Practical: The DTC Playlist

Take a moment to study the brands that bridge the past and the present: the Nikes, the Coca-Colas, the Fords, the Apples. Not one brand story is the same, and in many cases, best practices didn’t apply. There’s no common playbook to be found.

If there was a playbook to follow, the teams of these companies would be bold enough to disregard it. When building a generational brand, leaders account for changes in terrain, global politics, trade policy, marketing rules, and advertising strategies. For them, today’s playbook is tomorrow’s waste and tomorrow’s playbook is just as useless. To make it to the five, 10 and 20-year milestones, there is only today, every single day. What usually begins as one or two founders becomes a team of individuals who thrive on one shared reality: there isn’t really a playbook. There are only daily adjustments and proper anticipation.

Consider this quote from Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog”:

And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans. Sometimes, you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop. Luck plays a big role. Yes, I’d like to publicly acknowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome.

Of the 442 brands tracked in the 2021 DTC Power List, 319 of them are considered “fast growing” despite a globally-crippling pandemic. The next 92 are growing at a pace that is considered healthy. These measures are based upon revenue, advertising spend, omnichannel availability, funding metrics, and social media growth. There are enterprise-level brands like Glossier, Rogue, and Daily Harvest. There are younger brands like Madhappy, Beardbrand, Rowing Blazers, and Parade. And there are newer product marketers like Ghia and Aplos. Across this spectrum, there are more differences than similarities. If you really study the brands from top to bottom, you’ll leave with one key takeaway. They all had to make unpredictable adjustments based on a number of unique factors.

The One Exception

There is one way to make any playbook work, but it isn’t available to the masses. It will take a few industry connections and perhaps your own level of niche celebrity. Here it is in one paragraph or less:

Pick a product, any product. It can be almost anything: a pet rock, a stretchy dress shirt or even a new brand of natural deodorant. Next, partner with a member of the Kardashian family. Within the first 30 days of launching, you will achieve the vaunted seven-figure run rate. Within 60 days, you’re on your way to an eight-figure pace. After that, just follow any and all best practices that you can find: bulleted lists of bite-sized how-tos, a DTC Slack group, a newsletter. Do 10% or more of what those sources suggest and you’ll be a founder that achieves a 95th percentile in first-year DTC revenue.

In a conversation with a former C-suite retail executive who recently launched a Gen Z beauty brand, we discussed the difficulty of following a playbook when launching new products, especially without the benefit of a built-in audience. The transition from corporate structure to the Wild West of a brand’s zero to one stage of development is difficult enough; finding an audience on top of maintaining best practices can be a harrowing experience for brand founders.

For creator brands, the most difficult step is accounted for: early-stage demand generation. For everyone that isn’t launching with the Kardashians are the Paul brothers, there is an alternative approach.

Deep Generalism and the “Coffee House” Effect

To identify and capitalize on an opportunity, it helps to have a wide and deep knowledge of industries and how they interact. Everything changes: new rules are formed, new coalitions are forged, and new boundaries are set. Deep generalists have the advantage. They’re more open to understanding new fields, developments, combinations of information, and the growth in one field versus contractions in others. [2PM, 1] Author David Epstein wrote it best:

The more varied your training is, the better able you’ll be to apply your skills flexibly to situations you haven’t seen. [2]

If I had to do it all over again, this is how I would have started. With a product in development and a month or two out from launch, I would ask an industry leader to help propose a playlist of 10-15 conversations with leaders across a variety of industries and ecosystems in podcast format, each lasting 20-40 minutes in length. I’d survey each conversation for shared perspectives and strategy differences. I’d take notes on anecdotes for meeting challenges, establishing personalized best practices, and achieving traction in an evolving economy. Lastly, I’d ask them one specific question:

Would you buy my product and if not, what can my future company do to help change that?

When the interview was complete, I’d get set up on a note-taking app like Roam. This is where the true insights form. With each new interview, review the previous interview notes and find networked thoughts throughout. Information synthesis (IS) is one of the most underappreciated skills in business today. Rather than relying upon condensed summaries of generalized thoughts, IS allows you to develop your own in ways that are more useful to your set of circumstances.

Information synthesis generally refers to the process of integrating, or weaving together, information from disparate sources into a coherent whole. Information synthesis can be achieved through taxonomy and classification, concepts, models, theories, analogies, metaphors, narratives, stories, or powerful images or embodiment without words. [3]

In a 2PM member report on deep generalism, I explained how my most formative years in brand development came inadvertently by way of the coffee house effect. For two years, I used a coffee shop as a startup workspace.

Each day in that Austin coffee house, it felt like I found an arbitrage opportunity: a free education. The room over-indexed on successful executives and entrepreneurs who’d seen material successes in the booming Texas city of Austin. I listened intently. The majority of the ideas came from business partners, waiters, investors, entrepreneurs, clergy, artists, and bystanders who were enthusiastic about their pursuits. Their conversations filled gaps in my thinking. It was a period of information synthesis: a process of integrating information from disparate sources into a coherent whole.

If I was starting a brand today, this is the playlist that I would use to simulate that coffee house effect.

There’s wisdom to be gleaned from the process that Amanda Goetz used to scale from a zero to 30,000+ person Twitter following before launching her own DTC brand, House of Wise. Jaime Schmidt can describe, in detail, how she and Chris Cantino bootstrapped from close to nothing. Mike Kerns can explain what late-stage investors look for in monetizable audiences and why media brands tend to have the advantage today. And Caity Henniger can explain what it’s like to double a workforce to nearly 1,300 employees over a pandemic while dealing with supply chain shortages.

Each of the above professionals are 2PM Executive Members. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from each of them, and they’re willing to help another builder. The depicted list is a suggestion; the recommendation is to build your own list of varied entrepreneurs, executives, and notable thinkers. The most beneficial playbook is one that is tailored to the needs of the leader employing it. Using this method, blind spots will be found, operational advantages will come to mind, and arbitrage opportunities will find their way to your notes.

After the process is complete and all of the notes are summarized into useful directions, the next step is to encapsulate the education into an essay of your organization, something to refer to when the circumstances present themselves. What you’ll find is that you have something far better than a generic playbook. You have a personalized playbook defined by your constraints, your talents, your deficiencies, and the goals of the company that you’re building. In the process of listening, learning, and synthesizing the information, you’ve built your own playbook. And this one may actually power you through.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM