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Local Business Summit 2024

With Host Emily Washcovick

45 minutes

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Thanks to everyone who joined us for the 2024 Local Business Summit! Watch the headlining session with Chef Roy Choi, and check out all the other session recordings below.


Successful speakers from diverse backgrounds came together on Wednesday, May 8, 2024 to share valuable insights and actionable advice on how to elevate your local business. Whether penning your first business plan or looking to expand, the sessions from this summit offer a unique opportunity to learn and be inspired. See you at the next summit!

In this virtual chat with James Beard Foundation Award-winning restaurateur Roy Choi, Expedite founder Kristen Hawley speaks with Choi about his early days of entrepreneurship, founding a food movement, and ushering in a new generation of foodies. Choi and Hawley take a deep dive into his career and what excites the chef about the future. 

Speaker: Roy Choi, co-owner, co-founder, and chef, Kogi BBQ

Moderator: Kristen Hawley, restaurant journalist, Expedite

On the Yelp Blog: From how to problem solve like a pro to finding truth in critical feedback, read Chef Roy Choi’s tips for small business success.

Additional resources:

Creating a brand that is trusted, genuine, and relatable has significant short- and long-term benefits, helping you create loyal customers, gain competitive advantages, and establish overall business resilience. Learn more about building an authentic brand and how it can help you connect with customers and differentiate your business in a crowded marketplace. Experts share insights and best practices for crafting compelling narratives that resonate with audiences and foster brand loyalty.

Speakers:

Moderator: Kadecia Ber, director of multi-location sales, Yelp

Additional resources:

A solid strategy for engaging with customer feedback is key to strengthening your business’s reputation and attracting customers. Learn how to leverage reviews in your marketing and daily operations, improve staff morale, and develop a service-based mindset that takes your business to the next level. Plus, hear from consumers and business owners about how responding to reviews builds customer trust and loyalty.

Speakers:

Moderator: Emily Washcovick, small business expert, Yelp

Additional resources

Skillfully taking advantage of what’s trending is a powerful way to earn widespread recognition and brand awareness. This session covers strategies for identifying and leveraging the latest trends to stay relevant and competitive, techniques for staying ahead of the curve, and tips for analyzing the ever-changing interests of consumers. Gain insights into the tools and practices that can help detect these trends and the best practices for integrating them into your marketing and social media strategies.

Speakers:

Moderator: Ayanna Alleyne Grant, head of social media, Yelp

Additional resources

In this virtual sit-down with entrepreneur Alli Webb, Yelp’s Tara Lewis chats with the founder on her meteoric rise with blowout salon chain Drybar and lessons learned in her first venture. Alli also shares inspiration for those looking to find their community as a business owner.

Speaker: Alli Webb, founder, Drybar

Moderator: Tara Lewis, VP of community expansion and trends, Yelp

Additional resources

Charting your path to a successful business is not a one-size-fits-all process, which is why following best practices from a range of entrepreneurs can help you plot your own course to notoriety. This session brought together three of Yelp’s Top 100 local businesses to discuss their entrepreneurial challenges and solutions, including customer engagement, hiring, branding, and what it takes to become an award-winning business.

Speakers:

Moderator: Emily Washcovick, small business expert, Yelp

Additional resources

Adopting a finance-first mindset is critical for local businesses to establish robust financial practices and achieve sustainable growth. This session hones in on the varying elements of financial management and the pursuit of capital, offering a roadmap for businesses aiming to scale in a competitive landscape. Learn the essentials of financial preparedness and how to develop a finance-first approach, ensuring your business practices support growth.

Speakers:

Moderator: Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer, Yelp

Additional resources

Host Emily Washcovick Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

In Conversation with Roy Choi

Kristen: I am thrilled to be here today. As Emily said, I’m a journalist and I am the founder of Expedite, which is a newsletter about restaurant technology and the future of hospitality. I love writing and talking to creatives in the restaurant business. I think there is no better local business. And I’m thrilled. Thrilled to be talking to chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur Rory Choi today as part of this keynote address. Roy, welcome.

Roy: Hello. How are you doing? Can you see me?

Kristen: I can see you great. Can you see me? Yes. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being here. So our audience might know you as the Kogi truck guy, The Chef Show guy, the guy from LocoL in Watts, the guy who opened a Best Friend in Vegas recently, the guy who inspired the movie Chef. I’m probably missing some. What’s going on? What are you up to?

Roy: That’s a lot of guys.

Kristen: That’s a lot of guys. Yeah. What are you doing?

Roy: That’s a lot of guys on here. I don’t know, hanging out with these guys right now. Right now I’m here. I’m really excited to be here. Hopefully I can share some insight and everything I’ve been through as an entrepreneur and as a small business owner. And I’m ready to answer any questions you got for me.

Kristen: Amazing. Well, just tell me what you have going on right now. What’s on your plate?

Roy: In general or for breakfast?

Kristen: Yeah.

Roy: Oh, in general?

Kristen: Well, actually, did you have breakfast?

Roy: No, I haven’t.

Kristen: Okay. Yeah, it’s early on the West Coast.

Roy: In general, you named a lot of it. All those things that you named are still in existence. Best Friend in Las Vegas is a full-blown restaurant, but all of them have very different business structures since this is a business summit. So what I look for is fluidity and strength and motion in all of the endeavors that I do. I’m very personally involved in everything that happens. So scale is something that I haven’t really figured out as far as globally yet.

So because I’m so intimately involved, each relationship has to have a balance for me in time spent and also energy spent. So where I’m leading towards is the Vegas restaurant is a management contract deal. And so we’re involved in every aspect of creativity, menu development, R&D, quality control, all these things. And I go in, and I motivate and work with the team and develop items.

But our partner, MGM runs it so it allows… Sometimes in business, you have to make decisions of are you open to taking a little bit less and having a partner, but having less headaches? And because I’m not there every day, I felt like that was the most healthy relationship. So we have the restaurant which is thriving. And really building that relationship with a partner like that, it takes a lot of strength and humility and open mindedness and really finding a balance with someone.

Because as a business owner, sometimes you’re very personal and you’re very Insular in what you do, and you try to be protective sometimes. But when you have a partner like that on a big scale, you have to find a middle ground where you don’t compromise the art or the message, but at the same time, you’re not micromanaging or in control of everything.

We also have The Chef Truck over there. Because that partnership was so great, we opened The Chef Truck based on the movie and the show. And then, here in LA, I just opened a new taco stand called Tacos Por Vida, which has been going well, just bringing it back to the essence. So managing those, and then doing things like this, reaching out. Small entertainment things. Working with brands, brands that I admire and enjoy, seeing what I can do with them on different scales, whether that’s just through front-facing relationships, but also behind the scenes in consulting and things like that.

Kristen: Awesome. I want to talk about Las Vegas. But I love that as an introduction because it’s like this is where all of your small growing businesses have led you is literally the biggest stage of Las Vegas casino.

Roy: Oh, yeah. I was so scared of going to Vegas because I never thought I’d be a business person. I’m a cook. I’m a cook. I’m an outcast. I ended up in a kitchen because I didn’t fit in anywhere else. But the culture and the existence of food has changed a lot in the last 20, 30 years. So when getting into this business, none of us as cooks looked to be… We didn’t even know anything about business. We didn’t know anything about entertainment. We just know about cooking and about taking care of people. But as the industry evolved, we evolved with it too.

And a lot of chefs are leaders. Cooks, chefs, we were party throwers in a sense. Every night we have hundreds of people come to our place and have a great time, so we know how to pivot in the moment. And so yeah, it’s been crazy.

Kristen: So tell me about Tacos Por Vida, because it feels a lot like you’ve gotten back to your roots. You started with food trucks over 10 years ago, 15 years ago. And so you’ve recently opened now Tacos Por Vida. Can you just give me an overview of that business?

Roy: Yeah. Going back to what you just said before this, going from the streets and selling tacos when Twitter just started, to building a restaurant on the Vegas Strip, which I guess could be a mountaintop, it was a strange path. And to reach those two extremes and everything in between, there’s a lot of little nuances that happened in between that and choices that you make. Now going back… And we never left the streets, but going back and opening Tacos Por Vida, I do want to reiterate that we are still an independent small business owner like a lot of you on here.

And when you are that, at your core, you know that next week is never promised. And no matter how big things may be going or may have gone, or you may look from the outside, you’ve still got to pay those bills. You’ve still got to take care of your team. You have payroll every two weeks. You have insurance. You have payroll taxes. You have tax. And our business, because we don’t scale, let’s say electronics or tech industry, we can’t build a huge lump sum from the front end.

So no matter how successful you are, you’ve still got to grind every day, and especially in the food and beverage business. And so for us, it’s been a tough five years. We’ve kept our smile up, and we’ve kept our team members first in our mind and everything that we do and the quality that we care about. But there have been days through COVID, and then through the actors and writers’ strike here in Los Angeles, especially a business like us that does a lot of catering, we’re looking at a week away from not having any money in our accounts. You know what I mean?

And so really, Tacos Por Vida was looking at… Our team needed more hours. They were itching for something new and kept pushing us like, “Hey. Kogi’s still strong, but we need a new fresh coat of paint. We need some new energy. We want to be motivated. We want more hours. We got friends and relatives and cousins that need jobs.”

That just hit a really soft spot in me, and I listened. And then this is what came out: Tacos Por Vida. And a lot of it was a crowdsourced as far as within our company like, “What do you want to do? What do you think is going to make you happy? What’s going to hit right now?”

And everyone just kept talking about, “Let’s bring it back to the essence.” And that’s why I love my team so much. They weren’t thinking about, “Oh, we need to go globally or go to Dubai,” or, “You need to get venture capital. You’re going to need do all these things,” which are fine. But for us it was like, “Let’s take it back to the essence.” Two turntables and a microphone. “Let’s go to wood fired, handmade. We touch everything. Keep it small. Start extremely small.”

We released it like Beyonce released the Lemonade album, we didn’t tell nobody. We just woke up and all of a sudden, it existed. And we didn’t do any promotion, nothing like that, around it. And we just started small. And it has been extremely exhilarating and refreshing for me and just to see… Because there’s a whole new generation of food, especially here on Yelp, and with TikTok, and with Reddit, and forums, and new influencers, and content creating culture.

In the last seven years since we opened a restaurant in LA, the whole food industry has changed. We have a whole new population of young voices and young ideas coming into the food space that were never there before. And so Kogi was a culture that really galvanized a lot of people in a lot of cities. But in many cases, it’s that whole Twitter culture, the whole follow culture, standing in line, searching things out that are a little bit mysterious.

We’ve lost a little bit of mystery and time and the patience to wait. Everything’s so compressed. We get everything in a split second. We get so much information that I was wondering, would anyone still care about this? Mystery, things finding out the last second, waiting in line for two hours and just being there. And purposefully being there. And they loved it, man. They really, really loved it.

And that just reminds me that we need connection. We’re social animals. And so it was all of those things. But we like to start small because it’s just one of those things. I think it’s part of street food mentality as well. Don’t create a huge scene. The footprint that you have, clean up after yourselves. Move quickly, move swiftly, move quietly, but leave a big mark. And that’s Tacos Por Vida.

Kristen: I’m glad you brought up the technology thing because when Kogi started, iPhone was still new-ish. Twitter was new-ish. We were very much in this time that was like, “Look at me. I’m here right now, and I’m willing to be here for a couple hours to experience this thing that I will also photograph.”

And with the new opening, obviously you’ve had a following for over a decade so it was probably a bit easier. But what shifted in terms of how people are thinking about being somewhere and the technology that they’re using? What did you do differently? Did you do anything differently in the year 2024, 2023 that you did in 2008 in terms of strategy for opening or creating that buzz that would be applicable to somebody with a young and growing local business right now?

Roy: That’s a great question. Weirdly, we didn’t do anything differently. Maybe some of the tools that we used were different. Obviously Instagram didn’t exist when we came out. Hashtags didn’t exist. So there are some small fundamental tools and new channels that we’re using. But as far as the core culture of what we put out there, we almost doubled down on what it was, and so we went…

By going back to the essence, it was trusting that some things are evergreen and timeless. And so whether that’s just playing the piano or going back and cooking tacos over mesquite and making everything from scratch and just keeping it real. Keeping it real sometimes in a world where everything is becoming so fake actually resonates extremely powerfully. And so that’s what we relied on, was just when you strip things down all the way and when you get back to simplicity, if that’s the thing that you’re really, really focusing on, you have to fully commit to that.

And you take the loss. If it’s a loss, you take it. But if you fully commit to something, whatever it is, especially in business, if you fully commit to it, at least there’s a chance. And I believe that there’s other levels to business beyond just spreadsheets and income statements and the financials and strategy and research and numbers and metrics.

There’s more than that. There is also a spiritual, metaphysical, unseen, intangible power that you have. There are things that you can put out there that do resonate, that have radio waves of their own power to bring people in. You have to just fully commit to that. And that’s what we did with this taco stand. There was every possibility that this taco stand would have flopped. There’s every possibility that us doubling down on a culture that has been passed and leapfrogged with new technology wouldn’t be embraced.

But I think us as humans… Sometimes you’re never going to take away the nerdiness within us. And what I mean by that is waiting in line, it’s something you do for yourself. And when I saw a lot of people coming out in 2024 that were doing the same things in 2008 and that’s coming out with a book, maybe they wanted to catch up on bringing their dogs and hanging out in line for two hours.

Or listening to a podcast or music, having the headphones on, meeting up with friends that you haven’t talked to in a while or family, and just being there, those are all part of the experience. It’s not just the taco, it’s everything about that. And so by the time you get there and you eat it, it completes the whole experience. And that’s a lot, I think, with business as well. If you, again, commit, double down. Fully engross yourself in the thing that you believe in, others will believe in it too.

And it’s the idea of really focusing not just small in your execution, but small in also how you’re trying to connect. If you connect to your core audience, one person, two people, 20 people, and you can really, really create that connection and that bridge with them and it’s unbroken, then that’s going to grow on its own. But if you try to get a large audience right off the bat, it’s shaky ground. It’s a house of cards sometimes. It’s the same thing… You can see the same similarities sometimes when you see hotel restaurant menus or hotel room service menus or whatever the case may be.

Or big budget, middle of the road type restaurants where they try to put everything on the menu because their philosophy is you have to please everyone’s palate. Those are usually the biggest failures, whether it’s in restaurants or any type of business, if you’re too spread out and you’re too general. You have to have some specific point of view and have the courage to be able to back that up and believe in it.

Kristen: Yeah. I want to stay on the social media vein that you mentioned just for a minute. But I’m curious, have you ever changed the way that your food looks because of Instagram or TikTok or social?

Roy: Yeah, Yelp almost made me do it.

Kristen: Really?

Roy: Back in the early days of Yelp.

Kristen: What happened?

Roy: No, all the Yelpers complaining. We have so much love on Yelp. I’m in the middle of the road with Yelp. I’m like the 3.5 star king. You know what I’m saying?

Kristen: Okay.

Roy: I got a little bit of hate, I got a little bit of love, I got a lot of in between. But in the early days of Kogi, a lot of… Again, going back to doubling down and courage and having a point of view, we had a point of view of our food. And we had a point of view of our style and our service and just who we were and our identity. But on Yelp, a lot of people say our food is too saucy, “Too much sauce, can’t taste the meat. They drench it in sauce.”

And then a lot of times, there weren’t modifications as well. So the way we served our food was the way we served it. So because of that, in the early days I was… And also this whole life change of Kogi was very new for me too. I wasn’t an entrepreneur before Kogi. I was working as a chef. And working for so many years as a chef in restaurants and hotels, a lot of times our nature and how we’re trained is to listen and to make adjustments and make the customer happy.

And so as I transitioned to an entrepreneur, I’m outliving and coming out of that old skin of who I was and I’m getting into this new skin of, “Hey. I’m an entrepreneur, a creative expressionist. I can do whatever I want to do.” Just being able to do whatever you want to do, as long as your heart and your intent is pure, that there is no boss, there is no survey. This is a small business and you can do whatever you want.

So I was still learning that. I was still very fragile in that. Infertile. And so I was hearing all of these things and I’m like, “Shh, maybe we should take the sauce out. Maybe we should put the sauces on the side and people dress them themselves.” And I almost changed it. I almost got pushed to where I changed it, but there’s something within me that was very stubborn and I kept the line. And that eventually became Kogi. It became our identity, became our fingerprint and our stamp. And so I’m glad we didn’t change, but I did listen.

Kristen: So how would you suggest…? Sometimes that kind of feedback, negative, positive, neutral, whatever it is, my one-off experience, whatever, that can really… As a small business person, that can get you right in the heart, especially when it’s your passion project. You ended up keeping things as it was, and that obviously worked out really well for you. But what was that process internally? Who were you talking to about it?

Roy: I still go through that process. I’m not going to tell you… I’m not going to lie to you, it hurts. It hurts every single time. I read every comment. I read every Subreddit thread, I read every Yelp review. I read, read everything. I’m out there, and I see it. And it still hurts. Every single one hurts that every… But then I try to find the truth in all of it all. Did someone really have a bad experience? Did someone really appreciate the technique but didn’t like the flavor?

Were we wrong? Were we rude? Did we mess up somewhere? Were there circumstances that we can empathize with, that maybe everything was perfect, but something happened in the mathematics of it all that just didn’t hit home with that person? And is there anything we can do as a follow-up? And so I try to listen to all, but a lot of it does really hurt still. But you’ve got to take that pain. That’s life. That’s life.

You’ve got to take that pain. That pain, whether it’s just emo pain reading a comment, you’ve got to take that pain. And whatever pains there are, financial pains, you could have physical building pains of something happening… But you got to take those pains because those pains develop and inform the joys and the expression of who you are and how you evolve your business. So I take it all, but it does hurt.

The thing I think about though a lot in those comments is because Kogi happened in such a unique way, it became a social phenomenon, internet phenomenon type thing. Then we came out of the gates with some momentum, and so we were able to create inertia and we were able to sometimes… What’s the word I’m looking for? Punch through or block off a lot of those negative situations or comments or whatever. And we were able to hold our ground and figure it out. When I’m using Yelp a lot to look for, let’s say, a haircut or a muffler replacement or a bouquet of flowers or a knitted bag or anything… Very, very micro type businesses that I really love to support, if I see a bad review on those, I know that it could put someone out of business.

Kristen: Right.

Roy: So that’s where it really affects me. I think about it a lot, about the decorum and what we take with a grain of salt in these comments, especially for really small businesses starting out.

Kristen: Yeah. Do you work with influencers?

Roy: Yeah, for sure. Again, the best part of being an entrepreneur is evolving with the times but also staying connected. But also again, holding your ground. I’ve had a unique situation where a lot of these influencers and youngsters coming up, they look at me as an OG or someone that has laid a small amount of gravel in their path.

And so they come with a lot of love. And I try to look at everything that they’re doing and see if it relates or… There are a few that I’ve appreciated, that we’ve been able to do some collabs with and pop-ups with. And it’s fun. It’s fun. It’s like being around little cousins or something. You know what I’m saying? It’s fun. I love seeing their point of view. I love sharing knowledge when they ask for it.

Yeah, it’s exciting. I think that not all content creation is… There’s definitely a lot of cringeworthy content creation. Some of the stuff, the only reservations I have about certain things are just how fast people go from nothing to being a professional pro at it. Just the steps in between that are missed. Some of the labeling of people that haven’t earned that label yet is tough sometimes to bear, especially when you deal with crafts and things, craft forms and art forms that take many, many years of training to do.

But man, these content creators are just trying to do their thing, so I got nothing against them. It is really fun to watch sometimes. Just the rate of copying sometimes when something does hit, and then just the amount of things that are the same, whether it’s… The one thing was just ASMR cooking in the short time span, and how fast it went from just being birthed to everyone doing it and everyone making a sandwich or scraping a cutting board to now…

Kristen: Can you talk about exactly what that is? Just for people who don’t know.

Roy: It’s just the content creation of hot young people making sloppy food, and that’s really what it is. That’s not a diss. That’s not a diss at all, it’s just that’s what it is. It’s hot young people using ASMR and making the same format food, and then squishing it, scraping it, chopping it, boom, and then different really sharp cuts. And then you get the finished product within 30 seconds.

It’s definitely fun entertainment, and it’s definitely scroll through entertainment for sure. But it’s come and gone so fast, and now it’s already almost gone. It’s almost like the early days of dancing on TikTok. It is all evolved and changed into something else. And so again, I guess where I’m going with this answer is that I appreciate it. I love it. I love seeing the next generation come up, but I also love some…

I would love if we as societies, as we grew, that we would not just shun the things that worked for previous societies. Definitely shed away the things that didn’t work. But there are still some things that did work, and incorporate those long-form storytelling, deeper content, more originality, more quirkiness and weirdness. And those things established into something with new expression. And then you take the baton, and then you add to it versus completely eradicating the past. But that’s my only reservations towards that content creation.

Kristen: You’ve mentioned that you’ve done some collabs with content creators, influencers. Do those move the needle for you? Do you see a result from that?

Roy: Metrics wise, I don’t know because I exist within my own universe. The best example I can give that I’ve given before is that my whole life, my businesses, Kogi, the restaurants that we have are like a jam band. We are like Phish or Widespread Panic or Moe or whatever, these jam bands. Even going back to the Grateful Dead, that we have our own Insular universe and network.

Our fan base and people who relate to what we’re doing will always be there. We’ll always have this communication bridge with them. And so I don’t really know where the needle moves outside of me because we’re always here with them. But what I have noticed in collabing is that I have noticed a lot of new faces coming into the universe, and so that part for me is really exciting. I don’t know where it moved the needle business-wise or anything like that.

But I do know that connecting with a lot of these new content creators and people, not just in food but in music and art and in writing and television, making all these things, what it has done is it’s brought their audience in to taste and be a part of what we’re doing. It’s like bringing a new teenager into Rage Against the Machine or something, or what No Doubt did over at Coachella. You know what I’m saying?

Kristen: Yeah.

Roy: It’s like letting them see what it’s really about, bringing them in and they come experience it when we were just not even within their radar. And so that part, for sure. For sure.

Kristen: Yeah. I think that as a business owner and a creative, that squishy metric of just noticing a difference, moving the needle, is a measurable business impact.

Roy: Okay. Yeah.

Kristen: You don’t have to look at P&L, but that is 100%. You see it. You see it paying off. Return on investment for that stuff is really hard to measure and it’s squishy. But as someone who’s run a successful business for over a decade, obviously you know it when you know it, right?

Roy: Yeah, for sure.

Kristen: And similarly, we don’t know what we don’t know. And I’m curious who you look to for help when you need to figure something out broadly. You have a big idea, you’re not sure.

Roy: You. I’d be calling you, right?

Kristen: Oh yeah. Great. Okay. And who else?

Roy: I have partners. I have really great partners within my team. I have very little turnover in my partner executive relationships and also in my team member relationships throughout my organization. So a lot of, I think, where I get my inspiration and direction is through my team, to be honest. Just like what happened with Tacos Por Vida, and the evidence is there in the most recent endeavor.

But also, my partners and the people that are closest within my organization, I listen. I try to listen. I try to pose questions. I try to take a strong stance towards certain decisions, and then open it up to the room because that’s how we operate in a kitchen. So what I’ve tried to do in business, because I wasn’t a businessman before, I wasn’t trained or I didn’t have a desire to really open businesses or I didn’t even understand what it meant to open businesses.

But as I evolved into one, I just took the kitchen mentality and the kitchen culture and applied that to business. And it’s worked pretty well. And what I mean by that is we as cooks and chefs, we’re problem solvers. We’re faced with hundreds and thousands and sometimes millions of problems every single day and week, whether it’s physical, like water’s out, grease trap is backed up, gas is down, fire doesn’t work, hoods aren’t working. All these things, air conditioner is off.

To human issues of four cooks didn’t show up, all your hosts didn’t show up, no bartenders tonight. Natural conditions, it’s pouring rain. There’s an earthquake, whatever the case may be, so we’re always having to deal. And then you have the product. Natural disasters, farming things, accident on the freeway, food didn’t make it, all these things. And so you’re constantly faced with problem solving, also collaboration.

You’re dealing, in the restaurant industry, with a very young population in many cases so you’re always getting very fresh ideas and raw ideas. And so I really listen to my team. Outside of that, biggest mentor has been… I think individually has been probably Jon Favreau. Him and I have become extremely close friends over the last 10 years. And we find a lot of similarities in each other, in how we look at the world and how we create, and the type of content we like to create. And because of that synergy, we’re able to create things that…

Almost like comic book or anime culture, we’re able to create things that people really, really find a connection to and build a love towards and a lifelong love towards. But that’s where I get my inspiration for sure.

Kristen: I’m looking at the Emmys over your shoulder. With the benefit…

Roy: Oh shit, that wasn’t on purpose. I swear…

Kristen: Yeah. Okay.

Roy: Sorry. I’m not flexing, I swear. I swear.

Kristen: You should flex. You should flex.

Roy: I found a new spot to do Zooms. And you can see how empty that shelf is, I swear to God that’s not on purpose…

Kristen: Well, anyway you should be proud of them. And I’m curious too, with the benefit of hindsight now, the big inflection points in your career, maybe including those. Did you know that you were in them when they were happening? Did you know this is a moment that’s going to change the trajectory, or was it just another day of grinding for you?

Roy: There are a lot of every days of grinding. But with Kogi, I don’t know if you all on here know intimately the history of Kogi, but I’ll just give you a quick cliff note is 2008 economy crashes, mortgage crisis, banks lied to us, everything’s crumbling. It’s really depressing.

But at the same time, technology is emerging. Twitter just came out, iPhone had just been out for a year. People transitioning, moving away from BlackBerrys and flip phones into instant information. We’re moving away from MySpace and Friendster into Twitter where we’re starting to do location-based, momentary sharing of information. Flash mobs are happening, planking.

Now we’re planking. Remember planking? That’s all happening. So all these things are swirling. People are being kicked out of their homes. Homelessness is growing. Poverty’s growing. Things are getting very scary. People are getting laid off by the thousands and tens of thousands. It was a very scary time. I was one of those. Kogi started because I had lost my job, couldn’t find another job, going on three, four months of no income getting very, very scary.

And then Kogi just bursted out into the universe in a very weird, quirky Cheech and Chong type way. We just came with this funny looking mystery Scooby-Doo van and started selling tacos, and it changed everything. What was the question again? I led this up and I haven’t answered.

Kristen: I asked if when you were looking back, you can see where the inflection was.

Roy: Oh, the aha moment. I mean the inflection moment.

Kristen: Yeah.

Roy: So because all of that happened and because I was put into a very, very unique moment in life, the moment Kogi clicked… It took a few weeks. The first few weeks at Kogi, we were selling mostly at nightclubs. And so a lot of people that ate our food didn’t remember what our food was the next day because they were drunk. Our opening hour was 2:00 AM. So our service hours were from 2:00 AM to 4:00 AM, so you can all imagine our crowd at that moment and who was eating our food.

But then the first time we went to UCLA is when we went viral. And we went during finals week in December, and that’s really when things went viral. And the next morning our Twitter blew up, everything started going, the lines going crazy. At that moment, everything changed in my life. Everything. Everything shifted, and I had to step into this new role. So in that situation, it was very apparent because it was physical, and it was right in front of you.

And maybe some of you are going to experience that, especially with the culture of the way social media is now, and especially with TikTok where things can go viral literally overnight. Look what happened with Drake and Kendrick in the Chinese restaurant in Toronto. You know what I’m saying? Things can happen literally overnight. And so you could go to sleep tonight maybe doing your bills and being like, “Man, we’re not going to make it to the end of the week.” And you wake up tomorrow morning there’s 3,000 people in line waiting for your mocha matcha mochi bun. I should make one of those, mocha matcha mochi bun.

Kristen: Do it.

Roy: And that can happen. So for me, that’s what happened. It was physical. It went from serving four or five people saying, “What the hell is this?” to 400, 500 people in line possessed looking at you like, “I’ve got to have this. I don’t know what it is. I don’t care what it is. I’ve got to have it.”

And that hasn’t stopped for 15 years. I don’t know when I’m getting off this ride. But this roller coaster keeps going, man. You know what? You get off… You know when the amusement park is not busy, and then they go, “One more time. One more time.” We come around on the roller coaster. That’s what’s happening, I can’t get off this roller coaster. It’s crazy.

Kristen: That’s amazing. We have a minute left, and I have one more question. When we spoke before this interview, you said something that stuck with me. I’m going to read it because I don’t want to mess it up. You said, “Little success takes you farther away from what started that success.” And I feel like there’s some advice in there. As parting words, what is that advice that you would give once the success comes?

Roy: I don’t know exactly why I said that to you, but I know what I’m saying there. And you have to take success like you take failure, and like you take hardship and hard times. It can’t be the end of whoever it is that you were. And a very dangerous thing, just like all the dualities of life, if you only hear the positive comments and you don’t hear the criticism, you may not be able to evolve or grow.

In sports if you’re not looking at your weak spots, if you can’t go to your left, in basketball, then they’re going to figure you out because you’re always going to your right. And so I think sometimes all we want is success as a business owner, as an entertainer, as an artist, whatever it is. Sometimes it’s so linear, it’s like start with nothing, do something everyone loves, become hugely successful.

But sometimes success can be detrimental in the fact that you start feeling yourself too early, or you lose touch with what’s really going on. You see it sometimes in a lot of entertainment or music, the people that… I just try to always… I use my disgruntled, cynical, angry 17-year-old self as my touchstone on everything I do. It doesn’t mean I’m going to act like a 17-year-old, but I use that former part of myself to be like, “Yo, is this shit…? You’re all right with this? You’re good with this? Does this stuff hit with you? And am I being an asshole? Do I need to bring it down a little bit?”

And I always use that imaginary person as my touchstone because I think if you get too caught up in the success or you get too full of yourself, your product or what got you there is going to suffer. That’s just my opinion is that if you lose track, your music going to sound like trash. No one’s going to relate to it. It’s just going to be processed, just mass-produced pop music that just makes you money. It’s not soulful.

And I just think that you have to manage your success as you grow, and you have to constantly… At every stage of your success, you have to constantly look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Is this good? Am I on the right path? Am I being a little too vain? Am I being a little too self-centered? Have things gotten too far out of whack?” You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror from time to time, maybe at least once a year. I look at myself in the mirror every week, every day. But at least once a year or every quarter or something, “Are our morals still in check?”

Kristen: I love that. I think that’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. We’re a little bit over time, but thank you to Yelp for having us. Thank you for all of these awesome insights. It was lovely to chat with you.

Building a Trusted Brand with Authenticity

Kadecia: Our panelists today, I’m being joined by Kim, Morgan, Ben and Mark will have a ton to say about what it takes to really build brands that last, allow you to have loyal customers and really long-term business success, which I think is why everyone is tuned in today. So before I launch into questions and start the dialogue with this great group of folks, I’d love them to introduce themselves so you know what they’ve done, what they are currently doing, and just to get to know them a little bit. So Kim, why don’t you kick us off?

Kim: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. This is Kim Malek. I’m the co-founder and CEO of Salt & Straw Ice Cream. We have 40 shops. We started in 2011, my cousin and I, with an ice cream cart in Portland, Oregon. We’re up and down the West Coast, a location in Disneyland. Disney World brought us to the East Coast. We have a handful of locations in Miami and some shops coming. We just announced in New York City. So it’s a big year ahead for us. We only sell our ice cream through our retail shops and try to be a great community gathering place. We are working to spark the human spirit through unbelievable joy, and that’s what we’re all about. Excited for this conversation.

Kadecia: Ice cream always brings me unbelievable joy, so I can’t wait till you come to Cleveland because it will make me very happy. It’s a regular, especially as the summer approaches.

Kim: Love Cleveland.

Kadecia: Ben, would love you to introduce yourself as well.

Ben: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. Also chiming in from Portland, Oregon, I’m Ben Hennes. I’m the chief creative officer and one of the co-nerds of Happylucky. We are an independent and queer-led creative agency headquartered in Portland, Oregon with locations both in LA and New York as well. We partner with both local brands as well as some of the biggest brands in the world, really focused on building radically-inclusive heart-led experiences that connect brands with audiences and communities through brand strategy campaigns, content and IRL connections are a real focus for us. So excited for this conversation about building trusted brands.

Kadecia: Thank you, Ben. Mark, will you tell the folks about yourself?

Mark: Morning, afternoon, everyone. Yeah, I am in Chicago today. I’m CMO for Rentokil Terminix. Rentokil’s probably not a brand you’ve heard of too much in the U.S., but out there in about 90 countries across the world. We have 85 brands in North America. So relevant for the conversation today from the local ones to the national ones, just as Ben was saying, large and small, you get a different appreciation of the role you play as an influencer and a marketer when it comes to the size and position of your brand. So looking forward to talking to you all about it today.

Kadecia: Thank you, Mark. Terminix is very close to my heart. Unfortunately, I’m in the Midwest and the bugs are out, so I know that story all too well. Morgan, will you, last but certainly not least, tell everyone about yourself?

Morgan: Hi, good morning, excited to be here. I’m Morgan Higgins. I’m the director of social media and consumer public relations for Jack in the Box. Located in San Diego, but really excited to talk today about the balance of a large corporation and then our local branding efforts. We are 96% franchise owned, so it is a balance of keeping that large brand story, but then how do you tailor it to each of our individual markets? So really excited to talk about that today.

Kadecia: Great. Well let’s get into it. I want to kick it off with Kim at Salt & Straw because this brand is growing and has really built a reputation for telling just unique stories through ice cream, which is exciting. So as you grow, how do you ensure the brand story really remains genuine and engaging as you grow into new markets?

Kim: Yeah, so we just announced, as I said, that we’re opening an exciting new market this year in New York City. As we’ve grown outside of Portland, it would’ve been really easy to just make the same flavors and send them out to all the cities that we do business in. But we exported this idea that’s central to, I think, the ethos of Portland as a city. I don’t know if you’ve seen Portlandia, but a lot of that I hate to say is true. We’re fanatical about the details of where things are from and who made it. I think when we started in 2011, we were fortunate as we started to export that idea, it really resonated with people.

People want to look beneath the surface and know what’s going on with the brand and who’s part of it, who are the people behind it? So when we open in new cities, we always say growth doesn’t have to mean mass sameness. We announced we were opening in New York. We’d been on the ground working to get ready for that, no exaggeration, for about six years. So getting to know the local market, working on local collaborations, whether it’s a chocolate maker, a tea maker, local chefs, breweries, the largest edible bug farm in the United States, and so really leaning into getting to know these folks and working together to create their stories through ice cream.

When we announced we were opening there, I think we had 500 people in line for our pop-up before we even started, and we showed up and got to know each one of those 500 people. So I think even though we’re growing and we have 40 locations, which isn’t a lot, as Morgan said, it could be a lot bigger, but we treat every single store and every single market like it’s our first. We have a saying that we want to offer full-face attention to people. We don’t get that very much in our society nowadays, and we want to earn every single right to grow, so we gotta earn it. That comes in a lot of different forms. We look ourselves in the eyes and ask, “Why are we doing this? What’s this about? What’s in it for the community? What’s in it for our guests? What’s in it for our team?” That’s where those growth decisions come from.

Kadecia: Wow, I have two quotes now, “Growth doesn’t mean mass sameness.” I’ve never heard that before, but I really like that when you think about being original and originating from the area as well as it sounds like you’re doing from New York; and full-face attention. I want us to do that when we’re driving, when we’re eating dinner. I think that one applies across the board, so don’t many of us know that, right?

Kim: It does.

Kim: I like that. Yeah. Practicing that with each other, I think it’s what the future’s about. People are almost taken aback when they experience our shop. What customers said, it’s like the anti-rush. “You took a couple extra minutes to look me in the eye and just spend time.” Teaching, quite frankly, folks who are in their teens or 20s to do that as our team members is a cool thing too, ’cause it’s not something we all experience routinely or are taught to do nowadays, not like back in my day.

Kadecia: Such a great ethos. I love it, Kim. Switching over to you, Mark, but not moving far from Portland, I know Happylucky is a creative agency really built on authenticity. So could you share a strategy or maybe a campaign that exemplified how authenticity and marketing can lead to a deeper connection with the audience?

Ben: Yeah. I think, Mark, I’m going to steal this. I think she meant Ben, but since I’m here in Portland, all good.

Kadecia: Sorry, Mark.

Ben: Yeah, I think authenticity is a toughie. It’s become such a buzzword in our industry and marketing circles. I think we’re often wielding it around as this catch-all on specific strategy, if you will, be honest. But this idea of being more authentic is hardly a game plan. It gives us permission to overlook what’s very hard work of knowing your brand. Kim, sounds like you’ve done that hard work to truly understand your ethos and your reason for being. But knowing that origin and also your future, knowing how you talk to people and how they talk about you when you’re not in the room, knowing why your audiences are choosing you over others, to say we need to be more authentic is akin to cheating on an answer without knowing how you do your math. Yet, even as we squint at it being overused, we really feel it’s important so deeply.

I think as you mentioned, as a queer-owned and led agency, authenticity really rings super personal to us as we’re intimately familiar with this idea of imperatively showing up unapologetically in our full truth. I think as the queer community, we’re forced to face those questions of identity in a way that mass culture and mainstream culture isn’t always. So to us, the most important step of being authentic is that deep work of knowing what authenticity even means for your brand. It’s about knowing what your brand really stands for and embodying those values super consistently and being willing to own that position, even if it’s not for everyone. I know as business owners it can be really scary to actively choose to alienate an audience. But I believe in order to be truly authentic, it’s really the only way to show up for the audiences that you truly want, whether that’s your consumers or your employees.

Yeah, to just use an example, ’cause we straddle this duality, we have our own brand, our own brand ethos as an agency, but a lot of what our work is centered around is helping other brands understand their brand story and connect with audiences in an authentic way. So the Adidas Community initiative, it’s part of their United Against Racism platform, serves as this prime example of how authenticity in marketing can create those strong audience connections. We’ve been working with Adidas as they acknowledge the vital role of the Black community as one of their cultural cornerstones of their brand, and they’ve recognized that this past reliance on BIPOC culture without adequately supporting that community.

We’ve helped them reverse their approach by prioritizing meaningful engagement over unspoken appropriation and helped them create this full educational curriculum and event series that’s really helped focused on engaging younger BIPOC audiences, educating them around sneaker and creative culture, which they’re participating in and giving them opportunities for education and exposure and access to that culture. This shift highlights the brand’s understanding that progress isn’t a destination but an ongoing commitment. Through this sustained support of BIPOC communities, they’re showcasing a dedication to authenticity, focusing on deeper connections and with their audience based on this shared values and mutual respect. So I think that idea of authenticity is about showing up daily, showing up for communities and truly connecting with them and not this buzzword of how are we being real in this moment?

Kadecia: I love that, Ben. It sounds like there’s part of this where you look in the mirror at yourself and at your company and say, “how are we showing up?” Then the companies you’re working with really allow them to take that next step, ’cause I think it’s one thing to put out a branding campaign, but it’s really another thing to walk the walk, which it sounds like Adidas is doing, so really great story. Thanks for sharing that.

Ben: Absolutely.

Kadecia: So Mark, pest control, a different world, but certainly one where trust and reliability are really paramount, coming into people’s homes providing this kind of service. How does Rentokil Terminix use storytelling to really build and maintain trust with customers?

Mark: Yes, thanks, Kadecia, and Ben, thanks for that last question. It wasn’t one I was ready for, so I appreciate it. Yeah, so I think for us, trust is, it’s a really interesting concept. I’ve been talking about it, my leadership team together in the last couple of days, we’re talking about that. We’ve got a brand that nationally many people will know about, which is great to have on one hand. On the other, the challenge we have is that people can’t relate to it, and they don’t want to engage with it. So we’re putting a lot of effort into a little bit like what Ben would say and indeed, Kim, we’ve got to be in the mindset of the person when they’re choosing pest control. You’re not always thinking about pest control, always thinking about ice cream for whatever reason, but pest control is one of those things, maybe Midwest now people want it.

Mosquitoes are starting to flourish. Your termites are out, so people… it’s front of mind now, but they want to go to local people that they know. So as a national brand, our biggest challenge isn’t me creating an advertising campaign nationally, but it’s bringing it to life for the people. For me, when you talk about trust in business, I think with all the fake news, everybody dealing with things online, so much transactional activity now, it’s actually how do you bring it to life with our frontline colleagues for the people in the communities? That’s where we’re looking. No matter what size your business is, it’s the people that will trust you and you’ve got to gain their respect by being there.

So we’re putting a lot of effort into communities using testimonials and reviews ’cause people believe people. Advertising works so far, it gets you awareness. They’ll consider you, but actually to step over that line and convert the opportunity into a sale, I think for any business for whatever size, and that happens for our small business as well that sit in single city or town communities. It’s about how they can get in front of customers on a regular basis, a ball game on a Saturday morning where there’s parents talking about the pest problems, those kind of things. So I think for me, simply put, trust is about having the people on the frontline living your brand with the people that can be and are your customers. So it’s about the people really, Kadecia, for me.

Kadecia: Yeah, it’s really interesting to think about that. Pest control is not something people really want to think about. It becomes something maybe you have to think about unless you’re in that preventative mindset. I saw a big black ant crawling across my floor this spring, and I said, “Uh-oh.” So it becomes top of mind really quickly. So it’s almost about, it sounds like, Mark, capturing that moment when people are having this conversation and getting radical terminates right there.

Mark: Yeah, and it’s understanding. People have got pests, they’re quite disgusted about it. If you’re a business owner, it’s got risks associated with it. But people have got a home and they see pests in it, there’s a little bit of shame that you’ve got pests in there. So part of it’s the trust but also being there in a way that, I guess, empathizes with the emotion that people go through. So it’s important.

Kadecia: Yeah, I love it. Well, I must be shameless telling 600 people about my ant issues. But Morgan, I’d love to hear more about your experience at Jack in the Box and want to start this question with you and perhaps opening it up to everyone. Can you talk about a time where the brand faced a challenge or a crisis and how you leaned into authentic storytelling and marketing to really address and rebuild trust with the customer?

Morgan: Yeah, being in charge of PR, we’ve dealt through a lot of that, but I think I wouldn’t tack it to one specific event. There’s many different crisis at different levels, and it really is representative of what that individual restaurant experiences in their marketplace. I think sometimes one crisis could be not as big of a crisis to another organization, but in the food industry you’re constantly running into these types of problems. So what we do is we have a very robust crisis process while we work. Most importantly, similar to what Mark was saying is, we’re all about listening to the customers ’cause our customers are in places like California, Texas, Pacific Northwest.

We have some in North Carolina. It’s a very different customer base. So the crisis could vary, and the way you react to that is going to be tailored to what specifically A, happened, but B, how that customer is handling those types of situations. It could be something as small as not getting a refund on an order when they tried to do it through a mobile app order, but you want to become one-to-one with that customer so that you can help to alleviate the problem. Instead of being that big corporation with 2,200 locations and just blanketing out, “Okay, hey, this is what we do,” and feeling more robotic, we really try to make sure that we have that one-to-one dependent on every single specific communication that we have with them.

Kadecia: I loved it, to hear that approach. How have others of you dealt with this? I know Kim, you’re a growing brand, so I imagine there may have been some bumps along the way.

Kim: Yeah, anytime we come up against a tough situation, our number one, and this isn’t just for tough, this is for anything, I don’t think of our communication strategies as selling something ever. I think of our communication with our guests as, not to be trite given the topic of this, but as storytelling and being unbelievably transparent. People can sniff in a hot second if you’re not, and so it’s not worth doing. Don’t even think about it. People can handle the truth, tell the truth. Own up to what’s going well, what’s not going well. I always tell my team, “Look at what you’re sharing and communicating. Would you say this to a good friend? Does this seem like something you would literally send as a text message or an email or post on your social media, or does it seem like some corporate bullshit that’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes?”

I know the ice cream lady’s probably not supposed to cuss, but just be real. Speak in the real and tell the truth, and do that in the good times to build trust and do it in the hard times to be open. I also personally lean into hard conversations and questions as the CEO and founder. If a customer or a guest or a partner or a team member has a problem or an issue or some feedback, I stay really close to that stuff, and I will personally get on the phone and hear people out. Sometimes we disagree, but I generally learn something and the idea of listening, I think, is lost art and incredibly important.

Kadecia: Great. Yeah, thanks for sharing that. Mark or Ben, any thoughts on this one?

Ben: Yeah. A few things resonated from everyone, Morgan, Mark and Kim. What Kim was saying and holds too true to our approach is brand building to me is essentially relationship building, and you want to get as close to that one-on-one relationship as you can. Mark, when you were talking about being a national brand but wanting to connect with people on that local level, we’ve been working on an event series with DoorDash and as they face similar problems, a brand that started from humble beginnings, the CEO’s mom owned a restaurant in the Bay Area have grown into this massive tech company as many people view them. But really their origins are about trying to connect and uplift local economies and local businesses, but that’s not their brand perception at this point in time. So this event series is really about reconnecting with their merchants.

We’re going into some of their second, third, fourth-tier markets into these restaurant communities thinking about how we show up, have listening sessions with their merchants, understand their real problems, connect and understand the economies that they’re ultimately trying to be a part of and trying to uplift to understand their unique problems. ‘Cause to what Morgan was saying, the problems in Savannah Georgia versus the communities in Monterey, California can look very different from one another. How DoorDash can show up, connect with them and ultimately provide solutions are really different, but it’s necessary to have those one-on-one conversations. It’s necessary to hear those challenges and those issues and then be able to figure out how you’re adapting your brand while staying true to it and staying true to your story, but figure out how you’re connecting with those audiences. So I just felt that was relevant to the conversation.

Kim: I love that. Can I add one quick thing to that? I think that that’s a perfect example, and quite frankly, even on Yelp, we get this on a daily basis, you get this feedback that can feel hard. I think as a business owner, your initial or team member your initial reaction is to be defensive and protect yourself. It’s always fascinating and so beneficial to me when instead as you’re describing then we lean into it and embrace those hard questions and situations. We have a saying, “I’m on your side. Regardless if we disagree or, I’m on your side. We’re going to figure this out.” To make people genuinely feel that way and to collaborate on the right solution I think is what I hear you describing, and it’s so rich and can move you forward so much further.

Morgan: I want to add one more thing, too, ’cause I think it’s even more interesting ’cause listening into that customer, we pride ourselves at Jack despite having so many locations just constantly looking at what the customers are saying; not just reviews, not from a customer service standpoint, but from a content development standpoint, product innovation. Your customers are coming to you with unprompted advice and information that is actually so rich for you as a marketing individual to take back and build something authentic, ‘cause again, that’s where the true authenticity is, because that’s what your customers are saying. It doesn’t always have to be a customer service experience or a crisis that’s happening. It could be just little fun truths about your brand that you don’t necessarily know because you’re not putting yourself in the shoes of your customer.

Mark: Yeah, it’s interesting ’cause the bit Kim mentioned about being defensive, I just think when you get into a bigger company you get all of that, different functions having different views on what’s right and wrong, and then marketing having a view. But I was just listening, I guess, Morgan was saying there is every human wants to be listened to. It’s just nature, and building that authenticity and building that, no matter how big your business is, demonstrate that you can be a listening organization, actually, it’s one of the most powerful marketing things you can do. Just admitting you made a mistake, rectifying it or thanking someone for feedback and then going after it, as Kim says, you do it as a CEO ’cause you’re interested that’s the price. It’s free feedback. At the end of the day, we pay for it. We’re doing research here, but it’s priceless. So I think just demonstrating listening is one of the best and most important things you can do no matter how big your business is and then acting on it is a proof point in that authenticity to what Morgan was saying.

Kadecia: Yeah, I love that it’s all just pointing back to listening and to people, it’s a very simple thing. I think it can be employed in any business at any size, whether it’s local or global, so love to hear you all really just pointing in that direction for a takeaway. To switch gears a little bit, when we’re thinking about digital marketing, there’s so many platforms to choose from when you think about storytelling and getting the brand message out there, and I think one of the things that people face is, how do you decide which channels are going to be the best to help you really deliver authentic communication and effective communication? Ben, let’s start with you. I know you work with a number of brands. Would love to hear how you think through this question of working with a brand and figuring out what platforms, what channels and what kind of communication makes the best sense in the digital world.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Weirdly enough, it goes back to listening and really understanding your audience and understanding their behavior. I think it’s about showing up where they are and understanding their native behaviors on that platform. I think it’s also important to have a mix. As we’re seeing the conversation around TikTok happen, I think we can’t as brands over-prioritize or over-index on one single, but I think you understand your audience probably based on their age, their location, their behaviors, what they’re ultimately looking for and how they’re utilizing those platforms. So I think it starts there and then once you understand those platforms, I think it’s about creating content that’s platform specific. We got to move away from the slice-and-dice approach of creating one piece of content and thinking that that’s going to work across all of your platforms because the behaviors are different. The way people are consuming content on those platforms is different. So really need to be thinking about how we’re creating content that’s platform specific and showing up where your audience ultimately is.

Mark: Just building on that, Ben, I think that last sentence is the most important because there’s so many platforms, you could create so much content, but really being clear in your business to your target audiences. Then you can build content for the platform and the channel that you want to use, because different age groups, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different parts of the country, how they consume the media is so different. So really, honing on to your target customer, I think that’s your first point and then you build your content through that. That’s what we’re trying to do as well, but it’s never easy, but it’s certainly a priority.

Morgan: I also… Sorry-

Kadecia: Go ahead.

Morgan: … just adding one thing. I think it’s also, it’s not necessarily a linear answer because content consumption is also changing every minute of every single day. So as a business owner or a brand leader or someone within your organization, you also have to keep a pulse on what is that content? Where are they looking at it? It might be one thing one day, and like Ben said, like TikTok, it’s going through some things. You have to be able to be ready to start to pivot and be able to still keep that communication so you don’t lose and you’re not listening to them anymore.

Mark: Yeah, and on that what Morgan said, I think what’s important is people consume media at a pace now that we wouldn’t have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. So you’ve got to be there, but you’ve also got to be there in a timely way as well. So once you’ve got your target audience and you’ve decided where you’re going to be, you’ve got to have a response that can actually be there within 12 or 24 hours because after that, people have moved on to the next big thing or the next piece of news. So I think it’s really important that it’s timely as well and that you’ve got people tracking and watching these platforms.

Kim: Yeah. If I could just add one thing to this as well, I find sometimes with our team, and I know a lot of folks at this event are restaurant owners and retail owners, and I find with my company oftentimes too, I have to remind people of this balance. We exist in the real world too, and especially your support functions and marketing and you can get really caught up in perfecting your content plan and doing all your social media. Then I’m like, “Okay, but we have real stores where people are coming in by the hundreds, and what’s our communication plan to them, and what are you doing in that world to make sure that it’s a balanced experience?” We can forget that that’s not our… I always say that’s not where our business really lives. For us, it’s not. We’re not a digital business where we have ice cream shops where living, breathing, people come in and see things in the real world. So just that balance, I think, is important.

Ben: Yeah, I love that, Kim. Two builds real quick. One is that I think IRL for many businesses if you don’t have a brick-and-mortar shop is overlooked as an important communications channel in itself and as an important content engine for your digital media. The other thing to build on what Mark was saying, agreed that you’ve got to be paying attention and engaged in those conversations. But I think part of authenticity is also understanding the conversations you do become a part of and the ones that you don’t need to be a part of.

Kim: Yes.

Ben: The audiences aren’t necessarily asking you to be a part of. I think we’ve gotten, especially in the world of purpose marketing and all of these things, there became this culture around cancel culture that, “Oh, I have to show up in every moment or else I’m going to get called out for not showing up.” I think we’re moving away from that. Part of being true to your brand, having a really strong brand ethos is developing that understanding with your audience that, “Oh, this isn’t our moment to show up, so we’re not going to.” But this is when we show up and this is when we show up for the audiences and the communities that we’re a part of.

Kim: I love that.

Kadecia: Yeah, that’s such a good point. With the fast pace of things, they’re just constantly changing. We have a little bit over five minutes left, so if there’s any questions from the audience, feel free to write them in the chat and see if we can get them answered. We did have one come in, which I think is great. When we think about measurement and the question is, “How do you measure brand sentiment? How can you tell that your efforts are working and your customers do trust your business as you try to stay authentic?” So I’d love to hear, how do you know this is working at the end of the day? I’ll kick it over to Morgan to start. I see your lips move.

Morgan: I was going to say I can start. I think the big thing for us is, again, going back to listening to individuals. Yes, I work for a very big corporation, 2,200 restaurants. We do have all the brand metrics, we go through all those stuffs. But at the end of the day, what we are actually finding is when we see more positive conversations come into our social platforms or on our Yelp pages and at a local level, that is a true measurement for us of how the sentiment is in real life. Yes, we could do all these massive tests and measurement scores and things like that that say we’re doing this right and this not right, but I don’t think it is as authentic as we do from just pure listening to the customers on social channels and getting an idea of, “Okay, the sentiment is gearing a little negative in this situation.

What are the key themes that may be doing this? Can we take that theme and bring it back to our local restaurants, retrain them on a cooking pattern that might not be going over well? Or, is it a customer service experience that they’re having, so now we need to retrain our restaurants on better customer service.” That is where we can actually get into the nitty-gritty. So we’re measuring it more on a qualitative sentiment and deep and different types of topics so that we can actually take it back and make real actions versus qualitative numbers of engagements and brand mentions. Sometimes those are just numbers on a piece of paper, but you can’t necessarily take action against them.

Ben: 100%. Morgan. We like to call those vanity metrics. I think everyone-

Morgan: Yes, I call it vanity-

Ben: … loves to plaster up the billion impressions or whatever that really mean nothing. What Morgan is referring to is that true listening, we like to call them memory metrics. What are those things that are going to stick with audiences long term? They are hard to measure, and it requires sometimes developing relationships that last over time. A lot of our work with brands is about long-term community engagement, building communities that become your trusted barometer for your brand, if you will, that you can be having real conversations with, understanding how their perception of your brand is shifting. Probably in Kim’s work, it’s who’s that customer that’s coming in twice a week that you can have those real conversations with and they can be that barometer you of, “Hey, Kim, you went on track off on this one,” or, “What’s with this new ad? It feels like you’ve lost your way a little bit.”

Kim: We 100% do that. We call them super fans and there’s a panel of them, and we talk to them. They’ll reach out unsolicited with good and constructive feedback, and they’ll even attend our general manager meetings and say what they love, what they don’t. So you’re right, you don’t have to be overly scientific or formulated about this or spend tons and tons of money.

Morgan: Interestingly enough, so flipping it on its head, ’cause we, again, have a corporate run. We actually require every single person that works in our corporate to go into a restaurant for at least one day and work in the restaurant so that they can really get to know the customers that come in. What is the experience? What are the employees saying, too? So I still think that even as a mid-size or a large organization, there’s opportunities for you to actually get on the front line and see the truths and listen to the customers and then bring that back to your corporate side or your marketing directors and say, “Hey, how can we actually take this and make some action against it?”

Kim: Yeah, I think that’s important. I was talking to one of the founders of SoulCycle once, and early in the Salt & Straws trajectory she said, “Don’t ever get fooled into thinking that your corporate office is your company.” She said, “I learn the most. I go into the bathroom when a class gets out and I just wash my hands for a really long time, and I hear everything that everyone thinks.” For us, that’s like I go stand in line. Whenever I’m in a city, I wait in line, and I hear what everyone’s saying and what their experience is. You’re exactly right, Morgan and our leadership team does that at least once a month. We go work in our shops and hear what’s going on and report back.

Kadecia: I love this. This advice is shaking up. So we are near the end, but before we go, I would love to hear from each of you. What’s one piece of advice you would share to a small business owner or a mid-size business owner on how to really start building an authentic brand today? So what’s your sound bit for how to go out and get it? Mark, let’s kick it off with you.

Mark: I think for me it’s just demonstrate you’re listening to your customer.

Kadecia: Got it. What about you, Ben?

Morgan: Oh, what I was going to say.

Kim: Listen.

Morgan: I think you just got to listen. You got to listen to the audience. They’re telling you what they want and what they don’t want, how to market to them, how to communicate with them, just listen. It doesn’t matter the size that you are.

Ben: Yeah, I think to build on that, I do think it’s important, and that was a little bit the second half of my answer. But the first half is, I call it slow down to speed up, is you got to start with a really strong foundation of who you are ’cause that helps you make decisions way faster once you have that and you truly know who you are and how you show up and who you show up for. Then it’s about taking your blinders off and getting out of your insular conversation and opening up to understand what that perception of your audience is, and both of those working in tandem with one another is super vital.

Kim: Yeah. I guess I would just add to that and in a similar vein, Ben, is don’t be as afraid to say no. What you say no to is probably more important even than what you say yes to. As is related to that, especially for the founders in the room, be careful what advice you take. I think as Roy was saying, you know, you know. Chasing after fear-based things and listening to all the noise out there, just remember to stay in touch with what you know to be true and what your foundation is.

Kadecia: So much good advice. Thank you, Kim, Ben, Mark, and Morgan for sharing your experience and joining us today. We have lots more great content in stores, so I’m going to pass it back over to Emily, and big thanks to all of our panelists. We appreciate you joining and sharing your knowledge.

Morgan: Thank you.

Mark: Thank you. Thanks. Bye.

Ben: Thank you for having us.

Amplifying the Impact of Your Review Strategy on Yelp

Emily: So first I’m going to have Krista and Josh both introduce themselves. I’m going to start with Krista since she is actually not a business owner, but she is an Elite and she’s representing that voice in this conversation we’re having. So Krista, why don’t you tell everyone a little about yourself?

Krista: Yeah. Hi everyone. Thank you so much for being here and for having me. My name is Krista. I am a school psychologist and a Yelp Elite. I reside in Los Angeles and I’ve been writing Yelp reviews for over a decade now. I’ve been a member of the Yelp Elite Squad for about 11 years, and of course I love writing reviews for restaurants, but I also enjoy reviewing stores, parks, really any great local business of all varieties. And on that note, I think that sometimes Yelpers can maybe get a little bad rap, but really I’m not one of those Yelpers. I do try to be authentic. I try to put a positive spin on just about all of my reviews. I do know that reviews from Yelp Elite members are some of the first that people see. I try to be a bit more of a low-key, Yelp Elite low, though I just want to share my experiences at great local businesses so others can hopefully see my review and then want to visit the business to have a similar experience. I like the community aspect of Yelp, whether it be connecting others to the great local businesses based on my experience or connecting with other Yelp reviewers online or with attending exclusive fun events or experiences that are hosted by Yelp in partnership with some of the great local businesses. So yeah.

Emily: That was awesome. And you actually gave me a good reminder whenever we talk about reviews at Yelp, I love to start with the statistic about how positive Yelp reviewers are. And Yelpers, Yelp Elites in particular really help this content of positive feedback grow. So sometimes people think online review sites are where people go to complain, but on Yelp we have more five-star reviews than one, two, and three-star reviews combined. So a lot of our users are sharing those places that they love. They’re really wanting to shout from the rooftops and great experience they had so that other people can check it out. And of course, negative reviews do happen, negative experiences sometimes happen, but Josh actually is a real pro with that. So we’re going to get all into it today about how to handle your reviews.

Josh, why don’t you give everyone a little context on yourself and your business.

Josh: Hi, I am Josh Campbell. I’m in Dallas, Texas, True Blue Entrepreneur, unfortunately. I’m third generation entrepreneur. Everybody started their own companies, my cousins, brothers. If you’re in my family, you own a trades company or distributorship and you’ve started your own company. We all leave each other too. It’s weird. We love each other.

I am in Dallas, Texas. I own Rescue Air and Plumbing. I’m master electrician mechanical plumbing. I’ve been doing this my whole life. This is my second business, both of which were about 10 years old. I sold the first one. This is my second company that I’ve founded. Rescue Air this year, we’re budgeted for 25 million. The stretch goal is 30 million have about 100 employees. We operate out of 30,000 square feet here. We’re one of the biggest companies in DFW. We’re probably pretty small when I met you, Emily. And the goal 100 million in five years. We do a lot of acquisition. I’ve been buying a lot of companies lately. That’s fun. And I love to grow. And I read a lot of books. And I have two beautiful little boys who play hockey and a wife who’s way too good for me.

Emily: Josh does such a good job with his intro because he knows all the things I’m going to come to him for. And a lot of it is about the growth and the continued learning. But one thing he forgot in his own intro is when he moved from the East Coast to Texas and was reshuffling where he was going to grow his family, he was working for this big company that didn’t really care about their reputation at all. They just got new customers off of paying for these online leads. And it was like they just wanted that customer in that moment and then who cares if they came back for another service in the future? And it was also at the time when online reviews and Yelp were just getting started. It wasn’t this huge thing that everyone did, and especially not for service businesses, but Josh realized he could do something completely different and essentially care mainly about that consumer experience and turning them into a repeat customer. And that’s how the business has really grown and expanded so much.

Josh, I’m going to keep it with you on that topic. Can you share with everyone, just in the early days, when you were first getting the reviews or you knew that that online presence was important, what were you doing to create those memorable experiences to leave customers with wanting to go and write about their Rescue Air experience and transaction?

Josh: Yeah. We didn’t have any money. So we were broke. When I sold my company in Virginia and moved, went to work for those guys, the term was turn and burn. They figured out Google pay-per-click way before anybody did in 2011, ’12, ’13. And they had this massive influx of customers at the company. And if there wasn’t good opportunity there, it was get through it, who cares onto the next one and try to get the money, as much money as you could out of any customer and get to the next one. It was a really gross environment. Where I’m from a small community and your reputation’s everything. If anybody out there is from a small town, if you get a bad reputation, it’ll haunt you for the rest of your life. You got to move away. You can’t join a convent.

So my experiences is that then I got there and there was no sense of humanity at all. People were just cogs in the machine that didn’t matter if they couldn’t produce the outcome we were looking for. And that sucked. And it’s one of the reasons I left. So when I started this company, one of the main reasons I left that company and started this company was because I had to do something I believed in and I had to do something that felt right and had a soul. And one of those things was, I’ve got it on the wall in my offices, do what you say you’re going to do. My granddad always preached that to me amongst a million other things like that.

We knew that our reputation was important. We could see it destroying starting in ’13, I could see that one star reviews on Google and Yelp and these other places were starting to cause us to have a marketing ripple effect at that other company. And when I left, I was like, we’re going to build a rock solid reputation just like our core roots, my uncle’s my business partner, and he also grew up working for my granddad and my dad before we started my company. So we had a culture of our reputation being critical to us, which is just our core values. And that turned into us talking about reviews in a bigger market where your reputation… In a little market, everybody knows your reputation. Everybody knows everybody. Call Josh, say call that mechanic or that veterinarian. In Dallas, we’ve got seven, eight million people here and you guys are our reputation. You’re the catalyst to make us a small town in a weird way that people can find a company that has the same core values.

So we made it part of our reputation and it just turned into part of our culture. Talk about it all the time. It’s a unit of measure here of how people are performing and if they’re doing their job at a high level is if they’re one, getting a lot of five star reviews if their names are listed in them. I want to see people names specifically in those and they’re building those relationships with customers. And even the idea of a customer, we say, what is a customer? They usually once, twice? I’ve always liked the idea that if somebody leaves you a review, they’re a customer and then they’ve solidified that word and cemented that they use you. I mean, if they say that, don’t call anybody else, you know that they’re not going to. And then that’s really how we steamrolled this thing. We got a five-star view on every single call we went on. We badge your customers, you have to share your experience. We need you to share your experience. And then I guess it is taken off since there. So we talk about it all the time.

Emily: And I’m going to come back to you to talk about how you engage your customers to share their experience, because maybe not everyone on the call knows, but Yelp actually doesn’t allow you to solicit or ask for reviews. And so Josh has a really great way with this team of just engaging feedback and letting the consumer go where they want to go to share that experience. But I’ll let Josh share more about that.

In the meantime, Krista, can you just talk a little bit about those things that businesses or employees of a business can do to really create that connection with you or make you want to review? I like how Josh mentioned that he likes when his employees are mentioned in a review. You have a good tip too for how to mention employees. So can you share a little bit of that with the audience?

Krista: Yeah, of course. So my little tip, I usually keep my receipts until after I write my review because at least at restaurants and other businesses, the server is on the top of the receipt so that I can throw their name in my review. So pro-tip. But yeah, I mean I’ve been writing reviews fairly consistently since 2013 or so. My review writing, it does ebb and flow, but it skyrockets when I have an amazing positive experience at a business and I’m extra motivated to share the experience with others. I do love traveling and I’ll use Yelp to research places to visit or eat when I’m traveling. And my well researched list of things to do and check out at any given location. I feel like because I look at the reviews and get a list that I want to look at, I’m going into the trip with a positive experience.

Customer service is huge as we all know, but I just want to say that it really doesn’t have to be perfect. Everyone has their off days, but it’s really meaningful and validating for a customer or business to be engaging. And then just in terms of businesses naturally encouraging customers to share their experience by writing review. I don’t know if Yelp is still doing this, but I like when I go into a business and I see the little window cling of, people on Yelp love us. Or even a lot of businesses will post their social media and just seeing the little Yelp logo, it’s like, “Oh, okay, if I write a review, they might actually see it and it’s just more motivating for me to write it.” They’re methods that are subtle, but they’re effective for me at least.

I like check-in offers. I don’t necessarily go to a business because they have a check-in offer, but if I am at the business and I check in on Yelp and then an offer pops up, it’s so exciting. It’s a nice unexpected treat and it’s really something, a free pop or 10%, it’s small, but it makes me feel nice. I don’t know. I get excited easily.

Emily: Yeah. And I mean, I’m so glad you brought that up because check-in offers are a great way to subtly let your customers know you pay attention to Yelp, and if people check into your business on Yelp, it will also prompt them to share their experience. So it’ll ask them to write about the experience that they had. And like you said, people aren’t hunting around like they were on Groupon in the day looking for a deal, but it’s a fun way to engage your customers.

And it doesn’t even have to be a percentage off. I’ve seen businesses do fun things like dentists who already give out stuff that has their name on it. It could be things like that. There’s bars in New York back in the day that used to do high-fives. It’s just like fun, silly ways to engage your customers and show them that you pay attention to Yelp.

Josh, I’m going to bring it to you because you are very hands-on with your Yelp reviews. And I mean the responding, leveraging what they’re telling you and even closing the loop with a customer who mentioned something, that was all done by you for a very, very long time. I know you’ve gotten a little of it off your plate, but tell everyone how you manage that, some of your advice for approaching and why you have a strategy. Why is that something that’s always been a baseline for your online presence?

Josh: I think Yelp is a good place to check your ego. And we all have egos. And you get a one-star review and you’re immediately like, oh, this guy’s bashing my company at what a… Or just the typical narrative of what a Yelper is, right? But like we said about Krista, a Yelp Elite, the lion’s share of their reviews are five-star reviews. They’re just out here trying to create a realistic world of what the experience is going to be like.

I realize that when somebody leaves us a one-star review. I mean, sure there’s a sample that are probably cuckoo, but there’s always something good that I can get out of somebody’s review. So if you check your ego, make the phone call, get on with them and start figuring out what it is they’re talking about. And sift through, you know what I mean? They’re going to unload on you and after they realize that you’re actually authentically trying to listen to them. And my approach has always been, “Hey listen, I’m going to take what you say and go do something to build a better business. My goal here is to make sure nobody has this experience again.” And when people realize that I do, in fact, I’m going to take what they give me and I’m going to go out here and I’m going to start working with people and I’m going to make this a better business and their review’s going to help me shape that.

I mean, I owe them a debt of gratitude or a thank you for their one-star review. I mean maybe not all of the unloading that happens at times, but it’s free business coaching. And if you look at it that way, and then once somebody realizes that you really do care about what they have to say in their experience and building a better business, they don’t want anybody to get fired. They used to always be the thing, don’t fire that guy. But at the same point in time, they almost always take the one-star review down or turn it to a five-star review. I’ve gotten as many one-star reviews turned to a five-star review as I haven’t. I’d say I’m probably batting 500 there on those. And I’ve been able to build a whole lot better business that way.

Emily: And you always used to tell me it’s never about getting the review down for you. That’s not why you’re reaching out. That’s not why you’re trying to resolve it. Ultimately, even if the review stays up, you want to learn and you want the consumer experience to be resolved, but because you actually care about the consumer and you’re not obsessed with if the review is coming down, that’s when that actually happens. I think sometimes a big mistake is when business owners get a critical review and they try to go in trying to get the customer to take it down instead of just trying to hear the customer out. And that’s so important. I’m going to stick with you-

Josh: Yeah. And your reviews of that situation.

Emily: Oh, go ahead.

Josh: Yeah. Half of your reviews are in fact just somebody who is authentic. I mean, if you go look at our one-star reviews, you got a fraction of them, which is the unfortunate fraction is other businesses, maybe somebody got two or three quotes on a new air conditioning system and some other business will throw you under the bus and say that you maybe were doing things that you weren’t doing. They figure out a way to earn the business, manipulate the consumer. You got a certain amount of them that are real challenging. And I still haven’t figured out how to navigate those. But most of them are, “They rescheduled me twice. The guy didn’t listen to my concerns.” Maybe it was blown through the call. Maybe we had… You don’t know what… And you can take something and go run with it and you build a better business. The customers are good people. Nobody’s trying to hurt anybody else out here.

Emily: Yeah, you’re right. And something that I like about your approach, Josh, is you bring the team in with it. I mean, you were the one holding on to the responsibility of responding for a long time, but it’s not like that doesn’t come into team meetings that you have. You share with your staff when something comes up and you even sometimes let them come up with the solution with you. Can you just talk about how you take reviews beyond just responding to them and actually use them in your business?

Josh: So if you want to make a culture of reviews in your company, you got to talk about them all the time. We talk about them, we answer the phone, “Hey, we’re a five-star company. Our goal is to deliver five-star service at any point in time. We’re not honoring that. Slow us down, let us know.” I need a lot of slowing down. It’s the same thing when we step through the front door. It’s like, “Hey, I’m here to give you a five-star service. That’s my goal today.” And you plant those seeds all along the ride. You get to the end of the call, you’re like, “Hey, did we deliver on that five-star experience that we promised?” And the customer’s going to say, yes, no, whatever it is, hopefully they say no, and you can learn something and have something to go work with. They say yes. Say, you know what? It’s critical that people know about the experience. If you could share your experience, we’d love it. And we never ask for a five-star review. We just ask, just share your experience. And usually that’s the case.

When we’re in our team meetings, I read five-star reviews, so I’ll pull a bunch of them out and I’ll pull out a three-star or one-star review and I’ll say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on here and here’s what I found out on the phone and what we could or couldn’t do to get it fixed.” And use all of them as learning experiences. You celebrate the wins and you try to learn from the losses and yeah, I mean, hell, you can do a whole team meeting. I got one on Tuesday. I can do an entire hour and a half team meeting just with the reviews from the prior month.

Emily: Yeah, that’s awesome. Something we talked about in our prep call was a lot of people have a strategy for if they get a critical review. We try to reach out, we’re going to try to find resolution or find out what happened, but they overlook the great reviews. They don’t do anything with their positive reviews. Krista, can you just talk a little bit about what it means to get a response from a business on Yelp? Do you get them often? Just share with us a little bit about that whole experience.

Krista: So I mentioned I get excited easily. Well, when a business owner responds to my review, I get extra excited. I love it. I usually get an email that an owner responded or did thank you or something, and I almost immediately click that email to see which review it was and what the owner said. It really does make me feel valued because honestly, business owners don’t really respond as often as maybe they should because I feel like it’s a quick thing that they can do. So it does make me excited when they get a response validated that someone’s actually reading my review. And it does show that the business cares that there are reviews online. So I just think it goes a long way and I love it. I love when it happens.

Emily: Josh, share a little bit with everyone about one, responding to those positives and how you engage those customers, but also a little about your time management and how you just handle responding to reviews, because you take a pretty, don’t make it harder than it has to be approach, but you have a lot of volume. And I think a lot of people think of reviews as like, “Oh, I don’t know if I have time for that.”

Josh: That’s garbage. So we all have as much time as we say. I have 24 hours, you do too, we all have the same amount of time. Okay, sorry. Chris’ horse.

But anyway, you just make the time to do it. I mean, it’s important. It’s your reputation. You got customers out here interacting with you and you don’t want to take the time to interact back. And if you’re scaled to the point of where you truly don’t have that much time, I mean, we run a lot of calls. We run 150 calls a day somewhere in there in plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and we get a lot of reviews, a lot of communication through Yelp too, and I’m just all over it. I think it’s just part of the culture you create that this is what I do and I make important. It’s just putting first things first and saying it is in fact important to give great customer service, and this is a part of giving great customer service, is communicating with my customers. Even at the end point with like Krista is saying, somebody leaves you a review, just talk back. I mean, my heavens man, somebody gives you a compliment. You don’t have the time for that? What do you have time for?

So I think, yeah, of course you did all that work to get to that five star review and then you have the time to say, I love you too. I mean, I think that’s garbage.

Emily: I love that. I love when you bring that energy, because I feel the same way. And a big tip if we’re talking tactics is like you got to get that business owner’s app on your phone and you’ve got to turn on the notifications because it has to be easy and accessible for you. And a lot of you owners and operators are not sitting on a computer all day, so having it on your device or even having someone on your team assigned to do it, and maybe they come to you for the really challenging ones, but they’re handling the basics.

We do have five minutes. There’s one point that I wanted to really get across from Oakwell that I think is super important to this conversation. I’m also really sorry for those of you who tuned in wanting to hear from Damien and Oakwell, an amazing business.

My high level summary on them is Damien and his wife wanted to become entrepreneurs after being in corporate for years. They sold all of their stuff, got rid of where they lived and traveled across the country and then the world for 19 months. They were finding all different kinds of experiences and things that they could hopefully bring back as a business concept to America. And beer spas is what they landed on. In Europe, they’re more fun. It’s about drinking and being in that sauna experience. But in other cultures, like in Asia, it really is this wellness, slowing down, having a drink or a tea while you’re in this spa setting. And so they combined some of those elements, brought it to America and opened Oakwell Beer Spa in Denver.

And one of the big challenges that they have is people don’t know what a beer spa is, or they make these assumptions or guesses thinking they’re like sitting in the tub of beer and maybe it’s not for them. And they’ve really been able to leverage their reviews, especially from those consumers that really appreciate and enjoy the full experience and use their review to describe it. And they’ve been able to repurpose a lot of that content to market their business and actually show people who they are in a customer’s words. And so I just want to encourage you all to think of reviews as a way you can also market your business and really taking that content and amplifying it, putting it on other platforms and in other places.

Krista, can I have you just share maybe a tip here for some cool things you’ve seen business owners do? Whether it’s been ways they share their reviews, or even just engage with people through their social media accounts. What are some things you’ve noticed or loved that you’ve seen businesses do online?

Krista: Yeah, I mean I think obviously it starts when I walk in the door of the business and just being welcomed. I live in Los Angeles. There are so many businesses that I drive by every single day and I don’t even know that they’re there. So sometimes I use Yelp to find a new restaurant. I’m like, “Oh, that was there this whole time?” And so I go there and I hopefully feel welcomed. I hope they have a positive experience, and then I write my review or maybe sharing a picture on Instagram, just going back to what we were talking about before that thank you goes such a long way, whether it be thank you on my Yelp review, maybe they screenshot it and share it on their socials. It could be a Yelp review, it could be a picture that I posted on my own Instagram and they’re resharing it. Just getting, thank you in the littlest way, it just goes a long way. Just again, feeling the validation of someone’s actually looking at it, and I do have that good experience at a business, and so it’s my way of saying thank you to them, but then having it reinforced by them feeling thankful for my good experience.

Emily: Absolutely. Okay, Josh, you’ve got two minutes. I know you’re always full of tons of advice. I’m going to let you give any advice you want. I’m not even going to topic you.

Josh: I would say most of the stuff I come up with isn’t original. I’m in Texas, so my pastor always says, we go to this little cowboy church. He goes, “If your bullets fit in my gun, I’m shooting them.” And I’ll tell you, if anything, I’d give you a figure, a couple of books that are maybe relevant. I read a lot of books. I probably get through one every 10 days. I might recommend one in 10 of them. I’m in a lot of leadership groups. I’ve gotten very fortunate to meet a lot of powerful speakers and stuff.

But one I would say to check out is here, I’ve got this one. Excellence Wins is a great book. It’s the Ritz Carlton founder guy named Horst Schulze, it’s the best customer service book I’ve ever read. And if you want to run a great business, I mean Yelp’s all about customer service. Just go run a great business and the reviews sort themselves out.

Another one I really like, I think I probably got a copy back here. I just read this one a couple of months ago and I’ve already read it twice since I did. It’s called No Ego, and it’s about getting rid of workplace drama, ending victim mentality, how toxic stuff like open door policies or employee engagement surveys can lead to your business and you think they’re really healthy, but they’re actually kind of not. It is a really neat book and it is about this ending entitlement and driving results in your company, but no ego. Get rid of egos and it’ll change the outcome of your business and it’ll make it a whole lot easier to respond to reviews.

Emily: You are so awesome. Josh has been on Behind the Review multiple times. He told his own business story once, he came back on to talk about leadership. He was also on one of our episodes all about creating a review strategy. We’re going to drop some of those episode page links in the chat if you want to check those out. But also just go to any podcast platform search Behind the Review, like subscribe and follow. We’re actually going to have Krista on the show very soon. One of her favorite businesses just got approved, so we’re lining that up. If you subscribe to the show, you’ll get an alert every time we drop a new episode and you’ll get to hear from all these amazing folks.

Josh, Krista, thank you so much for your time. I’m bummed Damian couldn’t be here, but I knew you two would hold it down for us.

Capitalizing on Trends in Pop Culture & Social Media

Ayanna: Hello, everyone. I am so, so excited to be here today. Thank you Emily for that warm welcome. I’m Ayanna Alleyne Grant, and I lead the social media team here at Yelp. And I’m so excited for today’s session on trends in pop culture and social media. I have over 10 years of experience across consumer tech, hospitality, consumer packaged goods and media. And for me, I’ve always been passionate about why certain fads or trends pick up steam on the internet and what really drives virality.

And so at Yelp we really leverage various marketing channels to ensure that we’re speaking to customers in a way that’s not only authentic, but also relevant and realistic to the brand. And today we’re here with three other amazing marketing leaders to really hear from them on what’s worked for them, what’s worked for their brands, and really how we became a part of a larger online conversation. So before I turn it over to Miriam, Emily and Kevin, I’d like to first thank you guys for taking the time to be here today. There’s a million things that I’m sure you all as entrepreneurs really could be doing, and your carving out time and your busy schedules to be here. And so just thank you for that. And now I’m going to turn it over to Miriam first to introduce herself, and then Emily and then Kevin. Take it away, Miriam.

Miriam: Hi. Thank you, Ayanna. My name’s Miriam Fried. I am a personal trainer and I’m a small business owner myself. I grew my fitness business, MF Strong, from basically just being me as a solo entrepreneur to a team of seven trainers with our own brick and mortar studio in Brooklyn using the power of social media.

Ayanna: That’s amazing. Great to have you here, Miriam.

Emily: Emily Buckley here. Short background on myself, I’ve been in food and wellness industries for almost 15 years now, both at CPG and e-commerce businesses. Most notably, I was one of the founding member teammates at Freshly, building all things product and brand until our exit to Nestle for $1.5 billion. And since then I’ve been consulting with a number of consumer good businesses. I think one most notable to this panel is actually working at Warren James, incubating brands for the internet’s biggest content creators and celebrities like Hassan Parker, Good Mythical Morning, xQc, et cetera. So very involved in the pop culture and excited to be here.

Ayanna: That’s great. Thank you, Emily.

Kevin: Hi there. I am Kevin Keith. I’m the chief marketing officer here at Edible, and I’ve been here just over a year. This is my 30th year in marketing, starting in New York City for about 10 years, mostly on the agency side, then I switched the past 15 years to the corporate side, most recently five and a half years as the chief brand officer at Orange Theory Fitness, which is very much a social brand, and we grew it as a social brand. Now at Edible, our big goal is to be a social brand, not just be on social. So this is a really great conversation. Excited.

Ayanna: That’s great. And Kevin, thank you. Thank you for that. So when we talk about social media and pop culture trends, a lot of you may think of TikTok. In my opinion, TikTok doesn’t necessarily just fuel the culture, but also helps create culture. However, as you all know, as marketing professionals, we have to activate on trends in real time, but we also have to be culturally relevant to our consumer, which could be on various social media platforms. So I’d really like to start off by hearing from you all on your general social strategies and what has worked and what hasn’t before we dive into trends specifically. Emily, would you like to start first?

Emily: Absolutely. And I’d say as a consultant, I’m working with a number of different businesses, so it definitely depends on the business model itself. Where I found a lot of success working at Warren James, incubating these brands for the internet’s biggest content creators is they actually tend to be very YouTube native. Reason being is that that slightly longer form content just drives higher engagement. They’ve really been able to incubate their own brands as content creators through YouTube. But of course for consumer good brands, e-commerce, Instagram is a backbone of our short form content. We have been playing around more and more with TikTok with a few of the different brands, but it really depends on what trend we’re trying to seize. So if it’s something that’s supposed to be very pithy and we know it’s going to be here today, be gone tomorrow, we’ll lean on TikTok and Instagram for that more short form content. If we’re really trying to ride a trend that’s relevant to the business model and maybe the products, we tend to lean more on YouTube. But again, it’s contingent on the brand.

Ayanna: No, that’s great. And I think that the one thing that a lot of people can be reminded is YouTube has always been such a great platform for monetization for those creators, and so it makes sense for those that are up and coming and trying to build a name for themselves and also trying to have more financial stability to think about YouTube when they’re beginning.

Emily: Exactly.

Ayanna: Kevin or Miriam, would you also like to share, Miriam maybe from the business owner side, what social looks like for you as you’re building out your brand?

Miriam: Yeah, absolutely. As a business owner you do kind of have to dip your toe into all of the different platforms. Personally for our brand, Instagram has been most successful, because I find Instagram has a little bit of everything. So we’re able to access reels and video content, we’re also able to do static feed posts, and then Instagram has stories, which as a small business, the beauty of stories is really that kind of just more personalized, we are real people behind the brand aspect that I think kind of brings a small business to life and attracts an audience to you, because they want to work with not just a business, but the real people behind the business. And I think Instagram does allow for that little bit of extra personal kind of community building aspect by utilizing stories and just utilizing kind of everything that they have to offer. That said, I do still agree with you that TikTok is what drives the trends. So you do have to be aware of what’s happening over on that platform even if you’re not utilizing it as much.

Ayanna: No, I think that’s a fair point. And for the other business owners that are on this call, the great thing about stories for those that maybe aren’t dipping your toes there is that you can drive traffic a lot easier. So if you are really trying to measure what your social efforts are doing and how that’s driving traffic back to your pages, stories is a great place for that. Just to round out, Kevin, you’ve worked at many brands focusing on marketing and social. For you currently, what is working for you on social, and then even I think what’s helpful for things that you’ve tried that maybe haven’t worked as well?

Kevin: Yeah, I think it’s just like Miriam was talking about on Instagram. I think when we’re most authentic and real to people, we get the best engagement and we get results. So I think we’ve been a year in, we kind of quietly removed arrangements from our brand about four years ago, but I’ve really leaned in on that. So we have a creative platform which is, “There’s An Edible For That,” which a little cheeky, but really, in social, we carry that into, we’re a gifting company. So these moments that matter in life like birthdays and anniversaries and you just aced your exam or got into college.

So in social, we really find a lot of success when we lean in authentically, and also kind of poke fun at ourselves. We don’t take ourselves so seriously. So a couple of weeks ago, Ryan Gosling had a funny skit on SNL about papyrus font. And he actually had an old Edible Arrangements logo that was papyrus font. It’s a horrible font, by the way, but we sent him an arrangement and made a whole thing, and he posted about it. And we do a lot of things like that where we kind of just have fun with the brand and not take ourselves so seriously. And I think that’s been really successful for us so far.

Ayanna: That’s amazing. And that’s the perfect example for a brand being able to be aware of what’s happening in real time and activate on it. Would you be able to share how that opportunity came up? Was this someone that happened to see SNL? Just the behind the scenes before these moments.

Kevin: Oh, I have some spies on my team. They’re looking everywhere. So we’re always on, messaging each other like, “Oh my God, you see that SNL tonight?” Or whatever. So I think just responsiveness and timeliness is so crucial. So it could be anybody. I’ve had even secretaries message us over Teams saying, “Hey, I just saw something.” I’d say we’ve done eight segments that are on either Netflix movies, or we reached out to… I don’t know if you’ve heard of The Fall of the House of Usher in the fall of last year, huge number one Netflix hit, second episode, they made fun of Edible Arrangements. We sent her, the star of it, a big beautiful bouquet, and she hadn’t really seen her product in years, she was blown away, posted on it, got a ton of traffic just from that alone. So we’re always trying to stay engaged with that, and keep our eyes and ears out. You just have to be quick. And then some days you decide, “You know what? I’m going to pass on that one.”

Ayanna: Yes, and I think that’s something that we’ll definitely touch on of, when are these moments the right times for us to engage? Before we go there, I do just want to talk about how we’re finding these opportunities, and Kevin, thank you for giving that example, for those that are trying to identify opportunities to find for your brand. At Yelp, we often leverage different social media listening tools, things like Brandwatch or Sprout Social, where you can understand how you’re being mentioned or what the related conversations are.

You can also go really old school and look up specific hashtags that are relevant to your brand specifically, but also having a list of other industry or relevant terms that you can look up is also really helpful if you’re trying to understand where you might be surfacing. I think this topic of when do you know when it’s worth investing in these trends spotting and activating for your brand is really helpful. Emily or Miriam, would you be able to share any other examples of when you’ve had to make a decision of if you wanted to go and be a part of a trend? Miriam, maybe you want to start first?

Miriam: Yeah, sure. Well, I definitely have some examples on that. I think obviously trends are super important. My business specifically, our brand voice is very much all about being a little bit of a different voice in my industry. As a fitness business, we approach things from a much more realistic anti-diet culture standpoint, which means that a lot of the relevant trends in fitness aren’t necessarily relevant to us. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t utilize those trends in a way that fits our brand. So for me, I’m always thinking about, “Okay, this might not work for us because it’s not necessarily our brand voice or our messaging, but can we sort of tweak it or twist it to fit the messaging that we want to get across to attract the clients that we want to bring in?” A recent example that I actually do have is, a few months back, Miley Cyrus performed at The Grammys, and it was this really big trending topic, Miley Cyrus’s arms. Obviously she looked great.

So a lot of fitness businesses were going out and posting things about Miley Cyrus arm workouts, how to do this workout so you can look like Miley Cyrus. That doesn’t work for our brand. But this was trending and I definitely wanted to be a part of that conversation. So instead, we tweaked that and we instead made a video talking about how you can definitely do workouts to feel stronger, but you’re not necessarily going to look like a celebrity, because you’re not a celebrity. And just talking a little bit more about sustainable and realistic fitness practices and how we utilize that in our business. It actually went viral on both TikTok and Instagram because it was relevant to the conversation, it was a hot topic of the moment, but it was something different and people were sort of excited to hear that. So that was a really good example of how we took that trend that wouldn’t have worked for us and made it work.

Ayanna: That’s an amazing example.

Kevin: I love how Miriam made that her own. I think that’s where a lot of brands get it right is when they have a point of view. It’s not just a copy-paste of a trend going viral like you just mentioned, Miriam.

Ayanna: And I think at the core of that is really understanding what your brand’s voice is and who you want to be, which is that foundational marketing work that people need to do even before they think about the trends. If you’re not sure of who you are as a brand and how you want to come across, it’s really difficult to make those decisions about what is for you and what isn’t for you. So I definitely think in terms of tips of where to start with this is to understand your brand voice and where you want to show up and how you want to perceive, and then going from there. Miriam, that’s a great example. Emily, would you like to share some examples on your side?

Emily: Yeah, I was going to say, piggybacking on that, of course working in the health and wellness industry as well, but just on a different side relative to consumables, superfoods like healthy foods, et cetera, it’s a very trendy category. And so I think it’s important to really understand the root psychographics behind trends. There’s going to be some that are pop-cultural moments and it’s like, “Okay, we feel like it’s aligned with the brand, let’s go for it.” It’s meant to be like a pithy… “Okay, we have a couple posts on it next week, and then it’s not meant to live outside of that short window,” whereas other things like keto and even some health trends that people are drinking apple cider vinegar mixed with honey mixed with lemon, and that’s it for a week, which I do not advise. You really have just so many trends that are constantly popping up, and how do you stay relevant but be very conscientious of the integrity of your brand?

So a great example is obviously keto has been trending and it’s actually been on the downward trend for a long time. This is less of one of these pop culture moment trends, it’s more, I would say, more embedded in the industry, but it still was only… I think it played a five-year course or so and had, in some markets, kind of a negative connotation.

So when we see something like keto, we try to understand, okay, if keto is becoming viral and eliminating all carbs and only eating meat for a week, what are the actual psychographics behind this? Can we attach to that versus attaching to the trend itself? And weight loss has been rebranded so many times over the last 40 years. So maybe what’s more interesting to us is the concept of… or low-carb has been trending for the last 40 years. What’s more important to us is the concept of low-carb. Our people are trying to lose weight, they’re trying to cut carbs. So then how do we incorporate that into our branding, into our social strategy, versus just hopping on the keto or apple cider vinegar honey trend. So that’s my example of something we did at Freshly.

Ayanna: I think that’s a really great point. Essentially, rather than just jumping on the trend for trend’s sake, what is the macro discussion that’s happening here, and making sure that you’re aware of what’s being shared so that you can move forward in a way that feels intentional for your brand. I think that concept and timing is often quite difficult, because we all know as market leaders, we are trying to move quickly. These things are happening, we want to make sure that we’re on time because we all know that when you’re late to a trend, it’s almost as bad as doing the trend poorly. So how important is timing in your execution plans, and how does that work with some of the other elements that we’ve discussed? Kevin, I’ll turn it over to you first.

Kevin: Yeah, and I think it also depends on, is it a flash trend? I had an example, I don’t know if you guys followed last week, there’s this brand called Nice, these mango gummies. So there was a TikTok craze going on, I have six kids, full disclosure, they’re all in college now, so I get TikToks galore. But it was something that was happening in social particularly on TikTok, it made a run on Walgreens, when is the last time you’ve heard of a run on Walgreens? But literally they can’t keep it. But what we did with that, because we develop product, we didn’t do anything with that. We can’t go and buy a bunch of gummy mangoes and put in our product, but we learned from that, “Hey, Gen Z loves experiential products.” You actually take these little gummies and you can peel them.

So that was a learning for product development for us. So we did nothing, but we learned from it and we’re developing product for something in the future. But bigger trends, I think it’s what we were just discussing. I think Miriam, you were talking about that. We love having a good point of view about something. If it’s trending, we see it kind of sustaining, to have a point of view about that, and we’ll develop content, but typically we lean more towards influencer now and uniquely user-generated content rather than doing our own content. So we’re finding that really works better for us in general.

Ayanna: And I think the beauty of working with some of those creators for these moments is sometimes they even have better insights into what’s happening.

Kevin: Oh yeah. Totally.

Ayanna: So it feels even more authentic and even better for your consumers to see it from them versus you.

Kevin: A hundred percent, yes.

Ayanna: Definitely. Emily, would you like to share thoughts on timing?

Emily: Yeah, Kevin… Well, I was actually nodding my head to the previous statement. At Warren James, what do we do? It’s less of chasing trends, it’s chasing the creators that are the ones that are starting the trend. So oftentimes when we’re looking at white space opportunities and we’re doing a trend analysis, we might find, okay, there’s an opportunity in nostalgic foods, for example. Gen Z loves nostalgic foods. There’s been a reinvention of all these Pop Tarts, Cheetos, whatever it is, all better for you, then how can we actually become part of that trend?

Well, we partnered with Good Mythical Morning. They have very much… call it like an 80s, 90s vibe. It’s kind of hard to explain. Anyone who watches the show will totally get what I’m saying. So instead of trying to ride this trend on our own, we connected with them, incubated a nostalgic cereal brand that was meant to be just an LTO, and the whole notion was how are they actually… Since they’re kind of driving this nostalgic trend, let’s give it to them to actually figure out how we deliver on it, if that makes sense. And we do a lot of activity like that where it’s creator first, trend second.

Ayanna: No, I think that’s great. I think understanding the different ways in which people activate on trends, and also we’re dipping our toes into a conversation about budget, which very much varies based on where you are, where your business is. Miriam, I’d like to turn over to you to hear from the business owner side what timing and trends looks like for you, and are you partnering with other business owners in your field? Are you doing this alone? What does that look like?

Miriam: Yeah, timing is definitely important. I do think that as a small business you have to be careful of just hopping on trends for trend’s sake. I think it’s super easy to feel like you have to be doing every single trend to stay relevant. But I also think if you’re smaller, it’s more important to establish yourself as a brand with a very specific and clear message. And then from there, really paying attention to the trends and then grabbing at the ones that work instead of trying to jump on every single one. Because I think especially when you’re not super well known or maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of you, then your brand is sort of muddied and people are sort of unclear. They’re coming to your page and they see a bunch of trends, but they don’t really see who you are at your essence. They don’t really understand what you do or what you offer.

And then even if one of those trends goes viral, it might not necessarily be bringing the right type of client or making the right types of sale, bringing people who are going to actually buy from your business. It might just be bringing eyes on your page, which is nice, but it’s not necessarily going to help you as a business owner. So you do have to be thinking about that all the time of, “Cool, maybe this trend is going viral right now, but is it relevant to us? Is it going to confuse people who come to my page and they’re scrolling through really quickly to understand what we do and what we offer?”

Kevin: I think Miriam brings up a great point, which is really audience following, not just chasing numbers, but chasing people who generally want to follow you and have an interest. And free tip, Miriam, just from what I learned in five and a half years of the Orange Theory, our number one top performing content was always motivational and relatable. So anything that motivated the member, they would want to share that with somebody else. We got so many shares out of that, it was really their way to digitally pat one in the back basically to say, “Hey, keep it up.” We could bring in celebrities, which we did, we could bring in high beautiful production value content, it was always simple, relatable, usually a quote from Ellen Latham, the creator of Orange Theory, “Always top performing.”

Ayanna: Yeah, I think this kind of goes back to what we were saying a couple of minutes ago about really understanding what your foundation is, and so before you’re making those choices, you have that intentionality before you make any of these moves. One of the things that, Miriam, you just touched upon, which I think is really important for anyone that goes into this foray, are risk aligned with pop culture trends and different social media movements.

As a brand, as a large brand, we’re always thinking… We always have legal in our mind and making sure that we’re thinking about music licensing, we’re thinking about not showcasing celebrities faces or leveraging celebrities for marketing purposes, because you can get into hot water there when you’re a bigger brand. So those are a few things that we think about on the Yelp side, but I’d love to turn it over to you all to see about how you mitigate these risks, how you’re thinking about whether it’s legal, or even it’s just risk of going into a trend that we think that we’re aware of, but maybe we’re not fully aware of what the roots are. Kevin, I’ll turn it to you first.

Kevin: Yeah, I think it probably starts with what kind of a brand are you? I’ve worked for big mega corporations like Coca-Cola, and then I’ve worked for multi-unit brands like Orange Theory and now Edible, which is a franchise business, of course. When we go and engage in some trend or something in social, that’s one thing. We have all our protocols, we have our legal team here, but I worry about the system, if they pick up stuff with music licensing. No matter how many times you tell them, their primary business is not social. So I’ve had many cases where they jump on and put stuff out there with music licensing violations, IP, you name it. So I think trying to control that has been really difficult, and I think many franchise brands struggle with that, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want them to participate and engage. So it’s just constantly re-educating and re-educating, and then after that re-educating again.

Ayanna: Right, because it’s hard for some of those brands that maybe don’t have that background to say, “Well, if I’m seeing this brand do it, then why can’t I do this?”

Kevin: Right, exactly. But unfortunately, if you’re part of a really popular franchise brand, they look at you as a big brand. Even though many of them are family-owned small businesses, but they get targeted nonetheless. And we typically provide them support. If they get in trouble we try to get them out of trouble. But avoidance is the best policy.

Ayanna: Yes. And I also think having a policy for when you do and do not engage is really helpful, whether you are a smaller business or a larger enterprise, just having a policy in place for when you’re activating or when you’re trying to execute these things are really helpful. Miriam, do you have any thoughts on risk with pop culture trends? I know you just kind of touched upon this, but I think it’s really helpful to hear from someone that’s a business owner as well.

Miriam: Yeah, when you’re a small business owner, you probably don’t have necessarily a huge legal team, so you’re often going to be the one hands-on dealing with all of this. So if something goes awry, everyone wants to go viral until something goes viral for the wrong reasons or gets to the wrong side of the internet. So you are going to be the one face to face dealing with these comments and dealing with people coming at you if things don’t quite go your way. So I think it’s just something to be prepared for and also why it is really important to maybe not just jump on things blindly without doing your research, making sure it fits with your brand, making sure it feels like a good match because, yeah, once it’s out there in the internet, you’re going to be the one dealing with that. And that can be a lot to take on. So something to think about.

Ayanna: It absolutely is, especially when you’re handling that on your own or with a small team. Emily, go ahead.

Emily: And Ayanna, just to piggyback on that, again, this is more relevant to the food and CPG wellness space, but on my side, it’s working with companies that have to be very conscientious of what claims they make. So if there’s any health claims or even food related health claims in their social content, you really run the risk of a class action lawsuit. And so this can feel intimidating. It’s like, “Well, if I don’t have legal, if I don’t have a regulatory person in house,” I will say what I found effective with smaller brands that I work with is you actually can get access to a regulatory consultant for not a lot of money that can build parameters for your team.

And I sometimes find that if you just have some kind of parameters in place, even if they’re not necessarily super prescriptive and the team’s not following them, it just makes them pause when they’re about to say, “This product will help you lose weight,” or, “This product will improve your brain fog,” and things like that. So that is actually more accessible than I think some small companies would realize. So I highly recommend that.

Ayanna: That’s a great tip, and one thing that I also say to my team is, if you’re about to post something or you’re thinking about something and you have a little nagging feeling that you’re not sure, just pause, get a second opinion. Even if you don’t have a large team, share it with someone else. Make sure that you’re doing your due diligence. If you don’t have that document and that policy, dive into the comments, look at the hashtags that are being used, who is the original creator? Look at their page, what are they talking about? Do you want to be involved or associated with this? Just a few things. Just really looking to understand what is the sentiment around this can be really helpful before you move forward. This has been really, really helpful for people understanding how to make those choices if you’re going to execute.

I’d love to talk now about measuring the success of these initiatives. So I know Kevin, when you originally kicked off, you were talking about the SNL example and then getting content shared. I’d love to hear more about some of the successes, and are there any specific metrics that you are using that you find particularly helpful to understand, was this a success? Was this not a success?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s a great question and it’s really important to measure these things, of course, and we measure it just like we do paid media in many ways, like ROAS, return on ad spend. So there is a cost to us, our time, our people, sometimes we send out product if there’s an influencer, sometimes we’ll pay an influencer, but usually it’s organic. But I’ll give you a recent example. We can track things, we can give promo codes and actually track the sale all the way to the very end. So we had Employee Appreciation Day last month, three days, one influencer, $305,000 generated in sales just from using her promo code we gave her. And I think we paid her 15 grand, then we had five more organic on top of that, generated 65,000 in sales. So we measure all that stuff all the way down to the transaction level.

That’s the influencer side, but then there’s just the brand side, which are impressions and engagement and all those things are important because not everything should be about an instant purchase. I’ve got to keep a little engaged and also really recruit the next generation of Edible lovers. So there’s kind of two different metrics, more brand and also very transactional. But we see a lot of success on the influencer side, but we’ve got a lot more strategic and using the right tools to actually find the right influencers, and it’s been really, really transformative, truly.

Ayanna: No, that’s really great to hear, and I think very helpful for those that are listening in. Emily or Miriam, would you like to share any ways in which you’re measuring success for this? Emily, go first.

Emily: Yeah, I’m always looking at Miriam. Yeah, I think it’s totally contingent on the brand campaign. If you’re running a campaign with an influencer or doing some kind of sweepstakes based on some trend, we look at typical things like Google Analytics for traffic surges, engagement metrics, etc. If you really lean into a trend and you’re launching a product, for example, then of course I’m going to look at how it impacts the rest of my product portfolio. So it’s got the classic laser Oreo strategy where they launch all these funky, very trendy flavors, and it just lifts their core portfolio. So they get sales on their most basic flavors by subscribing to these trends via their products. So for those, I’m just looking at the total product portfolio and sales. But I think it’s important before hopping on trends to challenge your team or challenge yourself to say, “What am I actually trying to achieve?” And then aligning your KPIs based on that.

Ayanna: That’s great. That’s really helpful. Thank you, Emily. Miriam?

Miriam: Yeah, we definitely pay close attention to our analytics in terms of just general engagement, views following, that sort of thing. Again, I kind of touched on this earlier, but when you are a business, those numbers are important, but they don’t really matter as much as, are we bringing people in to our page who are actual potential clients? Because that’s great to have the numbers there, and it’s great to have videos go viral, but it’s not super helpful ultimately if it’s not bringing in actual clients. So I’m actually looking too, is it bringing in our ideal sort of clientele, the type of people who are going to reach out to us and actually work with us and utilize our services? So I think paying attention to that is actually a little more important for us because we want to make sure that they’re actually transitioning from follower to client. And if not, we need to adjust a little bit because we’re maybe drawing in not the correct audience or the correct potential clientele.

Touching also onto influencer marketing, I think small businesses can definitely utilize influencer marketing, but also, you want to really be… You might not have as much money or you might not have the ability to invest as much into influencers, so I definitely would always encourage people to pay close attention to who their audience is, if you have overlap, what do they talk about on their page? What’s their niche? Because it can be utilized in a great way and it can draw a lot of attention to your business, but you don’t want to just work with any influencer because they have a big following. They might have a big following that will never have an interest in your services because it’s so outside of your niche that it’s not relevant at all. So it can definitely be utilized, you want to work with the right people, you want to make sure that if you’re investing that time, that money into that person, that it’s a good match.

Ayanna: That’s an incredible point. I know that we’re not going into the influencer marketing fore today. That can be a whole other conversation, but Miriam, that is so helpful for those that are interested in understanding where you could take a next step. So thank you for sharing that. We don’t have much time left, but I just want to… We had one question come in that I want to make sure that we touch upon before I ask you all some rapid fire questions before we end. Can you just touch upon any type of tools that you’re using to spot trends and analyze trends? Miriam, maybe we can start with you and then we can go over to Emily and Kevin.

Miriam: Yeah, spending time on those apps is super important. Myself and my marketing manager, a lot of what we do is research. We are just on it. We are paying attention to hashtags, we’re paying attention to similar businesses in our niche, and we are unfortunately just spending time utilizing the apps. And I know sometimes people don’t want to be on them, they want to limit their screen time, but I don’t think you can create awareness without actually actively taking part in those applications, making sure that you are researching and making that a part of your actual work week. And if you have a marketing team, a marketing manager, making sure that they’re also staying on top of it, because again, it changes so quickly that you have to actively be utilizing the applications yourself to know what’s going on.

Ayanna: I think that’s completely fair. Even taking those 15 minutes at the beginning of the day to just get up to date on what’s going on, if you don’t have that extra… If you don’t have an hour, 15 minutes can make a huge difference. Kevin, Emily… Emily, do you want to start?

Kevin: I was going to echo what Mary was saying. You can have all the tools, I’ve had Hootsuite, we have Sprout now, we’ll probably go back to Hootsuite, but spending time in platform is the best way. Because there’s so much nuance to it that you learn. So I think just having people present and constantly looking and engaged in that is probably the most useful way. Certainly can use tools, but I think the best tool is being in platform.

Emily: Yeah, it’s funny. I was actually going to say, I always have amazing Gen Z folks managing our social in the event that I can’t spend as much time. They are digitally native, more digitally native than myself, and they tell me the trends. So it might sound funny, but I hang out with folks that are just in a part of the pop culture that maybe I feel like I can’t maybe offer the amount of time that I should be managing those apps. I do feel like that’s the best way, the human touch outperforms the AI tools and everything else.

Kevin: And Emily, I ask my Gen Zers like, “Hey, who should I follow?” So I have a whole string of people I follow just to kind of give a little piece of what they’re looking at 24/7. So I’ve always found that really helpful as well. And they laugh when I tell them a trend before they tell me, like, how do you do this?”

Ayanna: So a big takeaway is find a mentor that is Gen Z to help direct your trend strategy. I want to do some really quick rapid fire questions for you all. Don’t think, just respond. I’m going to go in order. So it’s Kevin, Emily, Miriam. Favorite restaurant in the US. Kevin, go.

Kevin: Oh, God. Well, I’m cheap and cheerful so Yumbii Tacos here in Atlanta.

Ayanna: I love cheap and cheerful. Go, Emily.

Emily: This is very hard being a foodie. I’ll just say Hanoi House in the East Village has been one of my favorites for Vietnamese.

Ayanna: Miriam?

Miriam: Also tough. I’m a huge foodie as well. Currently, probably Birds of a Feather. It’s amazing Chinese food in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Ayanna: Yum. Getting very, very hungry. If you weren’t doing what you’re doing today, what would you be doing and why? Kevin, go ahead.

Kevin: Urban planning, probably. Yeah, there’s just such a struggle for affordable housing and things like that. I’ve always been interested in urban walkable issues, and I think the root of it is the way we use our land. But I don’t have the degree nor the expertise, so I just am a fan, and I go to attend a lot of city council meetings.

Ayanna: No, that’s incredible. Thank you. Emily?

Emily: I would be in agriculture. I like to say that my husband would be the farmer and I would create some jams and breads and the food from it, so he’ll do the hard labor. But I just believe it’s so impactful to climate change and just our society’s health. So I’d be a farmer.

Ayanna: That’s great. And Miriam?

Miriam: Maybe something in mental health. As a trainer, I’ve learned so much of how intertwined mental and physical health are, and I often end up talking about that a lot with my clients anyway. So I think that would be interesting to do as well.

Ayanna: That’s incredible. Well, thank you all so much for taking time to speak with us today. This has been such a really, really incredible panel hearing from you all and hearing your expertise. So thank you. Before I go and transition back to Emily, one thing that I always do for those that are watching is if you follow Yelp For Business on Instagram and you DM Yelp For Business today, I will personally answer any social media related questions that you have about your business. So I will individually respond with any social tips based on your questions. I did this last summit, and they were a hit, so I’d love to do this again. Make sure you follow Yelp For Business on Instagram and then DM me with your questions and I will take the time to answer. So thank you all again, and I will transition back to Emily.

In Conversation with Alli Webb

Tara: Good afternoon everyone. I hope that everyone’s having a great day, whether it’s the afternoon, or the morning, depending on where you’re joining from. I’m Tara Lewis, Yelp’s Vice President of Community Expansion and Trends, and it is such a pleasure to be joining you today to welcome our very special guest founder of Drybar, Co-founder of Squeeze, Brightside, Becket & Quill, and New York Times’ bestselling author, Alli Webb. Alli, how are you doing today?

Alli: I am great. Thanks for having me.

Tara: Awesome. I’m sure that most people that have joined the call are familiar with Drybar as a concept, but they may not know the entire story, but it began as a little bit of a side hustle for you where you were going house to house doing blowouts. What was the aha moment for you that you decided that you wanted to try to give brick and mortar a try?

Alli: Well, I was getting so busy in the mobile business, and I was running around town blow-drying all my mommy friends, and I was just one person. So I came to this crossroads of like, “Do I hire more people, and send stylists out to do the clients that I couldn’t, or do I open a brick and mortar and try to get, instead of me going to them, they come to me?”

And that was really the idea, but to just do blowouts, especially at that time, 14 years ago, nobody was doing that. And so it was definitely risky, but I felt like the right price point, the right experience. There were so many things that had to line up, but it was a big risk, but we felt like it was worth a shot, and so we decided to take the plunge, and open up a physical location. I had already had such a beautiful built-in community of women who I was blow-drying their hair all the time, that I felt confident that I would at least get those women. I never would’ve imagined it would turn into what it did, and take off the way it did. So nobody was more surprised by the success that came out of all of it than me. That’s for sure.

Tara: I remember when I first heard of Drybar, and obviously it was in your expansion. I live in Washington D.C., and I was so excited to be able to have a place like that to go to, and I think so many other women could relate to that as a concept. Under your leadership Drybar grew from one shop to more than 100 shops, I think close to 150 at some point, maybe even more.

Alli: 150, yeah.

Tara: Of course, a product line, a best-selling book, and eventually you’re able to sell the company, and which, for many business owners, that might seem like a dream. But in your book, you revealed, in the book The Messy Truth, that you were navigating some pretty difficult and challenging personal issues throughout that period. What advice would you give to the audience on how to navigate life as an entrepreneur while also prioritizing your personal wellbeing? And of course, you can share what you’d like about that period of your life, but I’m sure lots of people see the headlines, lots of people see the success, and they may not always know that there’s a backstory there that was triumphant in your own right in your personal life.

Alli: Well, the book is a pretty tell-all of everything that happened, and I think I always knew that I would write a book about the experience of building Drybar, and especially for me as someone who didn’t go to college, and didn’t have a traditional background, and didn’t know what I was doing, really knew nothing in the early days of Drybar and I feel like I got such an education on the job. But it was really awesome. It was. It was a really, like, we were on a rocket ship, and there was so much excitement, and we were growing and building so fast, and it was awesome.

On the flip side of that, which I think happens to everybody, not just founders or entrepreneurs, we all have our shit that we’re going through. And for me, I was married to my co-founder, and then my brother was my other co-founder, and we had these two beautiful kids, and we had kids young, and then we had Drybar, and so it was like, first kid, second kid, then Drybar, and then we were on this rocket ship with Drybar building this, and growing it, and it was so exciting.

But what I wasn’t doing was a lot of the internal work because I was on this rocket ship and I was so excited and busy and crazy and everything, and raising my kids and raising Drybar and all the things that I didn’t stop and take a whole lot of inventory of what was happening for me, which was that I wasn’t in a really happy marriage. Neither one of us were happy, and we were just kind of floating along. And so we decided to pull the plug, which I had really expand on in the book. And again, like I was saying, I always knew I’d write a book about the building of Drybar. What I didn’t anticipate was writing a book that was also so deeply personal, but it was just I couldn’t tell the story without telling the story of the fact that I got divorced in the middle of the Drybar craze when Drybar was at its height.

And then my son went into rehab and then I went into a depression and it was just dealing with all of that. Luckily during that time, which again, I talk a lot about in the book, we had grown a pretty significant team of people who were basically running the company at that point. So I had the good fortune of being able to step away a little bit and deal with all the stuff that was going on in my personal life, which is my divorce and my own depression, and what was happening with my son was really heartbreaking. And so it was crazy, and I talk a lot about this in the book that I really struggled with getting a divorce. I didn’t want to be a divorced person. I had all this weird shame around it, and I don’t now.

And I think that the more I talked about it and the more I was transparent about it, I recognized how much it was relating and resonating with other women. And to your point, it’s like my life looked really good. And like I said, in a lot of ways it was, but it was also the undercurrent of it all was, it was really challenging and sad and hard. And so I just wanted to write a book about all the pressures of success really, which I know can be an eye roll of a statement. It’s like, “Oh, what do you have to be…” And I’m so sensitive to this because I don’t want to ever come off as ungrateful for any of it because I am deeply grateful for all of it, and it changed my life in so many amazing ways. And I’m pretty sure all the things that happened to my personal life would’ve happened regardless of what I was doing in my life. But I just think it’s important to point out that it’s not all what it seems.

I also, I think during all the hardships that I went through, I think I really came to believe that the more transparent we are as humans about what’s going on with us, the better as a society we become. And I really believe in the idea of the collective. And if we’re showing up as our best self and we’re doing the work on ourselves and all of that, then we all kind of rise. And I think when I was going through a really hard time and crying all the time, if you met me, if you saw me on the street and you asked me how I was, it was a pretty good chance I was going to cry. And it was like I just couldn’t help it. And then I was also like, “I can’t do small talk anymore. I can only talk about this real shit.”

So it was an interesting transformation for me over the course of 10 years of growing this business and all the changing and also all the hardship really softens you. I think that’s really where you kind of like the ego dies a little bit and you become a little bit of a softer human, which I definitely did. And it was a very long answer to your very simple question.

Tara: No, I think we wanted to know that all because I know that there’s folks probably on the call that have more context to what was happening in your life and then people that don’t know it all. So you gave a nice range of it in your own words and in your own voice. And I think that the thing that you said that I think resonated probably among everybody is that you were being real and people connect with real, and people connect with authenticity. And it’s not just a business, it’s a story and it’s a human and the lives that are affected. And I think everybody on this call has had moments in their life regardless of what they do and regardless of what their families are like.

Alli: Nobody gets out alive.

Tara: Oh, yes. And I think personally, I always feel like there’s a lot of strength and vulnerability, and I think it’s a healthy process to share when people are comfortable and have the capacity to, because it just makes more space for others to also live in their own truth and reality, like you said. And we all have that. Right?

So was there ever a moment just to kind of go back in terms of advice, was there ever a moment where you look back and you’re like, I should have created more space for myself here? I’ve noticed that sometimes people hit a wall and that’s when they realize that it was, and then you look back and you sort of see that you maybe slowed down a little bit more at different times. Looking back, there was someone else that maybe was going through something that was so tumultuous and also I’m sure overwhelming with lots of velocity. Looking back, is there any advice that you have of maybe I should have taken a pulse check at a different point in time?

Alli: Yeah, and I think as entrepreneurs, I can only speak for myself, but we get very obsessive about things. If I am like a dog with a bone when I want something or I’m trying to create something. And so there’s this adrenaline that kind of kicks in that you don’t think of it as work. And I speak all the time and I’ve said publicly many times, “I love work.” And when you do something you love, it doesn’t feel like work. And that’s true. I think the mistake that I made that I think a lot of entrepreneurs make, that I still make, that I have to remind myself to stop making is, I’m actually so much better at it now as I even say that.

Is taking the time, finding… It’s funny, the second chapter, my book is called Balance Is Bullshit, which I believe, but I do think there is finding your stride or your flow and am not going to give every single thing I have of myself to this business. I’m going to give a lot. You have to. And when you’re growing a company, you have to, it is, especially in the early days, and I think that it’s almost unavoidable in those early days when you’re in real startup mode that you have to give a lot, but you also have to recognize that in order for you to be your best, you do have to take care of yourself in whatever capacity that means.

It took me many years to realize that I didn’t have to be sitting in my office or at the shop at 9:00 AM. I started to play around with my schedule where I would drop off my kids because that was important to me, go to the gym in the morning or go on a walk or whatever it was. And I think that those things, while they sound small or even taking a meditation break in the middle of the day, which I totally do now, but I didn’t give myself permission.

And I think especially as women, we don’t give ourselves permission to go and do the things that we need that make us feel rejuvenated and recharged. We just keep going. And frankly, you can’t do that unless you schedule it in. And anybody who’s busy and working has a calendar that they most likely live and die by. And I mean, gosh, I do and I have for as long as I can remember, I will schedule blocks in my calendar throughout the day and my assistant and people I know, I just won’t do things back to back. I would never speaking to you today, I won’t go and jump into a podcast interview or another interview because mentally it’s too much. I will work and do other things, but I’ve learned, and that’s the big unlock here, I think, is learning the things that deplete you and the things that give you energy.

And I think for me it was like there was so much depletion, but it was sugar coated in this awesome thing that we were growing and building, which it was, but I didn’t stop and take time to recharge. It was just like, “Go, go, go, go, go.” And there was some sort of badge of honor of working crazy hours around the clock, which I started to just get really resentful of that, where I wanted some peace. And now I’m just so much better about listening and getting quiet, which I think is part of, I think why meditation is so important and has gotten so big or whatever it is for you. For me, it’s also just walking with music. It makes me so happy and also is a recharge for me. It literally recharges me and finding that thing that lets you stop and be like, ‘What’s happening?” Not to get too woo-woo on you, but what’s happening for me?

Tara: Whoa, so bring it.

Alli: What does my body feel like? What’s my body telling me? Even when I’m trying to make a decision on something I’m going to do, I will really stop and go inward and be like, “How does my body feel? Am I getting anxiety anywhere? Am I feeling, is it excitement in a good way?” I mean, it’s okay to be scared, but so all of that stuff, I didn’t think of any of this back in the day. I was just so busy with my kids and my marriage and the company that I didn’t give myself any space for any of this stuff. And so now in this new iteration of me and my life and what I’m doing, it’s like I have more space and I’m grateful for that. But yeah, I felt pretty compelled to pay that forward and give back and share that you will inevitably burn yourself to the ground if you don’t stop and take care of yourself. And you can rise again for sure, but it will take a toll.

Tara: I’m sure in the mentality of an entrepreneur, it’s almost just like having a personal audit or personal inventory check, but it’s just for yourself, which is often not prioritized. But I think that’s great advice, and I think that everyone at least can apply that to their life in one way or another at some point or another.

You spoke a little bit about how as women often we take on quite a bit and don’t always, we’re often nurturing lots of things, whether it’s our business, our families, other people. And I know that even in the beauty industry, although the audience is significantly female in many cases, a lot of beauty businesses are still led by men. So I was curious, what kind of challenges have you faced as a woman in the beauty industry and how have you seen the industry change over the past decade?

Alli: Well, I mean, I think that that is changing. I think a lot more women, I mean, as you said that I was thinking about all the beauty brands I know and which ones are run by men and which ones are run by women. And I think they’re probably a combination of all of it now. And I think that the female founder community has grown so significantly in the last five, 10 years, probably more in the last five. And I think that it is almost like incumbent upon us as women to demand those bigger roles, to demand those bigger salaries to know our place and to get other pioneers, women, there are so many, there’s so female VC firms emerging and things like that that we’re starting to see now, which is really important because I’m sure, as you know, the amount of businesses that get funded, female-funded businesses is far less than male. I don’t know the statistic, but it’s not good.

And I think that that’s changing because many more women are stepping into that role of VCs and private equity. And the more women that we get into those roles, the more women get funded and women of color and everything in between. I could pull up the stats, but they’re not great. So I think that’s kind of where it starts. It is kind of how I see it. It starts from the top-up of who’s giving capital to these brands. And so much of that is connection and who, and I don’t mean it in a snobby way of who, but get yourself to events. There’s so many now that the world is changing, it’s like there’s so many retreats and events that are happening that are like VC-led retreats where you can go and meet VCs. And yes, a lot of those are still men, but go and mingle with those people and get to know those people because it’s all those relationships and all those connections, male or female are really what make the difference and get you in the room.

I’m sure you know who Jaclyn Johnson is. She’s a founder of Create and Cultivate. She just started a new company called Cherub, which I’m an investor in where basically it’s like, she calls it the Raya of raising money where it’s like she’s connecting founders and funders. So if you are starting a company and you’re looking, you can join this site and you get access to people who fund someone like me who’s like a private investor or someone like a VC or whatever, and that’s a great way to do it. But I think that’s kind of where it starts because the more companies that are born from a woman, which are arguably better, we will continue to see that trend. Which I think the trend is certainly going that way.

But with that said, I’ve also had male partners as long as I can remember, my brother and my ex-husband were my co-founders, my brother and I have started other companies. We started Squeeze with Brittany Driscoll, who was our old head of marketing at Drybar. We’re working on a new brand that I can’t reveal yet. So I think I kind of feel like there’s great men out there and there’s great women out there, and there’s not such great men out there, and there’s not such great women out there. And so it’s really finding people that you really can trust. That said, I do think the pendulum is starting to swing a little bit more, and I think all the VC and private equity guys are starting to see that there’s really amazing businesses that are started by women. And so it’s all kind of shifting in a positive way. It’s just probably taking longer than we’d all like.

Tara: Yeah, representation is definitely a trickle-down effect, right? Yelp, we’ve seen that this past year. We’ve seen more women-owned businesses open than ever before. And so seeing it reflected on a large scale, and I’m sure you’ve seen it in both micro and macro, it aligns, but I know that when you first started Drybar, it may not have been the same landscape, right?

Alli: No, it wasn’t. And we did have, when we raised our first tranche of capital, which was 26 million from Castanea, it was primarily men in that room except for Janet Gurwitch, who was the former founder and CEO of Laura Mercier Cosmetic. And I really wanted to start a product line. So her being a part of Castanea was a big deal to me. And so that was pretty major.

But yeah, I mean, I sat in a lot of boardrooms with men in suits who were like, they just did not get what I, they were like, “What? You’re blow drying hair?” They were so confused, but it was like we had already had, I don’t know, maybe seven or eight stores at that point, and they were like, “Well, why don’t you do makeup or sell them this or sell them that?” I’m like, “No, no, no. We do one thing. We do it really well.” But they saw it as you have this captive audience of 100 give or take women a day, you could sell them so much other stuff. And I was like, “Well, I don’t want to. I don’t want to sell out. I want to be very true to what we do.” And I knew how hard it was to run that business already as is.

So yeah, it was an interesting landscape and I think that was, I was really lucky to be surrounded by people who were very helping me come into my own where I felt I didn’t really know what I was and how to hold my own in these rooms and whatever. But my brother and even Steve Berg from Castanea and which is now Stride, if you go to look that up, they were very, because I had that kind of imposter syndrome in the early days of these guys are smarter than me. They know more than me. And it was really, my brother largely was like, “This is your idea.” It’s like my smart, my skill set was not, I didn’t go to college. I didn’t have the traditional, but I had a really good idea. I knew how to execute it because also largely watching my parents run their business. So I very quickly squashed that imposter or not thinking I was smart enough or good enough to be in those rooms and never looked back.

Tara: I’m glad that your brother in that role was an ally for you. And then how you are somebody that so many other women aspired to be. And I think anybody can relate to imposter syndrome at different stages of their career as well.

Alli: And I talk about imposter syndrome a lot as a great thing. If you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, that means you’re doing something that you haven’t done before and good for you. I mean, that means that you’re taking on this role or this opportunity that’s new to you and it’s foreign, and so you’ve got to learn it a little bit, but you will and it’s an amazing opportunity.

Tara: Well, you mentioned Squeeze a little bit, which kind of segues perfectly into the next question that I had for you. You obviously launched the Drybar concept and then you launched Squeeze, which I’m sure you’ll tell us a little bit more about. First tell us about Squeeze, but then also tell us about as a seasoned entrepreneur entering this next venture, what are some of the things that you applied in your learnings to this new venture? And tell us about Squeeze as a concept and what it is now.

Alli: So when we were in, gosh, just towards the tail end of building Drybar, my brother really came up with this idea for Squeeze and he was frustrated. It’s interesting how similar it is to why Drybar, we started Drybar and why Drybar worked, there were two bad choices. The discount chain where you could get a blowout that was like, you don’t know what you’re getting or the high-end salon where you’re overpaying and the pressure and whatever. The massage industry kind of had the same problem. It’s like there’s the discount chains or there’s the spas that are very expensive and there’s a couple of things in the middle but that weren’t great.

And so Michael, my brother was like, I feel like we should open a massage concept. And this was at year, I don’t know, nine or something, in Drybar. And I was like, “What? We have no bandwidth. What are you talking about? There’s no way we can do this.” But Brittany, who had been with us for a good couple of years and helped us really get from, I don’t know, 20 stores to 100 and something, she was really amazing and instrumental and changed everything for us in terms of marketing and planning and all that. And so she was kind of ready for her next thing and we knew that and it was all very amicable and she was starting to look for something new and we asked her if she would be interested in taking on this idea that my brother had and she was and she did.

And so basically what Squeeze is a massage concept and it is a brick and mortar. You go in and get a massage, but the big differentiator is that everything is on an app. So you book on the app, you tip on the app, you pay whenever you want on the app, and it’s very customizable. So you put in your preferences, you can read all the reviews of all the therapists that are there and from preferences is like you want oil or lotion, the bed heated, not heated, all the questions that you normally get asked when you’re sitting across from somebody, but now you’ve in the comfort of your own phone, answered these questions and you put your credit card in and that’s how you book your appointment. And when you leave, you just walk out the door so you’re not dealing with the check in and check out when you’re in this very blissful state.

So it’s been a pretty big game changer. So there’s no cash, there’s no checking in. I mean, you check in and check out and just say hello and goodbye. There’s no interaction, which I think has been a really big game changer because historically you know how you feel when you come out and massage. You don’t really want to talk to anybody.

Tara: Right, yeah.

Alli: You’re in this haze. And then there’s lots of little bells and whistles where we have this little button under the bed once you lie down that you push and it alerts the therapist outside your room that you’re ready. And there’s lots of little, it’s the same founding team as Drybar, my ex-husband, Cam did all the creative, our same architect, all of that. So it’s a really beautiful concept and I’m really proud of it. And Brittany has done just an incredible job and it’s her baby. She’s up and running with it and we’re advisors and investors, but she’s really doing it, which has also been a really kind of beautiful experience to watch her come into her own as an entrepreneur who was an executive for so many years.

But we opened it about, gosh, nine months before the pandemic. So once the pandemic hit, it kind of derailed our plans a bit. So like everybody, we had to close for a while. We’ve obviously reopened, and I think we have, don’t quote me on this, I want to say we have 10 that are open now. There is one in Studio City, if you live in LA, we’re in Arizona. I should know where all the other ones are open, but I can’t rattle them off. But we’ve also sold over 100 franchises and it’s completely franchise operation, so you’re going to start hearing a lot about it in the coming months and years because Brittany’s done such a great job.

And to answer your question of the things that we learned at Drybar that worked and didn’t work, and one of those big things was franchising. Drybar was like a split. We couldn’t make up our mind if we wanted to franchise or not franchise, and it was like my baby and I didn’t want to franchise it, but ultimately it kind of was better in a lot of ways because you have an owner operator that has skin in the game and their money and whatever in it. So we made that decision, which was a big one.

But I know Brittany’s really loved that process because we’re basically turning people into entrepreneurs who want a turnkey solution versus coming up with an, I mean, it took us over a year to just develop the app for Squeeze. It’s our app. We developed it. So much goes into building a company that we are giving people the opportunity to hand over this beautiful brand that we’ve built, and a lot of people are taking advantage of that. So yeah, it’s been fun and it’s also been great for me to be able to hand over the reins to Brittany and it’s her baby. She’s really doing everything with it, and it’s just at this stage in my life, it’s just not where I am in the weeds, the way I was with Drybar. So yeah, it’s really fun to watch from the zoomed out view instead of being in the weeds like I’ve always been.

Tara: Yeah. Well, I think this comes, I’m sure everyone’s thinking with all the different ventures that you’ve had your hands in, of course, even after selling Drybar, I’m sure there were so many different options and directions of where you want to invest, how you want to spend your time. Squeeze was part of that, but you have your hands in many other things. How are you managing your time and how do you prioritize what is most important in your life day-to-day, week to week, month to month, while being part of so many different ventures and exciting things?

Alli: Yeah, I mean, it is interesting. I think I kind of jokingly have been saying lately that I feel like I’m like 20 again, where you’re at that phase in your life where you’re just trying on a lot of things. I’m trying on a lot of things right now. When we sold Drybar now four years ago, almost four years ago, yeah, wow. Four years ago. It’s crazy. Anyways, I wanted to join some boards, and so I did that and then I realized I don’t really like being on boards. It’s like long, long meetings, but it was one of those things that I tried and now I’ve invested in other companies. We have Squeeze and Brightside and Okay Humans, and I joined forces with a friend of mine in LA who has a jewelry company and kind of been helping with that as well.

And so I have my hands in a lot of things as well as I started an online community called the Messy Collective, which is kind of following my book, which is a online platform for female entrepreneurs where I’m giving advice, doing group coaching. I’m bringing on my community of people to come in and talk about the issues that founders are facing that they want information on.

And then I have a couple other little projects that I’m working on, but it’s all in an effort to what lights me up now, what do I want to be doing right now? The book took up a lot of my time from the point we sold Drybar, the book took over a year to write and finish. So that was a big chunk of my time. And now I’m just figuring out what makes me happy now, which is, I think it’s a good question to always be asking ourselves, but I’m very much in that process right now of figuring out what I want to be, where I want to be spending the majority of my time. And right now it’s kind of a fun split.

Tara: That’s great. That’s great to hear. I think we have lots to follow along for you and know that there’s going to be plenty of continued success among many of these other ventures. We’re going to jump really quickly into some rapid fire questions.

Alli: Awesome.

Tara: Don’t overthink any of these, they’re not too, too personal, and whatever comes to mind first, we’ll just go with that. What’s a piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

Alli: Don’t worry so much.

Tara: Oh, I think that we can all take that advice.

Alli: It doesn’t help.

Tara: It doesn’t change anything. Yes. What books or podcasts are you listening to or reading right now?

Alli: Gosh. Oh, my God. I always get asked this question and I have to look at my, I read everything on Audible. I know this is rapid fire.

Tara: Also pivot it and say, what are you binge-watching or what are you listening to? Or when you want to make you happy, what are the songs?

Alli: Well, I’m currently binging the new Taylor Swift album. I mean, it’s good. I walk 13,000 steps a day, so me and my dog are always out in my neighborhood walking, so I’m usually listening to music. I spend a lot of time on Insight Timer, a lot of those walking meditation stuff that I do. I just finished binge-watching Baby Reindeer, which I don’t know. That show.

Tara: I went for a full week and a half. Everybody I talked to, I was like, “By the way.”

Alli: That show, do you know that the guy who plays, who’s Donnie is Donnie? It’s about his life.

Tara: Because I went down a TikTok rabbit hole that also was really messy after that week too, about the real people and their identities possibly being exposed. But when I was watching, I did not know.

Alli: I didn’t either.

Tara: And then I went down a rabbit hole, and now I’m still in it a little bit, but.

Alli: Yeah, and there’s that show with Kristen Wiig right now that’s so good where they’re in Miami in the ’50s or something. I forget what it’s called. It’s so good too. And yeah, I’m always reading something. Oh God, what did I read last? I don’t even remember.

Tara: I know. It’s one of those things where it’s like when somebody asks you the question, you’re like, “What?” It’s like, “What did you have for lunch?”

Alli: I know. Yeah. I’m like, yeah, I started reading recently Savannah Guthrie’s book, Mostly What God Does, which I find really beautiful, so I’m on a little bit of a God journey right now.

Tara: Great. Cool. And then what’s one thing you wish you had more time for right now?

Alli: Gosh, I just wish I had maybe five more hours during the day. I feel like my days are just always so busy and I wish I had more time, free time. And it’s funny, I was talking about that, I will build in breaks, but then I have a hard time saying no, and there’s just so many things I want to do. So yeah, I just wish I had more time to have downtime.

Tara: What’s your favorite way to spend downtime? I know you like music, we know that you love walking, we love meditation, love god. What does that tell us about how-

Alli: I mean, that’s it. I really like writing my journal. I just like chill time to just relax and do nothing, and I find very little of that in my life.

Tara: I mean, it makes sense based on what I know of your life. That would make sense. Five hours would do you good.

Alli: Maybe even three would be great.

Tara: Three, yeah. I’ll take three. I know we’re wrapping things up in a little bit, and if there are any questions from the audience that you’d like to ask Alli, feel free to send them in. I did have one question for now. As your business was expanding in the beginning, how did you decide what to spend your time on and what you should leave to others?

Alli: I love this question because it was really interesting for me as we grew, and when you’re starting a company and you’re the founder, you’re wearing a lot of hats and you’re doing a lot of things, almost everything. And then you start to realize that you need help and you can’t do everything yourself, and frankly, you’re not good at everything. And that was a little bit of a rude awakening for me, but a good one. And my brother and I, and I talk about this all the time, my brother and I would always have conversations where we would talk about what’s my highest and best use, meaning what do I love doing the most and what am I most good at? In the early days of Drybar, I was doing payroll, which nobody wants me doing payroll, money, spreadsheets, all that stuff. I don’t like it and I’m not good at it.

But for me, it was the experience. What was the experience when you walked Drybar? That was so near and dear to my heart. What was informing the training and making sure that the stylists were executing blowouts right? That piece to me and developing product, I would say, and press, those are my four big buckets of things that I did. I thought I was best suited to do more than anybody else. Most of the other stuff and that was a lot, other people could do and other people could frankly do better. And we were hiring people who had run big companies. We hadn’t, Michael and I didn’t know how to run a company because we’d never done it before. So being able to bring in people that knew how to do it was incredibly instrumental to our growth.

And if we hadn’t done that, I don’t know if we would’ve grown because if we would’ve gotten stuck in our own, we think we know, but we don’t know. I mean, the amount of things that we didn’t know that we didn’t know was staggering, and it was incredibly important to our growth that we figured that out and didn’t ruin it. Michael used to say to me all the time, “This is ours to mess up.” Because we had this great concept and vision, but it was the execution of it that was crucial, and we only could take it so far before we needed other people to help us get from point A to point B.

So hire people smarter than you and hire fast. And ahead of the curve I would say too, I think a lot of people, a lot of founders and people that I mentor really put off hiring because they don’t need it just yet, but it almost always happens. You get yourself in this business where you’re totally burned out. You’re doing way more than you should be. You need to hire that person, and now you have to just start interviewing. And sometimes that interview process, especially for big hires, expensive hires can take six, eight months. And so you needed that person three months ago and now you have another six months to go before you even get the right person. And then you run the risk of hiring somebody who’s not the right person because you just want to get that person hired, and then you’re even more screwed.

I mean, I don’t mean to stress people out, but it is a big deal. And I feel like if you see the writing on the wall where your company is going and you don’t start thinking about hiring that person to execute whatever’s coming next, you’re going to be stuck and it’s not going to feel good.

Tara: Those are important things to think about. You mentioned something that I just wanted to circle back on quickly, how much you valued understanding the customer experience and what people were experiencing when they were actually in your locations.

And now that you have Squeeze as well, I’m curious how as an entrepreneur, do you filter feedback? Obviously Yelp has lots of feedback. It might change from locations, but there’s lots of noise in general, whether it’s social media, whether it’s multiple platforms, whether it’s other investors that have invested in the business as well, and their opinions on where the business should next. What kind of systems have you put in place to prioritize and understand when is this some feedback that’s just welcoming a range of opinions versus when is this something that I need to apply, look into, and potentially implement in my business?

Alli: Well, I mean, listen, I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was feedback is a gift. And I think as humans, we don’t always want to hear the things that we’re not doing well, myself included. It’s like you don’t want to hear the bad, but if you can, this is where I was saying earlier about the ego dying. If you can allow to get past your ego of this thing that I hold so near and dear to my heart and somebody’s telling me it’s not good or it’s not good enough or whatever, it’s so hard to not take it personally. But if you can get past that and really accept feedback as a gift and welcome it, it’s so advantageous in so many ways.

I mean, for us with Drybar, and it’s funny, I meant to say it before and I forgot to say it, but if you look at Squeeze, we have all five star reviews on Yelp. I mean, it’s pretty insane. Where Drybar was different, Drybar was like, it used to kind of drive me crazy because people would anonymously put a complaint on Yelp, and I was like, “Just give me your name so I can call you.” Because when people weren’t anonymous and they would give us their name, we would really elicit feedback. After you got a blowout, we’d send you an email right away that said, “Tell us the good, the bad, the ugly. We want to hear it all.” And that was a really good platform versus having to go publicly if something was wrong and saying, “Here’s what happened. Here’s what I liked or didn’t like.”

And I always really urged my team to look at it like that. We’re going to take this feedback and we’re going to learn from it. And where there is smoke, there is fire. Always, always, always. So if one person, just one has a complaint about something, it is worth being looked into. Is it always like you change your whole business model, blah, blah, blah. No, but not researching and not digging into an issue that someone sees is such a mistake. And I think it’s frankly why, I mean, I don’t mean to go off on a tangent, but I could about my frustration with businesses in general that lack so much where they could be so much better if they just changed a couple of things that I’m sure lots of people have told them about, but they’re just kind of like, don’t want to hear it.

And you notice, and I’m sure on Yelp, you see it a lot. I remember seeing it where somebody would write a review that was a pretty not great review, and the owner would be defensive back. I’m like, “What are you doing? Don’t do that. Learn from it. Call that person.” I really, it’s a love hate thing for me, for anybody. It’s like you don’t want to be told you are not good or you’re not doing something well, but if you are, it is such a gift because it’s such an opportunity to grow and be better in your company, to get better and be more successful. So I’m a big proponent of take it in.

And also with your team, especially as a leader, if your team feels like they can come to you and they can say like, “Alli, I’m really struggling with this or that.” And I don’t jump on them, rather, I’m like, “Thank you so much for telling me that I didn’t realize I was doing that, and I want to be better and learn from it.” It puts people on their heels because they’re so shocked that they can have that conversation with their boss. And so I’ve always tried to really perpetuate that kind of, not always, as I learned, I did not do it in the beginning.

As I learned and as I grew with this company, I learned that I needed to be that kind of leader instead of the kind of leader that everybody was scared of. Because, and I talk about this in my book, my brother said to me, I don’t know how many years in, he was like, “You know everyone’s scared of you, right?” And I was like, “What? I’m so nice. What are you talking about?” And he’s like, “Well, you’re not always so nice, and your passion about this company gets misconstrued into you’re kind of a bitch sometimes.” And so I remember it so well because I was so shocked by it. And then I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve got to soften up and I want to be the kind of leader that people will talk to and tell the real truth to.” And so, yeah, my feelings on feedback.

Tara: You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t fix what you don’t know, right?

Alli: Yeah. I mean, it’s such a gift to be, yeah, it’s such a gift.

Tara: Well, that explains so much of your success, having that mentality and approach to customer service and growth. I know we are just about at time. Before we head out, Alli, is there anything else you’d love for the people that are joining us today to know about your next ventures or how they can continue to support and follow you?

Alli: Well, if you’re an entrepreneur who has lots of questions or is looking for a community of other entrepreneurs to share ideas with, I’m really excited and proud about the Messy Collective that I’m building and lots of treats and lots of really cool stuff in there. So you can just go to AlliWeb.com and check it out, or my Instagram.

Tara: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Alli, for your candidness, openness, and your energy.

Alli: Thank you.

Tara: We are so appreciative of everything that you’ve shared with us today.

Top 100 Local Business Roundtable

Emily: I’m so excited to have you all here. I’m going to let everyone introduce themselves and give a little brief history on the business before we dive into the questions. Mollie, why don’t you kick us off and give everyone an introduction? Oh, I think you’re on mute. Let’s just get you, there you go.

Mollie: How about that? Thanks. Hey everyone. Thanks Emily. My name is Mollie Bollers and I’m the owner and founder of Life Stage Massage in Hoboken, New Jersey. We’re a therapeutic massage practice emphasizing safe, nurturing, client-centered care for individuals at all stages of life with a special focus on prenatal care.

Emily: Amazing. Thank you so much for joining us today. Shane, I’m going to kick it over to you. I was excited to see how it looked in the gym, so I’m glad you did this setup.

Shane: Yeah, yeah, happy to be on here. My name is Shane Langwell. I’m the owner and founder of Nomad Krav Maga in Las Vegas, Nevada. We’ve been doing that since 2016 there, but before that I was also instructing at different schools for more than a decade. I’m happy to be on here. What we do is we help people from all walks of life, soccer moms, soccer dads, law enforcement, military, no experience, professionals, whatever level of experience they come in looking to learn to defend themselves, empower themselves, gain confidence, improve their skills to walk their daily life and just feel safer, more secure for themselves and their families. That’s the service we offer. Also, a great fitness component alongside that as well, just getting people healthier so that they can tackle their daily life with more tenacity and more enjoyment.

I love doing it. We’re happy to help people not only in the Las Vegas community, but we actually have our curriculum and affiliates out in the nation. They’re not actually our location, but they’re using our curriculum and skills to help do the same thing for their communities and for them. So it’s awesome.

Emily: Amazing. Thank you so much. Dan, over to you.

Dan: Hey, I’m Dan Moranville. I’ve been the CEO of Chicago Pet Sitters since 2022, and I joined the team in 2018 actually as a dog walker. I was not planning on doing this kind of work long term. I had just finished graduate school and was looking for a position in my field of youth development, but I absolutely fell in love with it. What could be better than showing up to work every day, getting fresh air, exercise, and giving belly rubs to 10 of your best friends?

When I had the opportunity to help run the company, I really wanted to look for opportunities to continue to make this a job that people could stay in for years and years. Our company was started in 2005 when our founder, Dana Dubriwny, started with a single dog walk. I think she’s in the audience, so shout out Dana. From the beginning, our focus has been creating a positive work environment, dignifying, supportive place to work. I’ve seen that focus result in very low staff turnover, incredibly high level of service. So I’m excited to be here and share our experience.

Emily: Thank you so much for joining us. One of the other big themes between all of your experiences is this passion and connection to the offerings that you provide. It comes through so much when you share about what you all do, so I really appreciate that. I think a lot of people can also identify with that. These businesses were born out of a need and something that you wanted to address in your market.

Mollie, I’m going to bring my first question to you. Can you talk about that hole in your own experience with massage that really caused you to start Life Stages? And also how you’ve taken it upon yourself to educate your team and your customers so that they’re more aware of the benefits of massage?

Mollie: Sure, Emily. Thanks. So my journey started out with myself being a client of massage therapy. I had my first massage at a spa in Manhattan, and I absolutely loved the experience. Since then I have tried out a lot of different massages, and I always felt like there was something that was missing. The therapist, they would pass over things that I felt that needed attention, and it didn’t seem like they really knew how to locate and effectively treat those discomforts that I knew intuitively that massage could alleviate. And it was just such a strange experience to me. Because to me, it was like, “Well, isn’t that what massage is for?” Of course it’s very relaxing as well, and that’s what you find the most of. Either that, or you find people attempting to do therapeutic work, but just beating people up and that’s no fun either. It’s not helpful or effective. It just makes things worse.

I set out to figure out how this can actually be done. I utilized every single session that I personally performed over the last 20 years to figure it out, just working really closely with clients, exploring, asking for feedback, adjusting until finally I was able to really see with my hands and I knew how to utilize my body structure and mechanics and my sensory perception to accurately locate, isolate, and treat and alleviate people’s specific discomforts comfortably, safely, and effectively in a way that last, and they would experience lasting results and just have a better quality of life as a result.

When you’re in pain, you can’t pay attention to your work, your relationships. Pain just takes up all of your attention and drains your energy. So we see this as a way of liberating that energy that’s bound up in pain and tension, and making it available for people to apply towards their life purpose and their meaningful relationships.

Emily: I love how that education also allows you to deepen the connection with the client too. It teaches them, it allows them to open up with what they’re hoping to get out of it. So it’s really a great thing that you’ve done and kind of brought communication into an industry where it hasn’t always been such a big part of it.

Shane, I’m going to come to you next. You guys teach obviously about self-defense and also these methods of Krav Maga. But you also create community, and it’s really about coming to class and knowing some of the other people that are participating. Can you talk about how you curate that community and create connection with your customers?

Shane: Yeah, for sure. Whenever people are coming in to learn self-defense with us, there’s a lot of different motivations for them, whether they want to learn to protect their family, get in shape, or maybe they’ve been unfortunately assaulted in the past. They come together in this community of people who have felt those same feelings that they’ve felt that led them to the same place. So they’re already generally in a like-minded community. And then what they do is they see each other daily or weekly pushing their own boundaries mentally and physically to grow stronger, more capable, and more confident. So through the hardship that we’re safely putting them through, simulated hardship, and it is actually hard, it’s not simulated, but they’re able to grow closer together. So just like elite military teams and things, as they go through their hard selection period, they come out of those things bonded as brothers and sisters. That’s kind of the same feeling that a lot of our members get in our classes.

As far as community-wise, definitely having events for them to socialize outside of classes is a great thing for them. We’re actually doing that more and more now in the future just as we’re growing, making sure that we target more of that outside class member experience. We’ve actually hired on new people to be able to do that even more for them, making sure they’re coming to classes, keeping them accountable, helping them out through any obstacles they have. And then setting up events like bowling, laser tag. We went horseback riding before out in the deserts. Red Rock Canyon area of Las Vegas is really beautiful. So we do things like that.

We’re definitely ramping that up throughout 2024 with our new growth that we’re putting in. And the growth is really targeted towards member experience and just providing even outside of our world-class training, even targeting more of a world-class total experience for the members. So that’s where we’re focused on now to move forward. I definitely think it’s an amazing opportunity for everybody involved with Nomad Krav Maga, especially the students to learn and grow and just meet people and have fun.

Emily: I love that. I remember in our prep call, it was exciting to hear you talk about growing not necessarily meaning more teachers and more classes, but actually deepening the relationship with some of the clients you already have and getting those new employees to focus on things like curating new clients and not just teaching classes. So that’s a big shift for you, and I think that’s important for other businesses. Hiring, it might be for a totally different job you’ve never even thought of. As your business grows and evolves, you might need to hire in different areas. Your team was telling you and your customers were telling you they wanted more attention and community time, and it’s awesome that you’re able to pivot and give them that. That’s so cool.

Shane: Thank you.

Emily: Okay, Dan, we’re going to bring it to you. We were joking within our prep call that your clients are kind of two different clients. You have your actual pets that you’re taking care of, and then your paying clients, your owners of these pets. But you’re creating connection and community kind of digitally and remotely. It’s not this same traditional experience where a customer comes in and works with an employee at Chicago Pet Sitters. Can you talk about how you do create that connection to the clients and build community even though it’s much different than in Shane’s classes?

Dan: Yeah. Since the pandemic, obviously a lot more people work from home. And so there is some person to person interaction a little bit more now where somebody’s working at their home office, dog walker comes in. But for the most part, our staff will never meet the people who are actually paying the invoice. It’d be funny if the cats and dogs actually had their little money and would pay us at the end of the visit.

We create community in different ways where I think one of the best parts, and this is foundational in our training even, the best part that we always hear from our clients is the pictures you get every day. And I’ve been on that side too. When I’ve gone out of town, my cats get taken care of, and getting the little pictures of my cat, it’s just like, “Aww,” so cute to see them playing and snuggling on the couch and whatever and begging for food. So it’s fun.

And there’s a chat feature in the app that we use. So there’s kind of a communication, a little conversation that can get started. Our staff have bios in the app as well. And so there’s a little bit of you kind of get to know each other a little bit, and it’s all focused on our mutual love for the pet.

Emily: I love that. I have my dogs always with their dog sitters, and that’s the best part when they send me little updates and let me know what’s going on with them. I think the takeaway for a lot of businesses there is technology. I mean, you all leverage a platform that allows you to create those connections. Sometimes in your brick and mortar business, maybe you have a way to tell the customer’s name, if you have classes and you’re checking them in, or it’s a repeat customer putting in their little rewards number. Those types of technology platforms allow you to sometimes create connection through them. So think of that. If you’re maybe not a high touch business, what are some ways you can connect or follow up with your customers? Maybe it’s technology that’s going to help you do that.

We’re going to shift gears a little bit and talk about overcoming challenges. You all have had businesses that have been around for a while, so the business life has kind of ebbed and flowed and had many ups and downs. Mollie, why don’t you start and share one of your entrepreneurial challenges and what you learned along the way.

Mollie: Sure, Emily. I think one of the biggest challenges that I’ve struggled with over the course of being an entrepreneur in this field is having that right balance between compassion and understanding for circumstances, but also standing firm in your policies. And particularly this shows up for us in our cancellation policy. We are in a tough spot because our clients really see us as caring, nurturing providers, which we are. But that also lends to a sense of entitlement with regards to making exceptions on short notice cancellations. And there’s really an imbalance between the sense of what that time means to the client versus what it means to us. It costs us money. That session would have contributed to the overhead of the business. We still have to pay our administrative staff, and we still pay our service provider for that appointment if the cancellation occurs in under 24 hours. That’s part of the reason why we’re able to retain our staff for many, many years, much longer than the average spa, because we do respect our therapists’ time, and that allows us to develop them and their skills to the level of quality that our clients enjoy.

So for the clients to make the connection between the level of expertise and the experience that they have with us and how that’s directly linked to their commitment to honor our time, it’s hard sometimes to communicate that in a way that clients understand. More and more of our clients are accepting and respecting and honoring that for us, but we still have the occasional client who’s very indignant about it, especially if they feel that they couldn’t have foreseen it or there was a real emergency.

We are very clear about that upon booking. We state very clearly. It’s taken us many, many iterations of the language so that we know we’re covering all of our bases at the point of booking the appointment. We tell them, “No exceptions, even for reschedules and medical emergencies, circumstances outside of your control, this is what it is.” And they agreed to it, but they still feel entitled to an exception when it comes down to it, such to the point of even writing negative reviews about that. And we have a 4.9 star rating on Yelp with over 200 reviews, which is pretty high from what I see. And in Google as well, we have a higher than average number of reviews. Again, 4.9 stars. And that one, that 0.1 star, it’s all the cancellation policy.

But I have to tell you something. I’ve had calls from clients who have said that they saw those reviews and that they respect our time. And therapists who are applying for jobs to come work for me have said, “You know what? I really appreciate that you stand firm in your policy, because I know that I’m going to be respected.” They’ve had a lot of experiences at other places where the management has said to them, “Oh, sorry.” And what are they going to do? It hurts. It doesn’t feel good at all.

How do you expect someone to genuinely care for a client over and over and over again, to keep that purity and that genuine sincerity of care, if they’re not being respected and valued? You just can’t have your cake and eat it too. And it’s hard to put your foot down, but you have to do it.

Emily: I totally agree, and I’m so glad that you shared this, because I think it’s a big thing that a lot of businesses struggle with. It’s important to set a situation up, like yours is a 24-hour policy, to communicate it, and then to stand by it. And there might be these times that you decide to do a one-off or whatever the situation is, but I think standing by it and standing firm is so important. Because like you said, for all of the various reasons, but the main one in my mind is to teach the consumer. And if they don’t like that policy and they don’t understand why it’s there, then in the long run that’s not a good client that you want to maintain either.

I’ll just give a quick example because I was doing a completely different industry yesterday in a coaching session, but it was the same thing. It was an attorney, their client hadn’t gotten them everything they needed to draw up the contract by the deadline they originally wanted it by. And so when they gave everything, the attorney said, “I’ll get you it in five days, that’s the policy.” And they said, “Well, no, we need it in two.” And the attorney didn’t know what to do. They thought they could shuffle all this other stuff around and get it done. I said, “Tell them it’ll be X amount of dollars if they want it in two days. See if they want it that bad. Or if they want to abide by your policy, which is five days, and the next time they’ll be sure to get that information to you five days before they want the contract.” And what do you know? They decided they can wait until the five-day due date.

And this business owner, maybe in this case can get it done and give it to them early. But I think by having this policy, and now it’s a new thing, it’s just her new option. You want it by this different date? Here’s the amount based on her availability. And sticking to that is respecting your time, your employees’ time, and it teaches over time how to behave. It’s really important, but it’s hard in the moment to do it. And when you get the negative review, it feels like, “Ugh.” But if you take the time to respond to that review publicly, not even getting into the back and forth, but just reinforcing the policy in a respectful way, other consumers will see that, and they will not steer away from you because of that critical review. They’ll come to you and maybe even have more respect for the policy before their first visit.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now. Shane, I’m going to bring it to you. On the prep call, we were talking about how some of your most stressful times have been in these growth stages, like the exciting time when you’re going to the next level, it can be the hardest. Can you share advice you have for people going through those growth stages and maybe how you navigated them?

Shane: Yeah, of course. We’re in a growth stage right now, as we were talking about in the prep call, I’ve actually been interviewing multiple people for new positions in the gym as of literally today. The main thing with the growth phase is to stay outcome focused. What are you trying to accomplish? Set standards for what you’re looking for, and then clearly communicate those standards to potential candidates for the job or new hires, things like this. They’ll know what they’re being measured for to see if they’re doing a good job and it’s not just left up in the air, specifically having a key performance indicator for each job and a good communication cadence set up, meaning how often are you reviewing these things with that person and what are they being measured by?

The fact that there’s no ambiguity to that, they’re going to feel more confident in their role, they’re going to want to do a better job for you. And if they’re not doing a great job, you can give them specific action points on how to improve because you actually have a specific metric that they’re being measured by. So just being clear in expectations and standards, that’s going to be a thing that I highly recommend.

As far as finding the right people for the job, don’t be in too much of a hurry. Don’t just hire your brother’s friend because you like your brother and they tell you they’re going to do a good job. Make sure you’re actually doing your due diligence to post out the job, get multiple applications. If you need to get more applications on whatever job hosting forum or app or whatever it is, whatever one you’re using, if you need a higher influx of job applications quicker, don’t be afraid to put a few dollars towards it every day to advertise that job. Because if people don’t know about your job, they’re not going to apply for your job.

That’s my key advice to help you grow. Just stick to your standards, know what your standards are, and communicate those standards from the very beginning. I even do it directly in the interview process. If I’ve got somebody that’s really looking good as a prospect, I might move them to the next stage, which was first I was talking about them and their experience and my company with Nomad Krav Maga, and how maybe we can merge together for the goals. But now that they’re in the next level of interview, go ahead and share what they’re going to be measured by, what they’re expected to do with them from the very beginning and say, “Does that sound good to you?” Because if you hire them and they don’t know what they’re going to be measured by, then they start and they don’t like it. And then you’re like, “Oh, I’m back to square one because this person doesn’t like the job now that they really know what the job is.”

So I literally pull up a screen share and I’ll show them exactly what their daily schedule looks like, what their metrics are before they even start as just part of the interview process. And then I’m like, “Does that look like a good job to you that you would like to do?” And then they’re like, “Yes or no,” and that helps us start on the proper foot right away.

Emily: That’s such good advice. All three of you were sharing how important putting together processes and things like that, and even relating to the stage of when it’s like a solopreneur or a small thing, that’s the hardest time to put the processes together because it’s you doing it. But you do need to, even at that stage so that when you bring on that first employee or you need someone to help even in a short-term area, you have it written down. It doesn’t just live in your head how you do things and how you navigate.

Dan, I’m going to actually bring it to you because you did a fun little project last January getting into the weeds of the business. Can you walk everyone through that exercise you did and what the benefits and outcome were?

Dan: Yeah. I’m always doing a fun little project for sure. I actually took my kitchen table, three by five cards, and a Sharpie, and I wrote down on each card every single thing that we do, every single thing; invoicing, scheduling, hiring, training, every piece of it. And so that took a lot of time to think through. There were a few things where it was like, “Okay, let me go look in our main email. Oh, I remember one more thing. Let me go look at this thing. Oh, I remember one more thing.” I kept writing down until I just had everything out and sort of just started mixing things up.

And what I found was, one, there was a lot of stuff that I could cut out. You mentioned that we’ve all been in business for quite a long time. You accrue a lot of tasks over 20 years of business that you don’t necessarily need. They’re not serving your business, they’re not serving your clients or your staff, and those things got to go. And so one of the things that I was really trying to do was create a more efficient operation, create a less ambiguous operation where we broke down silos between our management roles. And so everybody kind of knew what was going on.

What I did was I took each of those little responsibilities, each three by five card, and I made it my job to create a step-by-step guide of how to do each one of these things. Obviously there’s some responsibilities that can’t be just put into a bullet list of check marks, but as clearly as I could communicate it on a piece of virtual paper, I have that in our main Google Drive and all of the managers can access that.

I’ve been actually onboarding a new manager this week, somebody who’s been a pet sitter with us since 2021. And so I’ve been walking them through, “Hey, here’s the guide. If you ever have a question about anything, just type it in the search in the drive and something will come up. And you can’t get a hold of me or I haven’t gone over this with you already, then something’s going to come up and it’s probably going to be pretty easy to follow straight through, and you’ll be able to get this thing done that you need to do.”

One of the goals in that whole process was just to remove all of the fluff, all of the extra stuff that we’re doing, create a more simple operation, and to remove any sort of anxiety out of the job. We’ve tried to do that with our pet sitting staff, the people who are in the field every day; like Shane was saying, creating very clear expectations. Here’s exactly what you’re expected to do, no more, no less. And do it with your own spin on it, of course. Bring your personality of course. And then also with our management team, here’s what the expectations are. Here’s what you’re expected to review and evaluate day to day. And so all of that ambiguity reduces anxiety and lets everybody take a deep breath, and it creates more of this sort of positive feedback flow in our whole operation day to day.

Emily: Absolutely. I’m going to stay with you, Dan, for a second here and kind of piggyback off that. Employees are obviously a huge challenge for people, whether it’s hiring, getting the right employees, what employees do once you train them and how they represent and reflect the business. For your team it’s even more challenging because you’re not seeing these employees. You’re not watching them interact with customers or do their job. So I’d just love from that perspective advice whether you want to dig into how you hire, how you maybe train, or even just keep them engaged as staff members as they continue with you.

Dan: Yeah. I was looking at some of the notes, little behind the curtain kind of thing. We have notes that were from our prep call. I was looking through that and I thought, “Nowhere in here is pay.” Pay is huge. I mean, we boosted our, and Mollie, what you were saying about the late cancellation stuff, and all that resonated totally. We have the same policy. We pay our staff if a client cancels late and they’ve already started their day. You still get paid for that. You were planning on it, you arranged your day around it. So creating policies that really make a lot of sense for the way that it works.

One of the things that we built into our pay structure now is a lot of our staff are using their own personal car, their own personal bike, or the Chicago Transit authority to get around, and those things all cost money. Gas is expensive. You got to build those leg muscles, the power of your bike and need a granola bar while you’re going whatever, and it costs money for a CTA pass. And so we built into our pay model not only are you getting paid for the time that you’re at the visit, you’re also getting paid for the travel, so there’s a base travel fee for every visit. Staff have loved that.

And then once you kind of have pay figured out, you’re creating other situations. The support; the thing that I always get feedback from staff when I do one-on-ones with them is the support from the management team is essential. It feels like so good to always have somebody just right at my fingertips, my thumb tips, ready to answer a message if I have some sort of issue. “Hey, this dog is growling at me, what do I do? Has this happened to sitters before?” And walking through that. And so that support always being there, that lifeline always being there.

But then we’ve set all those things up. Now it kind of goes back to your question about hiring and what are we looking for. I always ask, my first question in every interview is, “Why does this make sense for you? What about your life right now, why are you seeking this job? Because if this is sort of just a throwaway whatever, go start an account on Wag or Rover. I don’t need you here. If you love animals, you love cats, you love dogs, you are looking for something that makes sense to fit with your creative career, makes sense to fit with a full-time job and you’re trying to save extra money to buy a house or something like that, this really makes sense for you and you’re really truly a pet person, then you’re one of us.” And so this is not sort of side gig for side gig’s sake. This is a side gig maybe, or full-time gig for people who love pets, pet people.

One of the other things beyond that is once they’re hired, the biggest challenge for us is creating and starting off a relationship of trust. Because it’s a service industry job and I recognize that it’s a service industry, and whoever else has worked a service industry job knows typically not the best managers, not the most respect from managers in those situations. And so creating a situation where they know they’re respected, they’re trusted, and that we are trustworthy; that they can talk to us like we’re normal human beings; they can call in sick if they’re sick; they can have a mental health day if they need a mental health day.

I always say, “I’m not your therapist, so I’m not going to walk through. You can go and find a therapist and do that. That’s great. But bring your full self. If you’re having a tough time, let me know about it. That’s okay. You can let me know. I’m going to respect that information, respect where you’re at in your life right now. It’s not going to affect your job. But knowing that lets me work with you and find a setup for you that helps you stay here, enjoy the free therapy from the dogs and the cats.” And creates trust and creates an environment where they feel comfortable communicating with us. But we have to also do that with them and communicate very clearly and upfront and be transparent and everything with them too,

Emily: For sure. I think that’s great advice.

Mollie, your employees are certified in their trade. They, in many rights, are like their own provider, but they work under your brand, your name, your Life Stage Massage way, this approach that you have. Can you talk about how you provide that training and create culture within your team without maybe taking away their individuality?

Mollie: For sure, for sure. Absolutely. Yes, it’s true that massage therapy is a licensed profession in the state of New Jersey. Most states now, so in order to become a massage therapist, there’s quite a bit of schooling that these individuals have to undergo. They work very hard to attain that designation. And when they come to work for me, they have a pretty good base. But having been a massage therapy instructor myself for many years at several schools, I’m quite familiar with the curriculum and how it’s delivered, and there’s quite a few additions that if I had my way I would make, and some exclusions.

I do have my own onboarding training. It’s very extensive that all my therapists participate in. And then beyond that, I do ongoing professional development sessions, one-on-one, small groups on a periodic ongoing basis to continue to develop their skills, and also just to steep them in our culture and philosophy. That’s a really big part of it. Because there’s a lot of ideas out there that I disagree with and I think are foundational to our success.

For example, there’s a no pain, no gain idea that’s very popular in massage, and I couldn’t disagree with it more. I really feel that that’s a cover-up for sloppy work, to be honest. And I think that the biggest problem in massage, as you’ll probably agree with me in many industries, is people’s egos. People feel the need to see themselves as a certain level of competence or see themselves as more perfect than maybe anybody could possibly be. They want to hold themselves or expect others to hold themselves to expectations that just aren’t possible, and then pretend that they are these images of themselves. It’s totally alienating, it’s so dishonest, and it prevents them from being able to actually learn and grow. I mean somebody once, I don’t know if Bruce Lee said this, but, “Cup too full.” If your cup is too full, that doesn’t mean you know everything. It means your cup is too small. You need a bigger cup.

Emily: I love that. I love that. That’s amazing.

Mollie: So we make it okay to not know everything and to be in a growth mindset. We normalize and validate that, hey, there’s enough to know here to occupy the grandest grandmasters’ multiple lifetimes of study to get to where this could go. So don’t feel like you need to know everything. Let’s come at this with a blank slate and say, “What makes sense? What works?” Because that’s why they call it a practice, you know?

Emily: You gotta do it over time to get better. Absolutely. Okay, Shane, I’m going to give you the very fun challenge of closing us out. We are actually at time, so you better pick the best piece of advice you can possibly think of to close us out. What’s it going to be?

Shane: Awesome. That’s a big thing to have responsibility wise, but I’m going to give it to the audience more so about self-defense training rather than necessarily business wise. If you’re not training in self-defense and putting your health first, you definitely need to think about your priorities. A lot of times people have different excuses. They don’t have time, they don’t have money, they’re too far away. These kind of excuses, they’re just that. They’re excuses. Because we all have the same 24 hours in every day. As far as money goes, you could always just look at your priorities where you’re spending your money. There’s definitely going to be somewhere else you could designate those funds to.

Self-defense training is going to be amazing, because not only does it benefit if you’re ever attacked, you want to be able to defend yourself and your family, but even if you don’t have to use those skills physically, your confidence is going to shoot up. It’s going to bleed over into other areas of your life. You’re going to be more successful in work, you’re going to be a better husband and a better wife. All these things are going to grow because you’re putting yourself under physical challenges, mental challenges, and becoming better every day. Even if it’s just one time a week, it’s something that’s going to pay dividends. Because if you’re going to invest in something, it might as well be in your health. It might as well be in yourself and in your confidence. Because that’s one investment that’s always going to pay maximum dividends is improving yourself, and self-defense is a worthwhile thing to get into.

If you’re looking for a place, just find somebody that works for you in your neighborhood and you can actually show up. Also, check us out on YouTube. Nomad Krav Maga. Might as well put out the plug in there, right?

Emily: I love it. I let you take the last mic so I’ll allow it. We also have Chicago Pet Sitters and Life Stage Massage if you want to check them out as well. You guys, thank you so much. Huge round of applause. That was so much helpful and useful information for people at any stage in their business. I know you’re all so busy and I really appreciate you hopping on with us.

I’m going to launch the poll for this session, so everyone please answer those two questions. Let us know what you thought. And to Dan, Mollie, and Shane, thank you again. I hope you have a good rest of your afternoon. We are so grateful for your expertise.

Establishing financial strength for stability and growth

Miriam: It’s wonderful to be with all of you today. My name is Miriam Warren. I’m Yelp’s chief diversity officer, and we have such a great panel for you today. If you have been wondering, how do I deal with all of these finances, how can I get financial strength without sacrificing stability and growth? If you’ve been wondering about seeking capital, if you already have sought capital and you need some help thinking through that, we are going to talk to three incredible panelists who have a ton of experience and background in this area, so that you can get a chance to develop a finance first approach and make sure that your business practices actually support the growth that you’re looking for in your particular business. So I’m going to get out of the way so we can talk to these folks. I’m going to have each of them introduce who they are and what their business is. And I’m going to start with Jennifer. Jennifer, take it away.

Jennifer: Thank you, Miriam. Hi, everybody. My name is Jennifer Glanville Love. I’m a brewer and director of partnerships at Boston Beer Company, Samuel Adams. I have been a brewer and working here for… this is my 23rd year. And I started 16 years ago in a program that we launched in 2008 called Brewing American Dream as a brewing coach. And I love this program. And in 2019, I was able to take this program on in my role as director of partnerships. This program, over the last 16 years, has provided capital and coaching and mentoring to over 15,000 businesses across the country. We have loaned over a hundred million dollars, which I know we’re going to talk about finance in a little bit and loans. And we’ve created a retained almost 12,000 jobs.

It’s really great work. I love making beer. Beer is a lot of fun. It’s as much fun as you think it is. But working with these small businesses over the last especially four years, has been nothing less than inspiring. The challenges that they’ve faced and continue to face with access to capital, it really inspires me to work with them and help them grow their business. They create these vibrant communities and create jobs. So it’s really exciting and I’m happy to be here to talk about it.

Miriam: Awesome. So glad to have you, Jennifer. Over to you, Jamaal.

Jamaal: Hi. Thanks for having me. Jamaal Brown, VP of finance here at Justworks. So Justworks is an HR tech company leveling the playing field for small businesses, with a particular focus on payroll benefits, HR compliance. Prior to working here, I also was head of finance for the advertising division at Roku. And in a prior life, my wife and I started a baked goods business actually here in Brooklyn. So excited to be here and share some of my perspective.

Miriam: So glad to have you here with us, Jamaal. Vincent, bring us home.

Vincent: Okay, yeah. Hey, so I could say I’m an accidental business owner. I started in software sales essentially. And then I met my business partner by accident. I just put an ad on Craigslist for a roommate. He moved in. He was working as a cake decorator for a wedding venue. And he would come home at night and we’d chat over drinks. And he’d show me some of these cakes he was working on. They were like these really elaborate, beautiful cakes. I’d be like, “Wow, how much does someone pay for that?” He’s like, “This cake right here is $2,000.” I was like, “Wow, that’s quite a bit of money for a single cake for a wedding.” He’s like, “Yeah, they could be more than that too.” And I go, “Well, how much are the ingredients for something like that?” He was like, “I don’t know, 25, 50 bucks.”

I was like, “Why don’t we go into business together?” I was like, “That’s insane. Let’s do this together.” I didn’t know anything about owning a business or the fact that you have to pay rent and marketing and all this kind of stuff. I just saw the cogs and great, let’s do it. That sounds like an insane markup. So we started that together. And he had a dual idea his whole life, which was this Mexican panaderia with really high quality ingredients and then the custom cake side as well. And so we did the custom cake side and we did the Mexican panaderia side. And we called it Cubes Baking Company because we made everything in the shape of little cubes. And it was like a marketing calling card, sort of thing. So if your office got a bunch of cube cupcakes delivered to them, you’d be like, “Hey, I know exactly where those are from.”

So that was our little concept and I never had designs on it being very big or growing beyond just our one store. And I never actually thought I would be that involved either. I put up almost all the money. I think it was almost entirely bootstrapped. And we were doing that, we were doing pretty well. We were getting on the other end of the J-curve and starting to turn profit. And we were moving into our best year ever. And then that’s exactly when COVID hit. And almost literally overnight, as they were locking everybody down, calls, emails, the shop. “Can we get our wedding deposit back? Can we get our deposit for the cake for the wedding back? Can we get this back? Can we get this back?” And so I watched our bank account go from a very healthy level to like … I was up at night shaking.

I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I can’t take over this lease by myself and I have no money in the bank account. I don’t know what we’re going to do. And in the background of all this, one of the desserts that we had been selling was this individually packaged tres leches slice. And I wasn’t super familiar with tres leches. But I was like, “Wow, this is really good.” We developed this recipe and Kevin in particular had developed it and then we’ve worked on it together over the years, cleaning up the ingredients and stuff like that. And we were just… Point of interest, we were in one grocery store. A single grocery store, not a chain. Just one store. And so at that same time, it was a two-way street where we contacted them and they contacted us. And they’re like, “Hey, could you bring this to all of our stores?”

We’re like, “We have to. That’s really all we can do right now.” So I go, “Let’s do a full pivot. Let’s go hard in on this one thing.” Kevin’s like, “Absolutely, I’m in on that. I want to do it in a bunch of different flavors though.” I was like, “Okay, great. Let’s do it.” And so we did that and it was like … The spike was just crazy. It was like we made up the revenue in the next six months almost easily.

So we went from that one store and then we were 20, then 40, and then 60. And it was all this very organic growth where people would either be moving around to these different stores and bring it on, or just a very easy sales process through our distributor. But it was almost that crisis turned into opportunity for us. And that’s where we’re at now. Sorry, I ran a little bit long. But so I’ll talk a lot less as we go through here. But yeah, that’s how we started. And like I said, it’s all been a little bit of an accident and then just continuing to move and evolve as we go.

Miriam: I love that Vincent. Because as we were talking about in the green room, most entrepreneurs do not start with an idea that then ends up being their idea 10 years later. Most businesses are pivoting in a lot of different ways, and I think your example that you just illustrated so eloquently really gives proof to that, which is like you started with one concept. I love the wedding cake and feeling really grateful that I eloped. $2,000 seems like a lot for cake.

Vincent: So did I actually. Yeah.

Miriam: Wow. Cool.

Miriam: But definitely looking forward to hearing more about that. I feel like to ground us for this particular conversation around finances, Jamaal, I’d love to start with you. Obviously finances are super challenging. Vincent’s already given us an example of that even outside of a COVID time. And that’s something that I think all entrepreneurs feel, all business owners feel. So you have experience not only at Justworks, but you’ve also been a small business owner and entrepreneur yourself. Can you share why it’s crucial to adopt a finance first mindset right from the start?

Jamaal: Yeah, I think a common pitfall, one, is oftentimes people don’t look at the finances because it can be daunting. And I think Vincent, your example really resonated with me. You’re staring at the balance. You’re seeing it really high and then dropping. And so you might be an outlier. I know a lot of people, again, will view the finances as pretty daunting. Even myself, someone who has a background in finance, when I was working on the baked goods business, the reason you get into it’s because you like networking or making products. And so you’re spending your time really focused on what you are really good at and what you really enjoy. And you don’t want to spend time staring at zeros and ones. But I do obviously think it’s very important and I think it can be very high level to start, to have some sort of budget.

It could be very high level back of the napkin math. But it’s very important that you are looking at the inflows and outflows of the business. And actually curious, Vincent, maybe to hear some of your experience with how you navigated through some of that. But it can be very high level to start. I think just … Make sure you find your baseline, so you understand some of those high level pieces of the business. And so when things happen you’re able to navigate accordingly and keep a pulse on where things are going … I think two areas where I’ve seen people potentially get it wrong is both you can over invest in the business or under invest. But you get so nervous about spending that you’re not planting the right seeds. And I think having a high level budget helps you to navigate those things.

Vincent: Yeah, I was going to say, Jamaal, actually, you probably had a heart attack when you heard how much the ingredients cost. I’m like, “Oh, great, it’s a viable business.” And you’re like… Then you ran a bakery business as well. So it was like, “Oh, man, he must think I’m such a fool.”

Jamaal: But that’s why it’s so important. And it could be very high level, but you need to make sure you understand those pieces and how it flows through your overall model, because otherwise, it’ll sneak up on you.

Vincent: Yeah. And I would say talk to any small… I was and still am so willing to just talk to anybody. That’s like, “Hey, I have a question.” Because I don’t want anybody to go through, unless you have a competing product. But I don’t want anyone to go through what we had to go through and be like, “No, here’s how hard it is and here’s all the things you have to consider that you’ll spend on.” And so if you could literally find any small business, I feel like they, nine times out of 10, be willing to just chat with you for five minutes.

Jamaal: Yeah, totally.

Miriam: Absolutely. That entrepreneur community is strong indeed. Jennifer, I’m going to bring it over to you. So in your work with the Bring the American Dream Project, you’ve been able to give a variety of businesses access to capital. Is there a common thread between the businesses that are ready for capital? Or do you have advice for how businesses can prepare themselves financially to take advantage of growth opportunities?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think this is right in line with what we were just talking about, about that mentoring and coaching piece, because you need capital to start your business. But the mentoring, the business advice is what’s going to help you grow. So I think that’s exactly what Vincent was talking about. It’s like you’re going along and everything’s great until it’s not, whether your walk-in breaks down or something like that. And we know there’s a large … What’s great about the internet is you can get anything on the internet and you can also get really high interest loans very easily. And we’ve seen with a lot of our businesses, that’s where they really get into trouble because they needed it urgently and they weren’t really thinking about the amount that they took. They weren’t thinking about the interest rates because it seems short term. So you really always have to think long-term even in the immediate needs.

And so that’s where we come in. Especially with our programming, we have free coaching and mentoring. So we partner with Accion Opportunity Fund, which is one of the largest micro lenders in the country. They’ve been with us since the beginning. They do incredible work. I mentioned we’ve loaned over $107 million since we started the program. And the repayment rate is 4% higher than the average for the country, which is really incredible. And that is because their lenders work very closely with the entrepreneurs, to make sure that not only is this the right amount that you need. What are you going to use it for? And then not to get into something where you have to pay your rent this month, which of course you have to pay your rent that month, but they don’t want you to get into a thing where the next month, you still have to pay your rent.

So we really want to work to have them use the capital wisely, make sure they’re getting the right loan. Most of the time, we find that they’re trying to take out more money than they need. So they can always come back and you can get multiple loans. I can see Jamaal and Vincent be like, “Oh yeah, we’ve been there.” So the small businesses really, there’s so many ways you can raise capital. So you can do that. You can find a micro lender. Community banks are also a great opportunity and they’ll also provide some of that coaching and mentoring piece too, to make sure that you’re taking the right amount of funding and what you’re going to use it for. And I do think, again, that long-term strategy is really important, to make sure that you’re going to be set up for success for growth. Because ultimately, you’re doing this because you’re passionate about it. Or you’re an aspirational entrepreneur and you got excited and you wanted to start this. But most people don’t want it to end right away. So you want to think about the long-term strategy.

Miriam: I think that’s such wise advice. Building off of Jennifer’s suggestions, Vincent, we heard a little bit about… So we arrive at COVID and then you see the bank balance dropping, but then you get this burst of energy as these tres leches are suddenly taking off all over the place. You’ve got lots and lots of places and outlets that are selling it. How did you decide to completely pivot? And can you share how you identified the need to focus your model, specifically on tres leches, and how following the numbers helped you to evolve into the current business model that you have?

Vincent: Yeah, okay. So how do we decide to pivot? I’d say half of it was we were compelled and half of it was … I always had the seed in my mind. Like I said, I worked in software sales and worked for a pretty small business. It was pretty instrumental there, hands-on, of all stages of the organization. But I always had… And I worked in the food business for a long time too, since I was 16. And so I always had this idea of a restaurant or food cart or something that just did one thing really well, just exceptionally well. Just do that one thing but do it exceptionally well. There’s so many generalists where you go into a Cheesecake Factory and you can get 450 different items. It’s like, “Can they all be good?” I don’t know. Maybe.

Jamaal: I love Cheesecake Factory.

Vincent: Okay, well, I’m not insulting it. I’m just saying. That probably takes a lot of money. But if you’re a smaller guy like us, just do one thing exceptionally. Just get that nail down. So that was always in my mind. And then it was like, “Okay, this gives me the opportunity to do that.” And then also, there’s a desire for it. There’s a need for it. So there was a big push during COVID to have small individually portioned, grab-and-go items, from grocery stores. They absolutely needed that. It’s like, “Wow, we were already doing that.” So it’s like, go full tilt into that.

And then with doing that one thing, obviously, you get these economies of scale so you can order … We were ordering these little clamshell containers, maybe 200 at a time. And now we’re ordering them 4,000 at a time. So it’s paying like 50 cents per container down to 17 cents. And you can get them cheaper than that if you do even more than that. So all those things, taking those prices down. And we can obviously pass that off to people, which was a huge concern. People didn’t know if they were going to lose their jobs or whatever, and they want just a little sweet treat escape.

So yeah, so that’s all to say is it was something I always thought about and wanted to do. This gave me a chance to do it. And then there was like PPP money and stuff like that that came out. So going to the finance side, I knew we had to retool our kitchen. Because we had built a traditional dine-in restaurant cafe or whatever. So it was a very small kitchen and the bulk of it was seating and all that kind of stuff. And I was like if we’re going to try to do a lot more production and we’re only selling one product … First of all, people aren’t dining in right now. We don’t know how long they’re not going to be dining in and we’re going to need a much bigger kitchen. We’re going to need freezer space too because we got to freeze these products.

So I was like, “We got to totally do that.” So we took as much money as they would give us. Which was very little because we were super responsible at the very beginning of the pandemic. And we were like, “People were leaving or going to other jobs.” And we weren’t rehiring because we were like, “We don’t know how this is going to turn out. We lost all of our clients.” But if we would’ve kept everyone on board, then got a lot more PPP money.

But anyway, we took as much as we possibly could, like I said, which was very little, and used that to just reinvest back into the business and build out a kitchen that was equipped to do what we needed to do. And then we were full in. We were committed. So if the pandemic lasts another six months, whatever. This is what we’re doing now. If it keeps going on, okay, hopefully this will keep going on the same way. I’m not sure if you had any other questions, but that’s where all the thinking was and that’s where the finance came in. And the financing allowed us also some of the breathing room for the month we had to be shut down, to do that construction. Because your bills are still coming due. Your vendors still need their money. So that was super helpful and turned around right away and was profitable.

Jennifer: And you know what I love about that, Vincent? Is I feel that dreaded P word, pivot, but with so many businesses we heard from and we focus on food, beverage and breweries that pivot, that change that happened over the last couple of years, it allowed them to do something that they were like, “I don’t know if I was going to do that”, or, “That was my favorite thing and I wanted to do it.” So having the capital to be able to do that R&D or take that risk, I love when I have business owners and they’re like, “I didn’t know if I wanted to do it and take that risk.” I’m like, “You already took the risk. You started a business.”

Our founder, Jim Cook will always say … He’s like, “It is so intense. There’s nothing more intense than starting your own business. You’re the chief everything officer, and you have to make all these decisions.” So I think making sure you … Let’s pray there’s no more pandemic that makes us change things. But providing that you have the capital or the financial security to actually do some R&D or some market research, because there’s opportunities where your whole business could change direction and that growth could then skyrocket with something that maybe you didn’t have the time to do. Because that’s the other piece. Having that financial security to make sure you have the time to do that.

Vincent: That’s such a great point. And I was thinking about that. I was reading through a list of questions and it’s literally true. It’s like an idiom or whatever, but time is money. It’s literally true. Money is time too. So having that money to pause and take a break. Because we’re just going … Like I said, it was bootstrapped. So we’re going full tilt. Every decision has to be instantaneous. Instead of giving ourselves a little bit of running room, giving ourselves a little bit of extra capital, to take a break, take a step back, go to the test kitchen, evaluate vendors and suppliers and go meet them on the floor. And maybe go look at other ways of producing. Because we do it in a very inefficient way right now, and there are more efficient ways to do it. And it’s like if we took a little bit more time, we could have done that from the beginning, instead of realizing after we built the kitchen a certain way that we could have done it this way. So yeah, I’m so glad that you mentioned that. The money just giving you time.

Miriam: Yeah, that runway seems like it’s really important.

Vincent: But I also want to say, you can’t know everything until you’re in it either. You have to jump into the paper bag to escape the paper bag. You have to get in the forest to get out of it. It’s not like … You can’t just see the path without just being completely lost. I don’t know. I’m saying all these ridiculous things, but I’m just trying to make a point here. You don’t know it until you’re in there. And so you do have to just go in sometimes without a hundred percent knowledge. And that’s hard for a lot of people, and it definitely is for me.

Miriam: Yeah. Jamaal, coming back to you. We all know that getting capital is really only the first step. So actually knowing how to leverage your business so that you can grow it is as a completely different thing. We know that there’s lots of people on the call with a whole assortment of different types of businesses. We know that they’re all really different. But can you give us some general guidance about how businesses can strategically manage their capital, so that they can both deal with these immediate needs that obviously we’re hearing about from Vincent, but also that long-term growth?

Jamaal: Yeah, I think you hear both Vincent and Jennifer talking about it. And again, going back to my earlier point around maintaining that budget, even if it is pretty high level. I’ve been probably a decade and a half or so working in finance. And I think what I tend to see are two things. One, people not giving themselves the runway, to your point, to be able to navigate the unknown. And also just being thoughtful about looking around the corner around risk and opportunities that you may not have thought about. So you always need to make sure you’re nimble, you can plan for that within your budget. And again, I think, again, some of this may feel daunting, but try to plan for your north star. What is your goal in the next three to five years and what are some of the unexpected things you want to make sure you have capacity to do in the future?

And build that into your budget so again, you’re nimble and you can navigate these things as they come about. One of the things that we’ll do here is we’ll take a scenario based approach to how we forecast. And so we always have our target scenario. But we’re always thinking about worst case and best case scenario. And then COVID is never going to be you on your list. So there’s things like that that’ll pop up. But we’re trying to be prepared for a number of different scenarios and we’re looking at different levers and say, “Hey, if this is moving slower than we had thought, can we pull back here?” Or, “This is going better than we thought. Can we speed up here?”

And so just making sure you’re doing that so that you can again be nimble. And then last I’ll say, I’ll be remiss not to say, finding great partners. So accountants, lawyers, back office folks such as Justworks. We have the luxury of working with a number of small businesses, so we see a number of different things. So allow you to help navigate some of these things that you’re trying to do I think is also very critical.

Miriam: A great reminder, Jamaal. You do not have to do all of this alone. You can get support in the form of partnership. Appreciate that. Jennifer, in your experience, how do financial decisions impact the long-term sustainability of a business, especially in the brewing industry?

Jennifer: Yeah, I talked about this a little bit before and I think Jamaal hit on it too. If you think about your long-term strategy we talked about for your business … But also think about your long-term commitments. So some of the challenges we see with some of our businesses that don’t have that financial security or that financial understanding is that they’re committing, they get excited, they get an order from a new supplier, a new retailer, and they didn’t check what the payment terms were. So now, you don’t get paid in time in order to produce inventory to then sell either back to that retailer or to another customer. So you really want to think about that. And that’s something we’ve experienced in brewing, is when you commit to a customer or retailer and then you can’t deliver, that could be the end of your relationship. And the great news is today more than ever, people are hyper aware of small business and want to support small business.

And we love that. The problem is there’s so many small businesses. You could be left out if you severed that time because you couldn’t commit and they’ve moved on to somebody else. So the shelf space is very competitive. So you really want to make sure that your margins, you’re not operating on too slim a margin, that really doesn’t leave you that much room for error. You can think about how you allocate your profit. So maybe that is again, for inventory or things like that. And just making sure that you’re continuing to grow those relationships because you’re selling based on your product. But people do want to buy based on a relationship too and know your business. So I think that’s a real opportunity for folks to make sure that they have that security and think strategically around where they’re putting their money longer term with those commitments.

Miriam: Yeah, really, really good advice. Coming back to you Vincent, as you hear some of that advice from Jennifer, does any of that sound like some of the things that the Tres Lecheria had to deal with?

Vincent: Yeah. Well, I was just laughing because I was like everything that Jamaal and Jennifer said, they’re like, “Make sure you don’t do this.” I was like, “We did all of that badly.” But if you do it small enough, you can do it many times. If you make enough small failures, it’s okay, as long as you get some of the bigger wins. But no, she’s still a hundred percent right. And I wish she was my business coach a few years ago. Because it’s like you can get into these relationships and you can get really excited. And there was a point during the pandemic too where a Costco reached out to us. And thank God, we had a good mentor. He wasn’t even a mentor. He actually didn’t even really like us that much. But he was like, “I actually worked with Costco and they almost bankrupted my business because …” Not that it’s a bad company, I’m not disparaging Costco at all. I like Costco a lot.

But you have to hit a certain scale and you have to have enough margin, like you said, Jennifer, and just excess capital. Because they’re going to send products back. They have a good return policy, and I’m sure that goes back to the supplier and all that kind of stuff. And that’s fine. That’s fine how they run their business, but you need to be ready for that. If you think, “Oh, great, I’m getting this multimillion dollar account”, and you go all in on that account and then you don’t have any money to back it up, your best dream will be your worst nightmare super quick. So yeah, that advice is just a hundred percent spot on.

And for businesses my size, I would just say, I don’t know, super conservative growth. And I wanted to pose a question to Jennifer and Jamal because you’ve been describing it as we’ve been going through here. But the general mindset of a larger, more well-established, more sophisticated entrepreneur or investor or business owner, versus a small-time guy, and how they will look at … Let’s just say an investment of $5 million or something like that. Because I think Jamaal, what you’re saying, is we’ll hit these high-level notes and then go down here. And I think that’s probably how they would do it. I think we maybe just hit the high level and then we’re like, “Okay, let’s go with that.” But I’m just wondering in your experience, how would they do it better than someone in my position. And I don’t take offense at all. I’m obviously here disparaging myself all day.

Jennifer: No, but I think you’ve done the right things by listening to… Again, that capital is critical. But as equally as critical is the mentoring advice around capital and what you’re doing amongst all the other things you can do. And you said it, you don’t know it until you’re in it. That’s where all these resources can come in. Programs like ours, utilizing Justworks. You can utilize the SBA around the country. They offer a lot of free seminars. There’s a lot of free seminars and opportunities around getting capital, whether it’s working capital, small business lines of credit, small business loans. And really arming yourself with all the information around the different types of capital, will really help you. And I think you said it exactly. Time. The number one thing I hear from people is like, “Oh, I was going to reach out, but I just didn’t have any time.”

And then once they have the mentoring session or they attend something or they look into something, they’re like, “Why didn’t I do that nine months ago?” And everybody, we all do that in our lives anyways, but it is almost impossible to make the time as a small business owner. But that is critical. And, I think, understanding financial security. You don’t have to be an expert. That’s where the mentors like Jamaal can come in and our program. But you should have a baseline knowledge, especially of your business. Your cost of goods, what’s it costing you, your products. You know exactly how much those clamshell openers are. That’s exactly what you need to know.

Jamaal: Yeah, I was going to say the same exact thing. I would say my approach to a small business or a large business is exactly the same. Do you understand your business? Do you understand the cost of some of those key things? I’ve never seen a budget or a model come true. But it’s really more like, “Are you thoughtful? Have you really been… Do you understand your business? Do you understand the levers?” And how do we understand whether or not you’re having success or not, I think it’s where the key pieces are.

Miriam: Thank you all so much. Amazing-

Vincent: Oh, we’re done?

Miriam: Yeah, we are out of time. We are one minute over. So I’m going to wrap us up. Jennifer, Jamaal, Vincent. Thank you so much for being with us today. So much good insight. I know we could talk for another hour, but Emily won’t let us. So thank you so much for being here, and thank you to everyone who tuned in. This was such an edifying session, so really appreciate the time.

Jamaal: Thanks for having us.

Jennifer: Awesome. Thank you.

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