In this Episode
Fabian Geyrhalter is the author of the Leanpub book Bigger Than This: How to Turn Any Venture Into an Admired Brand. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Fabian about his background, moving to LA from Geneva, the US educational system and studying design, how to approach branding for early-stage companies or Series A startups, his surprising experience in an Amazon bookstore, his writing, and his experience as an author.
This interview was recorded on January 29, 2018.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, this is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Frontmatter Podcast, I'll be interviewing Fabian Geyrhalter.
Fabian is a well-known brand strategist and is the founder of FINIEN, a consultancy based in Los Angeles, that helps turn ventures into successful brands.
Fabian is a popular speaker and mentor, whose work has been featured in the Washington Post and Huffington Post, and his book How to Launch a Brand was a #1 Amazon bestseller.
His former client list includes start-ups like Jukin Media and Survios, and well-established brands including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Warner Brothers and Honeywell.
In addition to writing, How To Launch a Brand, Fabian is also the author of his latest book, Bigger Than This: How to Turn Any Venture Into an Admired Brand., which we'll be talking about a little bit later.
In this interview we're going to talk about Fabian's background and career, professional interests, his books, and at the end, we'll talk a little bit about his experience writing. So thank you Fabian for being on the Frontmatter Podcast.
Fabian: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me, Len.
Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. You've had a couple of stages in your career, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit first about where you grew up?
Fabian: I grew up in Vienna, Austria. Hence my peculiar name and my accent. I finished high school there, and then I moved to Switzerland for a year and a half to study communication design, which is really a fancy way of saying, graphic design. But I actually like "communication design" better, because it describes the service that you offer a client in a better way, because you communicate something.
I was there for a year and a half, and then half way through my studies, the college decided to close its beautiful Switzerland campus. And so gone were my views of the Evian-water-bottle-shaped mountains that I saw every morning, and off I was, shipped to the US.
I had about three weeks where they said, "Look, the college is closing. We have our sister campus - the main campus - in beautiful Pasadena in Los Angeles." I moved to Los Angeles, and I kind of sticked around ever since.
Len: And you studied for a BFA at Art Center College of Design?
Fabian: That's right.
Len: What was that like? I used to hang out with artists, and often they had a final show at the end of their degree. Did you do something like that?
Fabian: We had something like that. When I was studying there it wasn't as elaborate as it is now. Because now I'm on the other side of the coin - the industry that goes into the school looking at students' work, they do a really great job now, and it's very much geared to future employers. People do their five-minute speed dating type dog and pony show of their work.
And it's really cool. It's a great feature for artists. But especially when you're a commercial artist - like a product designer, or a graphic designer, for you to actually meet people from the industry, and already have the first inch while you're still on your final days of college. It's a really cool thing to do.
Len: It must've been an interesting shift moving to California?
Fabian: Yes, rather so. I mean especially coming from Switzerland. I kid you not, when I talk about this - Lake Geneva, and these beautiful vineyards, the snow-covered mountains, and everything is very, very, very quiet and very pristine. And then suddenly, you're thrown out at LAX and you try to get through traffic.
And back then, I mean this dates me, this shows pretty much how old I am, but we had those Macintosh computers that were those 90-100s, and they were big monsters. The monitors were just as wide as they were deep. So it took me about three weeks to get all of my stuff shipped over, and then to carry that over to the apartment and stuff. It was just a pretty big deal. It was a culture shock, as big as a culture shock could most probably be.
Language-wise, it wasn't a problem. But just imagine - you don't have a social security number, you don't have a driver's license. You have no place to stay, so you're just staying in a seedy motel, to be on a student budget. And you get to witness life in the US very quickly. But after a couple of months, I adjusted.
Len: I've been to Geneva, and I've never really quite booted up the contrast in my mind between that and like LA.
It's interesting, you're talking about the technology you had. Was digital design a part of your course?
Fabian: Yes. That actually happened right when I started my study. I graduated in '97, so in '94 - that was right at the verge where everything was already digital. We still did some things in the traditional way, like typesetting and things like that. It actually was great that I was able to witness that, because then for a good 10, 15 years, it was all digital, only digital.
And now with this whole revival, with the current Zeitgeist of going retro and going hands-on and artists and all - now, most art colleges actually have typesetting programs, where you actually get your hands dirty and you have to use type press and things like that. It's really good to understand directions, to understand how something is actually done by hand, and then use the computer.
These days a lot of kids, when they self-learn - you can tell typography very quickly. Apart from someone that actually goes through training like Arts at The College of Design, or someone that's self-trained - that being said, this could start a whole discussion about college and is it worth it, and the educational system in the US. And I don't know if we have that much time.
Len: Actually, one of the sort of unofficial themes of this podcast is, because most Leanpub authors are actually software developers or software architects, and people who work for tech firms, I always take the opportunity to ask them: if you were starting out now, would you formally study computer science in university, or would you just strike out on your own?
And this is a really good opportunity for me to ask you that question, but in design. If you were starting out now, would you take the same course of sort of formal study, or would you recommend to yourself that you do something more independent?
Fabian: It's a pretty big question because, look, the way that things ended up for me - the path that I took, or the path that shaped itself in front of me, it worked out really well. So I believe that everything happened for a really good reason.
Now, I am not a big fan of the current educational system, and I'm not a big fan of getting students into huge amounts of debt - a lot of educational curriculum debt does not necessarily lend itself to the real world, right? So I am really, really torn.
If I had kids that were college age, I would have a really hard time pushing them into college education. And I would have equally as hard of a time figuring out what else, right? Like, how can they shape their own way, still having a really solid foundational education in their expertise, without only just starting on the very bottom in their job? It's a really difficult question, and I think that's why the government and everyone is struggling with how to deal with that.
But I'm a big, big fan of all of these start-ups and entrepreneurs that come out and say, "Hey, here's another way that you can learn, and here's my five cents of how you can learn." I love that. I'm trying to mentor as much as I can personally as well, because I think the current system is definitely not the best way forward.
Len: A point seems to have been turned - it's like a difference in not just degree, but in kind, with the expense of getting a degree, particularly, in the United States, I had a colleague with three college-age children. And just for one of them, he was paying $60,000 a year for Harvard tuition.
At that point, his life changed a lot. Fortunately he could afford it, but it was by living a different way - and basically working all the time.
Fabian: Sorry but anything for your kids, right? That idea that you're a father, and this is your calling and you need to do this for your kids, that's absolutely a noble way of doing it. He most probably did it for the happiness of the son or the daughter. But he didn't do it to support colleges, right?
It's a fine line: how do you get your kids to actually understand if it needs to be a college education, or, what other ways are there? So I'm not sure if the $60,000 are really necessary these days.
But it's so difficult, and I'm not a dad, so I've got a very easy talk here. I don't have to go home and then actually figure it out.
Len: I believe I read a story where you got a green card, after graduating, I would imagine, and then you started your own design studio?
Fabian: Yes, it happened actually a little bit later.
When you study as a foreigner in the US and you get a certain visa - I believe it is a J-1 visa, which is a student visa, I think that's what it's called, at least that's what it used to be called - and then everything is a little bit easier, because you're already in the States.
I think it's okay for you to get an internship, but then in order for you to actually work, an employer needs to sponsor you. That's the big story in Silicon Valley right now, especially given the Trump era that we're in right now. It's getting more and more difficult. I was lucky enough to have an employer who sponsored me.
Which means, they basically have you with a carrot. You're just waiting until you get the green card. Because they sponsor it, and they know they have you working for them at least until that green card hits in. So it's kind of like a mutual thing that everyone knows: the minute that he or she gets the green card, who knows what's going to happen? But at least we're going to have that employee until that moment.
That's what happened with me. The minute the green card hit in, I'm like, "Adios." And I was freelancing all the time. I was always eager to work with with multiple clients at a time, and not necessarily be employed, and [instead] go more the self-employed route.
Len: And so you did open your own studio?
Fabian: Yes it was literally a studio. I was living in Venice, California, which at the time was super trendy and hip, but right on the verge of being gentrified - meaning there were definitely drug deals happening in the alley behind my studio, there was shady stuff going on right and left.
I remember when I had my first employee, who actually was my first intern. She was still working in a place where I had a cat running around. I had a bathtub in the corner. It was like a living, working kind of situation, and it was super uncomfortable, I'm sure, for her. She's a bigwig at Google now, so I'm sure she can tell all the stories. But she actually turned into my first employee, and then she turned into my first senior. She grew with me for a couple of years. We had a great office, then, on Main Street in Santa Monica. Things happened pretty quickly thereafter.
Len: What do you mean by that, that things happened quickly? I know that it eventually grew to be nearly a couple of dozen employees.
Fabian: You know, what happens when you're young and naive and have a big designer ego, and you just want to get a lot of people working for you and have a lot of amazing clients, and win a lot of awards. I was just happily employing one person after another. I'd just get a lot of cool people together and create cool stuff.
The problem in the graphic design industry is it's very demanding. It's not your usual nine to five, usually; you stay late, and it becomes more of like a family environment. Once I grew the company to about 10 people, it became really, really tough for me to not micromanage, and then to actually be able to afford middle management, so to speak, and project managers and to get from that big group of people who just happen to work for me - it really felt like a big group of graphic designers working together to turn into a very professional company that has all of the right foundational elements.
As a creative, it's really, really difficult to have the right brain and the left brain say, "Hey, let's hang out. Let's see how we get through this together." I think that was always my struggle, and then at some point it got 13, 14 years into it, I said, "You know what? I have to really rethink if this kind of company really makes me happy."
Len: And you decided that the way you were doing things didn't make you happy, and you made a really big change, as I understand it, to basically, closing up shop and starting a new company.
Fabian: First of all, I'm impressed how much you researched me, because I don't write about this too frequently. But yeah, it's an intriguing story, I think, for a lot of entrepreneurs. Because here I was, and I had an agency name that was recognized, at least in certain fields, and I'd won a lot of awards, and had ongoing clients that all paid us nice monthly retainers.
And yet I was not perfectly happy. Financially, I was not exactly where I wanted to be. And as far as the group dynamic, I always felt like everyone needs to get raises. And how do I make ends meet with still getting high quality work? There was a lot going on where I just felt like, "You know what? Let's just see if I can flip this around."
I actually hired a consultant who came in. All he does is this one thing, and that's all he does. It's just so cool. All he does is he goes to small, struggling graphic design agencies, and he most probably tells them pretty much the same thing, all of them.
He basically just tells each one of them, "Look, you have to specialize. You have to do one thing, you have to do it really well, and you have to have one target audience, and one type of clientele - and then you're going to excel, because everyone wants to hear that one message."
It's actually so interesting, because on the one hand, I say [?] what he did was so "easy", but on the other hand, I learned so much from him about how branding works. Because what he did with me, I'm now applying to some of my clients. That singular voice and message, and something that's very intrinsic to you, and what you do really well. That can be applied to a Fortune 100 brand, as well as a one-person shop.
Then we decided that day that I'm going to change my agency into a very, very small consultancy that is specialized in only working with very early-stage companies, which means like Series A-type companies that just start up, and creating their foundation. What is the brand about? What should the name be? What should identity be? What do we stand for?
And that's what I did. It was a huge deal. I told my wife, "Look, we're moving from Malibu to Long Beach," which is still the harbor city of Los Angeles. And, "Let's bootstrap for a year or two, because I really want to make this big change." I invested a lot of money and time into writing my first book at that time, via Leanpub as well, How to Launch a Brand. In that book, I actually described the process that my consultancy was about to do.
It was a very interesting way - I figured, "If I write it down, I have to stick to it and it has to be the truth Because if I publish it, I can't go back." And so that was the foundation of my consultancy.
Len: One detail of that transition that you made that struck me was, you talk about how you paid this consultant $10,000 for one day, and it just reminded me of an experience I had in the past, where I used to be an investment banker. At one point we were sort of forced to hire a very famous strategy consultancy. We paid this team of people a lot of money to basically write what we told them to. And when they were done, we threw it out. We put it right in the garbage bin. Because it was all part of a wider strategy, to have their name involved in the process. But who they really were, and what they were actually saying, was meaningless to us.
But the other experience I had with "consultants" was, if you can get someone who really, really knows their area and what they're doing, it's worth thousands of dollars for a couple of hours of their time.
Fabian: Everything you said is absolutely correct. Obviously, I myself am now a consultant, which - it just hurts every time I say the word. But I am a consultant, and I came to terms with that. Yeah, consultants, I mean, look - there's immediately a high fee associated with them. Because it's also positioning, right? I mean if you're not expensive, how could you possibly be good?
I always make the comparison of, very often, it is the case that - let's say you have an old Volvo station wagon, and you want to get your old Volvo station wagon quickly fixed up, or you want to get an engine check or something. You just go to whatever Joe Shmoe mechanic around the corner, and you just get it done for cheap.
But if you go up to Whistler, or you go up to the mountains with your family in your old Volvo station wagon and you say, "You know what? I'd better bring it up to speed." You go to a Volvo dealer, and they do the exact same work, with the same mechanic that most probably moved from the small shop around the corner, over to work for Volvo now. The same work, the same everything, but it suddenly costs like $1,800 instead of like $120. And it might be the same person working on it that's just moving from one garage to another.
So there's something about that piece of mind that people buy into, and that was the case with the example that you gave, where in the end the consultancy said the exact same thing for, like, 20, 50, 60 thousand dollars. But all they needed is that stamp of approval from that consultancy name, so that upper management can move forward and actually make that big change, snd in front of the board of directors point the finger at, "Well, McKinsey said so," or whoever. It's how it works. And sometimes I'm the beneficiary of that, but you know what? I don't get much joy out of it when it's like, "Well, we just need you there because we need the consultant, and you've got the right kind of background to make it count." That's not very fulfilling.
Len: I can imagine that that's not very fulfilling. But at the same time, it actually can be - I mean, I was being sort of being cynical, but it's a very important role sometimes; you need a figure that's external to what your business is doing, to simply be there as another voice.
Fabian: That is true. One thing is for sure, that if I get hired by a company that makes me repeat their statement, if I don't look eye-to-eye with that, and if I don't think that that is really the right way forward for the company, I would not do it.
I'm well known to have - I wouldn't say the word "fired", but to have let go clients halfway through the project when I said, "Look, ethically that's just not working for me." And most people do understand that.
Len: That's got to be a very interesting position to find yourself in. I did read a couple of references, in your writing, to firing clients. That must be - I imagine sometimes they're shocked.
Fabian: Yes, all the time they're shocked. It's a weird business, how people take things personally. But it's really not personal. It's just kind of like a code of conduct. I mean, if all these large Fortune 500s would ever read their codes of conduct, I'm sure there's something about it in there. I feel like the beauty of me being a consultancy, where I have one full-timer and a part-time assistant, who I never met in person, but she's lovely - I send her gifts for Christmas, and everything is good - is that I am completely free to work with the type of clients that I want to work with, and work on exactly the type of projects I want to work with.
As far as my work life goes, that to me is so absolutely exciting. Because you just wake up in the morning and when you say, "You know what? Why are you stressed out? What is bugging you? What is that thing?" And then you realize, "Oh, it's because of this one client. Because things are not going the right way, and it's losing its grip." Then you know you need to do something about it.
I'm not saying you've got to immediately fire a client, but you talk, you communicate. You figure things out.
Len: I've got a couple of questions about what it is your day is like and what you work is like. There's a certain kind of glamor associated with things like design and branding, consulting and things like that. I'm just thinking, one of my favorite shows these days is Black-ish. I don't know if you've seen that show, but -
Fabian: I've heard of it, yeah. I'm horrible with catching shows while they're still hot.
Len: I recommend giving it a try. It features a main character who works at a advertising agency. And of course it's a comedy, so they sort of make a joke about how they don't actually do any work. But I know that you do, and so I'm just wondering what's it like? Are you brought into a startup and they say, "Help us with our brand," and then you give them a presentation? How does the nitty-gritty work out?
Fabian: Advertising agencies, that's always very exciting. I'm sure you caught Mad Men back in the day.
Fabian: That's the heyday right? The thing with advertising agencies, and with graphic design agencies is that it's very much a rat race. A client is usually right, and clients usually get to see 5,000 pieces of creative until they decide on one of them. And very often at the end, the creative is really lukewarm because the client had so many stakeholders that took everything away from it that made the creative exciting.
Another reason why I have the small consultancy now is because I like to have a process - and maybe my German accent already gave that away, but I'm very process-oriented. Especially with start-up entrepreneurs, at that time they're very small teams. Sometimes it's literally one person; sometimes it's two or three people. Usually they don't understand the power of branding and how important it is to a startup. Some of them rightfully so, because they pivot and they change what they're really in the business for. And so if they in the beginning spend a lot of money, or any money really, creating the brand, and then the startup is actually changing after a couple of years or a couple months down [the road] - then it is a bad investment.
But what I do is I come in and I just tell them, "Look, branding is not about your logo, even though the logo is an important aspect still, especially today with apps. There's so much visual clutter, you need something that stands out.
But it is important that you actually understand what you stand for and what the reason for being of the company is, and why people would care about the company more so than the product. Like, what's behind the company?
Look at Leanpub. Leanpub, to the end consumer it's a download, right? And then to an author, it's a very liberating tool to do something that they can do themselves. And then behind the brand, the whole story of the founder and that movement, and the talks that he gives - that then becomes really the DNA of the brand. That's the reason for being. That's kind of like his foundational monologues about, "This is why Leanpub needs to exist."
But so this pyramid, of what people see at what point in the journey, and then how much of that do they actually feel subliminally, while they're at Leanpub? That's what gets me really excited.
To answer your question, when I work with start-up entrepreneurs, I say, "Look. I do brand strategy and it's super important. It's the most important thing, but I do it in one day."
I'm kind of like the consultant who came into my office. I charge a good six, seven thousand dollars. It's one day and it's in their office or it's in my office. Meaning, if you're an entrepreneur in China, I'm happy to fly over to you if you pay for it. Or you can fly over to me. But we have to be eye-to-eye. I don't do Skype.
We have to sit there together for eight hours - and that's the minimum, it might run into ten hours, and we work the strategy of the company, of the brand, we work it out together. You and I, or you plus seven, eight people - all of us in one room.
It's amazing what it does. Because in the end - and you hinted at that before when you said consultants very often just repeat what you say - well, that's kind of what a great consultant does. A great consultant listens. It's like a good therapist, or great friends.
It's funny, the less you talk when you see a friend, then the more that the friend talks. The more the friend catches up with you afterwards saying, "It was so great talking to you. This was so great." And I'm like, "Well, I didn't say a thing." But that's exactly why why they love it - because they just need to talk, and they need to get it out there.
I see brand strategy very much like brand therapy. It's like, "Let's really get everything out of you, like what your deepest reasoning is behind creating this company. You could do so much, why do you do this? How would people remember that company if it goes kaput 10 years from now? What would that feeling be, that void that would be there if your company would suddenly be gone?"
I actually write memorial speeches for startup founders' brands even though the brands haven't been launched yet. It's very interesting. I think there's a lot of psychology in it and I mean, that's what branding and advertising is in the end. Yes there's the logo, yes there's the name, it all has to work together - but that foundational element is super exciting to me.
Len: One of the things I found striking in your work researching for this interview was the very straightforwardness with which you express the fact that you have to have a reason for what you're doing in order to succeed - which seems like such a straightforward thing to say, but it really makes you realize that this isn't necessarily a question that people are asking themselves when they get up in the morning, or when they go to work, or even when they launch their startup. I mean, what is it for?
Fabian: It's so bizarre, because you would think that would be the first thing - especially a startup founder, that they would have all of that inside of them. And they're like, "Well, here's a reason why the world needs me right now, and here's why I started a company." But very often when they're at the point where they actually release a product, or release a service, or hire people, or get funding, and they actually need to face the public, and they need to have the right name, and the right messaging, and the right logo, and the right -
I call it the brand aura, everything that's around them visually and verbally that needs to convince people to buy their product. They have such a hard time going right back into the shower or the bedroom or whenever they woke up. Or they have this big epiphany and they're like, "This is it. The world needs me now." It's like this Superman cape thing. It's like it doesn't happen anymore.
It's one thing to say, "Well, this is what we stand for," but then you need to really carefully make sure that what you stand for as a company, that it perfectly aligns with your particular audience, with your future employees, with your partners, founders. It has to be this thing of like, "If these are our values, do the values perfectly align?"
I'm not saying shift your values and don't be true to yourself, but make sure that you voice it in a way where you can build this tribe, as they call it.
Len: It's interesting when you talk about connecting with the audience. That reminded me of something that you wrote about how things have changed in the last, let's say, 10 years with social media, because you can connect with your audience, but your audience can have a life of its own in a way that it actually didn't in the past, because people can project their voices into this social media universe in a way they couldn't in the past.
It reminded me of how - kids these days might not know, but it used to be that you could have a negative interaction with an employee at a restaurant or something like that, which is something that, at least in my experience, doesn't really happen anymore, because of Yelp and things like that.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about how maybe that's changed in your work over time, with this emergence of, you really have to be very careful in a way that you perhaps didn't have to be in the past.
Fabian: This is interesting. This goes right down to the heart of it. You say you have to be careful and that's exactly, in my eyes, the perfect example of when you assume that companies would lie to you. Because you have to be careful.
So what the new brands do, the 2.0 brands today that actually understand that it's all about solidarity and transparency and whatever we do - the beauty is millions of people might immediately hear about it. But the problem is we cannot fake it anymore. I feel like it used to be advertising-based communications and now it's human-based communications.
Now it's like, well, here's someone sitting writing social media for a brand. Well, guess what? The person that receives that social media from the brand knows exactly that there's someone sitting there writing it that's hired by the brand to do that, and that that person is a real person typing, that it's not a bot. And that that person needs to perfectly humanly convey what the brand feels about anything, really.
I mean, any weird question that you put out there on social media that is being seen by the public needs to be answered, because it's hanging there. So someone from the company needs to answer it. And isn't it fascinating that all of this happens at the same time of the #metoo movement and of the Trump and Brexit and - it is just a really bizarre time where everyone is aching for transparency with brands.
But then with everything around them, it just gets uncovered that things are getting less and less transparent and more and more closed up and censored in a way. So it's a really fascinating time right now - and fascinating, not necessarily in the most positive way.
Len: That reminds me of an argument I've had with friends over the years, where, for me, personally the Amazon grocery store that's now open to the public in Seattle, where you can walk in and get what you want and walk out without interacting with a person, unless you want to - that's my dream come true. To a lot of people, that's a nightmare. They love the interacting with the cashier and stuff like that. But it reminds me that, at the same time, the way Amazon is presenting this technology is that it's freeing up the staff to genuinely help you - rather than, you put something in front of them, and they pick it up and swipe it over something, and then give it back to you to put in a bag.
There is this interesting interplay with - I don't know exactly what I'm trying to get at, but the idea that we've got all this burgeoning technology that's actually helping us spend more time with each other, at the same time as there's a countervailing narrative that it's all isolating us. And at the same time as we're all open and we all have to be nice to each other, at the same time we've got Trump.
Fabian: Exactly, in one word. The question is - back to your Amazon grocery store store, I don't know who is lonelier - the actual cashier who has to just get the barcodes over the counter, or you as a person who walks through and never wants to talk to a person. Are you lonelier? Or is the person lonelier that is so excited that he or she actually gets to talk to a cashier?
All three have a different feeling of loneliness about them, and in the end it's all about how the world is progressing. I'm right there with you. I want to walk in and I don't want to pay. I don't want to think about credit cards, and purses, and cash. I mean, God no. I don't want to think about that.
I wrote a piece about the Amazon bookstore, because I was so fascinated by that. And I know Amazon is a favorite topic for Leanpub.
Len: Actually I wanted to ask you about that. I read that article and it was really interesting. You went to one of these Amazon bookstores, and I was wondering if you could just talk about what that experience was like?
Fabian: It so happened at one of those opened up in Los Angeles, and it was right about the time where I finished my last book. I felt it would be crazy not to at least see how people in the future will consume books. And how does Amazon rate books? And could my book ever be on the shelf there? Can I bootstrap that? Can I hack it? That was my reasoning to walk in there.
I thought that the whole thing would be so emotionless, and so cold. I just thought the whole thing would be really awkward. So, I was super excited to slam Amazon for what they're doing.
And what happened was exactly the opposite. They use the data that they get from online purchases, and they use it in a way in the store that I just wish Barnes and Noble's would have thought of. Because they would have had all of that.
They have the actual infrastructure to roll this out, but they are just always a little bit behind at it. I breaks my heart, because I'd just love for them to actually do these things.
What Amazon does is you walk in and you're in LA so it says, "Here are the top 10 most read books in LA." And you're like, "Well, that's super interesting."
If I see it on the website, it doesn't do anything to me. But if I'm in a bookstore physically, and I see, "Here are the top 10 most read books in LA," I'm like, "Wow." "And here are LA specific books," I'm like, "Well, that's interesting." And then, "Here are books that just came on our shelves in the last couple of days." There's the Simon Sinek book with like 10,000 Amazon reviews next to a book by some other consultant, an entrepreneurial business book that has three reviews. And I'm like, "Wow."
I mean this is amazing, that they are not just taking the bestsellers and they're actually trying out what books stick in the store. The best feature is, "If you like this, you would like this." I mean that's Amazon's claim to fame online. They used it in the store in such an amazing way, where they have these novels, like the top 100 books of all times, and it basically says, "If you liked this book, you're going to like this - and you're going to like this, and you're going to like this."
But now you grab the book, and you can actually flip through it. And you're like, "Oh wow, I'm more this person. Let me walk over there, that's more like it." So you don't feel like a machine funnels you to who they think you are, who the machine thinks you are. But you yourself can actually be in charge of your funnel. I felt that was super interesting. I was in the store for maybe an hour, and I don't know when that happened the last time in a Barnes & Noble.
Len: That's actually a really interesting observation there. Because there's a whole cottage industry in the book publishing world around the value of independent book stores and stuff like that. And what you were saying reminded me of - I think there's a line that made me laugh in your article where you contrasted the benefits of a list of staff picks, which is a conventional thing, versus feedback from millions of people.
And often what happens in the indie book cottage industry world, people say, "Oh, instead of just some inhuman Amazon machine recommending something to you, and slurping up your data, we've got a person at the store who knows you personally, who can tell you what you should be reading next."
To me that's some kind of strange - first of all, no, how could it possibly be that the random person randomly employed at the random shop owned by some random person, could possibly tell me better than I know myself what I should be reading? And there's this weird thing where there's this paradox, where people relate to what Amazon is doing as kind of impersonal. But you led me to think about it from a different direction, which is, actually it's millions and millions of people that I'm interacting with via their technology and the way they're using it.
Fabian: I always find it very peculiar when I go into a shop. I love indie shops, I think you and I both. It's not the idea that there's no merit in having them. But the way that they just refuse to move forward, it's really painful. I mean the idea that I walk into a store and I see that Lisa recommends this book, and it's Lisa's pick - it doesn't do anything to me. The same thing in a music store. I'm like old school vinyl. I guess I'm cool again, because it's retro now. But I'm a vinyl collector, and so I go into stores, and suddenly there's these random bins that say like, "Mark's picks." And I'm like, "I don't even know what type of music Mark likes. I don't know how old Mark is. I don't know Mark, why would I go through that bin."
That's kind of like that thing with Amazon, like you said. It's 10,000 people that liked Simon Sinek's book. They will now like Fabian Geyrhalter's book. That is not what they say, but that's what I say. But then it's like, "Oh well, maybe I should give this strange Austrian author a chance and actually read this book?" That makes sense to me. So it's very different.
Len: Speaking of the subject of your books - moving on to the next part of the interview - in How To Launch A Brand, you write about a brand platform. And for any startup people, or people in business of any kind listening, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what a brand platform is, and how one goes about building and maintaining one?
Fabian: The brand platform is very much what I referred to earlier, when I come in and I do this one-day strategy workshop. For entrepreneurs, there's obviously a huge amount of entrepreneurs that are so bootstrapped that they just painfully pay 10 bucks for a book, and that's about the brand strategy that they're going to do.
For them, I wrote this book, to just understand what are some of these exercises that I go through with my clients. Some of them, they can bootstrap. Itt's also called "brand foundation." It was really the idea - if you think of your company as a house, and it's like the footprint and it's the blueprint; this is the architecture that could be built in it, but this is exactly the foundation I need to lay right now, in order for the architecture to fit on top of it.
The idea with a company is, you need to have that foundation be made for a skyscraper and perfectly earthquake-safe, and go way deep down, and be really strong, so that whatever happens with your company in the next 10 years, that the foundation can hold it. It is put on a foundation that has a very clear brand definition, a very clear positioning statement. Like, "Why are you in the business? What do you really give your consumers? What are the pain points that you alleviate? What are the benefits?"
Have your core values figured out. Core values is one of those things where it can go bad very quickly, when the core values are cheesy and no one can believe them, and they feel like any company can say them. But really core values, that you as a founder already know, that's what you want the company to stand for.
That's like Apple's, "Think different." That's very much a core value of Apple, like that's who we are or who we were. That's something that the company can definitely build a good 10 years on, even though it was a tagline. But that could've been a perfect kind of core value.
So a brand platform is - a couple of these exercises that you need to go through as a founder or as a founding team, and really truthfully and very, very intellectually. To say, "We really stand behind this, and we can honestly build a company upon that foundation."
And from there, you start the marketing. And from there, you start naming the company. And from there, you start giving the company the visuals, the logo and everything else.
In the book How To Launch A Brand, I'm going through these steps. I also go into the naming. Which is a pretty big deal as well. How do you name a company? How do you go about it? How do you not screw it up and get sued? Or how do you make sure that you own the social media channels and the .com, if you want to own that.
Len: That reminds me of an interesting branding story. I moved to the UK in the late 90's, and shortly after I moved there, there was this big, huge renaming of giant corporations, a rebranding trend that was happening. For example, the Royal Mail, which was this incredibly popular brand, renamed itself Consignia - for about a minute, after the country went crazy. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. How can one avoid making catastrophic mistakes with naming?
Fabian: For Royal Mail, the catastrophic mistake was a renaming mistake. Not the actual naming mistake, but that - it was most probably the wrong consultancy at the wrong time, saying, "Hey, the best way that we're going to reshape the idea of sending mail in the digital age would be to change the name." Which is not true. I mean I don't know anything about that story. I have absolutely no idea what happened there.
But it happens over and over and over with companies where they feel like, in order for them to be seen differently by the public and by the target audience, they need to change the name or change the logo. And very often, it's a very fine line that they walk, because of the brand legacy. We've seen it with Gap, when about 10 years ago or so, or eight years ago, they did the big Gap logo rebranding, and it was a huge disaster.
I'm still in complete shock that yesterday during the Grammys, they had advertising called, "Gap logo remix," where they basically showed all of the logos that they ever had. And I thought it was very peculiar that they did that, after having a big branding problem just a couple of years back.
But to the idea of how do you make sure that it doesn't happen in the get-go - how do you lay that foundation for a great name? Well the big thing is, it's a little bit science, and it's a little bit art. You have to make sure that on the one hand, the name conveys something. And even if it doesn't convey something immediately, you have a great story to tell about how the name came about.
It can't be trendy, because a name has to stick with you forever. It's kind of like a little bit the Royal Mail versus Consignia, or whatever that name was. It can't be something that just feels like that hot new name. It has to be a name, just like a logo - a logo shouldn't be super modern. It's not a marketing thing. It can't be not modern in two years from now. It needs to be timeless. So create that, and then think about all the different languages that your audience speaks.
Most of the time, that means in today's age, it has to be extremely international. How can it be pronounced in South Korea? Can you say certain letters, and can you put a word together that your brand can stand for? There's a lot of it that's the science part, where you just have to check off a lot of lists, and do a lot of online searches, a lot of trademark searches, a lot of domain availability searches, app store searches.
Is it available or not? And just to protect yourself for the future too, even though you don't have an app, you might want to make sure that in the future if you will have an app, that that name - that you can already own it, and that it's available.
That's really it. And then how does the name sound. That's more obvious. And how awkward is it for you to answer the phone and say that name? Or in conversation, to say that name? Does it flow well? Does it paint the right picture from the get go? Do you feel like this just sounds like the company that you want to be? So art and science for sure.
Len: One of the things that you write about in Bigger Than This is the importance of authenticity. One of the things that I've seen you do in your writing in a couple of places, is you call attention back to the use of words, even words like "brand." And words like "authenticity" can sometimes - when you come across them, can come across as the opposite of authentic.
But there is an authentic authenticity, and you've brought it up a couple of times: really meaning something. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about - let's say, you're meeting a client. How do you bring them back to that authenticity that they have lost, or lost connection with?
Fabian: In the end it's really talking to them about what inspired them. That's the big thing. I think it would be the same thing with Leanpub, if you talk about, what inspired you guys? What inspired the founder to actually say, "We need to start this?" Because authors need to have a voice, or authors need to - fill in the blanks, whatever that is.
But usually those couple of words - that's it, that's enough. Those words are enough that you can then build upon and say, "Okay, so if we would create an advertising campaign, what would it be? If we would be old school, at a trade show, what would it be? If we would start an Instagram channel, tell me exactly the latest six posts. What would the posts be? What would they say? [?] Would they be animated, would they be still? Would it be image focused, would there be clothes? What exactly would go on?" And iff you only have six of those tiles on an Instagram channel that you start with, what would those six tiles be?
I think it's fascinating, because I look at brands' websites, and I never get to know the brands as well as if I look at a brand's Instagram channel, and I just look at the last six posts. Because I very quickly understand who they talk to, how they talk, what the language is like, if they're a giving brand or a taking brand.
If they are a leadership brand that talks down on you, and you're like, "Yes, give me more of that information." Or if they are a brand that, you want to admire them - that brand is exactly how I want to be, or what I want to aspire to. Or if it's a brand that just high fives you. And you're like, "Oh man, I've gotta talk to them."
It's amazing. From just a couple of tiles on the Instagram, you immediately get a good idea of what that brand is. And it's good for me too, to actually think about my own channel. And for everyone to go back to it at times, and every couple of months look at what they push out there and say, "Is this really going down to why I started what I'm doing? Do I want to be that leadership brand, or do I want to be seen like that?" I think it's a good exercise.
Len: That sounds like a great exercise. I'm going to go check my last six tweets after our conversation, and see what kind of a person I really am.
Fabian: We all will, we all will. I think that people who are listening to this right now are just going through their Instagram.
Len: One thing you write about that struck me, was the importance of adopting a social cause. Maybe you don't know this, but we have a Leanpub for Causes program, where non-profits can sign up, and then authors can share royalties with them. It hasn't necessarily been the most successful thing, but it's one of my favorite parts of Leanpub.
As a co-founder, it makes me feel good about what I'm doing, and it helps authors feel good about what they're doing as well. I had a little bit of personal experience with that. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how it can be so important for a company to adopt a social cause like, say, every time someone buys a pair of shoes from you, you donate a pair of shoes?
Fabian: I could talk about this for the next five hours, so I'm going to try to be very concise with everything you just said.
First of all, with Leanpub, I was aware of that. It's interesting, because I don't use it myself. But from a brand perspective, it resonated with me. So even though I'm not making use of it, I feel like it's great that you guys do this. It's just wonderful that the brand stands for that, and stands behind the author's choice of giving back to mankind.
It's the same thing, like you said, where it doesn't really work as well as you guys want it to work. Not as many people actually utilize it. But from a brand perspective, it doesn't matter at all. Because it matters that you, as a co-founder, to feel strong about you guys doing that. And me as an author, even though I also did not opt in, I feel like it is a great thing that you're doing.
That is a really nice way of seeing how brands resonate with people, where it's a bunch of these layers. And they are not all social responsibility. It's like user experience - with Leanpub, it's super important, and then there's this social responsibility part. And then there's the delight part, where the emails are fun or great. Or it's educative, like you do with the podcast.
But it's all of these layers, when they come together, they form a brand. I think that's what today's brands do very, very well, where they understand it's not just like Tom's example, the one-for-one, or Warby Parker, where it's called "The Bogo Movement" - the buy one, give one movement - which is seeing a lot of backlash too, because it doesn't feel very authentic. It just feels like any startup can have a mediocre product, and get away with it if they give away one to some cause that is not even related to their product.
It's kind of like greenwashing, it's very much like that, where I see a lot of backlash with that now. That being said, what Tom's has been doing was amazing. And the same thing with Warby Parker. It's just that now it becomes this thing where startup entrepreneurs just feel like, "Oh that's super easy, let's attach ourselves to some sort of cause, and we're going to sell product. Because people care about the causes."
It's not quite that easy. It has to be a cause that really, really makes sense with the product that you're selling.
An example that I give in the book is Bombas. It's a sock company, they're called Bombas. And what they do is, they do that same one-for-one model. I'm already so over that idea of one-for-one, because it just seems like such a trick.
But what they do is, they realized that socks are the number one requested item in homeless shelters. So they realized that homeless never get fresh socks. Because you and I can't go to a Goodwill or a Salvation Army or any donation place and give our used socks to them, or even buy new ones and drop them off there. They're not allowed to accept socks.
And so Bombas realized, "Let's create really good, sturdy socks, so that homeless can wear them, because homeless spend day and night in socks. For them, it has to be really great socks. And we're going to give a pair to homeless. Every time you buy a pair, we give a pair to homeless shelters, because they're fresh and they come from the factory."
And so to me, that is a perfect case where I say, "You know what? There's a real cause, a cause that they actually identified that has really to do one-to-one with the product that they sell. And it makes me as a customer believe that these socks are actually good. Because if they have to stand the test of time with homeless, they're going to be good for me too. It's going to be good quality, and I'm doing good. So when I buy socks next time, maybe I go with Bombas, because the story just makes so much sense for me."
And in this book, in my new book, Bigger Than This I talk a lot about that - how there's companies out there now that really resonate with people. But they have commodity products. There's really nothing new. I mean it's just socks. I don't know how much innovation is in their socks. I mean maybe they're a little sturdier. But in the end, it's just socks. But it resonates because of a story. And the story is much deeper than the actual product.
Len: That was one of the things I quite enjoyed about your book, is how you invoked the idea that, when you're trying to build a brand around commodities, it's a much more-- in some ways, if I'm getting this right, it's a much more interesting challenge to think about than one where you're writing about say a unique new product or startup.
Fabian: That's right, I mean a commodity has absolutely no differentiator. So for the ones that do it right, their differentiator is brand thinking. It's brand strategy. And it's so cool, because most entrepreneurs know nothing about branding. They know nothing about brand strategy, and they just intrinsically say, "This is what we stand for, and this is what we do."
And it's my business to actually infuse them with these thoughts. But some of these commodity brands, they just do it themselves, and they totally nail it. And for me, as a brand strategist, that's super exciting, because like you said, if I get hired by another Silicon Valley tech startup - which I love, and I love working with them - but it makes my life easier, because they have huge differentiators. They immediately make life easier for a very certain thing. There's this one thing that's just going to be that much easier, based on this one app or based on this one invention. And it's innovative, it's disruptive, it's interesting. But socks? That's a hard story to tell.
Len: But you told it very well.
Moving on, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your experience as an author. Many of the listeners to this podcast are themselves self-published authors. And as much as everyone understands the importance of branding and personal branding and marketing, it can be hard to successfully do it. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your approach to marketing your latest book, Bigger Than This?
Fabian: Oh boy, book marketing. I'm not in the business of book marketing. And even though I feel like after this release, I could slowly move into that - it's difficult. I mean everyone listening who is an author on Leanpub, they know it. In order to get on bestseller lists, you've got to move 3,000, 5,000 books a day. Really to market, in order for you to have a huge success with your book, it's difficult. It's very much like what they call in advertising, a drip campaign, where it's one small step at a time. It's like drip, drip, drip. It's like a little bit here, a little bit there. A little bit here. Across a lot of channels, and you just do it over a long period of time.
We went pretty all-out with my book, trying to go across all social media channels. I hired a PR agency for a fairly hefty amount of money, to make sure that they can help me with it.
If I would give one tip, I think the thing that really helped my book - and it's just been released last week, so it's way too early to talk about this - is something that I got from my editor. For this book, I actually hired an editor. For my first book, I didn't. But for this book I said, "You know what? I'm going to hire an editor that has expertise in my field." So I hired the former editor of Fortune Small Business - she knows small businesses, she knows branding, she understands it - to go over my book, and work with me once the book has been written, to make sure that everything flows nicely, that everything makes sense.
And she gave me that marketing tip at the very end. And she said, "Fabian, you should really include a couple of other books in the back of your book that you recommend as further reading." As a consultant, I'm like, "God no." Here I spent so much time, and then money and effort in writing my own book - I want everyone to hire me. I want someone to read my book and afterwards say, "Well this was inspiring." And, "Oh, I do have marketing money," and, "Oh my God, let me hire Fabian to redo my branding."
But she said, "Look, this is the wrong thinking." It's really about, when people finish the book, they already love you at this point or they hate you. But either way, they are ready - you're either friends or enemies at that point forever. Now give them a chance to read other books that are inspirational."
And how that turned into marketing, is that she said, "Contact these people. Contact these big authors, and tell them you have their book in your book, like you recommend their book at the end of your book as further reading. Would they be willing or interested in quickly reviewing your book, and maybe endorsing it?" I would've never had the guts as a self-published author to call up all these big names and say, "Hey, would you want to endorse my book?"
But she gave me this this idea. And I did - now I've got some amazing endorsements. Jonah Berger of Contagious, and big marketing authors. A co-founder of Fast Company endorsed my book. And I would've never in a million years have thought about it.
It's kind of cool, because you say, "Look, I have you in my book, would you - " not to return the favor, but it helps you as an in. I think that's a huge trick. I believe that out of all the marketing, all the dollars I spend, everything I've done, having those quotes of these people on my book, it's a huge thing.
Len: Thanks for that excellent tip, I've never heard that one before. It's really hard to come across true gems like that. For everyone listening, take a leaf out of Fabian's book there, that's a really good idea.
We're approaching probably about the time when we should wrap things up. My last question in these interviews is always a selfish one, which is, if there were one thing we could build for you, or one thing we could fix for you on Leanpub, what would you ask us to do?
Fabian: Well, first of all I think - Leanpub does what I want it to do really, really well. And to me, the key for Leanpub is I don't know if that's at all something that you hear often but for me it's amazing, the idea of how easily I can give someone a book, and know that it will only be used once, and know that it's a very easy process for them, whatever device they're on. Coupons is something that I use a lot for Leanpub.
One thing - it's the smallest thing to improve, and I mean it's really ridiculous, because it's all depending on screen size, and what exactly you're on, but I always feel that on the actual book website, so not on an author site, but on the book website, on the landing page of the book, I always feel that the details of the book - you don't see them. Like if you're in a regular laptop type screen, it happens that - where the grey area starts - and if you have a video, the video is the first thing - and otherwise it's a description.
I have a hard time seeing that description. It feels to me like the book ends there, and I either have the sample that I can get into, or I can look at the table of contents. But that's something where I feel like, if maybe on the left-hand side of the book cover, you would start a little bit, or you would have like already the video, or you would start digging into it a little bit.
I'm not talking about mobile devices, I'm talking about very specific screen sizes. But do a little test with that. And if I'm not the only one, then maybe it's something where, if you can start in the left column to utilize it so that you get people to scroll down, so that they see that there's more - I think it might be cool.
Len: Thanks very much for that really specific feedback. That's excellent, and it's something I'll definitely think about and share with our team. It just struck me right away. We sort of hide the "About the Book" information below the fold, and you don't even necessarily know that it's going to be waiting for you down there. We'll definitely think about that.
Well, thanks very much Fabian for taking the time to do this. I really enjoyed the conversation, and it's given me a couple of things to go away and think about. Fhanks very much for that, and for everyone listening please pick up a copy of Bigger Than This.
Fabian: Thank you Len, I really enjoyed it. This was great.