As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Bolten, a customer-centric, strategy and omnichannel/integrated marketing expert, focused on connecting brands and consumers through insight and ideation to drive acquisition, retention, and loyalty. He is a veteran in developing customer-centric solutions to leverage marketing investments and assets to build brands and achieve stated business goals. Brian brings 25 years of sponsorship, experiential, digital and brand experience to the NextUp Partners network, having served SmileDirectClub as the Vice President, Experiential & Partnerships, until March, 2020.
Prior to SmileDirectClub, Brian was with Endeavor Global Marketing (now 160/90), where he was the original lead for Anheuser-Busch’s sports portfolio work, and oversaw several brand relationships while supporting the leadership of the strategy and new business teams. Brian began his career on the property and sales side, working for the Philadelphia Eagles, Gazelle Group, and Host Communications (now Learfield/IMG College). He also has experience on the brand side, with roles at Frito Lay and Karl Strauss Brewing Company, and has worked with sponsorship marketing agencies like Velocity Sports & Entertainment (now Team Epic), Octagon and Momentum. Brian spent more than four years developing his digital marketing and strategy expertise at eBay Enterprise as the Head of Marketing Strategy and co-leader of THE SHOP, an eBay Enterprise Agency. He even served a short stint as a leader of Victory Junction, a NASCAR-affiliated non-profit.
Brian graduated with a bachelor’s of science in economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and got an MBA in marketing from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My father is a lifetime academic economist and I had every intention of attending Wharton to go work on Wall Street, but I quickly realized that a career should fulfill a true passion. For me, that was connecting with people and sports. In 1996, I graduated with an individualized concentration in sports management from Wharton, which was the only one of its kind at the time (killed once the average salary of that career path vs. wall street was discovered!). I started on the sales side, working for a few places that you’ve heard of, as well as one that was a pure startup. In 2000, my boss strongly advised me to get an MBA (his advice: “apply to one school or you’re fired”), which ended up being the best advice I ever received. I transitioned to the brand side, and even though I was impacted by low hiring after 9/11, it allowed me to round out my marketing knowledge. In 2003, that same manager helped me land a job on the agency/consultancy side, which allowed me to work for large brand-driven companies like FedEx, Sprint, Bank of America and American Express, among others. In 2011, I again felt the need to differentiate my background and knowledge base, so I transitioned into digital marketing, working for the B2B arm of eBay, Inc, called eBay Enterprise. Those five years were eye-opening and a new experience, leading to a few more opportunities in 2015 and 2018. Unfortunately, I was impacted by several factors in the spring of 2020 at my last role at SmileDirectClub, which allowed me to do some soul searching while the world shut down.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Any career has ups and downs; 9/11, the global financial crisis, and now COVID are just a few of mine. More recently, my own success has been out of my control, as the value I could provide wasn’t being prioritized. It was time to service those who saw value in my 25 years of experiences and viewpoints on the consumer journey. The idea for NextUp was the brainchild of a few long-term friends and colleagues, but I saw the vision and opportunity immediately and jumped onboard to help get things ramped up. The ‘aha moment’ is that NextUp, both Ventures and Partners, delivers the quality and depth of experience and expertise, at scale, while maintaining flexibility; without the process, overhead, or politics that I experienced with prior organizations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?
My first job was as an intern with the Philadelphia Eagles. I was in charge of all of the marketing elements of training camp. Every day, I had to drive a green van from Veteran’s Stadium in South Philly to West Chester University, where camp used to be held. One Friday night, I returned to the Vet too late, and the gates to the parking lot were locked for the weekend. Not knowing exactly what to do, I took the van back to my college apartment, where several friends of mine immediately headed to Atlantic City. That was the uneventful part of the weekend! Upon returning late on Sunday, I parked it on the street in front of my house in West Philly. First thing Monday morning, I went looking for it, and it was gone. My housemates and I scoured campus but came up empty. Around noon, I finally went to the police station and filed a report, and called my boss. He was very upset about the van being stolen, and an hour later, I walked into the front offices, where I had to do the walk of shame down the hallway in front of everyone, who already knew what had happened. By the end of the day, I was no longer Brian in the office. I was Van (thanks to the head of PR, who christened me). The biggest lesson I took from that was to raise hands when you have a question, early enough that someone can help (like calling my boss on Friday night!). Don’t raise your hand when it’s too late to do anything about it!
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
A clear vision and purpose are critical for any company starting out, to ensure that focus is maintained on why the company was started in the first place. Where your flag is planted in the ground is critical, whether the flag is business-oriented or cause-oriented. In the case of NextUp Partners, we’ve been able to bring a depth of expertise and flexibility, in a timely and efficient manner. That’s tangible value to a client, whether that’s companies that are just ramping up or even established ones that need some gaps filled. The most critical part of the organization, though, is the mindset and trust of everyone involved. We serve and act as one team, one unit, and one body, willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the team.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
We certainly tell this same story outward as much as inward: people first. This means that sometimes we lose people to full-time roles or other opportunities, which we fully support. We communicate to our clients that our depth allows for a bench that creates a “next man up” situation. So, our ability to deliver does not change at all. In fact, it has only gotten stronger, as we have grown our team to almost 40 people, right now. More than ever, we can now deliver depth of experience, with speed and budgetary efficiency.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
TRUST. We are 100% built on pure trust. This is a project-based, consulting-driven company. There is nothing that stops anyone from negotiating a project on their own, via a NextUp relationship. But that does not happen. We only have people who have committed to the team, to the mission and vision, and to the NextUp network. While these 40 people are smart and good at what they do, they are also some of the nicest, kindest and friendliest people you’ll ever meet. All bought in on the same level of trust, willing to help each other out at a moment’s notice.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
For NextUp, I think we’re still in that “first started” phase. We’ve come a long way in the past several months — growing the team, creating the structure and assets needed to operate, etc. But we are just now in the pipeline phase. It’s been active, but I’d be lying if we said we’re paying the bills right now. That will come with time and quality work, if we remember: 1) we’re doing things differently, and 2) our success or failure is ours as a collective. The drive is easy, the reality is a bit scary — but what new venture isn’t?!
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
The value that NextUp can provide is pretty obvious — the 40 of us have more than 750 years of combined work experience, and the experience is varied and stacked. Nobody joins the team without having worked closely with others on the team, which gives us excellent chemistry and diversity of thought. Our initial clients are also from our network, so we have built-in rapport and trust. As noted above, we have bandwidth to spare and are actively looking to put our team to work. Success is just a matter of time and persistence at this point.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be the customer. This is first and foremost. It’s critical. Don’t bullshit yourself. Start with a journey exercise and be clear on the steps that are most relevant to moving along the journey.
- Find a need and solve for it. As part of the customer journey exercise, determine where the main pain points are, and focus on delivering services and experiences that help make your customer’s journey better.
- There is a difference between a good idea and a right idea. Anyone can come up with a good idea. A right idea is a good idea that is based on insight that clearly shows that there is a propensity for that idea to work. Find the “nugget” that gives you confidence, but be a neutral reporter, not a politician. You shouldn’t have to sell the right idea to anyone, just report on its rationality.
- Jump in. This is the scary bit…spending money. What will work? Will I have the ability to know what works? Start small and grow what is working. And then be ready for that to change quickly due to factors outside of your control (market influences, competitors, COVID, etc.).
- Turn customers into your sales team. So much is spent on acquisition. But if you can create a depth of relationship with your existing customers, and turn them into advocates, then you now have an army ready to provide great word-of-mouth referrals. Don’t forget who got you to where you are today. They will be critical for tomorrow.
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? Can you share a story?
In 25 years of work, I’ve had the help of a lot of people who have been there for me — teaching, opening doors, etc. Today, I try and pay that forward by mentoring and offering advice to my network and my network’s network, where I can. Specifically, around NextUp Partners, I’m grateful for Joe Dupriest, B.J. Naedele, and Shripal Shah for their invitation to join the partnership, and their confidence in me to help build this idea. It has been a great ride so far, but there’s a ton of room for growth.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m a huge fan of cause marketing. I’ve embraced it from my first full-time job to my most recent experience. There certainly is a way to “do well by doing good”; you can make money while changing lives. I look for opportunities to incorporate cause, community and similar efforts into every possible marketing program, knowing that people will respect the dedicated outreach. I’d love to work with those in analytics to create a tracker that clearly quantifies how much these types of efforts can directly impact the business. There is a lot of general data out there, but little in the way of specific dashboards and trackers for cause marketing efforts by a brand/for-profit company.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am predominantly on LinkedIn — www.linkedin.com/in/brianbolten