Small Business Branding - Pia Silva, Partner at Worstofall Design
When you mention branding many often think of behemoth organizations with a wide reach. However, every business must distill that sense of self and position within the market an authentic way. This week, we host Pia Silva, a small business branding expert who shares her perspective on building a brand whether you're a solopreneur or a small team. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
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Pia Silva: Never be different just for the sake of being different. I think that people get confused with that, "Oh, I have to stand out, so let me do this thing," and that's why there's so much inauthenticity milling about.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I'm Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency.
And it's not going to stop me, folks, having a cold here, which you may be able to hear a little bit of the vestiges of. I know that it is of deep concern to our listeners, but I am on the upswings. Been a pretty congested couple of days, but happy to say that things are better in that realm, as well as really excited about today's guest. Pia Silva is a partner, co-founder, brand strategist, at Worstofall Design, which is a Brooklyn-based design and branding agency that focuses its business on sort of one to three-person services companies, and they do this through really intensive what they call brand-ups, which is a methodology for how to sort of build and plan around brands for companies like that. And it's a little bit off the beaten path for us.
Pia's written a book called, "Badass Your Brand", which is a practical kind of how-to guide for companies like that, for how to think about their own brands and build them. She also writes for Forbes and in other places. She speaks widely for entrepreneurial organizations, and so she's a visible leader who has a unique perspective on this and a particular focus, and whether you're the type of business that Pia would traditionally service, the small services firm, or whether you're not, there are definitely lessons to be drawn from her perspectives in the work that she does.
So enjoy Pia Silva. We are honored to have Pia Silva from Brooklyn join us today.
Pia, thank you so much for your time.
Pia: Thank you so much, Bill. Great to be here.
Bill: It's our pleasure, and our listeners' pleasure, too. And your journey and story is a fascinating one, as well as obviously some of the work that you do and beliefs sort of about branding and about this industry that you hold, and we'll certainly get into that, but maybe a place to start would be a bit of your own story and sort of what has led you to the point where we're speaking today.
Pia: Sure. Well, I'm born and raised New Yorker, and always just felt very entrepreneurial, I think just because I never wanted a boss. I think that was the thing that was very clear to me. Knew nothing about design or branding. I went to school for economics. And about six, a little over six years ago my then-fiance, now husband, and I were traveling around trying to figure out what the hell we were going to do in our lives, and was an amazing ... he's a very talented artist and painter, but he's also an amazing graphic designer, and he was freelancing, and at a certain point I just said, "You know what? I'm going to just manage your business. Let me get the clients. You're terrible with money, but you're very, very talented. I can make a lot of money off of you."
Bill: Keep you in your lane, right. Yeah.
Pia: Stay in your lane, yeah. So I said, "You just stick to creative. I'll find the clients. I don't know anything about this, but I'll figure it out." And that is where it all began.
Bill: Right. And there was a moment, just having read through the story, where all of the ... "This has got to be easy, right?" Or "I can just work hard and it'll happen." Didn't happen exactly the way we drew it up. And it sounds like there was a big moment of sort of discovery and pivot.
And take us through a little bit of the realization.
Pia: Yeah. Well, like I said, I didn't know anything about this, so my first step was just to look for clients. I did it on Craigslist, I did it networking. That got me around a lot of little agencies. I saw what they were doing. I copied what they were doing, again, just trying to figure it out. And all of that led us to have a couple of employees, a studio in Brooklyn, going after bigger and bigger projects, that kind of seemed like what you were supposed to do.
Pia: That's how you make money. You keep increasing prices and bigger, better clients. And all of that landed us in $40,000 of debt three years into our business. So I was just working so hard and I meant so well, but it just wasn't working. So that was a terrible time in my past, but also probably one of the most amazing things that could have happened. The $40,000 of debt is so important to me, because at the time that was my credit limit.
Pia: So there was literally nowhere else to go.
Pia: We could not continue the way we did. So we were kind of forced into a corner to figure out ... we're going to do something different. I thought I was going to have to get a job. I was freaking out. And there were kind of a couple of light bulb moments, one of which was Steve telling me, "This is not a failed business, we just ... maybe we can kind of do it differently, and maybe it doesn't have to look the way you think it has to look."
Pia: And so that was like, "pew, pew, pew," light bulbs and fireworks going off, and I was like, "Oh, you're right, it doesn't have to look like that." And we completely pivoted our business, redefined what we were looking for in life, what success meant to us, and we got rid of our employees, unfortunately, but it was the best decision for us, and we built the business that we have today, which is the complete opposite of that, an enjoyable and beautiful thing that gives me profit and happiness and freedom. Yeah.
Bill: What we can all strive for.
And this business, one of the things that's interesting and our listeners know, I think what we do here at Finch and we talk a lot about, large organizations thinking through in some cases complex brand strategy and executional issues, but from my perspective, at least, currently, if I'm wrong, Worstofall Design really focuses on small service businesses and helps them, quote, as you would say, "Badass their brand." In fact, you have a book called "Badass Your Brand". And I know there's a specific offer for our listeners, which we'll detail later in terms of being able to access some of that content.
But how did you all hit upon that focus? Because as you say, the agency way is you go bigger and bigger and bigger and you fake it till you make it and you pitch forever larger projects and [inaudible 00:06:39]. But it seems like part of the transformation for you all was this level of focus, and how did that come?
Pia: Yeah, absolutely. And my hat's off to you, Bill, because you're working with bigger organizations and all of that is very complex stuff. I've done it in the past. It's not an easy feat, and nor is wrangling organizations of people.
Pia: Many design by committees, one of the things that we hate, and we did it a lot back in the day, our focus really started from looking at how do we define success, what are we really looking for in this business, and I think that I was seeing all these agencies, and as you just said, "Oh, it's supposed to look like that," but then when I said, "Well, what are we really going for here?" ... Steve and I just want time to ourselves. We want to do projects we love. We want to be great at what we do, and we realize that it is fake it till you make it, but we don't have to fake it over there. I do know a lot of stuff. I know a lot of stuff about small businesses, and especially these kind of almost a micro business, solopreneurs. This is the world I live in, and I can bring a lot of value to those brands and those business owners in a way that I can't to organizations personally, because I have never worked in a corporate environment.
So they all kind of aligned at once. "Okay, we're looking for success and freedom and profit and freedom in our life, and we want to be really good at what we do, and we also want to work in this intensive model, because we're not really fond of these long, drawn-out projects that kind of suck our energy and suck the creativity out of the work sometimes.
So they all kind of aligned into the same thing, which is what we do now, these one to three-day intensive branding projects, and those really work for the one to three-person service businesses that we specialize in. And I think we kind of excel in that space, because not only do we focus there so every time we do a client we get even better, but I'm simultaneously one of them, so I bring a lot of knowledge about business to the table. They hire us for branding, but half of what I do is business consulting.
Bill: Right, sure.
Pia: Because it's necessary and they need it, and my job is really just to solve their problem in the end, so they might say, "Well, I need a logo," but it's like, "Well, what's the problem? Let's solve that."
Bill: Right, sure. Well, one of the things that is appealing to us and to me is we're talking about Badass brands, but the end of that is sort of without the BS. Our industry is noted as ... certainly contributed many elements of jargon to the world and sometimes we over-complicate things. Sometimes we naval-gaze. Sometimes we confuse or prolong.
Talk to me about the second part of the sentence, the "without the BS." Why is that important to you and how do you kind of check yourself, and what's that all about?
Pia: Yeah. Well, I think that originated from feeling like when we were doing six-month projects there was a lot of BS in that project.
Pia: There was a lot of back and forth. There was a lot of tweaking of the hue of the blue and we were like, "What are we doing here? This is so irrelevant to what's going on." And so we built this process that eliminated all of that. Now, at the time, we pivoted from going after 30 to $50,000 projects to doing one-day brand-ups for $3,000. Now, that's a big swing, but the ... and it was for a different target, obviously, but part of it was this was more profitable, but it was also that we were cutting out the BS of many weeks of feedback and revisions and all of that, and clients were really coming into trust us and say, "We want what you have to give us, and we kind of trust that you know what that looks like."
So cutting out the back and forth and the "Let my show my wife and my brother and my sister-and-law and see what they think," all of that to me is such BS in these projects. And so but you get to get our work, which I think is very high level, at a lower price, although I don't position us as low priced-
Bill: Yeah, of course.
Pia: ... not low priced anymore. But you get it at a lower price because you're willing to give up the BS to be in the project. So that's a big part of it.
Bill: Definitely. I know that the answer for each individual company or client or entrepreneurs is different, but aren't there common threads in how small business, service businesses, ought to think about branding that might help them frame the conversation in a way that's sort of productive?
Pia: Frame the conversation for themselves?
Bill: Yeah, and just sort of think about-
Pia: Figure out their brand?
Bill: You make the point in some of your writings that branding is a word that's kind of tossed around in so many different contexts as to maybe not have as much meaning as we would perhaps want it to. So for the types of clients that you target and where there's sort of the greatest amount of value for your work, how should they think about branding?
Pia: I think that for the very small business, you are your biz. I mean, especially if you're the only person in it or just a couple of people, you're really the guiding light. So it should originate with what you're best at, what you love to do, where you can deliver the most value. And I think when people think of brand, because it's so widely used across so many industries and sizes of businesses, we have to water it down and say that it's emotion and it's the colors and whatever.
But when it comes to very small businesses, it also has a lot to do ... well, it always has to do with your positioning, but it just has a lot to do with what that special little thing that you have to offer is and really pulling that out of you and throwing it on a billboard and owning it and being known for it and building this reputation that precedes you. And you can do that so much more easily when you're a very small business, because you don't need that many clients to make a lot of money and to be very profitable and to have a life of freedom.
So definitely my clients are more lifestyle business oriented, but the badass, really standing in your space and being okay to not be misunderstood, I say, "If you want to be loved, you need to be okay being misunderstood or even disliked by others." That works for the small business in a way that I don't necessarily think it applies to much larger companies when you're trying to slice off a piece of the pie of the market share. It's just a different strategy.
Bill: No, makes sense. And so in a minute I'll ask you for a couple of examples of either clients of yours or folks who you think very really sort of done this well. One of the things in our business and in our industry, as you well know, that people are sort of craving and we're trying to help people sort of drive towards is a sense of difference. In the sort of small business universe where there may be thousands of people doing in a rough proximate geography the same suite of services or at least offering, more or less the same answers, how do you think about difference or about distinctiveness, and how important is it to be differentiated versus communicating with some degree of personality? I mean, these things are all related, but could you speak about differentiation and its sort of role and the challenge of that perhaps in markets that are really saturated?
Pia: Yeah, absolutely. Well, first of all, never be different just for the sake of being different. I think that people get confused with that, "Oh, I have to stand out, so let me do this thing," and that's why there's so much inauthenticity milling about. But I think that you want to find your difference through an authentic piece of your personality paired with some sort of positioning and space that you can own, and I think that the biggest mistake people make is having a fear of limiting themselves, not understanding that there's such a beauty in being that expert.
And some people fear boredom, which I think is ridiculous, because success is not boring. Chasing after clients is boring, I think. But also that being specialized in something actually opens up a whole space for you to grow and I think actually find a lot of opportunity to do different things, because for me, every client is a new challenge and a new opportunity not just to do stuff for them, but also to build on my own process and become better.
So if you're always striving for that kind of Mr. Miyagi, I call it, of your space, then really owning a smaller space is the key to that, especially in a saturated market. And since most people are scared of owning a space and owning their position in the world, it's usually not that hard to rise above the sea of saneness.
Bill: Right. Do you have an example or two of folks who've sort of followed this approach, either with your help or without, and have kind of gotten it done? I mean, the work's never done, of course, but that are kind of good examples of this line of thinking and work?
Pia: Yeah, absolutely. So one of my first clients with the brand-up actually said they've been active the longest, is a company is a company called Stash Wealth, and they're a financial firm positioned for young professionals, millennials. And when they came to us, they said that they wanted to be for this younger generation because they were very anti the Merrill Lynch that they came from and how it's just for wealthy people.
Pia: And that was a perfect example of they were doing that, but then everything that they put out there really looked like just a watered-down version of Merrill Lynch. It was a little sassy, but [inaudible 00:16:41] and boring and appropriate, and so I pushed them into this other direction, they had a different name and everything, but I pushed them into this other direction and now they say things like, their newsletter is, "Your financial Cliff Notes, get your financial shit together," like all their articles are amazing and I highly recommend checking them out. Actually, they're really great writers over there.
But they really own their voice and space, and when they first started this, it was so almost cute, because they were like, "We can't say that." Financial people are emailing us and telling us, "This is inappropriate" and all of that, and I said, "Exactly, 'cause you're not them, and if you don't understand that they're not going to get it, you're never going to be the differentiated brand that you can be and that you should be."
And so their perfect example ... because it took them a good six months to really embrace it, but once they did, I mean, their brand is killer. And they're very well-known and people really love their brand and kind of fall in love with it. And that's how they attract tons of clients because of it.
Bill: Yeah, that's an interesting story, and I think it seems like there's two ... there's many, but two sort of obvious takeaways for our world that we share about this. One is leaning into your sense of self rather than to your point, being hung up on what you can or can't do. I mean, if you have a perspective and sort of an animating thought or purpose or direction, live into it and really make it happen rather than water it down, because then it isn't as different or as compelling as it was intended to be. And then the second is the strength and importance of brand personality in expressing sort of unique ideas and build trust and everything else. What a great story.
Pia: Yeah. And they've done a really good job because it was really authentic to them.
Pia: My job was to pull it out of them and say, "No, actually write how you speak. You are very compelling people. You're too scared to show that online." So I mean, half my job is also helping people get over the fear of being themselves.
Bill: There's a therapy quality to what you do.
Pia: Yeah. We call it a "brand shrink."
Bill: Right, exactly.
In terms of your own sort of journey, I mean, as noted, you've taken us through part of the story at least in your work with Steve and your life with Steve to kind of reach the brink and then pivot, you have expanded this sort of Pia Silva empire into-
Pia: Thank you for calling it that.
Bill: Sure. It's an empire.
Speaking and writing and being sort of an advocate for a particular line of thinking. How do you kind of see at mid-career yourself and your own sort of brand and your own endeavor, and what are the things that are kind of important to you beyond client work moving forward?
Pia: Yeah. Thanks for asking that. I mean, that really is where this is going. I just, I love people working for themselves doing what they love, and I hate how many people want to do that and are having a hard time with it. I just think ... I won't get into my big visions of how to change the world, but a lot of it has to do with kind of just everybody being able to invest a lot and being very potent in the world, and that doesn't happen when you're in scare city mode and it doesn't happen when you've got day-to-day things that you're struggling with, and so I just want to spread these ideas and kind of empower people to really own their space so they can move into the more abundant place where they're really doing their thing. They're really great at it, they attract the kind of clients they want to work with, they don't have to work with clients who don't appreciate them. And I think that that just kind of spawns this much more giving community of people who also have a lot of money to hire other people like them.
Pia: I give back to this community because I hire a lot of similar, like-minded people who are delivering really high value. And they charge a lot, but I'm willing to pay it, because I appreciate that value and I get a lot of value from that, because I value my time.
So I'm trying to feed this, I call it the "solopreneur economy." I want to feed it with as many awesome people as possible, so I want to spread these messages through my book and my writing, and I have an online quote coaching course now that I'm training people to do this stuff, as well.
Bill: Well, one of the things that comes through is both in your own experience growing this business and some of the speaking and writing that you've done is this sort of networking isn't necessarily the right and only answer for how to expand visibility and sort of become known within a community. In fact, there's a "Screw Networking as Usual," speaking-
Pia: Oh, I know.
Bill: ... place that you've had and it's sort of on your LinkedIn and everything else. When it comes to small services businesses who may think the best way to win clients is to sort of be everywhere and to be in every event and to carry that stack of business cards, I mean, what's the message for them to get out of kind of the old way of doing this? What are alternatives and ways maybe to sort of more efficiently get this process done?
Pia: Sure. Well, okay, yeah. So I really hate on networking all the time, because I did-
Bill: Sure, sure.
Pia: ... sucked my soul. But it is a great short-term strategy, and I do recommend it actually as a short-term strategy. I would say that it's a great short-term strategy to build a group of people around you who really know and like and trust you and get what you do, and they become your unofficial marketing team. But this only has to be short term if you do the other stuff, which is badassing your brand so that you have something that's very memorable, I say "noticeable, memorable and sharable." Do people when they hear it they remember it and then they think about it later because something triggered it and they're excited to tell them because you're so clearly a good fit because you so clearly align with a certain kind of client? All of those things, if you do those very well, you don't have to network for very long, because you'll never be forgotten.
I haven't networked in over four or five years at this point, and every once in a while I'll go to an event that is a bunch of people there that I used to know. They're all still networking on a consistent basis to get clients and they all remember me, 'cause my company's Worstofall Design, I mean, it's hard to forget, and they all know now that I do this intensive branding. Nobody else does that. So there's kind of a couple of things there, and I don't have to show my face all the time.
So it's short term, and then long term is really the content creation, and continuing to build your value online and be visible in a way ... by investing in things that live on past you being there. That's why content creation is so important, because it continues ... it has exponential value over time.
Bill: Right, right. Makes sense.
I don't expect you to give away the book or the core of the work that you do-
Pia: That's okay. I give it all away.
Bill: There you go. But I mean, other core principles of sort of badassing your brand from your perspective, what can you tell us, and again, feel free to hold something back, but about what that means and how to do that?
Pia: It means, well, first of all, really figuring out where your focus is going to be. It means really looking inside yourself and how you define success, as I mentioned earlier. It means really looking inside yourself and figuring out what you are and aren't willing to own and kind of getting over yourself about worrying about what other people may or may not think.
Pia: One of the worst things you can do is have one person comment, "Oh, I don't understand that," or "I don't get your website," and then change it every time. I think a lot of people do that out of fear, and it's actually more confusing and I think it waters it down.
And then the last chapter, I'll give it away, the last chapter is all about, "Do you have the guts to say no? Do you have the guts to say no to bad clients, bad projects, projects that are outside your value, projects that you could do and make a little bit of money with but ultimately are not feeding your long-term value and your long-term brand in any way. It's just, I call it "fast cash," cash in hand for trading your time. You can do that if you're desperate, but I would look at that as a desperate situation kind of thing, and you want to get out of that as quickly as possible. And then you want to grow the kahunas to say no in the future and realize there are better clients around the corner and look at that stuff as the opportunity cost of taking a bad client over right around the corner there's a better client and I'll be happier and more profitable because of it.
Bill: Right, okay.
You mentioned your own sort of curricular interests in economics, and this was at Wesleyan, yes?
Bill: Okay. So you and I are both liberal arts people. I was a Davidson College, maybe the southern version. Is there something about your academic path that prepares you or enhances your perspective or your efficacy in the sort of brand strategy/brand role here? We've been thinking a lot about it, and I think a fair percentage of our listeners are students who are sort of those starting out. What's your take on the role of the liberal arts and sort of the full development of PI as a businessperson here?
Pia: Interesting. I think probably more outside the classroom than inside.
Bill: Right, right.
Pia: But I had a lot of really amazing friends and colleagues and mind-expanding experiences and conversations that I think really ... I mean, days spent hypothesizing on utopia and how to create it and I think all of that has informed how I ultimately see a bigger vision here. What I'm going for here is really more about how do you reshape society or communities in a way that is more effective. And as an economics major, I'm always looking at exemptives and I'm always believing that you use incentives to make people go a certain direction or another, so I think the incentive part especially is a big thing for me, and so I'm always bringing that in to how I approach the strategy for the clients, but also my own strategy in business and what I'm trying to do, how do I incentivize people to do the things I think are best.
Bill: Right, right. Makes sense.
Thank you so much for your time and your insight. Your energy is palpable. I mean, we're on Skype here, but it comes through.
You shared a few, but are there a couple sort of rules to live by or ideas to internalize as you think about your own career path? I mean, I think for those who are inspired by what you've done and the choices you've made and what you do, are there couple of key lessons that we ought to take from this that we can maybe apply to our own journeys?
Pia: Yeah. For me, the one that I keep learning every six months or year is always take a step back and reevaluate and look at what the next thing is. Steve and I make it a point of going away. We try to do it every year for at least one or two months. And getting that really far distance gives a huge perspective, and every time we do it we come back with a whole restructured idea of where we're going next.
So this past summer we went to Europe for two months and we came back and decided that we were only going to work 1:00 to 6:00 five days a week, and we were just going to do whatever we needed to do to make that happen, because we can be really potent in those five hours. And so far it's been pretty amazing. I get more done now than I did before went on this trip, and I don't know if I would have been able to do that if I hadn't been on that, always stepping back and looking, so that's what I would say.
Bill: Cool. Definitely words to live by, and I guess by coming to a conclusion like that, it forces you to figure out how to do it, in a way, and to stick to it and to hold yourself accountable to it in a way that works for you and obviously helps deliver benefit to your clients.
Pia Silva of Worstofall Design, of piasilva.com, of badassyourbrain.com, the author of Badass Your Brain, thank you so much for your time and insight.
Pia: My pleasure, Bill. Thank you so much for having me.
Bill: Thank you, Pia, so much for your time and insight, your energy, the story. It's all super interesting.
And as noted, this is not a type of company that Finch Brands works with that extensively and to be able bring on someone who really does focus on what are a unique set of issues and opportunities for small services businesses as they find their voice and really lean into what makes them distinctive and proceed with confidence and focus.
Pia has, and I mentioned it in the interview, very generously created an offer for listeners of the Real-World Branding Podcast. If you go to badassyourbrand ... sorry for the kids in the audience, if you go to badassyourbrand.com/finchbrands, apparently you will be able to download the first chapter of the book and there will be other goodies for you to access there that sort of relate to the conversation that we've just had and heard.
And as always, if you're eager to or open to supporting what we do here at Real-World Branding, there's a couple different ways that you can do that. The first is let's keep the dialogue going on Twitter. Probably the best way, you got to come at me directly @BillGullan, or @FinchBrands. Love to hear thoughts and criticism, too, the skin is thick, as well as ideas for future guests and topics.
And then two ways that I think will be helpful to making sure that others who would enjoy this content have the ability to find it is, one, to subscribe within the podcast store of your choice. If you click that subscribe button, you'll make sure that you do not miss content from us. And our goal's to do this weekly and we've been pretty loyal to that recently. We have interviews like the one with Pia every other week, and then in between we do what's called "One Big Idea," where we really focus on a specific topic and it's either me or me and a colleague or two from Finch who have specific expertise.
So hopefully every week there's some content from us, and if you click "subscribe," you'll make sure that you never miss one. And it also I think helps us become visible within those app stores or those podcast stores for those who may be looking for interesting content about branded business building.
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And on that note, we'll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.