“Say No, And Say It Often” Words Of Wisdom With Fabian Geyrhalter
I had the pleasure of interviewing acclaimed brand strategist Fabian Geyrhalter, Principal of Los Angeles based brand consultancy FINIEN and author of his newly released book ‘BIGGER THAN THIS — how to turn any venture into an admired brand.’ Today, we talked about his backstory, what his company does and more!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born in Vienna, Austria and studied Graphic Design at Art Center College of Design, first in Switzerland and later in Pasadena, CA. I am a trained Communication Designer, as I like to call it. Communication Design describes the skillset and duty to a client so much better than Graphic Design.
I worked as a Creative Director for two companies in L.A. until, finally, my Green Card arrived and I immediately started to freelance full-time, which resulted in me opening a graphic design and branding agency, Geyrhalter & Co. We had a great office in Santa Monica on Main Street, our client roster included big names (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Evolution Juice, Starwood Hotels, Etc), we won many awards, and I had between 8 and 18 full-time employees. Things looked bright. To the outside.
For me, it felt like a constant struggle between keeping quality standards high and getting constant quality work. My salary had not changed in years at that point. One day I decided I needed to refocus in order to ensure my personal happiness, as well as intellectual and financial growth. I hired a consultant for a day (for a swift $10,000 fee) to help me reposition my firm, I advised my staff to start looking for other opportunities, helped them via my wide net of contacts as much as I could and wrote my clients an e-mail in which I recommended other quality design agencies in L.A. for them to engage with. We used the interim time before the re-launch to craft the blueprint of my first book, ‘How to Launch a Brand,’ which also outlined the new work process and deliverables of FINIEN, my newly founded 2-person consultancy with a focus on getting new brands off the ground with positioning, naming and overall identity design.
Overnight I closed Geyrhalter & Co, moved from glitzy Malibu to (still slightly) seedy (in comparison) Long Beach, opened up my consultancy with a new name, throwing out all my brand legacy, staff and clientele overnight to only work with startups and Fortune 500’s on new brand launches.
It was a huge risk, and it was tough, for at least the first 24 months at which point my determination and passion turned into the dream company I so ached to run. The firm is financially more successful than my former agency (despite the staff of only one) and I absolutely love consulting: being very strategy-focused and working with clients at the most important point of their brand introduction, and only then. We don’t keep most clients around, instead, we send them to other agencies or freelancers once we successfully birthed their brand with them. It’s a crazy business model, but it works well for me.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s been 17 years of continuously running my company in one form or another, so it’s really hard to pick a single story. There was the Chinese company that hired me, paid us in full and then canceled the project before we even started, saying we can keep the — rather significant — amount of money for our ‘inconvenience.’ There was the time when I was one of the ‘People to Watch’ in Graphic Design USA, an industry publication, so they asked for a headshot. I sent them an image of me walking in the desert, clearly not a headshot, but I knew it would make for the perfect cover shot, and sure enough, I ended up on the cover of the magazine. Then there was the moment where an ad agency hired us to do a high-profile project that paid very well. One day, as the final deadline approached, they asked to have my entire staff at our office, on-call, paid, 24/7 over the weekend. I fired them on the spot. It was the silliest demand and it was so much against my company culture that in no way would I have money interfere with what I created. I could go on, 17 years is a mighty long time filled with plenty of stories.
So what exactly does your company do?
Simply put, we turn ventures into brands. We work on brand positioning, brand naming, and brand identity. A well-tuned yet swift process to get companies, products, or services off the ground in a meaningful way that connects with an audience deeply and instantaneously.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s a blend of unique process and insight. My brand positioning is done in a single one-day workshop. These workshops are so successful because I insist on doing them in-person (the farthest one took me to Zagreb, Croatia), with all the top-level decision makers in the same room, all-day, without any distractions. I have declined to work with clients in Asia or Europe unless they come my way or they pay to have me come to them. Magic happens when you are in a room with Founders and you derive a brand’s strategy together. Not only is it informed by both parties, it is also put in stone as decisions can be made in that room, that day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
The aforementioned consultant I hired to reposition my firm, David C. Baker. Not only for helping me reposition but even more so for showing me how consultants can easily make $10,000 in a day if they know what they are talking about and if they leave great value behind. I did copy that approach quite a bit. It was $10,000 very well spent.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We were one of the first ten companies, right behind artist Jack Johnson (a personal favorite), to join ‘1% For The Planet’ giving 1% of our revenue back to grassroots organizations. But writing big checks at the end of the year did not feel organic. Today, I instead focus on leading with social business practices in a lot of my writing, workshops, and lectures. My latest book, ‘Bigger Than This — How To Turn Any Venture Into An Admired Brand,’ is a testament to that. It is more hands-on and I feel it has more impact with a wider reach.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
1) Say No, and say it often. I have been a yes-sayer for the first decade of running my firm, and what happens is that you are drifting far away from your core business ideology. You do projects that are slightly out of your area of expertise, you take on cheap clients, you have staff stay late because of badly timed client projects. None of those can grow a healthy business, which leads me to my next lesson learned:
2) Focus, and stay highly focused. Have a deep and narrow focus on what exactly your company provides, and what it does not. Overcommunicate that, and only get hired for projects that fall exactly into your area of focus. But also be focused on one task at hand, multi-tasking is a disorder, not a strength. I only accept a select few calls or meetings any given day and have them run very short, so everyone can remain focused.
3) Your employees do not need to be your best friends. Sounds so very basic, but I started my agency in my early twenties, so it made a lot of sense to have a feeling of camaraderie amongst my employees, most of them were of similar age. The moment I started to distance myself from my staff, besides the group lunches, or one-on-one brainstorm lunches, I realized how that separation from business and private life helped with everything from productivity, respect, pay raise discussions to ‘water cooler talk.’
4) Clients are not always right. In fact, they hire you to tell them that they are wrong and usually they pay better when they realize that you have more knowledge than them in the task they hire you to perform.
5) Your company size does not matter. Especially in the creative agency world, bigger still often means better. The more staff, the more revenue, the better a CEO looks. Completely wrong. I scaled back my agency and I am proud to have only one full-time employee. I am also proud to work with a Fortune 100 client and to have higher billings than my 18-person agency ever had. Yes, size does matter, but more is not always more, at least not in the creative business.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I’d really like to kill a bottle of Château Latour with Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) while watching the sunset with some surfers hitting the big waves in front of us. That would make for a rather spectacular conversation and setting. Eddie, you can call me directly on my cell; thanks for the intro, and the interview, Yitzi.