-dippy or too Venice on us, but there's just juju involved, and we can attest it to emotion.F Geyrhalter:Totally, no, and I love that story. And sorry for jinxing the YOOX name. I read the story behind the name YOOX, so I figured maybe it's just the letters, but it's not Y-O-O-X, it's YOOX. This was a great way of describing branding. It really comes down to emotion. And it's interesting how you say it's something that you really can't touch. It's something that you feel, and it's really hard to talk about how it's being derived. And that is one of the reasons why I love doing this podcast, to kind of talk to different people that have done it successfully and to get a little bit more out of them of how they actually did derive it with their companies. So let's back up a little bit. I read in Forbes that you grew pot to get through college, so that's on the air now, but it's also been in Forbes, so it's okay. That was back in Berkeley when you were a student. And then you pivoted into a fashion career at Diesel and Dolce Gabbana. It seems like Beboe is the direct result of equal parts fashion, design, branding, and cannabis. How did Beboe start?C Kwan:So when I was at Berkeley, I was actually studying corporate finance and decided to grow weed just because I really didn't have any money for tuition. So I met a really nice hippie who decided to teach me how to grow marijuana. I already loved gardening and have a green thumb, and this really presented itself as a wonderful opportunity to not only fulfill a passion but also to make money, which I needed. So I did that for about three and a half years, and then I actually became a tech M&A investment banker in the Silicon Valley from 2000 to 2001, which basically made me stop growing marijuana. But I have always had a passion for it, and I vowed to myself in 2000 when I stopped, that I would get back into it in one way, shape, or form. So after the tech market exploded, I decided to move to New York in late 2001, beginning of 2002, to get into the fashion world because I was raised by a single mother. My single mother took me shopping very, very frequently and asked me really insane questions like, "Does this color look good on me? What looks good on me? Does this fit well," et cetera, et cetera. So I sort of fell in love with fashion just because I was bonding with my mother. So tech market exploded, moved to New York and then first job was at Theory. Then went to Diesel. I helped do a repositioning of the brand for America. Then moved to Milan for seven years and took the license back for D&G or Dolce & Gabbana. And then I became the president of YOOX NET-A-PORTER, the biggest online luxury retailer on a global basis. So long story short, I had children in 2014, and I basically had to look myself in the mirror. Having done what I've done in both banking and fashion, I knew that my passion was marijuana. So after having a child, I was thinking to myself, "If my son asked me, 'What should I do when I grow up'," the wonderful romantic answer is, follow your passion. And I looked at myself in the mirror, and I'm like, "Wow, that's a wonderful thing to say, but if you don't do it, it's very disingenuous to say." So at that point, this is late 2014, I decided to really embrace that passion, not be ashamed of it. And sort of, the universe opened itself up. And I met Scott Campbell through Tom Kartsotis who founded Shinola and Fossil. We bonded over our love for marijuana, and then we decided to embark on a journey called Beboe. We didn't quite know what it was, but we did know that we wanted to build something that was aspirational, something more aesthetically pleasing, something lower dose. And we wanted to have two, I guess, different form factors, which is inhalable and ingestible, and we just incubated the idea. And that's literally the genesis of Beboe. It wasn't to say, "Let's build a luxury brand. Let's target women." We just have a genuine love for the plant and just so happened to have great experience building luxury brands and businesses. Scott Campbell has done a lot of work with Marc Jacobs, Mr. Arnault, Hennessy, all the brands in the LVMH stable. So we both come from that sort of pedigree and wanted to build something that was considerate, beautiful, and really for ourselves. So that's a very long answer to your question.F Geyrhalter:No, that's beautiful. And Scott, who's also a tattoo artist, right, and a tattoo artist of a certain pedigree. I think he tattooed everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Robert Downey, Jr. so very, very high end tattoo artist. But he created the intricate patterns that became such an important part of the brand language of Beboe. But I assume that at some point in that journey, you must've engaged a packaging design and branding firm, right? Can you walk us through that process a little bit? When did you start to actively invest in branding with the startup?C Kwan:We did everything in-house.F Geyrhalter:That's amazing.C Kwan:Scott has always assembled a wonderful internal team of packaging people, and he's also very hands on. So everything that is Beboe was done in-house.F Geyrhalter:Because you started with a team, right?C Kwan:We started with consultants and just friends. So yeah, we didn't have any focus groups. We didn't have any agencies. We didn't have anything really. We did everything internally.F Geyrhalter:And that's why it is authentic. And because of your combined background, again, the parts of design, fashion, brand, right, and cannabis, it feels like it is a brand that can happen intrinsically, not so with a lot of other founders who don't have any of that brand or design kind of background. Where did the brand name come from?C Kwan:Beboe is actually Scott's grandmother's name. So when we were in the course of thinking of a name for our company, we had so many different ideas and suggestions. And ultimately, what we were trying to do with Beboe is inject a little bit of fun, sexiness, and levity into the industry that was male dominated, very juvenile, very traditional, stereotypical stoner. So Scott told me a story about his grandmother, Be Boe, and how his mother, when he was from the ages of seven to 14, she battled cancer. And every week, the grandmother would come, Be Boe, and bring brownies, one, sort of, set for Scott and his sister and the other set for his mother. And during this entire time, he had no idea his mother was battling cancer because Be Boe injected levity into a very shitty situation because she was making marijuana brownies for his mother and normal brownies for Scott and his sister. So that story unto itself was both inspirational because she literally injected levity, fun, everything into really a bad situation. And we were like, "Wow, we should do the same with Beboe." Not that grave, but let's have Beboe inject a bit of sexiness, fun, and levity into the marijuana industry. And that's where Beboe came from.F Geyrhalter:And change the idea of what the industry stands for and who is actually the user of today's cannabis products, right? With that one simple story, which is so emotional, talking about emotions, right, you captured a lot of the spirit of the brand. I really, really like it. I love that you actually talk about this on your website as well.C Kwan:Fabian, sorry to interrupt, going back to the first question about what a brand is, this is what a brand is. So we have a genuine passion for marijuana, growing it, selling it, I mean, pretty much everything, right? There's Be Boe, and that's very emotional story of a grandmother, a person really just making a bad situation wonderful or very, very, tolerable, and then our experience. So I think it's this emotion and this sort of genuine passion that is injected into Beboe, and I think that's what makes a brand a brand. It's our personality. It's us. We couldn't even script it, right? We can't do a focus group. It's truly an extension of us.And he's covered in tattoos. I'm covered in tattoos, but yet Beboe is loved by women and really aspirational, fancy women. And we're like, "Wow, how did that happen?" But it comes back to, I was raised by a single mother. Scott had a very good relationship with his mother and grandmother. So there's a strong female presence and impression on us.F Geyrhalter:It's one layer after another, right? You keep adding these layers to the brand that are all authentic, that are all part of what you're trying to create. And then at some point, all of these layers together, this beautiful cake, right, and everyone can't resist, right? So it's kind of this idea of just adding one little piece at a time. Like you said, you can't script it. Even when I work with entrepreneurs who don't have this intrinsic idea of what the brand needs to be, they really know what they want their product to be, but they don't know what their brand needs to be. And I really, all I do is I just derive it out of them too. It's like, I can't create a story for them. I can just help tell their story in a better way and try to create authenticity that is already inside of them but just kind of get it out of them. It's really therapy. I mean, that's pretty much what it is. You mentioned you were also president of NET-A-PORTER, which you just don't even include in your bio because of everything you accomplished in your life. So congratulations, that's a pretty, pretty big deal, and it feels only natural to talk about another high end fashion powerhouse. So let's talk Barneys for a minute here. I used to be a Barneys fanatic, then I married a smart woman, and now I'm more of a Barneys three times a year kind of guy. But what a fabulous and inspiring institution Barney has always been to me and to most designers around the world. And before we talk about your current Beboe collaboration with Barneys, so totally between you and me and whoever's listening, what do you make of the Barneys bankruptcy? I mean, right after Dean & DeLuca, you mentioned you lived in New York for awhile, what is going on in the world of high end shopping?C Kwan:I don't even think it's just Barneys. It's pretty much the industry as a whole. Going back 10 years, there's a lot of money in the industry and not from a consumer perspective. It's from the institutional investors where private equity pours a lot of money into the industry, an industry that at certain echelons is very non-democratic. So all your luxury brands are now getting private equity money. Before the money came in, every distribution was very selective. It's about scarcity. It's about the consumer experience physically in the store. And post-money, obviously private equity has a horizon, right, three years, three, four years, and then exit. So a lot of pressure has been put in on the industry to get sales, make profits. But this is sort of the price of scarcity and distribution. So if you walk into any store, if you go onto any website, just look at the assortment of products on the sites or on the floor. It's the same thing. So it's because every brand is now selling to every store. Before it was, "Okay, I'm going to sell to Colette, Corso Como. I'm going to sell to a one department store in the U.K., one department store in America," and now, everything is everywhere, and it's accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week on social media channels. And I think that the day of reckoning is sort of coming where I think there's too much accessibility, and I think there's going to be a pull back. And I think for whatever reason, Barney is going through another transformation or evolution, and then you're going to start seeing many others doing the same thing. So Barneys being a leader, taking the bandaid off and doing what they need to do. And a lot of it is predicated on rent hikes, especially on Madison Avenue. But I think it's a good idea for every retailer to look at what works, what doesn't, and really look for that point of view again, both online and offline. So why are people shopping on one site or store versus the other? Before Zara, Colette had a very distinctive point of view. Sozzani has a very distinctive point of view in Corso Como. And then you have, your Bergdorf Goodman has a very distinctive point of view. But I think there needs to be a refinement again, an evolution in the industry.F Geyrhalter:I love how you were able to spin this into something that can be seen as something pretty negative, but it's fertile ground, right? Something can happen, and something needs to happen. And I got my first first idea of that when I worked with Ron Herman of the Fred Segal empire, and then I saw how unique this was, what he was actually creating. And then obviously, it got sold, and now, it's at the airport, and now, it's everywhere, right? And so I think there's something that is happening currently with that accessibility that I totally agree with you. It ruins the pleasure of finding a certain curated shop and having an experience and finding something that you can find anywhere else. There used to be the time where you brought back something from your travels and it's kind of, it doesn't make sense anymore, right? What you get in a museum store in New York, you get in a museum store in Paris but interesting, interesting observation. And your brand has an actual store named The High End, which is a brilliant name by the way, within the physical Barneys Beverly Hills store. I think it's on the fifth floor. And within High End, the store within a store, you can pick up a $60 box of seven pre-rolled joints amongst many other gorgeous products of your brand. How did that amazing collaboration come about, and what did you learn about your first Barneys customers, who I assume would be very different from your customers before? But that's only assumption. And I also wonder, was that the time that you started to pivot the brand to cater mostly towards women? Or like you said before, it was kind of intrinsically that it was catering more towards women, but was that the time where you actually realized, "Oh, my God. Wealthy women love our aesthetic. They love our product."C Kwan:Ever since we launched, just due to the nature of the branding, the aesthetics, the form factor... I mean, it's a rose gold vaporizer. It's more expensive given our experience and background. I mean, if you look at it, Scott and I have sold dresses, purses, to women for a good 12 to 13 years. I think subconsciously, we only know how to market to women, but we just never articulated it other than building something like a Beboe. So we've always captured the very aspirational female consumer, not by design, but just by nature. I don't know. It just organically happened. The tagline for our brand is probably, my wife or my girlfriend loves Beboe. So yeah, we've always had that aspiration of consumer from 25 to 65, and it was predominantly female, and it just happened by chance. So when Barneys came around, it was just a natural fit, not only because they've known us for so long as Scott and Clement in our different iterations, but Scott also has a very dear relationship with Matthew Mazzucca , the creative director of Barneys. And from there, they wanted to do something in cannabis. We had a great idea on how to do it, and then we just had a great meeting of the minds. And eight months later, The High End was born. But it's not very difficult. It wasn't a stretch by any means because that customer that shopped at Barneys was already buying Beboe and/or had a friend that was using Beboe so very natural relationship.F Geyrhalter:On your website, on the Beboe website, at the very, very end, hidden within the about section, you are also offering brand consulting. What does that entail, and who do you work with, and how did it become part of the part of the Beboe brand?C Kwan:It's not something we really focus on too much, but it's there for humanitarian reasons, humanitarian in the sense-F Geyrhalter:Tell me more.C Kwan:Humanitarian for the industry. So we are extremely open people. What we've created wasn't done in a lab. The IP is us. And what we have realized was when we created Beboe four years ago, we created a product that was counter to what was happening in the market. What we realized was, being a grower myself and dabbling in, let's call it the gray market, there's a lot of people in this industry that have paid their dues, that have been in it for 20 years, that have paved the way, that have gone to prison. They're like the OGs of the industry. So what we did was, and I'll make this short, took this product, and I went to these OGs, and I said, "Guys, listen. In order for our industry to move forward, I respect everything that you do because I've done it. But in order for to really grow and evolve, give this product, which is bourgeois, more expensive, lower potency, and you've never seen anything like this, please help us support it and/or just don't hate on it. Because once this new consumer comes into the industry, they're not going to stop at just Beboe. They're going to try other brands, and then they're going to start asking local politicians and the industry as a whole for more information. And this is what's going to drive change." So having said that, we are where we are because they supported us. Now, there's a whole other generation of people and entrepreneurs trying to do what we've done, and instead of not helping, we want to make sure that the people with the right ideas and the right ethos and obviously, good people, are able to succeed because rising tides floats literally all boats. So let's just have consulting out there so that we can help people flesh through ideas, share with them the pain points that we've gone through, and just, let's help evolve this industry in the right way and be a thought leader and a leader as a whole. And that's what consulting is about.F Geyrhalter:As we come slowly to the end here, one of the questions I always love to ask founders is if you can describe your brand in one word, so I call it the brand DNA. So it's one or two words that are all encompassing of the Beboe brand. For instance, for my brand consultancy FINIEN, our brand DNA is clarity. And for Everlane, it would have to be transparency. What is Beboe's brand DNA?C Kwan:Empowered. It's empowered because I think every person who uses it feels empowered. Every woman that works for us is truly empowered. I mean, our entire team is built up of women, and they are the heart and soul of our brand, and it's not by design. So we cater to a female consumer, and we only have females working for us, which is, it's a beautiful thing. So the thing that we always preach is that, do not let an industry drive you. You drive an industry. Whatever problem you have, you have the authority and the initiative to get it done, fix the problem. You are empowered and financially empowered, everything empowered. And I think we just don't say it. It just happens. So yeah, I think even people who use our product feel empowered when they use it. They're able to discreetly use Beboe, and they feel great because they've empowered themselves to get high. It's mommy's little helper, so they're empowered to be better parents. I don't know. People feel empowered when they have our products in their hands, where they work with us, when they interact with us. Yeah, I think that's what we're really the most proud of.F Geyrhalter:It feels very, very right. And also when you look at the packaging, and you read some of these life lessons and wisdoms that are hidden within the packaging, it is about empowerment. Even though you say you don't mention it, you don't spell it out, it is subliminally spelled out throughout your entire brand. Do you have any other brand advice? And you have already given a lot for founders in any space, as a final takeaway, maybe a lesson you may have learned the hard way, something that can just empower, to use the word, fellow entrepreneurs that are not quite at your stage yet.C Kwan:Ultimately, and I think if I had a startup in the fashion world or something that was little bit more traditional, I would have a big fuck up or something like that to share. But I think we have been fortunate enough to build something in the wild, wild West where we charted our own course. I think the biggest lesson I've learned is that kindness goes a long way. And I hope that every entrepreneur that starts something is kind, not only to the people and the partners and the world as a whole, but kind to themselves, kind that there is no right answer to what you're doing. There are sometimes parameters, but you're going to mess up. You're going to definitely mess up. But it's just being kind to yourself and your mental health, your physical body, because ultimately, that's very, very important.F Geyrhalter:And talking about kindness, when I reached out to you, Clement, I read a Forbes, I think it was a two, three page article about Beboe, and I reached out to you completely blindly. I think it was via LinkedIn or maybe I found your email somewhere on the website. And very often I just pretend the emails go out, and I don't hear back. And the more high profile of a publication I read about someone that I invite on the show, the likelihood is slimmer that they actually get back to me. You got back to me saying, "Hey, Fabian. How are you? Sure," period. I think it was something like that. And I'm like, "That is kindness," right? The idea of the first thing you say is how are you, and there's this spirit that comes from you that is, obviously, shows across your entire brand. So really, really appreciate it. Listeners who live in a state where they can legally obtain cannabis, how can they get a taste of Beboe?C Kwan:You can find it in California, in Colorado, at your favorite dispensaries, and/or go to Barneys, and you can find it there. And then soon with a wonderful partner like GTI, we will be expanding into 10 to 11 other states in the course of the next 12 to 18 months.F Geyrhalter:That's amazing. That's fantastic. And thank you, Clement, for your time today. It was such a pleasure, and it was really fascinating to have you on Hitting The Mark. I really appreciate it.C Kwan:Thank you very much, Fabian.F Geyrhalter:And thanks to everyone for listening, and if you enjoy this sponsor-free podcast, please help keep it that way and become a sustaining member by hitting the support button on or by going to Our theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we once again will be hitting the mark.
If you think of a roofing company, you think of small businesses that have a hard time staying in business. Lots of competition in a tough service environment with high employee turnover rates and low customer retention. One thing you would not think of is branding.This is where Charles Antis comes in, who founded his namesake company Antis Roofing & Waterproofing in 1984 and soon thereafter started to inject it with personality and the stigma that it needed to be bigger than just the service offering he provided. Charles himself turned into a conscious capitalist, who has donated every single roof installation of every single home built by Habitat Orange County since 2009 and was honored with the American Red Cross Corporate Hero Award.This is the story of a roofer who turned into a leader in corporate social responsibility and who sees himself as a futurist. Charles shares with us how leading with cause will shape an amazing corporate culture (Antis has a 93% employee retention rate) and drive new business, all while giving real meaning to what you do.____Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter:Welcome to Hitting The Mark. Every two weeks, I sit down right here with you and with a contagiously inspiring founder, just like today, or a shockingly transparent investor to talk about the art and the heart of a brand. It all started as an experiment, and once listeners like yourself started tuning in, it soon turned into this biweekly labor of love that, in return, requires a lot of time from researching future guests and curating the flow to reaching out and dealing with the logistics of the scheduling the podcast, the editing the show, creating assets, pushing it on social, et cetera, et cetera. You know how it goes. Good things take time. If Hitting The Mark provides you with inspiration, and you're slowly but surely forming an addictive habit of listening to it every two weeks, please show your support to offset some of the cost so I do not have to bring on interruptive sponsorship messages because I really, really would not like to do that, and I don't think you'd enjoy it, either. Instead, I want to thank you on the air, connect with you on monthly group calls, have you submit questions for guests upfront, and simply have this be 100% community-supported. This marks the beginning of a new community-enabled and community-driven era of Hitting The Mark. I'd love for you to check out the brand new Patreon site, which I link to in the notes or simply go to and hit the support button to learn more about the different levels and perks that come with your support. Now without further ado, I welcome a founder who has been at it for 30 years. It is not a new brand, nor one that is shockingly innovative or disruptive at all at it relates to the services it provides, but Charles Antis, founder and CEO of Antis Roofing and Waterproofing has built a brand on the power of good, a long time before it became a mainstream business etiquette and, to an extent, most can only aspire to. Charles began his career as a roofing professional in 1984. Since then, he has become an inspirational business leader championing social corporate responsibility. While Antis is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year or, as Charles would say, "For 30 years, we've been keeping families safe and dry." Charles is a member of the board of directors of Orange County Habitat for Humanity, for which Antis has donated every single roof installation of every single home built by Habitat OC since 2009. That's over $1 million in in-kind donations. Charles inspires others into doing well by doing good, and was honored with the American Red Cross Corporate Hero Award. Despite me having a rule of not inviting former clients or people I know prior to having them on as a guest, I did meet Charles ever so briefly while I was presenting a United To End Homelessness brand campaign to the executive council of the Orange County United Way Chapter. Charles was one of the guys I presented it to. We quickly knew we were aligned when it comes to messaging and branding, and following him on LinkedIn and seeing his great social responsibility efforts on a weekly basis, I decided to reach out and, voila, here we are. Welcome to Hitting The Mark, Charles.C Antis:Thanks, Fabian. I'm excited to be here.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely, so Antis is going back 30 years, not to date you here, but it's been a while and roofing is a commodity and it is, frankly, a tough business to stay in business, let alone thrive. How did you start the company and when and how did you begin injecting it with personality and the stigma that it needed to be bigger than just a service offering you provided, or you yourself turning into a conscious capitalist, as you call it?C Antis:That's a lot there, and I'll give you my best answer. When I started my business, I did not have a business plan. I didn't know what marketing was. I couldn't distinguish marketing from sales, nor would I for many years. I had an instinct of a couple of things that helped me survive. One was one that I would later call customer care. It seemed to me instinctively that the first, most simple, form of marketing, was I need a good word of mouth, that I needed to take care of a client in a deep way. I became very good, unable to facilitate re-roofs, being small and having limited skills, I figured out that if I could tell people that I'll solve that leak from rain, that leak in their home or in their business from rain that no one else can solve, I'll do it for free. It seemed to me then they might believe me to pay me. That was all I had, and I followed that through with great customer care. That's how I got work initially and that was my first ray of a brand that was put out there. Another component happened that led me to the reason we're talking today, and that was, in that moment of needing every call just to pay the bills, my work one week was weatherproofing a door that was a home bedroom converted into an office, so when a client might call, that they wouldn't hear my daughter crying. That was my work one week, because I only got about two calls a week when I first started my business. One of those calls I got was a women who had leaks in her home in every room. That sounded pretty good. I was going to get some money for leak repairs. I didn't have an excess then. I had a mortgage payment to make in a couple of weeks, I didn't even have the funds for that yet. I'm driving out to this home on the next day and I'm noticing as I'm getting closer that the homes are getting smaller, more disheveled, until finally I turn on the street where the home would be and I just see it, like dead grass and four walls. I remember thinking, I hope that's not the house because it had one of those one-half the numbers on it. I went up and knocked on it, and then the next three things just changed everything for me. A middle-aged woman answered the home with this tired expression on her face. Before I could say anything, I was hit with this mildew like I'd never smelled before, that just pulled me back and sent a shock in me that I was figuring out how I was going to leave. I remember before I could say anything, this third thing happened. I felt a tug at my finger and I looked down and there was this little girl with the biggest smile I can still see in my eyes, with tow-blond hair. She couldn't smell what I smelled. She just had a visitor and she just pulled me in on my finger. I went in through this little crowded living room into a tiny under-sized hallway, until finally she turned to her right and into her room. I knew she slept there because she points to this My Little Pony poster on the wall. As she points to that poster, my eyes look down and I see four mattresses with disheveled and moldy bedding. I realized that's where she sleeps, that's where she and her siblings sleep. I was sitting there in shock. It's a good story now, but it wasn't a good story right then. I was in this state of shock, fight or flight, because this was a threat to me. I couldn't help it. It sounds horrible but it didn't feel good yet. As cute as that little girl was and as the moment was there, because I was this professional, I could do something, it didn't hit me until the mother came in again with that look on her face. Something in me stirred that didn't stir just with the child, but I looked at that mother and I don't know where it came from, but it was my doctor on an airplane moment and I just said, "I'm going to take care of your roof." I went up there on the roof, hoping they just needed some patches, and I saw a completely dilapidated roof. They needed a brand new roof. I followed through. I followed through. I didn't have any employees yet so I got six volunteers. We showed up there on Saturday and I got some inexpensive but dry roofing material, and we gooped that roof and we put rolled material on that roof and it was dry and that family stayed in that home. That was a crazy moment because it didn't hit me in any which way. It was just what I had to do and it as kind of like my doctor on an airplane moment. If you're a doctor on the airplane and somebody has a heart attack, I think that most of us believe that the doctor raises his hand and says, "Yes, I'll help." I also believe that when a doctor raises his hand and helps that person on an aircraft who had a heart attack, I highly doubt the doctor sends a bill. I feel like that's what happened to me. It just happened to me and my profession was different than medicine. Who could help that family more than me? That was a magic moment. I didn't know it was magic until months later. I'd run into one of the siblings. There were five other kids and I'd run into one of the siblings. They would be like, "Hey!" We high-fived and I noticed I had a pretty good day that day. Or I'd run into one of the volunteers on the next Sunday and they'd be like, "Hey!" There was this story that we did together that I had no idea that it was changing everything in the trajectory at Antis Roofing. This story became our culture. This story held us together even though it took me years to recognize that this story was part of the reason we were strong. I think for our techs and for our people, it felt good, like we're not just profiting off this trade, we're giving back. It wasn't something we talked about because it was not okay to talk about it where we grew up. I grew up where you don't talk about the good that you're doing. In fact, there were things that were quoted to me as a child, like don't let the left hand know what the right hand's doing because then God can't reward you. I'm paraphrasing what I heard, maybe not what was said, but what I heard, so it felt wrong to talk about it. The reason I did it, it was more like, what am I going to do? It wasn't, in the beginning, Oh, my God, I have this opportunity to give back. It feels that way sometimes now, but even sometimes now it feels like it did then, like, Oh my God, how can somebody ask for that? How can I possibly do it? In that figuring it out, in that not saying no, in those magic moments of going to bed on the possibility of doing something really noble, there's where something happens that I don't know how to describe. I'm just here to tell you, story after story, that it happened. That developed who we were. We eventually learned to talk about it after our giving became more formal, after we became involved with Habitat for Humanity in Orange County. Sorry, I went on a long tangent there, Fabian. I warned you.F Geyrhalter:No, this is, first of all, this is an amazing story and I would react very differently if I had not heard it last night on a keynote. I was so taken by that story. I was hoping that you would tell it. It was really, that was the moment where you found purpose and then the purpose was contagious and it actually created the culture, and through all of it, authenticity and empathy. You started creating a brand, really. To me, that's beautiful. On your website, you state, "The more we give, the more we grow." I'm a big believer that doing good is good business. Expand a little bit on that thought, perhaps even with some data points that made you make that statement so confidently on the website, because now your brand has been walking that walk year after year for a few decades. How is doing good, good business and how can you actually tell everyone with certainty that it is?C Antis:It was honestly in the moment. I love that statement, "The more we give, the more we grow." I've just got to be honest about it. It's one that we kind of said, let's not say that, really, much right now. I love it. I'm going to tell you why, because we said that, and it worked three years ago, because we do have this really big desire to make impact in the community. We want to draw attention to it because we want to show other businesses that they can do it. Sometimes our statements are scary. Three or four years ago I started saying also, "We err on the side of generosity with all of our stakeholders." That basically says we're not going to get over on anybody. When you make that statement, there's a little bit of a mind check where you go, oh. I used to always have my angle that we got away. We did better than other people here. How can I be generous? In thinking that way, magic happens. That's what we discovered. In thinking that way, it started to happen. The more we give, the more we grow. Let me tell you about that one. We said that three years ago and we had this amazing growth year. We grew like 40 percent. Then, what happened in California, as a roofing contractor, it didn't rain. When you go from a lot of rain, the biggest rain in 10 years to no rain the next year, our sales went down 20 percent, so our profit went way down.F Geyrhalter:Of course.C Antis:Ironically, though, ironically there were some things that happened. That's when I started, why are we saying that? That's really not responsible. We say it to make a claim in the direction that we're going so we get people's attention, so we can share the success in what we're doing. What we ended up talking about, and I did some big talks that year that our sales dropped 20 percent, and we still talked about that because we are growing. Our giving grew last year. I don't know how fiscally responsible some people think this is, but in a year, in 2018 where our profits went down tremendously, our giving went up. Some people would say, in fact, our giving, we gave almost a million dollars in grants and in foundation stuff and roof sponsorships. That might have been irresponsible, but we did grow. How did we grow from that giving? We all grew in our capacity to understand how to message cause marketing. We grew in our capacity to understand this important deep value that runs through our employees and extends out into the community. I wouldn't have gone down that path, but I love messaging. I think if you're true to messaging today, this takes me into a point, that I'm so authentic in the moment, trying to get the message right, and I'll admit that I'm going to miss it sometimes. When we miss it, we're all going to learn from when we just missed it. I'm not saying we missed it by "The more we give, the more we grow." I'm saying that that was the right message to say three years ago and now I'm questioning it, if that's how I'm going to lead. Sometimes I will talk in that vein, but I think that it grew the impact through why we had it at the time. We were authentic in the moment three years ago trying to nail what it is that we do for people, what it is that we do for the trade associations that we belong to and how that extends from our people out through the associations and to all the stakeholders. That's why I wanted to get into that. I had to talk around that because we talked about it, I wanted to talk about how authentic message is going, but I still have answered your question, so can you, after that little side note I went on, give me the question again? This time, I'll dive right in.F Geyrhalter:I actually think you pretty much answered it. I think the idea that even if there's a year where revenue goes down a little bit just based on external reasons, really, which in your business was simply the weather, to actually give back during that year and to give back more than you did the year previous-C Antis:That was crazy.F Geyrhalter:But it's not crazy. It's not crazy. To me, Charles, this is good-C Antis:I mean crazy, crazy in radical. It's radically different-F Geyrhalter:Right.C Antis:And I love that. My point is, is being radically different in a social, generous way, in an inside-out way of the community, through your people and the community, it's never been a better time to error there. By having this intent to grow, give more, having the intent to be able to give more as we grow and to have the intent to be generous, it really pays off today. It keeps people in your company and it keeps people so much more productive because if you're authentic in the moment and if you have that cause that's tied to your brand and you're practicing talking about it in the front of your company and you have a brand-holder in your company -- which, it's more convenient if it's the founder or CEO, it can be your director of cause, it can be somebody else in your company -- but if you have this today, you have such an advantage in business. When I go to sell a client today, we sell HOA's and we service more HOA's than anybody, that's our niche in the roofing business, but when I go to sell a client today, I used to walk into that room and, just because I was a roofing contractor and guilty by some association from a past experience they had, I would go into this and I would be accused of things that we'd never do. We would be accused of kick-backs and of purposely not doing the work that we intended to perform, and we learned and had to take it. When I go to a board meeting today, that doesn't happen. What happens is the opposite. There is maybe one person in the room that, instead of one person chiseling us and accusing us, there's one person that's looking at me and smiling, male or female, looking down, touching their hair, like is that person flirting with me? I start asking questions, "How're we doing?" "Great." "Why? What are we doing great?" I'll get answers like, the one that really hit me when I knew this brand was working six years ago, this board member from this association looked at me and says, "I don't know, Charles. We just feel good when we think about you guys." That was something I'd never heard before. That's when I knew that I'm on the right track. Yeah, last year we gave more away than we put in the bank. Is that responsible?F Geyrhalter:Mm-hmm (affirmative).C Antis:I think, yes. Do I need to look at it and make sure that we have a trajectory that fits? Yes. There's always running the right balance, but the balance has shifted and it's a time today, whatever your spend is on your people, you're on top of spend for HR and your people and the community, all that together, it's going to drastically increase. If it was already high, it probably needs to double. If it was low, it might need to go ten times. That's a scary number, but if you can keep your people- in the new world it's all about being empathetic and being adaptive and being a critical thinker and having high emotional intelligence. This is going to keep the people there that will allow you to do that. It's all about being adaptive, and you can keep your people if you have cause. That's what great CSR, we didn't do it for the outside value gain. I think I really started on the wrong side. I was so focused on the customer that I often, and as much as I love my people, I'm so focused on the good we can do in the community, sometimes I overlook my people. I often joke that I was like Will Ferrell in Old School when he's all alone on the street and he's running and his wife comes up and he's drunk and he's running, and he's like, "Hey, Honey!" She's like, "Honey, you're naked. Get in the car." He goes, "No, come on, Honey. Everybody's doing it." That's my enthusiasm when it's just outside focus, but when you work through your people, then you keep your people, they become the ones that help you adapt in this super-changing world. In the roofing industry, it's going to change so much in the next decade. It's going to change for the better but, if you're not adaptive, good luck.F Geyrhalter:Oh, yeah.C Antis:Good luck in your business.F Geyrhalter:Any business, really, today. Back to culture, I think today Antis has a 93-percent employee retention rate or something that's really, really outrageously high for the industry. "Culture is everything" is a headline on your website. I just could not agree more. I say this on the air, a great culture kicks even a great branding spot. I'll say that again and again because it all comes from within. Going a little bit back in history with your company, and I ran an agency for a long time, I had that same problem. You talked about in one of your keynotes how you had Founder's Syndrome in the early years of running a firm. You compared it, this is hilarious, you compared it to a seagull flapping and flapping around while pooping on everyone, which is…C Antis:A seagull boss. Someone who flaps those wings, squawking and shitting all over everybody. I think that describes what a founder ends up doing, even when he doesn't realize he's doing it, based on his behavior. Even if you're not being a little bit loud, because you are the founder, everybody knows you've done their job before and you ask a question like, "Why are you doing it that way?" It comes out like, "Why are you doing it that way!" That's how you hear it. Founder's Syndrome is really all of the things that founders did to get it started often will be what's going to get it to the multi-ten-million range. Founders must be self-aware, lest they will keep stabbing their tires. Founders Syndrome is something that, it's for everybody that's a founder. It is so healthy. In fact, I just learned this. As I was describing Founder's Syndrome to somebody else, I actually looked at the Wikipedia page and it's grown from where it was a few years ago. Founder's Syndrome also occurs to division heads, people that are project managers, that bring in new things in companies that are so protective of the baby that they brought in, and they crush innovation. Founder's Syndrome is our worst enemy for all of us that have start-ups. We both have tendencies that made us, that were great to get us where we were, that will hurt us if we're not careful as we hire people.F Geyrhalter:How were you able to shake Founder's Syndrome so that other entrepreneurs can learn from it, at least the way that you did it? What was it? What was that moment?C Antis:First of all, I really believe in Vistage-type groups, that's CEO-type groups-F Geyrhalter:Yep.C Antis:Where you go and you just learn to be honest with another group of CEO's one day a month. That is where I heard the term, that's where people helped me pause to see it. I think being adaptive, it goes deeper. I'm very adaptive, I think. It took me a long time to realize it, but I'm a young 57-year-old. I'm very millennial-like thinking, but I think I'm adaptive through my path. I was raised in a religion, in my parents' religion. I'm no longer part of that religion. It's a strong culture religion, Mormonism. I think when you leave a strong culture religion, it's very difficult because that becomes your community. I think that you can do two things, you can go, and for me, it was like I had to redefine myself. In that redefining myself, I had to be self-critical sometimes to learn and grow. I had a couple of times like that where I had to redefine myself in life. I think that moving from the country to the city, how am I going to survive here? those life experiences. If we go back and re-frame our lives, we've all been very adaptive, but I think we have to embrace that today. When you get that Founder's Syndromitis, when you realize, oh, my God, I have this, this is funny and you forgive yourself. The way you get that is doing self-assessments. I'm a big fan of self-assessments. When I did my disk and I found out that I had a high eye on a disk scale, my Vistage group pointed at me and laughed and they said, oh, you want to be the center of attention. I quickly said, no, I don't. But hopefully, by later on that day, I admitted, well, yes I do, and thank you for telling me that's who I am and I'm not doing something wrong. Now I can forgive myself and realize that it's not a weakness, it's a strength. I'm great in sales, I'm great at speaking, I'm great in marketing, I'm great in customer care because I have a high eye. When you learn about yourself, the more you're willing to- do the emotional intelligence test. If you just try to grab the concept of emotional intelligence, it is the greatest gift. You will get Founder's Syndrome because it is just your survival mode, because we all operate in animal mode even though we think we're so smart. That's basically what emotional intelligence tells me. Self-assessment is really how I've grown, but I've also been forced to grow a few times. I think that sometimes when things hit our lives, if we can flip our brain to only believe in positive outcomes, we can realize that some of these things that we used to see as tragedy -- I'm not saying there's not tragedies -- but a lot of things we would used to see as something bad, we can flip in this new mindset. Failing is the greatest gift. Fail, fail, fail, I've failed being a contractor. You can fail and still survive. I've failed on so many jobs in the past, and we're really good at what we do and what we design and how we perform today because we've failed so much to get here.F Geyrhalter:Right.C Antis:That's one of the things, is failing is how I learn.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. I think you said so many things. I know you accused me of asking a question that had five questions in it. You do the same with the answers, which is fantastic, because there were so many gold nuggets in there. I really appreciate it. I want to go back to culture for a second because I'm sure that a lot of listeners getting to know your brand, getting to know you and the way that you embody marketing and empathy and purpose, you've built a strong culture. Do you as a brand actually have written-down, formulated core values, or is it different? How do you deal with core values and how are they being embodied day to day?C Antis:I love that. I'm not a formalize, I'm a visionary, which means I loosely define. I know that if I grab things too tight, I've learned then I steer them into the ground. If you're a visionary and you have ideas, you learn to bring in doers around you. I have a great story around that. We were working with a neuroscientist to build our new values. If you want to be heard in marketing, you want to simplify, simplify, simplify. You want to simplify colors, position of your graphics, also you want to simplify the words. I really was wanting to bake down what we do. We spent a lot of time with Dr. Moren, this amazing guy that works with brands like Southwest Airlines. We worked with him for a long time to come up with the one word. The word we came up with is, "be," B-E. If I had to describe the word, "be," because we're giving it new context, I can't. It comes out different every day. Really, what "be" is to us, is it's much like what Simon Sinek did when he asked us, what's your "why?" Some days I can answer that question, some days it hits be funny. When we talk about what we value at Antis, the "be" values is what we've come up with.F Geyrhalter:Interesting.C Antis:The core part is, is Dr. Moren helped us get to the word, "be." We came up with this "be safe, be good, be dry." That's how we were going to market to our people to show them that we can keep them safe in our communities. What happened is, we did our external strategy session and we had some amazing people that came in, like Michelle Jordan, who I strongly recommend using. She came in and helped us with our strategy. Our team, not me, not marketing, but our team, 20 of us, baked and we surveyed and we came up with what we value. This was actually, an expanded team beyond that. We came down to the five things that we value. This is what they are: Be good, be accountable, be generous, be a leader and be passionate. What we found is we had turned our value statement into 11 words with a lot of repetition there in this really branded, good way that when we donate our space to nonprofits, and we have a lot of nonprofits come in here, they see that and we hear things like, "Can we borrow that?" "Yes! Yes! Please take it!" What happened is, I turned to my team and I said I know that we've spent a lot of money to be this, "Be safe, be dry, be good," but who we really are, are these values, "Be good, be accountable, be generous, be a leader and be passionate," slightly different context in the word, "be." What happened is this became who we were. I was giving a big keynote, in fact, it was the one you referenced. It was the one last year at the Legends and Leaders. It was a big crowd and the last slide that I decided to show was this internal thing. We're an inside-out company. We share what's working so others can do it. We discovered that these values were resonating. I went up there and I talked and I finished this talk. After I spoke, another writer and a good friend of mine, Steve Cherm, he commented on social media about how Charles ended his message with be good and be accountable. The funny thing was that I called Steve later and said, "Steve, I never said that. That was the slide and that was the value. We've had that and we use that slide for impact moments because it says so much in so few words.F Geyrhalter:It was holistically, right? I love the idea that it started with an exercise of external brand messaging and it turned into, a variation of it turned into the internal values and how you want to operate and who you want to be as a company. I think it's extremely, extremely powerful. I love that people just feel that intrinsically after the talk. Going from all of these "be" words, be this, be that, do you think that as a brand, if you think about the essence of your brand in its entirety, could you sum it up in a few characters, in one word or a two-word phrase that can describe your brand's DNA? To think about it, it's like Harley Davidson could be freedom, Coke could be happiness. What is Antis? Could you think of Antis in a single word or in two words? It must be difficult, based on our conversation today.C Antis:It's difficult for me, but I'm going to have to answer it two ways. To really understand what we discovered and what we sell and what we sell inside and out the company, it comes down to two words, and it's for your brand and it's for everybody that are your stakeholders, and that is fulfillment and impact. That's the intersection of life trajectory, of seeing yourself in a higher light. It's that point where you're having impact in people or people's lives, or animal's lives, or that it's you're having impact in the environment, whatever it is, but you're also finding that fulfillment. Those two words are critical to want to discuss how to get to a real cause marketing brand. I want to use the word, "be" because I'm experimenting with this word and I have been for the last year. I think the one that I spend most of my time is the "be good." It's simple but it's like that's all I really wanted to do. I didn't know what it was. I had to define in my life what good was. My dad just always taught me to leave it better than I found it. I'd learned that in Scouts, too. It's a simple thing, leave it better than you found it. I think that the best way I can get there is, I want to be my best self. I want to be my best self and I don't compare myself to you anymore and I don't want my people to compare themselves to me. I want you and I want me to compare ourselves to ourselves and I want to be good being my best self. I think that's my definition of being good, is seeing yourself higher and therefore you're able to see everything and everyone else higher. Then you become a real asset to the world and you have impact and you have this magical place of fulfillment, which is where I get to every day. I wake up in fear. I have good months and bad months in business like everybody else, but I wake up and I put on this outlook that only sees good things coming. If something hit today that's other than that, I go, wow, this is really going to be good. I literally can see the other side of that and see the value in this growing experience that's coming. I think that's the greatest thing, so be good.F Geyrhalter:That's beautiful. Going from that macro level all the way to looking at the word branding, obviously you are a marketer within your space, one of the many hats that you wear within the company. What does branding mean to someone like you, who has been in an industry for 30 years and you've been pushing the boundaries within the industry? You really were a game-changer and a visionary within an industry that is known for exactly the opposite. What does branding mean to you?C Antis:Branding is an action word that, if you don't try to grab it today, you're going to be left and you're going to be lost. Branding is, it's always been who you were but now, with this craving that everyone has for authenticity, branding, real authentic present-day branding, is what everybody seeks. It's the most important thing. I have to talk about branding but I've got to go into this little weird worm hole about, we hear about these currencies. Facebook is trying to create a currency I hear the Trump Administration doesn't like. In China they have a currency for social good that they've come up with that where if you're in their version of communism, social good in China, you'll get to the front of the line, get a bigger house. We have the same thing happening here in Silicon Valley. Those of us that know people that are trying to build algorithms that can root out fakeness because there's so much fake stuff coming at us from all sides, so branding is critical today. It's like when somebody goes to prison, they'll tell you if they don't join a gang, they're going to die, because you're a threat to everybody in prison until they know by which gang you reside. Then it all puts it into an order. That is a fish tank, so we can study that and poke at it. The same thing is in our society today. We don't know who we are and people are craving to know who you are. If you kind of know who somebody is, it's not enough like it was 10 years ago. You look for the gang that you reside with so people that care about families being close to their sick kids, they trust me more because I'm on the board of Ronald McDonald House and we do a lot of roof donations there. People that think everybody has a decent place to live, they trust me and my company more because we donate all the roofs for Habitat and we have in Orange County for the last 10 years. It's suddenly all about this currency of social good. It's literally like, I'm not telling you I think this is coming, I've been talking about this with some other people and I'm watching it happen. It literally is going to mean money in ways that our brains can't contextualize yet, much like you're trying to wrap your head around cryptocurrency. I see things very visually, so just imagine you're looking at your PC screen and you're seeing all these little eraser head LinkedIn-sized photos of each other, like we see on LinkedIn, darting like shooting stars across the scene. Oh, is that Fabian? Is that Charles? Who is that? We're all craving to be seen, and this is my visual interpretation of the currency of social good. If you are doing something good, giving back, best practices, are you giving back in your community? Now algorithms are being built to bring you to the front of the line. If you're giving back in your community, what happens is, you're not an eraser head shooting star whipping across the PC, you become the saucer, 8-inch saucer, that's floating up in its own trajectory, ever so slightly, that everyone can see. That is the new currency. I can't explain it better than that because it's not really invented yet, but we're moving in this super-adaptive world and if you want to survive and be adaptable, then dive in to cause. Dive in to mixing your branding with your cause, who you authentically are. It should be something that lines up well, that people think is good. There's some nonprofits that may not serve you to line up with, but even if they didn't serve you, you'd still be better off than not having the alignment. People need to know who you are. If you're in business just to make money in the next 10 years, good luck staying in business. It's all about who you are, who you align with and you better expect that you're going to be telling that story. It's all about telling the story, too. In every nonprofit board I'm on, when we go to the board meetings, it's always like, ha, how do we get our story heard? We all realize now that people remember the stories. That's what they remember.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely, absolutely. Those were some powerful words, and you described the idea of branding, how it is and, really, how it will be in the next half-decade or so. It's going to happen very, very quickly.C Antis:Yes, I'm obsessed. I don't mean to be a futurist, but I can't help but see where things are going. You're so right, and it's really healthy to spend a little bit of time and have a Disney-type plan. Disney, they have strategy for three completely different directions at any given time. They have it if things are great, if things turn bad and then if the world goes really crazy. They have three different strategies they build out every year instead of one. That's the new world. It's going to be a way more adaptive world. Instead of being afraid of it, just embrace it. Keep your people, then you'll be able to adapt to it.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely love that. Listeners who live in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, they should obviously reach out to Antis to get a new roof if they need one. Who better to handle your new roof than a futurist? They can find you at, but since the majority of our U.S. listeners are not in the region and more than half of our listeners are not even located in the U.S., how can they follow you to learn more about your insights into company culture and philanthropy and a lot of other things, as the CEO of your brand?C Antis:That's a great question. I find that what fulfills me is awakening others to that impact, their fulfillment thing, so I love speaking. I do a lot of talking, do a lot of podcasts, so I'll share Hitting The Mark, Fabian, on my LinkedIn. I only manage one account, I manage my own LinkedIn, but I love stuff like this. This is where I'm known and this is where I like to talk. I'll do keynotes across the country this year and I'll share those on social media. You can also follow us on our Facebook, antisroofing/facebook. I just don't personally do that. You can follow us on our Antis Roofing four or five social media channels that we have. On my LinkedIn, I'll post on stuff that I have going.F Geyrhalter:That's great and I would highly recommend everyone to do follow Antis Roofing as a company, actually, because it is amazing what a roofing company that is fairly local, it is a big region that you cover, but how a roofing company can leave that mark, it can create this community and culture. It is really amazing. Thank you, Charles. It was so great to have you on the show.C Antis:I am super-excited. I can't wait to hear it.F Geyrhalter:Awesome, and thanks to everyone for listening. Let me again invite you to become a supporter of this show. I just launched this program, so I'm overly excited about making it happen. Go to, hit the support button. A very special thanks go to Roxie Valez from Berlin, Germany and Freddie Teague from Branson, Missouri, who just joined on the Brandster level, which means they will get to hang out with me on next month's group call. Thank you both for being part of the tribe and for becoming sustaining members. The Hitting The Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won, and if you're intrigued to find out who is behind that moniker, head on over to the support side and you will be in for a little surprise. I will see you next time, when we once again will be Hitting The Mark.
It is not an easy task to stand out amongst the many mindfulness apps – from Headspace to Calm (which is valued at $1 billion) – while creating a brand that does so in an authentic manner. But Founder and CEO Stephen Sokoler and his team at Journey Meditation did just that, and mainly through the use of imagery (cleverly branded by use of color) featuring members of their tribe, from staff to teachers, shown in everyday life poses rather than sitting with their eyes closed, meditating.The Journey LIVE meditation app is an experiment in community creation, which is at the heart of branding. Stephen shares with us how he crafted a brand around human connection and why a brand's meaningful foundation is essential for any successful launch. Now, close your eyes, take a breath, and hit that play button. Once you are done, and you realize that you'd like to meditate to an actual class, hit the app store and search for Journey LIVE to get on the path of finding your inner zen.____Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter:Welcome to Hitting the Mark, a show known for the charismatic and wise founders and investors that provide us with behind the scenes insights into their intriguing brand stories. From companies as diverse as Liquid Death, Beyond Meat, and Parlor Skis. Today I invite you to take a breather and let your mind wander, away from the Donald Trump and Boris Johnson world on the outside, to start looking within, because here's a thing you don't see mixed very often: meditation and branding. I'm thrilled to welcome the founder and CEO of Journey Meditation to Hitting the Mark. Stephen Sokoler runs a company on a mission: to help all people live happier, healthier, less stressed lives. Founded in 2015, Journey is building the world's largest, most supportive meditation community both online and off. The company recently released a first of its kind mediation app, Journey LIVE, which offers users daily live-streamed group meditations led by experienced and diverse teachers along with a supportive and engaged community base. TechCrunch coined it the Peloton of meditation. Journey also operates corporate programs with organizations ranging from Facebook, Disney, and Nike, to charter schools, hospitals, and non-profits. Prior to Journey, Stephen was the co-founder and CEO of Altrum Honors, which helped organizations celebrate and inspire their employees. Stephen built Altrum into the global industry leader, and sold the company in 2014. I, myself, started using Stephen's new app, recently, just in case you're wondering why I sound so very calm today. Stephen, thank you for being here and welcome to the show.S Sokoler:Thanks for having me. Thanks for having me. Really a pleasure.F Geyrhalter:So, on my way in this morning, on my commute, I listened to another podcast you have been featured on, just to prep for this show, as any good host would do, and next thing I know, it's that the host of the podcast I listened to actually asked you lead them into a full-on meditation. So, here I am, in L.A. traffic, being asked to close my eyes and let my mind wander off. It was pretty funny. But, I survived, because I'm a smart guy who knows when to follow orders and when to refrain from it. So, Stephen, tell us a little bit about ... no pun intended ... your journey from running meditation programs at companies like WeWork and Spotify, to launching the app, and why you wanted to enter this seemingly-competitive digital landscape, with apps like Headspace and Calm, at this point in time.S Sokoler:Okay. Well, I'm glad that you didn't take my advice and close your eyes. I think, maybe, I should issue a warning beforehand, so that people know you don't need to close your eyes while driving.F Geyrhalter:Well, it's definitely a good thing for both of us, and for my listeners, because otherwise this would not happen right now.S Sokoler:Absolutely. Absolutely. So, to your question, we've worked with a really wide variety of organizations. Big Fortune 500 companies, law firms, start-ups, non-profits, and what we saw was there was real magic when people came together. Came together to meditate, to connect, to learn, to listen, and so we said, "How can we scale this?" And first, that meant opening new cities. So, we moved from New York to L.A., San Francisco, Miami, et cetera. We're now in 20 cities all over the world. But then we said, "How can we use technology?" And when we looked at all of the existing apps, you mentioned a few, but really all of the existing meditation apps, they were all exactly the same in two key ways. The first is they're all single player, so you're doing them by yourself. And the second is you're listening to a recording from some time in the past. Could be a year ago, could be five years ago. But, it's something that took place in the past.S Sokoler:And for thousands of years, meditation's been practiced in communities. It's something that we've done together, with teachers, with fellow meditators, with community members, and for the last five years, it's something we in the west have done by ourselves on our phone. And so, we thought there was a really interesting opportunity to bring meditation to people in the way that it had historically been practiced, but to leverage technology. And so, that's why we set out to build Journey LIVE, the first live group meditation app. You can ask a question, you can connect with the teacher, you can meditate with your friend, or your family, someone across the country, across the world. Just a much different, a much stickier experience.F Geyrhalter:I think it's a fascinating concept, because in the beginning it sounds like why would we need another meditation app, but it is, actually ... That is a huge pivot, and just a little bit about my background with meditation. So, back when I was studying at ArtCenter College of Design here in Pasadena, strangely enough for the times, they actually had a meditation class, and it's also strange for a design college. And, it was the very first time I meditated altogether, and it was such an amazing experience, because I actually felt that levitating sensation. Like, I actually truly believe that my entire body was off the ground for a few minutes, and I have not once felt it ever since. So, I tried plenty of other classes, and then a plethora of apps, and I don't know what it was that day, but I never got back to that state again. And it was absolutely sensational. Definitely one of the more memorable moments of my life. So, I am big believer in the power of mediation, of yoga, and breathing, just simply breathing, to get us through times of stress and anxiety, and to make life simply better. I'm actually not sure how I could do another key note speech in front of a large audience without using the simple power of breathing, to prepare myself in the hours and minutes before I hit the stage for that unusual rush of adrenaline. Now, back to meditation itself, and the actual app, one of the issues I personally have with a lot of mindfulness apps is that meditation, to me, is very personal. I could be meditating to an app together with my wife, which we do occasionally, including last night. And afterwards, she may tell me that she absolutely loved it or she may have even happily dozed off, and I had the exact opposite experience because it is very much about human connection. Does that instructor's voice, does his or her tonality, does the speed, does the style, speak to me or not, right? So, with Journey, you're really honing in, as you mentioned, on that idea of individuality. So, you've got various teachers with various backgrounds at various times throughout the day. How important is individuality for the Journey brand, and a brand that also has quite the opposite, which is community, at its core?S Sokoler:Well, you touched on a lot of really, really interesting things there. So, I want to go back to the beginning when you started ... when you first started meditating in college. Happy to hear that you didn't levitate while you were meditating in the car. There's a book called Altered Traits, and obviously the name is a play on the idea of altered states. And I think that meditation is often associated with things like the experience you had, or you meditate and you feel really blissed out, and everything is calm. Or you feel connected to something. And while that can happen, that doesn't necessarily need to happen. You know, and I think a comparison that can resonate with some people is the idea of runner's high. You run, and oftentimes you're running and you're thinking about things, work, family, et cetera, but then sometimes you reach this point and your mind just goes blank and you just have this really beautiful zen-type experience, like being in the zone. And while, again, that can happen, that's actually not the point of meditation. The point of meditation is to experience the mind to learn how to better work with this really fascinating thing that drives us. That drives our lives. And so, when you mentioned the individual experience that you have and your wife has. While experiencing the same class, you touched on a number of things. The teacher's voice, their style… All of those external things are very, very important. But the other thing that I would add to that is the internal experience. I might sit down, and you might sit down to meditate, and I might be agitated. Or my mind might be restless, or I might be sleepy, and you might have some totally different experience. So, I think that's one thing that's really interesting about meditation is we often associate it, like society views it as this way to calm down. This way to chill. This zen-type experience. It may be that. But it may not be. It may be very awakening. It may put you to sleep. It may make you agitated. And what's beautiful about it is the practice is one where you start to embrace the fullness of life. The whole human experience, because while we, of course, want to be happy, and happiness is very, very important, that isn't always the case. And so, how do we work with our mind? How do we work with our emotions, our thoughts, our feelings when we are triggered? Or when we are angry? Or when we are sleepy? And so, meditation can really help with that. And so, coming to your actual question, the part about the individuality, when we think of Journey, we think of Journey as a supportive, inclusive community. Both online and off, actually. You know, the offline part being everything we've done over the last four years, and the online part being Journey LIVE, which we just launched. And the idea there is that people are there for you, both the teacher and your community of meditators, with whatever the experience is that you're having. And that's why the interacting is really important. You don't get that with a lot of the other apps, where you might meditate and have some experience and not know what it means, or want to share it, or be confused, or be sad, or angry, or happy. Really, a whole range of emotions. And so, having the community allows you to have your individual experience while being a part of a group that can support you and hold you when needed. And share in your victories as well.F Geyrhalter:A lot of what you said was really meaningful to me, and talking about the idea of this array of teachers, who I heard you say in the same podcast, I believe, that I didn't doze off to, which was good, that they're all unscripted by the company. So, you actually don't tell teachers on the app what to say, how to say it, et cetera. But, all of them, because of that, bring their own personality into play, which is great, right? Because I feel there is a real connection if you do connect, but there's also real danger in there. When I, for instance, download the app and I try it out, because that's what people do, right? They give it a try. And the first person I have to chance to meditate with since this is not on-demand and you usually only have one or two session that you have access to at any given point of time, which is very different from all the other apps, right? I, literally, go into Journey and I have the quick fix right now with one person, and it always varies, and then there might be a 9:00 a.m. class or 10:00 a.m. class, so basically I usually have two people that I can choose from. What if that one person does not resonate with me, and I say, "Oh, Journey LIVE? That app is not for me."S Sokoler:Yeah. That is definitely a risk. That is one of the things that live can cut both ways. You touched on two things there. One is the teacher not resonating with you. The other is the fact that it's unscripted. So, even if the teacher may resonate with you, perhaps today they're talking about something that doesn't resonate.F Geyrhalter:Correct. Yeah.S Sokoler:Right? Perhaps you came in and wanted to meditate on one thing, and they offered you something else. Now, I'll tell you a couple things. So, for one, we were really fortunate. We pay our meditation teachers very, very well. Especially by industry standards. The second thing is we work really hard to make it a community, a teacher community, so the teachers can connect, and feel supported. And so, we were able to recruit some of the best, most interesting, experienced, skilled mediation teachers in the world and have them as part of our founding teacher community. So, we have these people who have done this type of work for many, many years. All right. So, that's the first thing. So, we've been very selective in who can represent the Journey brand. The second thing is giving them a basic framework to be able to work with it. So, not a script, not a ... this day you're going to talk about stress, and this day you're going to talk about balance, but really a framework to say simple approachable, secular, non-esoteric ... Keep it in a way where people ... You're meeting people where they are. Meet them where they are, so don't start speaking in overly scientific language, or overly spiritual. Certainly not religious. So, there's this really basic framework so that, hopefully, 99.9% of the time, if you go on there, and you happen to go on at noon and sit with Miriam, or 10:00 p.m. and sit with Hector, you find a teacher that you say, "Wow. That was great. That was a great experience. I really enjoyed that." The other thing that we have is we have teacher bios. We're now adding videos, so that you could see the teacher beforehand, so that you get a little bit more information, so you're not just going into the class blindly, but you say, "Ah. I see John has a background where he worked with executives." Or, "I see Cesar was a veteran." Or, "I see Amanda studied at UCLA in this particular style." And you can engage with them beforehand. So, it's not quite as much just picking and going from there.F Geyrhalter:Right. Right. No, absolutely. And I actually spent some time on Journey's Instagram the other day, and I read the beautiful Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote, and I think it’s Cheryl, one of your teachers. She posted it. And it says, "All that is essentially is invisible to the eye." Which, again, made me realize that meditation at its core is as far removed from branding as anything ever could. So, it must be difficult to, quote unquote, brand a business like yours. And one thing I noticed, and you just hinted at that when you talked about individualities of the teachers, of the bios, but I noticed an absolutely love ... and must give you tons of credit for this, you are actually only showing real people that are from your tribe, so may that be your instructors, teach members like yourself, or participants on your website, and in a manner that is just as authentic as it is professional, so you really pulled this off. And, in a way, I would it's actually branded. The way that you use the colors, and the way that you make this very much about the personalities within the app, which is such a huge differentiator to all the other brands out there. How did you go about the visual, but also the verbal, brand building for this meditation venture?S Sokoler:Yeah. That's a great question. I think all credit really goes to our head of marketing, Jen, who's just been such a dynamo when it comes to bringing the brand to life. We worked for four years prior ... or three and half years prior to Jen starting, and the mission was always really clear, right? Help people live happier, healthier, less-stressed lives. Build the supportive, inclusive community where people can connect. People can grow. But how do you show that, right? That's a real interesting branding challenging. I'm sure you can appreciate that. If you show people sitting with their eyes closed meditating, that's the same thing that everyone else is doing. And it's boring. And the truth is, that's not what we're about. We're not about sitting there and calming down, we're about waking you up to what life can be. It's about how do you savor the ordinary and extraordinary moments. How do you live a life filled with emotion, where you're walking down the street and you notice things, and you're talking to someone, and you're really listening, and you're really present. We've all had those experiences where we're sitting and eating food, and we take one bit, and it tastes so good, and then the next thing you know you look down, all the food is gone. You don't even remember eating it, because your mind was somewhere else and you just went through the motions.F Geyrhalter:Yeah.S Sokoler:How do we capture more of every day life, and so branding that becomes a challenge to say, "How do you show the vividness and beauty of every day life, and have people understand it's mediation?" Right? If you just show people, two people eating ice cream, that's great. But is it a Van Leeuwen ad, is it a Häagen-Dazs ad, or is it a Journey Mediation ad? You know? Who knows? So, I think our head of marketing really deserves all the credit of walking this really fine line of showing the vividness and excitement of life, but also tying it back to Journey, to meditation and to the idea of community.F Geyrhalter:I absolutely agree, and hat's off for that move, because once it is done, then you look at your website, and you just kind of take it in, it appears to be so easy. But it's not. It's not, to actually go deep into brand and to actually understand what the brand is about, which you so perfect explained right now, and then to visually walk that fine line. And just because we already talked about individuality. For a little now, we talked about community, I will ask you a brand question that my regular listeners I won't let any guest get away without answering, so if you did any prep at all, you might know that this is coming up, because I always do this.If you can sum up all the parts and pieces of the Journey brand in one single word, or a two word phrase, what would it be? And I'm so thrilled to hear your answer for that, because I ... especially with your app, it is all about ... Well, you tell us.S Sokoler:Yeah. I would say it's human connection. I think that's what the brand is about. I think that's the essence and the core of this, and it's connecting with others, but it's also connecting to yourself, right? People, again, often think of meditation as this thing to calm down, and it can help with that. But, my favorite definition of meditation ... And now that you mentioned you listened to the other podcast, now I have to think back what did I say there? I want to make sure I say something new and interesting here, but ...F Geyrhalter:It's okay. I hope there are more listeners than myself today.S Sokoler:Well, I don't think I said this, but my favorite definition of meditation is the Tibetan word gom, G-O-M, which means to become familiar, right? And it's a practice where you become more familiar with yourself, more familiar with your thoughts, and you habits, and your patters. And so, when you think about Journey and the brand, the one word, or I'll take your generous of having two words, it's human connection. It's connecting to yourself, and connecting to others.F Geyrhalter:That's wonderful. And I think your marketing did a great job of actually using that as that brand DNA that she then so successfully, with the team, kind of ran through the entire journey of the Journey brand. So, that's what mediation means to you. What does branding mean to you? Maybe outside of Journey, I know you've been a successful entrepreneur for a while. This is not your first rodeo. What does branding mean to you?S Sokoler:Yeah, I think, to me, branding is all about how we make a person feel, how we show up to serve our mission, how we live out our values through every touch point with both the customer and the internal team. I think when it comes to brand, it's very easy to look at things externally, you know the advertising, but I think it's also important to look at the internal stuff. How are you running your organization? Is the brand seen and felt, deeply felt, internally? So, for us, that's how I think of it. How we make someone feel, how we're serving the mission, and how we're really living out the values that are so important to us through every touch point.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. I like that a lot. It works, really, for any company actually, and it should work that way for a lot more bigger brands. Talking about your clients, your customer, but also talking about data, because I know that at the heart, data is important to you. I know that there ... when you work with companies directly, like we work Nike and such, you actually have data comparisons where you talk about this is how people felt before this started, doing our mindfulness exercises, our meditations, and this is how your employees actually feel later on. Did you ever go against your early customer data, with that app, which I know you've got about 3000 people ... just these beta users, before you even officially launched. Did you ever go against the data and did a gutsy move solely based on instinct? So, for instance, your offering for your classes. Most are not on-demand. The app comes at a higher price point than most competitors. I feel it is a genius move, as it actually creates scarcity, and accountability. And accountability, I think, is really important. I would go back to your app because I know that I have to be there at six o'clock, or at eight o'clock, today, right? Because that's how my mind works. If it's always there, I just forget about it, because I can do it any time. But, I know because you're big into data, I wonder how much of some of these decisions was data and research driven, and how much came from just an educated gut instinct from you or your team, or maybe you have another example where you went by instinct, then created an important aspect of your brand that users now can't live without, even though they didn't know they wanted it in the first pace.S Sokoler:That's a great question, and I think the answer is Journey LIVE. That was a big instinctual move for us, so I had, and I'll say we had, this gut feeling that this made sense. But we had no data to support it. So, every other app was, and still is, a bunch of recordings and they're all audio, and they're recordings from two years ago, five years ago, et cetera. And now we're coming in and saying, we're going to do video. We're going to have a really diverse group of teachers, so instead of Headspace, which has one teacher, Calm, which has one teacher. They have some other stuff, actually, but there's one main teacher, who's wonderful.F Geyrhalter:Right.S Sokoler:We're going to have a community of teachers, and since we're committed to representation, over 50% of our teacher will be teachers of color. We want our teachers to serve, to look like the community we're serving. So, when it came to the actual idea, we said, okay, we're going to do video, right? That's different. Nobody's doing video. We're going to do live. Nobody's doing live. We're going to do group. We're going to have people be able to interact with the teacher. We're now adding on the ability for students to interact with each other in class. So, currently, students can interact with each other before class, and they can interact through the teacher during the class. Now we're adding ...F Geyrhalter:How can they do that? How can they do that? Sorry to interrupt, but that's an intriguing part of your app. How do student actually interact with teachers?S Sokoler:So, before the class starts, there's a waiting room. So, think of it similar to how you go to any class, whether a yoga class, a meditation class, a fitness class. So, before you go in, there's an initial prompt. So it says ... Well, actually, the first thing it says, it says you've entered the room. So it'll say, "John has entered the room." Or "Rebecca has entered the room." And other people see that and can wave and greet you, give you a little hand emoji to say, "Hi, I see you." Then there's a prompt, what's one thing you're grateful for today? So you might say, "The rain here in L.A." Or I might say, "Sunshine here in New York," or you might say your friend, your family, your baby, et cetera. Coffee is a nice popular one in the morning. And other people can acknowledge that. They can send you a little heart emoji. And then after that, people can chat. So people can say ... One person said, and this is on the heavier side, but somebody said, "I'm really grateful for this community, because I just lost my mother." That's obviously not the day to day experience, but people can then say, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm here for you." Or somebody could say, "I just got a promotion at work," and somebody else will piggyback on that and say, X, or Y, or Z. So, giving people the ability to communicate before class. And then, once class starts, people do not have the ability to message each other, but they have the ability to message the teacher. So, that's the part that we are changing. So, as of now, people can message the teacher to ask a question, or to make a comment, and the teacher, of course, sees who's in the class and can recognize them. Michael, three days in a row. Thanks for showing up. Keep up the great work. Jonathan, I know this is your first time. It's so nice to have you here. Things like that. And you could also speak to the comments, but now we're allowing students to see each other's comments. So, adding another layer where people can be social and connect. Yeah, so that's currently how students are able to connect, and then of course, off the platform we have the private Facebook community. The teachers also give out their email address, so that students can ask a question one-on-one, which you'd actually be surprised. People ask quite a few questions. But we said, "How can we make it a whole universe, a whole community, where people can interact with both students and teachers in whatever way speaks to them at that time?"F Geyrhalter:Huge brand differentiator, and I also believe that since a lot of that came after my question about how much of that was gut instinct, I think a lot of that seemed to have come from gut instinct, and now you're utilizing data to actually, most probably, make it better. But, it seems like a lot of it was just based on you feeling like this is something that the world needs again. Community in meditation.S Sokoler:Yeah. I think that it was a big bet by some of our early investors to say, "Hey, we believe in this. This makes sense to us. I could see how this is a better way of doing things." Because it wasn't necessarily obvious to all. My hope is that we're able to build Journey to the place where people look back and say, "Ah. It's so obvious. Of course that would work." The same way people look at Peloton now and they're like, "Makes perfect sense." But when John Foley, the CEO, was out raising money, nobody was interested. They said, "Oh, you can't compete with Soul Cycle for this reason. Nobody's going to buy an expensive bike. Nobody's going to do this," and he and his really capable team proved them wrong, and now it looks so obvious.F Geyrhalter:Right.S Sokoler:And I'm hoping that we can do the same. That people will look back and say, "Why would I listen to a recording from five years ago by myself when I can join a class and actually interact with people?" The same way people look at group fitness now. Instead of going to the gym and exercising by myself, I can do something with other people, with friends, with a live teacher. They see me. They can acknowledge me. Much more engaging. Much stickier. Just a better experience.F Geyrhalter:Right. And that idea that you can ask the teacher a question, I think that's really, really huge, because, like you said, someone just lost a loved one, and they feel the need ... they need someone to get through it, and maybe just a couple of words from not only the community, but also the teacher. A one-on-one, where you can just quickly chime in, I think that's really, really powerful. And, I am ...S Sokoler:And it doesn't have to be that heavy.F Geyrhalter:Of course.S Sokoler:It could be when's the best time that they can meditate, and I might say, "For me, I do it in the morning. It's really beautiful." And somebody else might say the evening.F Geyrhalter:Exactly.S Sokoler:Or somebody might just have a question, "Why aren't I levitating anymore? How do I get my levitation skills back?" People could ask really light questions just because meditation's one of those things that can be confusing. It's a thing that can be tricky.F Geyrhalter:And I will ask that question, because I need my levitation back.S Sokoler:Yeah.F Geyrhalter:So, I'm sure raising funds for this type of startup must have felt a little bit like a lot of female founders talk about how they have a really hard time trying to get investment for products that have more of a female audience, that cater to female needs. So, not only is it the entire problem of a female founder and all the cache that comes with that, right? But it's also catering to a very different target audience. I'm sure if you walk into an investor room and you say, "Look, we're talking about meditation. We're talking about an app. This is ... this needs to be about community," that 99% of those investors, it just goes right over their head, because they have not experienced that. Is that assumption correct?S Sokoler:Well, I think the assumption is correct that investors don't always relate to meditation, and they often think someone who's started a meditation company just wants to relax all day, and wear tie dye shirts, and all the other things that ... the stereotypes that go along with somebody who's meditating. They're so laid-back, they're not driven, et cetera. Now, fortunately for us, there are several meditation apps that have achieve tremendous success. Calm has just valued at a billion dollars. I mean, that's incredible.F Geyrhalter:Unbelievable. Yeah.S Sokoler:Headspace has had great ... It's unbelievable. Headspace has had great success, so when investors see that, they say, "Ah. Businesses can be built here." Now, I will go back to the original statement, or part of the question. I feel like female founders have ... The environment with which they're attempting to raise money is really challenging, and I think as a male founder, I have tremendous privilege, regardless of what type of product I'm actually pitching. So, I don't know if the comparison actually works. I have a lot of empathy for my colleagues and peers who are female founders, just because the environment is ... can be challenging to raise money from largely male investors. That being said, it's beautiful that the community is taking notice, and by this I mean the investor community, is starting to take notice, and take active steps to change that. But, I do think that even for me as a male with a meditation company, I still have significant unfair advantage over a female founder when having those meetings. Unfortunately, actually.F Geyrhalter:I absolutely agree. Absolutely agree, and fingers-crossed, it is changing right now. It seems like this is the time, it is the place, where all of this is shifting. I, for instance, have a really hard time getting female ... successful female founders on this show, which to me, make me believe that not only, sadly, it's a scarcity, but mainly they're just so darned busy, because everyone wants them, right? So I think things are changing, and it's for ...S Sokoler:I have a few great ones for you. So, after this I'll send over a couple names [crosstalk 00:33:29]F Geyrhalter:Oh, please do so. Please do so. Yeah, I started looking at my podcast with very critical eyes. It's like, "Oh, here's a white male founder. Oh, here's another white male founder." And, that's not the world out there. So, I want to make sure that I'm walking that walk, too.F Geyrhalter:We started going into a lot of different directions. One last big question for you that is always important for me to share with my audience. Your app has launched fairly recently. It's already very successful, but for Journey maybe as a brand, not necessarily Journey LIVE the app, but Journey, what was that one big breakthrough moment, or Journey LIVE, right? It depends on you. What was that one big breakthrough moment that propelled that startup into a brand? This may be anything from PR to getting first social proof to major investment coming in, scoring a particular teacher. What was that time when you just turned around to your girlfriend, you said ... or to whoever, and said, "You know what? This is it. It just happened."?S Sokoler:Well, I'll tell you the moment that it felt real to me. Which was when we did the photo shoot to launch the brand, the one that you mentioned. Those photos on the website. That was a time, to me, that I said, "Wow. Something is really happening here." And I think it was because I had, to be honest, I had some fear or trepidation, that I wasn't even really aware of, around going out to recruit the best teachers in the meditation space. I think I said to myself, "They're really busy. They have other things going on." But what started to happen is I started to talk to different teachers. I spoke to my longtime friend, the amazing meditation teacher Jackie Stewart, and I shared this and she said, "Wow, this is so exciting." Or I spoke to Cheryl Brause, who you mentioned before, and she said, "Wow, this is unbelievable. This is such an interesting idea." And I was having these conversations, I started to realize maybe we're on to something. There might be something here. And you mentioned my girlfriend. I have told my girlfriend this story. The time that it really happened, because this is actually right when we first started dating, was when we came together for this big photo shoot. So, we had our head of marketing there, of course, we had to photographers, lighting people, makeup, et cetera, but we had all of these amazing teachers, super diverse, from different backgrounds, different lineages, different walks of life. We had my partner in the business, David Nichtern, who's been teaching for, I want to say, 40 years but maybe he's ... maybe it's more, maybe it's less. But, around that time. I mean, almost as long as I've been alive. And everyone came together and it felt like the brand was really alive, and you could see the excitement in people's eyes. So, that was not the time that propelled us to startup success. Not that I'd say we have startup success. Not that that's how I would ... I think of it anyway. But, that was really a breakthrough moment for me, in seeing the brand really alive in such a beautiful and powerful way.F Geyrhalter:Literally coming to life, right? I mean, that's ... Yeah.S Sokoler:Yeah, literally.F Geyrhalter:That's fantastic.S Sokoler:And to take it one step further, it seemed to me like this is how meditation will be practiced in the 21st century. There's all these great studios, you could go to Mindful, which is a great studio here in New York, or you could go to Unplugged in L.A. It's nice for me to give shout outs to all these communities that have helped me, personally, so much. And could sit with people. And that's great, and there's a time and place for that. But, perhaps you don't have time. Or, perhaps you live in the middle of the country, or any other reason. Perhaps you don't have the economic means to be able to go and afford it. Having something like Journey LIVE, where you could sit every day with a great teacher and be able to connect, I think that's really, really powerful, and could be quite exciting for what this society and ... needs right now, in terms of coming together.F Geyrhalter:Indeed. Indeed. One last piece of brand advice. So, not self-care advice, which is what you usually get asked to do. But, brand advice for founders that are building their own companies right now that are listening. Anything that comes to mind where you say, "This is something that I learned, and I would love for people to take that to heart."?S Sokoler:To quote my friend, Simon Sinek, it starts with why. Getting really clear, upfront, about what it is that you are looking to do in this world? What is the mission? What is the vision? What are your values? What resonates with you, deeply? Making money is fine. That's important. A business has to survive. It has to thrive. It needs to make money, but what is it that at the end of the day is going to say, "This is what makes us unique. This is what's going to get somebody to come in and dedicate their time and their energy and their life to this mission, and this project." And to get investors to say, "Yes, I'm willing to put our dollar, or investor's money, to you." So, for me, it's all about how to find that mission vision and values upfront and then continuing to lift that. Continuing to make sure that that staying relevant and really keeping that top of mind.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. That is exactly what it is really all about, because if you don't have that answer to that why, you can scratch everything else. As we build brands here with my consultancy, if I don't derive that why from my client in a really, really meaningful and deep enough manner, then everything else thereafter will just be so what type of branding. Like, it will be a so what type of product offering from a so what type of company. So, I totally, totally agree with you. Listeners who need to breathe deeper more often, and with an expert by their side, where can they learn more about Journey LIVE?S Sokoler:They can go to the website, which is, or they can go to the Apple App Store and download it. It's Journey LIVE. Everyone gets a free seven-day trial, so they could check it out. They can meditate live, they can listen to the recordings, they can connect with the community. So, go to the website, or go to the app store. or Journey LIVE in the app store, and yeah. We'd love to connect with you, and if you've heard ... If you're listening now and you come through, let us know. Let us know in the class. We'd love to hear it. So, it would be great to connect with all of you.F Geyrhalter:Excellent. Stephen, thank you so much for having been on Hitting the Mark. It actually did exactly that, and I'm exciting to catch a few classes in the upcoming days, and hopefully make it into a healthy habit for myself.S Sokoler:Thank you. I really enjoyed this. This was a pleasure. Thank you so much.F Geyrhalter:And thank you all for listening. Please give the show a rating, wherever you listen to it. It really helps this still young podcast to be discovered by other founders, creatives, and investors. While talking about online classes, and while talking about the big why, moving away from meditation for a few seconds, I'm actually thrilled to finally announce the brand strategy E-course I just launched. I distilled my full-day workshop, which I host one-on-one with my clients around the world that cost, usually, eight grand, into an online course at a fraction of the cost. So, if you need to define your company, your culture, and your story while drawing your audience into your offering, head on over to That is A-I-D, as in aiding to resonate. hope to see you there and to guide you to a strong and meaningful brand foundation. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time, when we, once again, will be hitting the mark.
When I heard about a water brand called Liquid Death that comes in tallboys, reminiscent of beer cans, that behaves like a death metal band, that boosts insane (and insanely great) copy and imagery, and on top of it is 100% mountain water from the Austrian alps, I had to reach out to Co-Founder and CEO Mike Cessario to make some sense of it all, to the extent that is possible.By now I assume you have visited the Liquid Death web site and you got a taste of what you are in for. This is a story about a Creative who comes from the advertising and branding world, who spent his career creating brand stories for greats like Netflix and Gary Vee, and found that it was time to create his own story, his own brand. And it had to be authentic, good for the planet and crazy as hell.If you want your head blown (I do have to use some Liquid Death lingo here) and hear about how his idea was crafted, why people go crazy over it and how his waters help kill plastic bottles along the way, all while poking major fun at marketing, and, yes, branding, as a whole, give this episode a listen. If you like what you hear you can grab some Liquid Death waters on Amazon or you can jump back onto the Liquid Death web site and join their Country Club, but you will have to sell them your soul first. True story.____Full Transcript:Fabian Geyrhalter:Welcome to Hitting The Mark. In our last episode, I talked with creative extraordinaire Michael Lastoria, who after selling his New York based agency to beauty powerhouse Shiseido in 2017, is now co founder of the counterculture pizza chain &pizza. A pizza joint that was named one of the world's 50 most innovative companies the second time in a row by Fast Company. Today we continue that mini series of advertising creatives turned into entrepreneurs using their background to flip the commodity type offerings into sought after cult brands. My guest today is Mike Cessario who founded Liquid Death, the first irreverent bottled water brand that can compete with the cool factor of unhealthy brands from beer to energy drinks. Inspired by the death metal and punk rock culture, Liquid Death takes an extreme approach to marketing in stark contrast to aspirational health and wellness brands. Prior to starting Liquid Death, Mike was an advertising creative director who worked on viral campaigns for clients like Organic Valley and Netflix. Some of his viral hits include Organic Valley's Save the Bros, which if you have not seen it, please head over to youtube right after this podcast and check it out for a good laugh. And he also did teasers for House of Cards, Narcos and the show you have all been binge watching over the past weeks, Stranger Things. Welcome to Hitting The Mark, Mike.M Cessario:Hey, how's it going?F Geyrhalter:Yeah, thanks for making it. So we chatted a little bit before. We're both graduates of Art Center College of Design. I know people in pretty much all of the agencies you worked at. We're both based in LA, yet I learned about you and your water company via the Los Angeles Business Journal, which is a strange way to connect. But when I read about Liquid Death, I knew it would make for a killer episode. See, it's so horribly easy to pull puns over puns with a death-themed brand, mainly because you'd think that those brands are all destined to die before birth. But tell us how you turned into kind of the arrogant bastard brand of water. It's a strange path to take. When did the idea come about?M Cessario:So it's interesting that you bring up arrogant bastard. I think one thing that I've always noticed is craft beer kind of gets to break almost all the rules of branding. And at the same time, it's one of the categories that people are insanely passionate about. Like people who like their craft beers, love their craft beers. You can find craft beers called Skull Crusher IPA or Arrogant Bastard Ale, because they know that there's a huge market for their audience that's at least 21 years old. So they don't have to really like pun-intended, water things down just to kind of please everyone. So there's always just this cool factor with craft beer that I felt was just kind of unmatched with everything else. And then that was sort of the inspiration for kind of the brand and packaging of Liquid Death.I grew up playing in punk rock and heavy metal bands outside of Philadelphia. And that scene is actually where I really got into health, believe it or not. And I think that's a thing that most of mainstream culture has not really seen or realized that in that world of heavy metal and punk rock and all that stuff, there's a lot of people who care a lot about health. We like to say there are probably more vegans at a heavily heavy metal show than a Taylor Swift show. Inside the world of metal and hardcore, there was this little subset called straight edge where they were very vocal about no drinking, no drugs. That's not exactly the market that we built this for. But it's just one example of how a lot of this culture does care about health and has so for 30 years. But you kind of look at the fact that the world is all moving towards healthier. Every new brand is all about health. All the unhealthy stuff soda has been in basically I think like a 13-year decline in sales. Beer has been in a decline of sales. There's all this data showing that GenZ and millennials no longer think it's cool to be drunk. They actually consider it pathetic and embarrassing. So all this stuff is kind of moving towards drinking less alcohol, being healthier, willing to spend a little more for healthier options, people being a little bit more aware of sustainability. It's getting broader and broader. But if you look at the health food industry, they only market their products in one tone of voice. They're kind of just going for what I think is like the cliche health food customer, and I think they're making big generalizations around what healthy people are into. Like, "Oh, you know, it's about yoga and it's about aspirational. So we're going to just show really good looking fitness models in our ads because that's why people are going to want to drink our product and be healthy because they want to look like this impossible person." And we just think that's kind of bullshit. And in reality, you look at what people are really into. Most people wouldn't know that the Walking Dead is, I think the number two or number three most popular show for women, a show about flesh-eating zombies. But you would never hear a healthy brand say, "Oh, our target is women. Let's do a whole campaign about zombies." It would never happen, even though there's proof that this is something that entertains this group of people and that they're into. So I think that's kind of what we're doing is sort of never taking ourselves too seriously. I think that's the biggest filter for our brand. If anything we do, I think we want people to realize like, "Oh okay, these guys don't actually think water is super tough." We're kind of making fun of 40 years of bad marketing. You know, it's like, and it still hasn't changed. It's like these big brands are still thinking about branding and marketing not much differently than they were thinking about it in the 1960s. And I kind of feel like the bar for branding and marketing is so low for how entertaining it has to be, how authentic it has to be, that people can do all this bad stuff and it seems like, "Oh, this is actually pretty good compared to this other really shitty thing that's out there." But if you really held it to the standard of entertainment, I know you have a book on how to make a brand. For us, I look at it like trying to make a book about how to make a great brand is almost like trying to make a book about how to make a hit TV show. It's like there's so much that goes into it that you almost can't reduce it to a formula, even though there's a lot of people to try. And because a lot of times the people, maybe they're not coming from the marketing background, you've got to figure out all these other things to run and operate the business. You don't have time to spend weeks and hours and days trying to get the nuance of brand and what's going to resonate with people. So I think that's ultimately at the core of our brand is we want to blur the lines between a brand and an entertainment company, and we want to hold everything we do up to the same standards as what you would hold a television show to or a movie. Because at the end of the day when you're putting stuff in people's social media feeds, you're not just competing against other water brands or other ads, you're competing against YouTube influencers that are making explosive, amazing engaging videos. You're competing against movie trailers. I think the bar is much higher to actually make people care about what you're doing than most brands can imagine really.F Geyrhalter:Totally. There was so much in what you just said and I'm kind of trying to rewind on some of those thoughts. One of the things that you said about not taking yourself too seriously, that is just this repeating threat that I see going on with all of, or a lot of my podcast guests where it's basically like I have a podcast about branding, but everyone talks about being the anti brand. And I think that's what's so interesting in today's age is that no, there is no formula. And even in my book I only basically talk about that your background story is bigger than your product, and that it's all about belief and cost and transparency and solidarity. And that is all exactly the formula that you took, just that you know it intrinsically because you came from the world of marketing and branding and advertising. But you do it in such an authentic way, and authenticity is such an overused word, especially by all the wrong marketers. But I mean that idea of not giving a shit and just being yourself and doing your thing and being out there to give value and entertainment to your tribe, I mean that's really what makes a brand. You mentioned the problem with all of these health and wellness, especially retail brands are looking at talking the same talk. A couple of episodes ago I had one of the early and main investors of Beyond Meat on this podcast. And they realized the same thing, that it's like, "No, our Veggie Burger should not be in the Veggie Vegan stamped compartment. This is a burger that real guys can flip on their grill." This is not about you having to be stamped into a certain kind of micro niche. But let's talk about that micro niche a little bit because I think it was fascinating when I read about Liquid Death. First, I was like appalled because it's totally not my lifestyle. And I'm like, "Oh my God, there're heads flying around and there's blood. And why is this water from Austria? That's where I'm from, this is totally not cool. I need to get this guy on." And then the more I read about it and the more I heard you talk about this street edge punk rock lifestyle, which I was totally not aware of, I'm a huge music buff, but I had no idea and it's actually a lifestyle that you already talked about a little bit. And people like band members of Metallica, Fugate, of Bad Religion and even J Mascis of Dinosaur Junior who I'm a big fan of, they're all part of this kind of like sub, sub, sub group. And I believe so much in that idea that if you go with a group that you understand really, really well, which you do, because it's the lifestyle that you come from, it sounds like. And you dive into that, that you can create a product that authentically will resonate with your audience. But how did the audience change over the past year or two years? Because you've been around for like a year or two years as a brand. And how do you ensure that that brand stays weird and out there and connecting with that particular lifestyle without feeling fake despite its success?M Cessario:That's a good question. I think that's a thing that most marketers or brands get wrong. Because I think as you know, like on the creative side, we think more emotionally and culturally. Whereas on the business side people then tend to think much more rationally and logically. What isn't necessarily a rational thing is if you can market and be very authentic to a very, very small audience, that does not mean that only that small audience is going to care. With Liquid Death, pretty much the filter that I've put every decision of the brand through is, "Would slayer think this is cool?" And even though that seems like a very, very narrow appeal, we have this huge halo effect of that. And we have a woman from the UK who is like, "I hate metal but I love this thing." That made me start thinking, okay, how do I quantify that? What is it? Why is it that I'm making like severed heads and blood flying, it's called Liquid Death, I'm being very authentic to heavy metal, but why are old ladies and people who have no care about metal in this world really resonating with it? And I think what I've come up with is, like you said, the word authenticity is kind of overused and people don't really know what it means or how to employ it effectively. But I think everyone knows that people are moving away from big food and big drink, and in favor of small and local and craft. That's just like a big thing, the shift that's been happening over the last decade and you're starting to see all the big brands kind of trying to appropriate this small hand-crafted look that people are willing to pay for and are more attracted to than they're like big mass produced kind of brands. So when McDonald's is now making things called artisan sandwiches that look like farmer's market kind of design, you kind of know that that old way of seeming small, from a look and feel standpoint, isn't really effective anymore. You can go to a grocery store now and find a bag of beef jerky that you don't know. Like, "Is this from a farmer's market or is this some massive corporate brand?" You don't really know anymore because the lines have been so blurred from that look and feel point of view. So my belief is that in 2019 when you have two to three seconds of someone looking at your product to make an opinion on it, the only way you can instantly communicate to someone, this is small, this is not big and corporate, is by doing and saying things that big brands would never do. You can't really just do it anymore from like, "Oh, I'm going to make it look like it's from a farmer's market and people are going to see it and say, 'Oh, that's small.'" No, because that's everywhere now. So now the bar has got even higher for how do you instantly signify that this isn't a massive, massive brand? I think that's really what people are connecting with. When people see a can of water that looks like beer, that's called Liquid Death with a skull on it, instantly they're like, "This is not coke, this is not Pepsi. There's real human beings behind this brand that maybe I'd want to have a beer with." So I think that's been, in terms of like an audience, how it's spread. It's like I just keep it very, very true to that small core and the halo just kind of keeps growing well beyond that because they respond to the authenticity and the uniqueness of this. It's something they've never really seen before in this kind of consumer packaged goods space.F Geyrhalter:And to play devil's advocate, it is extremely difficult, especially with the coolest looking microbrews to know that they are not part of the big conglomerates. Because they are changing hands day in, day out. It seems like it's a little silicon valley where it's constantly... the things are just being bought and being sold and being bid on. And I don't know if the cool craft beer with the skull on, if it's actually owned by one of the three big ones. And quite frankly, I will not know in two years from now if you actually sit in an island and you sold your soul to Coca-Cola and Liquid Thirst is now on the Coke. Because if there's money in the game, then they're going to put their skin in the game. It doesn't even matter what's on the bottle and what's on the can. So I think that is actually really important to defend the territory and to make sure people understand that. Because I as a consumer, I don't even know that anymore. That idea that just because there's a skull on it, it can't be owned by one of the big guys, I think it's changing. Because in the end money is what it's all about.M Cessario:Well I think that's why it's even beyond the skull. The fact that a brand is called Liquid Death, when someone tries to think about... Okay, maybe I can imagine a skull making its way through a corporate board room into a real product, but nobody believes that Liquid Death has made its way through a corporate board room into a real product. Now you're right, if it gets to a certain point where Liquid Death just becomes huge thing, of course all the big guys are going to be looking to cash in or make it a part of it. But I think one thing I've realized with Liquid Death since the beginning is we're always up against the fact that people think this isn't going to be the real deal. Right? So when I first came up with the idea, all right, I want to make a water brand that looks like beer because I want the healthiest thing you could possibly drink, which is water and most people don't drink enough of it. It's become this like utilitarian thing where it's like, "Okay, I drink water if I'm at the gym. Maybe I drink it in my cubicle sometimes." But it would never be common for someone to be like, "Oh, what do you drink when you go to the bar?" "Oh I drink bottled water." No it doesn't happen. Or, "What do you drink at a party?" "Oh I drink bottled water." It's become a utilitarian thing and it hasn't from a brand and occasion standpoint been accepted in this wide range of other usage occasions like soda is, or like beer is, or like alcohol is. So I think what we're really hoping to do is to change when people drink this thing, and like we know in bars, most people you're in bars to kind of meet people or interact with people. So there's data showing that the reason people walk around with a Guinness versus a Pabst Blue Ribbon versus some other kind of beer, they're trying to signal something about themselves in a social environment. They want something that's a conversation starter, they want to talk to people. And Liquid Death has been doing really well in bars and things like that because it's a complete conversation piece. People see this. Like, "What is that? Wait, that's water? What do you mean that's water?" It just kind of creates a conversation and people are attracted to that. But I think the Coca-Cola's of the world, it's going to take a lot for them to ever take that risk because they're just not built to understand or build really emerging brands. They are built to sustain brands that are already doing like half a billion dollars a year or a billion dollars a year. They can't make a decision without this old process of focus groups and testing. So when you start running Liquid Death through that old system of a focus group, it's never going to make it through. You ask people, "Oh, what do you think of this Liquid Death?" They'll be like, "Oh, this is stupid. Oh, this is dumb." And then it's not going to make it through because it's not actually allowing the market to really test it. So I think we would have a long road ahead of us in terms of massive, massive success before Coca Cola would probably ever take the leap. And at that point it's one of those things where we'd have to make the tough decision of do you have someone like this that helps basically spread it to more people? But with a brand like Liquid Death, it's pretty much all brand. So if they didn't truly get what made the brand special and didn't give creative control or power to kind of keep the brand what it is and they try to like "water it down", that could be the end of the brand like that. And it's happened before. It happened to Snapple. Do you remember the old Snapple ads? The original ones with the lady from Long Island? Yeah, it was shot with not great cameras, but it felt really authentic, like it was a real Long Island type person. And it became the fastest growing beverage brand ever, got bought by think Quaker for like three or four billion dollars. And then soon as it went to Quaker, they put that kind of great little brand through the corporate kind of system and they said, "Okay, this woman, she's not aspirational enough. Now that we're going to be a big brand, we need to get someone a little more aspirational because your small things aren't going to work anymore on the big scale. And you know what? We've got to shoot it with better cameras because your stuff, it just doesn't feel very professional. And they changed it all. They lost over $1 billion or $2 billion in market share in less than two years. So it's like that stuff happens and you just have to, you have to be aware of what you're getting into.F Geyrhalter:Yeah, no, totally. And I think what will most probably happen, and that's going to be a really great thing for you to see is when suddenly at a bar, there's another water in a beer can, right? That's what's going to happen. It's going to be that Coca-Cola's moving in and saying, "Well that makes sense. Kids want to drink beer in bars. And so now there's this guy doing these waters, so let's just do the same thing and have a cool brand for kids." And they have huge distribution, they've got huge power, but like you said, building that authentic brand that's near impossible for them. And I see them fail over and over and over again. And that's why what you're doing is so extremely genius because you realize that you can actually come in really, really strong and be unreasonably bold and altogether unreasonable, because you can, you have to, right? And a question for me is, how did you know that your audience... So here's the punk rockers going to the show and they're going to see that tallboy can of water. How did he know that they would not call BS on heavy metal-looking beer cans that sell us $2 water? I mean, since this easily could have gone two ways, right? And in your own words, you call marketing and branding BS on your site. How was that fine line of humor, sarcasm, and then yet the deep connection created? I mean, you must've been at least a little bit nervous at some point.M Cessario:To be honest, I never really was nervous about it because I think at the heart of... At least my understanding and the reason that I gravitated towards punk rock and metal and that world was the ability to kind of, for lack of a better word, fuck with people and kind of infiltrate something where it's not supposed to be. Punk rock wasn't punk rock really when the only people who sold it were 20 people in a room. It was like when Iggy Pop got on a mass stage and you're seeing this psycho losing his mind on stage and doing things that nobody's ever seen before and was selling it to the suburbs. Then there's this big outrage of like, "What is this music? This is the devil's music. This is bad." And that kind of tension of disrupting kind of like longstanding norms that tend to be very restricted. I think that is at the heart of what I think punk rock and counter culture really is. And I think I knew that Liquid Death, making it into an actual product, which is not easy, you know?F Geyrhalter:Oh yeah.M Cessario:There's not many... I feel like if you have a disruptive or unacceptable idea, what you're supposed to do is just make a band and then your product is selling albums. That's how you get your disruptive idea into the world. It's like, "Oh, you want to be crazy? Okay, make a band, make an album, sell that." Because anybody can really do that. You can find a recording studio fairly easily. You can record stuff. There's home recording equipment, you can put your idea out there. But if you want to make a disruptive idea in that same tone of voice into a consumer packaged good and you've got to figure out how are you going to get people to give you all the money it takes to make it, how are you going to actually figure out production in Austria to make this thing, then how are you going to actually sell it? Deal with the Amazon backend system of shipping people product and taxes. That requires a kind of thinking and resource that a lot of people with these disruptive punk-rock, fuck-you ideas don't always have access to. I think that that's sort of what I was trying to do, is like how do we get a brand through this gauntlet of bringing a packaged good brand to life that totally feels like it does not belong in this world? And I just knew that people would relate to that. It was like wow! Regardless of like... I think the other important thing was making it very clear that the sarcasm was very heavy, that we were not taking ourselves seriously. We weren't actually trying to brand water as heavy, what we're more trying to do is make fun of all the extreme youth marketing of energy drinks. At the end of the day, an energy drink is what, 95% water, some bubbles and like a little bit of sugar and caffeine. It's like all the same stuff that's in my grandma's breakfast tea. But you can call it Monster and put it in a can with a claw mark on it. And then they market it to kids and like, "Hey, it's all about action sports and extreme." They're not being sarcastic about it. They're being very serious of like, "This is going to appeal to the kids because it's extreme and that's what kids love." And we're kind of making fun of that. It's like, "Okay, we're going to beat you at your own game." If all marketing is essentially kind of like storytelling theatrics really around a product, we're going to take ours to the next level and be very clear that this is theatrics, it's professional wrestling. It's entertainment and people respect entertainment. Like you said, we always look at, we want to give value to people. If we're putting something in your Facebook feed, we want it to make you laugh. We want it to do something besides just say, "Hey, buy this." And I think entertainment is the easiest way to kind of paint the picture of what that is. It's like, okay, like we should be making people laugh to make this the funniest thing that they've seen all day every time we put something out there.F Geyrhalter:And on that note, on your site, you say, and I excuse the language, I'm just a messenger here. You say most products in the health and wellness space are all marketed with aspirational fitness models and airbrushed celebrities. Fuck that. Why should unhealthy products be the only brands with a permission to be loud, fun and weird? Besides our marketing and branding is bullshit. So we're going to take ours less seriously and have more fun with it. So yet, as we already discussed, branding is everything to Liquid Death. And that's where the sarcasm kind of fits in. It is the lifeline of the death brand. It's really the foundation of the entire brand. What does, after everything that you already shared with us, what does branding mean to you? Because branding has a horrible, horrible kind of like taste in your mouth, right?It feels fabricated, it feels big, it feels unreal, it doesn't feel authentic, yet in my eyes, branding today is a totally different word. It should actually be rebranded, that word because it's just so different now. I think it is about a lot of the things that you talk about, which you can apply your thinking quite frankly, to any brand. From a tech brand to a retail brand, to a health care brand, because the foundational elements of authenticity, of transparency, of understanding your niche audience and diving full in and creating a tribe, all of these things that can be applied to anything. So what does branding mean to you today?M Cessario:I think you make a really good point that branding needs to be rebranded, especially now because what brand meant when the practice was coined in like the 50s and 60s. Branding was more about when there was what? Three television channels and a couple billboards here and there. You had to have a consistency and brand just so that people would remember you. Because maybe they saw your commercial once on channel two and then they didn't come in contact with your brand again for another week maybe because there was one billboard they passed by. And you had to have the brand link the two things together so people knew, "Oh it's this brand. Oh it's this brand." But that's not the case anymore. With social media, I don't even know what the number is, like how many advertising messages we're exposed to a day. Like thousands and thousands…Branding is something totally different, and I always go back to using examples from the entertainment industry, like using television shows and movies. If you had to say, "What is Steven Spielberg's brand?" It becomes a lot more complicated. You don't want to reduce him to just a brand. It's like it's a vision. It's a type of story. It's a place in the world. It's a point of view of a human being that's behind something. The days of trying to just bullshit people in terms of like, okay, I want my brand to be something that is not at all what I am is I think harder and harder to pull off now. Your brand has to be the people who are behind it, and I think you know as much as like Steven Spielberg, you know he makes Steven Spielberg movies. If Steven Spielberg just tried to make, I don't know, like a soap opera TV show, it's like he can probably do it but it's not going to have the world-wide acclaim that him being him actually has. So I think for me branding is just about making it very clear who the people are behind the brand that you're giving your money to. And I think that's really what it is for us. It's like at the end of the day there might be four other can waters on the shelf next to us and one is Aquafina can water, which they already announced they're going to try to test next year. Super boring looking can, right? Aquafina. There might be a couple of other ones. At the end of the day, what we're hoping is that all the content we put out there, the messaging we put out there, what we do for people, how we talk, how we sound, what we communicate about ourselves, ultimately when there's four brands there, someone is like, "This is all water. I don't really believe that any of these waters are significantly better from a taste perspective than any of the others. So I kind of see it as a level playing field. I want to give my $1.85 to Liquid Death because I want to give my money to those guys more than I want to give it to this faceless kind of water over here or this one that's kind of trying something that I don't really get right here."M Cessario:I think that's ultimately we want to do, is we want to connect with people where they're like, "I want to support this company and these people. And it goes well beyond just the functional benefits of what the actual product is." Because in almost every product category, the differences between brands are basically trivial. If you had to have people blind taste test Monster versus RockStar versus Red Bull, most people probably couldn't even pick out the difference. At the end of the day, people would rather give their money to Red bull based on the things they do, versus some people they want to give their money to Monster or whatever.F Geyrhalter:Yeah. My wife and I in a spare moment of uninspiration we did a blind water taste test. And I think we had maybe like 12 waters from Evian to, the Trader Joes brand, to every single water. And in the end the one that won was like one of those in-store, private label, super cheap water brands, right? So, well let's talk a little bit more about the people behind the brand. Obviously, with you it's yourself, but there's also a lot of investment that came in. I think you gained investments totaling 2.3 million, if I'm correct, maybe it's more by now. But that alone is pretty astonishing, but it's even more remarkable when I look at the names of who actually invested in Liquid Death, from Michael Dubin of Dollar Shave Club fame to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone to Gary Vee, who I, as a side note, refrained to talk to over the course of a 10 and a half hour flight to London despite him sitting, well mainly sleeping right next to me. And I'm very proud that I was able to not talk to him. But these are some serious heavyweights and they understand the power of story and virality. What made them invest in you? What was the reason that Gary Vee said, "Hey Mike, I get it. I'll invest in a water company called Liquid Death with heads being chopped off people and blood everywhere in its commercial. That makes a lot of sense to me. It'll be a hit"? And I know you worked for his company, but what was the decision of some of these people where they said, "No, this is exactly why I believe in it."M Cessario:I mean, part of it is me, which the fact that I worked for Gary and he knew me. He just was like, "I'm a fan of you, Mike, and I believe in this." But I think Gary for instance, he is one that has no emotion about what success means. I think he preaches that all the time. It's like don't let emotion get in the way of like, "Oh well this maybe offends me or this doesn't seem right because there is a really good chance that this would be a really, really good business." And I think Gary is also hyper aware that social media is the internet now. I think he even has a poster on the wall in the agency that says social media is just a slang term for the current state of the internet.F Geyrhalter:That's great. Yeah.M Cessario:Yeah. That's where people get all their news now. It's where they get their entertainment. It's where they learn about what's going on, and he just knows what it takes to succeed in this environment of internet culture. I mean, nothing is censored anymore, right? Kids now, they don't care about normal movie-star celebrities, it's about YouTube celebrities. These YouTubers, they're not censored, they can kind of do whatever they want. They don't have to fit certain formats or things like that. So the culture of entertainment and what's on social media is in a place now where it's going to take a certain level of entertainment to actually succeed in that world and compete against these new forms of media and entertainment. I think that's what he totally gets. Like he knew instantly that, oh, this is a brand that will absolutely be a hit on social media, which is at the crux of almost everything that we do as a culture now. So he just instantly got that. And then of course the fact that, and I think this goes along with most people, they've never seen weird, irreverent, crazy being used to actually do something really positive, which is getting more people to drink more water more often. And I think the pairing of those two things, I mean, that's really what our brand DNA is that if we were just Liquid Death and crazy and heads flying, and we were an energy drink, it would almost be expected. It'd be like, "Oh yeah, that makes sense." But the fact that it's all that and it's water, and it's promoting an alternative to single use plastic because cans are infinitely recyclable, and basically one of the most sustainable beverage containers by almost every measure. Plastic is a huge problem right now that everybody... it's becoming like the new tobacco really. So it's kind of like sustainability and health paired with just irreverence and weird and contemporary art and internet culture. That's I think what people respond to. They can kind of justify that, "Yes, I know this is crazy and it's viral, but what it's doing is actually really positive and we haven't really seen that before."F Geyrhalter:Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that's a kernel of truth in your brand that is super, super important. Once you actually start seeing the bigger picture and how it actually is a very positive thing that you're doing, it's fantastic. And let's talk about this for a second because I'm from Austria as I mentioned, your water is also from Austria. Let's talk about how that fits into the story. Because how should we as consumers feel about water being shipped from Fiji and Iceland or Austria, because as you mentioned, you're actually a rather environmentally conscious brand, right? Like you're counting on many vegans in your target audience and you use the cans instead of plastic, which as you mentioned with plastic pollution, that's a huge issue. How do you feel about shipping water from across the pond?M Cessario:The reason that we're bottling and sourcing in Austria is because when I first... it's starting to change a little bit now, but when I first was looking to produce the brand, there is not a single co-packer or bottler in North America who can put non-carbonated springwater in cans. It doesn't exist.F Geyrhalter:Oh wow.M Cessario:Crazy. Because basically the kind of equipment you need for canning when the product doesn't have carbonation and doesn't have a preservative in it is very different than 99.9% of canned products which either have carbonation or preservative. So most of these canning facilities, they weren't equipped to do this, and if you want to use spring water and not just use factory tap water, which most people don't realize, Smartwater, Aquafina, Dasani, Essentia, Lifewater, they're all just purified municipal water from the factory.F Geyrhalter:Right. It's mind blowing, right? Yeah.M Cessario:Yeah. So we kind of knew that as a premium brand, because cans are more expensive than plastic because it's metal, that's also the reason that cans are actually profitable to recycle because the recycled aluminum actually has good value to it that the recycling company can sell and make a profit on based on what it costs to recycle it. Plastic is not. Because recycled plastic is such low quality, they can't really sell it or make a profit on what it cost them to do. They used to sell it to China, but then now China are saying, "We don't want to buy your recycled garbage anymore." So what happens a lot of the time is plastic comes in to a recycling facility and rather than spending the money to grind it down and recycle it, they just have to send it to the landfill because they're not going to go out of business recycling something that's not profitable. So aluminum actually because of the high material value actually helps subsidize the recycling of cheap materials like plastic and glass, where the final recycled product almost has no value to resell. So that's become a long winded way of saying that the way that we got to Austria was we just kind of realized that if we wanted to do spring water and put it in cans, a, any source, if you bottle at the source, that's pretty much what you want to do because the expense of trying to truck tanker trucks of water from a source far away to some canner doesn't really make sense. So most springwater brands are bottled at the source. Any springwater source in the US, they definitely didn't have any canning capabilities. So we found this place in Austria, outside Salzburg and we flew out there, we met them. They own four of their own private mineral waters springs. They had all the canning capabilities. I've been to Apple's offices in Culver City and these bottlers' offices in Austria were nicer than Apple's offices.F Geyrhalter:So you had to say something nice about Austria. I was fishing for compliments. I'm like, well, because Austria has the best damn spring water in the world, but you're like, "Nope, they're the only ones who could pull it off."M Cessario:Yeah, I mean Austria is the most beautiful place I've ever been to.F Geyrhalter:All right. There we go. All right. You're allowed back on the podcast.M Cessario:So yeah, I mean it was kind of just a random... I just kept making phone calls to bottlers and they kept saying, "Oh yeah, no, we don't do that. Oh yeah, no, we don't do that. It can't be done." Had professionals from the industry doing research for us out there too. "Hey, no one can do it." So finally I found this place in Austria. I flew out there and met them. They could do it. We really liked them. Yeah, Austria is kind of cool too because it's like most people haven't had an Austrian water necessarily, and it's kind of a fun kind of interesting thing that could work with the brand. So yeah, let's do that. But we're actually going to be moving all of our water canning and production starting next month to British Columbia in Canada. So we don't have to ship water overseas. It's a much shorter journey.F Geyrhalter:That's awesome. Congrats. That's a big move and I love to hear that. I think it works really, really well what you're trying to do. But back to those curve balls, I mean, you would have never thought that bottling water in a freaking can would be one of those big curve balls in your entrepreneurial journey where you're like, "What? That can't happen. I have to go to Austria." I mean, those are the things that people don't think about when they start a business. It's like, "Well that seems like it makes a lot of sense. Let's do that." We have to slowly wrap up, but a big question that I'd like to ask everyone on my show is if you could describe your brand in one word, and I call it your brand DNA, what could that word be? I know it's not death. Don't tell me it's death. It's not death.M Cessario:No, it's murder.F Geyrhalter:There you go. Exactly.M Cessario:It's funny. We've been working with some friends of ours, like we're actually kind of partnering because now that the business is growing and I can't run the business and actually execute and do all the marketing at the same time, we're now working with a creative agency partner run by a friend of mine named Matt Heath. They're called Party Land, and we've kind of been working with them on that same exact thing where they're like, "Hey, if we had to distill the brand down to one word, what would it be?" We had a little talk about it, and right now where we're landing with it is mischief. That I think is really the DNA of the brand, is pushing the buttons and getting into things you're not supposed to get into but all rooted in kind of this fun, and doing stuff that's subversive. Trying to always avoid doing the traditional approach to something. Rather than, okay, if we want to be at this music festival, the music festival wants to charge you a sponsorship fee of $80,000. You pay them that money and now you have the right to sell them water that they're going to sell at the festival. Right? That's how every other brand has to do it. We're going to look at, okay, how do we like crow bar open the back door to get in there and have a presence? Do we actually go to the headlining band who we think would be into the product and they're really stoked on it and we get it to them and then they request that it's like in the green room and then all the other artists have access to. That's more mischief.How do you subvert? How do you go around just like the pay to play or the traditional way that most brands like Coca-Cola or these other brands have to do because they just don't have the fandom of a brand like ours that would actually have people go out of their way for you or let you in the back door or whatever.F Geyrhalter:Well, mischief is such a great ownable word too, right? And you can totally live up to it. In a way, it's a watered down version of punk rock, which I think works really well. All right, I have so many more questions, but we got to wrap it up. Listeners who fell in love with Liquid Death just now, is Amazon the place to go to, to get their taste of Liquid Death or should they sign up to your newsletter? Which by the way is one of my favorite pieces of your brand because for my listeners, the newsletter sign-up fine print, you know, that little thing that is underneath the big button saying sign me up. Instead of the GDPR blurb, which everyone freaked out about. "Oh my God, we have to be compliant." It actually says by selecting start selling my soul, which is the button to click to sign up. I agree I want to receive important info and offers from Liquid Death since they will own my soul for eternity. So I guess you can do that. You can start selling my soul on the website, hit that button. Or where else can they find your product right now?M Cessario:Yeah. So you can buy it on Amazon or you can buy it direct from our website at In terms of selling your soul, I think that's an interesting... It's been one of our most popular things now, it's basically on our website. You can legally sell us your soul. There's an actual legal document that we had a real lawyer draft up. It'll automatically populate your name and everything in there, you click to sign it like a DocuSign digital thing. And that is the only way that you can join the Liquid Death Country Club, is by selling your soul. And then once you're a Country Club member on our website, you'll get a free VIP case added to your first order, if you're a country club member.F Geyrhalter:And since this is a legal document, do you also outline what you will be doing with the soul of your tribe members?M Cessario:No, it basically says we can do whatever we want with it.F Geyrhalter:That's pretty good. There's got to be a whole new podcast about what you have done with the soul once the deceased start appearing in your office. Well, Mike, this was a blast. I really appreciate taking the time out of a busy schedule at a time when your young brand is really taking off. So thank you so much for having been on the show.M Cessario:Yeah. I know. Thanks for having me. It was fun.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. And thanks to you for listening, for subscribing, for rating, and for reviewing this podcast. This podcast is brought to you by FINIEN, a brand consultancy creating strategic, verbal and visual brand clarity. You can learn more about FINIEN and download free white papers to support your own brand launch or rebranding efforts at The Hitting The Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we once again will be hitting the mark.
I first learned about Michael Lastoria when his brand, &Pizza, has been named one of the world’s 50 Most Innovative Companies the second time in a row by Fast Company. Diving deeper into what at first glance would seem like a commodity-type business (we are talking about selling pizzas here after all) soon turned into the discovery of a brand that succeeds through heart & soul, coupled with tech & innovation.Michael sees himself as the human-first entrepreneur. A CEO and co-founder of & Pizza, now 36 locations throughout the east coast, Michael has championed his employees whom the brand calls its tribe. It's not only the face of the brand, but it's the core of the business. & Pizza pays a fair and livable wage, and Michael has been a vocal member of the fight for state and federal minimum wage increases. Lastoria believes in building a brand first and a business second so that the brand is not just a momentary phenomenon, but an essential part of culture. & Pizza is the manifestation of that belief.You can follow the brand @AndPizza and Michael on @_Lastoria.____Full Transcript:Fabian Geyrhalter:Welcome to Hitting the Mark. Today we have the first in a series of at least two back to back episode where I talk with branding professionals, like myself, who turned into entrepreneurs selling what some could call upon first glance a "so what" commodity-type product. This is exciting for numerous reasons besides the obvious of a creative talking to one of their kind, but also because these two guests embody the hypothesis of my book, Bigger Than This: How to Turn Any Venture Into an Admired Brand. First today, we start this miniseries of creatives flipping business categories on their head with Michael Lastoria who was the co-founder of New York City-based creative agency J-Walk before he turned his interests to making the world a better place through the power of pizza.Michael Lastoria sees himself as the human-first entrepreneur. A CEO and co-founder of & Pizza, and that is Ampersand Pizza, now 32 locations throughout the east coast, Michael has championed his employees whom the brand calls its tribe. It's not only the face of the brand, but it's the core of the business. & Pizza pays a fair and livable wage, and Michael has been a vocal member of the fight for state and federal minimum wage increases. Lastoria believes in building a brand first and a business second so that the brand is not just a momentary phenomenon, but an essential part of culture. & Pizza is the manifestation of that belief and I cannot wait to dive into this conversation. Welcome, Michael. Thank you for being on Hitting the Mark.M Lastoria:Fabian, thanks for having me. Happy to be here.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. Michael, as I touched on in the intro, I released a book last year which I will send you a copy of that studied start-ups that transformed into admired brands despite being based on commodity-type offerings, like sock, office supplies, packaged seafood stews, stuff like that. It fascinated me as someone who is in the business of branding, like yourself, to study how they did it without any innovation or tech or big design adjustments in tow. In the end, I balled these findings into eight traits. Story, belief, cause, heritage, delight, transparency, solidarity and individuality. After studying your company, & Pizza, for a little bit, I actually believe that you must be one of my first guests who truly either embodies or touches upon most of these all while pushing hard on tech and innovation at the same time. So, needless to say, really thrilled that you made it onto the show. Let's go back in time a little bit. You're running a successful creative agency, sold it to the cosmetic giant Shiseido in 2017, I believe, and then had the thought of starting a pizza chain. Tell us more. How did that come about?M Lastoria:Yeah, I definitely got a number of laughs. My friends and family thought it was somewhat comical given they didn't quite appreciate what I was trying to do in terms of really humanizing a company and lifting up the lowest wage workers in this country, and hopefully being a case study for a business that can succeed, that does good in this world, and is a case study for other restaurant and retail companies to follow in terms of being able to have some of the best unit or store or shop level economics while also paying a living wage, developing your people from within and really being a champion of democratizing the business at every single level.So, kind of taking a little step further back, I founded my first business at 22. It was also a service business, more in media and ad tech, sold it to a private equity group, stayed on board to run that as CEO for three years. Then I co-founded the ad agency. Having spent a better part of a decade on the service side, learning what my passion was and ultimately where a small kid from a country town, what he should be doing in this world in terms of contributing for the greater good, decided I wanted to launch a brand that was very values-driven. At the time, it was more about the values of the man that I hoped that I would become versus the man that I was, and that's why the company is named & Pizza. It's a generally speaking, a fairly goofy name for a brand, but we wanted to lead with a symbol that was all about promoting unity, celebrating oneness and doing the right thing by our people, hence the ampersand and leading with this big, meaty, emotional symbol that we hoped that we could turn into something that was very powerful and impactful.Picked pizza because when I was studying all the different businesses we could apply this notion of unity and doing the right thing and helping people, the food service industry in America alone employs 10% of America's workforce. When you think about the impact that we could make as a company in an industry that employs 10% of the workforce in America, that we could flip on its head this very notion of what it means to be an employer and find some success in doing so. That's what led me to & Pizza. I started it in 2000 ... Well, really concepted it in 2010, 2011. Opened the first pizza shop in 2012, and we're going to open up our 36th pizza shop in New York City on Wall Street, our third in New York City, in about two weeks here.F Geyrhalter:That is amazing. And you just answered just about four of my questions in the last couple of minutes. This is great.M Lastoria:Sorry about that.F Geyrhalter:I really love that. That's why ... And obviously, I would have asked about the name, right? Because at first glance, there are two things that don't make much sense. First, the name, and then the reason of why you picked pizza. After your intro, everything makes a lot of sense. The & Pizza, the pizza is basically a side effect, and it is just a vehicle for you to actually change something much bigger. That's nicely reflected in the name. It's very neat.Looking back though, obviously being in the restaurant business is, I guess, considered hell usually, right, for the entrepreneur doing it as well as the employees. It's really, really rough, right? It's really tough to get into the business. It's tough to stay on top. Looking back, what was that one big breakthrough moment where you felt like, "Okay, now it's not just a start-up pizza joint, but it's actually a brand, and it's turning into a full-fledged, beloved and established chain." What was the one moment where you felt like this is it, we just made it?M Lastoria:Yeah, there was obviously the success of the first location. The fact that there was a line that was wrapping around the block. The decisions that we made sort of enabled that, but the moment I look back on was when we did have a single pizza shop, and one of our employees, whom we call tribe members ... Mainly, we called them tribe members because of this notion that it's a group of people connected to each other, connected to leadership, but ultimately, connected to a higher purpose. And our purpose, obviously, it is our symbol, our ampersand. All about promoting unity. But when one of our tribe members came to me, and he asked me if he could get the symbol, the ampersand, tattooed on him. I was a little taken aback because it wasn't something ... I have tattoos myself, and we're very much in a tattoo-forward culture, but I was taken aback because I never thought that a human being would want this brand symbol tattooed on them.I asked the question, "Why?" And the answer was, "This is the first company where I truly feel comfortable in my own skin. I feel appreciated. I feel supported. I feel respected. I feel like I'm part of a family. I'm part of a group of people that is like-minded, that has very similar values, and I've never gotten that from a place of work. That's why I want to get this symbol tattooed." I put my arm around his back, and I said, "Let's go. I'm paying for it." It became one of those things that has helped define the culture, not because we want people to have this & tattooed on them so they can walk around helping market or promote the company because quite frankly the symbol is a very generic symbol. Ampersand has been around for long time. At one point, it was, I think, the 27th letter of the alphabet. So, it's been there. The interesting thing here was, no, it was really about a definition of why the company is special, why our values matter.Even if you don't work at & Pizza a year after getting the tattoo, it's what it meant, what we are trying to do, and the impact that we're trying to make in this world. We've had literally hundreds and hundreds of tribe members get tattooed. At any given point, about 20% of the workforce has this brand logo tattooed on them, and I look at that as something that's very humbling and incredibly fulfilling because it is the definition of getting people together and getting people that have similar values, that believe in the same things, and really mobilizing them to do some good. That's what that means. People care about the mission. They care about our values, and they're willing to get it tattooed to show. That's the defining point for me of when I knew that we were onto something special when the people were vocal. When the masses in the organization started to care more about the values and could better define the symbol than even I could myself that created it.F Geyrhalter:Because when it comes from within, you know it's going to work outside, right? That whole idea that if the company culture works and is healthy, then consumers, customers, outside, whoever that is, they will feel it, and it will be effective. But that begs the question, did branding affect your company culture or was it vice versa? It's kind of like a chicken or egg situation with & Pizza.M Lastoria:Yeah, well, I think the branding helped create the visual and the inspiration behind what the culture eventually became. The tricky thing with culture is that it's constantly changing. Businesses like & Pizza that are people-driven, every time that you lose an employee, or you gain one, your company culture is bound to shift, right?F Geyrhalter:Yeah.M Lastoria:It's simply the sum of the ingredients, and the ingredients are the people. For us, what's nice is that every time we bring someone to the organization, the brand, what it stands for, its values, what it means, how people connect to it, helps really define the culture as in the starting place where people can be grounded. And then, what they do ultimately is take that brand, and they make it their own, right?F Geyrhalter:Mm-hmm (affirmative).M Lastoria:They have their own expression of what it means to them, and they then spread that gospel. I'm okay with the ampersand meaning different things to different people. I have my definition, and if you were to ask one of the 750 employees or tribe members that work at & Pizza, they all may have a slight variation, and that's okay because that, to me, is perfectly structured where there's enough there where people get it, but then also enough flexibility to truly make it their own. I think this notion of celebrating individuality, people's own definition, why it matters to them is as important as why you got started and what the brand means to you as someone that created it.F Geyrhalter:It is a symbol that just evokes hope. It evokes the beginning of another chapter. I'm sure that that's what a lot of your employees feel like, especially if they come in at the very entry level, and they start feeling like they're part of a family, and it's a different kind of job that they had before maybe. In an interview you said that your employees are feeling appreciated, engaged, supported and valued. But it's an industry that is known for labor-intensive, minimum wage type of work. You're talking a lot about core values. Obviously, I'm in the business of creating core values with my clients and then pushing them to actually successfully instill them into their employees, which is so much harder than actually coming up and deriving these core values, right?How do you accomplish that sentiment across the board of your employees that they take the values, that they understand the values, but that they also have that flexibility to take it to wherever they want to, but they feel this really big bond amongst each other and with the company's brand? It's not a simple answer, right? But what are some of the ways that you feel like you made this intrinsic and organic that it actually worked?M Lastoria:Yeah, I think it's a very tricky and somewhat loaded question because it's constantly a work in progress, and there's a lot of things that we do. I think wage is a very good starting place to show your people that you care, but it's much more than wage. I think the notion of paying a living wage or paying well above the minimum wage is one thing and then there's willing to sort stake your own personal reputation, the company's reputation, to fighting against the National Restaurant Association, to fighting against a lot of the political headwinds in terms of trying to make your internal policy actual government and federal policy which has been a very difficult thing.I think this notion that our people are seeing us put our money where our mouth is, or at least, live our own values outside of & Pizza and pushing for policy that impacts their friends, their family, regardless of whether or not they work here, has been one of the biggest ways, I think, where people have said, "Gosh, I believe in this, and I believe in it even more because I trust the people that are making the decisions, that are leading, because they're doing the very things that this symbol is supposed to do and the things that this brand actually stands for." Our willingness to take a stand, our willingness to do the right thing, our willingness to put the strength and use the platform of the company to impact social issues ... I mean, we're living in a country and a nation that's becoming increasingly more divided, and it's 2019.That's not what we should be seeing. We should be seeing significantly more people uniting because when I travel the world, I see the youth of this world being more connected versus disconnected in terms of the things that they believe in, how they choose to live their life and the values that they subscribe for. I'm very hopeful about where things are going, but I also think it's extremely important for brands to act as people, brands to take a stand, and be willing to say, "These are the issues that are important to our people, and so we're going to put the weight of the company behind those issues regardless of what they are." Again, that's what helps build the trust that gets people listening and communicating with the company, and that's a lot of things I think companies miss is that if you don't fundamentally trust the leadership or trust the decision-making process, it's going to be very hard to develop people and to have the type of culture that you're looking for.You have to do a lot to trust people. In addition to that, you also have to learn how to communicate. All of our communication inside of our company happens vis a vis text message. So, we predominantly communicate with our tribe members via text messaging. Our weekly newsletter is not a newsletter. It's a podcast to get texted out. We're constantly doing trivia to earn cash prizes that get paid the minute that the trivia questions get answered, right? We're doing all kinds of survey work, and it literally is a two-way communication allows for any idea, no matter how small or big it is, to be recognized, to be heard. And then we close the feedback loop by letting everyone know, hey, here are all of the text themes that we received over the last 30 days.Here's policy that we changed as a result of your ideas, and here are the things that we didn't change, and here are the reasons why. So, bringing people closer into the decision-making process, really helping democratize it and setting up communication that's modern and is the way that people would prefer to be communicated with because that's how they are communicating with their friends and family. I think the willingness to be bold and use technology to help facilitate that is another way to create connection, to get people to speak out. Make it frictionless, make it really easy, make it take a matter of seconds versus ... And do it on a platform that people fundamentally understand.F Geyrhalter:Those are all amazing ways that you just intrinsically basically walk the walk with the values, right? You don't just put ... We have five values on the wall and say, "This is it. You can see them on our website, and it's in our employee handbook," but you actually constantly go after those values and figure out how can we actually behave that way, and how does that come from the top? It was an amazing answer to a question that actually led into a lot of different other scenarios. One of them is the whole walking the line of politics versus whatever product you sell. For you, it's pizza, right? Especially since one of your locations is in the hub of the House of Representatives in D.C., correct?M Lastoria:It is. Yes, it is.F Geyrhalter:I read that you adorned the walls of & Pizza in that location with the following statements. Where it all takes shape. Where decisions are made. Where pioneers walk and walls talk which is so bold and so great. Just knowing enough about & Pizza, it is so on brand. I know you and I totally 100% agree on the idea that there is little room for brands to not take a stand in 2019 and that it actually nurtures brand's tribes, but where do you cross that line? I know you signed a petition for companies to stand up for reproductive rights. You do a lot politically. Where do you cross the line? How far do you go? When do you feel like this is something that the company should support and actually speak out about?M Lastoria:To me, it's less about partisanship because that is also the opposite of bringing people together and unity. It's really more about the social issues that impact the employees of the company, and that is really sort of where we draw our line which is that things that are impacting our people or that are negatively impacting our people, those are the types of things that we really want to rally behind because we treat them like family. If I can do something to help out a family member, and I have a broader or a greater platform to do so, I think the right thing to do is to use that platform. That's really how we choose to be political or not which is just simply focusing on what are the social issues that our people truly care about, the ones that are impacting them and impacting the communities that they live in and the communities that, quite frankly, we serve with our customer as our guests.How do we let everyone know what true north is in our eyes and how we can ultimately be helpful. Some are more controversial than others, but we're predominantly in some of the larger cities in this country, and we're dealing with a lot of those issues as well, and so I think it's just the responsible thing and the right thing to do. And again, I'm not trying to say lean left or lean right. I'm just trying to say, "Hey guys, these are the real things that are happening and the real things that are affecting the employees of this organization." I want to be heard, and I want to let you know exactly what's going on and how we feel and get political just because I think, again, it's showing that support for the people that come here.And again, willing to stake my own reputation because there's always a backlash. Anytime you do take a stand, you are going to become a target, and people are going to attack you, and so it has to come from the right place and a place where you feel like when your head hits that pillow every single night that you did the right thing. I will always live and die or fall on the proverbial sword by doing the right thing regardless of the outcome.F Geyrhalter:And you do this because your brand is about your people, and that's why it is a one-to-one alignment with whatever political situations you encounter and you start supporting. Again, it's not left or right, it's about the people because that's what the brand is about.M Lastoria:That's right. That's exactly right. It's not the Michael Lastoria brand. It's the & Pizza brand, right? There's a lot of things that I believe in that I don't speak out publicly about as the sort of representative of the & Pizza brand because I don't feel like it's appropriate. I probably do lean a little further left than some people, but that's not my place to use the company's platform to have those conversations. The company's platform is for the company. It's for its people. I'll be the spokesperson for that, and basically, I'm the sort of appointed leader of the & Pizza democracy where I am doing the speaking on behalf of everyone, and we all are aligned on what the messaging is and why we're doing what we're doing.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. Let's move over to the tech and innovation part of your brand for a minute because I talked about commodity products before, and you're totally moving into a very different direction because you are actually leading with tech and innovation. You decide on new locations using Uber Eats heat mapping technology, and you launched many restaurants called cubes which are 300 square feet mini locations within existing structures that can easily be adjusted, assembled and disassembled. You will soon only be able to order & Pizza pizzas via text message which I think comes from within, right?M Lastoria:Mm-hmm (affirmative).F Geyrhalter:Because that's how you guys and gals already communicate. There's going to be no app, no phone, not even email, so you have employees as well as AI bots respond to text orders with gifs of Millennial stars like Lady Gaga or Rihanna to connect with your customers. You're big, and rightfully so, into automating boring and also dangerous tasks like slicing pie and sliding them into 800 degree ovens for which you now use robots. One aspect of your tech-infused innovative way of conducting business that I'm particularly interested in is you have a fleet of mobile units that are really, I guess, considered smart trucks, that cook up pizzas as they approach a destination. Tell me a little bit about the logistics and process of these mobile units. I assume they are GPS-based, but who in the truck unless it's a robot or a doughbot as you call them is making the pies? Walk me through the chain of events when it comes to & Pizza's mobile units, and correct me if anything I just said was wrong because I got it from different sources.M Lastoria:Sure. Yeah, so, listen the technology side is just about keeping an eye towards the future and looking at a lot of the successes that our predecessors and those that came before us have had, but also some of the mistakes that were very, very costly which is this idea of the mass replication of a thing. A lot of restaurant brands, even retail, missed the shift towards all things digital, and I think in retail you saw it just through the sheer presence of the likes of an Amazon. In restaurants, you're seeing a lot of disruption to the likes of an Uber Eats or a DoorDash, these very large companies that are getting massive funding that are able to take your food out of your restaurant and deliver it to a customer without you actually having any real interaction with that customer whatsoever or even owning that customer relationship.So, what you're seeing is the lack or the amount of change in the real estate that you actually need to properly service your customers. If you were a 2,500 square foot restaurant, you may only need 1,500 square feet this day and age because 20, 30, 40% of all of your sales are now coming through off-premise sales, not on-premise. Being really forward-looking, it's saying, "Okay, well, I need to have a flexible format model where I can technically serve my product in a variety of different formats that range in terms of the actual cost themselves to build so I can make sure I can still get my product to the people cost-effectively and responsibly, and so I'm not beholden to a certain piece of real estate that I can only take for me to scale."For us, we can open up a 300 square foot kiosk or cube like you had mentioned, and we can generate the same revenue in 300 square feet as we can 2,000 square feet. Or we can do very similar. The trucks themselves, the real key there is that they're more like mobile production commissary in the sense that we are doing native delivery, third party deliver, order ahead for pickup, and having the ability for people to walk up to the trucks themselves and place and order either on their mobile phone as they're walking up or with someone that's standing outside the truck that will help facilitate that. The idea is it's a shop on wheels, right? So, just think they're all just varying different shop types and shop formats that have a different cost to build that allow me to scale faster, more cost-effectively, and to get my product to the people in a way that you just haven't seen before. That is our answer to increasing occupancy vis a vis rent.More business is happening off-premise. Kind of just traditional real estate that no longer works for a lot of restaurant and retail brands. How are we still going to grow? How are we going to build out new markets? How are we going to do it quicker, faster, cheaper, so that we can accelerate as a brand in a climate and environment that's becoming more and more and more of a challenge and difficult? That's just our world of leveraging technology, leveraging flexible format, thinking throughout the architecture of the business model to make sure that it's going to work in the next five to ten years. So many people get caught up in today. What's going to work today? How can I make a quick buck on a trend? Business is becoming increasingly more complicated. Businesses need to become increasingly more dynamic, and you have to do everything well.You can't just do one thing well, and that would be my biggest challenge to anyone in consumer branding or entrepreneurship which is you have to look at every aspect of your business, not just making the best possible product, but how does that product get in the hands of the people? What are the different channels in terms of DST versus wholesale/retail, and how can these large tech companies and even small tech companies potentially come around and disrupt your entire business model? How do you get ahead of that stuff? That's really what the architecture of all the things that you just suggested was about. It's not really about the robotics. The robotics are a little bit more forward-looking in terms of automating simple, mundane tasks, but that's the less important thing.The more important thing is how do we open up more pizza shops? How do we service more guests? How do we become a larger and greater employee, and how do we leverage technology as a way to help facilitate all of that because, to your point, if you're in a commodity business, you better make it really damn easy to get that commodity. It better be frictionless. It better have an amazing loyalty program and give me a reason why when I'm looking at 40 or 50 other brands that I can order from, that I'm going to order from your product. There's a lot of things that go into triggering that emotional response, and this is the one they needed to have. There's a big gap between Shake Shack and Five Guys, between Soul Cycle and Fly Wheel. I can go on and on about the comparisons, but they matter, and that is branding, but it's also spreading that brand across every single touchpoint, not just through creative.F Geyrhalter:And understanding that there is an immense amount of data lying around that can actually make your business smarter. So, I think that's also a huge aspect of how you seem to be running the business. Just with the Uber Eats idea, right? I mean, the data is out there. You've got the heat maps. You see where you might want to start a new location. You don't just have to buy the coolest new property in the center square. Now you have other data. Not shockingly so, and you hinted at that, you're continuously creating new PR and branding ideas. You changed the avatars on your social media channels to match whatever activation you've just launched. Currently I read, and this is super cool, you run a promotion with a secret summer menu that gets switched out, I guess, every couple of weeks, and currently features an Oreo ricotta pizza as well as a Cheetos spicy tomato pizza.But since it is a secret menu, you can only find it on the secret website incognito.&, which will show you a 404 error until you actually view that website in the incognito window of your browser, which is absolutely genius. You also run a loyalty program, which you just mentioned where depending on their level of pizza intake, your customers get & Pizza bomber jackets, they get branded dog tags, or for the superfans of the superfans which are at what you call the Maverick level of having spent around $1.5K on pizzas, they can actually get an & Pizza tattoo inked onto their body for a lifetime just like one of your tribe members. With all of these ideas surrounding the brand, what was something you thought would absolutely kill it, but then it bombed completely? This does not even need to be on the PR and advertising level, but it can also be on an entrepreneurial level when building out the & Pizza brand. Was there this one thing, this one moment where you're like, "Wow, that just really didn't go right even though I thought it would"?M Lastoria:Yeah. I think in our business, I mean, because it's pizza there isn't really a massive ... We haven't had any massive failures as it relates to rolling out products or trying new things that didn't really work. It's more about trying to figure out what the best use of, sometimes, limited resources and limited capital, and not getting too distracted in terms of trying to do too many things too quickly because organizations typically struggle through ingestion which is just taking on more than they're actually capable of taking on. That's the thing that we wrestle with the most. Isn't necessarily one big thing that really didn't work. There's definitely been a lot of little things in terms of various ingredients, various different types of pies.This notion of the different types of footprints. We also operate in bars. We have three of those up and running right now. We have a really cool draft cocktail program where we're pre-batching all of the cocktails because of this notion that it's really hard to get a consistently-made, high quality cocktail from a bartender because of the just inconsistency in terms of the small, little minutiae that could make a great drink taste not so great. And so, how do you kind of disrupt that? We're doing that with some really interesting people here in Washington, D.C. So, not to not give you a very direct answer, but for us, it's not the big failures. It's just the prioritization of how do we stage this the right way? If we have limited capital, how do we spend it in the right way to make sure that the business is investible, to make sure that we're always doing the right thing by our people, and we're serving a really good product at an affordable cost that people are excited to consume?That's not always an easy thing, but we have more resources at our disposal now than ever before. It's just making sure that as someone in consumer branding, you're taking advantage of those resources, and you're constantly in trial and error mode so you can at least be on the forefront of knowing what's out there and what products or what services or what tools you should use to facilitate and assist with your growth.F Geyrhalter:Yeah. No, absolutely. I think that is really, really good advice. It comes back to the idea of sometimes slowing down and looking at priorities. Talking about the concept of bars and talking about the communities, I heard that it is very important to & Pizza to involve and reflect each community in which you open up a new shop. How does a chain of, I guess, 36 stores at this point go about keeping the brand consistent? I'm hinting at robust, franchise-worthy style guides here. While allowing it, though, to adapt to its changing environments and to actually become part of a community.M Lastoria:It just takes a little bit more time, energy, effort, and research. I don't think any of this stuff isn't doable. It's just making a commitment to doing it and then baking that into the business model very early on that it's going to cost an extra $50,000 to do it well versus not going to, and why is it a priority and importance for us to do it? When we go into a neighborhood or community, we want to inspire. It's not just about embracing where the neighborhood has been, it's also about providing an environment that looks and feels different, that has some inspiration in the walls, that's very upbeat and uplifting. One of the most important things for us is to get the culture and get the vibe of that neighborhood or that community right so we're adding value to it.When people walk in the doors of an & Pizza shop, I do want them to feel like they're entering into a safe place, a place that regardless of where they've been or what's happened that day, that week, that month, that they feel like they can put their shoulders down, smile, laugh, dance, have fun because at the end of the day, pizza is one of those things. If you've chosen to eat a pizza, you've chosen not to eat a salad, and so you should really enjoy the experience of making your own pizza, crafting your own pizza, eating your pizza, whatever that may be.That's a very important thing to the brand, something that we work really hard on doing which is being culturally connected and relevant, making sure the music is right, making sure the design aesthetic is right, that we're building things that people haven't necessarily seen before, but also don't feel that unfamiliar. It's like, "Oh, I didn't know I liked this. I didn't know I like high black and white contrast in a pizza shop," where you're used to seeing a lot of red and white checker cloth, right? Those are the kind of things where you just flip it on its head, inspire people and see how they react to it because even if it's not for them, that maybe doesn't reflect their personal style, I think they'll appreciate it.It kind of takes me back to the best conversations I've had in my lifetime have been with people that are the most different, the most unique, but also the ones that are willing to share that difference and share that uniqueness with me and have a really strong point of view. That's when I'm listening that most. That's when I'm learning. That's when I'm widening my horizons. I look at that as branding too which is the world doesn't need your version of someone else's idea, right? The world needs your idea. It needs your version of a pizza shop, not your version of someone else's idea of a pizza shop. This idea of copycat and imitation, it's got to stop. It's not helping anyone, and a lot of capital is being wasted toward people that don't follow their heart or don't follow what they think is the right thing to do, but instead try to follow someone else's. I'm just seeing more and more businesses like that die on the vine.It's important, I think, for all of us to lead with a unique point of view, be willing to express ourselves, be willing to create products and service-based businesses that have that in them that you can feel the creators in the building, in the walls of the things that they're designing. I think that has a long-lasting impact. How do we take, to your point, a commodity, and how do we personalize it? How do we give it a real personality? And by the way, that personality needs to extend digitally as well. One of the most frustrating things for me is when you see a brand have such a big digital personality and then it doesn't exist anywhere else.Oh, they have an amazing Twitter handle, but you go to their Instagram account, it's nothing like their Twitter handle. And God forbid you go into their restaurant where you get no experience like that. You can't be super witty on one platform and dry and bland on another because that's not real. That's not authentic. That's you just trying to win a platform for marketing's sake, not an authentic brand that has a digital brand personality that matches the physical. We need to be thinking about connectedness in all touchpoints, and that is where I think brands can really do a better job.F Geyrhalter:So true. I think in the end it all comes back to having soul, right? That the brand actually needs to have soul. It needs to evoke a feeling, and that needs to be across all touchpoints, especially in the hospitality business. That is super difficult to achieve and that's why kudos to what you're doing and, more importantly, how you're doing it. I just read a piece you recently published on LinkedIn where you state the following. "The only way to reach your potential is to evolve. The only way to evolve is to know who you are and what you represent.There's true beauty in reaching that moment of clarity because that's when things get better for both you and your company." To me, this is music to my ears. Brand clarity is what derive of my clients and in the end, I believe that every brand's DNA can actually be described in one single word. So, Harley-Davidson could be seen as freedom, right? Aveline which I know you're familiar with because you signed a petition where he was part of it. Aveline is all about transparency, right? What is one word ... If you would have one word that could describe & Pizza, without putting you too much on the spot here, could you think of one word?M Lastoria:Yeah. It's a word I've used a few times today. It would be unity.F Geyrhalter:Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's really nice. That's very all encompassing. I think with everything you just said in the last 40 or so minutes, that encompasses everything. I guess, to finish this up slowly, here's the big one. What does branding mean to you?M Lastoria:I think, and I guess I sort of just said this a while ago, I think it truly is personalizing a commodity. It's injecting a heart and a soul and a point of view into something that otherwise doesn't have it.F Geyrhalter:Beautiful. I could not agree more. Michael, where can our listeners and myself get a slice of the pie? Is & Pizza in expansion mode so we can all get our hopes up to see a store in our area soon?M Lastoria:Yeah, we're opening, like I said, our 36th shop in a couple of weeks here. We're going to double in size in the next two years. Most of our growth will be on the east coast. Everywhere from Boston down through Miami. You can find us on social @AndPizza and me on @_Lastoria. I'm a little bit more visual than I am vocal. I am on Twitter, but mainly Instagram is the platform I prefer to use. First off, I just want to say to you, Fabian, congratulations on the book. I'm definitely going to be reading it now. I know it's a really hard thing to do to put so many amazing thoughts that you have into words, words on paper and publish a book, so congratulations. I encourage all of the listeners to read it because you have incredible thinking on a lot of amazing topics. Just some of the things that you've sparked today for me even then have been great, so thanks for having me.F Geyrhalter:That was really kind of you. I really appreciate it. This conversation was so inspiring to myself, and I'm sure to our listeners, on so many levels. I have to say people like you are the reason I work with entrepreneurs and why I love the world of branding. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your time, wisdom and energy, Michael.M Lastoria:Thank you.F Geyrhalter:And thanks to all for listening in. Hit the subscribe button, give the show a rating, and write a quick review if you did appreciate the show. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won, as in I won free pizza and not just one pizza. These two words seem to be difficult for an Austrian to differentiate. I will see you next time when we, once again, will be Hitting the Mark.
I chat with 28-year old Devon Townsend, who quit Microsoft, became a viral Vine comedy star and yet he ended up creating Cameo, a platform that lets you book personalized video shoutouts from your favorite athletes, actors, and entertainers. His 60+ employee strong company, which has received 15.8+ million in funding to date, dispatches over 1,000 videos a day and signed up well over 10,000 celebrities, from Ice-T to Kevin O’Leary and from Charlie Sheen to Snoop Dog who are all happy to send you or your loved ones a personal message anywhere from 5 Dollars up to 2,500 bucks a pop.Cameo was one of TIME Magazine's 50 Most Genius Companies of 2018 and Devon was named to Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list this year, yet he is happy to connect with you via e-mail if you have any feedback for him.Devon and I discuss creating a delightful and transparent brand, the obstacles of naming and how to craft an authentic visual and verbal brand language that people will freak out over and scream and laugh and cry. Yes, all of the above is possible with Cameo.____Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter:Welcome to Hitting The Mark. I just spent two weeks back in beautiful Austria, so I apologize in advance if you have to suffer through an unusually strong reactivated German accent on this episode. Today I'm thrilled to welcome Devin Townsend, Co founder and CTO of Cameo, a platform that lets you book personalized video shout outs from your favorite athletes, actors and entertainers. Prior to Cameo, Devin was popular on the app Vine, with hundreds of millions of views and called on that experience when building Cameo to create something influencers and the fans would love.F Geyrhalter:Devin has also worked at Microsoft as a software engineer, and met his co founder at Duke University. His 60 plus employees strong company dispatches over a thousand videos a day and signed up well over 10,000 celebrities from Ice-T to Kevin O'Leary, and from Charlie Sheen to Snoop Dogg, who are all happy to send you or your loved ones a personal message anywhere from five bucks up to $2,500 a pop. Devin was named to Inc. Magazine's 30 under 30 list this year, and this is exactly how I learned about him in the first place. Welcome to Hitting The Mark, Devin.D Townsend:Thank you. Happy to be here.F Geyrhalter:Yeah, it's great to have you here. So you quit Microsoft, became a viral Vine comedy star and yet you ended up creating Cameo. Give myself and my listeners a bit of that backstory and why you love it so much that on Inc. Magazine I read... You said you would not want to sell the company because you would just have a lot of money, be bored and probably try to start a company that's very, very similar to Cameo.D Townsend:Yeah, absolutely. So my friend and I in... this is in 2014 when my friend and I were both working as software engineers. And we had read some travel blog, got the travel bug, and we decided that we wanted to travel. So he had already been playing around in the app Vine and he was pretty popular. His name is Cody Ko, he's now a full time YouTuber. And we quit our jobs, I was working at Microsoft, and we traveled the world for a year. And we spent our time coding independent websites and apps that were fun just to make money to support ourselves and also posting funny vines on our Vine account called Devon And Cody Go To Whitecastle. It was super fun, and we came back to America, and that was a lot of the experience that I drew on when creating Cameo.F Geyrhalter:And at first sight, Cameo might look a little bit like a celebrity monetization platform. Right? But now that I spent some time on it prepping for our conversation, in my eyes, you actually built a brand that generates delight. Would you agree with my assertion that delight is one of those big traits behind the Cameo brand?D Townsend:Yeah. Absolutely. When we set out to build this, my goal was to make Cameo so fun that what we call talent, the supply side of our platform, the celebrities on our platform, they would do it for free. And so in a lot of ways, I think the fact that this generates revenue and that it costs money to book a Cameo is partially just a limiting factor. It just means that it's almost like a feature in the sense that it prevents celebrities from having way too many requests that they're not able to fulfill. But it's just super fun.F Geyrhalter:And I also heard one of your co founders talk about how transparency is another important trait of the Cameo brand. How do you celebrate transparency from within your company, so the accompany culture, all the way to your talent managers, which I believe you have a good amount of that actually interact regularly with the celebrities?D Townsend:Yeah, so this is actually one of our values. We call it no surprises, and it's super helpful internally, externally. Basically we just want to share everything so people are not caught off guard, especially in unpleasant ways. But another thing that we do that I think is a little bit unique, especially for companies our size is every morning we have a stand up with the entire company, we go over all of the relevant key metrics of the business like revenue and Cameo has completed in the previous day, how many talent were onboarded. And I think, especially for new people, it's really relieving to see that level of transparency and to know that everybody has access to the same information.F Geyrhalter:That's really cool, and it's also very different from, without naming any startup names, some other startups that are popping up and becoming really, really big and employees very quickly start complaining about the zero transparency and top down kind of company culture like in Fortune 500's. And so it's awesome to see you guys do that round up in the morning, which is very much like in restaurants, right? Like everyone comes together and talks about what happened the day before, talks about what will happen this day and super transparent. It's very cool. And talking about pricing, which you already mentioned, people also use Cameo to have celebrities deliver messages to their boss saying that they quit the job or marriage proposals to the girlfriends or coming out messages via DragQueen to their parents. But I'm actually surprised by what some celebrities do for very little money and how your site showcases that self worth of talent. You can literally browse through A list celebrities and gain an idea of how much they believe they're worth by in a minute. So how did you go about setting any kind of pricing suggestions initially, and how did the pricing range develop over the years as you moved from sports, I believe, to internet influencers and now A stars? And above all, how did you project it would turn into a sustainable and growing business? It's all about pricing in the end, right?D Townsend:Yeah. So we actually did something pretty interesting, which is we took the number of work hours in a year, which I think is 4,000... so I think it's like around 50 weeks times 40 hours. And we looked at how much money people were making. So if you're in the NBA and you're making $25 million, divided by 4,000, I think that comes out to around $125 per minute, somewhere in that range. And so that was one thing that we used early on.D Townsend:When people didn't know what to price themselves, when the talent on our platform didn't know how to price themselves, we used that formula, which ended up being really powerful, and it just proves that with Cameo, the fact that you can do a Cameo video in a minute, the economics, even if you're cheap, even if you're $10 or $20, you can make a lot of money in a very short amount of time just because it's so seamless and quick and easy to use.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. No, I totally agree, and I love that calculation and presenting that to your talent saying, "Look, this is how we came up with that number. You can go down, you can go up." And I also agree how much money you can make with this. I'm on a platform called where I give advice to entrepreneurs who might not otherwise be able to afford me and unlike 350 or something an hour, but I've got 15 minute phone calls, and I get maybe a hundred bucks. But it's so much value for the recipient, and in the end, like I made well over $10,000 too in the last couple of years just by giving advice. So I totally agree. I think it's a win win situation. Let's talk about your name. So Cameo is such a fantastic name for service like yours, as it stands for, and I'm going to read this straight from the dictionary, a small character part in a play or movie played by distinguished actor or a celebrity. But because of you Devin, I watched the 1986 video of Cameos. Fantastic hit, word up, this morning. How did the name come about first then, and were you aware or concerned about Cameo videos showing an 80s band on Google instead of your videos with shout outs by Snoop Dogg or Charlie Sheen?D Townsend:Yeah, that's the challenge when you choose a name that's a little bit more recognizable. So obviously, with a name like Cameo, there's going to be things that people associate that with. So the band being one of them. I'm pretty often stopped in public by people when I'm wearing a Cameo t-shirt and they're like, "Oh my God, Cameo, I love that band." And I'm like, "Awesome." So originally, we came up with a ton of names. We spent a lot of time trying to think of the right name. As I'm sure you're aware, it's not easy. And we worked at a branding agency too. We had the name Hypd, H-Y-P-D, we had the name Hero Hub. I think like Thrillo was one of the names. And we never were super happy with any of the names we were playing around with even as we were building this thing and we were pushing ourselves to launch. And so we actually launched with the name... Now that I think of it, we actually launched with the name Power Move. was original website. But we continued to noodle on a name and try to find the perfect name, my co founder's brother John, thought of it one day and we were just like, "Yeah, absolutely. This is the perfect name." And we did that look up. We expected that the website would be taken, we expected that there would be... the name space would be totally failed, but we found that the website was gettable and there was nothing really in our space with that name.F Geyrhalter:And usually, it's the trademark search that puts a big hold onto it, especially with a word that is so common. But it seems like you guys found a word that was somehow still available and you purchased a dot com. And besides you being stopped on the streets, and besides the word up videos showing up at some point, all seems to all seems to be good. I just wish Cameo... The lead singer of Cameo, if he's still alive, that he should be on your platform. That would that be good. That would be good.D Townsend:It should be perfect.F Geyrhalter:So Cameo was one of Time Magazine's 50 most genius companies of 2018, which is insane. Congratulations to that. And I saw Ellen featured a video of yours on her show, which is also a dream of any company for that to happen. How does the PR machine behind Cameo work? It seems like right now is that magical moment. And you and I chatted about this just a minute before we went live, it's this magical moment in time right now where Cameo videos are turning into a household term. So just like you'd say, YouTube videos, you say Cameo and people already know what is being referred to. How did PR or even branding help get Cameo to that point? How much of it was organic and viral food videos and how much do you feel was actually planned and scripted looking back at the success story of the brand?D Townsend:So we went a while flying under the radar. I think it's very natural when you're starting a company to... and especially when you think you have a good idea, to want to keep it to yourself and try to minimize PR because you don't want anybody to steal your idea. And at one point, maybe six months after we launched, The Chicago Tribune, I believe, did a story on Cameo, and we saw that it went viral among news outlets. So all these other news outlets across the country picked it up. And we found that this is just a story that people love. And I think that's personally why our PR strategy has just been so successful and why people love to write about this is just... it's like something that everybody relates to, everybody understands, and it's really exciting, and it has that mix of pop culture and celebrity that really appeals to people.F Geyrhalter:So true. So it really was a Zeitgeist fit. It just happened to be at the right time, no one else was doing it and everyone can relate to it, and that's how it started to spread.D Townsend:Yeah. My co founder, Steven is also super talented when it comes to PRs. He spends a lot of time doing interviews and stories and stuff like that, which has helped.F Geyrhalter:Very cool. And one thing that I'm sure that my listeners, as they go on your website, they're going to realize that you have tons of serious A list celebrities, but then you have hundreds of... how shall I say, questionable personalities and even adult actresses. So what standards do you set to keep your brand aspirational for potential talent, as well as customers, as well as press? Or does it really not matter that much? And if so, why would it matter or not matter how clean you keep the site as far as what type of talent you have on there?D Townsend:We want anybody in the world who has fans to be on Cameo, whether that's a really popular high school football coach who is a celebrity in their town or The Rock, who's one of the most famous actors right now. And so we don't really set out to police people based on their political preference or anything like that. So our platform is free to use for anybody who has fans. We have a couple of rules, no inciting violence, no nudity. But as long as you play within those rules, then we we're not incentivized to make those decisions.F Geyrhalter:Very cool. And besides being very much of a behind the scenes brand, you definitely celebrate Cameo as a brand by, for instance, having each team member have its own Cameo page, which is real fun, where you can actually book them and get to know them. Some of them are free, some of them actually charge. So you basically celebrate your team, just like actual celebrities. And on your site, you state that Cameo "creates moments that inspire", your Twitter account features a screenshot of a hater saying that @bookCameo, which is your Twitter handle, "is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of," as your actual Twitter brand page banner, which is just absolutely hilarious. How do you deliberately craft the actual Cameo brand's visual and verbal language, or how much of it is just organic and is done by different team members?D Townsend:So, when we started, we worked with a branding agency to develop the look and feel of the brand, which is what we're playing off of now. So the visual look was set back then. And as far as the verbal brand, a lot of that just had to do with... When we launched, it was just me and my two co founders, and so our Twitter and all the copy on our site, we had to come up with. And so generally, we just picked stuff that we thought was funny, that we thought was engaging, that we thought people would want to read. And I think one of the things that I believe, before you even start a Cameo, but that I've seen with a Cameo is that people really respond to authenticity. Like in our case, we wrote stuff that we thought it was funny. Our Twitter header was something that, whatever that tweet was, book Cameo is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. And so that's of what we do, and I think people will notice that it's a little bit different and it resonates with them.F Geyrhalter:And it definitely comes across as authentic. And I keep preaching that to my clients all the time. And branding is such a misunderstood term, and it feels like it's so fake, it's so crafted. But what does it mean to you? So branding, either with Cameo or personally, because you are a serial entrepreneur, brand is very important to what you do. What does it mean to you?D Townsend:I think one of the things that I've seen is that branding is just how you represent yourself to the world and how the world perceives you, and in this case, the company Cameo. I think like we've done a lot of things that just represent what we think is cool, what we would want to use. That's a lot of what we've done is built a product that we would want to use that we do use. As you mentioned, you can book any of us on Cameo. And the cool thing about building something that you would want to use and having that point of view is that it will really resonate with some people, and some people will be like, "This isn't for me," which also saves you time because the last thing you want when starting a company is these lukewarm people who think that they might be interested but they're not actually interested and so you spend time trying to build something that would work for them or convince them to try your product and ultimately, it's not a good fit anyway. So I think that that little bit of polarization is really powerful.F Geyrhalter:That's really wise. And it seems so logical, but everyone struggles with that. Every company, even my own consultancy. I have to make sure that I don't get all those lukewarm leads that are just not right for me and I spend time with them, which is really a waste of time. So it's the exact same thing with every brand. You have to make sure that you project exactly who you're for so that you exclude the many and you gain a few, or in your case, you actually have huge traction. So well played. Devin, you're 28, you got 15.8 million in funding the last time I checked, that might have changed by now, but what is one piece of brand advice for other founders that are listening?D Townsend:I think it's really important to pick a brand that represents you because... I think it's really tempting to look at your market and try to decide who you want to be, and then craft your brand to fit that. But if you stray too far from what's natural and what you've been doing for years and what you are the best in the world at, then you're not going to be the best at executing that vision and executing that brand. But picking something that really resonates with you, you have such a super power in that, you know what excites you, you come into work excited, it doesn't feel like work, so you can work unlimited hours and just really pour your heart into it. Townsend:And with that niche, you can really be the best in the world. I don't think it's really possible to get to the level of best in the world unless you're doing something that really represents you and that you believe in more than anybody else.F Geyrhalter:And that goes straight back to what you said in the very beginning or what I quoted you saying about, you really don't want to sell the company because you would just start the same company over and over again because it is passion and passion can only come from within, and if you create the type of environment that you really, really enjoy. And so I think that that is super, super important. It goes back to authenticity, and I think that's a big, big takeaway, that even with a brand that seems to be built on hundreds and hundreds and thousands of personal brands, the actual athletes and the actual celebrities, you yourself and your co founders created a brand that feels so real, and so authentic, and so transparent, and so natural to you that you enjoy building it and you keep being there and not creating a company that you just basically flip and... you get out of, right?D Townsend:Yeah. We built this to be the most fun company that we could think of. And so far, we've succeeded. We set out to be like, "All right, what's the company that we'd want to work at? What are the things we want to work on?" Every day, we build what we want to build, what excites us most. And so I think it's almost akin to going up to a really popular standup comedian and proposing that that person sell their standup comedy career. They would never do that because they've spent all this time building something that they absolutely love and that represents them.F Geyrhalter:So what does it say about you because you stopped your comedy career to start Cameo?D Townsend:Yeah. And that was one thing that was a little bit tough. And I think at the time, a lot of people were confused by that, like why I didn't, at least, try to start a YouTube channel and see where that would lead. But I've found that I really like the sort of... I've always really liked programming and computer science and the hard side of things, so in this case, I get to be pretty technical and focus on hard technical challenges, but also trying to think of like, "Okay, how can we make this really fun? How can make this resonate with people? What's our message? What can we build that people will freak out over and scream and laugh and cry?"F Geyrhalter:And that goes back to the tone of voice in your brand. And a lot of that is being crafted by you organically, and it's a great outlet where you can balance the two things, which before, in comedy, you didn't really have, you were mainly focusing on monetizing one side of it and now you can really play with the two, which again goes back to how it is so important to really understand what you set out to in this world as an entrepreneur and what you should do in order for you to give back the most and to actually enjoy what you do every moment of your time. So definitely agree with that. That's why I changed running a 15 people agency to a two person consultancy because life is great, and that's how it should be. You should just really find your niche. So, how can our listeners get their personalized video from Snoop Dogg or Lance Bass, or for 11 bucks, I think, even from yourself?D Townsend:Yeah, so go to,, check it out. We have over 10,000 selling on our platform now. You mentioned a few, pretty much... And our goal is to get everybody who has fans so that your favorite person in the world will be on Cameo. But check it out. Give the product a try and let me know what you think at Geyrhalter:Awesome. Yeah, I definitely want to tell everyone to take advantage of that. I think I've got some insanely amazing and just truly talented entrepreneurs on my show, and a lot of them give out their cell number, and a lot of them give out their email, and I think that's not normal. You're not going to see that in a lot of magazines and other podcasts. So I'm super, super appreciative of that, and I want everyone to take full advantage of being able to actually do that and share their feedback. So, thank you Devin for your time. I'm so glad that we finally got a 25 minutes podcast today. Thank you for your time. Based on your rate on Cameo, your minute is about 11, so I guess I owe you around 240 bucks now. And thanks to everyone for listening. And please hit that subscribe button to not miss any future shows and do give the podcast a quick rating. It is the one thing I'd love to get in return from you guys. This podcast is brought to you by FINIEN, a brand consultancy creating strategic verbal and visual brand clarity. You can learn more about FINIEN at The Hitting The Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we, once again, we'll be hitting the mark.
I sit down with my lawyer (indeed!), who has not been my lawyer before I invited him onto my show. I came across their site,, after hearing Sam speak in an interview and it took me only a few split seconds to know that I have to get him onto this podcast. I believe in a brand being authentic, and direct, and as simple as being bold sounds, it takes a special personality and lots of guts to actually pull it off and to pull it off successfully, and the partners at this San Diego law firm sure pulled it off.Sam and I talk about why they have a bold and authentic brand, how it helps and where it hurts.An episode that any bold entrepreneur and marketer should dive into and learn from when they need a good kick in their behind to take some bold moves.To connect with Sam, hit him up at or visit the ever so intriguing 'anti-law-office' law office brand at wilkmazz.com____Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter:Welcome to episode number 14 of Hitting The Mark. It's still such a baby, 14 only. It's crazy, but today we dive into how one can craft a brand that stands out within an entire industry, simply by being bold. Those of you who follow me closely know how much I believe in a brand being authentic, and direct, and as simple as being bold sounds, it takes a special personality and lots of guts to actually pull it off and to pull it off successfully. Today I talk with Sam Mazzeo, who is co-founder and partner of the law firm Wilkmazz in San Diego. I learned about his firm while I was doing research for an interview I had coming up on Fabio Palvelli's show, and I stumbled upon Sam who was on that program right before me. He talked refreshingly direct about law for visual artists, so I glanced at his firm's website for about 10 seconds and I knew that I had to have this guy on my show. Sam got his start in litigation before diving into the social impact world as legal counsel at Invisible Children, after the organization released the most viral video in history. That's a big claim, but if I tell you what it was, you will agree it was KONY 2012, which is quite amazing. He currently spends his time sending gifs and not jifs, which is very important to him, to clients in between filing trademarks and drafting contracts. He has also served on some legit local boards like TEDx San Diego and Think Dignity. Fun fact, he learned to do a standing back flip for a Teen Wolf costume. And in the few weeks that I have now corresponded with him, I can attest to the gif sending habit, but have not witnessed the Teen Wolf back flip yet. With that being said, welcome to the show, Sam.S Mazzeo:Thank you. Yes, I'm glad to be here. Excited to talk about our brand and all the things that that means.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. So first off, when I saw your site, which I mentioned, I was just immediately in awe of what you did from a branding side, which we will dive into shortly. But rather important to mention, and in full transparency to our listeners, in the few weeks from when I booked you on the show to today, I actually ended up hiring you to review a massive contract of ours. Which not only speaks volumes about how branding actually leads to sales, but further you were reviewing my contract verbally. So via dictation or voice, since you had a really bad cooking accident on Mother's Day, I learned, and you were not able to use your right hand. Still are not able to use your right hand. And that speaks volumes about you as a person, and how much you actually care about your clients. So how are you recovering from a peculiar accident in the kitchen that most probably completely disrupted your own brand for a little while?S Mazzeo:Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I appreciate you checking in on that. It's definitely been an adjustment. And I think that, you know, one of the things that our brand does is hopefully demonstrates who we are. Because I think at the end of the day, one of the things that we'll touch on is transparency. And so in that same vein, you know, as soon as this accident happened, I had a short sort of debate in my own head about whether or not to let people know that this has happened. Because we're a small team, we're a team of three lawyers, and if one person has the loss of the ability to use one of their hands, I could see where that would go a long way to maybe degrade the confidence in our firm, and our work, that our clients may have and that our partners may have. And so I went back and forth a little bit, but like I said, it was a short debate because at the end of the day, you know, that transparency is going to be the one of the most important things to us and to our clients. So I want them to know what's going on, both from the perspective of, I care about my clients as people, as humans, as friends. And I think a lot of them do the same for me and for my staff. So beyond just notifying them for that reason, I thought it was also important to let them know that, you know, maybe there will be a few less gifs, and maybe there will be some oddly capitalized text in my emails because I'm using voice to text. And so it's definitely been an adjustment. You know, I think I'd be lying if I said Game of Thrones that night didn't influence my use of the knife in the kitchen that day, and so maybe I can blame it on that and HBO, but I'm doing well.F Geyrhalter:Well, needless to say, I'm sure you're unsubscribed from HBO now like everyone else.S Mazzeo:Right.F Geyrhalter:Well, I mean look, I think that the way that you handled that, and I was actually part of that, because at that point I was already a client of yours, well last week, right? It is so true that people don't hire the brand they fall in love with what you say and how you say it as a brand, but then to get to know you and in the end they deal with you, and people like you, otherwise they wouldn't work with you. Right? I mean, that's just the truth. That's how it works. People have a lot of empathy, especially when you portray your brand in such a transparent and authentic manner. I mean, on your site, you greet visitors with the line, and I love that, "We're just like you, but lawyers." And once you actually dive into the site, you see an area called a lawyer's shit, which is an assortment of visual notes. Many of them are gift. And now that I started working with you, my client dashboard has the same name. So when I get to look, and the audience has to realize, you know like how this is so different? When I get to look at mundane yet super critical contracts that you send me, you actually push me into an area called lawyer shit. So under lawyer shit, I see my contracts and you further explain on your site that we think anyone taking a , and doing something different, deserves bitching lawyers. While I feel that you yourself are doing something quite different, how did this all start and like how was that bold language being crafted?S Mazzeo:Yes, great question. So yes, in a real quick plug for our own services, is that legal locker is what you're referring to. It's something that we give to all of our clients that houses all of their legal documentation, and it does have a big banner that says lawyer shit at the top. And you know, I think I will get around to answering your question. But the lawyer shit thing is so interesting because, you know, it was one of those things where we went back and forth throughout the branding process. And I think, you know, there comes a point where you have to make a decision, and you touched on it a little bit in the intro, but you have to make a decision on whether or not you are going to go for it, and whether or not you are going to be bold. Because you can continue to sort of toe the line and the status quo is always going to be a very non-offensive, very non bold, it doesn't jump out at you type of website for a law firm and for lawyers. And I think that, that serves the purpose by and large for what lawyers mostly need. Frankly, I want to also recognize and acknowledge that as a transactional corporate attorney, that helps artists, and nonprofits, and businesses, and startups, that we're in a unique sort of field. Because if we were criminal law, or family law, you know, we can't have a fun website to the degree that we can with the work that we do. The other funny thing about the lawyer shit piece is that I've had conversations with other attorneys that are more of the traditional approach to the brand, and to the style of the practice of law. And they've told me flat out that other lawyers have seen that, and we're known as the lawyer shit guys, and that it's totally unprofessional and inappropriate. And so I think that I had two reactions when I heard that. One is, "Oh, I kind of wondered what some of the bigger law firms thought of this." And two, "I don't really give a shit if they don't like it."F Geyrhalter:Well, may I add three to this? It actually showed you that it works, right? I mean if you get negative response from the ones that you want to stand apart from, it's the best flattery. I mean, then you're like, okay, perfect, this is great, because if people start talking about us within the industry that we're different, and we want to be different for our creative clients. Perfect, right?S Mazzeo:Yes, haters are going to hate.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely, absolutely, and they have a good reason. They have a good reason, right? It's threatening, it's insecurity. It's like, oh wow, they're bold and we're not. So obviously we're not going to like that. But you know, obviously, so you wanted from the get go be a no BS type of law firm, right? Which now ended up looking like a cool brand, more so than a law office, which is awesome for your creative clients, because they themselves surround themselves constantly with cool brands. So you fit right into their life. But how much of that was actually driven by your, and your co founders, personalities versus deeply connecting it and understanding that creative target audience? I mean, how did you know or decide that going that bold would end up winning you even geezer clients, like myself? Most others would be so afraid to take that step.S Mazzeo:Yes, well, I think we realized at one point, because we had a different brand before the brand that you see now, and it was a little bit more of the traditional approach, but it was still also younger and sort of a little bit more cooler, hipper, what have you. And so with this brand, you know, we weren't sure necessarily that it was going to resonate with people, but we spent probably ... I mean look, it was definitely longer than we planned on it being, and originally the rebrand was only intended to be an update to our website, and that other brand that we had. And then at some point along the way, and I do have to give a lot of credit to my business partner and co-founder Emily, because she at one point in time said, "Look, I want this to be fucking art." You know, at the time I think I was like, well that seems a little over the top. But I think as we sort of progress throughout the process, and we really brought together a team of individuals that were going to help with this. And you know, one of them, his name is Justin Power, he is in LA, he's a creative wizard. He had a sit down so many times and really just do sort of like brand identity brainstorming. And really to your point as to some of the topics we'll talk about, it really is more about who we are, who we need to be for our clients, and really what we are putting out there. Because at the end of the day, I think the epitome of a good brand is that it is a representation of the people behind it, and not one that's contrived, and not one that's inauthentic. It has to actually be you. Because with lawyers in particular there's so many stigmas and there's so many good reasons for there to be stigmas. And so we realized that people want to work with us because they might want to get a beer with us, or go get coffee with us. And so at the end of the day, you know, there's a ton of lawyers out there, and there's certainly no shortage of lawyers that reach out, and you know, try to get business if you meet them at an event or what have you. And so for us it's a lot about, do we get along with who we'd be working with? Because another thing that I say all the time is, you know, work is work. Do I enjoy every contract that I draft? Do I enjoy advising on the same type of contractual language four to eight times a week? Maybe, maybe not. But do I enjoy who I work with and that they're trying to change the world and that they're doing awesome things? Yes, that I do enjoy. And so I think your brand has to represent who you are, because then it brings who you want to work with.F Geyrhalter:I absolutely agree with you. I absolutely agree with you. And when we ourselves actually as a brand consult, and we are currently going back to that, and actually constantly refreshing that too, of like who are we really? And how do we want to live our days? Right? Because in the end, you know that's how you spend most of your life. Doing what could be considered work, but it doesn't have to be considered work if you actually enjoy the people that you surround yourself with. I totally agree with that and on your about page which you titled Letter, you write the following and I will absolutely a hundred percent read this verbatim right now, because it is just brand language poetry, and it was so good to hear that you spent a lot of time actually massaging that because it definitely shows. So here's how it goes. "This is that page of the website you always skip. It's a love letter to the anonymous many who mainly avoid having lawyers as friends. If you're being honest, then we have to say that we never originally intended on being lawyers. It turns out that we love it. It turns out that being one is about empowerment more than anything. Money doesn't tell you how to be a person. Red Tape doesn't define a business. We're here frankly to be your shit umbrella so you can do your actual work with joy, leave the paperwork, and processes, and awkward, stressful, tense emails to us. You have unexpected places to take your crusade or enterprise. The future is always abstract, but your vision isn't. One creative human needs friends to make a vision real. It turns out you need creative lawyers too. The point is we love you, we hear you, and we want to help you. Signed, just a couple of lawyers with hearts on our sleeves." So what I'm wondering, so it's real, it's really, really beautiful, right? Like on many levels, and what you just said is totally embodied in this. But what I'm really interested in is how did this narrative that you crafted change client behavior? Because you know, I'm wondering, are people opening up? Are they being more authentic in return? Is there a client lawyer wall that you have successfully smashed solely because of the way you present your brand?S Mazzeo:Yes, I think, you know, first and foremost, I want to say, and I think this is probably true of any creative process. It takes, like I said, a team. It takes a village, and we had an incredible writer and editor that helped us with our site. Her name is Amy Boyd and I won't take away from that Letter though because Emily spent a lot of time just with morning pages, and writing in the morning, and she kind of came up with this beautiful sort of outline of what we're doing. And I think that, you know, through the process of having Amy help, and then also the various different brand meetings, we really sort of honed in on that ultimate copy that made it onto the website. And it is beautiful, and it's so representative, but it's also interesting because as your business and as you change, your brand has to, and so we're already looking at how we might want to update that to sort of highlight more of the education that we do now and so on. But to answer your question, yes, I think, it's a gift and a curse sometimes because I do think that we have much more transparent and authentic conversations with our clients. We certainly feel that we're much more on the same page with our clients. And I think that they feel that probably even more so than we do. You know, at the end of the day, we know what we're doing for our clients and we have our processes and our systems. And I think so the differences with them, if there's a wall that got smashed down, it's for the client. They really feel now like when they sit and they speak with us, or when they're talking to on the phone, that it's not this lawyer up here on this pedestal talking down to them, the common folk that need the lawyer's help. It's we're peers, and we're friends, and we want to help you out because we care about what you're doing. So I do think that that happened and I think though that going back to the gift and the curse aspect of it, there is something that comes with our brand. And with that sort of informality that we also have to make sure that everything we do is so buttoned up, and is so pristine, and that we are so responsive. Because if we portray a brand of these casual, fun lawyers and then we screw something up, and not to say that that's something that happens, but you know, if we're a little late on a response, it be .. you know, if we have a typo in a document, or whatever the case may be, it's really easy then for that client to go, "Oh well they're just fun lawyers. They're not good lawyers." And so it really is a double edged sword. And I, and I cringe using that analogy with my hand injury right now.F Geyrhalter:Oh God, yes.S Mazzeo:But it is because, you know, we have to make sure that everything we do is to the utmost level of service in order to make sure that that brand comes across as what I described before. Friendly, approachable, transparent, on the same page. Because, you know, if we do anything subpar, it's sort of, it's highlighted, it's emphasized, it's multiplied. And so I do think that our clients do feel like that wall has been sort of taken down, but at the same time it can go right back up really quickly if we're not on top of it.F Geyrhalter:Yes, you're absolutely right. I mean, you're fully aware of the danger that comes with it. But you know, quite frankly, being bold, and being authentic, and being you, and being a friend brand in that sense. And I hate saying it that way, but that's what it is, right? Completely hundred percent wins over the risk, and I can attest to that because I have been going through the exact emotions that you're sharing now. So when I saw your brand, I'm like, I gotta have this guy on my podcast. And then I ran into issues with a contract, I needed it really quickly, I reached out to you, and I was wondering, I'm like, Well, is that just a cool for facade? Is it just a cool brand? And are these just kids that are just, you know, like fun? Are they actually like serious lawyers? So it is the exact same hesitation that I have, but it's still a hundred percent won over. The transparency, the boldness, I'm like, I want to work with these guys. Like it makes sense to me. And then of course you totally, I'm not going to make metaphors like, you know, pulled an arm or like, you know. But you just came, you just totally delivered. And so that's, that's what it's about. But I believe that someone who would be afraid if they would be able to deliver, they would just hide on their regular law firm website and content. You know what I mean? Like they would just look like everyone else. So I think that there's something about being so bold that makes me realize, well these people know what they're doing, otherwise they wouldn't be able to pull that off.So question to you, Legal Unicorn. It's an attorney network that I think you helped build? How did that come about? And how do the Wilkmazz and Legal Unicorn brands interact?S Mazzeo:Yes, I'll start with the Legal Unicorn Society is kind of a passion project, and I think it's also a really necessary addition to professional services. Generally speaking, not just the legal industry. And look, I would be lying if I said we're full steam ahead with the Legal Unicorn Society because it's been difficult to do that, and, you know, because we've got to run the law firm. I do a lot of local advocacy work through another nonprofit that I helped found. And then with Legal Unicorn Society we did, we actually filed all the nonprofit paperwork for it. We co-founded it with a number of other lawyers. And the reason that I say it's such a necessary thing for professional services, is that what ends up happening I think, and especially nowadays, is that the trend at least is toward smaller mom and pop, for lack of a more modern term for a small business that that cares and is kind of family values. That's kind of where we're going with most of the what we call the millennial generation. But I think that spans a good segment of our workforce nowadays. And so it's people that do several different things, or they have their own small business while they do other jobs. And so I think that in doing that, one thing that is lost, is that with giant law firms, and if you go to a giant law firm, you need help with A, B, and C, they can also do X, Y, and Z. Because they're a gigantic law firm with a million lawyers. And so we don't have that. And so one of the reasons that this sort of came about was we needed to have that sort of big law firm feel, while still maintaining small law firm prices and that small law firm approach to the service for our clients. And so we just started to realize that there were a couple other law firms out there that were doing it like we're doing it. And I think that, you know, traditionally you're going to hear someone say, "Oh no, there's a competitive brand out there." And frankly I could give no shits less about there being competitors that look and brand themselves, and treat their clients the way that we do. As a matter of fact, I think that that's the way I'd love to see the industry go. And we have interns every semester because we want to show the younger generations of lawyers that you can do it this way, and that you can have fun doing it. And so when we found these other brands that were doing it in a fun way, there's Framework Law in LA, there's Kyle Westaway in New York, there's a few of them out there. And we just wanted to make sure that we maintain a network with these other law firms because A, we can all learn from each other. B, we can all share clients if we have different expertise, and C, like we don't ... we can't walk down the hallway and talk to another attorney in our big law office and go, "Hey, am I crazy?" Or like, "What have you seen on this type of thing?" And so we have that now with the Legal Unicorn Society and there's other benefits that we hope to achieve as far as like discounts on group rates for different professional services. And we want to do retreats and we did an event in Venice last year that we called the Legal Unicorn Academy, where we did a day long event teaching people about finance, legal, wellness. You know, we had meditation, we had branding consultants come in and we did the whole deal. And so we really just formed that nonprofit to, I guess, add more value both to our profession, but also to the people we serve.F Geyrhalter:Very, very, cool initiative. And it makes so much sense, everything you said. It's again, it's part of the defense mechanism that, kind of like, you know, like it's being triggered where you're small, you're doing something different, you're going against the grain, who else is doing this? It's kind of like, let's all join forces, so that we're bigger, right? That we can actually utilize each other and the strengths of each other. It's great. So with that being said, you're very much like myself. You're a serial entrepreneur, you know, you have ideas, you want to push them out. You want to actually create businesses, like Legal Unicorn Society, which as you said, there's already enough on your plate and why do you do it? Well, you just have that urge. And that's why I love having people like you on, because this show is definitely for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. But what was a ginormous brand fail that you went through? Like things go wrong. And with your brand specifically, I'm wondering, did you ever overstep it? Or was there something where you just felt like, now we should just take a step back?S Mazzeo:Yes, you know, I had seen that question when you had sent it over in advance, and I was trying to think through. I certainly don't want to act like there hasn't been any fails in my professional career. And I think if I had to point to a sort of a brand fail for us, you know I would have to probably say that right now the brand that we have doesn't highlight a couple of things well enough. And it obviously like overall our brand is a total smashing success and I'm very thankful for that. But I do think that if I pointed to ... the things that come to mind are, it took us forever to get it out and we actually, the update to the website that we originally going to do, that then sort of morphed into a rebrand, was to get our associate attorney at the time on the website and he ended up leaving before we even got the rebrand done. I would say that's a peripheral brand fail. Then I would say also that I really don't feel like ... and I get mixed feedback when I say this, but I don't know if I feel like my ... the brand currently demonstrates enough how much we care about our clients and that we really, really, feel as though our value is that we educate our clients along the way. You know, I really have come to the conclusion that the way we represent our clients is that we help them usually at an early stage with everything that they need to get set up for the short and long term. And in doing so, we really educate them on all of those steps. At least I hope that this is the case. And in doing so, they may not need us, you know, anytime soon or again at all, and that's totally fine. We just want them to tell a friend, so we can help that friend in that same position.I think that our website could do a better job of highlighting that educational component, and that empowerment component. And I do think that just from ... there's too many pictures of my face, and my business partners face on this website. That's the other thing that I think would be a slight fail, is that I'd love to highlight and lift up our clients a little bit more, and our staff a little bit more.F Geyrhalter:That makes a whole lot of sense. It's not necessarily a fail, but I love that story. Because it was a little bit out of your control, most probably when you did the rebrand for one reason and then it ended up actually for a different reason. But I mean I'm so glad that you did, because that's how I found you and I think it is so noble the way that you approach this. When I do my workshops with my clients, it's those notorious eight hour workshops where I like pull the company out of them. Like help them create a brand and define who they are. And one of the things that we do is a memorial speech and so it's basically sitting down if like, okay, 20, 30 years from now, 50, 60 years from now, what would you tell an audience if you're brand doesn't exist anymore? And why does it not exist anymore? And what are they actually missing? And what happens very often these days is that clients say exactly what you just said where, well, I hope we're just not necessary anymore. I hope that in 40 years from now everyone's going to have learned so much from us, that don't need us anymore. Or that everything is just honest, or law is just changing, or whatever. So I think that that idea that you actually want to educate your clients rather than, you know, dictate onto them what they need to forward to their clients to get a contract signed, is a huge, huge, brand trait. And I totally agree, we feel like celebrating that on your website and celebrating your clients. You know, obviously mainly myself I think would be a noble thing for you to do.S Mazzeo:Well brands have to change, you know, sooner or later I think you refer to yourself as a geezer earlier on on this call, which you're way too young to be doing that. But sooner or later, you know, myself and my staff and we're going to be geezers too. And the website won't be cool with, if you know, it looks like it's a young hip website with a bunch of old people in the photos. And so, you know, brands and things change. And so, I think every brand has a shelf life, and that's something that we all have to acknowledge and be aware of too, because then it becomes inauthentic if we just leave it, and set it, and forget it.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely right, absolutely right. And that's why most of the people that I speak to on this podcast, they do say that. They say that every year we meet and we look at our brand, and we say, is this still us? Does this still represent us? And it's such an important exercise to do, especially also for brand agencies. Like people like me who do that everyday with others, but it's so hard to do it for yourself. So it's a super important lesson to learn. Is there any brand advice that you have for founders as a take away?S Mazzeo:You know, I think it's really important when it's founders plural, just period, kind of hard stop there because I think that you always have to have a balance. And I do think that this brand would not be nearly as impactful, and nearly as bold if it wasn't for Emily. And I think that we probably would have went too far over the top in some areas if it wasn't for me. And so I think that it's super important to make sure that you have that balance amongst founders. And I think that most successful businesses that is part of what makes them successful, is that you have that counterbalance of the personalities that run the business. And so, I think at the end of the day that's probably what steered us in the direction that we went. And a lot of the time, I was blown away by the creativity that I saw coming from the team that we put together and coming from Emily. But then there were other times where I would have to say, "Look, I know for a fact that that will not be helpful for us in certain situations that we deal with for our clients." And so there's that competing interest of course, of making sure that the website represents us, but then also making sure that it doesn't hurt our clients when we're doing work for them and we're supporting them. Because one thing to this day that I still have to tell my clients is, "Look, if you need us to send a demand letter, or a cease and desist letter, and someone looks us up, we're not the scariest law firm out there. So you may actually want to work with a different firm for something like that."F Geyrhalter:Interesting, and that's where you have your Legal Unicorn Society where you might be able to reach out to them, or then they refer you to someone who looks really, like big and lean, big and mean.S Mazzeo:Totally.F Geyrhalter: And I think most probably with your continuous rebranding, there's always a way to kind of like balance one and the other. Besides a whole lot, what does branding mean to you? I know it means a whole lot to you, but what, to you and to your firm and what you've been going through in the last months or years, what does it mean to you? How important is it to you?S Mazzeo:I mean, it's one of the most important things, but then also at the same time, as I said, that I wanted to sort of catch myself because the most important thing is the work that we do. And the service that we provide. But I think that you can look at brands as the storefront nowadays. And so you think to the past, and you think about businesses, and how tremendously important that sign out front is and what the windows look like, how nice the store looks and is kept up. And so nowadays that's our storefront, is our brand. So depending on the day you catch me and you talk to me, some days I'm going to say it's the most important thing because look, we wouldn't be sitting here right now doing this. You know, you wouldn't have hired me last week to work on something for you had we not had a beautiful storefront on the internet. But on another day, you might talk to me and I might say, "Look, it's the icing on the cake. If someone hears about the work we did for someone else, and that person was thrilled and that's why they recommended us, then the website is just the cherry on top." It's the icing on the cake when they go and they say, "Oh, I heard good things about them and oh shit, their website's really cool too." So I think, you know, maybe this is a non answer cause I'm saying it's both tremendously important and also not important at all. But I think that somewhere in between is the truth. And I think that you can't do business nowadays without some kind of brand. Whether or not that means that there's a visual presence, or just that's your personal brand and how you interact with people. So I think it really depends on which way you look at it too. Because you know, sometimes I think about how there's a lot of lawyers that just do their work through word of mouth referral and they don't even have a website. And that doesn't mean that they don't have a brand. I'm sure if you talk to people, and you talk about how that lawyer interacts with their clients, you know, they must be doing something right in order to not even need that storefront. And so they have a brand too, and it's just a more interpersonal brand. And so I really think that depending on any way you break it down, brands are tremendously important nowadays. And even more so, I'm going to put the lawyer hat on for a second, because with the way intellectual property is nowadays and how much harder it's getting to protect your own trademarks, and your own brand, and it's so much more important to have a brand because the market's crowded. And so it's just a difficult thing to have and protect in and of itself.F Geyrhalter:I'm so glad that you touched on that. Super, super important and we feel that every day as we file for trademarks, and as we create brands here, it is getting more and more difficult by the minute. Listeners who fell in love with, may I say it, a law firm just now, where can they connect with you?S Mazzeo:Yes, so you can find us online at Same going to be for the social media handles. It's going to be Wilkmazz, W-I-L-K-M-A-Z-Z. And then also if you want to just shoot us an email, whether you need help, or you just want to give us a shout. We love to meet new people. It's You know, traditional spelling of holler when you want to holler at someone, and then Wilkmazz as I spelled. So those are some of the easiest ways to reach out to us. You know, it's 2019 if you send us a Facebook message, or social media message, just, yes email. If you reach out through the website portal, we're going to get it and get back to you pretty quickly. That's definitely something that we find to be tremendously important. Like I mentioned at the earlier part, is responsiveness. So yes, feel free to reach out just if you want to say hi. We love meeting other cool brands too.F Geyrhalter:I can attest to the responsiveness. Thank you, Sam, for having been my guest and for sharing what you do, how you do it, and most importantly, the authentic manner in which you do it with my listeners. That was absolutely bitching to use your well-crafted brand copy.S Mazzeo:Thank you. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to speak with you, and hopefully everyone that hears this learns that, hey, you don't have to do it the way that, whatever it is you do, whatever profession, you don't have to do it that old, traditional way. You can do it whichever way you want and you can be you doing it.F Geyrhalter:Amen. And thank you all for listening, and even more for rating my show since I am sure that is exactly what you will be doing right this minute. This podcast is brought to you by absolutely no sponsor because I have not had a chance to create an official sponsorship program, or to ask for sponsorship. So if you're interested, reach out. You know where to find me. The Hitting The Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we, once again, we'll be hitting the mark.
Fabian sits down with Chris Kerr, the Chief Investment Officer at New Crop Capital, who has nearly 30 years of leadership experience with startups and venture capital investing. He has spent the last decade focused on impact investing with a concentration on the plant based foods sector.We recorded this episode the day after Beyond Meat hit the stock market. The brand is a poster child of Chris Kerr's investment portfolio, and it also is an industry daring darling. And what went well beyond the wildest expectations with stock trading at nearly triples from the original IPO price the day after, this episode is filled with enthusiasm and learnings that go well beyond one brand.An episode any entrepreneur should digest as we discuss the importance of naming, how you can build a company around a brand and how a startup needs to test, test, test, and then test again.You can learn more about Chris via the New Crop Capital site.____Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter:Welcome to Hitting the Mark. Today, we go beyond meat. Yes, that was a brand hint. And not only do we go beyond beef, but also butter, cheese, chicken, ice cream, sea food, and yogurt. Today, we're diving into the future of food, for the development of replacements to animal protein products. I first read about Chris Kerr in the Good Business issue of Bloomberg Business Week way back in December, 2018, which dedicated four entire pages to his story. Which is quite an accomplishment. As sometimes is the case, good things take time. But today, he is on my show, and I couldn't be any more honored to have him here. Chris is the chief investment officer at New Crop Capital, and has nearly 30 years of leadership experience with startups and venture capital investing. He has spent the last decade focused on impact investing with a concentration on the plant based foods sector. As CIO, Chris manages the portfolio strategy and serves as a strategic advisor to most portfolio companies. Chris also serves as co-CEO and chair of Good Catch, managing member of TRELLIS NEW ENDEAVORS, director of Purple Carrot and Next Foods, and observes Miyoko's Kitchen. Additionally, Chris is a director at Unovis Partners, Sirabella's, Wicked Healthy, Math Garden, Pitcairn Financial Group, and Monarch Corporation. How does he do it all? I do not know. And how does he find time to talk branding with us here is less mystery than it is a testament to his dedication to the cause and to fellow entrepreneurs. With that being said, welcome, Chris.C Kerr:Thank you very much for having me. I'm looking forward to a lively conversation.F Geyrhalter:It's a pleasure. You say lively conversation because you and I chatted before, and I know you only got two hours of sleep. So first off, congratulations, what a day. We're recording this show on May 3rd, 2019, which happens to be the day after Beyond Meat went IPO. And what must have gone well beyond the wildest expectations with stock trading at nearly triples from the original IPO price. This also marks a first for a company making meat-like products from plants. So that's a pretty big thing, to hit the stock market. Chris, Beyond Meat is a poster child of your investment portfolio, and it also is an industry daring darling, I would say. What does this day mean to you? What does it mean to the industry as a whole?C Kerr:Well, my wife and I talked about this yesterday. My other business partner, Chad Sarna, who's a chef in this space, I would put this down as the single greatest day in the entire time I've been working in this space. I got into this area, and I'm an animal guy. I love animals, enough suffering in the world. I figured, let's try to take some of my abilities and work on putting them towards solutions to solving what we consider to be a crisis. When we started this effort, it was really around 2005. In 2007, I went to work for the Humane Society of the United States, trying to bring solutions to solve some of the things that they were working on. At the time, Beyond Meat was a little company called J Green Foods, the business plan was a very typical first business plan for a company, which if you're smart, a lot of founders will throw those away as quickly as possible. The company really evolved, from really this startup mode. But it was as time went, Silicon Valley was just starting to pay attention to this particular space. What we didn't know at the time was where this would go. So back in 2007, 2008, when I started this, really, it was very hard to get anybody to pay attention to what we were doing. The markets had collapsed, nobody really wanted to take any venture capital investments, let alone vegan food. Good lord, nobody thought that there was anything to do there. So to have this culminate from that, which was really kind of grabbing at straws, hoping something could evolve into a disruptive technology, to an IPO that then just outperformed everyone's expectations. And I've got to tell you, that was only one of three amazing things that happened yesterday. I can't talk too much about the other three. But I can just tell you that the world has completely shifted from the days of J Green Foods to what is now Beyond Meat's IPO and the fact that virtually, every major strategic food conglomerate out there is sitting up and paying really big attention to this space. I have to say, I'm delighted that I happened to have stuck it out this long. So it was really a [crosstalk 00:05:12] day.F Geyrhalter:And you played quite an integral part of this whole thing. Not only Beyond Meat, but of the entire, I guess we can call it now, of the movement. That really, like you said, just happened in the last couple of years, where it really started seeing an impact. So congratulations, it's really big stuff.C Kerr:Well thank you. Like I said, time, luck, circumstance, sometimes just being in the right place for long enough, something's going to hit you. What's the saying? Even a broken clock is right two times a day. So, [crosstalk 00:05:46].F Geyrhalter:Very modest of you. So just the other week, I think it was last week actually, I listened to our local NPR station, here in Los Angeles, KCRW, and I caught Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown taking us through a behind the scenes tour of the factory. It was really, really fascinating. I'm a big fan of the product and so are a lot of people all over the world. I think by now, their plant based burger patties are being sold in the meat section, which by itself, is such a huge accomplishment, in about 30,000 stores. It's in Burger King, it's in Carl's Jr, Del Taco, and I even spotted it at Dodger's Stadium here, in LA. So the startup was founded in 2009, that's when you were involved with them. The patties started hitting stores really in 2016, and I mean it's 2019 now. So this is now actually going to market has not been too long of a distance to IPO. I mean, that's pretty crazy. The brand also has some even higher profile investors than yourself. There's Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, and former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson. When I heard about this, this basically underlines what you just said, right? The world is changing. Just recently, they secured the CFO's of Coca-Cola and Twitter to be on the board of directors. So with Beyond Meat, when did the team start to actively invest either time or money into brand strategy? Or into defining the voice, or actually the design. Do you feel it was a conscious decision from day one? Or was it something that kind of happened over time?C Kerr:It happened over time. But a lot of these companies don't get it right right out of the gate. Like I said, the company was started as J Green Foods. It became Savage River Foods, which was the name of a river that ran through Ethan Brown's home property in Maryland. It had to evolve. So branding was really interesting, and positioning is really important, too.F Geyrhalter:Right.C Kerr:I'm not an expert in any of this, by the way. Usually, this type of thing happens way above my pay grade. In this case is no exception. What we look at in our investment portfolios, we focus on what I refer to as the food pact. You may have heard me talk about this in the past. But we make decisions on food based on the efficiency of four key levers, it's taste, awareness, convenience, and price. We looked at, even if you look at kind of the evolution of Beyond Meat, they came to market with a chicken. It was a pretty good chicken, it was gluten free. But arguably, it wasn't the best on the market. Gardein was out there, it was a great product, but it had wheat gluten in it. So Beyond Meat said, "Let's try something a little bit different with pea protein." Which really kind of changed the focus towards pea protein, that was the early adopter of it. So their positioning really tied to that brand, their branding tied to that positioning. Who were they going to and why? So when you look at your customer, first of all, I've just got to focus on this. Taste is the most important thing by far.F Geyrhalter:Right.C Kerr:We always start with chefs. So in every case, chefs have to play a role in that. So when we start, when New Crop looks at a company, we always say, "Look, if we can get the taste right, the other things will slowly start to fall in place." If you miss taste, the rest is irrelevant. So when you look at Beyond Meat, they didn't start off really with chefs in there. We put a chef in there, a guy named David Anderson, who's arguably one of the best plant based chefs on the planet. He really helped them kind of refine some of their products in the mid range there. About five, six years in, he started helping with that. The Beyond burger, it came later, right? That was really just ... I'll say this about food companies, there's no such thing as an overnight success with food. Most companies don't get it right right out of the gate. If you look at, a good example is Silk soy milk, which everybody now knows. But that's a 40 year old company, and it was 20 years in before it invented White Waves Silk.F Geyrhalter:Wow.C Kerr:So a lot of these companies take a lot of time. What looks like overnight successes was, in fact, a lot of trial and error ahead of that. I don't think Beyond Meat's really much of an exception to that. They had some good products early on, but not enough to be groundbreaking. It wasn't until the Beyond burger came out that it really hit that inflection point. That just takes time sometimes. What they really did do is they really changed who the consumer was of this product. So if you look at the branding, the branding was not tied towards your early adopter vegans. Early adopter vegans, they're very principled, they're very loud, they love to talk about their findings, they have enormous price elasticity. They're very forgiving around taste. As you move out of that very small niche, which like I said is really critical when launching these companies. But as you move outside of them, your branding has to reflect what that consumer wants. Beyond Meat really followed that path in a really good way, where they understood the early adopters. They absolutely never violated the principles of those early adopters, that's really critical, because they will turn on you if you do. So you respect the early adopter's principles, because they do a lot of work for you. And you build that in as the baseline to how you build from there on out. I think that Beyond Meat just did an exceptional job of that. They never violated those principles. They were questioned about them. I think if you bring on Tyson as an investor, or put on an ex McDonald's CEO in the mix, some of those people will question that. But Ethan was spot on in saying, "Look, if we really want to help the cause, whether health is your driver, environment, sustainability, animal protection, welfare, you name it, everybody gets served by this if it can hit the mass market. So we really shifted that focus to addressing kind of the meat reducers, the flexitarians. And that Beyond burger is a bullseye. Sorry for the pun, but it's a bullseye.If you look at that inflection point, I think going forward in history, you're going to see everybody's game just got stepped up quite a bit. Consumers are, by far, one of the biggest beneficiaries of that.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. I mean, I looked at how the company is currently using key opinion leaders, or influencers, and they are not at all the typically associated with the industry type influencers, right? As you mentioned, the company knew very quickly that in order to go mainstream America, they need to get mainstream America athletes and diverse people, like guys flipping a burger in the backyard, right?C Kerr:Right.F Geyrhalter:That's the kind of people that they want to get. Forming that narrative must have been such a huge, important part of changing customer behavior. So yeah, I mean, well done. I also think about the packaging design, right? Which is so crucial to any big box retail company brand. Beyond Meat did something that I believe, I do not know, but I believe, it must have played a big role in its success outside of having a great product with an equally convincing story is that it creating packaging that actually looked like typical burger patty packaging. It was shrink wrap, it was see through. And that was a far fetch from the typical green cardboard boxes associated with vegan products.C Kerr:Sure.F Geyrhalter:Which in itself, are already pretty off-putting. Were you part of that time already? Did you witness that part of their story? Where they said, "Let's just package it like meat, let's try to get into the meat section of the market." Was that already part of that?C Kerr:Well I think early on, they're not actually the first one to try to get into the meat section. Gardein did it early on, Kite Hill did it with their cheese in the dairy isle. The problem is, the early adopters don't walk into that. So those who are the most, I will say, the loudest, don't actually walk into those sections, right? That's your kind of vegan early adopters. So it didn't do great. When Beyond Meat came out, two important things happened. One was that the market had kind of shifted towards being a lot more open towards these types of products. But the other part is that this product was good enough to actually reside there. So once you hit that threshold of, you can actually stand next to a burger and it be darn close to parity on taste and price, then the convenience kind of falls into place and the awareness kicks in. I think Beyond Meat really had to hit that sweet spot there. Gardein was in the deli section of Whole Foods probably in 2008, yeah, 2008, 2009. It did okay, but not great. Kite Hill, their non-dairy cheese was buried in a very complex high-end cheese isle that was very hard to find. So when the vegans went looking for it, that wasn't an area that they went to. When Beyond Meat came along, like I said, there was enough awareness about the product that it was happening. Plenty of marketing dollars went into that, but the market advising was really critical and letting consumers know where to look mattered, it certainly mattered. So I think, Whole Foods, by the way, has just been really critical in helping shape the merchandising so the early adopters can transition into the mainstream. So what they will do is, they'll put you in what we might call the penalty box, which is where all the vegan food goes. But they'll also put you in the deli, they'll also put you in the prepared foods isle. In the case of Beyond Meat, they actually opened a burger stand right in the middle of Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, that served just the Beyond burger. And that was a guy named Derek Sarno, who's one of our partners, he's a chef who is the executive global chef for Whole Foods, that was his concept. It worked. It allowed people to try out the product, to demo it, to understand what it tastes like, how do you prepare it? Is it different than real meat? Most of these products ... We have a company called Good Catch, Good Catch makes tuna fish. There's two questions that are asked, right out of the gate. What does it taste like? And how do I use it? Price isn't asked, nutrient value isn't asked. People are curious about it, but those are the first two things they want to know. So when it comes to positioning and merchandising, you solve those two first things. And sometimes, you need someone to demonstrate it to you. That's, quite frankly, where Whole Foods has just been outstanding in helping not just Beyond Meat, but all sorts of products, helped to do that.F Geyrhalter:It seems like it's the good old Costco trick, right? You show them how it's made right there, then people get to taste it.C Kerr:Yeah, merchandising's expensive. We vegans walk by tons of tasting stands, because we just assume that we can't eat it.F Geyrhalter:Yeah.C Kerr:Let me tell a story about Just Mayo. Just Mayo was doing demos in stores, and people would walk up and they'd say, "Well what are you serving?" And they would say, "This is vegan mayo." And the answer was, "I'm not vegan, no thank you." As though only vegans could eat this mayonnaise. Of course, Fritos are vegan, and we don't ask whether or not they're vegan, anybody can eat a Frito. So I think that merchandising is really critical in getting consumers to understand where they fit in the equation. If it's somebody who's lactose intolerant, yeah, you're going to want to try the newest nondairy milk. If it's somebody who's got allergens to soy, yeah, you might want to try a meat that isn't made out of ... meat analog that's not made out of wheat. That type of stuff is quite relevant, and I think those demos are really important.F Geyrhalter:Right, no, absolutely. I think, Chris, one of the most insightful things I learned when I read the Bloomberg Business article about you was that you have nine cats. I think some of them are starting to want to participate in this story, too. They said, "I don't only want to be in Bloomberg, I want to be here, too."C Kerr:Yeah, actually the cat that was in Bloomberg is the one that trying to get out the door, so yeah.F Geyrhalter:I think it's because of the name that you have given the cat. It's Claire de Lune or something like that? It's a very French name.C Kerr:Yeah, she normally sits on my desk here.F Geyrhalter:It's her business day has started. It's like, "Hey, it's 9:00am, what's going on?" Excellent.C Kerr:Sorry.F Geyrhalter:No, no, no, that's great. Hey so looking back at the success of Beyond Meat, and there's no better day than today, on May 3rd, to talk about this. We already touched on a couple of these. But when did you think, when did you know that this is going to turn from a startup into a brand? When did you feel that ... Not when you tasted it, or when you said, "This is going to be insanely good, people are going to love this." But from a marketing perspective, when did you feel like, okay, something right now just shifted, and this is going to be a brand?C Kerr:Quite frankly, when they settled on the name Beyond Meat. That was when the real marketing push came, and it had to do with how they were positioning it to the consumer base that went well outside of our vegan world. That shift really kind of said to the early adopters, thank you for your service, you've been phenomenal, let's take it to the next level. That happened actually pretty early on. The company started, when we started working on it in 2008, 2009. It was probably around 2012 that that name was adopted and then put into play. Prior to that, they were really focusing on food service and the name Savage River wasn't something that they were doing much with. I think by the time they came up with Beyond Meat they thought, okay, now we have something to rally around. That's pretty critical.F Geyrhalter:Absolutely. And that name was created by an agency with help? Or was that internally crafted?C Kerr:I believe it was internally crated. Beyond Eggs was out at the time, they were just getting started. So Hampton Creek had come up with the idea of using something along the lines of Beyond. Beyond Meat at the same time. Hampton Creek moved over, well they created Hampton Creek, and then Just. Beyond Meat was, I guess a good fit for them.F Geyrhalter:That's extremely refreshing to hear that a name was kind of that propeller into that next phase of the company. And where you felt like now it's a brand. But vegan is, as a whole, as a brand, changed tremendously. From not to tasty to incredibly cool. In fact, it also turned quite important given climate change, right? Which is one of the big reasons you're in this business. And yes, it also morphed into a very tasty food option. But most of the brands in your portfolio are also extremely design focused, I realized. The dairy free butter brand Fora, which I can't wait to get my hands on. But also your other investment firm, Unovis Partners, it seems like branding and design is always top of mind for you in many of your brands. What does branding mean to you? Either personally or to your industry as a whole? I mean obviously, with Beyond Meat we get a pretty good sense of what it can do.C Kerr:Yeah, honestly, it's absolutely critical. You think about it, it's communication, right? At the end of the day, you want to very quickly communicate to a consumer what it is you do. If you can get that in a brand, I think plenty of people overthink or they try to be creative with brands, and it just can kind of flop. A really good brand matters, because it really is that flash point around decision making. Again, you go back to the food pact. Awareness is critical. I use this example, if you are in a desert dying of thirst, crawling along the sand, and there's a body of water over a hill, if you don't know it's there, you're still going to die of thirst. Awareness is really around what is it that a brand or a company's trying to convey to you? So you need to know where it is, what to look for, then be able to make a rather quick decision around why you might want to buy it. So clearly, there's an industry around that. That's no surprise there. I think when you have an innovative product that's new to the sector, that's novel, disruptive, and consumers don't quite know what to do with it, you better get that brand right. You can't be too cheeky. Too many plays on words, that kind of stuff. You don't want to confuse the consumer in the process. So I think Beyond Meat really hit a good stride there. There's a couple other ones that did a good job. They didn't have a lot of professional help, but Daiya is another company that people kind of knew what it was right out of the gate. It was dairy but not quite dairy. Silk, perfect example, Silk soy milk. A grand slam, people pretty much knew, it's soy milk. You think about that when it comes to identity. For the consumer, there's not a lot of confusion for the consumer. Ultimately, I think that, when it comes time to make kind of very quick decisions, impulse decisions, the difference between a good brand and a bad brand is going to be the difference between a sale or a pass. The ones that are successful, they know how to really run with it.F Geyrhalter:So at what time in that startup journey with your portfolio companies is what time do you advise those companies to actually invest in branding?C Kerr:Day one, day one. Good Catch is a great example. We knew that we could get a formula ... We didn't know what we were going to do in seafood, we just knew that we were going to get into the seafood space. We had started the company from scratch, we worked with a branding agency. The brand is what we built the company around. So coming up with the name Good Catch really set in motion exactly what that company was going to do and why. With that, we can fill in the blanks pretty much in any direction we want. Now if we had come up with something that was cheeky or confusing, a rebrand is incredibly expensive.F Geyrhalter:Yep.C Kerr:Nobody wants to go through that. So to spend an extra 25 to $50,000 on an early brand saves you upwards of several million later in the game, not to mention a failed start, which is the worst possible outcome. So I recommend, by all means, don't just come up with a name between you and your founders and think that it's great. Test it, put it in front of groups. There's great organizations that will actually do concept testing for you, and New Hope is one of them that's in the natural products space. For very little amount of money, you can test a couple concepts and see how it resonates with consumers. Spend that money. To nickel and dime that early stage is arguably a death nail for a company, if you get it wrong.F Geyrhalter:Amen. It was a very tough pill to swallow for a lot of bootstrap, early stage founders.C Kerr:Yeah.F Geyrhalter:But in the food industry, you basically cannot be too bootstrapped in order to make it to the market, so.C Kerr:Well also, I really encourage people to not fall in love with their own branding. It's easy to do, you feel like it becomes part of your own personal identity. You came up with it, or your family did. It really is important to relay a message to the consumer, not to your sister. I think at the end of the day, a good brand will reach a really wide swath of the world and tell them exactly what it is you're doing. That's pretty critical.F Geyrhalter:Chris, this is how I started pretty much every speech to entrepreneurs. I tell them, everything you do right now is not about you. It's about them, right?C Kerr:Well said, well said. Ego can really get in the way of these. One of the things that we do with the companies that we start up with, our job is commercialization. Part of that commercialization is an education around the branding side of it. So if you look at the New Crop team, we're actually made up of a whole bunch of entrepreneurs, people who have started companies before. One of our guys, Dan Altschuler, used to run a branding agency, it's what he did. We have another woman, Laura Zane, who helps us put together the decks. Because quite frankly, selling investors on it is very similar to selling a product. You need to sell them on the concept, and they need to be able to understand it quickly. So that starts the design phase, by the time you're hitting the shelves, at that point, it's too late. So absolutely, you need to think of it from the ground up.F Geyrhalter:Any piece of brand advice and founders as a final takeaway? I know you already dropped a lot of them. Anything that you didn't share with us yet, as we come to a close?C Kerr:Test, test, test, and then test again. And by the way, the world isn't static. When we launched Good Catch, we did testing on words for our packaging, and two years later, the entire market shifted and we need to test it again. So by all means, the consumer changes, consumer perception changes, the markets change. Don't be afraid to change with them. Your job there is to get consumers to understand what you're doing. The other part of it is, test your products. Try new things. At the end of the day, don't be a believer in your own stuff. You need to actually rely on the broader community to help you with that. The good news is, they are delighted to help. Particularly the early adopter world where I come from. Vegans love to try new food, and when they find something great, they are incredibly loud about it. Be partners with them in that, and allow them to test as well. I think everybody can have fun with it when you're testing new things, so it's not a challenge, it's a joy. I think if you look at it from that perspective, everybody gets to have fun with it.F Geyrhalter:Fantastic advise. What's still untapped in the plant based market? I mean, is there something you're excited about that you'd love to see a team create, or something you'd be excited to invest in next? Or is this all beyond ... Not Beyond Meat, but beyond closed doors?C Kerr:So we've now hit pretty much every area out there. We're working on, pork still hasn't been done well, and that's a massive market, as you can imagine.F Geyrhalter:Right.C Kerr:We're working on some things there.F Geyrhalter:It's a huge necessity too, right now, I suppose.C Kerr:I'm sorry, say that again?F Geyrhalter:Pork is in huge demand, and there's lots of issues surrounding pork. And there's a shortage, and God knows what, right? So there's a huge need for it, too.C Kerr:China alone, I mean, it's just not ...F Geyrhalter:Right.C Kerr:So here's what's both sad and exciting. The meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood market's over a trillion dollars, and we are just, just, just getting in there. We're a rounding error in that. So the opportunities are global, they are massive, and they are urgent. You put those things together and create a little bit of R&D around that, these are going to be exciting times. Give us another decade. Look at what happened with the Beyond burger and the Impossible burger just in the last two years. They just got onto the map on an industry that's a couple million years old at this point.F Geyrhalter:Yeah.C Kerr:Since we started eating animals. This is going to be a very, very exciting ride. I would say collectively, if you ignore the marketing side, collectively, R&D and the plant based meat world, and dairy, I would argue, is less than $100 million in the history of it, that they've actually put into the R&D side of it. The more money that flows into that, you're going to see some absolutely phenomenal outcomes. I would imagine that the next decade is going to be spectacular for consumers, for animals, for the environment. Everybody's going to win, and it's going to be a fun time.F Geyrhalter:I think on that note, I want to thank you, Chris. It was impeccable for you to make it onto Hitting the Mark the day after the big IPO, I so appreciate the time you took away from doing press or simply celebrating on this huge day.C Kerr:Thank you.F Geyrhalter:It's a huge day for you, your company, and Beyond Meat. So absolutely, thanks for being here.C Kerr:Well, and thank you to the Beyond Meat, they're a spectacular team. They did all of the work. I got to sit back and watch the ride. But thank you for having me on, I really appreciate it.F Geyrhalter:Thanks to everyone for listening, and please hit the subscribe button and give this show a quick rating. I'm seeing way too little TLC from you out there, I know how many of you are listening. So if you have a split second and enjoy the show, please give it a quick rating. This podcast is brought to you by FINIEN, the brand consultancy creating strategic, verbal, and visual brand clarity. You can learn more about FINIEN and download free white papers to support your own brand launch at The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness One, I will see you next time when we once again will be Hitting the Mark.
Fabian talks with a founder who is doing his part in keeping the ocean clean, and he's doing it through his brand that is selling skateboards, sunglasses, surfboard fins, and Jenga games. Ben Kneppers is a co-founder of Bureo, an emerging B Corp focused on creating innovative solutions to ocean plastic pollution.Through the team's initiative, Net Positiva, Bureo has created Chile's first ever fishnet collection and recycling program. Net Positiva provides fishermen with an environmentally sound end-of-life solution for their fishing gear, while Bureo receives highly recyclable raw materials to create innovative products that bring net positive solutions to the world.Remarkable in many ways. Ben shares his insights on how to get strangers to believe in and act upon your vision, how Patagonia got involved with his brand, how collaboration is part of his brand's success story, all the way how to score a major PR story on CBS Evening News without spending a dime and so much more.You can dive into the Bureo universe via their site or Instagram account.________________Full Transcript:F Geyrhalter:                 Welcome to Hitting the Mark. Today, we are moving from skiing and snowboarding to surfing and skating, which is, by sheer timing, coincidence, but it worked out rather swimmingly, as we are transitioning into summer here in Los Angeles. Many of you noted I'm actually overlooking the ocean right now while recording every one of these sessions. I'm very fortunate to live and work by and frequently play in the ocean. On today's show, we welcome a founder who is doing his part in keeping the ocean clean, and he's doing it through his brand that is selling skateboards, sunglasses, surfboard fins, and Jenga games. Ben Kneppers is a co-founder of Bureo, an emerging B Corp focused on creating innovative solutions to ocean plastic pollution.Through the team's initiative, Net Positiva, Bureo has created Chile's first ever fishnet collection and recycling program. Net Positiva provides fishermen with an environmentally sound end-of-life solution for their fishing gear, while Bureo receives highly recyclable raw materials to create innovative products that bring net positive solutions to the world. Remarkable stuff, and I cannot wait to get into it. With that being said, welcome, Ben.B Kneppers:                  Thank you so much. So happy to be here, and thanks for inviting me.F Geyrhalter:                 Oh. Absolutely. Hey, it's a big pleasure. Where are you calling in from today? You're an international traveler. Where are you now?B Kneppers:                  I am ... Right now, I'm in São Paulo, Brazil, so this is actually kind of home base for me at the moment. I know it's a little complicated, us operating in Chile, but we're dramatically growing, and ... as is my family, so that's brought me to São Paulo.F Geyrhalter:                 Oh. That's beautiful, and how did it all get started? I mean, you're from Southern California originally, right?B Kneppers:                  Actually, no. I'm actually from New England. I grew up in Southern Massachusetts, but the-F Geyrhalter:                 Okay. Okay.B Kneppers:                  Yeah.F Geyrhalter:                 You-B Kneppers:                  It's been a pretty big whirlwind.F Geyrhalter:                 Yeah. Looking at your profile, I mean, you worked everywhere, I mean, from New Zealand, Australia, Boston, Southern California, and, you know. It seems like you guys ... How did you meet? I think it's you and two other co-founders, right?B Kneppers:                  Yep. That's right. David and Kevin, and then, soon after, we brought on Greg, which was a childhood friend of Dave's. We actually all, funny enough, we all grew up in New England, which is the Northeast of the US, and ... but we actually first, all three of us connected on the other side of the world in the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia. I was working as a environmental consultant, had a spare room in the apartment I was renting, and Dave moved in, continuing his career as a financial consultant. Then, his really good friend, Kevin, from engineering school was doing a surf trip around the world with his brother, Brian, and came through Australia, as well. Although we grew up fairly close by, we actually met for the first time together on the other side of the world.F Geyrhalter:                 Then, at some point, you guys must have gone surfing, and you started thinking about this idea of creating change.B Kneppers:                  Yeah. That's ... That hits it right on the mark pretty well. I mean, we really, obviously, just connected immediately over surfing and just enjoying the ocean environment, which you really can appreciate in Australia, and just spent ... We all spent our free time in that space. Kevin and David are really avid surfers, so they take it to a whole nother level than me. I just, personally, am, I'm someone that's always worked in sustainability and the environment and do appreciate a good surf when it's a nice, fun three to four foot day.F Geyrhalter:                 When did that idea spark? You guys are all surfing. Obviously, you come from the sustainability background, so it was just meant to happen, but what was that moment when you guys just kind of like put one and one together, and tell us a little bit about what happened after that time?B Kneppers:                  Yeah. I mean, it's pretty crazy to look back and see how long ago it is now, but I would say back in, probably, 2011, 12, something along those lines, when we first met, the free days we had were basically just spent at the beach, surfing all day and then having a few beers at night. Then, the days working were very long, and I would regularly see Dave coming home around midnight from the office. When we did have those late night drinks, we kind of just connected on this idea that there's ... what if we were to take all of these interesting skillsets we had ... Dave was working in finance. Kevin was working in engineering design at Boeing, and I was working in sustainability consulting. ... and combine them into something we're really passionate about.They always really appreciated how I got to do that with my consulting work, but quite honestly, I wasn't really seeing it pay off enough, because it was just writing reports and doing research. I wasn't really seeing that real change that really got me into that field. Over those late night beers back in 2011, I would say, we just thought, "What if we could combine those skills and do something more meaningful?" We ... As you do, you just have those conversations, and life goes on. What mine led to is an opportunity to work ... continue my career as a sustainability consultant in Santiago, Chile, where I was continuing in that space, and I came to this amazing country that was just so rich with natural environment, still very much untouched, but also a really great support system for entrepreneurs. I really not ... never thought of myself as being one, but looking at that space, and I just relayed that back to David and Kevin and saying, "Remember those talks we had all that time ago? Well, here's a space where we could really do something with it."There was a program called Start-Up Chile, and it's basically one of the best programs you can find globally to get a startup off the ground, where you submit a pretty straightforward application. If you get accepted, you get seed funding, visas to come to Chile, offices, support network to get your business off the ground. The next application was in six months, so we just put it onto ourselves to come up with some innovative idea that was really going to captivate that passion for the ocean environment and complement something meaningful with these skillsets that we've all gained in very unique areas.F Geyrhalter:                 That's pretty funny. So first it was the opportunity. Then, there came the idea.B Kneppers:                  Yes. Yeah. You can definitely say that. I mean, it all starts with the passion, of course.F Geyrhalter:                 Of course. Yeah.B Kneppers:                  I think that's the most important thing, but it certainly went that way. Yeah.F Geyrhalter:                 Then, obviously, you got accepted, and how was the journey from that idea on paper to actually hustling and getting these fishermen involved, and the community involved, and creating this entire chain of events until you actually have plastic come out on the other side that you can reuse. I mean, it's a pretty complex process, when you think about it, but when I watch your videos on Vimeo, it seems so easy. It's like you pop it in, and then out comes the skateboard. Right?B Kneppers:                  Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that was the beauty of it, right, is that it was such a idea that anyone can get around their head. You collect these fishing nets that can become a big pollution in the ocean. Instead, let's collect them, let's melt them down, and let's make new stuff out of them. I mean, it makes perfect sense. Right? But the reality is-F Geyrhalter:                 So easy. So easy.B Kneppers:                  Yeah. It's so easy. Why hasn't anyone else done it yet? The reality is is that was great to have such a clear vision, but, of course, the reality of getting something accomplished, especially in a new country with a different culture than you're accustomed to, different regulations, different supply chain requirements, figuring it all out from scratch, especially from creating an entirely new supply chain that's never existed before, it was an immense challenge, and I ... definitely something we should probably write a book about someday, because it was just unreal. But at the end of it all, what really was the breakthrough was when you build the strong relationships with these people.A lot of the time, especially in communities that are considered maybe a bit underserved, when we're in, in our case, a lot of these artisanal fishing communities, they do get, actually, a fair amount of people coming through and saying, "We want to do this and that" and promising them a lot, and especially with them being foreigners. Then, they get ... They've gotten their heart broken a few times, so they're a bit hesitant to the foreigner coming in and saying they're going to save the day. It was actually the commitment we showed. It was just the three of us. We didn't have the money to employ anybody to start, and we wanted to know the process.It was just the three of us collecting, scrubbing down these nets, cleaning them, packing them, getting them sent to the recycler. I think it was when we showed, day-in and day-out, that we were turning up and actually doing what we said we were going to do, we got a lot stronger relationships, and then the big breakthrough was when we came back with those first products, when we showed the skateboard made from their once fishing net trash, they ... It was just a huge breakthrough, and that was a really exciting moment where we got a lot more momentum for the project and we could see this thing really take hold.F Geyrhalter:                 How does it work with the fishermen? I mean, how do they get involved? Do they literally take their nets out of the boat, and then they clean it themselves, and they just put it into, basically, your own version of recycling bags?B Kneppers:                  Yeah. I mean, it started that way, as something as straightforward as that, but really, what we got to as a much more effective route is to have every community have a representative, a community collection manager, and then have every large fishery work directly with our regional collection manager. Every community or every fishery is kind of these sources of nets, where we do a launch. We do a big campaign to make people aware that, "Your end-of-life nets can now go through our program, so don't discard them." In the case of a low income artisanal fisherman, we compensate them directly, per kilo, for that effort of returning the nets, and it incentivizes them to not discard them in the environment.Then, in the case of these large commercial fisheries that would otherwise be having to, in some case, find a reuse market for them, but, in general, you'd have to pay to send this to a landfill, and what we do in return is we provide this free service to donate the nets to us. Then, for every kilo of net donated, we finance local community projects that we create with them to benefit the greater area, the greater community. It's been a really effective model, because it's, as we say, created a truly net positive impact. We're preventing this waste. We're employing local people, and we're generating funds to address the greater issues of each area, each community with the money we can generate from the nets.But the deeper thing is that you need to have change in order to truly prevent people from discarding waste, is no longer having them see it as waste anymore. You're never going to throw a dollar bill on the ground, because you know it's worth something, so the last thing that's going to be polluting the environment is most likely going to be dollar bills, because it's worth something. When we can make the connection to these people and cause a behavior change to no longer see it as a waste material, but instead as a resource, and that's where we can really ensure that this is not going to end up in the environment anymore, because there's only so far we can take it with our effort, from what ends up in the ocean. It actually has a lot to do more with that behavior change aspect to truly prevent all of it from ending up in there.F Geyrhalter:                 How did you create that method? Was it something that ... I mean, there's other companies that do similar processes. Did you learn from them, or did you just kind of figure it out as you were doing it?B Kneppers:                  It was a pretty organic process. World Wildlife Fund Chile helped shape that plan very early on in our operation, and we also seeked a lot of advice from other people in the fishing industry to get guidance on how to most effectively carry that out into that cultural, that context. We did also get a really great source of inspiration from what I think is probably the pioneers of this space, being the Net-Works program, and that's run through the Zoological Society of London. That ... I actually was given ... They've set up this program, very similar program to collect nets for recycling in Asia, and I had the pleasure of going and visiting their operations in ... about two years ago in the Philippines, and it was ... As much as I could understand from them, it was actually really remarkable, the intricate details of their operation, how similar it was to what we eventually came up with. That was a great exchange of ideas for both of us, to share what we were doing differently and how one another could improve on them.F Geyrhalter:                 Very cool. Talking about inspirations, how did your work with Patagonia come about? A lot of us have mentors, but it sounds like your mentor is a brand, and one of the most admired brands out there, at least in my eyes. How did that amazing relationship get on its way? Was it through the investment arm, Tin Shed Ventures?B Kneppers:                  It was. It was. I mean, we always had Patagonia as our benchmark, as our guiding light for a authentic, truly mission-driven company, trying to create the most sustainable product as well as being a great quality product, so it just hit all the boxes for us on what we wanted to try to achieve as a brand in our own context. But the way it went about is all the way back from when we applied for that first grant in Chile, one of the advice we got from somebody in the program was, "It would be really good, you guys creating a consumer product, to have someone from the retail space to really recommend that ... write a letter of recommendation to support this."All the way back then, we got to connect with Patagonia, tell them what we were about, what we were planning on doing, and just got such positive feedback and support and guidance from them. We just thought it was going to be left at that, "Thanks for the letter of recommendation. That's great." We were aware of their Tin Shed Venture fund, which is ... It's their arm of Patagonia that provides seed funding investments into early stage startups that are also having this shared value effort to benefit the environment and society, and ... but we always thought we were just way to small for something like that.Coincidentally, we got a piece in the CBS Evening News, out of anything, and it just happened to be watched by the manager of that fund. He reached out to us. It actually didn't really have anything to do with the other relationships we already had. We had a sit-down meeting, and the ... told them what we were planning on doing in a very humble way compared to them, and the rest is history. They've been our major ... our main investor and huge supporter for us to get to where we ... we're on path now today.F Geyrhalter:                 In a way, that PR piece on CBS, that actually, in the end, turned you into a real brand. Right? I mean, that was kind of like the beginning of the entire journey, in a way, or was it Patagonia?B Kneppers:                  Absolutely. Yeah.F Geyrhalter:                 It was both. It was ... One fed the other very quickly.B Kneppers:                  Yeah, and the whole way that piece went out was actually really ... I think it was a ... I have to say that it was pretty clever how we came up with getting on CBS Evening News and some other press outlets that we got into so early on.F Geyrhalter:                 Share. Share.B Kneppers:                  When we ... Everything ... After we had that, we had the six month Start-Up Chile program, all of that was geared towards us having the first working product being our first skateboard made from recycled fishing nets, and that was going to all lead into a Kickstarter campaign, because that was really going to finance the first production run and get us to keep going, quite frankly, because we're ... We didn't have any more funds from the Start-Up Chile grant. When we thought of the Kickstarter, we needed to get publicity. One of the really clever things we figured out was, "Okay. We obviously don't have any big marketing budget, but who, in their best interest, wants to see us succeed and promote our kind of effort that we're doing here?"We started to think of people that were in our networks that were also along for this ride. There were the straightforward ones like our skateboard wheel manufacture and truck manufacturer that was going to be paired with this really unique skateboard. Obviously, the Start-Up Chile program wanted to promote us, so we got some great press in Chile. Then, it even went as far as we followed up with our universities that we did our undergraduate engineering degrees, and one of them, mine, Northeastern University in Boston, they had a grant program for startups coming out of the university, as well. They supported us early on, so when we reached out to them saying, "Hey. We finally made it. We're launching this," they turned their ... the university's big budget PR firm to run with our story. Lo and behold, that got us the piece on CBS Evening News, which is national news coverage in the United States. Then, that was what led to the Patagonia investment director to see our story.F Geyrhalter:                 You know, that's ... I so love this, because this is ... I don't know what episode this is now, maybe 12 or so, but that is a story that is just recurring. Right? People, at some point, when they don't have the money to spend on a PR agency, they just go to LinkedIn, and they look at who they're connected with, and they start hustling, or they start connecting with people where they think they might enjoy the story. That's how it works, but it's remarkable. It's really remarkable.B Kneppers:                  Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.F Geyrhalter:                 I saw that you're part of the 1% for the Planet network, which we were what must have been one of the first 10 members or so. I recall there was Jack Johnson, and then there was my former design agency, Geyrhalter Design, and it was really, really cool. It's a mighty, mighty long time ago, but you're also a benefit corporation, and many of my listeners must be interested in forming a B Corp since I keep preaching about cost and belief and transparency and solidarity. But can you share a little bit about how it works and if it was difficult to create a B Corp, or if it's also tough to keep it up throughout the years?B Kneppers:                  Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, so first off, what B Corp is really about is recognizing companies that truly are benefits corporations, that are beyond just meeting their economic bottom line, but also having this, at the same point, value for the environment and society. It sounds intimidating, but actually, they have really great resources that can get you right into it. I believe, last I checked, they had this really wonderful 15, 20 minute questionnaire that you can just answer right on their website that can already give you a really good snapshot of how on track you are with your company, potential of achieving B Corp certification, but ... I would highly recommend starting there, because really, what it's about is you get this thing that I think people are becoming more and more aware of called green rush, which is just these blanket environmental statements, "This is an environmentally friendly product. It's a sustainable product."What does that actually mean? What you really need to do is have someone, independently, third party, verify those claims, and especially in this environmental space, it's very open-ended. What B Corp does is, for the consumer, it lets you know this company that has a B Corp label is a environmentally and socially responsible company, and the other benefit is if you are a company that says, "We want to become a more environmentally and socially conscious and responsible company," it's your guide to achieving that. It's not a very expensive process to go through, and at the very least, you're going to have ... You're going to get a lot of insight on what your company can improve, and a lot of those things can end up being cost-saving, as well, so I highly, highly recommend checking it out. At the very least, take 15, 20 minutes of your day to try the survey and go through it, and what it can do is open up brand new markets to you, create a whole new recognition for your brand ...F Geyrhalter:                 For sure. Yep.B Kneppers:                  ... and do good for the planet, which we need so bad right now.F Geyrhalter:                 Amen. Yes.B Kneppers:                  That's my case for B Corp.F Geyrhalter:                 Thank you. I think that was something that everyone had to hear, because it sounds like a process and like ... Everyone is afraid of those kind of things. I mean, you know. It feels a little bit like it's setting up a company, it's a legality, and it's a big deal, but people need it. People seek B Corps out these days. Especially when you're trying to staff up, you're going to have a much, much easier way to find the next generation to be excited about your company, so I absolutely recommend it, too.Your brand was born out of collaboration. Right? It actually requires collaboration in so many ways, and you actively collaborate with other brands, from the game brand Jenga to sunglass brand Costa and bike brand Trek, which we all know, and office furniture darling Humanscale. This is such a logical path you took and one that can continuously expand your brand and gain you fans along the way. What's next for Bureo? What exciting projects do you have in the pipeline? What can you reveal?B Kneppers:                  Well, that's ... That is the problem. Right? It's ... I'll have to keep to pretty general terms, but we always have ... We've got a lot of pretty exciting announcements right around the corner. Unfortunately, a lot of those are under NDA, so ...F Geyrhalter:                 We're not at the corner yet.B Kneppers:                  Yes. Yes.F Geyrhalter:                 Well, you'll check ...B Kneppers:                  But-F Geyrhalter:                 You'll check back with us, then.B Kneppers:                  Absolutely, but, I mean, overall, I mean, that model is really ... That collaboration model has really been what's been working so well for us, and it's something that, again, just kind of happened organically. We were intimidated with the idea, starting out, obviously, to be a raw material supplier, because we were just this small idea that we wanted to prove first, so what better way to prove this material than make a skateboard that's a ... It's a product that needs high level of durability and performance. Then, the next thing we came out with with the same plastic from was sunglasses that is a very precise, detailed product that also has a very special performance characteristics.From there, it was almost our case study for showing the potential applications of this material, and ... But at the same time, we were seeing that ... Working as a small business, we were getting access to far more fishing nets than we could sell through our small line of products, so this whole collaborative effort has just fit perfectly in with what we're passionate about, which is ... We're much more passionate about getting as many communities on board with our program, preventing this waste, providing funds for local environmental projects, and just, overall, creating a really positive solution to this material rather than how we started out, which was, "How many skateboards can we sell in a month?" That was a little bit less in our mindset than, "Let's make a really big impact."By collaborating with these like-minded brands that share our same values and are in full support of what we're trying to achieve, it allows us to stay focused on that part and grow as much as we can, and that's exactly what we're doing. We just launched in Peru, where we're ... now have Net Positiva running in partnership with World Wildlife Fund Peru. I just got back from Argentina and Uruguay. We're planning to launch there by middle of this year, and really, what we're on track to do is over 1,000 tons of nets annually that can generate a heck of a lot of money for community projects and local employment while we're doing it.F Geyrhalter:                 That's so amazing. Congratulations. That's a pretty big footprint that you're leaving at this point. I read just last night ... It was funny. I read a story about This Bar Saves Lives, which seems like a great company with an unfortunate brand name, but what one of the founders said is he said, "We're a mission with a company, not a company with a mission." I thought that was really, really cool, and it seems like that's a little bit in the way that you operate, that you give the company a whole lot of thought, but it's so much about collaboration, just spreading it. I'm wondering, since you did not want to get too deeply into what's next for you as far as the next collaboration, what is the ultimate vision for your brand? How are you guys working your way to fulfilling that mission day-in, day-out to really make this huge impact, and how huge is that impact? What's your 10 year plan? What do you want to achieve?B Kneppers:                  I mean, ultimately, what we want to achieve is become, and I can define this further if this is a foreign term, but we want to become the circular economy solution for the fishing net industry, the fishing industry, the fishing net industry. Basically, every fishing net that comes offline, that no longer has a useful life, we can then collect, transform into positive products, and that can continue carrying on this ... within this circular economy. That's ultimately what we want to do, take it global, every fishing net that comes online. This idea of discarding in the net just doesn't make any sense anymore, and we practically find this really positive solution for that raw material.F Geyrhalter:                 That's when net positive comes into play, which, by the way, is such a cool term. Talking about terms and names, tell us the story behind the name. I already know, since I watched your documentary last night, so I won't spoil anything.B Kneppers:                  Sure. I mean, there's even a little funny backstory I'll try to do my best to be quick with, but when we started, we wanted to just go with the skateboard, and the first idea was, "Let's make a fish-shaped skateboard, make the connection with the fishing nets." When I grew up in New England, a common small fish, this being a small designed skateboard, the first board, I said, "Let's name it the Minnow, and let's name it Minnow Skateboards," the company, as it's just starting out as a skateboard company. I was living in Chile at the time, sharing this whole idea of the business with all my Chilean friends, and all my buddies were like, "No." I was like, "What do you mean?Chileans have a lot of slang, and it just so happens, the slang I was familiar with was mina is the female version of a very attractive girl, and the masculine version of it happens to be very similar to minnow. It's mino. They were basically saying, "If you were to name your company Mino, it would be like the attractive man skateboard." That didn't really translate well, and so we went back to the drawing board. We just looked at all these different words in there, and it was, again, a Chilean friend that introduced me to this beautiful word from the native Chilean language, from the Mapuche people, their language, Mapudungun, which is bureo, was the word, which means waves. Bureo, being this fun, bouncy word, not the easiest to pronounce, to be fair, but interesting, and the ... Reflecting on it, it just was so symbolic of what we were trying to do. It was ...F Geyrhalter:                 Totally.B Kneppers:                  Just as a wave starts with this small disturbance in the ocean, we were these three gringos in Chile with really nothing to offer other than this passionate idea we had, but, just as a wave, that small disturbance, with time and energy, can become this great force of nature. That's really what we see with Bureo, is, in these collaborations and all this effort, this movement we're trying to do with the fishing industry globally, is to become this great force of change that can truly transform this thing that was once a small thought into a massive reality.F Geyrhalter:                 Absolutely. Absolutely. No. It's a great, great name, and I love the story behind it. You worked so hard on creating your brand, I mean, from the imagery used, amazingly produced videos that you craft, and all the ways to all the names that you trademark. What does branding mean to an organization like yours, or to you personally?B Kneppers:                  Yeah. I mean, it means a lot to hear that ... hear you say that, from someone that works in this space so heavily. I mean, to be honest, we were three mechanical engineer undergrads, so we had no real background in this space, but what we started to see was, on one side, people really connect with our effort and our intentions. I mean, there were so many things that you would try to ... you would think mean nothing at the time and just get in the way, and we're so glad we stayed true to our value sets early on and when it came to traceability and transparency and doing things as authentically and as responsible as possible. It all just managed to carry through what we've become today, and that ultimately is, at the end of the day, the most valuable thing we can do, is create a really strong brand, because none of our stuff is patented.Anybody can go out and collect fishing nets and recycle it and make a skateboard or sunglasses or anything else. Anyone can do that, but what we can show is, through our brand, is the authenticity, and the knowhow, and this shared value commitment, and the positive impact we can create through our very much custom and authentic model that we've created over the past six plus years. That all has to be tied to a strong brand identity that, again, was a great collaborative effort. My wife is a textile designer. She did a lot of the early artwork. Friends that are filmmakers that did a lot of the beautiful cinematography for us in our videos early on. Now, having these big companies coming in and using our plastic, they're now bringing their expertise to the table, and it's taking it even to a whole nother level, so it's exciting.F Geyrhalter:                 Absolutely. Can you describe your brand in one word? It's a tough one. It's ... I call it your brand's DNA. It's really, it's a feeling. It's a cause. It's an action, a mindset, but really, Bureo, in one word. Any thoughts?B Kneppers:                  Yeah. I have to say I cheated on this one. I'm glad you sent me the questions ahead of time, because I did have some time to reflect on this. I mean, I was going to go with positive, but I think everyone uses positive and positivity right now. But I think the bigger one is regeneration. A big reason I got out of the consulting world and got out into the private sector with this, my own private business with my partners, was because I wasn't seeing enough change. I was working in government policy, highest levels of working with the UNEP to some of the biggest companies in the world, consulting for Walmart and Coca-Cola and so forth. What I was seeing on all these levels is governments ... It ... Absolutely essential for governments to shift and make movements towards a more sustainable future, but I was a little bit too impatient for that work. It's very slow. It's very bureaucratic, and it was kind of driving me nuts.F Geyrhalter:                 I'm sure.B Kneppers:                  The part that I liked was how businesses, granted, big ones or big oil tankers can take years to turn, but small, lean businesses could make change very, very rapidly. The whole idea of what started Bureo for me was, "Can we use business for good? Can we actually not just do less harm to the environment, but actually regenerate the environment through business practices?" It's something we have almost treated as almost a scientific study. I actually published a journal last year with my father-in-law, who's a professor, and on this effort that we're doing, which is we've conducted a complete life cycle assessment of our plastic, which is basically the scientific method of measuring the environmental cost of creating something. The most common would be your carbon footprint, but we do it in all environmental impact categories.Then, through this shared value model, where we give back, reinvest in these communities with the money we're ... part of the money we're generating from the sale of the material, we actually have been able to offset those impacts. What that ultimately means is we can achieve a net positive regenerative output with this material, so we're actually doing more good than bad, where most companies in this space get recognized for doing less bad. You're still stealing. You're still doing bad, just less bad. There should be more about doing more good.Then, I guess the other part of that word, regeneration, that connected with me was not so ... not exactly tied to the word, but it is, I guess, is generation, is inspiring that next generation coming up is so, so important.F Geyrhalter:                 Oh. For sure.B Kneppers:                  To have a kid that's growing up right now, that he already has ... Hopefully, one of his favorite things could be our skateboard that's made from this material that was once perceived as a trash or even not even thought of as recyclable. Now, has that seed in his head at such an early age and understands the importance of doing those things. That's a generation, I think, that will really ... I hopefully ... I'm hopeful that will really turn things around. I think we're a transitional generation, and then, they're going to come in with a really clear head and know what's right and wrong and get us fully on that right track.F Geyrhalter:                 I really think and I really hope so, too. That word, by the way, regeneration, that is your brand DNA now.B Kneppers:                  Yeah.F Geyrhalter:                 I think it is absolutely perfect for your brand, and I'm glad that I pushed you a little bit up front so that you had some time to think about this. How can our listeners get involved with your cause or grab a skateboard from your brand to be part of the change?B Kneppers:                  I mean, you can obviously come to our website, just, and then, certainly, we're very active on social media, always giving updates of our progression, definitely on Instagram, just @bureo on Instagram. It's pretty interesting, because we really pride ourselves on being transparent with our efforts. Certainly, there's a lot of fun and cool skateboarding and surfing pictures, but we also really like to post the nitty-gritty of, like, "This is what 15,000 pounds of fishing net that we just collected looks like, and this is the products we're now generating. This is the community projects we just financed thanks to those nets, thanks to people buying our products."It's really powerful that ... I feel, when you can let people in on that story and know that they're a part of it by supporting us in those ways, obviously, going to ... checking out our online store and just simply following us. A lot of our collaborated businesses see what our numbers are like on ... as followers on social media, and so the more followers you can get really actually does help us get more collaborators, so it does make a difference for us.F Geyrhalter:                 Yeah. For sure, and I urge everyone to also check out Bureo's Vimeo channel and definitely catch the Net Positiva documentary while you're there. I'll include some links in the notes, as well, but thank you, Ben. I wish this could go on for another hour, because there's plenty ... There are plenty more questions, plenty more things I want to know, but we only have that much time. This was so great to have you on the show all the way from across the world. Thank you so much for your time.B Kneppers:                  My pleasure. Thanks again for the opportunity.F Geyrhalter:                 Thank you all for listening. Give us a quick rating or even a review wherever you listen to this show. I would greatly appreciate it. This podcast is brought to you by Brandtro, our publishing arm, where you can pick up a signed copy of my latest book, Bigger Than This: How to Turn Any Venture into an Admired Brand for a silly 11 bucks, and if you like today's episode and the Bureo story, I'm almost certain you would enjoy the case studies and takeaways in the book. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time, when we, once again, will be hitting the mark.
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