Storytelling and Brand Building: an Interview with Sydney Fulkerson, two-time founder of Sunflower and Bebas LLC
Sydney Fulkerson is two-time founder of Sunflower and Bebas LLC, where she is helping entrepreneurs build better brands through design and storytelling. Her current venture, Sunflower, matches Founders with creatives through personalized matchmaking of Founders with Creatives.. Fulkerson is also the author of The Coffee Run: And Other Internship Need-to-Knows, a how-to guide for college students and their career development. Fulkerson is also a mentor of the Loop’s Group Salon for the past month. Fulkerson sits down with Michelle Fang, a content writer at the Loop Network for a chat on her journey as a female entrepreneur and the Group Salon experience.
Fang: So first off, can you give us a quick rundown of your background and how you got to where you are today?
Fulkerson: Yeah, I’m originally from Kentucky and went to school out there. Throughout my college career, I found all my internships on my own. I found internships to be where I learned almost the most. I majored in business and merchandising apparel and textiles, so my internships were in fashion. I had two in New York, one in LA, and really fell in love with LA. So one day when I was in Kentucky working full time, I quit my job, and did the whole drive across the country thing. I was in the middle of an interview with an individual named Dr. Peter Diamandis, Founder of the XPRIZE Foundation. He was a serial tech entrepreneur, so different from anything I had been working on. But I really fell in love with his values. I was in the middle of that interview process on my drive out west. The last interview with him, I was on a Zoom call at a hotel and the WiFi kept going in and out. It was the final interview and I was freaking out. But, I ended up getting that job. And so for two years, I did personal branding and design for Peter, which was everything from how he showed up on social media — he had over a million followers — to understanding his tone of voice and how to show that visually. Then he had the Abundance 360 event where 360 CEOs from around the world came and paid $12,000 a ticket to sit in the audience for a three day long global summit. I did all the event design for that and all the marketing materials. It was a year long event planning project and the second that the event ended, you just do it all over again. The topics were about how technology is disrupting industries. These were all CEOs of, you know, a number of companies, some of them antiquated, some of them not. And they really were trying to figure out a way to use technology to their advantage.
I did that in LA for two years and then ended up leaving to go to an agency in San Francisco where I wanted to learn more brand strategy. I’m a self taught graphic designer. I’ve been doing that for 14 years and I wanted to broaden the view of what is a brand, what that means, and how you build one. I did brand strategy at an agency called Goodby Silverstein & Partners and they’re most known for coming up with the iconic Got Milk campaign. They are incredible, they’re super creative, and I was really drawn to their culture. They base a lot of their work on humor and wit. It was awesome to really look at any brand and how they’re showing up in the world today and where that’s rooted from in culture. People really resonate with that. So I was there for a bit and then realized I missed working directly with founders. When you’re in the agency world, you’re pretty far removed from the actual product development stage, you know, the branding, etc. My main client was BMW, but I kind of missed the crazy, you know, chaotic world of working with founders. I ended up moving back to LA where I started this brand design and strategy firm called Bebas LLC (Bebas was my go to font that I used when I was working for Peter).
But what I’m most excited for right now is my new venture, Sunflower and it’s where I’m connecting founders to creatives. I found that founders have a lot of trouble in the creative search. It’s overwhelming. It’s time consuming, it’s costly. They don’t know what they need, but they just know they need an awesome end result. I’m helping bridge that gap there.
Fang: So you’re working with a plethora of founders, and each and every one of them has a different unique set of needs. How do you go about figuring out what’s best for them and understanding their story?
Fulkerson: Yeah. It’s funny because sometimes people say things they don’t really mean. You have to hear them out, hear what they’re saying, but really get inside their head — what are they actually thinking? What are they feeling? What are they afraid of? And then also asking them a lot of questions to start with, like competitive analysis. I’ll do a whole kind of talk with the founder to really understand what they are needing, what their overall objectives are, and then we work backwards to help find that right creative. Some of it is a little bit more tangible too. If they have a very specific budget, because they’re a small, nimble startup and they need to allocate, you know, only X amount of dollars to this brand identity project. Some of them are a little bit later stage and are willing to invest tens of thousands of dollars into their brand because maybe they’re a DTC company and packaging is everything, right? This is where I get really excited — it’s so personalized and so customized.
My business model right now is about quality, not quantity. But hopefully one day there could be a platform where, you know, founders need very specific services and they could maybe filter by budget, timing, location, everything that they could possibly need and compare portfolios side by side. That may be interesting to explore down the road. But right now I want to focus on quality matchmaking. And doing so by writing a very personalized creative brief that I then use to brief the designers that I potentially matched them with.
Fang: That’s so awesome. Taking that personal approach always wins because you are telling their story and making their story come to life.
Fulkerson: Yeah, it’s their everything, their company is their child. They’re gonna do whatever they can to make it amazing and memorable.
Fang: Yeah! In the grander scheme of storytelling. What do you think is something that most people overlook in that process?
Fulkerson: Good question, I would say really dumb it down. I think people are so close to what they’re working on that they get into the nitty gritty of things. And really, it’s just taking a giant step back and stripping it down to its most basic form. What is something that you can share with someone where they can walk away 15 seconds later and repeat it back verbatim? That’s pretty hard to do. And if you can’t do that, then your story is not going to be able to share easily.
Fang: How did you come to that realization?
Fulkerson: I think I came to it because I work so much with founders in industries that I’m so far removed from, such as deep tech and some hardware. They’re so close to it that they don’t know how to strip down their story into its most basic form. And so when I come in, I’m like this magical fairy waving a wand and just sort of erasing all of the jargon that their audiences are not going to necessarily understand right away. And so I think that’s just kind of how it evolved.
Fang: I wanted to also hear more about how your Group Salon and cohort experience have been.
Fulkerson: Yeah, I mean, I would say, first of all, I’m so grateful how organized you guys are — the presentations, everything. And all of you are volunteering your time, which is so admirable. I think Sri’s done such an amazing job with curating everyone together. Everyone seems to be in their lane doing just what they love doing and that shows, so I’m grateful for that. I would say the groups are a perfect size. I think six people is awesome and one hour is enough time. It’s really also super cool to see how different everyone’s ventures are, and how there are just so many problems in this world we could tackle. They all feel very timely and relevant as they’re talking through them, like I can actually relate to so many of their problems. And so I think that makes it a little bit more fun for the whole group. And that’s when you know, it’s a real problem when you’re kind of thinking of all these different solutions that you could have for that one problem.
Fang: What are some of the problems that you guys have talked about?
Fulkerson: I would say right now as I’m sitting, I’m so squirmy in chairs lately. I feel like I’m sitting so much at my computer and I think that we haven’t nailed the sedentary lifestyle because first of all, I think that we’re not meant to sit this long. But second of all, we’re all working from home, and we’re all trying to kind of stay focused at our desk. I just think chairs in general are super antiquated and one of the girls in the group is working on this. It’s interesting because I think she already has the tech or the patent to go with the chair and she’s trying to kind of backtrack and realize like “Okay, how can we just make a better chair today for people based on people’s different heights, body types, how people sit, how they use them, and just help eliminate the pain that’s involved in sitting. I also told her I just recently went on a whole ergonomic chair search for myself and how so many great options are out of stock. Because everyone’s working from home and I think the whole shopping experience can be tailored way better, you know, kind of like almost like our clothing. Somehow measuring how our body is, how we sit in a chair and everything like that. That’s one problem that comes to mind.
Fang: I really hope that does come true because a lot of companies now are rethinking the way they operate, and like maybe remote work is a smarter option. What would you say is one thing that you’ve learned personally from your cohort — anything that made you rethink?
Fulkerson: Yeah, well, there’s something that kind of stood out to me. That’s kind of a fun insight based on a specific problem that I can touch on — just how terrible it is for women to find the right bra. And within Coronavirus, wearing a bra has dropped exponentially because everyone’s working from home which is kind of funny. How are we going to go back into the real world of having to wear those super annoying bras? Like, is there a better solution? So one of the girls in the cohort is working on that. But I would say in general, you know, we’re diving right now into specifics about the user journey. I’m going to learn a lot more about how you can break up the different user groups and the really great questions that you can ask your users because I’m doing that right now with Sunflower. So it’s helpful to hear some of the questions that they’re asking their users. I think just overall going deeper, initially starting broad and getting people comfortable and getting them to a point where they can share more.
Fang: What advice would you give for aspiring female founders or current female founders, or any message that you would want to broadcast to them?
Fulkerson: I would say I’m a big believer in rapid experimentation. I think that there’s a lot of downside to withholding and thinking a little bit too much, especially in this day and age. I think just putting things out there into the world, you’re going to get a response back and just iterating on that. And then the second part of that is, I think there’s a lot said about intuition, especially female founders. I would say, don’t hush that too much, listen to that, but also look at the data that you can gut check yourself too.
Fang: Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of people are on different ends of the spectrum with thinking versus feeling.
Fulkerson: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day people are very irrational. And people make decisions based on emotion even when we don’t like to admit it. It’s just how we are.
Fang: Do you think there’s a way to balance the two ends — so let’s say someone that is very intuitive or thinks on their gut, how can you encourage them to think more analytically?
Fulkerson: Yeah, good question. I would say it’s probably just a balance. Let’s say I’m super intuitive and I listen to my gut a lot. I would just stop and check it — I would say, “Okay, here’s my hypothesis based on what I’m thinking and feeling, let’s go test it.” And if the test comes back and it’s pretty true, then I can kind of move forward with that. And vice versa, if I’m collecting a lot of data, and I’m looking at it, and it just doesn’t feel right or something is just off. But data doesn’t lie either. So it’s definitely a balance. And there are also co-founders and people in your network who, maybe you’re on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Kolbe A Index test. It’s an incredible test that a lot of teams use, about how you naturally work and approach problems. There are four different pillars. For example, I’m an eight quickstart, which means I do really well in ideation and brainstorming. I can move quickly. But for some people that’s very hard and almost a toxic environment for them. Some people score really high in what’s called Fact Finder, and they need to do a ton of research before they can proceed. I think it’s really good finding people who operate a little bit differently than you, so you can balance that out.
Fang: Do you have any book or podcast recommendations for female founders, anything that you’ve enjoyed or found insightful?
Fulkerson: My go-to is pretty cliche, but I listen to everything Tim Ferriss. He does a good job of interviewing a very well rounded group of individuals that are not specifically founders, but also spiritual leaders or athletes or CEOs of enterprise companies. Like what an awesome position to be in — to be an individual who gets to be in the rooms — I guess now in the same Zoom — of people spitting out the wisdom that he learned from everyone else and being able to do that is so amazing.I would love to do that.
I’d say that’s my go to podcast for sure. A book that I read recently that I would say is probably good for people who want to improve their intuition maybe is a book called Awareness. I’m just imagining the mind blown emoji. Like when I read it, it literally breaks through every barrier of what we’re socially programmed to live and believe and really cuts through that. I don’t know if I’d recommend that as a founder read, but I think overall, it’s a pretty good read.
Fang: Yeah, yeah, it’s just insane. Thank you so much for chatting!
If you know of an amazing female founder, feel free to refer them to loopnetwork.org!