Startups to Grown-ups: Brock Weatherup, Former Chief Digital Officer of PetSmart
There are many differences between emerging and defined brands. Scaling a business from a startup venture to a ‘grown-up’ organization not only requires a specific management style, but also special consideration of how the brand will grow with the company. In this episode, Brock Weatherup shares his insights into taking startups to grown-ups, developed over years of both founding and growing existing businesses including Pet360, Fathead, PetsSmart, and many others. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Brock Weatherup: At the end of the day it’s, ‘What are you? Why are you existing? What is the dynamic? How do you want to operate? What do you want to be foundational?’ Those all then build up what your brand is. If a CEO, or an entrepreneur, or frankly anyone individually doesn’t think about brand all the time, but in the broader sense of brand, then they’ll never get there because it has to be genuine.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency. This week, an interview with Brock Weatherup – Brock is an executive, he’s an entrepreneur, he’s an investor, and he’s a mentor. His career, which he’ll tell you about in just a minute, is a set of examples of how passion and hard work drive success – both for existing organizations that are larger, as well as entrepreneurial ventures. Brock says, and he’ll tell you in a minute, that he sees himself as the bridge between startup and grown-up companies. His career path is perfectly exemplary of that.
Most recently, Brock built the Pet360 brand, which originally began with petfooddirect.com and petmd.com, which were e-commerce sites focused on the pet parent community. He built, at the risk of being cliché with the phrase, a lifestyle brand called Pet360, which was recently after six years of growth acquired by PetSmart. Through that acquisition Brock served as Chief Digital Officer and Senior Vice President at PetSmart before rolling off the business. Tremendous experiences early on with FatHead and American Express and beyond. He’ll tell you about it right now – Brock Weatherup on Real-World Branding.
Bill: We’re here with Brock. Thank you, Sir for your time.
Brock: Awesome to be here.
Bill: Incredibly interesting career with organizations that we’ve all heard of, many we haven’t. This combination of big company, entrepreneurial venture, could you take us through this journey? To a degree that you’re comfortable.
Brock: Yeah, sure. I’ll do it in a pretty quick tone, but I’ve kind of been in the space of selling a product or a service to consumers, leveraging technology and the Internet since that existed, since the early 90s. Starting in the early days with American Express, and helping create new business, helping special deals with AOL to send CD’s, for those of you who know what CD’s were, to get preferential access.
Bill: I got a few of those in the mail, and I felt really good about myself back then.
Brock: I sent a lot of them. Amazing experience, kind of my MBA so to speak because I didn’t do that. I left and ended up, in the early to late 90s, joining what was a company called Ticketmaster Online-Citysearch, somewhat self-descriptive, but it’s ticketmaster.com, citysearch.com, and match.com. All the same base model of traditionally offline businesses moving online at the time, I jumped into that.
A couple things here and there – I jumped into the outdoor recreation world, a company called Reserve America. Think of Ticketmaster for the outdoors, hunting and fishing licenses, back country permits, camp ground reservations, that whole –
Bill: Talk about the promise of the internet to aggregate and organize something.
Brock: Exactly. Then I joined an organization called Entertainment Publications in Michigan, which was another IAC company, and stayed there for a little bit. Groupon before Twitter, Facebook, and iPhones. Made a nice business out of it, but then left that and started at a company called Fathead – wall graphics, sports and entertainment passion based business, which I loved.
That was quite a trip. We can talk about that a little bit more. Then I left that, and jumped into the pet world. What was PetFoodDirect, and that was about six or seven years ago, up until selling that to PetSmart about a year and a half ago. That was quite a run.
Bill: Where are you from originally?
Brock: All over the place. I’ll say Connecticut. I lived overseas as a kid, lots of other places.
Bill: Undergrad at Boulder, yeah?
Brock: Boulder, Colorado. You bet.
Bill: Poor thing.
Brock: My professional career, it led me from New York City back to Colorado to Pasadena, California to Toronto, Canada to Detroit, Michigan and now good ole Philadelphia, PA.
Bill: Yeah. The Cradle of Liberty. The ‘City of Champions’.
Brock: You bet.
Bill: Actually not, not so much.
Brock: Not so many champions, but –
Bill: Yeah. We have our moments. One of the things again that jumps out to me, and obviously as you say this was … Even for larger organizations that right now we look at as maybe not being old economy, but being somewhere in between old and new, big organizations, entrepreneurial ventures … What have you seen in terms of the differences? Even if you were with larger organizations it sounds like it was an entrepreneurial type of assignment, but when you think about your level of comfort, the things that fire you up, big company experiences smaller types of things, what are the common denominators that get you wired for something?
Brock: One of the interesting thing that happens is it’s the same issues. It’s the same strategies. It’s the same reasons why things do or don’t work. It’s just, relatively speaking, scale.
Brock: That’s where things can fall apart. A lot of times … I’ll never forget I had this discussion with our team at FatHead. We were small, there were ten of us at the time, and we launched this FatHeads Tradables line, and we literally took it from hair-brained idea to actually presenting it to the NFL with actual product, website, webkins-ish type scenario in almost four weeks, which was amazing … Working prototypes, everything else, and we said, ‘Okay. This should be the longest it should ever take us to get something done.’ The reality is [however] as you grow, that almost is harder, and harder, and harder, and harder.
The big difference between the two is how do you maintain decision-making at the point where the decision needs to make, which are not at the top. The strategy and general direction should be organized and communicated in some broad fashion at the top, but the decision-making still happens. That’s what gets to me, the loss. Successful large organizations don’t lose that, and ones that aren’t so successful, they become dictatorships, or in a very different scenario.
Bill: That’s interesting. I would imagine that some of the smaller organizations that struggle lack the upstream structure strategy, and organization that drives the downstream decisions.
Brock: Yeah. I took a spot on where I think my career has found itself, is what I call the stage between startup and grown-up. There are a lot of people who can start things. Frankly, it’s a very trendy thing right now to be an entrepreneur and be a startup guy. People think it’s really easy. It’s really, really, really hard.
Anyone can start something. To get something to any level of scale is where it gets hard, and then there are fabulous people that know how to run things at scale. That may not work. It’s mostly finding where your place is in that spectrum. I think it’s both a self-directed element of what you need to know about yourself, but also where do you fit into that scenario.
Those challenges that are small can translate as you get larger, but they need to work together, and you need to find a way to achieve that, and leverage it, and scale it. That’s where, frankly it gets hard. I like that middle ground, frankly.
Bill: Is that what has attracted you to the investor realm, and the advisor realm –the mentorship that you’re doing with entrepreneurs, the role that you’re playing with folks that maybe trying to make that leap?
Brock: Yeah, after exiting PetSmart, and going through that process I started to think, ‘What do you want to do next?’ It was a very odd career step. A very lucky, and a very unusual, but highbrow issue of what do I do next. I kind of looked at the market, and said, Gosh. I’ve learned all of this. I’ve created all of these things. I’ve had the luck to have amazing teams. Had huge problems, and overcome them; huge problems, and not overcome them. Some wins, a lot of losses, and things along the way.
Could I translate that, and help other people to not make the same mistakes that I made, or our team made, and if I could help people get further quicker, then that might be great. If I could combine that with some investment, then that sounds really interesting. I’ve kind of focused on finding entrepreneurial or startup organizations where I can put both capital as well as time and hopefully try and bring those two things in a more leverageable way.
Bill: It makes sense. One of the interesting things also, again either coincidentally or not that has marked some of the career steps that you’ve walked us through, is there’s often a very enthusiastic consumer base. Certainly, FatHead in the early days and still, sports enthusiasts, man caves, children’s bedrooms, etc. Obviously, the IAC brands are, niches may not be the right word, but they’re vertical plays. What led you to the pet category? What is it like to build a brand [in that vertical]? Pet parents, as we may call them, astonishing in their passion, not surprising as many of us feel it in our own lives. What led you there? Anything you can tell us about what it takes to succeed when you’re being watched and scrutinized in the way that pet parents watch the brands that they trust?
Brock: Yeah. I think for me, I want to wake up really excited about what I do everyday. I’ve been lucky enough to make career choices around subject matters that I love. I’m a huge outdoors person. I love sports and entertainment, and I love pets. The consistency around all of them is they are people who are very excited and very passionate about what it is. At the core, I love figuring out human dynamics. Why do we as individuals make choices to buy, or not buy, or do, or not do? Digitally you can test, try, and figure it out all the time.
Bringing that to the pet category was a natural next step of something really interesting where you had a core consumer base where pets are not a pet, they are part of the family. The way to get excited about people is to help them become better pet parents, help them become more enjoyable in their interaction with their pet, have their pet be a better pet to other people. At the end of the day, I think pets bring incredible joy to lives. My sister, by total circumstance, happens to be a veterinarian. She’s a small animal surgeon in Arizona. I’ve always been around it, but I’ve always had a dog. It’s always been a part of my life, and I think they bring great joy because they bring unconditional love to the world. If you can leverage that, and make a business around it, that’s what I got really excited about.
That passion can take many forms. Most of that in the general middle is a great thing. People are passionate. People are excited about it. Like any, you can have the extremes of that. How those things transpire are often quite fascinating, the crazy cat lady totally exists.
Bill: She does, there’s a lot of her.
Brock: I love her as a customer, and she is amazing, but you get a lot of critical stuff. You find different elements along the line where someone’s like, ‘Why don’t you have x? Why don’t you have y? This should be right. You’re not strong enough about this, or strong about that.’ Which is wonderful because that’s hopefully what you can facilitate, and help people find their piece of that equation.
Bill: As you started out, what became Pet360, there was petfooddirect.com, there was PetMD shortly after. These were e-commerce businesses that had content around pet parenthood, and pet health, and other things wrapped around the transactional core of these sites. By the time Pet360 as a whole was acquired, it had made the transition to full lifestyle brand, if you will, for the pet community. It had added BlogPaws, it had added a variety of different things beyond just the core transactional mechanic. Over the course of that five or six years starting with, ‘We have to drive traffic, and we have to convert it,’ to being a place where that was taking place, but it was surrounded by the rich, deep, and textured series of content sources around pets, can you speak through that transition across the life of Pet360 from selling food and meds online, all the way up to something that was sort of 3D.
Brock: The story started with a pretty broken PetFoodDirect. That was a pure e-commerce play, totally undifferentiated in the market minus the fact that they carried a lot of brands that weren’t as accessible in the marketplace. We needed to figure out whether there was a model there. That’s where we got into subscriptions, starting figuring out what that was, and had the concept of, ‘Boy, if we could add some content to this this would be fabulous.’ We had some great guys down in Florida who had built PetMD, which was a small site at the time, started to bring that content together. I’m like ‘We’re on this content-commerce idea, it’s really going to be great.’ Totally bombed. We couldn’t get the customer from PetFoodDirect to care about content – a tiny bit, but nothing meaningful. We could get none of the people on PetMD to move over and buy.
This should make a whole lot of sense. Obviously, you do a little bit of research, then after that realize it seemed like a really smart idea, but the beauty of digital is you could test that. I was dead wrong. Our team, we were dead wrong because when somebody’s reading an article about hip dysplasia, or the more likely, ‘My dog ate, fill in the blank, and they’re now throwing up on the floor.’ Your idea of going online and learning what you should be worried about or not isn’t going to take you to buying something, that just didn’t work.
We looked at the market, and said, ‘How do we do this?’ We had this nice e-commerce business, and this nice media business. Both were doing really well independently, but the parts were not adding up to anything more. We looked at it, and said, ‘What can we bring together? How could we compete against Amazon? How could we compete against Walmart, Target, PetSmart, and Petco?’ All of those elements, and at the end of the day we needed something unique, and said, ‘Okay. Let’s take these platforms of e-commerce and platforms of media, let’s really bring content and commerce together,’ but that wasn’t really enough. We said, ‘What could we do that might create something unique?’ We said, ‘Look, let’s bring a personalization aspect of it to the equation,’ which was at the time people talked about ‘pet owners’. The fact of the matter is, yes, I am a pet owner, but I’m actually a pet parent to a four year old retriever named Boulder, which is very different than a pet owner of a cat, or even another dog owner that owns a Chihuahua, or a puppy owner, or a senior dog.
All of those are very different pet profiles. When you think about the traditional four-walled store, that store has very little relevance to me except for a small part of it. We took that concept said, ‘Look, let’s really build Pet360.’ That’s when we went out, and raised some capital, and said, ‘Look, let’s bring this together. Let’s bring the convergence of content and commerce.’ Community seemed to make a whole lot of sense. How could I get golden retriever owners all together? How could I get Siamese cat owners all together? That’s where pet ownership gets really exciting, and people get really passionate about it because now I can have a conversation with you in a very different way. That becomes fun. That becomes knowledgeable. I become smarter about it. I enjoy my pet better. I treat my pet better. The health of my pet is better.
All of those things add up to a much more enjoyable experience for everyone. That was the foundation of Pet360. When we went out to build, we built it from scratch leveraging the knowledge and the platforms that we had. That’s what really took off. We really proved in that model that if you really are genuine about addressing people’s needs, and attaching to what their passions are, you could really transform what that might look like.
We had a clean brand, in essence, to work with at Pet360, obviously somewhat descriptive, pet and 360. It was clean. Nobody really knew, or had plus or minus feelings about what was or wasn’t Pet360. PetFoodDirect, super efficient, get in the store, get out. Couldn’t really transform that. PetMD, really great about answering your health and wellness questions, but couldn’t really get outside of that. Could we leverage those? Absolutely for what their benefits were, but they also have restrictions, and you have to know that around that brand.
We had this flat platform or blank slate with Pet360, and said, ‘Let’s really build this to where we are talking to individual pet owners. Creating dynamic elements.’ That’s what got me really excited. Got our investors really excited, and we had an awesome team to really pull it off.
Bill: To the point about team, I would imagine in a category like this, just as you found at FatHead and elsewhere, that often when you either enter or seek to build a company, you attract folks who are enthusiasts for the category. How do you balance when you talk about, between startup and grown-up, this notion of people, we’ll talk about pet parents, I’m sure that it’s really important that folks get it, and feel it deeply. At the same time you need to layer functional skills in terms of what you’re trying to get done within this organization. How did you think about building the team and mentoring folks? Was it easier to get digital marketing people to care about pets, or to get a pet lover to care about and understand SEO and paid search? How does this work? I’m sure it’s case by case, but –
Brock: Yeah. Actually, what makes it really nice about our category is that 60% of households have pets.
Brock: First off, you’re talking about a very large part of the world that are pet enthusiasts, or have had pets. The ‘get it’ factor is pretty high straight out of the gate; versus if you’re into underwater basket weaving, that’s a pretty narrow group. When we got into that scenario is, ‘How do we get people to come in?’ Also, depending on job function, for example, we never hired anyone in our customer service team that didn’t have or own a pet because you just couldn’t have a conversation. You would become disingenuous immediately. You’d be immediately disregarded for your knowledge because you would speak a different language. That’s not okay.
Bill: We care about what was happening to Fuzzy.
Brock: Yeah. We try in customer service to get dog owners to our dog agents and cat owners to our cat agents because there’s a different language. There are cat owners, there are dog owners, there are small dog owners. All of those have different sorts of dynamics. That’s an easier example of what it is, but when you get into core function of, ‘Okay, somebody who really knows how to do CRM, somebody who really knows how to code. How important is it or not?’ We always look for the balance. We always needed that pet element, that pet passion, but they also had to know they’d walk into our office, there were pets walking around. If they walk in, and go, ‘Eh I’m not sure about this.’
Bill: Start sneezing uncontrollably, that’s going to be hard.
Brock: They fairly well self-selected out. It wasn’t that hard, but you also had to match. When you were designing the digital product, or your doing merchandising, you needed people who really knew what they were talking about, but when you move to some more periphery function, you had to have enough surrounding it in terms of why or what, or how it needed to come together.
Again, we were able to … It was actually a way to intertwine differentiated talent in many ways because people who are really passionate about their animals say, ‘I want to do something about that.’ When people are passionate about the subject, even if their core skill isn’t at the level of what somebody else might be, that passion and energy can make up for it a lot of times. If you had two equal candidates, and one was, quote unquote, on paper, skill wise a little less, but was incredibly passionate about the pet category, I’d probably go that way because I want that energy. I want somebody who knows, and they’ll make a little tweak here, they’ll make a little tweak there, and all of a sudden it makes a huge difference because they know what their dealing with.
Bill: Right. I would imagine they connect with vision, mission, values intuitively and that helps.
Brock: You bet.
Bill: To that end, just to take it one level up, you talked about it as an ingredient in your own career path, and certainly as you built teams. What is the role of passion in one’s business life? Not to get too self-helpy here, but you’re thinking about what you want to do next, and I think there’s a lot of folks who look at the entries on your resume, and see them as one passion play after another, but obviously with a strong subtext as you’ve described. When you think about passion, and when you think about skill, what’s the role of passion and belief and depth of feeling about either particular industries or particular topics that then become monetizable as business ideas?
Brock: I’ve been lucky enough in my career, and my career choices, and the people that have been around me – family, friends, my amazing wife – to be able to go after things that I believe in and things that I would define as, ‘I’m interested in. I’m excited about,’ and I’ve tried to trust in the fact that if I’m really excited about it, that I’ll find a way to be successful at it. Successful doesn’t necessarily mean economically, it means, ‘Am I finding joy? Am I finding excitement?’ I’ve been lucky enough to also have some financial success with it, but that was an outcome, not the goal. I think that gets lost a lot of times for people.
It’s easy to say when I had a very privileged upbringing, I had every opportunity given to me, I’ve been lucky enough to be very successful in different manners. I know that’s not true of everyone, but I do think people make choices a lot of times where they don’t work to change their situation. There may be some limits on what they can and can’t do at that moment or at that time, but people should wake up excited about what their diving into. Doesn’t mean I woke up excited everyday. There are days where you’re like, ‘Uh, I’ve got to deal with this,’ or, ‘This isn’t going to be great. I don’t want to go there,’ but you’ve got to love what it is. When you can match people, when they love what the subject is, and they’re competent in the role that you’ve put them in, that is unbelievably powerful.
However you find that out individually, however you create your support network around you. I looked at teams as two different things. There was my personal team, and there was my team at the office. The team at the office, you look for highly diverse groups of people because I know what I think, I don’t need other people to tell me the same thing about what I think. It’s easy to hire people who are like you. That’s the easiest thing because it’s like, ‘Oh, that person, I know them. I can get along with them. I understand where they come from. They have a similar background,’ but that gets you nowhere.
How do you make sure when you look around the table as a leader to go, ‘Who do I have there? Do they all bring different aspects to what I’m trying to do?’ If I’m eternally an optimist, and I always want to think things are always going to be figured out, then I need some balance of some people who are maybe a little realistic at times because sometimes I’m going to be right, sometimes I’m going to be wrong. That’s okay, that’s how you get great decisions.
If you have people who are really good at consumer side, people who are really good at project management, people who are really good at vision, people who are really good at being creative, all of those things need to come together, and that’s a variety of backgrounds, and a variety of how they grew up. A variety of how they think. A variety of different sorts of packages that we all become through our life, and that becomes critically important. That’s how you get a lot of excitement out of it.
In that are people’s passions. How do you leverage on those individuals’ passions? Hopefully the person who loves project management, not my thing personally …
Bill: Nor mine.
Brock: The person who loves it, it’s awesome when you see them get excited about it. I can be excited for a moment about project management when I’m with them. I want those people in the room because you want people to get it. That its a very necessary function, I may not like it, it may not be my ideal, it may feel restrictive to me, it may feel like it’s too cumbersome, but it really is important. When somebody’s passionate about doing that, they’re great at it.
You have that on one side. Then the other side to me is the personal team. That’s parents. That’s friends. That’s spouse. That’s kids. That’s all these things that fit around you. For me, it allowed me to take risks. I’ve been able to go after things. The idea of coming to PetFoodDirect was, relatively speaking, a very risky thing. It moved me from Michigan to Philadelphia. Never lived here, didn’t know anybody. The business was losing a lot of money. It was going to run out of cash. Everything on paper, you’d look at it, and go, ‘That was really dumb,’ but it was like, ‘If this works out, great. If it doesn’t, we’ve tried something interesting.’
I needed a spouse who was excited to say, ‘Yeah. Let’s go do that.’ It may or may not work out. You need a support network to know that if I really fall, somebody will be there to help pick me up, to tell you when things do fail that you’re not a failure, and how do you keep those things.
That becomes then passion and excitement, and whether that’s about life, whether that’s about a career, whether that’s about a subject, whether that’s about a personality, whatever you want it to be, just kind of own it, is what I would always want people to do professionally or personally. I think it just makes such a difference in life, and professional success, personal success, and how you define it.
Bill: Right, no question. Centering in a bit on the Real-World Branding topic here, we talk about the trajectory of companies as they grow, and how challenging it is to get to that point. In your work with entrepreneurs and maturing organizations, what’s the right level of thinking about brand for companies that are at an early stage? I can see, and strange for someone in the branding business to say, I can see people obsessing about it too much, but then there’s other situations where you see an organization that if they could just get the brand right, that would be the next propeller to get them to the next stage. When you think about, again it depends on the category, it depends on the company, but the role of brand in an early and in a growth stage.
Brock: I think one big misnomer about brand is it doesn’t mean the visual representation. I think that’s where most people start. ‘What’s your brand? I want to look at it.’ Yeah, when you look at it, it needs to be representative, but the point is it’s not who you are, it is representative of what you are.
The concept of brand to me when I talk to entrepreneurs is, ‘Who are you as an individual? How is that going to translate into your business? How is your business? What is your business? What do you stand for?’ People might roll that into mission and vision, and those are different ways to publicly describe it, and you need that more when you get larger, but at the end of the day it’s, ‘What are you? Why are you existing? What is the dynamic? How do you want to operate? What do you want to be foundational?’ Those all then build up what your brand is.
If a CEO, or an entrepreneur, or anyone individually doesn’t think about brand all the time, but in the broader sense of brand, then they’ll never get there, because it has to be genuine. It has to be foundational. It has to be a part of what you are. I always tell people to start there. ‘What does it mean to you?’ It can change, and it can evolve because hopefully we’re learning everyday, and getting smarter.
The core elements of it are generally true. If you make big changes, and you need to know when you’re making those big changes of elements, I think then as you start to develop that, and start to grow up in your company, and figure out who and what you are, you then need to translate that brand into visual representation. That can be what does your website look like? What does your business card look like? What does your actual, quote unquote, traditional smaller sense of the word brand look like? How do you pull all of those things together.
For example, we were in the front of a warehouse when I first got to PetFoodDirect. Our brand was a bit scrappy. That’s what we were, we had to work out of that. All of a sudden, ‘Okay. We need to be more than just this scrappy front end of our warehouse where we jump in the back, and pack packages, but that’s our brand at the beginning. We needed to touch and feel the business, but that was kind of core of our brand. Over time, we all talked about how you were touching, and feeling, and being a part of it, yet if you had to pick up the trash in the hallway, you did. If you had to do whatever you needed to do, you got it done. If you had to answer emails for customers because we got overloaded with something or we screwed up, you better be a part of that. Not because you’re the marketing manager do you stay away from having to answer customer issues.
All of those things build up. We moved our office to Plymouth Meeting. We’re in a more traditional office. It’s what we could afford. We always talked about how it was a really cheap place even though it looked expensive, but the importance was, this was cheap. We were being frugal, we were a startup. We were doing it with the limited capital that we had. Then we started to move into a larger organization, so we moved to another building. All of a sudden we designed that. Then it became ours. It was a big step in our company where all of a sudden, our visual workspace ended up being highly representative of who we were. Somebody walked into our office, and were like, ‘I get these people. I get this company. I get what they’re trying to do.’
Those are all representations of your brand. Even though there’s obviously more of the consumer brand, and everything else with that. You use that to acquire and retain amazing people, and how you build team, and how that then translates until you deliver it to your consumer.
Bill: No, it seems like it’s hard for whether it’s startups or folks even a couple of years in make it through the chaos, the fog of war. Not that it ever really ends. There is a belief or a series of beliefs, this could be better or it should be different, that are sort of couched in righteousness. It isn’t just about financial opportunity, there are some cases where folks analyze the marketplace and see white space, fine. Unless you feel that righteousness later, you don’t need, probably when you’re raising series A, the best logo that the world has ever seen, but you certainly need that core belief.
Brock: You need the passion with it. When you add the passion because the passion then is your brand. Especially as an entrepreneur or as a CEO, there are many things, hopefully, that I thought I did well that translated into the culture of our organization. There are also some things about me personally that became the culture of our organization. Whether you want it to or not, that’s what happens. That translates into your brand, and you have to be aware of that, and that’s okay. How do you manage them? Hopefully minimize, you can’t make them go away, but minimize those lesser desirable elements. Hopefully how do you accelerate the ones that are on the plus side of the equation.
Bill: I’m scared to ask my colleagues about that in the case of me and Finch, but this is great. You’ve shared a few as we’ve gone, but when you look back at your career path, I’m sure that many of our listeners are inspired by the places you’ve been, and the things you’ve seen, and the things that you’ve done and built, are there a couple guiding words of wisdom that you’d share for those who are either finding or seeking inspiration from what they’re listening to?
Brock: We talked about it a little bit before which is just love what you do. That’s a very altruistic statement, so I get it, but love it. If you’re in something that you don’t love, do it exceptionally well until you get to that point where you love it. I hated my first job at American Express. I was a junior, like every other person who starts out, a junior analyst working on spreadsheets, supporting a field sales force of 20,000 that are getting American Express card acceptance. Very, very sexy job.
I hated it, but I did it, and I worked really, really hard at it. I was going to be the best damn analyst that the place had ever seen, I worked really hard. You know what? Ten months into that job, I got this phenomenal opportunity at American Express to go to this new division that was being put together. That was all this entrepreneurial element. I didn’t even know it was being planned. Didn’t even know it existed. I knew nothing. I was 22, and lost like every other 22 year old. All of sudden somebody says, ‘look I’ve seen how hard you work, come over and do this.’ All of a sudden I’m like, ‘This is awesome.’
That element of it, and what I would tell people is don’t get lost with that. Know what that is, but you always have to do great. If you don’t like it, fix it, but while you’re in it you still have to be great because things will always come around. Things always find there way back to you in one form or another. It may not be immediately. When I actually left American Express, the woman who’s the head of our division that came in, she’s a wonderful person, Ann Buskay, she asked me why I was leaving. We talked about it, left on very positive terms, it was great.
Fast-forward ten, eleven years later. I’m in Michigan. I’m working for Entertainment Publications. We have a temporary CEO that’s coming in to be announced. It’s Ann Buskay. The odds of that, New York City, Detroit, totally different worlds, completely different industries. No reason they would ever collide ever again, and she was so excited to see me when she walked in. That was amazing. Here I was, the President of the Digital Division, so I’d obviously done some things, and she’d obviously continued to do amazing things as she was, but you have to stay around that.
I didn’t like it when I left American Express, but I left there loving American Express because I worked hard at it, and I think for people it’s always about how do you stay engaged with that. How do you have your personal team around you help you understand what you love, help you understand what you’re good at, question you? Sometimes we might say, ‘Hey I’m really good at that.’ Then somebody says, ‘You know, you might want to rethink how great you are at that,’ but maybe it’s passion, so learn it or get better at it.
If you’re going to the point of starting something, the thing that I would say to anyone in that scenario is you have to love it. I don’t really believe in the folks that kind of look at a white space, and go try and build it. I’ve not been excited about those. Some have gotten lucky in that scenario, but I would say it’s far less successful in there because when you’re building against something it’s super, super hard.
You need to have the passion, the love, the energy, the excitement, whatever that next thing is because you’ve got to break through walls. You’ve got to hit low points, and pick everybody else up. You’ve got to manage the high points. You’ve got to figure out when it’s not working, or when it is or isn’t working. You have to talk with a bunch of other entrepreneurs about different things.
There’s things that you find along the way that most people don’t know, which is you wake up one morning, and you’ll think, ‘Oh my God. Things went so well yesterday. I think this thing is going to be a billion dollars. This is going to be fabulous for our entire team. This is working so well. It’s unbelievable.’ You wake up 24 hours later, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God. We’re going to go bankrupt. I don’t know how this is ever going to work. This is totally falling apart.’ That cycle, but yet you have to walk in everyday with the same passion to try and figure it out, the same excitement. Not get too excited. Not get bummed out. That all comes from you’ve got to love it. You’ve got to be a part of it. It has to be who you are.
Bill: Nothing else sustains you if you don’t in a case like that.
Bill: It’s interesting because you always hear about the person, and some of us have been the person, when you think about subjects in school, you do really well at the things that you’re interested in, and you don’t do well at the things that you’re not, but your point about American Express, I think with all of the great successes that are underlined and bold and italicized that entrepreneurs have had, to your point earlier, it seems easy, and I think the marketplace may be inadvertently sending the message to kids who are just coming out, or figuring out what they want to do that if you’re in a job, and you don’t automatically love it that you’re doing the wrong thing.
To your point, when you reach a point where you’re starting something, and you’re the guy or the gal that is going to have to walk through that door everyday, it has to very much align or be congruent with your values and what motivates you and your energy. When it comes to developing and growing in your career, to find a place where you’re paying some dues, where it doesn’t connect at the deepest levels of your values necessarily, where you’re not bright eyed and bushy tailed every morning, but you do a great job at it just because you uncover or express your own sense of value, and your sense of self and pride and everything else, it does open doors as it did in your case.
Brock: I’ve always been a believer that you learn from every interaction. You just have to be able to see it. That is everything from the person you may respect the most in the world, and you’re starstruck when you see them, and you think, ‘This person’s just going to throw me pearls of wisdom.’ Sometimes that’s disappointing because you’re setting an expectation that’s so high, but you think you’re going to learn so much.
Then all of a sudden you have an unusual or different interaction with someone who’s homeless on the street that actually strikes a cord in you. All of a sudden you have these and everything in between. In that scenario you learn every time as long as you’re willing to see it. That’s a hard thing to do, and it’s a very hard thing to do, but you have to stay open to that, and that’s how you get better. That’s how you get smarter, and you just continue to develop what it is because at the end, diversity of experience gives you perspective on diversity of experience.
Those two things help you solve unusual circumstances. Go and lead where, like a lot of entrepreneurs are, where things don’t exist already. When you go into those voids, it’s now ‘do I know enough about what I know or don’t know? How do I surround myself with people who know what I don’t know, and know a bunch of other things, and that we’re all aligned in the same way so that when we run into the wall, and it really hurts that we’re able to pick ourselves back up, and try to figure out a different way to go over it, around it, through it, whatever way it is.’
You have to learn all along the line, and be very self aware. Be very aware, know that those things exist because those points of where you learn or don’t learn … I always love it when somebody says, ‘Who taught you the most in your life?’ Those are and they should be hard questions.
If it’s super easy sometimes, then you’re not thinking broad enough. Yeah my father is an amazing person, and I love him to death, and he’s taught me an amazing amount. My mom has done the same. Then I had a 12th grade high school teacher who was my Earth Science teacher who had one of the biggest impacts, but it was very short. Tiny in some respects. My first job at American Express, my boss there taught me lots and lots of things. Very influential, not someone I’ve stayed in touch with, but okay. Those things all build. I think just being aware of that, being involved with it is so exciting to life in general, personally. Are what build your character and who you are. Then you can impart that, and help other people with it.
Bill: We are the sum total of our experiences. If you are somebody who doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing when you come out of school, or moves to a new place, and needs to get a job, if you fall into something, or the first door that you knock on opens and you go through it. I think back at my own career, the first six months, no one else … I was a liberal arts guys, and I was clueless as any 22-year-old could be in life insurance and mutual funds. They let me come, so I went. You realize quickly that wasn’t what I wanted to do. That was a learning experience that had value in and of itself. Then some of the skills you learn along the way. Very rarely is it as linear as the articles or the movies might suggest that it is.
Brock: Absolutely. Even as the next step. I’ve been figuring out Philadelphia. This is not a city that I know. I’ve gotten to know it over the last six or seven years, but it’s not where I’m from. All of a sudden it’s like people keep telling me, there isn’t a startup scene on the consumer side in Philadelphia. I started raising my hand over the summer. Started to go into the Fall like, ‘You know what? There’s a pretty amazing scene here, and we need to start talking about it.’ All of a sudden if you start looking, again opening your eyes in a different way to it, all of a sudden, all these opportunities, all these people, amazing people doing amazing things in the community, and around Philadelphia. It just takes looking for it, and being aware to see it. All of a sudden starting to help other people talk about it, and then creating a little momentum around it, and then other people get excited about it, and then all of a sudden people are more excited about it. One feeds off another. That’s really exciting to help be a part of, that makes it a whole lot of fun.
Bill: Speaking of which, we have overstayed our welcome, but this has been tremendously insightful. We can’t wait to see what comes next. Both with the work that you’re doing mentoring folks and investing, as well as your own career path. Every single stop has been fascinating and intriguing for an interview like this. I’m sure, as noted as you were in it, some days were better than others, but it continues to grow. Brock we’re so grateful for your time. Thanks.
Our thanks to Brock for his time and insight. In addition to obviously the discussion of his history and his past, and some of the functional expertise that he’s acquired along the way, and expressed through his career, some really insightful perspectives on mindset as one things about first, second, third opportunity, as well as how one steals themselves to go through the roller coaster of being an entrepreneur and building a company.
Three ways to help us on Real-World Branding, and to support what we’re doing here. The first is to subscribe to this podcast through the app store of your choice. Every other week have an interview, such as the one with Brock, with a brand and a business builder. In between we do smaller, shorter, One Big Idea podcasts we call them, ten, 12, 15 minutes on one particular topic that seems to be current, and interesting in our world. We would love to make sure that you do not miss a one, and to make sure that that is the case, subscribing is the best way to do it. In addition we’d love to see a rating if we’ve earned it. On the app store again of your choice; four stars, five stars, six stars if they begin to offer that. Either way we appreciate the feedback. Lastly in that spirit, keeping the dialogue going on Twitter. @BillGullan or @FinchBrands on Twitter with ideas for future guests, ideas for future topics, feedback. Again, skin is thick. We’d love to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly as we seek to always improve, and deliver ever more interesting content to all of you every week on Real-World Branding.
That’s about it here. Hope everyone had a great holiday, and a great couple of weeks ahead as we gear up for the next one. Signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.