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A New Day for Bridesmaids: Nicole Staple, Co-Founder of Brideside

January 06,2016

When used correctly, technology can enrich brand experiences. In this week’s episode, Nicole Staple, Co-Founder of Brideside, shares her insight into the how optimizing the customer journey has helped her company provide a better experience for bridesmaids. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Transcription

Nicole Staple: First of all, the millennial woman and the millennial consumer really values brand and she really values that emotional connection to the brand that she's buying from. So we knew that was going to be very important.

Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding and I'm Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Today, a conversation with Nicole Staple. Nicole is a co-founder of Brideside, which is a fascinating, progressively multi-channel business that at least started by focusing on a better experience for bridesmaids’ dresses. If any of you have sisters, or spouses, or are yourself a woman who has been a bridesmaid, you will relate to the horror stories that one always hears about bridesmaids’ dresses. And so Nicole and her partner Sonali [Lamba] went out to change that.

What they've built is a very very, again to use the word, progressive, approach which includes certainly an e-commerce piece and they have that national scale through e-commerce. It does include a physical showroom, has a really innovative try-at-home program that e-tailers are using to kind of blur the lines and close the loop on the customer journey and she'll tell you about it and do it much more justice than I ever could. Nicole Staple, founder of Brideside.

Bill: We're joined by Nicole Staple, the founder of Brideside. Nicole, thank you for your time.

Nicole: No, thank you. It's great to be here.

Bill: Is holiday a big time for you all? I would imagine that a lot of the events that people are purchasing from you for is a summertime type of thing, although not exclusively, but obviously many e-commerce and retailers, holiday is it. Is your business really seasonal like that?

Nicole: You know, it's not. It shouldn't be necessarily seasonal as people in our category aren't buying for the holidays. With that being said, people are buying 4-6 months before their wedding, so it's funny you should ask that as a first question because we're doing this interview on December 1st. Actually, November was our biggest month ever in the history of the company. Largely actually driven by Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Bill: That's great.

Nicole: So we are coming off a really big month and are just really excited internally here.

Bill: Congrats. We will do a virtual hoisting of the glass or whatever in your honor. Why do we still call it Cyber Monday, by the way? Nobody calls it cyber space. We should probably rename Cyber Monday.

Nicole: I don't know. It's so silly. We are a big fan of Mondays. We do #MaidsMonday. So maybe we should just call it Super MaidsMonday or something.

Bill: Awesome. Not to get ahead of ourselves, your journey to where you are, the paths, the twists, the turns, I won't steal it, but involved in finance and venture capital, going to grad school, could you take us sort of through the career journey up to this point and kind of how you landed here at Brideside?

Nicole: Sure. Absolutely. I went to Wellesley College outside of Boston, it's an all-women's college. Early on, I had pretty strong passion for, at the time, economics and business. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so it was always something that was at the forefront of my mind. Particularly, going to Wellesley where there's the messaging of women who constantly were taught to really break through glass ceilings and enter into non-traditional industries for women, which even just a few years ago, women in doing technology startups was even more unrepresented than it is now.

I always had that sort of fire in the belly, but I didn't really know where to apply it. Like every good college graduate in the early 2000s, I went into investment banking and actually was in the healthcare industry. The funny story there and one moment that completely changed my career trajectory was when I was on my final round interviews in college for my investment banking job, I sat next to this man and he started chatting with me. He asked me ‘If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?’ I was like, ‘This is ironic, because I'm going to this interview for this job that I'm pretty sure is going to be terrible.’ It turns out that guy was Jeff Pulver, he was actually a pioneer in voice-over IP, and an incredibly well known investor and start-up guru.

That conversation ended up changing my complete trajectory. He's still someone I keep in touch with and I knew that when I went into finance that I wouldn't be there for very long, but I needed to figure out how to get to where I wanted to go. After doing investment banking for two years, I decided that I wasn't quite ready to start a company because I had no operating experience and I really didn't know anything about start-ups. Back then, in New York City, there wasn't really the Silicon Alley that there is there today.

I got a job at a venture capital firm. The venture capital arm of Silicon Valley Bank, actually, SVB Capital and moved out to Palo Alto. That's really where this entire path was born for me and Silicon Valley was incredibly inspirational. It allowed me to learn about the growth path of early stage tech start-ups. It allowed me to build a really strong network, and from there I went to business school knowing that someday I'd probably be in this position.

Although, at the time, I was much more focused on social enterprises. I helped launch a national non-profit chapter here in Chicago before business school, was pretty involved in the social enterprise space while at Kellogg, but always kept my ear to the ground in technology and Brideside was born out of my time at Kellogg, which is another story as well.

Bill: To that end, someone with a really strong finance background who was an economics person, at least undergrad, Kellogg has such a strong reputation across disciplines, but we hear of it a lot in the marketing and consumer packaged goods realm. I know that you're concentration was innovation and entrepreneurship. Was there some grand plan at work in terms of why Kellogg made sense for you versus anywhere else? Was it that you liked the campus or other people you met?

Nicole: I did have a boyfriend who lived in Chicago at the time.

Bill: Ah.

Nicole: Although, I don't like saying that. I had a little bit more of a focus on the Chicago area, but I was actually deciding between Chicago Booth University of Chicago and Kellogg at the time. The reason I chose Kellogg in many ways is one of the reasons that I think Brideside has been so successful. Some of what you mentioned, Kellogg does have a reputation in marketing and CPG, but it's actually broader than that in that they're really, really good at teaching students to think about their customer first.

For us, that was the way we were. That was the lens with which we were taught everything that we learned. That's really, really important. I chose Kellogg. The culture seemed great. I actually liked that it wasn't known for ‘finance’ because I wanted something different. If I were choosing Kellogg today, it would even be completely different. They've completely overhauled their curriculum towards more of an innovation and entrepreneurship focus. I told my husband last night ‘I think I would have saved a year of my life had I gone to Kellogg now and launched a company,’ because it's amazing. I think every business school is starting to teach much more practical courses around how to start and scale a start-up.

Bill: Yeah, it's amazing. I think what we can take from your journey, among other things, is that you're smart. Which brings us to Brideside, and anyone who's ever either been a bridesmaid or has friends or siblings who have been bridesmaids, spouses, has certainly heard the ballad of the bridesmaid when it comes to dresses and everyone’s got to wear teal, and you never get to wear it again, and you have to pay for it, and you're an afterthought, and you can't choose. Tell us about the founding thesis for Brideside and how all this came to you and you knew that this was what you wanted to build.

Nicole: To your point, Brideside was definitely born out of personal experience. Actually, my co-founder Sonali was planning her wedding while applying to business school, and she had 14 bridesmaids in her wedding. She was relatively young when she got married and she experienced the emotional turmoil that goes with coordinating women of different body types, personalities, and all of that. She came in to Kellogg thinking about the wedding industry.

She often tells the story that she showed her wedding planner Google Docs and her wedding planner had never seen such a thing. Her mind was blown, and she was actually one of the most well-known wedding planners in the Orlando area. Sonali was like ‘You know what? There's something here.’

Bill: Yeah, there's an opportunity we have to progress how this category works, right?

Nicole: Exactly. When I joined, I really didn't want anything to do with the wedding industry. I was like, ‘You know, I know a little bit about start-ups from the investing side, so I can maybe help, but I'm not sure I'm really going to be involved.’ Once I started building up the financial model and we started truly working on it together, a lot of things came to light for me which convinced me that this was the right business to jump into.

Bridesmaids, there's a very clear pain point, right? There are women that live all over the country. They have to coordinate all of these purchases. There's a very clear pain point there and they spend a lot of money. We felt it emotionally, and we wanted to solve that problem that we are feeling. Bigger than that, bridesmaids really, there's a Trojan horse for the entire bridal retail industry, which is a 14 billion dollar industry. Bridesmaids’ dresses make up just under 2 billion of that, so its really just part of that bigger story.

For us, at the time, 98% of retail transactions were happening offline in this industry. It was incredibly antiquated. It hadn't evolved with the way that women like us were shopping, and there were some business components of this industry that made it really interesting to us. The first was that there are incredible network effects among these groups of women.

We had historically heard that customer acquisition costs in the bridal industry is incredibly high. It's really hard to get a bride's eyeballs online. It's a very long purchase cycle, it's a one time purchase. It's just really tough. Everyone told us ‘Don't do it’. We said, ‘Okay, if we can get these women to love us, there are 8 of them that buy at one time. So while we might spend a lot to get the bride, we're getting 8 purchases out of it, and all those women are either going to get married themselves or be in other weddings.’ Then you start to have this sort of viral coefficient and word of mouth that starts to spread, and actually makes a unit economics of a bridal party quite attractive.

The other part of it is what's super cool about this industry, for people that know retail, is that bridesmaids’ dresses, in many ways, is still a cut to order industry. We only carry inventory for our home try on program, which makes the working capital of starting the business in this space really interesting, because then you really can focus working capital on customer experience, technology, and marketing, and not so much on the inventory and overhead risk of that side of the business. We still operate that way. We don't place the final order with the manufacturer until the entire bridal party has ordered, which is pretty cool.

Bill: You obviously have a strong grasp, not surprisingly, of both the emotional side of this and the economic fundamentals that drive the category and in particular, these types of purchases. Back to that sort of softer side, being true to the name of our podcast, could you take us back to when you all were starting out? You had the idea, you gamed it out financially, and the time came to think through the name, the identity, and the brand personality. How was the thinking and how did it evolve on that?

Nicole: We knew that we needed a really fresh approach, from a brand perspective, to this market. Some of what I mentioned to you before, what comes to mind when you think of wedding boutiques, for example? At least what came to our mind was appointment only, expensive, rude salespeople. When you looked, at the time, at what was offered online really was nothing. It was these discount retail sites, websites that looked like they were built in the early 90s. It was a complete mess.

Back to what Kellogg taught us, which was really customer first and brand first, the first thing we did was tons of focus groups and tons of data collection on our customer. What we realized is that, first of all, the millennial woman and the millennial consumer really values brand and she really values that emotional connection to the brand that she is buying from. So we knew that was going to be very important. What we also learned early on was that it was really stress, emotional stress, which was driving the dissatisfaction in this industry. We knew that every part of our experience, from the user experience online, to the way that we communicated to the customer, to the products that we offered, and to the pricing needed to focus on removing that stress and drama from the purchase process. What we say now, and that way that this identity has evolved, is that we're here to provide peace of mind to wedding parties.

We say internally that we want to be the exhale that every wedding party feels when they walk down the aisle. When you come to Brideside, you want to feel at ease. You want to feel taken care of, you want to enjoy the journey and this moment because it's an incredibly emotional time. It's important to the bride, it's important to her friends, so she shouldn't have to think about the coordination aspects, and that's what we want to remove from her plate so that she can really enjoy the emotional experience of getting married.

Bill: The name, as one artifact of that brand development process, is a great example of ‘nailing it’. It rhymes; it has sort of a great acoustic rhythm to the way that it sounds. It speaks to, as you say, being on the bride's side – if you're a bridesmaid, being by the bride's side. It really kind of checks all the boxes, and obviously you're able to own it and use it in the digital sphere. Was that name sort of a thunderbolt or was it a painful laborious brainstorming process? How did you settle there?

Nicole: It was a little bit painful, I'm not going to lie. Actually, if I'm going to be totally honest with you, the name was originally Bella B. That was our project name, our working name when we were at Kellogg. We were sitting around a kitchen table drinking wine one night, brainstorming all of these names, and Sonali's husband, from the kitchen, who was cooking dinner – actually, I think he was playing video games. Not even thinking about anything, he screamed over ‘What about Brideside?’

Bill: That's perfect, that's the right way to do it. You play some Grand Theft Auto and you figure out the name, that's super cool. There's so many stories of coming to great things that way, whether it's names or other things. That's really funny. She was married when this happened, were you also? If I may pry.

Nicole: No, no. I was not married. I got married just about a year ago. I met my husband at Kellogg. I had only been through this experience as a bridesmaid before, and she actually only been through it as a bride. She hadn't yet been a bridesmaid. It was interesting experiences and point of views that were coming together.

Bill: Yeah, perfect, and having 14 bridesmaids, she's either too popular or doesn't want to make tough choices, but either way.

Nicole: I'll leave that to her to comment on.

Bill: Fair enough. You mentioned a few, in the try it home program, obviously Warby Parker and other kind of retail pioneers are driving this and really connecting a bridge between traditional pure e-commerce and all the other things that are important in an experience like this. You have the try at home piece, you do, I believe, have several showrooms in the Chicago area, obviously, you have the e-commerce storefront. Given the channels involved here, the touchpoints in your business model, how do you think about the customer journey as you choreograph what it feels like for her, to deliver all the things that we know are important to the brand?

Nicole: This is an incredibly good question. I'm glad you're asking it. It was very insightful for you to ask this question because, in fact, the customer journey, in my opinion, is our biggest competitive differentiation, and in many ways is where we've positioned in this market by having the best understanding of the customer journey.

Our product really is the way that we manage the customer journey, almost more so than what we sell, it's how we sell it. We often call it our bookend. The bookend being how you reach your customer and how you sell to the customer, and the book in the middle being what you sell. Which is sometimes to us, it's less hard than figuring out the customer journey. Around the customer experience and understanding, from start to finish, it’s an incredibly long sale cycle. It required us to have and to manage a bunch of different touchpoints, and what was important to us is that every part of the company aligned around the customer journey we were trying to build. That's our front-end technology, that's our internal business processes, that's even our organizational structure.

The way that we think about it through our sales funnel is a combination of online, offline, and human touch. We have a team of internal style consultants. It is one of the pieces of the business we're most proud of. Every bridal party that signs up on the site, regardless of where they live, is assigned a style consultant. That style consultant can manage up to 300 or 400 active bridal parties at any given time.

Our communication tools, our internal technology, and funnel management systems allow them to easily understand and have the right data to personalize their messaging, to make sure they're touching people at the right point during that process. Then the offline piece, our headquarters is in the West Loop of Chicago, and here we have one big showroom with multiple fitting rooms. That experience is incredibly complementary to the online piece, because if the bride lives in Chicago, or maybe she's here for a weekend to visit her sister, she can come in, meet her style consultant face to face, and then use her online account and her bridesmaids that live in other places can use our home try on program to still go through that same concierge process and have the same style consultant that the bride met that first day in the showroom. Everything is actually very complementary and provides this really smooth experience for the customer.

Bill: Yeah, that's super smart. Obviously this is a business with the digital piece of this that scales geographically, you mentioned the fact that everyone's all over the place, all over the country and all over the world. What is the incidence of the actual live showroom participation within the customer base? Is it a big chunk of it?

Nicole: About 20% of our customers touch the showroom.

Bill: That's a lot. That's great.

Nicole: Yeah. In the stage where we are now, where we just have really this one offline showroom, that's about where we want it. We'll see as we think about geographic expansion. Chicago's actually the biggest wedding market in the country, and it's really this hub for the Midwest. They often say if you win the Midwest, you win the rest.

Bill: Right. If it plays in Peoria, right, perfectly. One of the things that may be part, and don't tell me things that are private or that you don't want to tell me, just slap my wrist through the phone. That full sort of authentic Brideside experience, by the way the showroom obviously isn't required to have a great experience but does seem to enhance it, possible geographic expansion around, bricks and mortar isn't exactly the right term, but I mean, is it an important part of the expansion strategy to think about more showrooms in more places?

Nicole: Absolutely. Yeah. Weddings are actually not as seasonal as you would think. Nationally. They are seasonally by geography. When you think about how to balance out that seasonality throughout the year to build a really big consistent and stable business throughout the year, and not just in certain months of the year, that's where you think about geo-targeting.

Bill: Makes sense. That is maybe one piece of it, and again, feel free to keep secrets secret, of course. When you think about the growth path from here, some of the major hurdles, the significant opportunities that the size of this category, the foothold that you're gaining within it, major topics that are on your plate and that of the team? Obviously, there's continual demand generation and awareness and conversion, all of the normal mechanics of this, but what are the kind of top of the table types of topics that you're dealing with at this point?

Nicole: This year, recently, the second half of this year, we've almost quadrupled the size of our style consultant team, or our sales team. That has been managing that growth and keeping our culture and everything that, moving to a new space, everything that goes with increasing headcount so rapidly has been a big focus as we started to near the end of 2015 and we're on-track to triple revenue this year over last year.

So it's been really successful. When we look into 2016, now that we really have this model down, there are a bunch of cool things in the pipes. One that is very public now is the launch of our new exclusive collection with an incredibly hot bridal gown designer out of New York City called Kelly Faetanini. So we launched the Altar Ego Collection, A-L-T-A-R Collection with Kelly. It's actually a new concept in bridesmaids’ dresses. It's a series of short dresses and long skirts that can be worn together or separately for lots of different types of looks, so it plays into that idea of mix and match, it plays into re-wearability and it's something that's exclusive to Brideside. Not only the actual dresses, but also the concept was really differentiated and really cool and different to the industry.

When we think about how do we stay ahead of the market, I think all the proprietary technology we're building both on mobile and desktop and in our showroom is important, but also exclusive product and collaborations is incredibly important as well. That's heading to the New Year, we're also thinking about new product categories. We recently launched men's accessories; socks, bow ties, pocket squares to help with color matching and the stylist then has more tools in her toolbox to help up sell that bridal party on different things that help them complete the look. We also just launched flower girl dresses, so we're thinking about now how can we really leverage that personal concierge experience that we're providing to sell more items to the bride and help make her life ultimately easier.

Bill: Yeah, and part of that is making sure that when her bridesmaids look as great as they do that the groomsmen are not a bunch of schlubs here-

Nicole: Exactly.

Bill: You got to measure up. We got to get the cuff links done, we got to get everything done.

Nicole: Totally, totally.

Bill: Historically, one of the reasons why this is so interesting, in addition to it being just super smart given anecdotal experience hearing from angry, disaffected bridesmaids over and over, is that, as you say, the traditional bridal channel, where they're selling the dress to the bride, is antiquated but seemingly the primary way since forever and ever. There are economic reasons for that, but do you think that this ultimately gets to the gown, or are we really focused on the concierge sort of constellation of services around that central gown piece? If you don't want to answer, feel free not to.

Nicole: It's a great question, and it's hard to know. For a bride that's a bit more casual, we actually sell her some of our more formal dresses now as the gown. The gown is definitely much harder, and there are several real players that have entered that space in the consignment space, which I think is very cool, and are helping brides lower the cost that way. To be honest, it's probably pretty far out. I think there are other things that make more sense for us, but you never know.

Bill: For the traditional gown experience, obviously the more showrooms you have the greater the potential to deliver, glass of champagne, hopefully not the snooty women working there but the positives of that experience.

Nicole: Absolutely.

Bill: Super interesting concept and the growth that you're experiencing and obviously the way you all think about this is very progressive, and it's a breath of fresh air for a category that seems to have desperately needed it.

Nicole: Yeah.

Bill: When you look back at both the art and science of building this company, and all the other things that you've achieved, I'm sure that many of our listeners, in addition to furiously Googling or entering Brideside into their mobile browsers, are also saying ‘Wow, this woman is awesome and very inspirational.’ From your career path, for those who have been inspired by it, a couple of words of wisdom or sort of rules that you followed as you've built this incredible career?

Nicole: I think one of the biggest learnings for me is that this is really a marathon and not a sprint. We went through a tech incubator. You probably know this, Dreamit Ventures in the Fall of 2012 and I've been in your offices before, obviously. At that time, thinking back to those days when you see all the momentum that builds around articles in TechCrunch and massive fundraising rounds, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in that and have the expectation that your business is going to go from 0 to hero in less than 12 months.

My attitude is that's actually how really strong, long-lasting businesses are built. It takes a lot of testing and a lot of fundamentals to lay the infrastructure for the business you really want to build. The first thing, and I think this is a very Chicago attitude as well, is just really keep your head down. The longer that you are plugging away at your business and tweaking things and fixing things and testing things, and just keep going at it and figuring out the right solution and hanging in there, the better you're getting at honing your own business model. The more competitive you're inherently making your own business by becoming an expert at the field that you're in.

That's really important for us, is just staying really heads down and just staying focused on the fundamentals. With that, I think it's important to set the right milestones for your business. What are the right metrics that are going to determine your success? We got some great advice very early on from a well known venture capitalist who said, ‘Strip away everything that money can buy and find the thing in your business that you can do right that doesn't need a lot of money to do. That's your secret sauce.’

We focused on that a lot, in a lot of our key performance indicators and a lot of the internal milestones that we set for ourselves are really focused on that. We challenge ourselves to not always just think about top line, for example. Many times, top line is the most important thing, but there are underlying levers in our business that might be more important. How can we set appropriate milestones for ourselves that we know in every given point in time if something is working or if it's not? For someone that's just starting a business, it's important to know if you should keep working on the business or if you should not.

We're not naïve about that. We've always, even times that we've had harder months or harder stretches of time where we said, ‘We don't know if this is working’, we've said, ‘is this really not working? Are there things that we can find in the business that are working?’ By sticking with it and figuring out our own model and what makes us special, we've now seen a tremendous growth and tremendous success this year, I think, in many ways and I'm really glad that we stuck with it.

Bill: Yeah, that's great. Do you and Sonali have a clearly defined division of labor? You were co-founders, you were friends, you were obviously business school colleagues that had a great respect for one another and warmth to the friendship, but how easy or how clear are those lines functionally within the company?

Nicole: They're very clear, and one reason that I decided to jump on board with this company and to launch it with Sonali is because she was so tremendous and because we both had such clear strengths that were complementary and not competitive. Sonali operates, the lines are very split in that she operates essentially as COO and manages everything that services revenue. Everything from customer care to sales operation, she manages our whole technology team. She manages merchandising, all of that piece. I'm really head of growth, so I oversee sales goals in the sales team. I manage all of our marketing and fundraising and business development. That's really actually how it's been from the very beginning, so it worked out really well.

Bill: That's great. You mentioned some of the growth that you've experienced on the stylist side as well as obviously throughout the company. When you look at, and again it obviously depends on the function, but when you are bringing new members of the team in, what are some of the characteristics that you're looking for? What do you think can be taught versus what someone needs to walk in the door with to be a productive member and a happy member of the Brideside team?

Nicole: That's the name of the game for us. Particularly given that we do have a sales force that's a different sort of structure from a lot of tech businesses maybe. This is the coolest thing for me, personally. It's been a challenge for me, and one that I really welcome, and has been super cool to learn about.

First and foremost, what a lot of people say is cultural fit is first. That's the do you get to keep talking to us type thing. With us, what cultural fit means is incredibly down to earth, a little quirky, tends to be just very sort of flexible person. We need to see that you're going to be okay with uncertainty. We try to get the best and the smartest talent we have, and often that means recruiting people from really top tier, brand name companies and asking them to take a 50% or more pay cut, right?

A lot of it is telling the right story to them to get them on board, and then making sure that they're truly okay, that they have the gut for it. From there, particularly when it comes to our style consultant team, there are very different types of personalities that make a great saleswoman. Particularly here where they're working with customers offline in a more traditional retail styling and online, where it requires them to be incredibly tech-savvy and understand how to analyze data. We're really looking for unicorn-type people. We walk them through a series of case studies. We do a lot of mock appointments. We're testing a lot of different right-left brain characteristics just to see do they have that perfect mix?

So far, we've had a pretty amazing retention rate. The team, I think, is tighter than ever. We often say one of our values internally for the style consultant team, we want to be a team of cool girls who sell you what they wear and tell you what no one else told them. We look for people that are honest, smart, witty, and can sort of play off that broader brand that we talked about earlier.

Bill: That's great. We've overstayed our welcome in addition to me fiddling with the audio for what seemed like forever before we started, so thank you so much, particularly at this exciting moment, best month ever just completed, the excitement of the holiday season ahead. Really grateful for your insight and your time, I'm sure that coming out of this conversation our listeners will be incredibly excited to see where this career and this company goes, and really grateful for you sharing what you did.

Nicole: My pleasure. Thanks so much.

Bill: Nicole Staple, co-founder of Brideside, a fascinating business concept that just looking at her career and the way that she's thought about obviously the practical elements of the business model, the financial model, the structure as well as the sort of emotional side of this, the why -the problem that needs to get solved, the thing that needs to be improved or done differently. Brideside is it in that category and it's going to be a really, really fascinating story to watch unfold. If any of our listeners are in the market, I can guarantee you that you'll have a great experience with Brideside.

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podcast/ Branding/ customer experience/ customer journey/ startups