Deb Gabor is the author of Branding Is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything. She is the founder of Sol Marketing, which has led brand strategy engagements for organizations ranging from international household names like Dell, Microsoft and NBC Universal, to digital winners like Allrecipes, Cheezburger, HomeAway and RetailMeNot, and dozens of early-stage tech and digital media titans.
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business?
I like to say that I was kind of a reluctant entrepreneur. I never set out to start an actual company. In 2003, I was a senior vice president in someone else’s business, and I reported directly to the CEO. I had reached a point in my career at which, if I wanted to go higher in my work, someone would need to die. And I’m not kidding.
The company had recently sold to a larger organization overseas, and everything was in flux. Staff, business practices, the very nature of the work was changing, and not for the better. At the same time, the market for strategic communications services for technology business was caving in on itself, and the agency I was working for was starting to take clients that I wasn’t proud and excited to represent.
This was a perfect storm for me to get the heck out. When I quit my agency job, I had two private clients and ten thousand dollars in the bank. I figured that if I couldn’t make ends meet in six months, I’d tuck my tail between my legs and go find myself another job. My initial goal was to hang a shingle and bill by the hour as an independent brand strategy consultant.
What I found was there was an immediate demand for the kind of services I was providing, and all of a sudden I was hiring employees and getting office space and buying equipment and licenses to scale. And voila! I had a company. I make a terrible employee, so this situation really suits me.
Tell us about your business.
For more than 14 years, Sol Marketing has worked with clients representing household name brands and emerging titans who continue to set marketing and customer acquisition records using strategic insights and brand strategies we’ve developed together.
The common thread woven through all our experiences is our philosophy and approach that give our clients’ customers a seat at the business decision making table. Uncovering and presenting insight into customers’ experiences and points of view allow our clients to make deep emotional connections that create loyal customers for life.
We’ve propelled clients in nearly every industry – from technology to retail to consumer products to healthcare – to exploit opportunities that drive them to their next level of growth. Our happy clients will tell you that our focus on results rather than activities, our strategic thinking, and our innate ability to do ANYTHING make us unlike any other firm they’ve worked with.
As a brand strategy firm, our focus is PEOPLE: their behaviors, attitudes, lifestyles, desires, wants, emotions, and goals, and how they bond with organizations. I also run another business that’s associated with Sol Marketing, called InvestorPitches.com.
Through this endeavor, we support early stage companies at all stages of the fundraising process in telling their stories effectively through their investor pitches. Since 2013, we’ve done the strategy, messaging, content development, and design for nearly a thousand pitches – some of which have raised amounts between a quarter of a million dollars to a hundred million dollars.
Are you currently running any promos/contests/giveaways that you would like our readers to know about?
At the end of the summer, I’m launching a new in-person workshop called The 8-Hour Brand in which anyone – from solopreneurs to chief executives and chief marketers in companies of any size in any industry – can develop the strategic underpinnings of their brand in a single day.
The promise of the 8-Hour Brand is that you will go through all the steps of defining and profiling your ideal and most profitable customer, assessing the most important and meaningfully differentiated benefits your services/products provide to that person, and articulating how you and your business can make that customer a hero in his or her own life.
Most importantly, everyone who attends will walk out with a completed Brand Canvas, which will be the brand communication foundation they can use to move forward with everything from developing a visual and verbal identity to writing copy for a web page or sales pitch.
For everyone who contacts us to let us know they’re interested at email@example.com and mentions they read about the session here, I’ll give them $500 off the session price!
And if that’s not your thing, at the very least, I’d love for you to go check out a copy of my book: Branding is Sex: Get Your Customer Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything. If you like our approach to brand strategy, you’ll love this book. It’s a practical, how-to guide for entrepreneurs and executives (not just marketers) in companies of any size, in any industry to uncover and articulate their core brand DNA.
Having a compelling brand that develops deep emotional bonds with customers can create conditions of irrational loyalty is hard. The book actually gives away the methodology and makes it easy to go through the same process my brand strategists and I would employ were we working for you.
Wow, I don’t really like this question. I think that having built and run a sustainable company that’s grown steadily and continuously employed people for almost 15 years is an accomplishment in itself. Also, personal awards aren’t that interesting to me. I’ve received so many awards I can’t list them and can’t count them. And I certainly don’t display them.
What’s most important to me is that we create wins for our clients and team. Those accomplishments usually come in the form of opening up new opportunities for them to be more profitable: growing the customer base, increasing customer lifetime value, opening new markets, launching new products, making strategic acquisitions, and getting more focus on their most important customers.
Where is your business based?
We’re in Austin, TX, but we work anywhere. In fact, most of our clients are outside of Austin. I also have a New York outpost with just one employee so far. But we’re looking to expand our presence there.
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
I covered this in my introductory paragraph. Just to remind everyone: I never set out to start a company. But I was really excited that others found value in what I was doing, and I was happy to be able to quickly scale and bring on other people who believed in why and how I do what I do.
There are so many steps I wish I would have taken, had I known they were available to me. The business quickly was a runaway train with employees and rents and capital expenses; in many ways, once I actually had some time to sit down and breathe, I went back and made remedial corrections.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
My business was built mostly on referral, and we have worked with some of the same clients for our entire business life – as they move and grow in their positions, they often take us with them.
Another way I’ve raised awareness is by writing a book that basically gives away our methodology and some really great case examples. As a result of having a popular book on the market, I’ve become a media expert and often bring color and texture to a lot of the things that are happening in the news day-to-day.
Being in major publications and broadcasts – everything from NPR to The Washington Post – and industry-focused media outlets gets my name out there associated with some third-party validation to grow awareness.
Most importantly, however, being an expert for the media lets me express my company’s and my unique point of view, drawing people who align with that to the company. We’ve received several inbound inquiries for services based upon people hearing or seeing me on a broadcast or reading what I had to say in a piece in a newspaper or online.
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
My number one challenge is always scale. This is something I struggle with every day. Some of the struggle comes from my own desire to be involved in everything because I just love it so much. However, when I’m involved in the day-to-day goings on of the company, that keeps me from doing what I really need to do to drive and manage scale.
Also, I like the small, boutique-style feel we’ve developed at Sol Marketing and InvestorPitches. I like providing big answers and getting big wins for clients with our relatively small team because it feels really personal to our clients. I know that I could easily grow the company by hiring more resources, but I am not confident that our methodologies, approaches, and point of view will remain intact as we grow.
I know lots of other companies struggle with the same things and have been successful in preserving culture as they grow; so I know it can be done. However, I haven’t cracked that particular nut yet!
How do you keep motivated through difficult times?
I love my job. I love my clients. I love my employees. And I’m not being fake about that. This really is a labor of love, and I’m compelled to do brand strategy. My whole business existence is designed to propel other people and their businesses to achieve their goals. That’s what it’s all about. So, I live to get big wins for clients that open up new conceptual territory and new financial opportunities.
I stay motivated by remaining focused on why I actually do what I do rather than getting bogged down in demotivating details: I’m not in business for me; I’m in business for them. I really can’t think of a day in the last 14 years when I didn’t want to go on. I get up every day and jump out of bed thinking about what I can help others create. That keeps me motivated, for sure.
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
There are literally thousands of organizations that do what we do. So, this is a question we ask ourselves with every new business pitch and client conversation we have. What I’ve learned – and this comes from actually asking our clients – is that what clients get from us that they can’t get anywhere else is a plain-talking, straight-shooting, no-bull approach to branding that pushes them to achieve things they otherwise couldn’t.
If you’re a company who has a lot at stake and needs a very big win, you work with us. If you want to be driven to cut through corporate politics, and eliminate sacred cows, and dig up insights that maybe show you things you didn’t want to see so you can really be better, you work with Sol Marketing.
Clients also get the bragging rights associated with working with a company whose founder and CEO literally wrote the book on branding. Companies all over the world are using methodologies that my team and I developed every day to quickly get to their brand’s core and gain focus and direction that they couldn’t achieve on their own.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
The best advice I received is to not ask for advice. I don’t like advice. I don’t give it, and I don’t solicit it unless I’m paying for it. Sharing unsolicited advice can disrupt relationships. If, for instance, you give me advice (solicited or unsolicited), and I don’t take it, and things go wrong for me, we always have between us that you gave me advice you think is good, and I’m too stupid to take it. That upsets the balance in our relationship.
The same goes the other way: if you give me advice, and I do take it, and things go wrong for me, we always have that between us. That’s why I focus on sharing from my own personal experience through telling a story about a similar situation. That takes the judgement out of advice. The practice of sharing from experience is related to what’s called the “Gestalt Language Protocol”.
I’m a member of EO (Entrepreneur’s Organization – a 12,000 person strong group of founders and chief executives of privately held companies), and that’s the foundation upon which our entire peer mentoring processes is built. It works. I have benefited from this approach in my personal life, and most certainly in my personal life.
I even use the Gestalt Language Protocol with friends and loved ones. It helps me develop deeper, more trusting relationships, and allows those I care about to show vulnerability in front of me without judgement.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
See above. I won’t give advice. But I will say that I have benefited greatly from getting myself into several important groups and business associations. The organization I mentioned above, EO, has had a measurable impact on not only my business, but also my life. The people I have met and the experiences I’ve had introduced me to new ways of thinking I never would have considered.
Additionally, the relationships I’ve developed with the people in my immediate EO chapter and all over the world are among some of the closest I’ve developed in my adult life. Being and entrepreneur is a solo sport.
It’s so important for entrepreneurs to have not only a support network, but a group of like-minded people with whom you can share not only your successes, goals, and bucket list items, but also your darkest, most shameful secrets and struggles. Having this network available to me has provided me with opportunities to get visibility into some of my most profound blind spots.
For instance, last summer I knew I needed to part ways with a key employee who had been with me for more than a decade. I had kept her on the payroll for probably 18 months longer than I should have because I didn’t know how to extract her from the organization.
I presented this challenge to my immediate entrepreneurial peer group, and they helped me make sense of all of the logistical and emotional territory I would need to cover in order to successfully address this highly-charged situation.
What are your favorite business tools/resources and why?
I’ve recently become obsessed with Trello, a cloud-based project management tool that gives me the current status of every single project – internal or external – at a glance (that is, as long as team members keep their projects updated.)
I am not big on project management software that uses Gantt charts and other types of diagrams because they don’t tell me the things that a CEO needs to know. My company Trello board is organized to my liking, and is a single source of everything I need to know about everyone’s projects, all in one place.
It saves me a lot of asking and emailing and messaging because I can usually just look at a Trello card and see where everything is at any given moment. It gives me this nice sense of calm when I can get a visual reading – like a dashboard – of all of the teams’ projects on a single look.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
I just finished reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, for the third time. Each time I read it, I get something new out of it. Dweck’s book shows how success in almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities.
Dweck says, “People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed. Mindset reveals how great parents, teachers, managers, and athletes can put this idea to use to foster outstanding accomplishment.”
I really take this to heart and recruit, hire, and mentor our employees to move increasingly toward a growth mindset. It’s made all the business in the world for my company: I have lots of star performers now!
What are you currently learning about for your business or looking for help with?
I am really interested in learning how to 1) let go, and 2) scale. The two go hand in hand. So if anyone wants to coach me on that, I’m totally open to hearing experiences of how small, service organizations in dynamic markets changed to mitigate this huge challenge.
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
Within the next few months, I have a very specific goal to create an additional revenue stream for the company that does NOT include any of my other employees. My paid speaking engagements, direct consulting, coaching, and the upcoming 8-Hour Brand program are all designed to deliver unmatched financial value to the organization.
I have a very detailed plan with milestones and metrics in place that I’m executing every day. I have already secured a half-dozen very high-level paid keynote speaking opportunities, a handful of day-long, hands-on workshops for various business organizations, and have invested significantly in building both the infrastructure and the sales funnel for 8-Hour Brand.
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