By Brianna Valleskey
When people ask you to tell them about yourself, what do you say?
Do you jump into reciting your resume? Talk about your current role and organization, then maybe add a tidbit or two about your personal life?
There’s nothing inherently wrong about sharing these facts. You’re being asked, after all. But rattling off a list of bullets is the same as merely listing off the features of your product: It whips! It chops! It mixes! It grinds!
You are presenting disparate pieces of information without tying them together in a way that leads your listener(s) to a specific conclusion. You are only telling people who you are.
You should be showing them.
If the idea of your “personal brand” feels like an abstract concept, you’re not alone.
Brand management is about shaping perceptions. And if traditional brand management is meant to sell you something, then personal brand management is about selling yourself.
This comes in handy when you’re looking for a job, working toward a promotion, enlisting a co-founder, selling an investor, finding an agent … the list goes on.
The easiest way to shape perceptions is with your stories.
Stories engage more cognitive functions than facts and statistics: emotional reactions, mental imagery, beliefs, and even evaluations, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Selling yourself means telling a story about yourself.
Many of us already utilize this incredible tool in the brand management for our businesses. But what about the brand management of professional sevles?
Sure, you might be writing a blog post here, a LinkedIn update there. But when you are on the spot, in real time, are you able to recite an elevator story about yourself? (Similar to an “elevator pitch,” an elevator story should be concise enough to tell on an elevator ride.)
This is not about abandoning the idea of a personal brand. But rather, to start cultivating your personal brand by telling the right stories about yourself to the right people, at the right time.
The Story Framework
The stories we tell about ourselves are like magic. If you believe them, then the people around you will too.
My number one recommendation is to always have a few stories in your back pocket to tell the story of your value in the professional world. But which stories?
You can have stories of times that you thought outside the box to accomplish something or found a creative solution to a problem, as well as times that you’ve failed or overcome a challenge that changed your perspective of something (and what you learned from that).
But if you want to grab and hold people’s attention, if you want to thoughtfully promote yourself without coming off as showy, if you want to dazzle and amaze the people around you, you can use Kindra Smith’s storytelling framework from “Stories that Stick.”
In the book, she shares vital types of stories that every business should have. A few of them translate quite effectively for personal brands. Below, I provide a framework with questions to ask yourself and an example of what a personal brand story could look like for each type.
Are you ready to master your story? Keep reading.
3 Types of Stories You Can Tell About Yourself
1. Founder Story: Who you are?
Even in a job setting, humans like to hear about humans. They crave for an understanding of your humanity (who you are), and how that relates to the work that you do—all in 120 seconds or less.
This is why you need your Founder Story.
“It’s a story that generates faith beyond numbers, answers questions without effort, and fills in any missing pieces of the puzzle about where the founder has been, where the founder is going, and why this founder is worth betting on,” Kindra writes.
Storytelling was my first love. As a child, I would rollerblade to all the neighborhood parks just to lay in the grass and write. I spent summers devouring books, journaling, scribbling poetry, writing novels, filming videos, giving tours of our house; anything I could do that involved using language to create bridges between people.
After spending four years on a journalism degree (which everyone in the industry said was a waste of time), multiple internships, and an editor-in-chief role on the university newspaper, I got my first job out of college on Craigslist.
I created content for a financial media startup. Then I hosted an internet radio show and booked guests who regularly appeared on CNBC. I’ve managed content marketing in the SaaS space, freelanced as a copywriter, moved across the country for a job to a city where I didn’t know a single person, and eventually found my sweet spot in storytelling and strategic communications for high-growth companies.
I am on Earth to help people and tell transformative stories.
That is the foundation (soil) and driving force (sunlight) of my career. I bring together these disparate pieces of information to weave a tale about where I’ve been, where I'm going, and why I’m worth betting on.
What connects who you are to what you do? Do you love talking to people? Working with your hands? Being outside? Solving problems? Creating spreadsheets?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Forget your dream job. Many people do not have the luxury of finding a “dream job.” Instead, we can search for a job that involves at least some of the things we like. And if we understand the things we like, we can tell a story about where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why we’re worth betting on.
2. Value Story: What do you do?
When someone is asked what they do, they tend to rely on one-word answers or even more grocery lists of abilities and task-tivities. More telling; more feature-selling.
“People don’t buy the thing. They buy what the thing will do for them,” Kindra writes. “That story is a value story.”
Your skills, your expertise, your experience: these are “things.” Can you describe what you do without simple listing responsibilities? Can you incorporate real world examples and create a case study of yourself?
One month into the COVID-19 pandemic, my company estimated that a few million of dollars in sales opportunities was stuck in our pipeline. Our would-be buyers froze their budgets. They (understandably) were afraid. So we searched for stories that would make them brave.
When we interviewed these buyers, they told us that only solutions demonstrating agility throughout the crisis and ROI could give them the confidence to invest. Our sales reps reported similar findings. So we went to work.
We asked our customers to share how they’d pivoted using our solution, in whatever format they wanted: a case study, best practices blog post, testimonial, webinar spotlight, product review, and so on. We documented how we, ourselves, were using or planning to use the solution. Metrics and ROI measurements were injected as often as possible, but the main goal was to set the market narrative of how to keep business moving despite the uncertainty.
These stories were promoted internally and strategically disseminated across our go-to-market activities. We saw hundreds of stage progressions and close date changes, while influencing millions in pipeline and hundreds of thousands in revenue, within a few months.
I use storytelling to achieve business outcomes.
I tell a Value Story to help people understand what I can do for them. These questions will help you think about your Value Story:
You do not need a pandemic-level event to describe your value. Does the work you do make your boss’ life better? What about your teammates? Was your proudest moment a time when you had to be resourceful? Go with that. There is no perfect story—only the perfect time to tell one.
3. Purpose Story: Why do you do what you do?
I work because I have rent, bills, healthcare costs to pay, and a compulsive book-buying habit to support. But I do the specific type of work that I do because it aligns with things I believe. And sometimes I want to convince others to believe those things, too.
This is where a Purpose Story comes in handy.
“All purpose stories start with this essential question: What point do I want to make?” Kindra writes. “Said another way: What do I want my audience to think, feel, know, or do as a result of hearing this story?”
Growing up, my mother was depressed and suicidal. She told me that she thought I’d be happy if she was dead. I believed her. And it changed me.
With this one story, I learned that I was responsible for my mother; that I needed to be, do, and act better because—clearly—however I was, was not enough. What did “enough'' mean anyway? I didn’t know, but I had to find out. My mother’s life depended on it.
I spent the better part of two decades trying to be enough for my mother … and for everyone else. It broke me. Yet I still refused to talk about my mother in therapy.
My therapist, patient and clever, had me write a letter to myself. The act of writing was a ritual. In examining what I felt was true, I unearthed a new story: one where having compassion for myself made me big enough to have compassion for my mother, too; one where I could see how she also had pain from cycles of abuse; one where I could forgive her and replace the pain with something new. I believed my story. And it changed me.
I believe stories can be transformative.
This is an intense example of a Purpose Story; a story that has profoundly changed me to show people that they, too, know stories can be transformative.
Here are some questions that can help you think about a Purpose Story that works for you:
Your Purpose Story does not have to be so personal, and it absolutely should not be forcefully emotional. But it should feel true enough to you that others will feel the weight of its truth.
How to Tell Your Story
"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." - Maya Angelou
You only get one chance to show people who you are for the first time, so it’s worth taking the time to figure out how to do that.
Start with your Founder Story and the questions I post above. Write your answers down and then see if you’re able to put them together with 200 words or less. Include specific moments and details that help people relate. Stories are meant to bridge the gaps between us, after all.
Blog about these stories or share your story on LinkedIn—this will help you practice how you tell them so that you can nail it in applications, job interviews, networking events, and everywhere else.
Also, practice! Practice reciting the stories out loud. Reading what you’ve written allows you to hear the words and pick up on any gaps, inconsistencies, or awkward sentences.
If you’re brave enough, practice in the mirror and see what your face and your body are doing while you’re telling these stories. Pull your tone, body language, and the actual words coming out of your mouth together so that you feel comfortable telling your stories. Your comfort will make others comfortable.
And trust me: You are brave enough. You can master your own story and make magic in your world. I believe in you.
Now, go write your story! Go!
By Brianna Valleskey
Why do some ads go viral?
And why are others so easy to forget?
I started thinking about this after Nike’s “Dream Crazy” advertisement came out a few months ago. The video features former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, whom people love or love to hate.
You could argue that the video’s 27 million views are because Nike decided to feature Kaepernick in an ad, but the controversy was just a hook.
A much more real story lies at the heart.
If you haven't seen it, the video plays motivational music while showing people of every gender, race, religion, and economic status pursue their dreams in spite of societal standards: A child without legs in a wrestling match. A Muslim woman boxing. A homecoming queen who’s also a linebacker. An NFL player with only one hand. A professional tennis player from Compton.
“If people say your dreams are crazy—if they laugh at what you think you can do—good,” says an identified narrator. “Stay that way. Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy isn’t an insult. It’s a compliment.”
Damn. That’s something I can really feel. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Having a “crazy” dream is something I think everyone has experienced at least once in their lives.
And then there was the #LikeAGirl campaign from Always, where young women and little girls explaining what it means to run “like a girl.” While the teenagers acted like damsels in distress, the girls ran their adorable little hearts out. It’s a sweet but sad reminder of how society warps the way girls see themselves as they grow up. That video has 66 million views.
Two very different commercials. Same effect.
So what’s the secret ingredient?
They're our way of making sense of the world.
“When people read a book, watch a movie or hear a story, regardless of medium or format, it is imperative that they see themselves in the story,” write SapientNitro executives Gastron Legorburu and Darren McColl in “Storyscaping.”
These stories are so powerful because they tap into something that millions of people have personally experienced. The story in the ad becomes our story (and vice versa).
And this has been the case for thousands of years.
From Cave Paintings to Kaepernick
Of course, modern marketers were not the first storytellers. Cave paintings dating as far back as 40,000 thousand years ago inform us that our ancestors felt the urge to express their experience.
“Whether it’s Neanderthal elbow rubbing or social media socializing, story is central to what it means to be human,” write Legorburu and McColl.
Perhaps this can, in part, explain why the same stories appear across space, time, and culture.
“Every culture has a flood story about how the whole earth was flooded and things started over,” says mythologist John Bucher on an episode of Ologies. “Stories of floods predated Hebrew scripture, [from] Amazonian culture, Greek culture, Roman culture, Asian culture.”
Stories are the driving force behind the history we learn, the religion we practice, the government we follow, the beliefs we hold, the people we love, and even the way we think about ourselves. Studies show that reframing your narrative can yield a more positive identity.
And yes, gamification of social media platforms makes them incredibly addictive. But there’s more to it: What other medium gives people complete and utter control over how others see their story? Not to mention the ability to voraciously consume stories about others.
Legorburu and McColl again: “Humans have an innate ability to take disparate events and connect them together to create meaning.”
To tell stories is to be human.
But why is it that the marketers at Nike and Always and other world-dominating brands can use stories to awaken our hearts and, consequently, open our wallets?
This is Your Brain on Stories
Long before Joseph Campbell and “The Hero’s Tale” helped George Lucas produce the most well-known space opera of all time, Aristotle taught us that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end.
This three-act structure is important, mythologist John Bucher explains, because the way storytelling structure works actually mirrors the way the human brain solves a problem.
1. A goal or yearning is introduced, but conflicts and/or obstacles arise.
This goes even further.
“Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response,” writes Harrison Monrath in a Harvard Business Review article.
He goes on to say that research from Neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows how our brains produce cortisol (the stress hormone) during tense moments in a story, while sweet/cute/etc. elements of a story can cause our brains to elicit oxytocin (a chemical that makes us feel good). What’s more? A happy ending can trigger the release of dopamine in our limbic system, making us feel hopeful and optimistic.
Zak, himself, writes in another Harvard Business Review article that these findings are relevant to business settings.
“For example, my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later,” Zak writes.
The advertisements from Nike (Dream Crazy) and Always (#LikeAGirl) are character-driven. For Nike, the character is the underdog. With Always, it’s adolescent girls. But there’s another element still that makes them so powerful.
“The most successful storytellers often focus listeners’ minds on a single important idea and they take no longer than a 30-second Super Bowl spot to forge an emotional connection,” Monrath writes.
This, my dear readers, is key.
Stories are Shared Experiences
What’s the one word, phrase, idea, or vision you want your audience to walk away with? And how will you get that across before you lose their attention?
Nike doesn’t just want you to dream big. It wants you to dream crazy. And Always wants women and girls everywhere to know that “like a girl” is not an insult.
Neither of these things has anything to do with the products Nike and Always sell. Yet, Always saw a higher-than-average lift in brand preference after the #LikeAGirl ad, where purchase intent grew by more than 50%. And Nike experienced a 31% increase in online sales following the release of its Dream Crazy spot.
So what does this all mean?
The best marketing isn't marketing at all—it's storytelling. Authentic, emotional, and character-driven stories stimulate our brains and saturate our hearts.
Stories trigger the most important brand message of all: You belong.
Everything else is posturing.
By Brianna Valleskey
There’s sizeable obsession around the idea of making a brand seem more human right now. A quick Google search yields at least 10 pages (yes, TEN. I stopped looking after that) articles touting tips and tricks to make your brand sound/look/feel/act more human.
It makes sense. People buy from people (and brands) they know and trust. Even in the realm of business, Maya Angelou’s famously poetic quote about relationships rings true: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Purchasing decisions, like most decisions, are made based on emotion. So, if you can create at association between your brand and positive feelings (beauty, strength, safety, warmth, excitement, sexiness, etc.) in the minds of consumers, you’ve struck gold. And the quickest way to do that by talking to them directly through social media.
But I think what we need to remember is that a business is not a human - it’s a tribe of humans all working toward the same goal. And that’s the image that should be reflected in your brand messaging.
The problem arises when brands become fixated with the idea of appearing human. In their attempt to appear more authentic, they come off as less genuine. I’ve seen some instances so cringe-worthy that it was like watching your Baby Boomer father try to be cool by saying something is “on fleek.” For what it’s worth: I give the businesses that are trying to be human more credit than the ones who use social media as another channel for self-promotion or simply a glorified RSS feed for their blog.
But I think what we need to remember is that a business is not a human - it’s a tribe of humans all working toward the same goal. And that’s the image that should be reflected in your brand messaging.
As helpful as high-level strategic advice can be, I also want to provide some practical examples of what I mean. Here are some companies doing it well across a few different industries (for the purposes of this article, we’ll mostly focus on their Twitter presence):
Slack (@SlackHQ): B2B Tech
Slack knows that a brand is the sum of all the interactions people have with your company. That’s why the organization responds to almost every single tweet directed at their Twitter account (in the early days, especially, thousands of those replies came from Slack’s own CEO, Stewart Butterfield). The company is also super transparent and proactive about updating customers on support issues. Six million people use their platform every day, and they keep everyone up-to-date via both their Twitter account and Slack System Status page. The best part? They always sound super approachable and down to earth when communicating to their users.
Also, have you heard of #beeftweets? It’s an internal Slack channel the company uses to draw attention to customer complaints on Twitter related to product issues, feedback, feature requests, potential improvements, etc. The Slack team discusses how to address the issue. If a fix is in order, it’s launched within a couple of days (as the complaints are typically minor). Then Slack tried to respond to the original complaint on Twitter to let the user know that they made the fix. I can’t think of a better way to make your customers feel heard, understood and appreciated.
Grammarly (@Grammarly): B2C Tech
Grammarly really, really understands their audience: millennial (or at least tech-savvy) people who want to write well. They use their Twitter profile to inspiring #MondayMotivation quotes or funny #FridayFeeling memes, but also to share helpful spelling, grammar and punctuation tips and tricks.
Another wonderful trait about Grammarly is that the company immediately responds to people who tweet at them. I’ve posted a few times about the weekly writing stats they email out, and they always respond with a fun, encouraging message that legit makes me want to be friends with them.
Seriously, does it get any better than a meme from “The Office”? I think not.
Sephora (@Sephora): Retail
Sephora acts like your bright, sassy, funny and fun BFF on social media. (That branding is consistent across all of their platforms, as well. The login portal of their website says, “Hi, Beautiful.”) The company uses tons of emojis and their own branded hashtags (#SephoraSkincare), in addition to posting content that’s super relatable to their audience.
This is the kind of stuff that makes your customers think, “Yeah, that company really gets me.” Also, instead of merely pushing their products, Sephora provide helpful beauty tips and tricks. They also polls to let their customers chime and celebrate holidays that aren’t specifically related to what the company does. Celebrating is just human nature.
DiGiorno (@DiGiorno): Food & Beverage
I want to meet the person who runs the official DiGiorno Twitter account and shake their hand. It’s seriously so funny. And not just once-in-while-while-gem-of-a-tweet kind of funny; I’m talking consistently, habitually hilarious.
I’d also like to note that the vast majority of the content coming from their Twitter account is simply comical content. The rarely publish adds. Seriously! I counted the company’s 50 most recent tweets and only three of them were ads. That’s only 6 percent of the social media posts on their account! My hypothesis is that it’s a strong sense of self-awareness that their ad message is already pretty well known (it’s not delivery, etc.), and the company has found that it’s a better use of their time to simply build brand affinity. Brave, DiGiorno. Your strategy is brilliant.
A lot of marketers talk about branding as this abstract, philosophical concept. But I think it’s much simpler than that: consider the people you want to connect with: What do they care about? Where and how do they consume information? How do they communicate? What groups do they want to be a part of. As Chris Brogan says, “Business is about belonging.” So make your brand simply a tribe of people that your customers (current and potential) would want to be associated with, and they’ll naturally gravitate toward you.
And yes, I realize that as a female writer working in tech who f*cking loves pizza, these are all brands I personally love. But there are plenty other examples out there that I’m sure I’ve missed. Do you have any favorites? Let me know in the comments below!
By: Brianna Valleskey
The first thing you need to understand about Bozoma Saint John is that she is a total badass. Not only was she the first woman ever to speak at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (praise be), but she’s also a brand executive with Ghanaian heritage currently making waves in Silicon Valley. The former Apple Music head of marketing fearlessly took on the role of Chief Brand Officer at Uber earlier this year. The ride-hailing service hit the jackpot with Boz, as she’s definitely the only person on the planet fierce enough to handle that job right now.
The second thing you need to understand about Bozoma is that she’s a masterful storyteller. She didn’t walk onstage for her INBOUND presentation. The woman sashayed. Full of swagger and sass. In the age of photo filters and tailored responses, her authenticity was extremely refreshing. And her presentation was on point.
“I believe brands are people.”
Bozoma’s story started long before she was born. She’s named after her paternal grandmother, who was the fourth wife of the village chief (her grandfather) in a Ghanaian coastal town. As a child, she and her family lived in California, Kenya and Ghana before moving to Colorado.
“I was 12, and the last thing on the planet that I wanted to be was different,” Boz said.
“But there I was, different: 5 feet 10 inches, long braids, strong Ghanaian accent.”
She felt like she didn’t belong, but her classmates were intrigued. They asked innocent, benignly offensive questions like did Ghanaian people sleep in huts? Were monkeys their friends? Had she seen a white person before? What she learned, however, was that it wasn’t the answers to those questions she needed to have ready; but rather, answers to the questions her classmates asked amongst themselves: Was Paula Abdul or Madonna a better dancer? (Paula Abdul). Which football team are we going root for on Sunday? (The Broncos).
One particular question has haunted her ever since: “What will I say?” It keeps her up at night. She wanted to say things that make her equal. She wanted to say things that make people sit up, pay attention and give her a chance. Now, she sits in a chief seat in Silicon Valley and wonders what her grandmother would think.
“I know I made my grandmother proud when I made a trip to the White House last winter,” she said while showing a picture with her and the Obamas. “Those who have walked this walk before us are so proud to see us standing in this space.”
Just as our ancestors’ legacy will forever leave a mark, Bozoma intends to leave a mark. No place will ever be the same once she sashays through it. More importantly, her story demonstrated how her culture shapes her personal brand.
“I believe that brands are people,” Boz said. “They have personalities. They have perspectives. They have hopes and dreams and fears and failures.”
Without the storyteller’s unique perspective, she added, the story falls flat. In one way or another, each storyteller injects their own excitement, their fear, their purpose into whatever tale they’re telling.
“A ride is such an intimate space.”
There’s someone/something in each our lives we want to make proud, Bozoma said. What is that for you? What motivates you? It could be people, events or even injustice (#takeaknee). She bet that each person in the entire room could name a brand that holds some sort of meaning to them. Even if that meaning seems irrational, we still believe.
“It is the belief that makes us choose that shoe brand over another, that drink over another, that disruptive ride-sharing app over another,” she said with a laugh. “I want to inspire that choice.”
Until this point, Boz explained, the brand of Uber has relied on the left side of the brain. The side that is rational, analytical, data driven, factual, objective and literal. But then things changed. Dirty laundry was aired, and people wanted to delete Uber. Suddenly, she explained, the left side of the brain couldn’t make sense of using the app.
The right side of the brain, however, is full of emotion. It’s the side that is sorry. It feels bad for wrongs and wants to make them right. It cares more for the human reaction than the mechanical, and Bozoma believes it has been silenced for too long. Uber has 16,000 employees dedicated to the future of technology and making the world a better place. That includes engineers, marketers, service reps and, of course, drivers.
“A ride is such an intimate space,” Boz mused. “When you get into a car, you’re a few feet away from a complete stranger.”
Some people choose to ride in silence; others engage in conversations that can go literally anywhere. Bozoma often hears drivers say they feel like therapists. People get into the car when they’re feeling sad or angry or anxious, and they talk their feelings out with someone they just met because, sometimes, it’s safer than a close friend.
“The chances are so slim. Probably impossible. There’s no math. Only magic.”
Long before joining Uber’s team, Bozoma had ordered an Uber Black at South by Southwest. She was terrified when it pulled up. The car looked as if it had been really good at some point, but then went through something terrible: parts had been smashed, the paint was keyed, the carpet was torn. She made a joke about it when she got in the car. Instead of laughing, the driver was embarrassed.
Boz asked him what happened. The driver got even more embarrassed as he proceeded to explain that his car had been vandalized by taxi drivers while he was helping a rider get her bags at the airport. The driver began to apologize. He knew he shouldn’t be driving the car like that. But his brother had recently passed, and he wanted to make extra money so he could honor him by seeing their favorite artist perform at SXSW: Iggy Pop.
Bozoma gasped. She got goosebumps. At that very moment, she was on her way to have dinner with Iggy Pop. What is the probability of her getting into that car with that person on that very night?
“The chances are so slim. Probably impossible. There’s no math. Only magic,” she said.
Bozoma doesn’t believe in accidents. She immediately knew they were meant to meet and that the driver should come to dinner with her. She invited him. They both cried. During the meal, she sat in wonder at their fortune while the Uber driver told Iggy Pop his story. She had met a total stranger in a city that wasn’t her home and made a powerful connection that they’ll both remember for the rest of their lives. It all started with an Uber.
“It’s important to see ourselves in the stories we tell.”
Now that Bozoma works at Uber, people feel inclined to tell her their own stories of using the ride-hailing app. But so much has changed in the way we tell stories about technology. Back in the 1980s, she said, technology was either fantastical or informational. Brands like Levi’s were selling a good time, and technology seemed almost out of reach. She explained that though we talk about a great divide between races and classes in America, technology platforms and products have lessened it (if not eliminated it entirely).
“The story we tell about [technology] can’t be cold. It has to be warm, like us. It has to be intimate,” she said.
Technology can connect us with other human beings, but what actually connects us to each other? Emotion. Human emotion drives all of our decision-making, Bozoma said. When you hear these stories, it’s her intention to make you feel something positive ― to recall them with inspiration or delight. As a brand marketer, that is her goal. She said that all brand stewards must be authentically themselves when telling their stories.
“It’s important to see ourselves in the stories we tell,” she said. “I hope that for each of you, the diversity of our stories will not just be told, but appreciated and celebrated.”
Naturally, everyone in the audience left with all the feels (i.e. Bozoma accomplished her goal). She’s high on my list of role models, and I’m looking forward to see her storytelling magic come to life at Uber.
By: Brianna Valleskey
There’s no question that Slack’s growth has been tremendous. The cloud-based collaboration software and message app now boasts more than nine million weekly users, six million daily users, two million paid users and 50,000 paid teams. Though the product officially launch in February of 2014, Slack generated an incredible amount of momentum throughout 2013 with clever marketing tactics like letting friends use it for free to provide feedback and inviting people to a “limited preview release.” (You can read more about it here). I learned a lot more about Slack when its CEO, Stewart Butterfield, spoke at this year’s INBOUND conference. Stewart is also the co-founder of Flickr, which sold to Yahoo in 2005 for (reportedly) around $20 million. So clearly, he knows a thing or two about scaling a business.
My favorite piece of advice had to do with coming up with Slack’s name. He cited “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding,” which advises choosing a name that you can say aloud and not have to spell for people. Fun fact: Slack was very nearly called “Honeycomb.” But, Stewart and his team wanted a name they wouldn’t feel embarrassed to tell others, was easy to say and spell (ideally, and English word), and had some emotional resonance. He explained that “Slack,” is a technical term in project management, describes how much excess capacity a system has to take on work. The Slack platform was designed to make people more productive and successful. And when that happens, you get some slack ― more room for creativity and innovation.
Thus, the Slack brand was born. But Stewart knows there’s so much more to branding than a catchy name and stylish logo. He shared a lot of other important leadership tips that contributed to Slack’s success. Below are some of my favorites.
Stewart Butterfield’s Seven Steps for Startup Success
Step One: Create a collective knowledge base of your company.
Not surprisingly, Slack’s own software has contributed quite a bit to the company’s growth. One of the major benefits of Slack is that it maintains a record of every conversation. If you’re an employee at a new company with 10,000 people, for example, you start off with an empty inbox. Billions of messages have been shared between people before you started, but you don’t get access to any of that information. Slack automatically accrues a massive archive of what’s happening at the company over time, Stewart explained. That enables new people to easily understand social protocols, norms, who answers questions, who makes decisions, etc. just by scrolling through various channel histories. There’s also a real value to those records in terms of more accurately communicating messages to other team members who might need to coordinate with your team.
Step Two: Foster alignment with lateral transparency.
The more a company grows, the more difficult it becomes to maintain alignment across an organization. Transparency helps. Slack provides that transparency in the sense that it removes opacity from an organization. People have the ability to understand what’s going on in various departments, instead of feeling left out on decisions and updates. Technical operations can see what the support team is dealing with. Designers are in tune with what engineers are working on. Stewart said that most of management’s effort in any company is coordinating people so that everyone understands what’s going on throughout the company. Slack helps with that.
Step Three: Don’t immediately search for an exit.
Stewart admitted he somewhat regrets not trying to make the Flickr platform even better for users before selling it to Yahoo. He can’t definitively say that Slack will never be acquired, but it’s not in the plan right now. Slack’s current valuation is in the billions of dollars. The company now has $200 million in annual recurring revenue, and Stewart said it would be a “banonkers” (his combination of bananas and bonkers) decision to not see how far they can take it. Instead, he said Slack should be the giant company that goes around acquiring other companies.
Step Four: Encourage risky projects.
When people are at a big, fast-growing organization, they tend to gravitate toward safe projects because they don’t want to put their job performance in jeopardy. Yes, those projects could have high rewards; but they also have high risks of failure. In order to keep innovating, however, Stewart said you need people to keep going after those risky projects.
Step Five: Branding is what happens when people interact with your company.
Slack has responded to almost every single message people have tweeted at the company, thousands of which Stewart, himself, replied to from the company account. He believes that a brand is the sum of all the interactions people have with your company. That’s why Slack focuses on small details like fast-loading pages and clearly written copy. But more importantly, the company responded to every single one of the thousands of customer support tickets they’ve received over the years. He thinks of if as investment in marketing. And it works. Slack has a 98 percent customer satisfaction rating.
Step Six: Put customers first. Always.
Internally, Slack’s measure of success in the long term is the amount of value it creates for our customers. Create so much value for your customers that they’re happy to pay you, Stewart advised.
Step Seven: Exercise and meditate first thing in the morning.
Oh, that’s not Stewart’s routine. He joked that he starts most days by grabbing his smartphone and looking through all his emails and slack messages until he’s so anxious that he just has to get out of bed. He does not recommend this. “Those people that exercise and meditate in the morning ― follow what they do,” he said, laughing.
What’s ahead for Slack?
Of course, Stewart’s session had to touch on what the future holds for Slack. Part of the current roadmap is to make the software smarter, perhaps even creating a feature that acts as a “virtual chief staff.” The software would read all your messages for you and proactively suggest the most important tasks for you to complete that day. Stewart confessed that he probably has more than 50,000 unread messages at any given time (which that makes sense given his CEO status). He manages to get through 50-70 percent of the messages that are important to him. It would be great if he could get through all of them, he said, and with a sense of priority.
“Decision fatigue is a real thing,” Stewart said. “The more decisions you have to make about priority depletes your ability to make those decisions.”
I definitely see where he’s coming from here. And with the pace that artificial intelligence is advancing, this feature might be something we could see in the near future. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with the amount of connectivity and productivity I get from the current platform.
By: Brianna Valleskey
Jen Rubio is my hero. She’s the co-founder of Away, a lifestyle travel brand that makes thoughtfully designed luggage, but also a super sharp entrepreneur, marketer and commerce expert. Jen used to run social media at Warby Parker, where employees would tweet video responses to questions about the product (while wearing Warby Parker glasses, of course) ― a visual branding strategy ahead of its time.
So when I found out Jen had a spotlight session at INBOUND this year, I was ridiculously pumped. She spoke about creating a brand with emotional appeal, building a product that actually helps people and marketing to a mass customer base (while also finding ways to specialize). Check out my summary of her insights below.
The Principles of Building a Brand People Love
1. Birthing an innovative brand ≠ reinventing a business model.
Not every entrepreneur has to reinvent the wheel. Or, as Jen put it, reinvent an existing business model. Warby Parker wasn’t the first business to sell glasses online. Away isn’t the first luggage company. But Jen knows this. How you can differentiate your business, she explained, is by creating an incredible brand that consumers want to interact with.
Every brand has an origin story (a founding myth), and Away’s story starts with a piece of broken luggage. Frequent travelers have likely noticed that the same few luggage brands always show up in airports. You assume it’s because those brands make quality luggage. Why else would people buy it, right?
Then Jen’s luggage broke. She went online and asked her travel-savvy friends what kind of luggage to get. The answers that came back surprised her: “I don’t know, but don’t get what I have.” Most people had inherited their luggage, received it as some sort of parting gift from a former job, or simply didn’t like it.
“There was just no overwhelming sense of brand affinity for luggage,” Jen said. “Travel is something that everyone does. It’s something that excites people. But why wasn’t there a travel brand that people were excited about?”
So she set off to make an awesome luggage brand that resonates with people, and for a reasonable price: All of their bags sell for under $300. Similar bags would cost anywhere from $600-900 in retail stores. But part of Away’s mission was to create quality-to-price value.
2. Design intention must equal customer perception.
Before creating the first prototype, Away did research. A lot of research. They started by sending out surveys where people were asked to check off the boxes of each feature they wanted in their luggage. All of the boxes would be checked off. When asked which features people wanted to pay for, none of the boxes were checked. So the Away team switched to field research.
“I cannot tell you how many hours we spent watching people pack,” She laughed. “We’d visit our friends and extended networks with coffee and bagels simply to watch them pack.”
Those hours were worth it. The team uncovered insights that helped them understand what to design for: People don’t like their shoes to touch their clothes. People snatch plastic bags from hotels to store wet clothes and dirty laundry.
“People are so used to having a crappy experience packing their luggage. They didn’t know how to describe what they needed,” Jen explained. “We had to witness them doing the act.”
Away iterated on their product hundreds of times to create its minimalist design. The more people use it, however, the more they realize why certain features are in place. Take the two zippers on each bag ― they create a distinct set of clicks when you clip them into the (TSA-approved) lock. You get both the satisfaction of a packing job well done, as well as the assurance that the bag is firmly shut.
Another part of good design is just making sure that what your design intention is equals the customer’s perception. Away’s luggage is made from polycarbonate (the same material used to make fighter jets), but they wanted the suitcase to have a little give in case it was ever dropped on the ground. So a flexible prototype was made and tested with a focus group. The result? The focus group assumed that the material was cheap and flimsy.
“We’re lucky that we had that group,” Jen said. “If we had gone out to the market with that, we couldn’t have been there to explain to every customer the thinking, intention and design behind what they perceive as cheap material.”
Those are the tiny details that make people obsessed with the product, Jen said. Customers frequently write in to thank Away for making them better packers.
3. The delta between good design and brand is emotion.
Jen loves to travel. She’s been to ~60 countries and all seven continents on the planet. The core of Away, as a company, is to create a beautiful, thoughtfully designed suitcase. But, she explained, you can have things that are beautiful and well-designed, and you still don’t feel a sense of connection with that product or that company. What makes something a brand is the emotional connection you feel with it.
“If we can inspire our community of people to look at a map and feel like all of it is in reach, then we’ll have done our job,” Jen said. “I know that seems like a lofty statement for someone who makes a suitcase, but the small things count.”
If that’s not creating an emotional connection to a brand, then I don’t know what is. Away’s secret sauce is to mix that emotion with phenomenal design. The brand identity for their luggage is very minimal: clean and simple, but not austere. It’s meant to attract a large market (i.e. people who travel). The company appeals heavily to specific market segments, however, by frequently collaborating with different brands. Away has worked with companies like West Elm and celebs like Rashida Jones to reach new audiences and go all out on various designs. Each collaboration has its own soul and spirit. (As I’m writing this, Away is featuring a gorgeous piece of luggage made in collaboration with Amastan Paris on its website).
“It’s easy to say your product targets people between the ages of 16 and 60 who travel, but you probably aren’t going to make anything exciting,” Jen said.
As a brand, Away is definitely exciting. But it’s also down to earth. Jen mentioned that Away isn’t meant to be like that person you follow in Instagram who takes all these amazing trips you’ll never be able to afford. Instead, Away is the person who you see travel somewhere and think to yourself, “I’m adding that destination to my list.”
4. Telling people about your product < Demonstrating what it enables them to do.
The experience of traveling is the essence Away’s brand. A key part of traveling, your luggage can really make or break a trip. Jen believes that packing and unpacking doesn’t have to be the worst part of it. That’s why Away exists as a travel lifestyle brand that monetizes by selling suitcases.
“A lot of luggage brands use their product pages to talk about the tech specs, materials and dimensions,” she said. “We do that, but a large majority of our product page is showing the bag in action: being packed, being stored under your bed, etc.”
Away’s store in NoHo (NYC) doesn’t sell luggage. It sells the experience of travel. One corner of the store is dedicated to the suitcase, where shoppers can move it around. Pack it. Play with it. But another corner is a cafe filled with travel books, magazines and city guides. It has shelves filled with things that you bring with you on a trip (like a sleep mask and headphones).
“If you’re not telling the story of what your product can enable something to do, then you’re just a company that sells things,” Jen said. “You’re not a brand.”
What I loved most about Jen’s approach is how she integrates seamlessly product design with brand storytelling. I’m looking forward to see what Jen and her luggage company do next. You can follower her on Instagram and Twitter at @jennifer.
P.S. I hope Jen writes a book someday. In the meantime. here are some great books on branding ...
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.