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Dropping the Icon: Tom Burrell

Dropping the Icon: Tom Burrell

The story of the other Marlboro Man

Tom Burrell is rightly a truly famous advertising executive. His story is that of someone who went from the mailroom to chairman of his own very successful agency. He was “the first Black person to work in a Chicago advertising agency.”

He started working in the mailroom of Wade Advertising in 1961 and when the situation presented itself, he pitched some ideas to the creative director and got a position as a junior copywriter.

Burrell’s first accounts were Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour and Alka-Seltzer, and he recalls, “I had no contact with the client. It was radical enough for a Black person to be working in an agency. Presenting that person to a client was another three or four steps ahead.”

He does not hold that against the agency; “I was extremely fortunate to be working in a milieu of really positive people. I never had any racial issues with a hundred and some-odd people who were working at that agency, which I think was very unusual.”

Over the next ten years, he worked at Leo Burnett Company, Foote Cone and Belding and Needham Harper & Steers.

Then in 1971, he and his friend Emmett McBain founded their own agency, Burrell McBain. In 1974 he bought McBain out and renamed the agency, Burrell Communications Group.

It was at Burrell McBain he created what is, perhaps, his most famous campaign, the Black Marlboro Man.

In 1970 Philip Morris wanted to spread the reach of Marlboro cigarettes to the African American community. The face of the brand was The Marlboro Man, and the prevailing understanding of the time was that to appeal to a Black audience all you needed to do was to take the white people in an ad and replace them with Black people.

And that was what Philip Morris tried. Morris’ ads featured cowboys, complete with horses, lassos, and Stetsons just instead of being white, they were Black.

The ads were a failure.

Philip Morris decided to turn to Burrell who had a revolutionary philosophy for the time. He summed it up quite simply: “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

What he did was to look past the cowboy and identified the essence that the white Marlboro epitomised: he was independent, assured and utterly cool.

So, Burrell dropped the cowboy and replaced him with a young cosmopolitan Black man, woven into the fabric of the Black community and its culture. He was an authentic and far more relatable figure for the Black audience to whom Marlboro wanted to appeal.

Looking back on the original approach Morris took, Burrell was characteristically succinct in his view of the original approach. In 2015 he said to NPR, “The last thing I want to do is go back a hundred years with a bunch of rural, cowboy white guys—doesn’t sound too safe”.

Burrell went on and developed campaigns for other iconic brands, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. He retired in 2004 but remains chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications. In a 2018 interview, he recalled that “We got rid of the cowboy and we had the coolest guys that we could come up with going through their daily activities, smoking. That was huge.”

His impact on advertising was immense and continues to this day. NPR reporter Sonali Gibson, who interviewed Tom Burrell in 2015, says, “I feel like what Burrell did open the door for the kind of ethnic micro-targeting that we see today. […] When you see an ad that seems like it was made especially for you, you’re probably right. And we have Tom Burrell to thank for it.”

The effects of his work and words can still be felt today. he showed how diverse talent can brings real value companies. Creative thinking and innovative strategies can only go so far when everyone in the room looks the same, thinks the same or comes from the same background. Through his boldness, the world learnt how we create better campaigns and brand strategies to truly connect with the diverse world we’re all trying to reach

What’s in a name? Stay calm and build a brand.

What’s in a name? Stay calm and build a brand.

What’s in a name? Well, if it’s the right name it could be the basis for a brand valued at over $2billion.

For Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew, both of whom have previous when it comes to start-ups, it was a name that was to prove the inspiration for their next big thing – Calm.

And big it is. More than 100 million people now have Calm, after a huge surge in downloads during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a brand that seems to have been built on a mass of contractions; it delivers an ancient practice via that essential tool of modern life your smartphone, it is a tension busting app on a piece of technology that causes huge amounts of anxiety, it is a highly active and rapidly growing start-up that sells doing nothing.

Prior to co-founding Calm, Michael Acton Smith was perhaps most famous for an online game called Moshi Monsters which caught on caught with a mere 80 million kids. However just as he was dreaming of becoming the next Disney, user-growth stopped almost overnight. As Acton Smith later told Inc; “It was a really humbling, painful lesson.”

Alex Tew was famous for a site called the Million Dollar Homepage which he built to help finance his business-management degree while a student at Nottingham University.

The idea was to sell blocks of a home page that consisted of a million pixels. The cost was $1 per pixel and they were sold in 10 × 10 blocks. Purchasers then provided tiny images to be displayed on these blocks and a slogan that would be displayed when anyone hovered over their block with their cursor. The final 1,000 pixels were put up for auction on eBay and went for $38,100, which meant the final total was $1,037,100.

Tew however dropped out of the course after just one term.

The two were introduced at a party on a houseboat on the Thames. Acton Smith recalls “I remember reading about the Million Dollar Homepage and thinking, Wow, this chap is either incredibly obnoxious or a genius.”

Clearly it was the latter, as they ended up becoming roommates in London’s Soho. There they would play video games and swap on business ideas.

It was during this period that the pair heard that the domain name was coming up for auction and as Acton Smith puts it “We saw it and thought, Wow, what a domain!” and immediately they started wondering “Should we try and buy it? We can build the world’s most incredible brand.”

Tew was already a dedicated meditator. It is something that he says helped him manage the stresses and strains of founding and running a business.

 Acton Smith was a more sceptical. “I didn’t really understand it,” he said. “It just felt a bit weird and strange, and I thought it had religious connotations.” For him it was a bit “woo-woo.”

However, under ‘pressure’ from Tew, he started reading around the subject, and became a convert “Wow, this is actually neuroscience. This is a way of rewiring the human brain. It’s one of the most valuable skills for Western society.”

Studies show that as little as 10 minutes of daily meditation lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, while improving mood and reducing the incidence of anxiety and depression. It makes people more focused, more self-aware, more resilient, and happier too.

Not surprisingly the pair translated this  as a brand whose aim is to help people “Find their Calm” and they adopted a mission “to make the world happier and healthier.”

The two bought the domain name for less than the $1 million its owner wanted, though they decline to say just how much they did pay for it.

Tew built a few early versions and moved to California in 2011 to try and take advantage of its large pool of investors and engineering talent, not to mention an audience they felt would be open to its claims and willing to pay for. Acton Smith joined Tew in California a few years later.

Calm was launched as a website in 2012 and the app in early 2013.

Its success is in part down to an approach that makes meditation simple, accessible, friendly and not overly spiritual. It avoids using any Buddhist terminology.

Now it’s looking to build on its success. It is producing products including books, films, puzzles, meditation cushions, and weighted blankets. It is expanding into corporate partnerships, offering meditations on American Airlines and in UK Uber rides. Corporate partners include GE and 3M.

It even has ambitions to move into hospitality. There is a plan for an island retreat “We were inspired by Richard Branson buying Necker Island all those years ago,” Acton Smith says. A second inspiration is a more accessible one and one Acton Smith has previously aspired to emulate – Disney with its theme parks.

And the moral is names don’t always come after the idea for a new brand, they can be a source of inspiration. Pick a name you would love to own and think what brand you would create under it.

Celebrity sells medicines – then and now

Celebrity sells medicines – then and now

Seeing the steady stream of celebrities being used to encourage us to have our COVID vaccinations reminded me of a story I wrote about an early use of celebrity endorsement which helped successfully launch a new treatment.


If Beyoncé and Jay Z may be America’s “it” couple now, if you went back to the mid 1930’s it would have been FDR Jr and Ethel Du Pont.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr was a Harvard student and the eldest son of the President of the United States. Ethel du Pont was the heir to the du Pont family fortune and so one of the richest socialites of her day. The paparazzi loved them and followed them to every event they attended, and their pictures filled the society pages.

Attending the Hock Popo Ski Club party at the Agawam Hunt Club, Rhode Island, in November 1936 was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor, at first, was the sore throat and slight cough that FDR Jr complained of the next day. It hadn’t even been bad enough for him and Ethel to leave the party early.

However, things soon changed. The throat got worse and a few days later FDR Jr had a fever and was put to bed. Just before Thanksgiving, and now diagnosed with an acute sinus infection he was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Still nothing too much out of the ordinary or so everyone thought. He was a strong young man, and with some rest and something to take the fever down all would be well again.

Only it wasn’t. The infection didn’t clear up and in fact got worse. He remained in hospital. His mother, Eleanor Roosevelt was getting more and more worried and insisted on a new doctor, a top doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat.

Checking over his new patient the doctor was very concerned, there was a tender spot under his cheek which looked like it was infected and the beginnings of an abscess. He immediately took a sample and discovered a highly dangerous strain of strep, one that could release poisons and other infections into the blood stream. If that happened it could ultimately lead to the death of the President’s son.

While the White House medical staff considered the option of a risky surgical procedure, the new doctor remembered reading some reports about a new drug, Prontosil, developed by Bayer in Germany. The reports spoke of near miraculous results and initial tests at John Hopkins were also very positive.

He recommended it to Mrs. Roosevelt.

At first, she wasn’t sure but having read more about it and in the face of the still worsening condition of her son, she agreed.

Some carefully wrapped glass phials were duly shipped from Germany to the USA.

The doctor gave him a dose and followed it with further doses every hour.

Ethel sat in the room with FDR Jr, his mother sat outside working on correspondence. At first nothing seemed to be happening and the hours seem to stretch on and on but in the morning, things started to change.

The swelling around the abscess looked like it was shrinking. FDR Jr was sleeping better and seemed to have more energy when he was awake. Later that day his fever broke.

The doctors were amazed; never before, had they seen a strep case that was resolved so well and so quickly.

FDR Jr was released a few days after Christmas.

He would later marry Ethel (the first of his five wives), be decorated for his service in WWII and go onto serve three terms in Congress.

However, what he also did was prove that celebrity sells. Headlines in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers, the story of his recovery, and the role of the new wonder drug, heralded the start of the era of antibacterial chemotherapy in the United States.

MORAL: Celebrity sells. Is there a role for celebrity endorsement in your marketing?

Footnote: Eleanor Roosevelt had her own brush with celebrity endorsement. She agreed to do a commercial for Good Luck Margarine in which she said, “The new Good Luck Margarine really tastes delicious.” Not only did the brand fail, it wasn’t all good news for Mrs. Roosevelt either. Asked about it some time later she recalled getting a sack full of letters in which “one half was sad because I had damaged my reputation and the other were happy that I had damaged my reputation.”   

It’s just a game – Lumosity

It’s just a game – Lumosity

‘Medicine’ and ‘fun’ don’t sound like they go together. Medicine is all about science, laboratories and research. It’s serious and professional. On the other hand, ‘fun’ is about playing games and laughter. It’s light-hearted and enjoyable.

However, it’s the clever combination of the two that has led to the development and marketing of a brand which 14 years after its launch has over 100 million members.

The brand employs everyone from neuroscientists to visual artists.

The brand is Lumosity and its parent company is Lumos Labs.

Mike Scanlon is, by training, a neuroscientist- a specialist in brain plasticity; the brain’s ability to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or in the external environment. It’s an interest which he recognizes was in part motivated by his family history. Both his grandmothers suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

He had moved to California after college to further study neuroscience at Stanford and while there he got in touch with Kunal Sarkar an old college friend who was living in San Francisco and working at a private-equity firm.

The friends got together often and talked about the possibility to take advantage of the brain’s plasticity to improve cognitive abilities. The basis of the idea was what we now know as ‘gamification’, a concept that was already being applied in other marketing sectors. They wondered if they could take brain training to the next level.

Scanlon recognized that for years researchers has created tasks to measure cognitive abilities. These were most often used during in-person studies in a lab using pen and paper. Their idea was simple – could scientists and game designers work together to turn common cognitive and neuropsychological research tasks into exciting games which hopefully would improving the user’s brain’s ability in a way that felt like fun, not hard work?

In 2005, Sarkar quit his job, Scanlon took a leave of absence from Stanford, and they teamed up with Dave Drescher, a technology expert with the aim of creating a palette of online games said to help sharpen memory, attention, and other brain functions.

Their classic games have clear links back to well-known scientific tests.

Lumosity’s Color Match is inspired by the Stroop Test, a classic task first published in 1935. It measures your ability to focus on the difference between naming a color used in the letterforms of a word, even if the text of the word conveys a different color. Color Match tests should, over time, improve your ability to suppress your response to what the word says and focus on how the word looks. It challenges your response inhibition: the ability to quash inappropriate responses that get in the way of your goal.

Lost in Migration is based on the 1974 Flanker Task, which challenges selective attention: your ability to ignore distracting details and focus only on the target. Just like the original Flanker Task, Lost in Migration challenges you to respond to the central target — in this case, a bird — and ignore distracting information from the surrounding flankers. launched in 2007 and since then has grown rapidly.

The team see links with academia as vital for the long-term future, not least because they are still seeking strong independent research that their games do actually deliver improvements. Therefore, Lumos Labs is involved in the Human Cognition Project which has partnerships with more than 100 different collaborators at University level. This partnership allows qualified research professionals to make use of the tools and tasks available through Lumosity in order to assist them in conducting studies.

One other challenge that this interesting melting pot of expertise raises is how engineers, designers, artists and researchers can work side by side to create effective products and services, despite different mindsets, goals and timelines. Research is measured in years, game development in months.

According to Scanlon, “The one key thing that has really helped to resolve a lot of those challenges is that everyone has the same mission at the end of the day. I think everyone at our company is in part there because they believe in the mission of improving people’s brain health. So, you can resolve a lot of conflict by taking a step back.” Scanlon as a non-marketer may not realize it but he is expressing a well-known marketing principle namely the need for a clear brand purpose.

MORAL: Who knew medicine can be ‘fun’. How could you use gamification in your product and service development?

The first cut is the kindest – Casa de la Amistad

The first cut is the kindest – Casa de la Amistad

Here is your lateral thinking test.

In Mexico, childhood cancer is the main cause of death from the disease amongst children aged between 5 and 14. About 5,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. Many of these children lose all their hair and with it their confidence. Making a good wig is expensive as it needs a lot of undyed human hair. One wig can cost $1500.

Traditionally, not-for-profit organizations have targeted women. Your challenge is to come up with an alternative group who could be targeted.  And for bonus points how will you get them to donate their hair freely?




Not an easy one, is it?

You might want some creative thinkers to help.

That’s what “Casa de la Amistad” (Friendship House), a non-profit organization that supports children with cancer and living in poverty, decided. They approached Ogilvy and Mather (Mexico) and asked for their help.

The objective they set, was to obtain donor hair to make wigs for these children and restore their self-esteem during their treatment.

Their answer was to mix medicine and ‘metalheads’ heavy metal music lovers and at the heart of their idea was The Hair Fest. It would be the first festival in the world for which the entrance fee wasn’t money but hair.

The Hair Fest would take place in Mexico City in April 2014 and nine of the biggest Mexican Heavy Metal bands (Black Overdrive, Profanator, Raped God666, Intoxxicated, Voltax, Maligno, Los Viejos, Ágora and Luzbel) would play in a festival that would last 8 hours.

If you wanted a ticket and lots of metalheads did, they could get a ticket in exchange for 25cm of their hair.

The organizers set up podiums at the entrance to the site and provided stylists to do the actual cutting. It created a camaraderie and spectacle as those who had had their cut and those waiting could shout encouragement, support, respect or just generally make light of what was happening.

 (For those whose hair wasn’t long enough there was an option to buy a ticket)

The results were amazing, in terms of social media and awareness:

  • 9 million hits on social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
  • €500,000 worth of free media.

In terms of attendance:

  • They had expected 400 but over 1000 attended.

In recognition of Ogilvy’s creativity:

  • Hair Fest campaign won 2 silver lions in Cannes 2014 (the first in the ‘Shows’ category and the second one in ‘Charities’)

But most importantly in terms of success:

  • The events collected enough hair for 107 wigs.

MORAL: Lateral thinking can lead to new solutions. Can you identify a new ‘target audience’?

Don’t judge a bottle by its label.

Don’t judge a bottle by its label.

In previous brand stories I’ve told, there have been a few where brothers who started working together fell out and ended up going their own ways.

The most famous of these was the one about the Dassler brothers, Adolf and Rudolf, who founded the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers’ Shoe Factory).

They fell out and went on to form two separate and competitive brands – Adidas and Puma.

This story, however, tells of an incident over which the two brothers could easily have fallen out but instead together they made the most of their mistake which has in the end turned out to be part of their success.

The story starts in 1824, with their father, Dr. Johann Siegert who was Surgeon General for the Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar. Using a blend of herbs and spices, he created a medicinal tonic designed to be a cure for upset stomachs for the soldiers. Originally called Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters, it would later be renamed after the Venezuelan city of Angostura.

The bitters were first exported to the UK in 1830, and then in 1862 one of Siegert’s sons exhibited the bitters in England where they were mixed with gin – and the Pink Gin was born.

When Dr. Johann died in 1870, his two sons took over the business. They decided that to help them expand the business they should try and build greater awareness and so started competing in the many ‘drinks’ competitions throughout the world. Their aim was to showcase their product’s quality. 

However, when getting their samples ready for one of these competitions, there was a mix-up, the sort of thing that could have ended their partnership. Due to limited time available, the brothers agreed a division of labour; one brother was assigned the task of sourcing the bottles, while the other would oversee the designing and printing of the labels.

Both set to work, but when they came to get everything ready, there was a problem; the labels were too big for the bottles or looking at it the other way the bottles were too small for their labels.

With the competition rapidly approaching there wasn’t sufficient time to alter anything and the brothers had to go with what they had and luckily both were big enough not to just blame the other.

Angostura in its new ‘packaging’ unfortunately didn’t win the competition but all was not lost.

A friendly judge suggested the brothers keep the over-sized label (under-sized bottle) and make a feature out of it. He pointed out that it made the packaging distinctive and memorable.

The brothers agreed and kept the new look, and it has proved to be a powerful communication equity that has served the brand well over the years.

The brothers, I’m glad to say kept on running the business together but did try and make sure they aligned on things a bit better going forward.

And the moral is packaging is your ‘silent salesman’ and making it interesting, distinctive and memorable helps the silent salesman shout out from the shelf. Have you got a distinctive feature in your brand identity (and if not, why not?) 

I can show you how a company thinks.

I can show you how a company thinks.

Oliviero Toscani followed in his father’s footsteps and become a photographer. He obtained a diploma at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich> he went onto work with several high-profile fashion magazines, including Elle, Vogue, L’Uomo Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

In 1982 he became an Art Director for the Benetton Group and a year later, under his guidance, they launched a series of ads that were designed to be explicit celebrations of diversity and inclusivity. The “All the Colors of the World” campaign, promoted global harmony and featured young people of different nationalities and cultures dressed in bright colourful Benneton clothing.

However, in the early 1990s things would change for the campaign, for the brand and for Toscani.

In the first ad that signalled the changes that were coming, the line-up of teenagers was replaced by a line-up of test tubes… all filled with blood. Each vial was labelled with a different first name. The global inclusivity theme remained, as the names were ethnically diverse – Fidel, Kaifu, Helmut, Jiang, George, and Mikhail.

Future ads would continue to promote inclusivity, the imagery took a dramatic turn. Ads would feature a new-born baby still attached to an umbilical cord, a priest and a nun kissing, a man with AIDS lying on his deathbed, surrounded by his family, three raw hearts, with the words “white”, “black” and “yellow” written on each and a white woman, black woman and Asian baby wrapped up together in a blanket.

Explaining the move, Toscani would tell the New York Times: “I have found out that advertising is the richest and most powerful medium existing today, so I feel responsible to do more than to say, ‘Our sweater is pretty.’

The new style was divisive, people either loved it or hated it but few could ignore it. It made Benetton top-of-mind, but some questioned the tactics Toscani used; “was a fashion billboard the right place to present this type of controversial image?”

His reply: “Why would you want to see clothes in an advert? If you want to see the clothes, you can see them in our shops. On a billboard, I can show you how the company thinks, what it believes, what it represents. Advertising is primitive and powerful – it is more than art. People can look up and see it. And if they don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it.”

While sparking almost constant controversary in some country around the world, the company stood behind their principles, and their man. That was until the company faced a huge backlash in the USA following on from a campaign known as ‘We on Death Row’.

At first the company said the photographs “aim at giving back a human face to the prisoners on death row” but as more and more US states condemned the campaign and retail chains Sears and Roebuck & Co refused to sell Benetton products following protests from victims’ rights groups, something had to be done. Under the threat of boycotts and with sales falling, they parted company with Toscani.

Subsequently, the state of Missouri filed a lawsuit against Benetton over the campaign, alleging that Benetton had made false claims to state officials in gaining access to the prison and misrepresented the purpose of the interview. The case was settled out of court with Benetton, a formal apology from Benetton, an undertaking to send letters of apology to the families of the murder victims and commitment to a substantial charitable donation.

Many say he was sacked as a consequence, but Toscani denies this, standing by the brand. He says, “I left because Tina Brown asked me to work with her on Talk magazine, but the press wanted another reason because no one could believe that I wanted to leave Benetton at the height of my career. I have no regrets about those pictures – they were fantastic.”

And his loyalty and the success he had had, eventually led to his return in 2017. The first campaign on his second era featured his previous trademark of a diverse cast of models.  It was more upbeat, and more product led. It showed them smiling and holding bunches of flowers, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “gender-free zone” and “colours don’t have gender”. Toscani described the images as being “about integration, humanity and the end of discrimination.” Still reflecting the brand’s core belief in inclusivity.

It wasn’t long though, before he returned to ‘shock-vertising’, repurposing two photographs from 2018 migrant rescue operations by the Franco-German charity SOS Méditerranée for an advertising campaign.

However, his second stint was to be shorter and less successful.

He was sacked over comments he made about the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, that killed 43 people.  During a radio interview, he said, “Who cares that a bridge collapsed?” and “This story doesn’t interest me.”

Two days later, an unusually contrite Toscani apologised on Twitter saying that his comments “had been taken out of context” and in an interview on another radio programme he said that he was “destroyed and truly sorry.”

It was too much for Benetton, who fired him. They released a statement in which they said that Benetton “completely disassociates itself from Mr. Toscani’s remarks,” and were “renewing their sincere closeness to the families of the victims and to all those who have been involved in this terrible tragedy.” They went onto acknowledge “the impossibility of continuing the professional relationship with its creative director.”

It is a sad end for someone who inspired and still inspired many with his view that “Creativity is not based on security. Once you’re secure, you’re doing something that’s already been done.”

And the moral is, if a brand has a purpose it should be willing to stand up and champion it even if it can be divisive. What should and would your brand campaign for?

FOOTNOTE: In no way, condoning Toscani’s shameful comments about the bridge disaster, it is perhaps still interesting to consider that, at a time when brands are increasingly wanting to stand for something and to have a purpose beyond just making profit, that Toscani, and the Benetton campaign he created, remain a benchmark about how a brand can adopt unconventional and controversial approaches to advertising as a way that not only  connects with a younger generation but brings awareness to societal and environmental issues.

Four weddings and a business idea – the story and lessons of Zola

Four weddings and a business idea – the story and lessons of Zola

2013 seemed to be the year that all of Shan-Lyn Ma’s friends decided to get married. She went to a lot of weddings (actually more than four!) and bought a lot of gifts most from the different registries her friends had chosen. However, unlike many other guests her interest in those registries didn’t end with a purchase. She was amazed that it was one of the most painful ecommerce experiences she had ever had and working for Gilt Groupe she had the experience and expertise to know what she was talking about.

She mentioned it to Nobu Nakaguchi, her friend and colleague at Gilt. Having got married in 2005, Nobu had seen it from the couples’ point of view and said for him and his now wife it had been “painful”.

They decided to take a closer look at the different offers. They both agreed it was far from ideal. Nobu felt there had been little progress since he got married; while there was mobile app, their design and UX… (user experience) looked like they had not progressed very much at all.

Together they agreed that here was an opportunity for them: both had wanted to start their own business and here was the chance to address the problems that the existing registries just seemed to be ignoring.

They immediately recognized that many of the current engaged couples were different from previous generations. The majority lived together before marriage; these couples were getting married at an older age than previous generations, and that they managed their lives through their mobile devices.

They wanted to address the needs of these modern couples and re-imagine the registry from the ground-up; to be more flexible, convenient and fully personalized.

They talked to friends and family and friends of friends who were engaged or who had recently got married and discovered that most couples chose 2-3-4 different registries to cover all they wanted, making the process more complicated, so…

“We’re the only registry that lets couples register directly for products (like a Vitamix), experiences (wine tastings) and cash funds (for that honeymoon), all in one beautifully designed, easy to use registry” says Shan-Lyn.

Nobu who would become Zola’s Chief Design Officer recognized the need for a different experience. He instinctively understood that making a list of things you want your friends to buy for you was “a little weird” and the apps that were around at the time were basically functional check-out carts. Nobu and Shan-Lyn decided they wanted to change the conversation and make it more personal and wanted the experience to be like what people wanted their wedding to be – “beautiful.”

They also developed a business model based on ‘drop-shipping’ which was to prove to be a win-win.

Drop-shipping for Zola means that when they accept a customer’s order, they don’t actually fulfill it. Instead they transfer the order and the shipment details to the manufacturer or the relevant brand which then ships the goods directly to the couple. It is a form of supply chain management and, importantly, it means that Zola does not have to keep goods in stock. This eliminates the cost of maintaining a warehouse, storing inventory, and employing the necessary staff to fulfill the orders. Zola now has relationships with over 700 brands covering some 7000 products and is continuing to expand these

The second ‘win’ that Zola discovered, was that enabling couples to pick when they wanted their gifts delivered was also a real benefit. Many didn’t want their gifts immediately, as they were off on honeymoon or moving to a new space.

Zola launched late in 2103, initially as an online wedding registry. It was a success. As Shan-Lyn described it for every couple they acquired, they got free publicity to the 100 people or so who were guests at the wedding, and that helped spread the word.

Shan-Lyn and Nobu had, from the beginning, seen the registry as only one aspect of the whole wedding journey where they could help, and make things better. They wanted to be an integral part of the whole eco-system and describe their mission as:
‘to help couples from the day they get engaged through the whole wedding planning journey and into their first year of marriage.’

So, in 2017, they expanded, introducing wedding planning services. The free service includes wedding websites, guest lists, RSVP tracking, and customizable checklists.

Then in 2018 they introduced customized wedding invitations and save the dates.

Recognizing that for some of the products – like bedsheets for example –  the opportunity to see them and feel them, was important… so they trialed their first brick-and-mortar location; a pop-up shop in the Flatiron District of New York City.

As of February 2019, the company has a valuation of $600 million and looks set to become another unicorn (This is despite not having actually made a profit yet).

And the moral is, well morals…

identify an established industry where the (user) experience doesn’t live up to what the category deserves

understand and meet the needs of customers better than what has gone before

look to build a whole eco-system

Footnote: the name was suggested by Kevin Ryan’s son who was doing an internship at the business and was charged with finding all the possible words that could be linked to the business. Amongst his list was Zola – a Zulu word meaning love and happiness

To boldly go where no contact lens retailer had gone before – the story and lessons of the launch of Hubble

To boldly go where no contact lens retailer had gone before – the story and lessons of the launch of Hubble

The genealogy of Hubble is connected with Warby Parker one of the original next generation of start-up brands. Its co-founder Ben Cogan worked at Harry’s; the internet based shaving company which in turn was founded by one of the co-founders of Warby Parker.

It was a great learning experience for Cogan and when in 2015 he was confronted with a sudden rise in the price of his contact lens, he got to thinking whether there might be an opportunity for someone to undercut the current market and go straight to the consumer. In many ways it was a direct parallel to Harry’s where people had been starting to think they were being “ripped off” when buying Gillette razors.

With a little research, Cogan discovered that there are four big players in the contact lens market – J&J’s Acuvue, Valeant’s Bausch & Lomb, Cooper Vision and Novartis’s Alcon and that between them they had dominated the market for a long time. As he suspected their margins were very high. There were a few online retailers, but they re-sold the  existing brands and while they offered some discounts their mark-ups were still high so savings were great.

He decided it was time to get more serious.

Cogan had met Jesse Horwitz at a summer internship at hedge fund Bridgewater, and they had stayed friends and it was to him he turned when he started to plan the venture more thoroughly. Horwitz is a contact lens wearer too and recognized the issue and immediately saw the potential.

Together they decided to focus on the daily disposable market as it was the fastest growing sector and in the US prices were 25-50% higher than the rest of the world, which suggested to them that they should be able to undercut the current players if they could find the right supplier.

“Finding the right supplier was one of the most important things, because we felt it would give us a competitive advantage that would be difficult to match” said Cogan.

It didn’t prove to be that easy though. Firstly, they had to go through all the databases of FDA approved companies, a pre-requisite for the US market. They found several dozen but not sure who to focus on, the pair sent emails to them all, and got …not a single reply.

It dawned on them perhaps this wasn’t so surprising. As Horwitz later told author Lawrence Ingrassia that “they [the suppliers] had no idea who we were. It was a cold-call e-mail, and they didn’t get back to us”

They realized that they needed expert help which they found in Bret Andre who was a consultant who helped steer foreign countries through the process of getting FDA approval. Another was Brian Levy, a former chief medical officer at one of the industry big players Bausch & Lomb. 

Now able to drop Andre and Levy names in a new round of approaches, Cogan and Horwitz started getting a good response. With a shortlist emerging, they asked for samples to allow them to judge quality and comfort and in the classic start-up approach they got friends and family to act as their research sample.

The big question was however going to be price as their business model depended on securing an attractive wholesale cost. The best prices were available on lenses made with hydrogel and not the newer, slightly higher quality and higher priced silicone hydrogel. Both have similar properties when it comes to important features like pliability and porosity, though silicone hydrogel does allow some more oxygen through.

What Levy was able to tell the two co-founders was that whilst most studies showed some preference for the newer material it wasn’t a huge or fundamental difference and indeed sometimes it just came down to personal preference. Levy also knew that the older hydrogel lenses were still commonly used and were perfectly safe. In the end as with other next generation start-up brands like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s that compete heavily on price, it wasn’t about having the best and latest technology but having a good enough product at a very attractive price.

This helped further narrow the list down and the four went to Taiwan to visit the short-list of four companies who were all based there. Three fell by the wayside leaving just one but just as Cogan and Horwitz were getting close to finalizing a deal and a price with the last candidate, Levy and Andre came to them with a problem. They had found evidence that FDA had concerns about the company’s testing procedures. As Cogan would later say “We dodged a bullet”

There was a real danger that the trip would end without a deal, so they decided to visit one last and additional potential supplier in Taiwan who hadn’t even been on the original short-list.

Luckily for them they did and even more luckily the company St. Shine was actively looking for a way into the US market. A deal was struck, and they had managed to secure not only the lenses they needed at a good price but they agreed an exclusivity clause so St. Shine would only deal with them in the U.S.

Things moved quickly from there. With a deal in place Cogan and Horwitz secured more backing to the tune of $3.5million allowing them to quit their jobs and focus on getting the company off the ground.

Recognizing that how they came across to what they expected to be a young and fashion-conscious audience, they now focused on developing the brand look and feel and the choosing of a name.

With regard to the look and feel, the brief they set themselves was would the user be happy to take the packaging out of the medicine cabinet and put it on their coffee table, which led to them choosing a stylish baby blue pack.

“Having a nicer box makes a difference. We designed them with this firm in Brooklyn called Athletics. There’s nothing magical about it. But if you look at the other resellers, they haven’t been redesigned in 20 years”, says Cogan.

As for the name, Cogan’s dad deserves the credit according to his son. Cogan (Ben) told “Ventures Unplugged” that his dad was inspired by Ben’s girlfriend, who went to Princeton and is an astrophysicist. She worked with the Hubble space telescope and he thought that it would make a great brand name. The team really liked it because it was modern, aspirational and was related to vision. Much to everyone’s surprise when they checked it hadn’t been trademarked so they quickly registered it for themselves.

The brand launched in November 2016 and whilst not without some challenges the brand has been growing fast ever since.

And the moral is, well the morals are…

Solve a personal problem…one that affects you and is something you care about

Find a partner, a co-conspirator who you like and trust to help and don’t be afraid to find expert help.

Find the right producer, not necessarily the one with the latest technology

Add a coolness factor in a staid product field.

Zwift – an archetype for a new age

Zwift – an archetype for a new age

Zwift is an archetypal new generation brand.

It was founded by a serial entrepreneur, someone who had previously set up other technology-based brands, in this case Sakonnet Technology. There are parallels here with Uber, Chewy and GoPro, to mention just three others founded by serial entrepreneurs.

It’s a brand that has allowed Eric Min and his co-founders to turn their passion into profits. Chewy set up by its dog-loving founders is another classic example.

It solved a problem the founder had personally, in this case the monotony of indoor cycling. For the founders of Warby Parker it was the high price of new glasses.

 It’s a technology-based brand rather than a brand that sees itself in a market to disrupt. Uber sees itself as a technology platform brand, as does AirBnB. Zwift too sees itself as a platform, though sometimes it describes itself as an entertainment company.

It has cleverly combined different elements and made 1+1=3.

It has an aspirational vision “to create the most engaged and socially active fitness platform.” Maybe not as worthy as some, like Google, but clear and directional, allowing scope for expansion.

It has and tells its own story…and this is my take on that story based mainly on interviews Eric Min and Jon Mayfield have given and shared on the Zwift website.

It begins with a seven-year-old Eric learning to cycle, a good start but as in many stories then came a setback. Just as he was getting proficient his family relocated to NYC, not somewhere conducive to young children cycling. It would be another seven years before Eric was able to rediscover cycling. One of his friends, Travis Millman, introduced him to what he now calls “proper cycling” showing off his Kotobuki touring bike, Bell helmet, and leather gloves. Eric remembers being hooked instantly and he joined a local racing club. While still enamoured with riding and the gear that went with it, he remembers that “it was the sense of community, camaraderie and competitiveness that led me to fall in love with cycling.” He found he loved the friendly competition during training or social rides even more than racing.

Eric Min

Despite it being “a mind-numbing experience” he started riding indoors when he was 15 years old, as it allowed him to maintain his fitness over the cold, wet and snowy winters or leading up to an important event. However, h really missed the social aspect of training.

He continued to cycle over the years while he was working at JP Morgan and then in 1998 he set up Sakonnet Technology with Alarik Myrin. They sold it in 2012/3 and decided to look for the next venture. Eric’s older brother Ji told him to stick to what he knew best which fitted with Alarik’s suggestion that he should take a look at cycling.

So reflecting on his current cycling routine, he realised that because of work and family commitments he rarely got outside on his bike and he was doing most of his riding indoors, which just wasn’t as enjoyable.

This led to what Eric calls his “moment of eureka”. He thought “What if we could take something that was historically mind numbing and turn it into entertainment? What if we could take advantage of video game technology, social networks, and friendly competition, and package that experience for the indoor cyclist?”

He started to sound other cycling friends out about the idea and they were all encouraging. He decided to explore the possibility more thoroughly and convinced an old friend and fellow cyclist to join him. They travelled across the US and Europe speaking to enthusiasts and industry professionals seeing if they were interested and also checking no-one else was working on something similar already. Getting a positive response and hearing no-one else had the same vision they decided to ramp up the project.

It was about this time that Min saw an online post by a programmer called Jon Mayfield in which he described a “3D trainer program” he was developing as a hobby project. Min promptly contacted Jon and arranged to meet.

Jon Mayfield

Jon was a cycling ‘addict’ too and rather like Eric the realities of being a responsible adult and father got in the way of his riding. So, he too had taken up riding indoors and like others found it “awfully boring”.  With few other options and having made video games for a dozen years he decided to see if he could do something for himself. Starting in the Christmas vacation in 2010 he began writing the first lines of code in his spare bedroom. Over the next 2-3 years he would do another couple of hours here and there when he could, creating both the code and art.

Jon’s hobby project

Occasionally, he’d post about his software on various Internet forums and it was one of these that Eric saw. Jon too remembers the first meeting. “Hands were shook, partnerships formed, and at the end of January 2014, I quit my job. The future of indoor cycling was underway.”

Looking back on that first meeting Eric recalls how impressed he was with what Mayfield had already done: “It helped us to visualize the experience we wanted to create. It didn’t take long to convince Jon to join us as a founding member of Zwift. The rest is history.”

So early in 2014, Jon Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barger and Alarik Myrin co-founded Zwift Inc. Zwift was chosen as the name as the team felt it combined motion and fun, two of the key elements of the brand.

The first ‘world’ the team created was “Jarvis Island” and it was released as an invite-only beta product on September 30, 2014. They had 1,000 places to fill but were surprised and delighted when they got 13,000 applications.

The launch reflected the global ambitions of the brand and its ability to link people across continents, it took place simultaneously in Rapha Clubhouses in London, New York City and San Francisco.

By May 2015 Zwift had moved into open beta and a virtual version of the Richmond (Virginia) 2015 UCI Road World Championships Course was introduced on September 3, 2015.

On October 30, 2015, Zwift launched as a fully-fledged product with a $10 monthly subscription fee. Since then it has accelerated away and today sees itself as an entertainment company catering to the cyclist and the runner but looking for further future potential.

And the moral is … some stories have lots of morals, lots of lessons