Paul Isakson, Founder & CEO at Noskasi Ltd.
So, you’re in startup mode. You don’t have a brand yet. But how’s your vision? Do you have an authentic purpose beyond making money? Your vision and purpose might be your greatest asset as you talk to investors, employees and early customers. Same goes for leaders of more established companies: you have to give customers, employees and shareholders something to believe in that’s bigger than profit.
In this DreamCast episode we sit down with Paul Isakson, globally recognized leader in strategic thinking for the modern era of business. Paul discusses the framework he has developed that leaders can use to create a vision and purpose that attracts true believers, resulting in an authentically powerful brand that generates lasting value and profit.
You can get an idea of how we have been using Paul’s framework to build our own brand and visual identity by visiting the #COCOLogo hashtag on Twitter.
Show notes: selected links from the episode:
LinkedIn: Paul Isakson
Twitter: Website: Noskasi
Links and people mentioned
What’s Next In Marketing & Advertising
AdWeek – The Future of Advertising Is Design
Modern Brand Building Presentation
What’s Next In Marketing & Advertising 2009
Tweets as Don Draper
Core Values | Whole Foods Market
About Zappos Culture | Zappos.com
Myers–Briggs Type Indicator
After a Mother Jones Investigation, Starbucks Says It Will Stop Bottling Water in California
Southwest Airlines: How an Arm Wrestle Resolved a Major Airline Dispute
Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul by Howard Schultz
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel
Blog and Magazine Recommendations
Harvard Business Review
How to Start a Startup
Don Ball [D]: Welcome to another CoCo Dreamcast. We’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus; we’ve taken about a month and a half off ‘cause, as maybe we’ll get to, we kinda had a lot of irons in the fire at CoCo – in part due to the man in front of me, Paul Isakson. Hello, Paul.
Paul Isakson [P]: Hi, Don.
D: Some people at CoCo know who you are; you are kind of a man about town, so you know your own circles. But you don’t generally hang out at CoCo, so you’re not – we don’t see you, you know, haunting the halls all the time. Correct?
D: Okay. But you know us really well.
D: I think, since our earliest days…you’ve been an advisor to me and Kyle on things. So you’ve followed the story, you’re kind of close, but maybe slightly in the shadows.
D: But not in an evil way – you’re not an evil guy at all; you’re a true really good guy.
P: Well, thank you.
D: That’s my overall impression.
Could you give us the quick Paul Isakson bio?
And then we’re gonna jump into the meat.
P: Yeah. I guess the quick bio: I grew up in Colorado – lived there all my life until I moved here almost eight years ago. Background there was [I] grew up as a farm kid – didn’t know what I wanted to do in college so I went to engineering school on a baseball scholarship. Figured out why I was there – that advertising was something I was interested in – so I pursued a degree in Business with a Marketing emphasis.
That led to an internship in an agency – led to almost ten years of working in agencies in Denver. And while I was there, got sort of frustrated not being able to just focus on strategy. I was in account service pretty much the whole time I was there except for the last job, which is client relationship stuff, including strategy – but a lot of client relationship management and project management, if you’re not familiar with the ad world.
I wanted to focus on strategy and I had an opportunity; because of starting to write a blog; or on the way I thought about brands and marketing and what should be done; and sharing a lot of it on Twitter. Connected with space 150 here in town, which is a digital agency. They moved me up here to first [get] started as like a senior strategist, and then relatively quickly moved to running their strategy group.
From there, [I] left and did my own thing with a partner, Emily Hitch, who’s a cultural anthropologist and strategist. We created a company called Thinkers and Makers, which is when we met you and Kyle – or I met you and Kyle. So I was starting that at the same time you guys were starting CoCo.
And a shared connection was, like, hey, you guys should meet because you have kind of a similar passion and way of thinking about doing things. So that’s how we ended up meeting. Then, briefly took a job at Colle and McVoy running their strategy group, and decided I really loved being out on my own more than working inside an ad agency in a bigger firm. So started the product – a digital product design studio with two friends – and that was a really good two-year run. And then we wanted different things, so I left after that to just pursue my own thing. And that’s where I am now.
Now you’re kind of an itinerant preacher/consultant.
P: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s been an evolution. I really thought the digital product studio that we were building was gonna be my thing forever – or at least as far as I could see. And then, when we realized that we didn’t want the same things, it was like, oh man, crap – what am I gonna do? We gotta sort this out.
So last year it was a lot of freelancing, and just helping some people out. I partnered with a group that actually works in the same space as me to help them with brand strategy with their design firms. But also there’s a lot of business design on top of identity design.
Then I picked up some freelance work here and there. Did some work with some agencies in town and, you know, worked with you guys on some stuff. ‘Cause [I] was curious about testing out a new way to use what I’d created, and some new things.
So I’ve done some of that testing – now to where I’m ready to start really going out and delivering more for myself, instead of for other agencies and other places – but working directly with businesses.
D: It strikes me that – let me just say that I had a heck of a time thinking of how I wanted to structure this and what kind of questions to ask. Because, in a way, we’re about to talk about branding, which is really like talking about psychology, or personalities, or identity. It’s so huge. There are so many ways to enter it and to think about it that it’s kind of daunting – but probably the nuts and bolts first. So you helped us about last year you: sat down with our team and you kind of counseled us, extracted answers and information from us, and got us to admit to things and say things–
You basically walked us through a process by which we talked about what we really want CoCo to become.
D: . . . what we think it stands for; what we stand for; and you just enlisted a lot of info. And then you kind of went off and did some cooking.
D: Or maybe you stitched together your observations and came back and we refined this thing. But, ultimately, we ended up with this…thing that is kind of a brand foundation; it’s not the look and feel of the company, it’s: Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we want to be when we grow up?
D: Right? It’s that kind of thing. So that’s the basics of this story. But what I want to ask you about was – and we’re gonna have a thing next week where you’re actually gonna be able to talk about this to whoever wants to attend, and we’re gonna get a sneak preview of kind of where the design work for our CoCo brand went following your work – but I’m just curious, using CoCo as an example of your process:
When you started working with us [at CoCo], what did you see in front of you? What was the situation that you saw with us?
P: Yeah, and being aware of you guys from the early – early on days, I saw that you were sort of at this inflection point; you’d gotten the three locations; you guys had finished Uptown not too long before the conversation started, and rolled it out.
For me, it was a really cool evolution of how your early days, starting in lower town, and knowing what that space looked like – but the core vision of what you guys had for it; then moving into here in Minneapolis; then building up this enormous space; and this one, right; then seeing Uptown – it was just like, man, you guys are like growing up and having a really cool thing happen as you go.
And always just engaging in that conversation, right, of like – when you were on, early in the days of the design studio that I was doing, we talked about possibly doing something then. So I had worked with you…and Kyle on an earlier version of the model that I had created – or the framework that I had created, right. And so we worked through some of that. And you guys had used the purpose statement that we had come up with. I think we had maybe [done] five or six work sessions together.
D: Yeah, yeah.
P: Maybe not quite that many. But you guys had a lot of things going on then, a lot of which had gone away. But the one thing that stuck with you out of that work that we had done together was kind of rounding around that purpose statement that we had framed up. And you had maybe modified a word in there, or something. But, really, the core of it was the same. And that’s sort of the conversation that we’ve been using this purpose statement, and it’s really helping us guide us to make decisions.
D: Yeah, that’s true. It really did…prior to the big brand work you did for us. And we had this purpose statement; that’s what kind of jumped out from those first discussions: to inspire and enable people to do the work that they’re doing.
D: No emphasis on work, right?
D: But inspiring and enabling. The idea being that, in the end, this is not just an office space for people to come and tap on laptops and sip coffee – well, that’s all great – but that, in and of itself, is just a very–
D: It’s a perfunctory thing. And there’s offices everywhere – how interesting is that, right?
D: But that there’s something bigger – that people are up to something big. And that was
great. I think you captured something…
D: And that is – that’s the bigger idea.
D: So that was very helpful. When you kind of came back and we did a bigger process, were you – I think you used the word “inflection point,” which I think is true, because we were thinking like, alright, this is really cool; can it be bigger? Should it be bigger? Why, and where and how? – It’s like these are all these questions.
D: And I think maybe it’s a bigger question for us. ‘Cause I know plenty of people who were like, grow, grow, grow, grow – no reflection at all like about is it – does the world need it? Does anybody want it? Does it have any purpose?
D: Between Kyle and I – we both kind of suffer from this need to be authentic – feel like we want to be ambitious. But we also want to be true.
D: It’s like, maybe somebody grows up in a small town; they want to leave town; they want to go to the big city, and the bright lights; but they don’t want to…change who they are.
P: Right. So they’re like, I want ‘em both.
D: Yep, yep.
What was this process that you took us through? ‘Cause it’s something that you had been cookin’ up for a while.
P: Yeah. It’s something I’d been cooking and evolving for a while. So, when I left space 150, I was on this kick about – a brand needs a purpose, and this was like not my thing. There were a few other places starting to play with that idea, and that language, as well – Zeus Jones being one of ‘em here in town. I actually did some work with Zeus at that time, around this idea of brands having purpose. I just kept trying to…build around that; if a brand needs a purpose, then what else needs to be built around that? That’s how this model started to evolve over time.
D: Now, wait; why purpose beyond – and I’m not trying to be facetious…
D: I’m just wondering, though, because there are plenty of people who also are like, “Hey, my purpose is to create value for my shareholder,” and that kind of stuff.
D: Like what you get in corporate mission statements [Laughs] sometimes.
D: Why beyond the business end of it?
P: It started from this presentation I put together for an internal thing at space 150. It was like our own version of lunch (Inaudible) essentially, and it was a little lunch hour once a month; three people from a different group inside the agency would do a presentation. My very first one I saw after I started there was three of the designers doing, like – here’s where we draw our inspiration from, and here’s our process and how we do it. ‘Cause each designer kind of has their own way, rather how they get to that design. That was really cool.
Another one was the tech guys showing where they go to, and what’s going on with [these] new, different types of technology. Like this physics engineer – I remember this one guy showing how stuff was bouncing off each other. This was very new at the time, and it was super cool.
Then it became, like, a combination of – my boss was over the Account Services, Media and Strategy group; for Strategy she had me present; and then Media was one other person; and then Account Services one other person. This presentation I put together, she just said, “Paul, put together an opinion on where you see marketing and advertising going.”
I think a lot of our team was so heads down in the world of digital that maybe they aren’t looking at the bigger picture of advertising and marketing.
The key point I made in that presentation was: marketing needs to make people’s lives better. That’s where marketing is going.
That thing took off like crazy around the globe, unbeknownst to anything that I ever thought. Like, I posted it ‘cause I was really keying into my blog at that time and writing at least one post a week. And for a week I didn’t write a post, so at the end of the week I was like, well, here’s why I didn’t write a post this week; I did this presentation internally, and you can find it on SlideShare – SlideShare was still kind of new.
SlideShare featured it ‘cause it was a different design than anyone else was doing at the time, and it really was no design; it was Helvetica or Arial in big, bold fonts; very few words on each slide; and it kind of told a story.
So they featured it. Then, David Armano, who had a huge following in social media, saw it – and I’d actually featured something that his agency had done in it as a case study – and he pronounced that “Paul Isakson has defined the future of marketing – now go do it.”
P: . . . to the world.
D: Not much to live up to.
P: He launched the end of the bigger world, right. Then Adweek picked up on it, a bunch of people picked up on it, and it started spreading.
D: So you’re like, Internet famous.
P: This thing went crazy.
P: But then they’re like, okay, there’s something to this – what is it to this–
P: . . . that people are gravitating to?
D: It’s kind of striking a chord.
P: It struck a chord.
D: Was it just frustrated marketers who have known forever that they’d sold their soul? Is that it? Or is it beyond that?
P: It could be – it could be. I think it could be [made up] somewhat of people working in marketing and advertising wondering, is there meaning to what they’re doing beyond just selling products? And being like, oh, well, like–
D: You want an answer.
P: Marketing can have meaning.
P: I think we both know the answer; I think it struck a chord with people. So that led to me starting to get – like Adweek started watching stuff that I was posting; then pointing links to it; and through their weekly newsletter; and I started getting invited to go speak – first a little bit in the country, then [I] got invited over to Europe a couple times.
D: Wow, wow.
P: And I had gotten asked to evolve that presentation then. I think that was 2008 and 2009 I got asked, like, would you do a follow-up step presentation and tell us how you see it even more so.
D: As your thesis developed, what were the two or three sentences beyond the premise?
It [my thesis] became: if marketing is to make people’s lives better, how are we gonna do that?
P: Not sucking into this world of design thinking, right – which was championed by IDEO, and Frog Design, to a degree. But really IDEO was the firm out there championing this term “design thinking,” which . . . so I started researching that a lot. And then we – well, if we’re gonna make people’s lives better, we need to process that we understand people’s lives. And “design thinking,” as you know, and as – there’s been the Sanford D School course taught here at CoCo a few times on that.
P: So one of the first things you do is go out and get empathy, right?
P: So you can understand what’s going on in people’s lives. I was like really digging in. I’m thinking for a while as part of this. And then, as I involved that presentation –
I went from marketing needs to make people’s lives better, to – What does it need to do? It needs to do things with and for people – not to them.
[That] was the main point of that second presentation.
P: And that went crazy – not as much as the first one, but also went crazy. In between the two things, I accidentally started a crazy worldwide phenomenon Tweeting at Don Draper, right. That blew up and changed the way people thought about using social media to promote TV shows. And that had its own life.
P: I’ve had this string of attention for a while. Then I went into like – I had figured, okay, people are grabbing onto this stuff – I gotta figure out how to make it happen. I’m tired of talking about it, I gotta figure out how to make it happen. That led to me wanting to start Thinkers & Makers with Emily.
Then, for a variety of reasons, it just wasn’t working the way I had hoped it would for me. Then I jumped into Colle & McVoy thinking, well, maybe I can get into advertising to do this, too. There were just too many things working against me to accomplish what I was hoping to there. ‘Cause I was bent on changing the world. And it’s hard to do from inside an ad agency that has a structure.
D: Yeah, sure, that makes sense. But you were trying things it sounds like . . .
D: Just lookin’ for that vehicle, or that platform, that would let you go do this work.
P: Yeah. An ad agency was the wrong place for me to try and do it.
D: Um-hm – um-hm.
P: It wasn’t that Colle & McVoy is a bad place – it feels just like I was in the wrong place to try and do what my heart was telling me to do.
D: Yeah, yeah.
P: So that model evolved out of this. It evolved from that, like, okay, marketing needs to do things with and for people, not to them. I need a model that helps – that’s how brand purpose came to be. So, if you’re purpose driven, you’ve got something bigger in the world you’re trying to do than just make money. You should make money as a business – you have to stay in business. But what’s the bigger thing you want to do?
I started looking for examples of businesses and brands that were doing that, and trying to understand and deconstruct those. One of the gifts I was given growing up on a farm – and not having any money to ever buy a solution to a problem – was my dad had to make solutions from what we had, right? We would look here on the farm and be like, oh, if we cut this thing apart, cut that thing apart, weld those two pieces together, bring in this other element, and pack some dirt around it, then we’ve solved that problem.
D: [Laughs] Yeah.
P: Right? So we couldn’t go buy the thing that we knew would solve the problem, ‘cause we had no money. I had been able to retain that information of looking at the world, deconstructing things down to the very core elements, then rearranging the pieces in a way that I see makes more sense, in order that may present an opportunity – that’s what I did with this way of looking at these businesses.
I started trying to deconstruct what they were doing – what’s behind what’s going on there. That helped me to round out this model, this framework…and really being – say, like, okay, what’s really going on behind Starbucks is this. And Apple – I’d read as much as I could on what Jobs was trying to profess and teach. And he’s a very private man, right?
P: Not much of that has come out until even recently, after his death. But how Schultz wrote this book Onward, about his return to Starbucks – that was a big thing as part of this process that helped me. I was playing with purpose, values, and beliefs being the core. Then I read this book and I see that, then, when he came back, they went through a process to rethink the brand, re-bring it to life, and turned the business around. And he is used language in there about aspiration and purpose, and it was like, okay, this is helping me fill in missing pieces.
This process that you have been through, and I presume that you had been taking other people through somethin’ similar – what are some of the lynch pins of it?
I mean, you said “aspiration.”
D: And we end up cookin’ out on aspiration.
D: And a mission.
P: A mission and a purpose. Yeah. Where it started – and this has been an evolving model – I had worked with you guys early on, and we had that purpose statement to equal out. Because of the way we have known each other and we have worked, I brought you guys this evolved model that I’ve created.
And, probably, this is perfect timing, ‘cause we love the purpose statement you helped us bake out. But we feel like there needs to be more around it, and now you’re showing us there is more around it – let’s go. So the core elements – it starts with an aspiration, right? And what’s the bigger thing in the world the business is trying to do?
P: You try to push that as high as you can. It needs to be about more than money, right? The purpose you get to is, well, your high starts to give some directions and meat to that – some focus to that. I used Starbucks as the example, ‘cause Howard Schultz calls it out in the book, right? And on their Twitter profile it’s very clear their aspiration: to nurture and inspire the human spirit. And that’s a really big thing – where does coffee fit into that? How does a coffee shop fit into that? If you think about it you could start to see some ways.
P: But where they start to put some teeth to it is in their purpose: one cup, one person, one neighborhood at a time. I’ve also seen Howard Schultz talk about it as one cup, one barista, one person at a time – really getting – even breaking the human on it down even more.
P: Those two elements – the next pieces that I was working with – were values and beliefs. Because if you’ve got a purpose and aspiration, then you need to help people further figure out how to live according to that purpose and aspiration. In addition, doing all this business studying, I’ve also been doing a lot of study into storytelling, how characters are created, how they evolve; also, going through my own faith evolution, digging into my spiritual life, looking at how religions are built, and what goes on there.
All these worlds were coming together, right. And if you look at the way even religions or cults are built, there’s some bigger aspiration, right, and some pFurpose that people feel they have. Then they’ve got values and beliefs that help them figure out how to live that way.
Businesses, as it turned out, were doing the same thing. You look at Google, Nike, Apple – there are core beliefs and values in their – Whole Foods and Twitter – or, I’m sorry, not Twitter – but Whole Foods and Zappos, right?
P: They are famous for posting their beliefs out in the world. They call ‘em values, but there are, really, seven belief statements for Whole Foods, and ten belief statements for Zappos. These businesses have these that they operate with, right? That’s the next stage – aspiration, purpose – well, how are we gonna do that even more?
The culture needs to have some autonomy, ‘cause you can’t have the leader constantly putting a thumb on everyone; that’s no fun for employees. Give them some guidelines for how to live that in the way they deliver the brand experience, right? ‘Cause brands aren’t built just by marketing; brands are built by the people who are operating the business every day, and the decisions they’re making and choosing to do.
So we have values and beliefs to help guide the culture. The last pieces are what we’re calling experience. What’s that experience we want to deliver, right? And what’s the character we want to wrap around that experience?
There, we play with two elements; Jungian archetypes that help – Carl Jung being a psychologist who drew up twelve master archetypes that speak to these core truths about people and characters in stories that we all relate to, right? If I bring up the word “hero,” “magician,” or “outlaw,” you get an immediate idea in your mind of somebody, right?
D: Yeah. That really helps
P: Yeah. A creative team starts as kind of a personality and things for the brand. Then, we define some five core traits, or five core words that go with that archetype then that help put that voice out in the world, then put character out in the world, right? The culture is driven by values and beliefs. Then they can look to this archetype and personality. When it comes time to create communications or to deliver an experience for somebody, you say, if we’re the outlaw and we’ve got these five words – how do we need to make this experience feel?
P: Or what’s the soundtrack to our commercial? You start to be able to use that tool to really give a consistent voice to the brand world.
D: It’s interesting – you know, you mentioned Carl Jung. ‘Cause I just saw yesterday – I was lookin’ up somethin’ related to Myers-Briggs, and I found out that whole MBTI thing is totally based on Jungian archetypes. I was like, oh. So, depending on what you’re combination of letters is, if you’ve done this before, there’s actually a – you can look where the “P” had got, so you can see which archetype that actually corresponds to.
P: Yep. So I thought it was really interesting.
D: I just didn’t know that.
P: Yeah. It’s crazy that the Jungian archetypes helped form the Myers-Briggs. And then another psychologist, whose name I’m blanking on right now, actually took the Myers-Briggs results and gave those names, right. When I work with a group and one of the Jungian archetypes doesn’t quite fit, I look at this next set where the guy broke down all the Myers-Briggs, and I’m able to look into there. And I’m going, okay, we’re a combination of the “sage” and the “wizard,” or the “magician”–
P: And, actually, there’s a Myers-Briggs type that’s called the “architect” that is kind of the perfect merge of those two, right. As I’ve dug more into this – and I’m wired to never be happy with the way something is – I’m always looking for a way to improve it. As I keep evolving this model, or evolving the tools I use to build it out, I stumble on these things and I’m like, this makes a ton of sense.
P: Now we’re not just up to 12 of these archetypes; we can actually build out. There’s actually some reason behind this; it’s not me making up stuff in my head.
D: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
P: It’s big enough.
D: So what would your archetype be that you enjoy that kind of work of piecing all this together?
P: It depends. There’s some online quizzes and things you can take. I did one that tried to tell me my archetype and it gave me a blend on the archetype of vision – they defined it as “visionary.” But, really, that was more of like the “magician,” I think.
P: “Magician,” “sage,” and this creative, which I can’t – either “artist,” or something – I think there’s one that fits that – so this weird mix of “sage,” “magician,” and this creative thing. Then, when I look at the results from the Myers-Briggs and the other guy’s work, I fall into “architect” or “counselor,” depending on which day you catch me on.
So, I am in IN (?), always, when I take the Myers-Briggs. But then my other two flip. So one of those is the “architect” and one of them is the “counselor,” which I think fits like perfectly. ‘Cause on certain days I’m more counseling my clients and helping guide them; and other days I’m more like the architect, where I’m actually putting pieces together, building frameworks, building models, and giving them blueprints for their business – for ideas or concepts that will bring their brand to life.
D: Interesting. So let me ask you this, ‘cause I mean, I’ve only had like two people ever tell me they listen to this podcast, so . . .
D: Of course, Dan Letch, he’s one of ‘em – we have to mention that. [Laughs]
D: And we have to get him on a podcast [Laughs] and it’ll be all about him. There’s one other person who said, “Oh, yeah, I was listening to the podcast the other day” – actually, what I heard is, I heard somebody, not knowing that I’m, you know, the podcast guy, I heard them referring somebody else to the podcast. And I’m like, “No way.” And the guy–
D: Let’s just imagine that some of the people listening to this are entrepreneurial types who are doing startups, and either they’re from a more technical background, in which case this branding stuff is absolutely, you know – I’m (Inaudible) because that’s kind of more pejorative.
D: I mean it’s mystical, but I don’t get it; I’m just trying to create a product.
P: Yeah, it’s (Inaudible). Right? It’s not–
D: Right, exactly, exactly. Yet, you could certainly look at really successful brands that say, there’s somethin’ there that’s very much greater than some of the parts.
D: Apple is really religion, you know? Maybe Starbucks at one time, but it’s kind of religion. There is an irrational side of the value that those businesses have created, and how valuable they are to people. All I have to say is we clearly can see examples of how this aspect of business is huge. But, to that person who’s sittin’ there in Startup Land, you know, on funding vapors, maybe thinkin’ like, ah, crap, in two months I gotta get another round or I’m screwed – tryin’ to get traction. How can someone like that take a look at branding and think, yes, it’s important for me to think about.
Is there an early way of thinking about branding before you start – before you’re in a position to hire a consultant, let’s say?
P: Right. Yeah. I think for startups, right – and depending how early you are, it is kinda crazy to start thinking “brand.” And often their head gets wrapped into brand; that’s my logo; that’s my this; I’ve been out thinkin’ about this bigger thing. But part of the way I’ve approach it with them is showing them it is not those things; it’s all those, but it’s more – it’s also your vision. It’s also the way all your people operate every day.
One of the first things I tell startups – even established businesses alike – is that brand doesn’t happen until later, right? You have to be in the business for a certain period of time to actually have what really is a brand. The way I define a brand: it’s an evolving story – a co-part of that definition.
It’s hard to say you have a brand when you’re a startup. Just like it’s hard to say that a newborn or an infant has a reputation; it just doesn’t make sense.
That kid is fully formed, yet they’re not operating on their own yet.
P: What I do with startups is really kind of help them start to shape their vision, right; and to figure out that story of what they’re trying to create in the world, and use that. When you listen to the stories of the early days of Instagram, the CEO there, whose name I’m forgetting now –Instagram was not the first photo app; there were plenty of photo apps on the market at the time Instagram arrived.
But when VCS and Angle investors were talking to this guy, the vision that he was painting for them of where photos were going, where photo sharing was going – they were blown away. The ones that got it were like, oh, my gosh, I have to give this guy money; this thing is gonna go nuts; he’s looking at photos in a different way than anybody else is. So, yeah, maybe you’re not trying to do the “brand,” quote unquote, but you are starting to shape that vision.
P: Reshape that vision, right, that helps get traction – helps get funding. If you can tell people what the bigger thing – [what] you’re trying to do in the world clearly, and in a way that’s inspiring – then that’s gonna help you. And that’s eventually gonna create your brand.
Great brands don’t happen by accident; they’re very much an intentional thing.
P: Sometimes companies do some things that, quote unquote, “make a great brand.” But it can be a short-term thing; they did something right for a little while, and then traction stopped and sales started to decline, so they flipped something.
P: But these brands that we often so recognize as great brands – Nike, Apple – the ones that constantly get picked up in these conversations, and have for years – it’s because there’s an underlying thing there that drags that; that’s everything’s very thoughtful and very intentional with what they do for people, and the way they create things in the world. They’re very thoughtful about that. So the earlier you start that as a startup–
P: …the stronger your brand is going to eventually be.
P: You might not need a brand right away, but eventually you’re going to, ‘cause you’re going to have competitors.
D: I feel like I heard something and it makes sense to me here, so I’ll throw it at you. So, ultimately, your brand is the story of [your company], as perceived by everybody who interacts with it in some way. It’s the thing that’s out there that you have probably less and less control over…because at some point – how does K-Mart control its brand? Now, that’s a tough one, right, because there’s so much perception out there.
But in the early stages, when it’s just a founder, or a couple of founders, it sounds like it’s the future story that you’re telling – the vision.
[A brand] is very much just in your head, and how you can communicate it to other people. Then, at some point, it goes from being just the story you’re telling…or the vision that you’re laying out, to being the actual story of what you’re business is doing on the ground.
D: Like the day-to-day stuff, right? So it goes from being just total fantasy vision to being reality.
D: That’s interesting. So, if you’re a founder, then the quality of your vision; how engaging your vision is; the story art that you’re projecting/saying, like, this is what’s gonna happen, and here’s how we’re gonna be part of it – that’s the thing. And I would agree with you that most investors you would talk to would be like, I know the business is gonna probably pivot nine ways ‘til Sunday, so I’m ultimately investing in the people.
P: Yeah. You’re investing in that leader, that founder. Right.
P: And the team that they’ve built around them. Do you believe they can pull this off or not? Are they going to? Are they looking far enough forward to see what’s ahead, or are they just so focused on the here and now in front of them that they’re missing where everything is gonna wind up?
D: Yeah. When you talk to a founder – startup founders and stuff – if you get the impression that all it is is just a clever little play to make some cash, it’s just like, yeah, we’re gonna out-BaZing these guys and we’re gonna be more BaZingey than them – you’re like, you have no soul. [Laughs]
D: You really have no soul, because all your business is about is just some clever little trick to get a couple of extra points.
P: No IP around that clever little trick.
P: What’s the value? Plus, that someone else is gonna copy it.
P: Yeah, it is that thing, right? Like, the way storytelling came into this. I’m reading this book where this guy was looking at his life, and he’s actually – his name is Donald Miller, and he’s an author. He was having one of his books made into a movie. Having to turn this book – it was kind of reflective of a period in his life; it was about his story. Then, the guys that were makin’ the movie, it was like, yeah, but we gotta change some things. It’s like, you can’t change – this is in my life. He’s like, no, no, we’re not changing your life, we’re changing the story, ‘cause if we tell the story the way you wrote it, it’ll be a little too boring for a movie, right.
And this is like me paraphrasing basically what’s in the book. But it made me like step back, and – oh my gosh, they’re telling me my life is boring and they need a better story. And he made the link: I need a better story for my life – what’s the story I want my life to tell, and how do I start living that?
So he did a bunch of research into story and what makes a great story, and then applied that to his way of living. For me, I was going through a transition in life, and all these things were going at once. In one way, that made sense for me for life, but [I] also saw that relationship to business, right? Great leaders have this vision of their story in their head, far out in the future that they’re working towards, and they never give up on it. The magic is: if you believe in that story enough, you will make it happen.
P: Right – everything around us, everything on this desk in front of us didn’t exist at one point in time. But someone saw – we can actually make something that does this, and they did it. Even though a lot of the world was saying, “You’re crazy, that’ll never happen.”
D: “A table with four legs – that’s impossible.” [Laughs]
P: This is where people have misused their quotes – like Henry Ford saying, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘a faster horse.’”
Steve Jobs was talking about how you can’t ask people what they want, because they don’t know.
It’s not that those guys didn’t do research, but the way they approached it was different. They weren’t asking people what they wanted; they saw what people were trying to accomplish and they had a vision for a better way for people to accomplish those things. And that’s where great leaders look at a business and say, you know what; the market is missing this huge opportunity. I can make that come to life. They believe in themselves so much; they have that end story in mind that they’re trying to create; then actually do make it happen.
P: They’re so driven and so committed to it that they make it come.
D: So let’s say that you’re a founder of a business and you have this vision. You’re now getting to the point where you did convince some people to invest in you, and you’re starting to build out the product; you’re starting to get customers and get some traction in whatever communities…[that] end up growing up around your thing. What are the – so that’s the beginning of where you’re starting to develop a brand.
D: There’s a brand experience for somebody, and possibly many people.
What is some of the leverage you can pull, the things that you can control or affect that start to shape your brand so that you are actually building a brand? – as opposed to just running a business?
P: Right, right. This framework that I’ve created is a tool that helps leaders think through this that way, right? It gives them something to do that we’ve created together with you. It takes what’s in your heart and what you want to create and puts it down on paper in words that maybe you weren’t thinking of before; [it] really frames it up in this way, but makes it easy to communicate and understand and share, right?
Helping create this story of what you’re trying to create really starts to frame that up for people. That’s what this process is all about: helping the leader decide what they want to be, then mapping that out on paper; they can always be making decisions; not just about the brand they’re creating, but even in their operations.
P: Because social media and people’s ability to share, and especially because of our mobile phones and the quality of the video and photos that can be taken with these things now, information cannot hide for long. No matter what, the truth is going to surface. You’ve gotta be able to define this.
To go back to an earlier thing, you said:
You can start to lose control over the brand over time.
The thing I always say when that comes up in a conversation is, “The truth owns the brand,” right? As long as you’re telling the truth as a business, you’re never going to be too out of control of that story. And as long as you’re delivering on the truth, and paying if off, you’re never gonna be too out of control. It’s when you start to say things that aren’t true that you really get in trouble, and the brand gets taken over by someone else. Always try and keep that truth alive.
To go back to Starbucks, recently someone – I think Mother Jones, maybe, was the publication – pointed out, like, you guys are selling this water in your stores that’s your own brand and it’s Ethos – whatever that bottled water is in Starbucks. They pointed out [Starbucks’s] plant for making that and bottling that water is in California, and California is in a massive drought…
D: Well, Wal-Mart was doing that, too.
P: How can you even sleep at night saying you’re about all these good things, and you’re taking water away from California? And Starbucks said, “You know what, you’re right. We’re gonna need six months to move the plant to Pennsylvania, but we’re gonna do it.” So, they want to keep that story true, so when they get called out on something where they’re not living according to their story, then they work to fix it.
P: Where other companies – if they don’t know what that story is they’re trying to create, and they’re just running on a path and someone calls ‘em out on it, they try to like sweep it under the rug. You used to be able to kind of sweep things under the rug a little bit easier, or keep them hidden, even, a little bit easier. But now it’s impossible.
D: Without some kind of guidance or something that guides you, then you’re just doing what’s affectations; it’s whatever makes the most and hurts the least. And that’s it – which, of course, takes you down some really terrible paths.
Some of the things that you can actually do that start to affect this – experience is one of ‘em. If you say your brand stands for something, but I show up and I don’t get that experience, then, obviously, things are not quite–
P: That’s a huge problem.
D: Experience is really huge, right?
D: It could be what your 404 messages are on your website. It could be how you’re greeted – how the company responds to voicemails. There’s all sorts of contact points when you start looking at it that experience ends up covering pretty much everything – everything operational, right?
P: Yeah. Look at Southwest Airlines – it’s all about love for them; even their new logo shaped as a heart. They try to bring love and fun to everything they do. And Richard Branson and Virgin – the way he brings the Virgin brand to life at every possible touchpoint he can. Even going back to Southwest Airlines – in the early days, the CEO was being sued by another airline for something. Rather than going into full-time court, he’s like, alright, let’s arm wrestle for who gets it.
D: I never heard that.
P: He approached it from like, what can he do that’s in context to his personality, and the personality he wants to have for the brand.
P: Right? These leaders, and the people that are then joining these businesses, are always looking for ways to deliver that experience in everything they do. It can’t just be that you’re advertising has a consistent voice; and that your website has a consistent voice; or your social media. It has to pay off in everything you do now. We can’t just put up this veneer that says we’re this, and what it is. You can do that in the short term; you can get some short-term attention, but it’s gonna be like a recurring rash that you constantly have to put ointment on.
D: Yeah, yeah.
P: This is where brands are starting to talk about purpose. But really, they’ve just replaced the word “promise” or “position” with “purpose.” And they’re not really doing anything different; they just changed the word to “purpose.” So it’s a campaign they’ll run for two or three years if it’s good, and if it doesn’t, then, oh, you know what, that actually wasn’t a great purpose statement; let’s come up with a new purpose statement.
P: There’s no soul to it; it’s just a veneer, still.
D: Yeah. And I think that’s part of the problem. You were talkin’ about marketing and advertising people. It’s just such an interesting crowd. Because typically people drawn into that field, I think, are very attuned and sensitive, but end up in a field that really is, in most instances, hired by big companies – it’s just façade-building. It really is. It’s just playing on a periphery when the company will continue to belch out whatever crap it belches out – pollution, bad, products or whatever, or bad service.
Then, if you’re in advertising or marketing, you’re in the group that has no bearing on that; the head of that marketing or advertising in the corporation does not have an equal seat on the Board of the company with the person who’s in charge of IT – in charge of operations. So, you’re reporting up to a fairly low-power position. So your job is just to make things look good. That’s it, you know, which I think is so frustrating.
There’s a point at which people in that field either decide that they are gonna do something about it – they’re gonna get out of the field – or maybe what you did, is say, okay, how can I still be relevant here. So I think what you’re doing – you’re actually consulting with leaders at a point where they can do something about this; and preserve their souls; and actually make whatever fuels them – you know, the good parts of themselves – fuel the business; that’s really meaningful. But, for a lot of other folks, then, they’re really stuck out there in the fringes.
P: And it’s really hard, right? This is why I’m excited about this time that we’re living in, with these startups that are coming to create things. There’s a lot of younger people starting these companies. And even if you’ve got older founders…have reached a frustration point. Or these younger people are saying we don’t want to go work for these big companies – we want to start something different. It’s a really fun time to be in the business; and in this world of helping people think through this; and how are you going to build a great brand with intention?
You can’t start saying, like, okay, let’s just play with a logo and the messaging and things out here; you have to get all the way up into the core, right?
If it’s not true at the heart of where it came from, it can’t be true ultimately in the world.
P: You’re just gonna constantly be putting fresh paint on something. There’s something more behind it. You’ve got a wall full of holes and mold and things, but that new bright yellow paint sure looks better than that last green paint that we had, doesn’t it?
D: [Laughs] Yeah. The social campaign we ran about that yellow paint – that was the best, it got all sorts of awards.
P: I’ve gotten to where I really want to work with people who want to do that at the leadership level. It’s not about putting this façade or this veneer on a thing up here; I’ve no interest in doing that. There’s plenty of people that can help do that and that’s not where I’m interested in.
D: Yeah, yeah.
P: Like you brought up earlier, which is the way you guys are wired, you have to live authentically, right? When I showed you how this model evolved from where it was, and the way that I was talking to it and speaking to it, then it struck a chord with you, and you guys were like, yeah, let’s do this – this feels really good for where we’re going. When we started the conversation, Fargo hadn’t opened yet, and I didn’t even know if you guys were considering it or not. But in the process, Fargo came to be an actual thing. I remember being in the office with you guys saying, “Guess what – we’re gonna have a Fargo location.”
P: I’m going out this week, so it’s a good thing that we’re thinking about this, ‘cause now we’re moving outside of the state lines.
D: Yeah, yeah.
P: You guys have always been very thoughtful; without having this framework, you’ve always been very thoughtful about the way you do things, and very intentional about the things that you do.
P: When you saw what I was talking about and what I had created, and the way that you were just naturally operating – it made a ton of sense to go through this together.
D: Yeah, yeah. Next week we’re gonna actually give you a chance and we’re gonna walk ‘em through that foundation, by way of example, right?
D: Just to say here’s one way of looking at a brand. And I think Kyle and I will be able to speak to some real decisions we’ve made; or cases where we realized we were making some decisions about growth; and where and how and why. It was when we hit the “why” where I was like, we should go back and consult that document.
We pasted up this brand foundation – it’s on the walls. We moved offices and that’s one of the first things we put up there. Because it’s one of those things where, when we’re saying should we do this or that or the other thing, we go back and look at that and go, well, it wouldn’t be true. What’s the CoCo way to do that? What’s true to our aspiration, or purpose?
And it really does help; it makes you realize, oh, I was about to go off the reservation and do something that was just for the sake of making money, but had no soul or intentionality behind it.
D: That’s actually the one thing I can win an argument with our little management team – if I can point to that. You know what I mean?
P: That’s kind of like – I don’t know if I want to call it a happy accident…but I thought it out trying to build a brand model. What I realized when I got done with it; and was looking at it; and how I was using it with leaders, was really – what I created was a model to help them drive their vision through the entire organization, including the brand.
That’s really where it comes from – you have to be able to make that vision come to life in everything. And ultimately that does build a brand, ‘cause the story you’re telling is consistent in everything you do. And when you slip up by accident – when you’re making water in a place that suddenly is now in a drought – you know how to [correct course], right? You know how to continue to live that way.
‘Cause we’re all human; we’re all gonna make mistakes, right – some bigger, some smaller. So when we do make mistakes, this then serves as a tool – how do I get back in alignment with that, what I said I want to be about? ‘Cause clearly I’m out of alignment.
D: Right, right. I bet we’re gonna have a lot of show notes. Would you say, Garrio? [Laughs] Which is great – which is great. It’s what we like to do. One funny thing I want to ask you about – so I looked at your link and profile, and I thought, this is perfect. It’s a picture of you reading–
P: [Laughs] I lack good photography of myself.
D: Well, no, no, I think it’s super telling. It’s kind of like, so, maybe “scholar” is an “architect” type, as well. But I thought that’s perfect. I mean, you do go out and engage people and you pull ‘em in.
You strike me as somebody who also needs to go store up energy and find inspiration. You’re out there mining, but it’s a somewhat solitary task, right?
P: Yeah. It’s – and going back to that first letter of my Myers-Briggs “introvert” – I’m an extrovert when I need to be. It gives you a percentage, roughly, at least the version I’ve taken, and I fall barely in the middle on the introvert side. So I’m not so introverted I have to hide all the time, but I do need to reserve energy and collect, like you’re saying, right? Also, I’m just curious and I’m a constant student. I just want to learn as much as I can; I never feel like I’ve learned enough. And I’ve got tons of books. Well, right now – a lot of ‘em are in storage that I haven’t read yet, but I intend to.
P: And I find myself – the most comfortable place I can be in [is] a Barnes & Noble, or in a library, surrounded by books. That’s a comforting feeling.
D: I happen to agree with you. [Laughs]
P: ‘Cause there’s knowledge around me that I could tap into.
D: Yeah, yeah. It’s all the potential–
D: Right there.
P: It is. The trouble with the Internet, if I don’t have a schedule drawn out for me, it becomes a black hole for – eight hours can disappear ‘cause I’m just going down rabbit holes clicking links ‘cause I’m curious about where these paths lead. So, yeah, I’m constantly taking in tons of information; and I’m always crashing chrome because I’ve got too many tabs open of things I want to read; and then I have to go either clear them or save them or read them and get ‘em off.
But, yeah, I love reading and observing and learning and breaking things down that I’m seeing; and figuring out how I can help apply that to the people that I work with, right? Once I get into a business with someone, I’ll see an article. I’m like, that article made me think this – I need to send that to this person and tell them, like, hey, you should read this and here are some thoughts. And sometimes I’m not so good at it, and what I intended to say wasn’t quite taken the way it was supposed to.
P: There’s some course correcting.
Do you have some kind of regular haunts – whether they’re websites, or publications, or books – that you return to because they keep paying off for you?
P: Let’s see, what do I do? So, yeah, I guess maybe less so about sources. I mean, I get
Inc. Magazine and Fortune magazine – I’m a subscriber to them. I have been a subscriber to many magazines over time, and I’ve let a lot of ‘em go. But Inc. and Fortune I hang onto because they’re out interviewing leaders, right, and people who work with leaders. So I’m always looking at profiles to try and understand what makes these people tick; what makes them make good decisions; what doesn’t.
I’ll turn to Harvard Business Review every now and then when they’ve got case studies on things that interest me. But, really, the biggest sources of information for me come from my somewhat random, but mostly curated Twitter following. I intentionally have always followed a variety of people in fields that interest me, and it’s never consistent; it’s just like, oh, that guy should learn about what architects think, so I’ll find architects on Twitter to follow. Or, I should follow more cultural anthropologists to see what they’re sharing, so I’ll follow a bunch of them.
My Twitter following ended up being this, like, really broad mix of people. The great thing about Twitter, that I don’t know it as being talked about enough or seen enough, is that it’s a place where a lot of people who are influential share their thinking, or share links to stuff that they’re interested in. It’s not a great place for conversation, but it’s a great place to see what leaders in different fields are really interested in. As I have grown my Twitter following, I turn to tools. A new one that I’ve been using is Nuzzel, and then I think it’s Quibb, maybe. Anyway, both of these things essentially look at your Twitter following and find commonly-shared articles from people you follow, and prioritize them and surface them.
D: Oh, so you can kind of see what’s been shared the most in your–
P: Yeah. So Nuzzle looks at who’s been shared the most – what’s been shared the most by the people you’re following at this minute. It surfaces like, oh, “Eight people have shared this link.” Like, okay, I’ll look at that, yeah, that’s one I should be paying attention to.
And I think Quibb, and I may have that name wrong, and I can send you the correct name if it’s wrong. But that’s more like they try to build out those influencer networks. It’s like people that – they’ve been selective about who they let into it, and it can’t be too selective ‘cause I got into it eventually.
But, then, it surfaces things that people there are sharing, and sometimes there’s a crossover between the two, right? And I’m like, okay, so I’ve seen that in Nuzzle, and now I see it here; I’m definitely popping that link open and reading it. Between those two sources, and just following people that I have in Twitter, it feeds me tons of stuff. Between the two, it’s really going out deep into blogs of people who are influential developers or thinkers about different things, right? So, that’s where I get exposed to a lot of stuff.
And, recently, in the last year and a half, [I’ve] picked up listening to podcasts. My favorite one that I’m listening to, or had been listening to in the last year-and-a-half, is Andreessen Horowitz’s A16Z podcast, where they’re just talking about what’s going; what are they interested in; where are things going.
Another one that the guys of Y Combinator – it’s basically their course at Stanford, I don’t know if they still teach or not: How to Start a Startup. And so they bring in like Peter Thiel and the guy from – the guy at B & B. And different courses have different guest lecturers, and they’re just talking about different elements of starting a startup. I’ll find myself walking and listening to those and having to pile up the podcast, jumping in every now [and then] – and like voice dictate a note–
P: . . . and then jump back into the podcast, rewind the podcast ‘cause I missed something. But it’s these things that–
D: You just described a use case for a startup there.
P: Yeah. [Laughs]
D: Being able to actually, like, affectively annotate and collect, and do something with all that stuff.
P: If anyone’s listening that makes podcast apps…
P: I need a podcast app that will take voice dictation notes while you’re listening, right? ‘Cause…it triggers all these thoughts in my mind while I’m listening to these podcasts. And the crazy thing about these podcasts, just like the Internet, and just like Twitter – they start referencing other podcasts that they listen to. And so the next thing I know I’m subscribing to a new podcast, or going and finding a specific episode in a podcast that they referenced, and I’m listening to that.
That’s almost just like the friends and relationships that I’ve developed in real life with some great people here in the Twin Cities; they’re constantly feeding me stuff ‘cause they know I’ve got this curiosity, so they’re like, “Have you seen this. Have you seen this? Have you seen this?” It just opens so many floodgates, right? It’s this constant studious nature of wanting to take in as much as I possibly can. Hopefully not too much of it is junk.
D: Yeah, well, that’s what you do, though; you take it all in and then you synthesize it, you filter it, and the junk goes away.
D: So, where can people – are you still writing at all?
P: I’ve not been. It’s something I know I need to get back to.
D: Okay. Is there a graveyard of your old–
The graveyard of my stuff – you can use paulisakson.com to point back to it.
I think that’s also what my Twitter profile links to, which is just my name: Paul Isakson. And that’s like the graveyard of all my writing that I did for a long time. There’s a few posts that link from there that I did on Medium a while back. But I really haven’t written anything for a long time, because I’ve been so focused on this framework, and how to apply it, and how to evolve it; all my focus has been there. Then, [I’m] working with different clients to actually bring it to life and make it happen. So I backed off on the writing. I need to get back to it; I know I need to and I will. Or maybe I’ll do a podcast instead, ‘cause I enjoy those more than I writing, possibly.
D: Writing’s work.
P: Writing is a lot of work. But, yeah, that’s where it is. And I think, in the short term, my Linked-In profile is a great place to kind of keep track of what I’m doing, ‘cause I evolve the language that I’m using there as I learn, like, how do I want to construct this. I want to build a business around what I’m doing; not just be me, but also like bring in some people who can augment, support, and help me even make it better and add to it. So that we’re not just helping leaders create this framework, but we’re helping them then apply it, figuring out how to do that, and where to do that.
D: Well, important work. If you can help more people do something that’s true, and then do something that’s true at scale – ‘cause, really, we’re gonna have healthier businesses that people are glad to have on the planet.
P: That gets back to that bigger thing that was just eating at me while I was at Colle McVoy;
I want to help. I know I can’t do it on my own, and it’s gonna be impossible, but I want to help change the business world to where all businesses are thinking this way – of what good can they do in the world, bigger than making money.
P: Right. Yes, money is important, and we need to be able to make money, but what good can we do in the world to make this a better place? This is why I love Elon Musk, right; he’s trying to save humanity from itself in every business that he’s creating, you know? How do we keep us from screwing up too bad? And if we do screw up real bad, how do we go on Mars and start over?
D: How do I ensure the survival of the species? That’s a good mission statement. Well, Paul, thank you very much for your time.
D: This is great. I’m lookin’ forward to next week. I think it’s gonna be a cool session. We’re gonna have to sit down and outline that because, again, there’s so much you could talk about.
D: We’ll have to figure out how do you actually do this in the space of, you know–
D: …forty minutes. So, but that’s gonna be a lot of fun. If anybody catches this prior to that, that’s gonna be, what – I think Thursday?
P: Friday? Or Thursday? I have Friday on my calendar.
D: Alright, we don’t–
P: [Laughs] If this makes Thursday, let me know.
D: We’ll post the event in the show notes so that nobody will be misled. I think we’re even gonna buy some pizza, too.
D: Food provided, yeah.
D: Alright. Well, thanks again.
P: Yeah, thank you. This was fun.