What should small businesses focus on when they are not resource-rich?
When resources are scarce, it’s hard to know where to allocate them…
But with the power of alignment and a meaningful brand, it becomes easy…
Brad Day of HELM Boots left a 16-year career at Adidas to enter the startup world…
In this episode, he shares the strategies that led his small direct-to-consumer business to survive the pandemic and become a brand that means something to customers.
Brad will cover:
- How to hire top talent (even if you think you can’t afford to)
- The power of prioritizing
- Why a strong brand doesn’t need expensive marketing
- The importance of alignment on small teams
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is what small businesses should be focusing on when they are not resource-rich. Here to speak with me is Brad Day who is the CEO at HELM Boots and men’s footwear company that crafts reliable boots that look good, perfect for every style and occasion.
Brad is a transformative small and midsize business operator focused on scaling up operations and best practices for high growth or turnaround organizations within the consumer products industry. He has extensive experience with large multinational organizations, subsidiaries, and ownership advertisement for small growth focused startup organizations. Brad, welcome to the show.
Brad Day: Hey, I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Steffen: Now, Brad, before we dive deep into today’s topic, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in your career and what led you to HELM Boots?
Brad: Yeah, it’s probably not the traditional path that somebody would take to get into the entrepreneurial small business world. But I am an Oregonian. Grew up here in Oregon and was lucky enough to find myself in Portland after college and in Portland, there is no shortage of large consumer products companies specifically in the footwear and athletic industry. And landed a job right out of school with Adidas here and started doing data entry. It was a terrible job. But at that time in life, it was an exciting opportunity, a foot in the door at a company that I loved. I was a soccer player. And so it was fantastic.
And so I spent then the next 16 years with Adidas and spent four or five years over in Germany kind of doing my, my stint over there and then the motherland and then came back and spent another five years here working in the states. And so spent 16 years doing all different jobs and working in different categories and different functions, working all over the world and was just amazing. Met my wife at Adidas, so it’s kind of this, you know, transformative time in my life, as I kind of grew up really within that brand.
And then about five, six years ago, we found ourselves in Austin and got this opportunity to join this small startup. And I had always wanted to run a company and be part of something in that in that space and really see what if I had this entrepreneurial component inside of me. And so I had the opportunity to join a small leather footwear company based in in Austin, Texas, and took that opportunity. And so it’s been six interesting years, I can say the least, with kind of working on this side, as you go from 19, $20 billion organization to small startup with very limited resources.
Steffen: Was it a cultural shock?
Brad: I think it was an everything shock. It was, you know, it was a culture shock, for sure. Right, you you’re entering a small team with several different personalities, and that’s the thing with any organization, but all of those, the components of individual personalities are just magnified when there’s less people right, you can, you know, you’re in working for Adidas in Germany, right. And I know and you know, that’s, that’s kind of where you’re from, you know, it’s a different culture, right?
But you have a bunch of people from different cultures there. And so when you enter a small team it is, you know a brand has an identity, and they have their own culture and you have to you have to fit in, but you also have to kind of evaluate and try and steer and change culture. And that’s part of the reason why you’re there. So everything was kind of a shock. Going from that big to this small.
Steffen: Yeah. Is it right to say that probably at HELM Boots, when you started maybe it’s still the same that several tasks sit on one individual’s shoulders. So when you look at big organizations like Adidas, you know, or for myself, I worked for big global media agencies. Yeah, you usually have a focus. There’s a focus area that you’re responsible for. But when you work at a smaller company, it’s not just the focus area, there are other areas that you have to cover.
Brad: Yes, 100%. I mean, you use the old term everybody’s got to wear several hats, we’re a small business. And it’s really true, right? And I don’t think I really realized that you know, how, how much help and support you have when you’re at these big companies. I’ll use an example when, when I when I joined, we landed Zappos, right. Big footwear account and big opportunity for us and, and I worked with Zappos before when I was at Adidas, but you know, you would, you would take the order, you’d sell the product, and then you would pass it along, and you’d have a customer service team that would facilitate the order.
And then, you know, they pass it to the finance team who would collect the money. And then there was a whole logistics warehouse arm that would pack and, you know, distribute it, and all of those things. And here we are, we’ve got to figure out how to actually process the order. And there’s some special system we’ve got to download. And we’ve got to take, you know, 500 boots out of the back office and individually pack them in boxes, and you just everything you have to do.
And that’s just really the nature of being in a small business that has few resources. Your resources are limited. You’ve got to choose, you know how you deploy them. And that’s people and money. And you end up having to do a lot of things yourself, and you have to learn how to teach yourself how to do a lot of things because there’s just no one else to do them.
Steffen: You can’t be afraid, right of learning something new, you just have to dive in headfirst?
Brad: Well, it’s the it’s, you can’t be afraid but you also you have to kind of really thrive on it. Right. If you’re you know, it’s, I use this example, like, and you might probably appreciate this. When when you travel internationally, right, the first time you go, it’s a little scary and intimidating. But then you, you have that like one amazing experience where you kind of walk into a restaurant, you struggle with the language, you build this rapport with people, and you just figure out how to communicate and have an amazing meal.
And you really get a lot of energy, and you have to really, like, thrive off of that. And that’s the same thing with a small business. You have to really thrive and get energy out of the challenge of like, okay, here’s something I don’t know how to do. Who do I ask, how do I figure it out? Because we’ve got to get it done. And then like, you know, it’s the opposite of not being afraid, you gotta like really thrive on kind of that challenge? Because there’s no other way to get it done.
Steffen: Yeah. Now, what was one of the biggest surprises in the early days. So when you when you move from, from your big corporate environment, to the small HELM Boots environment.
Brad: I think the probably the biggest one was how you prioritize what you’re going to focus on, right? It is kind of going back to what we just talked about, you can’t do everything, and you come from a big business that has lots of resources, and you come in with these expectations of like, okay, operationally, we’re going to do this and marketing and all of these components of the business. We just can’t do them all. And so you have to literally build kind of a priority list of, okay, we’re gonna start with this one, we’re going to do that, and then we move on. And so I think the, the biggest lesson is making sure that everyone is aligned on the priorities that they’re focused on, right.
Because if everybody’s kind of off doing the things that they think they should be focused on, you’re gonna be disjointed. Nothing’s gonna get done, right. And again, all of those people that are helping you do everything, they’re also doing several different jobs. Right. So having like, clear organization, clear goals, clear focus, clear alignment are way more important when you’re at a small kind of resource-strapped business. Because the resources aren’t there to get it done unless everybody’s aligned. Because you need help.
Steffen: Yeah. So I assume, then technology is something that you probably use a lot in order to keep organization, to keep aligned. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Brad: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a, you know, you kind of come in to these companies, and you inherit what they have, right, and you inherit some of the technologies and some of the infrastructures. Some of those stay, some of those go. You come from a big organization that has all the technology and all the processes. And sometimes that makes you slow and unflexible. And a lot of times it does. It makes you we’ve used this, you know, process constipation, right? You’re, you can’t do anything, because you’re so stuck in the processes in the organization and the technology. And so it is going back to what are you trying to accomplish, right.
And what is, what is the things that you have to have, in order to do that, right. You have to, you’re going to be in a direct consumer business, you have to have a functional website, right, that has a customer journey that allows customers to flow through there and checkout, right. You have to have amazing inventory management and so that you know what you have and don’t have to sell. Now, there’s some nice to haves of you know, ERP systems and things that we’ve had and haven’t had and loyalty systems and all these things that you begin to add on as you get bigger and bigger.
But it is going back to like what is the tech? What are the resources? What are the processes that you have to have as you build your foundation? And then how do you layer those on as you get bigger and bigger and bigger? And also like, there’s a lot of systems that are great at the beginning. And then there’s a lot of amazing systems that you can’t afford and like how do you navigate kind of the in betweens.
Can you reach and get that system that you know, you’re gonna need in two to three years? Are you kind of like get another system in between. So it is kind of always evaluating. How I’ve approached it, I’ve always asked people that are smarter than me at this stuff. So whether it’s a board member, somebody that I’ve worked with of have like, here’s our problem. I don’t know enough about IT infrastructures and sales systems, or whatever it may be.
Marketing systems, or what do you what do you suggest? Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish in 6, 12, 18 months. What’s a good program? Do you know somebody that could help us implement that and kind of just play the resource game of because you’re not going to know everything. So don’t try and pretend you do and find people that can help you kind of add that technology in, that you that you really need for today?
Steffen: How do you decide which areas to potentially outsource? So look for outside vendors? And which areas you try to maybe build out internally or use people that you already have? Because when you’re at Adidas, there are so many departments in there for things that you now probably need support, but you don’t have anyone? How do you approach that?
Brad: That’s a great question. If there are certain, I think certain aspects of your business that you would never want to outsource. And for us, you know, and I think that that varies depending on different types of businesses, right. And for us, that was, we were never going to outsource our customer service. Like that one on one connection, how we can solve problems for our customers, how we can proactively engage with them was something that we were never going to do. And so how we rebuilt our organization, because the organization that I joined and the organization today are very different.
We blew up the company, we looked at our channel strategy, our sourcing we did you know, it’s a completely different organization. And we went to a small core team that were all really focused on building great product, and servicing our customers. And then we surrounded ourselves with experts that are very, very good at one specific thing, one or two specific things, right. So we found somebody who was amazing at paid social, but we would never be able to afford that person full time, but we could get a fraction of her time.
A web developer, a graphic designer, like all of these different pieces that we would surround our business with, with a talent that we couldn’t afford full time, but we can afford a portion of them. And that’s how we elevated kind of everything that we did is we brought more A talent surrounding our business, not necessarily in. And as we’ve grown, and we’re going through this piece now, as we’re evaluating kind of our organization, and really coming out of COVID. And taking a deep breath that, oh, we survived, we’re still here.
What’s the organization need to look like? What functions do we need to bring in house? What functions can we afford to bring in house? But at the same time, realizing going back to like one of the first question, what are your surprises? When you work at Adidas, you get really, really smart people just about everywhere. And same with a lot of these companies because they can afford but then there’s also a passion involved with working for a sporting goods brand like that. So how do you get A talent just involved in your business, and whether that’s rebuilding your board of directors, with people that have functional skills.
So like, so we shifted to build a digitally native direct to consumer company, we hired a board member who was a ecommerce marketer, right? He’s a CMO in the Bay Area. And he’s just brilliant. He helped us build the infrastructure. I didn’t know how to how to do that. And so he walked hand in hand with me as we found the right agencies and the consultants and the strategies and things like that. So it is kind of being resourceful with finding talent that can help you with your business.
Steffen: Interesting. Now, what was one lesson that you learned early that stuck with you?
Brad: Well, a little bit I think of kind of what I just talked about is being okay to say I don’t know, right. Just to be you know, whether it’s the investors that put money in you. Whether you’re a CEO or not, like whether you control your company or not, you know, there I still answer to people that have funded this organization and, and being confident enough to say, hey, I don’t know let me get back to you. And I will come back with a solution very quickly. But being okay to say that because I think there is that mindset of, and I hate this term, I don’t know if there’s a better term, the fake it till you make it right.
And we all do that, right. We all we all work through things we all act like we know more than we do. And there’s certain pieces of the business that that’s okay. But there’s certain pieces of the business that can get you in a lot of trouble if you try and kind of bullshit your way through there, right. And whether it’s financial targets, financial promises, you know, ending cash of like, oh, we’re going to 10x you know, all of that stuff. Like you got to be knowledgeable enough to say, hey, this is an area that I don’t want to give you the wrong answer. Let me come back to you. And I think that was a good lesson kind of early on.
I think the other, the other one was looking at everything to scale, right? Not trying to solve things, just to get through the problem. But as you’re adding a system, hiring somebody, changing a channel strategy, you know, landing that big account that, you know, it’s going to challenge your open to buy, you can, don’t just try to figure it out for that, but figure out how to everything scales. If we did this over, over and over, would it be profitable? And can we execute it? If we hired this person, does this person still make sense in 12 to 18 months?
You know, kind of looking at everything of, I don’t know, let me figure it out. But also, whatever we do with big strategic decisions, will the final output be able to scale as we go bigger, right. Because that’s a danger that you kind of look at things, you take low margin opportunities, you find yourself a little too reliant on one account that doesn’t have high margin profiles, and you find yourself stuck in a business that’s not going to scale or ever be profitable, which is never a good thing.
Steffen: Now, we talked about this a little bit, or at least we touched on, on kind of limited resources and you know, when to make a decision on using outside vendors, but with the people that you have, how do you approach prioritizing certain parts of the business and allocating those to the resources that are, you know, available to you.
Brad: You’ve got to, you’ve got to have a clear, clear alignment on what you’re trying to accomplish, right. And I think that is, you know, whether it’s we want big growth next year, you know, we’re trying to get to profitability, we’re gonna have small growth and just maintain or whatever it is, you’ve got to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish out of the business. And then what are the things that are absolutely necessary in order to accomplish that, and those become everybody’s priorities, right.
And you know, that we can’t function unless we have emails that are firing, you know, proper email back and stock flows, and welcome series and, you know, campaigns that are going out and paid social and you know, a website that’s functional. And all of those different components, we know, we can’t run a direct-to-consumer business, and grow with the rate that we’re planning on growing without those. So all of those things are prioritized amongst the resources we have, then, and everybody at home would laugh. I’m full of like projects and things that we want to do and all this other stuff that I keep throwing them.
Like, oh, here’s this new program, here’s this, like, here’s another account. It’s like, hold on, I’ve got to do all these other things first, and then we can get to it if we can. But or you have to be very clear of this is a priority over that. But I think it is, you know, we’ve been able to navigate, you know, being a small business that doesn’t make any money traveling through COVID. Being cash-strapped, like all these things, we’ve been able to navigate because the core team is all pretty aligned on what they should be focused on to achieve a shared goal. Then everything else is would be nice to have if we could get to it.
Steffen: Was it easier with kind of a core focused team to navigate COVID then if you would have been at a, I don’t know, I think how many people are you guys at the moment? 12, 15, something like that?
Brad: We’re at core, we’re eight.
Brad: So we’re pretty small. And then we have, you know, at one time, HELM was 15. And we narrowed it down. I do think, you know, I don’t know, I mean, everybody had a different experience during COVID. I think, you know, my wife is a CMO at a company and sits in the home office next to me now and her company thrived, right? So everybody had a different experience. For our type of business, which is, you know, leather footwear a little bit more elevated, that’s built for people to do things out in the world, which no one was doing.
No, we were hit really hard. And so if we had had a big team, or we had chosen 2020 to ramp up staff and fill the big infrastructure and open stores, or whatever it was, we would have been in serious trouble. But because we were a small core team, we were able to fluctuate some of the outsourced resources. We were able to keep the entire team employed. We redeployed people in their functions. So our store manager wasn’t really a store manager. And luckily, she had a writing background.
So she wrote a bunch of blogs and SEO content and, you know, did a lot of like community outreach and engagement. And so things like that we redeployed and we’re really flexible. But yeah, I mean, it was it was really lucky in some instances that we had this small core team, but it also made it positive on the same right, because all these decisions of how to navigate COVID. But then also some of the social issues that came up during these times, like, we were a pretty aligned team on what we wanted to stand for, and how we wanted to say it.
And we could have these conversations and it made us easier to, to kind of navigate some of those things collectively. And we, you know, we knew who the group was that we’re going to be going through this. And we knew who was going to come out on the other end if we if we got it done. And, and that was great.
Steffen: Yeah. So early on, we talked about what were your biggest surprises, we talked about what you learned. What are some mistakes you made early on, that you’re like, man, if I had known that, or.
Brad: I think COVID is a good example, I kind of look back, and I don’t think we made any mistakes. I think there’s things we probably do differently, but everbody was just kind of making the decision with the facts they have in front of them. I think the the two mistakes or things that I would do over is, you know, in small teams, and I think I mentioned this earlier, the connection that the teams have together is so important, right. And so if you have one person that’s not really aligned, or doesn’t fit into the culture, like that has such an impact. And we all know when that’s there.
And so I think not moving on from those types of people, or those that are having such a negative effect on the team fast enough. And people always say this, I think, you know, Netflix in their manifesto was like, hire slow fire fast. But it really is, like we all know, when there’s, there’s a problem with somebody in our teams, we won’t all think that we’re like, the type of amazing manager that can mentor people and coach them through and you want to give people the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes some of these people just aren’t right for your organization. And sometimes they know that more than you do, right.
And so it’s kind of this two-prong thing of making sure you move on from people and get the right resources and for your culture when in your company. Because, again, going back to the story, like resources are, are scarce, right. And so if you’ve got one that’s not performing or negatively impacting culture, I think you have to act. I think the other one was probably moving on to a larger agency a little faster than we should have. So we had built this small core team with these, you know, experts and various different things.
And at some point, the business was moving at a growth pace. And we’re getting to a spot where we needed someone who could holistically look at all of our acquisition channels, and kind of our entire performance marketing profile, and all of these components that can look at those holistically, and manage ad buys and all that stuff. We had the ability to add channels with them and and really grow right. And comes out with a, a big retainer, a bigger retainer. And you kind of lose a little bit of that, that expert at one thing, right.
And so I think we got, we ended up with an amazing agency, they did an awesome job. You know, they kind of landed right before COVID. So it wasn’t really on them. But I think it was probably a little too early for us in our size of business. And that’s the personal touch that we got from the, from the the consultants or the contractors and, and we’ve always treated them like extensions to our brand that we have someone who’s who’s really part of our brand and part of our family. Because we are so small that losing that touch a little bit, I think was probably a mistake.
And so we’ve gone back to that I think that the right move for us would have been figuring out how to bring those inside, versus find somebody bigger outside that that can handle that. So that’s probably something we would have done differently versus out out, you know, outsource a big retainer of how do we bring somebody inside that can just live and breathe it. And more people that can live and breathe it, it is better.
Steffen: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Now, what do you think that future looks like for d2c businesses? Especially in regards to how people approach acquisition?
Brad: That’s a good. I mean, this is the key question, right? You know, this is what all direct-to-consumer companies are faced with or companies that play in the direct-to-consumer e-commerce space, right? I’m not a I’m not a e-commerce expert, right. I’m not a performance marketing. So there’s, there’s probably better people to speak on of, you know, the cheapest way to acquire customers, and what’s the future look. I think there’s, you know, there’s always going to be the next thing, right. And I don’t know what that is, right.
And it was Facebook, and you know, right now it’s TikTok and that’s, you know, and there’s going to be the next thing and there’s all of these ways to acquire customers, right. I think what we’ve seen though, being more important than that, right, and is do you have a brand. Do you have something that means something to people, or you building community, do people relate to your product? Do they relate to you as as as a company like, without those components and that focus, you run the risk of kind of being a faceless direct-to-consumer brand. I think there’s a lot of, we’ve seen a lot of those companies not come out of COVID.
But there’s, you know, there’s a playbook now, right and you know, consumer products, you can slap a label on a product, it’s not that special. And if you’ve got a marketing engine, man, you can, you can fire that thing up and make a lot of money very fast, right? I think the future though, for brands that don’t have a lot of value, and whatever you’re trying to just build a brand that you’re going to own for 50 years.
If it’s a brand new, you’re gonna try and spin off the acquirer, whatever your goals are, making sure that you’re building community and have a brand that means something to people is going to be just as important of how you acquire customers, right? Because the type of customers that you acquire, do they stick around? Do they purchase again, right? Like all of those components are like, how cool is your brand? Like, do people really relate to it versus I bought a product, it’s pretty cool. I like it. And next time I need another product, I might give them a shout but I’m gonna look around which everybody does, versus I love this brand.
I love this product. You know, but it’s I love this brand. They treated me great. They did this. You know, I had a problem. My laces broke, they sent me brand new laces. Whatever it may be, but having that the relationship and being something a little bit bigger than this day in e-commerce transaction, I think it is were really valuable direct-to-consumer companies are going to come from and focus on.
Steffen: Yeah, I love, I love your last part because I think in those situations, because we have a lot of price-conscious buyers in the market. But price no longer is a point in kind of the deliberation phase of whether I buy that shoe over another one. Right, if I love a brand, I mean, Apple obviously it’s a shining company in that regard, right. Their products are probably compared to others much more expensive, but people still buy it because they love the brand. They love what the brand stands for and all of that.
And I think that’s what you just said. It’s you know, if you build a brand if the brand has kind of a meaning, if it stands for something, then you know a lot of things that other people get headaches on you don’t have to worry about. I read a LinkedIn update yesterday for Allbirds, for example. Someone had bought Allbirds shoes, and apparently their little puppy the next day after they were delivered, destroyed one of the shoes because he chewed through it.
So he just texted them and just wanted a coupon code you know for a little bit off and they actually sent him a completely pair of new shoes. I mean, that’s something that people will keep the minute I think the person said, hey, you know what, I actually ordered another pair because that’s great customer service. And that’s what I love about this brand. Brad, I think we could continue this conversation.
Unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of today’s podcast episode. Now, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your knowledge on you know what small businesses should be focusing on when they are not resource-rich. If people want to find out more about you and HELM Boots, how can they go about it?
Brad: They can go to the website helmboots.com I’m on LinkedIn, Brad Day Portland, Oregon. You can find, track me down there. But yeah, I mean go to the website you know, send an email to contact@helmboots. I see every single email that comes in, and I see, I still have it set up so I see every order that comes in and in every email from every customer.
I mean, I was telling somebody the other day I still remember when we had our first that kind of marketing consultant come in and we sat down and the goal was to go from selling a half a boot a day online to selling one boot per day online. That was our goal when we first started right. And to see where we’ve come right. You know we, so I’ve seen it all, but I still see every email. So reach in, reach out, I’ll see it. You know if anybody has any questions or you know, wants to talk boots, you know, you can find me there.
Steffen: Perfect. And as always we leave information in the show notes. So should be easy to find a website or find Brad on LinkedIn. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.
Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience focused and data driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com