Focus on Top Level Shit with Jen Gotch
We asked some of our Paper Camp alumni who joined us at Business Camp to provide recaps and highlights from some of their favorite conference sessions. Building A Brand + Surviving Biz Growth by Jen Gotch of Ban.do was one of our keynote speeches, and we’re so thankful that Sarah Almond of Shed Letterpress is sharing all the tips, fun, and inspiration below. Read on and let us know how you’re focusing on your top-level work.
Real Talk: Focusing on Top Level Shit with Jen Gotch of Ban.do
By Sarah Almond
Y’all. I have a confession to make. The words “brand” and “branding” have always freaked me out. I have a copy of a book, “Branding Basics” (ordered in one of those hopeful moments from Amazon at 1 AM) on my business bookshelf that sits, day after day, untouched, mocking me. The truth of the matter is, I started a letterpress stationery business because I really liked printing—and also because my career in the book publishing industry had gotten kind of boring and the idea of making things that other people might want really appealed to me, and…well, because I was a former acting major with a creative writing degree and it seemed like making my own career was probably my best bet, all things considered.
But…branding? Business growth? Both seemed like such MBA concepts, corporate concepts, concepts that I just couldn’t wrap my creatively-identified head around. I struggled with it, and my business, Shed Letterpress, struggled because of it, and then—poof!— my magical fairy-godmother appeared at Biz Camp in the form of Ban.do’s refreshingly honest and self-deprecating Jen Gotch.
A self-described “late bloomer,” Jen walked us through the detour-heavy timeline of her life so far, starting in 1993 with a Literature and Philosophy double-major (my kind of girl!) and guiding us through ten years of jobs as a personal shopper, art teacher, cleaning woman, food and prop stylist, copywriter, and owner of a questionably-profitable vintage business called “Vincent’s Ear and Other Lost Treasures.” She illustrated how her photography hobby and subsequent daily blog led her to professional success as a photographer, culminating in a cover shoot for Real Simple magazine in 2008. And then, finally, she showed us how a small headband business started with a buddy in 2008 became the very same Ban.do we all know and love.
Here’s the deal: it wasn’t easy. Even with early and immediate attention from media outlets such as Daily Candy and Nylon Magazine, as well as orders from Anthropologie, Ban.do’s growth as a business was far from rapid, and involved huge sacrifices, like the loss of Jen’s house, which she had leveraged to help fund the growing company, as well as the original partnership that founded the brand. “I thought we were gonna skyrocket, but our growth has been really slow,” she said.
Jen expressed her frustration with the niche market that she had created for her company when it was still focused on headwear, as well as the lack of growth potential in making one-off creations, and was sincere about the happy accidents that led to Ban.do’s brand position as a provider fun, girly accessories and gifts. And here’s where the fairy godmother stuff comes in…Jen shared a list of ten things she learned along the way, showing this skeptical late bloomer that business school terms can be part of a larger story that is deeply personal and open to organic change. Here are Jen’s tips along with some of my notes from each.
Building a strong brand is the smartest thing that you can do—if you can tell a story along with it, your brand can last for years and withstand all kinds of changes.
Compare yourself to the big guys, but be realistic about your resources—you might not have gone to business school, but you’re following a dream.
Make cool stuff—the cool stuff is what keeps you interested!
It’s all in the details—just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t still do dope stuff. Make sure that your audience knows that there’s a creative person behind it all, trying to get her ideas out there in an organized way.
Pay attention to social media—it’s very useful and often free! “We run our social media like the Kardashians,” Jen joked, and said that it has been a huge factor in Ban.do’s growth. She also advised Biz Campers to tell their story in a visual and inspiring way.
Listen to your customers—they’re not always right, but it’s still good to hear what they are saying. One person asking for something is one thing, but 150? Maybe it’s time to make a new product!
Communication and context—business shorthand stops working as your business grows. Formalize things like contracts, agreements, customer service, and the like.
Be prepared to relinquish some control as your business gets bigger—not doing so will affect the your ability to grow.
Focus on top level shit—my favorite piece of advice, and if Instagram reposts are any indication, most Biz Campers’ biggest takeaway from Jen’s talk. Compare the little chores against big choices that will move your business forward. Do it EVERY DAY.
Say no—then say yes sometimes, too.
Maybe it’s just me, but hearing these words of advice from a real, live awesome lady with great style and a fearless commitment to keeping it real inspired me in a way that “Branding Basics” is just never going to. This was real talk, R-Kelly style: I could see myself in her journey, in her struggles, in her decisions. But, even more than that, I could see her in Ban.do.
And you know what? That’s what finally helped me come to what was probably my biggest revelation of the entire Biz Camp experience—branding isn’t just some concept that I need to wrap my head around. Branding, and the growth of my brand and the myriad other brands I came into contact with at Biz Camp, is personal. And it’s personal because it’s us—an amazing, inspired group of small business owners convinced that what we have to offer the world has value, and is fun, and that others can and will agree with us. And, if all else fails, according to Jen, “Dancing solves most problems.” You’ll find me dancing it out until my next top level idea comes along.
Sarah Almond is a former actor, sometime writer, and the owner of Shed Letterpress, a small letterpress greeting card company that combines modern sentiments with vintage design. She lives and works in Durham, North Carolina with her awesome dog, Stella.
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