October 10, 2013

Working with great people and their great companies: Brand Advisor Nicole Delger

It was through an update by Makeshift Society founder, Rena Tom(1), to her Kickstarter campaign that I delightfully discovered Nicole Delger and her eBook Get Funded: A kick-ass plan for running a successful crowdfunding campaign. Here, she generously gives her informed takes on brand, business, creativity, and more.

On being a brand advisor

When and how did you initially encounter the concept of “brand”? And did this kick-start your path toward becoming a brand advisor? If not, how did you arrive at what you do?

My first job was at an incredible ad agency in Austin, GSD&M. They taught me how important it is to think about companies in terms of purpose, the benefit you bring to the world beyond just making money.

Also my long-time mentor there, John McGrath, gave me tremendous opportunities at a very early stage in my career to be a leader and to initiate projects.

You wrote about the difference between “brand” and “branding.” What is it about these concepts—these forces—that inspire you?

There’s the talk, and there’s the walk. You can have gorgeous marketing materials and design, but you have to have a tremendous value and product behind that. Doing the work is 99% of the challenge in building a great brand.

Do you think that the word “brand” gets misapplied? If so, why?

The visual idea of “brand” is so tangible. For most people, it’s easy to think, “I am going to start a business so I need a logo!” And I think most designers would agree that’s no place to start.

When designers are working with clients, that misapplication of wanting to go straight to the visual can become a big issue. I’ve seen designers and their work become the tail that wags the dog. Clients are on a call debating colors down to the Pantone number, when they really need to be spending time getting their house in order and fixing the product.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start and establish yourself as a brand advisor? And why were these activities/steps important?

I’ve worked in advertising as a media buyer, and then moved internally at the agency to do corporate communications. I then went on to work in publishing and then did crisis communications. So I literally have worked in almost every specialty area of communications. All those opportunities were really important in giving me a vocabulary and confidence to do my job well.

But the biggest piece is leadership. I say this all the time: People want to be led—teams, clients, whomever you’re working with. I’m lucky that I just am naturally that kind of personality, but you can always be better. And if it’s not natural, it can be taught. Creative people, who can lead, can sometimes be difficult to find. But if you take the time to cultivate leadership as a creative person, you’ll be more successful than you could ever imagine.

How do you get the word out about what you do?

Whew. This is a big one. I blog for myself, I guest blog, I use social media, I have an email list so I can stay connected with potential customers, I’ve hosted panels and done speaking engagements, and I recently wrote a book.

Of course, I do marketing for clients, so I have to push myself when it comes to promotion. A lot what I do for myself is also a testing ground for clients. I can experiment with new media and methods on myself so I can learn and be able to better advise clients. I think for any company that’s a great approach, an “I tried this/it works/here’s how we can do it for you” kind of thing.

How do you attract work and clients?

Most of my clients have come through word of mouth—except for my first client, Todd Sanders of Roadhouse Relics. I walked into his gallery when I was 25 and said I wanted to work with him because I loved his art. He’s been with me from day one, so I there’s always the good old-fashioned cold call! I also worked for him as a side project while I was still employed, and I didn’t take any pay for a long time. When I struck out on my own, he was ready to become my first client.

Of course, people may be referred to me, but I still have to get them to trust that I am going to do a great job. I think one thing that sells people who are on the fence is my blog. It shows how I think in general terms. People read it and trust that I can help solve whatever business challenge they are facing.

I also love my clients. That goes a long way. And I don’t take myself seriously. I took Groundlings’ improv and sketch comedy writing classes. I will do things like use funny voices on a client call. One of my LinkedIn endorsements says, “…Did I mention she’s hilarious?” That’s something I am proud that I bring to my work. I’m so lucky to do what I do. Every day is like, “We’re having fun here, no?”

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?

Have you heard of the marshmallow experiment? For me it’s all about delayed gratification. I’ve always made enough to make ends meet, but I try not to make big decisions based solely on money. Don’t get me wrong—earning a living is important, but I had a real personal change when I stopped thinking, “How much money can I make?” and instead asked myself, “What do I need to make to be comfortable and happy?”

Now I’m almost 10 years into my career, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And when you don’t make it about money, when the money does come, you don’t hesitate to invest it back into your business. That, to me, is growth in your business. It’s the best feeling.

How would you describe your business’s work culture?
And why is it important?

I mentioned GSD&M before, but they have an incredible culture that will always be my foundation. They have six core values etched in the floor, and those have stuck with me in every job since. Freedom and Responsibility was always my favorite—get your job done and go live your life the way you need to.

Your iNDie Workshop sounds fantastic. What sparked this idea? And how did you make it happen?

Hey, thanks! I am working with a business partner and life coach Nina Kaufman. It was sparked because I can give all the strategy and marketing advice in the world, but if my clients aren’t clear about their larger goals for their life, it’s really hard to tell them how to go out and sell it. Nina and I meet weekly and have refined and debated every single detail for the course for months. For those who sign up, it’s like getting a marketing strategist and coach in a four-week class that will help you plan the next year. I am SO pumped. We launch early 2014.

Must ask: What companies have excellent brand
and do excellent branding?

Love this question! Moo is great. They have a gorgeous product and really know the needs of their creative audience. I also think MailChimp just gets it. Every cool and interesting creative gathering I’ve seen lately—big and small—seems to be sponsored by them. The ease of use, the copy on the site, how much they give away for free, win win win. French Paper is another amazing brand. They get the visual aesthetic of their clientele and just kill it. Imogene+Willie out of Nashville, my hometown, is another one—great people, great product, and they are very true to their values as a company.

As for big brands, I unapologetically love Southwest Airlines. No change fees?! I can spend $400 on a ticket home to see my family in Nashville, and if something comes up at work, I get to keep every cent of that and apply it to another flight. Nothing beats that brand promise. The airline industry is no walk in the park, but no one can argue that they aren’t at least trying to have some fun.

On creativity, design, working

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?

Alissa does an amazing job of breaking down the numbers, so it’s hard for me to speak to the number of women in my field without more research. What I can speak to is the number of female-owned businesses I work with, and that gets me really excited about what’s ahead. If you don’t see the momentum swelling among women in business, you’re not paying attention. What’s more, you’d better look out because they are about to blow past you—and you may not be able to catch up.

Alissa makes a great point at the end of her article,“But in this age, women can’t wait for someone else to organize the event or to curate the museum show.” And I agree that you must make your own opportunities, and what’s more, you have to lift up your peers in the process.

Sarah Deragon of Portraits to the People was one of the first people to take me under her wing when I moved to San Francisco a year ago. Even for a mouthpiece like me, it was nerve-racking to start promoting my business in a new city. Sarah helped me get my series iNDie Chats off the ground in her studio. We talked to some amazing, dynamic women in the series. Just having words of encouragement, collaboration and a platform can go a long way.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

The piece I learned from my early days was “fess up when you mess up.” I have diffused so many situations by honestly admitting mistakes, taking responsibility, and presenting solutions. Saying, “This was my fault. This is where I went wrong. This is how I will fix it.” The funny thing is, when you point out where the other side went wrong, they get defensive. When you honestly admit mistakes, people naturally meet you halfway and admit where they went wrong, too. It saves so much time and energy.

I also try to see where people are coming from. Disagreements are usually tied pretty closely to insecurity or miscommunication. How can you make clients feel more comfortable, and how can you ease those little things that might cause them to do handwringing or lash out?

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, 
and how did you deal with it?

I worked in crisis communications for a period in my career. I’ve done work on three different wrongful imprisonment cases where Americans were locked up abroad—all of which were pretty high profile at the time. That’s like playing varsity when it comes to honing your skills as a communicator and strategist. The stakes are very high because a life is on the line, and the world is watching. It was humbling to watch the strength and resolve of the clients and families.

Eventually, the cases I was on came to a resolution, and I decided that while the work was rewarding, I’m not wired for it long-term. I’m really empathetic, which helped me connect with clients who were in the midst of an emotional trauma. But once the cases I was on slowed down, I hung up my jersey, so to speak. I was honored to work on the cases, but you also have to give yourself space to recover. I will always look back on that work and be proud of the part I was able to play. I guess my advice is to know your boundaries and know that if you burn yourself up, no matter how noble the work, you’re not really good to anybody.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute
to doing the quality of work you want to do?

I have a little 5’ x 4’ corner that’s a dedicated workspace in my house. The dedicated space is key. When I am there, I am on. It’s embarrassing to admit, but since most of my work is writing and strategy, I work in silence all day. Some days when I have a lot of work to do, I just crank it out for hours. My husband gets home and will be like, “Have you been back there all day?” I call it “Reverse A.D.D.” because I can focus for long periods of time without drugs. HA. It’s a blessing and a curse because I work, a lot.

But the irony is that being around people gives me a lot of energy. So on days that I need the connection, I go to Makeshift(2), which is an amazing place to both work and be part of their community.

Illustration by Tim Delger

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?

First: A business coach. Period. Jen Spencer is both a client and my coach, and she has been formative in my career. She has a training method launching this year called Creative/Executive that helps creative thinkers becomes creative leaders. (Full disclosure: I help with her marketing and have been a client.) The work is really powerful. I also work with Nina, who I am doing the workshops with. So I have two coaches. I guess I’m not messing around with that advice!

As far as software, I use Evernote for keeping track of tasks and FreshBooks for my billing. Both tools were game changers for me. Put the time into creating systems and training yourself to use them—your ability to improve your output will blow you away.

How do you stay creative?
What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration?

I’m very lucky to have a wonderful partner in my husband, Tim Delger. He’s an art director and the most creative person I have ever met. We’re constantly talking in non-reality terms—everything from business ideas we’ll never start, to what we’d do if we had the budget to renovate our rental, to what weapons we’d use during the Zombie Apocalypse. Absurd conversations help keep my idea muscles strong.

What is your definition of bad design?

You know, when I married Tim, I gained a whole new vocabulary about design. I’ll be honest: I hesitate to weigh in and label things as good and bad because design in execution isn’t in my wheelhouse of talents. (Tim has opinion enough. His HipsterLogo.com made quite a big wave in the design community just a few months ago.) But just like with strategy, when you start with the end in mind, you’re going to make something great. I guess bad design is when you look at something and think, “How is anyone even going to use this?” Of course, I thought that with the Snuggie, and who’s laughing now?

I can very much weigh in on what makes a bad client. It’s all about trust. Hire people and let them do their jobs.

If a person approached you and said, “I need to promote myself,” what’s your advice?

Well, I guess if they walked up and said that, I would say, “Seems like you’re off to a good start.”

But really, I love the saying “Be interested, not interesting.” That helped me overcome some of my own stage fright when it came to self-promotion. When you put yourself out there and are genuinely curious about others, I think you will eventually get the kind of attention you want. Collaboration is also key. Don’t go at it alone; partner up with someone. Tim and I once said with us it’s 1+1=11.

How does the city of San Francisco contribute to your work?
And what makes San Francisco special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

The city is so rich and so ripe with opportunity. If you’re a smart person who does good work, you are going to be able to make your dreams come true. I started my business when I was living in Los Angeles. Living in Venice Beach, if I met someone at a party who was from Silver Lake, it was like, “Well, nice meeting you, but we can’t be friends.” Here, it’s like having a ton of small cities all crammed together. I love it.

I also think the innovation going on here on every level is bonkers. From the food, to the fashion, to the art. There are trends that sometimes I feel like I am tired of seeing in the city, and then I take a step back and realize they haven’t even hit the rest of the country yet.

Front cover of Get Funded

Any other aspects of your company that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?

Is this where I get to shamelessly plug my book?!

I recently wrote a book, Get Funded, and created an accompanying kit. It’s all about how to plan a crowdfunding campaign.

But really, this is the most thorough interview I’ve ever had! If I have entertained your readers this far into the interview, then they should check out my site and hop on my mailing list. I’m always serving up a cup of awesome.

Thanks, Nate!

(1), (2) Read my Interview with Rena Tom, founder of Makeshift Society, a coworking space and clubhouse for freelancers and startups in San Francisco.

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All images courtesy of Nicole Delger.

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Typeface of quotations is Mrs Eaves designed by Zuzana Licko in 1996.

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