What I learned starting a brand from scratch

Recently, I set a challenge for myself: Create a product and start a brand.

I work in advertising, which I love (don’t get me wrong). But I’m always creating work for other brands. I wanted to do something for me. My own brand. And in the process, learn about launching a product from scratch. (Plus, I may have listened to one too many How I Built This episodes, ha.)

For reasons you can read about here, I thought it’d be funny to make a jokey fragrance called Validation, specifically for my peers in the advertising, creative, and startup industries. Something we’d all get a kick out of.

I teamed up with my friend and art director Johnross Post and we spent nights and weekends tinkering with it.

We’ve since brought the project to a close and are moving on to other things. (Spoiler Alert: We didn’t end up becoming fragrance moguls after all.)

Here’s What I Learned:

1. You need an awesome partner.

When I first had the idea for this, I tried doing it all myself. Everything from the website design to the fragrance manufacturing to the copywriting.

Two weeks later, I’d been multi-tasking so much I didn’t actually get any one task accomplished. Plus, the quality of everything I’d been doing SUCKED. Especially things that weren’t my expertise (design and art direction).

But when I reached out to my super-talented buddy Johnross to take this on together, everything changed. We split up tasks based on what we were each good at. That sped up our progress, vastly improved the quality of the work we were each tasked with, and overall improved the situation.

It also helped that Johnross is 1) extremely talented in his field and 2) was fully committed to seeing this project through. When I say, “find a partner,” they MUST meet both those requirements. Otherwise you just get a partner who’s kinda sorta helping you out whenever they feel like it, and who isn’t that great at it on top of that. And that’s no good.

2. Know what you’re good at and what you suck at.

It’s critically important to recognize what you’re good at and DO THAT. Also, recognize what you suck at and GET SOMEONE TO HELP WITH THAT.

Trying to do all things by yourself is a recipe for burnout, lack of focus, etc.

I’m good at: branding, creative direction, marketing, writing, and PR. I suck at: art direction, web design, illustration, visual identity, and making brands look pretty. The minute Johnross swooped in to do the things I suck at, we were both firing on all cylinders and started making way more progress.

3. You have to do EVERYTHING.

You know how I just said you shouldn’t do everything? Well…

Any entrepreneur will tell you you kinda have to do it all.

Growing up, I watched my parents run their own business. On any given day, they were the boss, receptionist, lawyer, customer service reps, and cleaning staff.

I found myself dipping my toe into every aspect of this venture. Everything from learning how to build our Squarespace site to learning about sales tax to learning how to make a damn fragrance to begin with!

I learned you have to have your hand in everything. But that doesn’t mean you have to fully consume yourself with every single thing. Like I said, at some point, you need to delegate things so they actually get done well.

4. It better solve a fucking problem

As silly as this product was, I learned very quickly: People didn’t need it. People got a kick out of the samples we sent around and the idea behind it, but they weren’t as interested in spending their hard-earned money on it.

Why? Because it didn’t really solve a pressing problem, or fill a market need.

Sure, there are MANY products out there that don’t solve acute problems. Products that are just cool or offer entertainment. And yes, many of those products sell really well. (Case in point: Skymall, WTF?!?!)

I just know that, for me, I plan on making sure my next venture involves solving a problem. Not a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have.

(There’s a really good post from Crew about this, too).

5. Good press and marketing don’t guarantee sales

We got great press and partnered with an influencer friend to create some awesome marketing. You’d think that sales would’ve come rolling in, right?

Well, not quite.

I learned that press and marketing do NOT guarantee sales. Yeah, they drive more people to your website or Instagram. But to convert those people into paying customers, you still gotta have a product enticing enough to get people to open up their wallets. Which, like I said earlier, we didn’t have.

If you’re a startup, focus on the product before blowing your money on a TV ad or tons of marketing or something. Make sure the product is solid AF, and solves a market need that people have. The marketing can come later.

If the thing is good enough, customers will even do the marketing FOR you, by spreading the word. And that kind of marketing is FREE.

6. You gotta have passion for the thing.

There were many days when I woke up and thought, “Do I really give a shit about a fragrance?” Honestly, no. I was just doing it for the joke and because it seemed kinda funny, not much more than that.

That’s why: You gotta have a passion for the thing you’re doing. That’s what’ll get you through tough times. Starting a product or venture, you’re going to be tempted to throw in the towel. Having actual passion for what you’re working on will make all the difference in whether you do or not.

Any future endeavors I take on will be fueled by something I’m genuinely passionate about. It’s that passion that’ll keep you invested in the long haul.

7. All advertisers should start a product / brand of some kind

This experiment taught me SO MUCH about the brands and clients I work with in advertising. It made me empathize with them. It made me appreciate their relationship with their own product.

It made me understand why a client may be hesitant to try this or that weird idea I pitch them; because having created a product of my own, I was just as hesitant to spend our limited budget on weird ideas that may not pay off.

I truly think everyone in the ad business should start their own product or brand of some kind. It’s a great hands-on exercise in understanding a brand from a side we usually don’t get to see: The client’s side.

8. Try shit out. See what works, what doesn’t, then do it again!

So… we didn’t end up becoming fragrance millionaires. But, I loved every bit of this little experiment. First of all, it was super dumb and fun and I got to work on something with a friend.

I can apply everything I learned to the next thing I’m doing (which you can learn more about soon here!!) Had I not just tried this out, I’d have missed out on all those lessons. And I’m glad I got to learn it on a little side project, instead of a venture that required heavy $$$ investment.

So yeah: Try shit out. It may fail. That’s okay. Learn what worked, what didn’t, and then go try it again.

Thanks for reading! For more, follow me on Twitter.