As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Bliss Pattni.
Erica holds an MBA from Cornell University and a B.S. from University of Southern California. She is a seasoned CMO and startup advisor with a successful track record at developing numerous high growth companies to profitably establish them as health & wellness and tech leaders. Erica led all marketing during the rapid growth phase at KIND from $10M in sales to $350M in sales while increasing brand awareness from 10% to 32% awareness with 100% annual sales growth. She has led numerous global brands to establish or reestablish brand leadership including Oracle, Nestle, Williams Sonoma, West Elm, Sun Run, Urban Remedy, Clif Bar, Conde Nast and Gillette by guiding strategy, acquisitions, branding, marketing communications, and innovation and building brand value to help them forge ahead of the competition across their industries.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
Iwas about to turn 40, and wanted to celebrate. All my friends turning 40 were throwing elegant dinner parties but that made me feel old. I wanted to go out, dance with my friends at the club and act like I was carefree and 23. So my crew and I did the thing, dressed up, went out, hit the dance floor, got the sparklers, etc. We had a great time but I was left unsatisfied with the experience. As a 40 year old with a lot going on (work, family, and health being a big priority), I didn’t want to stay out until 4am, but I also wanted more. I wanted the feeling of partying at the club until 4am without the regrets. Could I combine the feeling of a powerful fun workout with this club night vibe? “Yes”, I thought. So, we launched ROWDY in December 2019.
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?
March 2020, the month that the world as we know it changed. We launched ROWDY as a brick and mortar business and with no warning, we had no choice but to migrate online. With little to no outside help, my business partner and I essentially built a new business and digital content platform. We became coders, web designers, audio engineers and camera operators overnight.
One day we were trying to connect our Google business profile with our new digital content platform and corporate website. With the click of one button (“connect”) we did just the opposite and actually disconnected all of our sites. The page informed us we would be locked out for 2 days and naturally we panicked! We took a deep breath, waited, and those two days felt like two years. Finally we got the sites reconnected and we were up and off.
- Speed is key but expert support is sometimes a must. When it relates to your tech and your primary revenue channel or sites, lean on experts even if you have to communicate via email, text, or chat support. We used to scoff at the idea of relying only on a human voice to guide us through, but this new world moves too fast to wait for a call back. We are all in on online customer chat support and rely heavily on them for our tech support. 99% of the time we get the support we need, fast.
- Tech is unpredictable, and so are the people running it! Once, one of our tech operators running a live recording, put Spotify to “shuffle”. Our instructor, Mariah, taught the entire 45 minute class without even realizing the music mishap. She kept on going and rolling with it (even on her birthday)! Now we have signals and code words so that the instructor can communicate with the tech operator if she needs something. We are also super careful to double check that the shuffle is set to “off” at all times!
- Tech is ever evolving. We are never “done” investing in our tech platform or in tech to acquire new customers and deliver an incredible liberating experience every time. Just as consumer needs evolve, our tech and experiences will evolve too.
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?
My grandfather was a successful entrepreneur in the boiler industry. He never went to college but taught me if you want to be successful, always be a student.
- Be humble and own your own education. Know every facet of your business enough so you can manage it well and give it all it needs to succeed.
- Surround yourself with people smarter than you, and keep doing so if you want your business to keep growing.
- Ask questions — always. I.e. Why are we doing this? What if we did X? What for? Be unafraid to be a pain in the a**.
I’ll never forget, 20 years ago (2000) my grandfather at age 70, gave me my first lesson on search engine optimization, keyword bidding and digital ads. I majored in marketing as an undergrad at the time, yet he was teaching me something new, as a 70 year old. I am inspired to stay ahead of technology as he did, and never let my age or education hold me back from mastering technology to help my business win.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When we started, we wanted ROWDY to be a place where people could “let go” and get ROWDY, while taking good care of their bodies, promoting their own health. Our vision was to be a gathering place in every city, for adults looking to have fun, connect with others and get fit. We empower personal freedom. We help people release their self imposed restriction on what they are able to do, free to do, be through powerfully fun and intensely rewarding experiences. Every month we challenge our community to get ROWDY for good, we identify a cause in need, and host a virtual party fundraiser where we match $5 for everyone who joins the event. We often gift these organization supporters, donors, advocates and volunteers with complimentary subscriptions.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
ROWDY is the most powerful yet most accessible digital fitness platform that helps people get more out of life and offers party-style/club-inspired cardio, HIIT and strength workouts set to the beat. We offer a fresh alternative to exercise, by taking the “work” out of “workout”. We literally ban the word “work” at ROWDY. If it’s work, why does someone want to choose us? We help liberate from whatever restrictions are believed to exist (geography, age, abilities, etc).
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
It’s not a technological innovation, but the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the fitness industry by forcing us all online. In-person gyms are no longer an option. Online fitness will exceed $30 billion by 2026. This presents both opportunity and challenge for ROWDY. The demand is higher but so is the competition. Just as there is an abundance of fitness options for consumers, there is an abundance of technology services for us, the providers. When there are so many options for consumers and for businesses, the choices become more difficult for consumers to find.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
- We built www.getrowdydigital.com, a sophisticated content platform.
- We launched a global subscription based membership with affordable pricing, to match these challenging times.
- We hired experts in media, production, digital agencies, web developers, and built up the ROWDY team.
- We are now more of a production/tech/media company, not at all the boutique fitness company we originally set out to be!
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
What is most interesting about this disruption (Covid-19 prompting fitness to move entirely online), is how it fueled ROWDY’s core differentiator — to free people and to “take” them out of their reality. We identified this global consumer “problem” and knew we had the right product and brand to innovate and deliver something incredibly valuable, at a critical time for essential physical and mental health. We had originally focused on delivering “an outlet to let go” but expanded this when everyone was/is still restricted to leave home, gather with friends, workout with friends, travel. We created ROWDY destinations — to let go and “get away”! ROWDY monthly destination-themed collections immerses members in new destinations every month to take them out of their reality (whatever that might be). The classes and content feeds into the new destination each month, with art, music, fashion, food and fun inspiration all from that place. We let our members take a “mental vacation” when they spend time with us. We also recently launched virtual parties, where we connect people face to face for birthdays, holidays and all celebrations — in this time people are looking for ways to connect, and are willing to think outside the box.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
We are growing and grateful. We have grown our team 3x this year. We are fortunate that since we were so new, we did not yet have a 5 year lease that we were tied to and so we had the resources to invest in a new business platform. We launched in May and doubled our subscriber base month over month our first three months. We have a 90% retention rate. When people try ROWDY, they get hooked. We have built 7 collections and just announced our 2021 destinations for the first half of the year. 2021 will be a transformative year for ROWDY and we’re ready to “take people away”. We all need it!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
The first night we offered a virtual pilot ROWDY class in March, 150 people joined. The demand was astonishing and from all parts of the world (from Thailand to Australia). It was in this moment that we knew we were on to something big. We realized people needed ROWDY now more than ever. Our initial vision as a “nice to have” place to go to improve health, has shifted to a global necessity as people are feeling restrained and unconnected in this environment, and as so many are fighting to maintain physical and mental health.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
- To inspire and to lead by example. Act big, yet humble, stay positive and give it 100%
- Hide panic. “Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others” — Leo Tuz
- Serve your team.
- Keep laser focus on the vision, mission and purpose of the brand. Put everything through these filters to craft strategy and execution.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Inspire by sharing, open communication, and a “flat” culture
- Invest in your team. Genuinely take an interest in each individual. What do they love to do for fun? What inspires them? Be part of the path to their individual destinations. Be the kind of place they get to try new things and grow. Identify what motivates each individual team member — and ensure the company supports those motivations.
- Share what’s going on with the business, emphasizing the positives and opportunities while also acknowledging truths.
- Share the company’s performance and plans. Regularly remind of the vision, purpose and mission.
- Ask and listen, and invite them “in”
- Ask team members (at all levels) for ideas and always encourage constructive criticism.
- Listen with an open mind. Make everyone feel their voice matters and they are part of something purposeful and bigger than just one individual. If an idea doesn’t make the cut, recognize the value and the good in the idea — “park it” for revisiting later.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
“The only constant in life is change. So be open to adapt and find the bliss in it.” The first part is well known, the second “be open to adapt and find the bliss in it” I added. Life is too short to not have fun every day and you have to roll with it. There is always going to be hard stuff, but try to find the fun in it. Bliss is my given family name (and now middle name), so it is especially personal and connects back to my grandfather, whom I mentioned earlier (also a Bliss).
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
You must always focus on your customer, always!
- Broadening your offering too much, trying to be all things to all people.
- Changing overnight (especially relating to supply chain). Keep the tried and true tech as you grow. Investigate, test, and dip the toe in with the new tech. Get case studies, results, timeline, have a plan B if something goes wrong. I’ve seen this with brands I’ve worked with when they wanted to shift packaging suppliers to a new one with a “brand new” technology that increases production while decreasing costs. That packaging supplier was new, and not yet experienced enough or equipped yet to handle demand spikes and left the brand behind on inventory, ending up shorting customers like Amazon and Walmart (precious accounts with high volume sales). The best practice is gradual evolution.
- Not having, sharing or living up to values. Now more than ever, consumers are voting with their dollars and want to support companies that stand for something that aligns with what they stand for. Tell them what you stand for and know actions speak louder than words.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen and get the data. Ask for feedback and input especially from your team and your customers constantly. Regularly engage customers to evaluate new tech and read between the lines. We thought we needed to build a video to video platform so people could see and engage face to face, live with each other, but when we asked about live classes and dug into our analytics we found only 10% of our members actually care about even attending live classes! Without this rigor, we would have invested a ton in new technology to build something only a fraction of our members would value. Turns out people feel more free when there is no camera on them!
- Stay true to your brand and core competencies. Ask yourself, “Does this technology help to further the brand and do we have what it takes to execute flawlessly?” Snapchat for us was a “no” when put through our brand and target filter. Instagram Reels are a “yes”. Our core target is on Instagram, not on Snapchat. Apple Watch integration shows calories burned and steps. Sure these are cool and for some brands make sense, but when we explored integrating analytics like that in our platform, we decided this was a big “no”. Data such as calories or steps is not the ROWDY brand, as we’re offering freedom for people not to worry about this!
- Diversification of investments. This is not “set it and forget it”. Like a stock portfolio, diversification is key. You need to balance the tried and true technologies with new tech. Early on we experimented with AI, in hopes of getting that “magic bullet”. The idea was that by leveraging AI, we could scale our influencer outreach 100x in a matter of weeks, and they would in turn promote our brand. This did not work! The world is saturated with influencers and even influencers are saturated with brands. We are now implementing more tried and true influencer strategies, while laying in our own unique approach and execution. SEO and digital partnerships is another area we are investing in, but these are longer term bets. And we continue to investigate new tech and methods of reaching new prospects and to engage our existing members.
- Evolution not revolution. Building an app, building custom hardware, building APIs to our site, text integration. There are many tech things we want and we will implement to continuously enrich the ROWDY experience. But to do them well, we prioritize and plan (and regularly refine) to evolve, so to not alienate our core product and experiences as we build and add.
- Be skeptical, do research. Ask a lot of questions and rely on successful track records. If something seems too good to be true, it is. When we were evaluating our content platform provider some of them promised the world for a lower cost (i.e. “overlay this, zap that, integrate this, it’s so easy just set up in 2 days”). They made their technology sound simple and so easy. We took an ultra skeptic approach and dug deep into track records, and experienced the platform as a consumer before we signed on. We were able to build a sophisticated tech platform that provides ROWDY members a truly seamless user experience and enables ROWDY to live up to its promise — taking the “work” out of “workout” and providing an outlet to free people from whatever restrictions they might believe they have.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it” This is relevant to me because I love my work. I have been fortunate enough to love what I do and to get great joy and fulfillment from it. I also know what it feels like to hate my work. My first job out of college was at an ad agency and I was working 12 hour days, doing grunt work, which I accepted, but I realized I didn’t even want the job of the head boss! Once I realized that I quit and never looked back. I have spent the past 20 years building consumer brands, most which purposefully enrich lives (like KIND, Miyoko, Urban Remedy, Sun Run, Oracle). It’s incredibly rewarding and fun for me to build businesses that help people to get more out of life.
How can our readers further follow your work?