Matt Hoffman is the Founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures, maker of uniquely true-to-life plush figures of the greatest athletes and entertainment icons. In this episode, Matt details the twists and turns that have taken him from playing in a band to launching a successful brand. Learn how he channeled his passion into his business to realize the dream of seeing ‘Chase Utley as a Muppet’ and helping Pope Francis ‘find himself’. Ripe with insights and advice, Matt’s entrepreneur journey is exciting, educational, and entertaining. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Matt Hoffman: It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head, I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’
Bill Gullan: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.
Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark.
Bill: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and today I come to you with a mixture of excitement and guilt. Excitement because we’ve chosen to rebroadcast my interview with Matt Hoffman. Matt is the founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures, and we thought, with March Madness in full swing and spring training in full swing, and NHL and NBA rattling around towards the playoffs, that it would be a particularly fitting time to think about sports and highlight an entrepreneur from that world. He has a really great story and a lot of insight both from his previous career stops on the journey up to the idea and now the actual execution of the Bleacher Creatures business concept.
The reason for guilt is that I would imagine based upon our numbers that some of our listeners are newer listeners and haven’t gone back all the way through the catalog, so this is valuable stuff if you haven’t. But for those of you who have been with us from the beginning, I do feel a little bit guilty that we’ve been rebroadcasting some things recently. The reason for that is, unfortunately, I have a day job. This is part of it, but we’ve had a decent amount of travel, we’ve had some client situations with shorter time frames, we’ve had some team development time that we’ve been spending, too.
However, big promises for the future. There will be new interviews coming very soon. The One Big Ideas will continue. In fact, many of these things are already scheduled.
One of the other things that happened this week was we had a cancellation of somebody who we’re really excited to speak with and bring to all of you. We tend to only get a couple weeks ahead at Real-World Branding, in part because the world is always changing, and also in part because we got a lot stuff to do over here, as we know, you all do in your professional lives and your academic lives as well.
Everybody’s busy these days and probably wouldn’t want it any other way. Enjoy Matt Hoffman, great interview, great guy, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Bill: We are here with Matt Hoffman, founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures. A lot of bald, really attractive guys with cool glasses in this room right now. Matt, thanks for being with us.
Matt: Thanks. I don’t know how cool the glasses are. They’re bi-focals now.
Bill: Progressives, I just got these, there’s three in mine. They would be tri-focals the old way, but there’s a bottom part of the lens. This has just happened, newly.
Matt: It’s terrible. Mine are bi-focals, so up and down are two different things you have to get used to. Getting old is not fun.
Bill: No, no, no. They told me I was going to fall down the steps the first couple of days, but it was an easy transition. We pick up things quickly. Anyhow, we’ll talk that offline, but thank goodness this is audio today.
You came at Bleacher Creatures, and obviously with the Pope, with the start of the NBA season, the NHL season, the playoffs in baseball, and the holiday coming up as you say. This is a big time of year for a brand to shine that deserves it. Tell us a little bit about you and your journey to where we sit.
Matt: Sure. I’m from the Philadelphia area, and I don’t think I could have created this company anywhere else. I’m Philly in my heart. I’m inspired by the city and the people that are here, and I really think the road that took me to Bleacher Creatures is being a Philly guy, so if you don’t like Philly, too bad.
But that, at its root, is what I’m about. Went to Temple University, and I went to school for Communications. At the same time I played in a local Philadelphia band, and the reason I bring that up, ‘Oh, you played in a band,’ well we eventually got a record deal, the band. I would say it’s an entrepreneurial experience to be in a band.
Bill: Yeah, sure. You got to do everything.
Matt: It’s a business. That is really my first taste of a small business.
Bill: Is this like Hooters, Tommy Conwell, Young Rumblers level?
Matt: Little older than those guys, though, I had played on bills with Tommy before.
Matt: The band was called Liquid Gang. I think at one point we were written up as the loudest band in Philadelphia, which I took a lot of pride in.
Bill: There’s dignity in that.
Matt: It was definitely more of an alternative rock, like Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins style band.
Bill: Were you the singer or did you just play?
Matt: Sang a little bit, played guitar, helped song write, and I was lucky. I played with these amazing musicians. I was the worst guy in the band, which actually probably led to my personal downfall in the band. I think I had a vision. I had a good business head, knew what we wanted to do, but when you’re the worst in the band, and you’re leading the band, it leads to insecurities.
That’s the lesson from that band on how to deal with different personalities and how to manage, but we did great. We toured the country. We opened up for major bands. My last show with the band, we opened up at The Spectrum when The Spectrum was there.
It was a great experience, and again, as part of the journey to get to Bleacher Creatures, that was important, because the one thing that came out of it, that led to Bleacher Creatures, was merchandising.
We had to make money, and I said, ‘Well we should sell T-shirts and CDs and stickers, and those type of things,’ and we did. We started selling them at shows, and other bands were like, ‘Yo, how’d you do that?’ I’m like, ‘I could do it for you, too.’ It started a little merchandising business that I had, and that got me into product.
Born in Philadelphia, in the band for awhile. Meanwhile my mom said, ‘Listen, you have to get a day job and the band. I don’t care what you do.’ She was right. I worked for a Fortune 500 Company, started on the accounting side, but eventually got into purchasing, buying. With the band I’m doing merchandising with product. On the other side I’m actually purchasing product. I purchased the foam trays for supermarkets. It sounds really exciting, but I can tell you, each color tray is actually for a different kind of meat.
Bill: Interesting. That’s a sexy business.
Matt: That’s the big take-away on foam trays. At some point with the band, it ran its course. What I wanted to do and what the guys in the band wanted to do were two different things, and I think I took it as far as I could go. I have a philosophy. You never want to say, ‘What if?’ I never said, ‘Okay, what if I didn’t try it in the band?’ So I did.
At the exact same time, a friend of mine, who was working for NBC, had started in a company. This is the late ’90s. It was a catalog company called Genesis Direct, and they had just gotten the deals to run the catalogs for the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball. I had this buying background for this company, I did merchandising, and he was like, ‘You should interview up here.’ I still had a little music in my head, that oh, I could play in New York. That would be cool.
I interviewed up there and I got the job, so I moved to north Jersey. This is ’97. The reason that’s such a big deal, my second week there we had a meeting with the NBA. I’m a huge sports fan, so obviously, if you know about Bleacher Creatures, it started in sports. So my second week there we had a meeting with a guy at the NBA, and he said, this was in ’97, ‘We have a big initiative for David Stern. He is really focused on the Internet and this concept of e-commerce, where you can buy things off your computer.’
I think I was 26 years old. My brain just went boom! I just moved to New York from Philly, I’m a 6’ers fan, and you’re saying I could get an Iverson jersey ordered to my house from my computer. That’s a big concept. I was in.
Bill: I was about to say, your timing on entering the catalog business was… The catalog still exists, but in terms of…
Matt: Catalog’s actually still in print, but yeah, the timing was right. It was interesting. I left the meeting with a couple of executives from the company, and I’m new. This is my second week there, and I’m like, ‘What are we doing about the Internet?’ Because I could tell nobody was really into it, and they said, ‘We’re a catalog company. We’re not an Internet company.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m into it.’ They’re like, ‘Okay. Then you’re in charge of our online business.’ I took over the NBA online store, NHL online store, and Major League Baseball online store. This is my second week there.
Now, while I did that I had to work on the catalog business, and basically they gave me no resources. So I had a friend, Adam, who I worked with, and basically the two of us, begged, borrowed and stole to make that Internet business work. We were lucky. The guy from the NBA was a good adviser on, ‘Okay, here’s what you do.’ We were partnered with ESPN on the back end, but that was ’97, ’98. In ’98, the Bulls win the championship for the sixth time, the Red Wings finally win the Stanley Cup, and I remember that month of June in 1998, we did like $1.2 million between the two sites. It was a big number back then.
Bill: Sure. Well, big cities, passionate cities, big moments.
Matt: It was a big opportunity, and we were positioned for it, so I think in July I ran a sales report on what we did. I felt pretty good about it, put it on the VP of Marketing’s desk, and about three hours later I get a call from the board room, ‘Can you please come in?’ I walk in, every executive in the company’s in there, and they’re like, ‘How’d you do this? Tell us what you did.’
They became a dotcom company six months later, from ‘Hey, there’s no future in the Internet. We’re a catalog company.’
It was a great opportunity. I always tell people, part of it is if the opportunity comes you take advantage of it, so I was blessed with that opportunity. For a sports fan who was looking to figure out their career after being in a band, I was in the right place, right time, and it worked out great. But I also knew the writing on the wall was, ‘I don’t think these guys really have vision.’
Matt: Total coincidence, a guy from the NBA had called me, said, ‘I just took a new job with this guy named Michael Rubin in Philadelphia. Would you be interested to come back home?’ Meanwhile I was getting recruited across the country for e-commerce jobs, but I love Philly, like I said when I started this podcast, and I happened to be coming down to Philadelphia. This was in ’99. Am I rambling about my career?
Bill: No, this is fabulous.
Matt: I happened to be coming to a Lenny Kravitz, Black Crowes concert in Camden. See it all comes back to music. Was going with my friends from high school. One of the executives from, at the time it was called Global Sports, connected through the guy from the NBA, and he said, ‘Hey, you should come in for an interview,’ and I did, told them what we did.
The real concept for that part of the business is called the displaced fan. It’s exactly what I was up in New York. You’re a Philly fan that lives in LA, can’t really get Philly product in LA, catalog, e-commerce works. Michael Rubin is this amazing entrepreneur that had this deal to run online sporting good retailers like Sports Authority and Modell’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. They weren’t really focused on sports licensing, so again, opportunity knocked. I wanted to come back home, and within two weeks I started working at GSI Commerce, which was Global Sports at the time.
Bill: Wow. Now an eBay company, yes?
Matt: They spun off GSI Commerce to eBay. From what I just heard, eBay is selling that piece off.
Bill: Are they? Yeah, I drove by it over the weekend.
Matt: It doesn’t say eBay anymore, does it?
Bill: I think it does, and my wife said, ‘Wow, eBay.’ I said, ‘No, honey, eBay’s not,’ but it was, I told her, a far less concise and accurate version of the story that you were telling.
Matt: Michael Rubin, again, I’ve been lucky also, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs. Even the company before that, that catalog company, a couple of really smart entrepreneurs. I just don’t think that business model worked for them. But Michael wound up selling it to eBay, but he spun off a couple divisions. One is Rue Lala, which is a shopping site, but another one was Fanatics.
Bill: Fanatics, absolutely.
Matt: Which was a sports license piece that I started for him. Then he wound up acquiring two competitors, and they are the beast of the industry, so they’re a customer of ours. They’re a great company. I loved working at Michael’s company. I still feel passionately for the people I worked with there. Great culture, entrepreneurial, startup, this really fast-moving, great guy to work for.
Bill: Yeah. He has that reputation, absolutely.
Matt: Yeah, so this was the type of dotcom place you heard about at the turn of the millennium where we had scooters and were riding across the hall and just making things happen. I was lucky. I had this sports license piece. They let me run with it. We had a lot of initiatives, and wound up becoming one of the biggest parts of the company, so I was pretty successful there, too.
I found my niche, but again, a lot of it was opportunity. I’m not saying I’m the sharpest bulb. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I ran with it. One of the things I learned, though, with licensing, is you are at the mercy of the licenses, the manufacturers. It’s a little concerning when you’re a buyer if you’re not getting great service or things change.
What I really wanted to figure out was, what’s the manufacturing side of this thing? I was at GSI Commerce, or Global Sports, for five years, and I had the opportunity to work for Majestic Athletic. So, Majestic Athletic at the time was a family owned business, official outfitter of Major League Baseball. I was able to go in as the Vice President of Merchandising and Brand Management, working with the leagues on licensing, working with our design team and factories on manufacturing what’s worn on field and new innovations.
Another awesome experience. I worked for some of the classiest people you could work for, great family. I worked for them for three and a half years. I was able to stay on as they sold the company to VF Corporation, which is the biggest apparel company in the world. They own brands like The North Face and 7 For All Mankind and Timberland, and Lee Jeans.
It was really interesting working for a family business. They were innovative as well, but also, it’s tight because you’re working for a family. When you work for a big Fortune 500 company, you get exposure to big people. I was in meetings with Kmart and Walmart and big retailers, and I got to be part of initiatives with the president of the company and the chairman of the company. I’ve been really blessed.
Getting up to Bleacher Creatures, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs, great, smart people, and got in front of great retailers, and that led me to Bleacher Creatures.
Bill: All of which comes in handy now, yeah.
Matt: Yeah. It all led up to that point, so I always tell the story for Bleacher Creatures, on the business side that led me there, but the inspiration and the influence were my three daughters.
I’m a father. That’s the most important thing to me, and I have three kids. I would go to ballparks for my job with Majestic, and I’d want to bring my kids back stuff. Once it got past a t-shirt or a jersey or a pair of socks or a poorly made mascot, there was nothing.
One of the sweet parts of Majestic is we had awesome Phillies tickets, front row. August 2010, I’m at a Phillies game with some friends, in those seats. My seats were right by first base, so Chase Utley, Ryan Howard. It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’
Bill: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.
Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark, and a lot of people have always said, ‘Hey, you should go into business. You should start a business,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do.’
But within that game, I took out my Smartphone, I looked at the toy industry, looked at the plush industry, it was a multi-billion-dollar area. I looked at licensed product, which back then was a big part. Now it’s even bigger. I said, ‘These are iconic athletes, whether it’s LeBron James or Sidney Crosby, or Mike Trout, or Peyton Manning, that people are connected to.’ I knew there was something there. That’s really how I got led up to Bleacher Creatures.
Bill: What a story. The idea comes to you, you’re sitting in these seats. We’re recording this, by the way, on the morning of game three, Dodgers/Mets, so Utley is a name that isn’t as revered maybe as he was forty-eight hours ago, but we’ll see what happens from here.
Matt: Mets fans aren’t thinking of him as a Muppet right now.
Bill: No, nor as anything that’s cuddly. Tell us a bit about the process of building the company, from the idea. My own personal experience, and when I talk to folks who have either been or moved in an entrepreneurial direction, oftentimes an idea becomes implanted and you can’t stop thinking about it. So what happens? You still have responsibilities, obviously, at Majestic. Talk about the process from being a team member with all of a sudden an idea percolating to doing it, making it happen.
Matt: Well, I’m lucky. I had people who were supportive on the business side coaching me on how to do it. Faust Capobianco, who was the President of Majestic, I told him what was going on, and he was encouraging. A good adviser of mine, Greg Weinberg, who I worked with at GSI, so I had these people coaching me a little bit, because I’ve never done it before. I told my wife, I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be spending a lot of extra mornings and evenings at Starbucks working on this thing.’
I did. I tell people I should do a commercial for Starbucks, because every morning, every afternoon where I had free time I was working there. With three kids in the house it’s hard to do.
Bill: That is true.
Matt: The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure the market size and the business made sense. It’s a billion-dollar industry in the US alone. Everything pointed to it being an opportunity. I talked to some of my retail partners, ‘What do you think?’ They got it, so I knew I had something. I had to get designs. I had to find manufacturing. In 2010, while I was still at Majestic/VF, I was working with factories trying to figure out who could make this, who could be a partner. I worked with a designer I knew to design the first prototypes and it came out okay. They really did look like Chase Utley if he was a Muppet.
The other part was raising money, and that wasn’t fun. It’s never fun. You have investors and everybody loves the idea, but then you don’t hear from them for three weeks, and I had raised a bunch of money.
Then the other part is I had to get the licenses. Once I got prototypes, put the business plan together, I was lucky I had relationships with the sports leagues and the players’ associations. For Majestic, they do a really good job of focusing on players. When a player gets hot, they’re turning around jerseys or t-shirts and that business is big. Since I had those relationships with the leagues and the players’ associations, they knew I respected that and that was important to me as a core function.
End of 2010, beginning of 2011, it happened pretty fast. I got approval from all of the sports leagues. They wanted to partner with me. I had raised some money. I happened to have a meeting in New York with Major League Baseball, and that afternoon I was meeting with another licensee, so for people out there, another company that makes sports licensed product.
A friend of mine ran sales there, and I wanted to figure out what kind of salespeople were out there. They didn’t know that. They thought I was looking for a job, so the President of the company came in and thought I was looking for a job, and I told him what I was up to, and he said, ‘Well, let me see the product.’ I said, ‘I need you to sign a NDA, I happen to have one in my bag.’ He signed it, I showed it to him, he was like, ‘I want this.’ Basically over two weeks, he was saying, ‘Listen, I get the business. I’m going to be a good partner to you,’ which he’s been. ‘You’re better off partnering with me, instead of other people who don’t understand the business.’
It worked out, he did. We were incorporated and up and running by February, 2011. It happened fast, and I was lucky. There wasn’t a big gap in regards to doing this without having funding and moving forward. There was a couple months that you’re like, ‘I hope this comes together.’ But it did.
Bill: But for those in our audience who are thinking about balancing ideas for businesses with their day in, day out responsibilities, everyone’s obviously in a different position when it comes to their network, their knowledge level, certainly their financial capability if they wanted to bootstrap something, but what were the triggers for you to know that it was time to hang up the cleats, so to speak, at Majestic? You mentioned incorporating. Obviously you were raising funds. There’s a lot of moving parts here, the licensing, everything else, but when you were talking with your family or thinking about it yourself, what was the moment at which that balance was going to shift, and this was what you were going to be doing for a living?
Matt: I’m going to be honest with you. There was some ignorance on my part in regards to it. I told you my story. I was pretty lucky, right place, right time. The career moved pretty quickly. I was a young executive at VF and GSI, and I said, ‘I’ve had success everywhere. How hard could this be?’
I just thought it would be easy. If I knew what I knew now, I’m not sure I would have done it. Maybe that was good that I didn’t know, but I think people are more sophisticated now than they were four or five years ago, with the Shark Tanks of the world and everything, it’s a different environment. So I’m not sure those triggers were there.
I really confidently thought, ‘This will be easy because I’ve done it and I’ve been successful.’ It is and was much harder than I thought, so I’m glad I did it. It’s made me a better person. It’s made me grow up in some ways, but I don’t know if I’ve had the triggers that other entrepreneurs had, because maybe I wasn’t bright enough to know.
Bill: Well, it seems like a dose of ignorance has helped a lot of the great entrepreneurial stories, because as you say, especially at the point in your life with responsibilities at home, with a great job, around people towards whom you felt warmly and felt responsibility, maybe it’s good you didn’t know all the hurdles or else maybe we’d be here in a different capacity. But, so fast forward, here we are almost five years in for you.
Bleacher Creatures began in sports, obviously has a tremendous presence in sports, but hit the consciousness of the world recently for another reason, which was the papal visit. The Pope obviously came to the US, and spent time throughout the northeast, but the major meat of that stop was here in our fair city. One of the indelible pictures from that visit was, I guess he was on the tarmac either here or, I don’t even know.
Bill: JFK? Someone brought to him a Bleacher Creature of himself, of His Holiness. How wide his smile was holding this doll, this likeness of him, one of the images that I saw everywhere after this, and obviously the business, it’s a great hit. It’s a great moment. Could you tell us a little bit about the story of both the conceiving of, and then executing to this degree, the Pope doll?
Matt: Yeah. As part of our initiative as we grow, international is a big part of what we do. I would say within the next two years, international will be bigger than our US business, and it makes sense. There’s more people. When I talk to people who don’t look that way, you’re missing a huge market. There’s more people internationally than in the US. There’s a lot of disposable income out there. Even if 5% of the Chinese had the type of disposable income it’s big. The reason I’m bringing that up is we have European distributors, and one of them said to us we should do Pope Francis.
I was like, ‘Yeah. We like Pope Francis. He fits what we do, put your passion in play, and we love his message. We should do it.’ This was a year ago, and we sampled the Pope Francis Bleacher Creature and it sat on my desk. We were looking to figure out, especially in Europe, which has different intellectual property rules, what we could or can’t do. Meanwhile, I’m working hard and good opportunities are happening, they announced that Pope Francis was coming to the United States, and coming to Philadelphia.
Bill: Of all places, yeah.
Matt: My town. I was like, ‘Okay, this could be a cool opportunity. We’ll have to figure out how to make it work.’ Every year in February is the International Toy Fair in New York City. We had a meeting probably in December, figuring, ‘Okay, what’s our big story going to be at the toy fair?’ We had our PR people, my marketing people, partners, all on the phone, and we couldn’t really come up with a wow, because we wanted a wow. We got off the phone, but meanwhile, sitting on my desk, looking at me, is that Pope Francis Bleacher Creature.
Bill: Is the prototype, yeah. That’s great.
Matt: Maybe later in the day, it’s staring at me, I’m like, ‘That’s a story.’ I mailed everyone back. I said, ‘What if we say we’re really getting into historical and political and inspirational figures, and we announce that we’re launching Pope Francis?’ Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.’ Full disclosure, I’m Jewish. The press release went out, though, and the Toy Fair happened to be on Ash Wednesday, total accident.
Matt: The story got picked up by over 300 local news stations throughout the United States, so we knew we had something. It was interesting, because the trade show itself, people liked it, but nobody really was like, ‘Okay, I’ll buy it.’
Bill: Right, right.
Matt: Because when you live in a society now with buyers, everybody’s afraid to try something new and take a chance, so in a category like that they didn’t know. But that’s okay. We got a lot of press, and right after that, we spoke to the World Meeting of Families, that brought the Pope here, and they loved it. They showed it to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and they wanted us to carry it. They were finalizing who was going to sell it, so it happened to be another Philadelphia based company, Aramark, who we do a lot of business with, and I have a great relationship with.
Bill: Big company, yeah.
Matt: We lined it up with them, so on our website is where we first started selling the Pope. We knew it was going to be good, because even pre-selling it, it was one of our top sellers. People were into it, and then we were getting calls from Catholic gift shops at churches and religious schools, so we had a good feeling about it. Then our PR agency did a really good job seeding the product. It got picked up, all the local Philly papers, USA Today, Fortune Magazine, so the momentum was already happening.
That momentum built, that more people were buying it, it was selling online for World Meeting of Families, and then sure enough, there were different schools that were buying it. What happened was, the day that the Pope got to New York, this school teacher from Brooklyn, I actually spoke to her afterwards, they had a Pope Bleacher Creature that somebody gave them, and they were praying to it at their school.
Matt: Which is cool in itself, and she was going to the airport to see the Pope, brought it with her just in case, and sure enough he gets off the plane. I think about it historically. When I think of JFK, I think of the Beatles coming to New York and getting off the plane at JFK. Well, honestly, Pope Francis’s first visit to New York is pretty close.
Bill: He’s a rock star in a different way.
Matt: Yeah. He’s walking around, but I’m not watching it, so it’s the end of the day Thursday. We’re already handing all the demand for the Pope, getting product out, and then on my computer around 5: 30, I’m starting to get these emails. ‘Do you do a Pope Bleacher Creature?’ ‘Hey Dude, I think the Pope’s holding your Pope.’ I emailed a couple people like, I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ It’s like, ‘It’s all over the news.’ I go to CBS News.
We were on CBS This Morning, Sunday morning, that Sunday previously, so I had that link up. They have a live news broadcast that you can rewind, and I brought everybody in my office from the company. Sure enough, he’s walking around and the school teacher handed Pope Francis the Pope. But the way it went down, you see his reaction when he sees it in the crowd. He actually blesses it. Then he picks it up and the smile is amazing.
Then he holds it up and does a selfie for somebody with it, right? Of course, that was it. It got picked up by every news station. The next day it was on The Today Show, it was on The View, it was on Good Morning America, it was just everywhere. Then even the next week it was on Colbert, and that’s all great, and the sales are great, but honestly, at its core, we made a product that made Pope Francis generally smile. That’s what our product’s really about.
The idea, we tell buyers this when they buy, that our buyers for retailers, or people walking by, whether you sell one or not at first glance, you have product in your store that are going to make people smile.
Matt: That’s exactly what happened, so it was a great success for the brand. It was a great selling success. We’re still selling them, and everybody blew out of the product. They had the product on the parkway in Philadelphia and they sold out every piece.
Bill: I’ll bet.
Matt: But to see that we could give the Pope the same reaction we want from everybody else, and to generally make him happy, that was everything.
Bill: Yeah, well, it’s quite a story, and I remember, obviously, knowing you and seeing it, and being like, ‘Oh my goodness. That’s unbelievable.’ To your point, and you mentioned the line earlier, ‘put your passion in play.’ Obviously Bleacher Creatures deals in characters or athletes, or whomever, teams, around whom your customers are passionate, yet because it’s a doll and it’s a plush toy, it has to do with play. It works across the family, but with kids certainly.
When you think about brand development, and this is a branding podcast after all, obviously the intellectual property that you possess, that you leverage, that you license, all has their own brand appeal. They think of their business as brands, be it athletes, entertainers, characters, or whatever it is. Yet Bleacher Creatures has its own distinctive appeal. How do you balance these recognizable licenses with building your own brand for Bleacher Creatures? How do you think that through?
Matt: It’s a lot. Luckily with my licensing background, I thought a lot about intellectual property, because that’s a piece of it. We’ve been able to create some intellectual property around how we make the dolls, but also, it’s artwork. I do consider it an art, and that goes back to my band days, in regards to it’s art. We have copyrights on all our designs. The reality is we’re not the only people who can make a Pope Bleacher Creature or a LeBron James Bleacher Creature, but anybody else who makes it, it has to look distinctly different than what we’ve done.
There can’t be confusion in the marketplace. That’s part of it, and that’s part of it both ways. I don’t think I’d go to licensors and say, ‘Hey, listen, we jut want to make a plush of blank’ I get this all the time. Pokemon, or who was the other one that somebody came up to me the other day about? The Smurfs. People say, ‘Do you want to do Despicable Me?’ I’m like, ‘There are plenty of other people that could actually do that.’ We could do it, but that’s not really what Bleacher Creatures is about, because those guys are already built for plush or cartoons.
Bill: Yeah. Sure, sure.
Matt: But LeBron James is not built to be a plush doll. It’s a unique thing, so that’s part of it, is we have a unique look now. It’s not Muppety anymore. It’s how do you turn real people into what we call plush figures, and make them recognizable? That’s the first part. Then we have to understand our customer. We did a great survey with Finch Brands, which was very insightful. That told us that half our customers are kids, which is who the business was built for, but half our customers were adults, and what we knew of those adults, half owned at least three.
This was still early on in our development, which tells us adults like them, adults collect them, and it connects to their passion. The other fun part about our product is, we’re lucky this way, in the social media age, it’s a great product, because it’s great for photography, selfies. It’s easy to carry. There are people out there, there was a little Pope Francis Twitter page, there’s this lady who takes J.J. Watt everywhere she goes every week and posts where she is with J.J. Watt.
Bill: There’s an Utley one, too, right, I think locally, yeah, little Chase.
Matt: Little Chase Utley. He got traded, he’s still up there, and reporting to the Phillies. We love that. We love that there are these guerrilla, I don’t want to call them marketers, but fans, that have created these stories. Knowing all those things and what our brand is, we’ve really become more focused on how do we make these plush figures great that really hit the core? Then what licenses do we get? There are some situations where we’ll take a license that doesn’t necessarily fit into our core, like there’s a partner of ours that does subscription boxes called Horror Blocks, and we’ve done Freddy and Jason. We have some new ones coming up, and that fit their box, but I don’t know if I’d put that in our universe as well.
Bill: Right. Sure, yeah.
Matt: But what we try to do is pick licenses that the passion hits all ages. When you talk sports, kids love LeBron, adults love LeBron. When you talk comic books, kids love Batman, adults are passionate about Batman. Talk about the Pope, kids love the Pope, adults are passionate about the Pope. That’s really the core of what we do for the most part, and there are going to be exceptions, but we want to make sure we’re hitting the range and we’re maximizing it.
Bill: Right. Well, you mentioned the art and the artistry of this. Bleacher Creatures seems to be at its very best with individuals, be they athletes or otherwise, that have something about their look, whether it’s hair or some defining characteristic, and being able to replicate that in a way that can’t help but make one smile, but is also faithful to the thing that makes them them, as opposed to just, Smurfs are plush. Anybody can do Smurfs. But there seems like there is a Bleacher Creatures way to do this versus a just a nondescript plush way to do this. Yeah, it definitely comes through. You mentioned early in the process how important the prototyping and design phase was, and it makes a lot of sense.
Another thing that you mentioned that I kind of wanted to ask your take on, you’re an e-commerce guy from way back, accidentally, but from way back. Bleacher Creatures operates in a multi-channel environment, and you certainly have through the web, this incredible ability to connect directly through social media and other ways with people. They know where to come and to get these. That said, you talked about that smile factor when one is in a retail environment and sees this, and people just want to pick it up, and just want to look at it, and want to smile. When you think about, in your own career, but also here we are with Bleacher Creatures, the differences, as well as the cooperative nature of the direct and the retail, wholesale side of the business, how do you think about channels?
Matt: I think hard about channels. It’s a big deal. There is a lot of work and care and cost into what Bleacher Creatures does, so you have to get paid for it. Our retailers have to get paid for it. It’s interesting. I was just at another toy trade show last week, and getting feedback from retailers, and so much of what works for us, when it works well, is merchandising and displaying it, so a really good partner for us is Target. Target has beautiful stores.
Even though they’re considered a mass retailer, it’s beautiful, and why they’ve been successful and their sell-throughs are really good is we worked with them and discussed how are you going to display this product, and that is everything. There’s another major retailer, and I won’t name them on this podcast, that doesn’t have a dedicated section. They’re really not organized on how they put their product out, so when I go in their stores, they’re underneath a shelf, and they might be blocked, and the sell-throughs aren’t good.
Bill: Sure. I wonder why, right?
Matt: First of all, as I’m talking to retailers now, that is a conversation for us as we grow. How are we going to support this? We’re happy to support it with you. We’ll give you fixturing, we’ll give you signage, but what are you dedicating into the space to tell the story? Because that’s what it’s about, is the storytelling. Again, Target does a really good job of it.
The other part of it is there is a business out there for perception on plush. You could go to a crane machine in a Walmart, put a quarter in or a dollar in, and win a plush toy. It’s totally different quality than Bleacher Creatures. We have to educate people on the craftsmanship of what we do. We actually do have another product line, which is a different brand name, for lower price point plush, because there are retailers out there and business to be had. So very much like at Majestic, we segmented the business that Majestic was what we called upstairs. Then at the mass, they don’t sell Majestic Athletic to a Walmart. They have a different brand. We looked at the business the same way, and we’re really particular on who gets what.
Bill: When it comes to the relationships that you create with consumers directly through social media, or email, or whatever it is, through the direct channel, obviously the economics of wholesale selling and sell-through versus direct and fulfillment are different. Do you look at the customer journey when it comes to interacting with Bleacher Creatures as a linear thing, across channels? How do you think about making this, in addition to telling the story obviously in a way that really evokes and unleashes the passion of the consumer? How do you think about their journey as a marketer?
Matt: We’re still learning it, so our Director of Marketing was at Comic-Con this weekend. I didn’t get a chance to go, and what was encouraging for us is people were walking by – we were there with one of our customers who has a display there. People were walking by and saying, ‘Oh, check out the Bleacher Creatures.’ They actually said the name.
Bill: Wow, that’s cool.
Matt: That’s really new for us, because I think people are still learning the brand. A year ago at this time, I’d say we had about eight or ten thousand Facebook followers, maybe twelve thousand.
Bill: Yeah, something like that.
Matt: We’re up to close to eighty thousand now. It’s grown really quickly and there are brands we look at to see how we measure and brands that we have a lot of respect for. Funko is a huge brand now, and we’re at about a third of their Facebook followers. We interact with them every day, and it’s not so much about selling product, it’s the same concept, making them smile.
What we’ve learned from the social media part, which is really the big marketing push for us, is we’re connecting with people every day, telling our message, and that gives credibility to retailers out there saying, ‘How do I carry the product?’ Then we’re really careful in regards to how often we’re hitting our e-commerce base with emails. We don’t want to overburden it, so it’s pretty much once every other week, but what we see is the bump. It’s engaged, and I think because we’re not beating them over the head with it, and we’re not just saying, ‘Buy, buy, buy,’ but we’re telling a brand story. It converts better.
That’s really what we’re trying to do right now is tell our story. We’re in business, so we want to sell product, but we just want to tell people about this Bleacher Creature universe and what it’s about and how they can be a part of it.
Bill: Right. Yeah, and so on social media you’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s a Monday night game between the 9ers and the Giants,’ and you’ll have an example of this, and that’ll be it. It won’t be like, ‘Hey, you got to get your Eli Manning before the game starts.’ Seemingly it’s about being part of the overall conversation that people have about the things that they’re passionate about. I don’t know how many ‘abouts’ I can have in that sentence, but being part of that ongoing conversation about sports entertainment and other things is content driven rather than promotional.
Matt: Yeah, what I’m encouraged about over the last year is we’re becoming part of the culture. That’s really the job. We’re becoming part of the culture, even though we’re still small. But as people are picking up, there are enough people that are attracted to us, that we’re becoming part of their day and their culture, so the Pope was the big event. Even last week, TBS ran their commercial for the playoffs with Joe Maddon, and he voiced it, and it ends with them showing the Joe Maddon Bleacher Creature. That’s a commercial.
Now again, it’s not a selling point for us, but we’re now becoming authentic as part of the Cubs’ journey in the postseason, and we see that every week now, and the fact that people are taking their pictures every week with the product. Everywhere you go, whether you’re at the airport, you’re going to a sporting event, comic book store, you’re seeing our product. As we get that stickiness and people start learning more and more, we’re going to be more successful.
Bill: Right. Well, it definitely seems to be for certain athletes who are pictured with it, it’s a sign of their arrival. It’s a sign of you made it, because you don’t have everybody. We had Joanna Cline from Fathead on a few weeks ago. Fathead because its imagery has the ability to be super fast and to put anything on it that people want to buy, whereas you guys, the manufacturing journey here, and both in terms of timing, which I’m sure is a bit of a challenge in terms of timing the market right, but also making good choices about the assortment is a big deal. It means something when an athlete reaches the point that their likeness is available in plush.
Matt: They reach out to us, so I have two good stories on that. One just happened. I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, Dallas, the kid that pitched last night.
Bill: Yeah, Keuchel?
Matt: Keuchel. I thought so, too.
Bill: Cool beard on that guy.
Matt: He’s going to make a great Bleacher Creature.
Bill: Yeah, he is.
Matt: We were already working with the Astros for next season on doing it, but his girlfriend tweeted us the other day.
Bill: Oh, nice.
Matt: Where’s Dallas’ Bleacher Creature?
Bill: When’s it coming?
Matt: We actually reached out to the guy at the Astros, who responded and said, ‘Here’s the artwork. I think there’s a chance that we’ll be making it next year, like 100%.’ That’s what he sent. When we get those, and we get those regularly now, that athletes are reaching out that aren’t ones, and then we’re engaging with them.
The best story was two, two and a half years ago, an agent called us, and we get calls from agents from time to time, and he says, ‘My client plays for the Seahawks and he wants to be a Bleacher Creature.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s his name?’ He said, ‘Richard Sherman.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know him.’ This was before everything happened.
Matt: He was like, ‘No, trust me. People in Seattle really like him. He’s great.’ I said, ‘I’ll call the team.’ I called the team, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we like Richard.’ They were already doing Lynch and Wilson. ‘We’ll add Richard to it, why not?’ Sure enough, he became the biggest thing in the world, and not only that, he does a podcast, a videocast, and he had somebody with a Bleacher Creature on, and then it made Monday Night Football and we blew out of it. To me, why I feel really optimistic about our business is these things happen now on a weekly basis.
Matt: Those opportunities keep on happening. That means we’re doing something right, and there’s something core to what we do that’s getting to be part of this conversation.
Bill: No, absolutely. It just seems, you have the data, but from afar, just the collection of anecdotes and it seems the frequency and intensity with which you see them just as a consumer and as a fan, is increasing. We have some sirens outside the window.
Matt: At first it sounded like an alien invasion.
Bill: Yeah, coming to apprehend us.
Matt: I was excited about it, but now…
Bill: Maybe we should duck down. In the spirit of respecting your time and aiding your getaway here, your career path and the twists and turns, the choices, the good fortune, the strong ethic, all these different things, for someone who’s listening to this and finds some inspiration in what you’ve done, your entrepreneurial story and everything else, what are some advice that you’d share? You said earlier one of the maxims is you never got to ask ‘what if.’ Answer those questions for yourselves. Any other things that are an important part of Matt the guy, and Matt the businessperson as you look forward?
Matt: The ‘what if’ thing is important, and I would tell anybody if you really have a passion for something, at least if you don’t succeed, you’ve got to try, because you’ll kill yourself, kick yourself, if you don’t do it.
But I also think of Eminem, you get one chance. You get that one chance in life, so if you’re going to get the one chance, aim big. Aim big. Why aim small? See how big it gets and see where it gets you, because some of my major influences include Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, and I know a lot of people say that. But if you really look at both those stories, they both dreamed big, thought big, thought differently, and changed culture. I’m not saying Bleacher Creatures is going to be Apple or Disney, but those are good role models in regards to that piece of it.
Bill: No doubt. Forgive my ignorance. Do you have a Jobs Bleacher Creature?
Matt: Not yet.
Bill: A lot of momentum around it with movies and everything else.
Matt: I know. People have asked. Look, he’s, again, he’s an influence for me. I think historically he would fit in. I think we have to figure out where that goes. Whenever we create a Bleacher Creature, the conversation is where do we sell it? Who buys it? I hope Steve Jobs is on the radar down the road. It’s just everything has to line up properly.
Some of the other things is it is really tough to run your own business. It’s literally walking on a tightrope without the net. It’s important to surround yourself with good people, not just working for you, advisers, friends, people who have been through the journey, because if you don’t know the journey, you don’t have people telling you what’s going on, it can be scary, but if people tell you that scary is the norm, it makes it less scary.
I’ve been lucky, and I try to pass the same thing along. I talk to other business owners on the challenges, and it makes it much easier as you go through it in cycles of years, to say, ‘Okay, this is regular, and I understand it’s regular, and I can live and I can survive, and I can get better and stronger.’ It’s really important to base that network to do it.
The other part is you’re not going to be perfect. I heard somebody say the other day most people in life are not A’s and they’re not F’s. They’re generally B pluses to C minuses, somewhere in there. Now, you can achieve to be an A, and I’m trying to be an A. I want to be the best, but you’re not going to be perfect. Even the As aren’t perfect. Bill Belichick’s probably one of the best coaches of all times, but sometimes he makes a stupid mistake too, right?
You have to accept the flaws of what you’re doing to succeed, but at the same time, achieve how to get better every day. I always tell people who work for us, and I think this is true in business, attention to detail, sense of urgency, critical thinking. If you do those three things, those are recipes to succeed.
Bill: It often doesn’t take anything more. It’s an interesting thing. You talk about this transition to the entrepreneurial realm, and we’ll close with this. Thank you so much for your insight and your time.
Matt: Thanks for having me.
Bill: Our pleasure. The difference in mindset between a big job and an important job at an established company versus leadership in an entrepreneurial venture, you talked about some of the terror associated with that. You talked also about some of the blissful ignorance. Could you speak a little bit about just how it’s different to be the guy, and how that feels when it obviously extends across the entirety of your life, and it’s a big shot you’re taking. You’re going to try to make it count. How does it feel?
Matt: In some ways it’s the difference between being the quarterback and being the coach.
Matt: I would say the other part of it is, when I tell my career story, I think in some ways I was given opportunities that – it’s like being the athlete that has all the skills and playing against smaller players, right? Not that I’m the bigger athlete and I have all those skills. The opportunities were those bigger skills.
I’ve been humbled a lot over the last four years. It’s been humbling, and in some ways I wish I was humbled sooner. The difference is when you work for a big company there is a safety net, right? You can get lost in the shuffle in some cases, and unless you aim too big, you’re not going to go out of business. Things will move on.
Now the difference in that is when you work for a smaller company, you can innovate. If you work for a bigger company, it’s more iteration because of that. That’s why small companies can flourish. For us, in the fastest moving technological time ever, in a time where retail’s changing, production’s changing, marketing for sure is changing.
Bill: No question.
Matt: Not only are you walking without that net, but you have to be focused on changing all the time. There is no let up on evolving. It’s about adapting. It’s not about who’s the biggest. It’s not about who’s the strongest or the fastest. It’s the one who can adapt. That’s the biggest, I would say pressure, is that you have to adapt every day, and it’s tiring. It’s tiring for everybody out there, but that’s the society we’re in now.
Bill: Yeah, well, and it’s an interesting balance again between letting things work, because some things take a little while to materialize, demand takes a while to gather. You’re possessed of all kinds of different metrics. Every part of your business can be studied and can be analyzed, and I guess there’s wisdom in knowing when and what when it comes to taking action and you don’t have the opportunity, as you say, to be patient quarter after quarter simply because you believe something seems logical, and ultimately it’s going to click.
What a set of skills, you came into the Bleacher Creatures with the functional experiences, theoretically in place. You knew e-commerce, you had relationships with leagues and players’ associations. You knew the licensing piece; you knew the product piece. You knew wholesale distribution through retailers and then, but this incredible wave of learning, and thankfully achievement. What a story.
Matt: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I said the head coach analogy earlier. It’s the same thing when you start a business. I probably had some skill sets where maybe if you consider what I did offense, sales, product. Those things, and then a lot of times offensive coordinators will become head coaches, well maybe they don’t know defense or about the team’s conditioning. I think it’s the same thing. Now you’re taking all those on, and you’re in charge of every aspect. You might have had a background in the one aspect, but you’re learning other parts. I think that’s true when you start a business. You start taking on whether it’s finance, whether it’s operations. That’s defense, right? That’s special teams.
Bill: Sure, sure.
Matt: Yeah, it’s taken on a lot of different parts, but it is the truism. If you work hard – I’m not the first one to say this, the opportunities happen – good things happen when you work hard, and we see it. We’ve seen it at Bleacher Creatures, and that’s been the blessing.
Bill: Wow. Absolutely. We have maximum control over that, certainly. Matt Hoffman, five years into Bleacher Creatures, great story behind, certainly a great story ahead. We will be watching. Grateful for your time, your friendship, and your insight.
Matt: Thank you for having me. It’s good to see you.
Bill: Thank you, Matt. What an insightful perspective, both on the career journey as a whole and on what he’s been doing entrepreneurially with Bleacher Creatures. Very inspiring, I’m sure, for people who reach a level of leadership and success in a category that they’ve become very close to, and through very hard work, but still had that nagging entrepreneurial dream and have an idea that they feel fits it. Matt spoke very candidly about the steps required to do that, both emotionally and interpersonally, as well as financially and strategically.
Three ways as always to support us here at Real-World Branding, and with the promise of new content in the coming weeks, we’d love to keep a dialog going on Twitter. We’d love to see ratings in the App Store if we’ve earned it, and of course, subscribing to this show makes sure that episodes aren’t missed. They download automatically into your podcast player, and we’re told that the number of subscribers also has an impact on how we appear in search ratings. If you do find value in this and believe that others will too, these are three ways that you can help us make sure that that happens. Signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post Chase Utley as a Muppet: Matt Hoffman – Founder and CEO, Bleacher Creatures appeared first on Finch Brands.
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: Play in new window | 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.
The post Startups to Grown-ups: Brock Weatherup, Former Chief Digital Officer of PetSmart appeared first on Finch Brands.
When starting a business, there are many things on which entrepreneurs must focus – everything from developing prototypes to raising capital. However, one aspect every business owner or founders need to address, especially early on, is the brand. In this week’s One Big Idea, Bill explains the role of brand in early stage organizations and how early thinking about brand helps prepare companies for success. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency and this is One Big Idea. Today’s topic we’ve entitled Early Stage Branding. A couple of thoughts about this. First of all, we’ve recently recorded over the last couple of weeks a couple of really, really interesting podcast episodes, interviews with a diverse group of brand and business builders, but it seems like recently some of the folks we’ve been and we’ll be featuring are those who really have the entrepreneurial spirit and often have worked with early stage companies – making them bigger, exiting in a favorable positive way, as well as nurturing entrepreneurs and the overall entrepreneurial eco system.
One of the interesting topics that each of these podcasts have gone into is for entrepreneurs and those who are working on early stage business concepts, how do you think about branding. Obviously with large organizations with multiple touch points, with many, many different customers and prospects the notion of brand development and brand management is a fairly well understood discipline. We’ve spoken about it at great length on this podcast.
The question though, ultimately, becomes for those who are in a mode of conserving capital, for those who are at a stage where they may be building their product and those twists and turns of the meetings they’re having or the epiphanies that they have, the studies they’re doing, are helping shape the way products are built and constructed. For those who are at that early juncture, how should they think about branding?
The topic today is: what do you need to get done early, and how you ought to think about it if you’re an entrepreneur who’s working on a venture, or you’re a little way in but haven’t hit your stride, you’re still in the planning mode, how should you think about the brand? What do you need to get done versus what perhaps comes later? First of all, there are different answers to this question but my take is as follows. We’ve outlined on this podcast in terms of first principles what branding really means.
Branding is a much bigger topic than just look and feel, than identity or colors or sales materials. Branding is ultimately about purpose, it’s about promise, and it’s about differentiation. If entrepreneurial ventures start with a core sense of why, with a core belief of the righteousness of a business cause, whether it’s to do something different, to do this better, or ‘why should we as a population have to deal with X, Y, and Z, and my company is going to make this better.’ That sort of endeavor, intellectually and otherwise, is a core element of what branding is. It’s getting to the why, it’s establishing the purpose, it’s organizing the passion in pursuit of a business goal.
So as it relates to first principles, in terms of brand, it is essential to get that done early or to arrive at that entrepreneurial activity and energy with a clear sense of what that is. The first principles of branding are important to get done or have early, finding the why.
More tactically, things that are important to think through and get right or as close to right as possible in the early stages of a venture, let’s think about identity. A good name. Our last One Big Idea was about some ways to think about the naming process. The potential of a strong brand name in terms of conveying energy, of demonstrating and expressing a position in the marketplace, a differentiable position, as well as beginning the process of getting your prospects and your customers to feel something. To balance that emotional and rational piece is important. Entrepreneurs should not miss the opportunity to use the name as part of that positioning arsenal.
It’s important to think through, maybe not to spend months on, not to spend thousands of dollars on, but to think through naming with a seriousness of purpose, as well as the requisite creativity. It’s also important obviously because you don’t want to have to go back and redo this later. It’s important that you do due diligence when it comes to naming in terms of legal availability, in terms of linguistic appropriateness, in terms of a domain name that is conducive to your sales and marketing program. You really ought to do well when it comes to naming pretty early on.
The pitch, the simple distillation of the why into the right kind of boiler plate copy, positioning statement, tagline perhaps, that kind of platform for pitching, for sales and marketing, is something to spend some time on early and to definitely pressure test with those around you with the prospective customers, with those on whom you seek to have influence, certainly your investor partners if applicable, your business partners. Getting the bare bones of the pitch right early is important.
Also we talk a lot about research and obviously we at Finch do a lot of custom and as well as picked out a panel driven market research. It is important to pressure test your message, as noted, but at this early stage our perspective is, it’s perhaps most important to do this by doing it. The best way to start doing something is to start doing something sometimes. There is the opportunity to be paralyzed by study, paralysis by analysis as we call it, and to fail to launch in a way until things are absolutely perfect, which they ultimately never will be.
When it comes to research there are low cost market research tools that entrepreneurs can harness, but in some ways I think bouncing off ideas both for business concepts but also for pitch items, bouncing them off of prospects, bouncing them off of thought leaders, investors, and others is probably all you need in the early stages when you are conserving capital and thinking through what you need to get done early on the branding front.
The overall operating principles in the early stages of business development and bringing the idea, the sense of why, the purpose into an actual business plan and fully articulated multifunction business execution – you want to save dollars, you want to control your burn rate, you want to conserve capital wherever possible. This does not mean depriving yourself of the oxygen required to enable the business to reach the next phase, but it does mean being very, very smart about the investment you make in terms of external partners. One of those investments, sounds strange for me to say is, is you certainly want to conserve capital when it comes to branding and marketing in the early stages.
Secondly, many entrepreneurs have a perfectionistic, if that’s a word, impulse. You really need in the early days to apply that impulse elsewhere. You are not going to get marketing right, at least not 100% right, from day one. You are going to discover. You are going to perfect what you do based upon market fact. While you do want to get ahead of that, in terms of again bouncing ideas, pitch items, and marketing pieces and ideas off of those whose input can help you steer, you definitely want to make sure that you are not caught in an endless loop of analysis and something that deprives you from getting to market and from learning from those early successes, and failures too. Obviously time must be spent when it comes to crafting the right value proposition, the right message, and the right suite of marketing tactics and techniques, but not so much so that you delay the learning and go-to-market process.
There you have it this week, importantly, and I guess the One Big Idea for this week is it’s important to apply the right level of thinking and resources to a couple of key things early on in the entrepreneurial journey, but, it is not essential that you go through the depth of analysis, thinking, and resource allocation that might be required when you are at a later juncture in terms of the business that you are striving and working so hard to build. That’s One Big Idea, Early Stage Branding. Bill Gullan here wishing you all the best as we sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.