The Startup Story – Episode 7: Bryan Elliott, founder of The Goodbrain Digital Studios and creator of Behind the Brand Show
You can listen to Bryan's Episode in it's entirety here: https://www.thestartupstory.co/behindthebrand
*Bryan Elliott: * Hi, I’m Bryan Elliott, founder of The Goodbrain Digital Studios, and this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.
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James McKinney: So I’m just going to be honest with you. We’re a new podcast, so we don’t have a lot of episodes in the pipeline, so I can’t avoid recording these intros when it comes to being sick. So I apologize ahead of time if I sound nasally, or I sound like I’m in a tunnel, or I just don’t sound like my normal self. I’m battling a cold right now, but nevertheless, the show must go on.
Like I said, The Startup Story is a new podcast, so we don’t really have all the demographics of our listeners nailed down just yet. That said, if you’re 30 years or older, then you remember the great recession and the impact it had. From the years 2007 to 2012, layoff announcements were a regular occurrence, and finding employment was close to impossible if you were seeking a new job. During the years of the great recession, like I said, ‘07 and 2012, one-third of small businesses less than five years old closed their doors. It was an incredibly challenging time for many. That said, our guest today started a digital studio company at the very beginning of the greatest recession in US history. Our guest is Bryan Elliott, the founder of Goodbrain Digital Studios, and creator of the video series behind the brand.
During Goodbrain’s infancy, Bryan realized that in order to set himself apart from the numerous other digital studios, he was going to have to create content around the stories he wanted to tell. In doing so, he ended up surrounding himself with some of the most powerful names in business. People like Tony Robbins and Seth Godin, Caesar Milan and Gary Vaynerchuk just to name a few.
In this episode, you’re going to hear how important it is to seek input and guidance from those who are farther down the road than you are. You will see how critical it is to adapt your business plan to accommodate your market. Even sometimes that means relocating your business entirely. You will hear firsthand how it pays to take risks in a challenging economy, especially when others might be playing it safe. You see, during the great recession, Bryan made an entirely new path for himself that positioned him outside the commoditized marketplace for videographers. Were there moments in Bryan’s journey that were frightening and somewhat unclear? Yeah, of course there were, and you will hear about those during this episode. What you’ll also hear is the startup story of a founder who had such resilience in the face of hardships. You will hear the startup story of a founder that knew what he was fully capable of and refused to allow the external circumstances of, well, a global economic meltdown deter him from building his dreams. What makes Bryan’s startup story so remarkable is that while the early days of his life showed signs of entrepreneurship, he was forced to learn everything on his own and without a whole lot of guidance.
Bryan Elliott: As a kid, I definitely had that lemonade stand. I traded baseball cards, like Gary V. talks about trading baseball cards. I did lots of different entrepreneurial activities. I was always sort of the reluctant leader of my group for some reason. I’m somewhat introverted, actually very introverted when you get to know me better, but for whatever reason I was kind of pushed to the front of the line to talk to the adults. I always felt kind of comfortable talking to adults, and kids my own age. But yeah, I was always sort of in some sort of leadership. I wanted to be out front. I was never walking in the back of the pack. Now I’m thinking about my buddy Caesar Milan, who talks about pack mentality, are you in the front or the back. I was definitely in the front, even though I was somewhat introverted.
James McKinney: Okay. What about your parents? Were they entrepreneurs?
Bryan Elliott: So I have a longer story about my parents. So I’m adopted, and when my mom adopted me I was just a couple of days old. Her marriage to my dad only lasted a few years, and then they split. Then she was married again a few years later, and divorced again. Then married again a few years later. So I grew up as a latchkey kid. I had a good childhood. I had grandparents who were very loving, but I don’t look back on my childhood and my parents as having given me very much guidance. I sort of was left to figure stuff out on my own. I didn’t grow up with a dad. That’s totally regrettable. Actually, probably made me a better dad because of it, because I wanted to maybe not overcorrect but correct to the point where I wanted to do it differently. But no one really gave me much guidance. I was very much trying to figure it out on my own.
James McKinney: Do you think that has played a role in your entrepreneurial journey, the figuring things out and the pursuit to try and figure things out?
Bryan Elliott: Yes. Definitely a pattern, for sure. I think in my life, it could be summed up as sink or swim, and I decided to swim most of the time at least. Yeah. I think that it probably set the tone for things to come later, for sure.
James McKinney: So in your high school years, obviously the lemonade stand, the baseball cards. Depending upon your age, maybe Pogs. In Episode one, I had a chance to sit down with Jason McCann of Varidesk and he talked about Pogs. Man, that took me back for sure.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. Jason’s a good dude.
James McKinney: He is a great guy, great guy. So when, in your high school years, what did you see for yourself? What was your path?
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. I was thinking about going into medicine actually, because I really enjoyed helping people. I was an athlete growing up. I played football and baseball, played varsity baseball, varsity football. I played recreational basketball. I played a year of soccer, and I regret quitting soccer at the high school level, because it’s probably my strongest sport.
James McKinney: Oh, okay.
Bryan Elliott: The high school I went to, the entire soccer team, this is when soccer wasn’t that popular, only spoke Spanish. The coach spoke Spanish, and every single one of the players. I was the only non Spanish speaking player.
James McKinney: Where’d you grow up, what city was this?
Bryan Elliott: I grew up, went to high school in the Placentia, Yorba Linda area.
James McKinney: Okay, okay. So northern Orange County.
Bryan Elliott: North Orange county, yeah. I was born in Los Angeles, lived in the San Fernando Valley for many years, and then moved down to Orange County for my high school years. So I quit the team, and that was a huge mistake. I had some skill in soccer, but I felt like an outsider, couldn’t understand what everyone was saying. At the time, I didn’t know any better. But I was an athlete and I was interested in how the body works, and I was interested in sports. I didn’t have this illusion that I was going to play pro baseball or pro football based on my size. Although I was the starting kicker, second string receiver, and corner back. And I had a pretty good career as a kicker there.
I just didn’t have parents who told me, “Hey, you should go, maybe you can get a college scholarship,” or, “If that works out, who knows? It could lead to something bigger and better.” I didn’t have that guidance. I guess fell back on the idea that I’ll just get a regular job and do something like that.
James McKinney: That’s awesome. So medicine is passion. Helping. There’s obviously some things about the idea of medicine that I can see, just from my experience with you, just the idea of helping individuals and serving people. So I can see a thread there. Along that journey, though, obviously you are going to college. You want to be in medicine, you go on to college. When did you know that medicine’s not it?
Bryan Elliott: Pretty quickly I guess, because I wasn’t that good at school. I was very impatient and was kind of bored with most things. Particularly in math and science, I wasn’t very strong. So I was like-
James McKinney: Kind of need those for medicine.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. Although where I was from in school was English and writing, and maybe that was a little bit of a foreshadowing of what was to come in being more of a journalist mentality or publishing stuff. I love to write and I was decent at speaking in front of people. I didn’t have that kind of shyness or that I would rather die than do public speaking attitude. So I guess that was my fallback.
I also considered teaching, because I loved teaching as well. I thought about teaching at the college level, because I just thought that’s the level that seems like everyone’s really… it’s a springboard into your career versus, and maybe this is unfair, I have kids. But for me as a high school student looking at younger kids, I was like that’s just babysitting. Because I’m sort of like that right now. I wouldn’t want to teach some at the high school level. I’d want to go more, aspire to teach college. For right or wrong, that was my attitude.
James McKinney: I know at some point in your journey, you’re with an advertising agency, a marketing agency.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. So as I started doing more writing, I saw opportunities in advertising and marketing, and so I sort of guess gravitated towards that are. I ended up getting a business degree from Pepperdine University. No football team, bummer. Maybe I would have tried out for the place kicker or something like that. I kick a mean field goal still today. Yeah, I wanted to go into something that I could use my writing and creativity. I felt very creative, more than I did analytical. There were two paths. There’s finance or marketing, and I went the marketing path.
Right out of college actually, I got a chance to work for Universal Pictures. It was kind of like my first real big job. I did some other little jobs in between, tried little things here and there, but my first kind of big job was at Universal Pictures. They gave me a shot to work in brand marketing and strategy. That’s really where I think I cut my teeth on a lot of the stuff that I talk about now with people who are doing big things.
James McKinney: In your time at Universal, what were some of the things you look back on fondly that kind of set you out for what was to come?
Bryan Elliott: There’s a lot. There’s a ton. I learned so much there. As a brand manager, I had a $30 million P&L, and back in the day we were buying… The whole department is about 250 people at the time, so I don’t want you to get the idea that I was managing everything. There’s several different people doing lots of different projects, but as a brand manager, you have access to a whole advertising team who then also is connected with the agency of record. You have a PR team internally that’s then connected to outside PR agencies. You have creative services. So in a way, you’re sort of like this orchestra conductor, conducting musicians who are like the best in the business.
I had the advantage of learning a little bit from each of them. So PR, I learned all about PR from some really great people and the agencies that we contracted with. Advertising, same thing. We were buying upfront TV which I learned all about. Buying media. We would take over and do internet campaigns, so I learned a little bit about digital as it was coming of age. This was like 1999 to give you context, and the internet was just a couple of years old. Then content production. So what really I think was the spark that got me to where I am now is I found myself in studio. Remember the time when we used to buy DVDs, and we would put them in our house and display them like we were proud to have movies? So that was the era that I was working at Universal. Universal has a ton of great catalog. We were basically, as an industry, trying to justify the high cost of DVDs. They were $19 or $24.99. movies like Gladiator or Meet the Parents, or like Shrek was out. We were distributing DreamWorks at the time. How do we still get this much money for a DVD that really costs us less than $1 to replicate? We thought okay, we should do added value, bonus material. Again, as an industry we invented things like the director’s commentary, or bloopers, alternative endings.
James McKinney: That’s awesome.
Bryan Elliott: And I found myself flying out to New York and I’m in a studio with Robert DeNiro, and we’re sitting down and I’m next to a camera. Of course, there’s lots of other people. I didn’t do it alone, but I’m sitting there and we’re asking questions, “So, Bobby, you made this great movie called Raging Bull where you’re a boxer, and you had to get in shape to be a boxer. What did you eat for breakfast? What was your morning routine? How’d you do it?” What he would say was fascinating and so interesting. The light bulb goes on, and I was like, “I’m a director right now. I’m standing next to a camera, I’m asking talent questions, I’m directing. This is kind of fun.”
So I’d been there for a number of years, and then I secretly started soaking up information like I would ask the camera guy, “So what camera are you using? What kind of lens is this? What’s the aperture? How do you down the white balance?” Oh, lighting, sound. So all of it I sort of secretly soaked up for another couple of years, until I felt like I could be dangerous enough just to do it on my own. Eventually, that’s why I decided to branch out, leave universal, and start my production company.
James McKinney: You know, it’s interesting. As you were talking about that story with talking to the camera man and figuring things out, it goes back to kind of that pattern you talked about when you were younger. Just the desire to try and figure things out. You had to figure things out on your own because of your childhood, and how that’s played out for you. You could see right there, too, like you see yourself as a director and you inherently think, “I’ve got to figure out all the things that are part of being a director.” Not knowing what the endgame was going to be, you just started seeing all those pieces together, and you just had a desire to know more and to figure things out. You could see that pattern in there.
Bryan Elliott: It’s true. I feel sometimes I have imposter syndrome for a few seconds. I don’t let it bother me very much, but I think what’s been consistent in my entire life and career is that I’m wholly unqualified to do most of the things I do at first. But I learn how to do it. And I don’t do anything that I don’t feel capable of figuring out. I don’t like to over promise. I do like to over deliver, but I’m certainly not afraid to roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty, figure it out, make mistakes. I’ve just become very accustom to making mistakes, that kind of fail fast mentality, and then still being able to come back and fight another day, like don’t fall too far.
Seth Godin gave me some of the best advice when he said, “The person who fails the most wins,” but what’s built into that notion is that you’re able to come back another day. The people who really fail are those who fail too far that they can’t come back. They die. They literally jump out of the airplane without the parachute. You don’t get a second shot at that. Or, the people who lose are also people who just don’t try. So if you say failure is not an option, that’s a lie. You’re usually either hiding or something is not working the right way.
James McKinney: Yeah, you’re not taking enough risk because failure is inevitable at some point.
Bryan Elliott: You have to have it.
James McKinney: Yeah. So your time at Universal comes to an end. You’ve been scratching that director itch, getting all that information you need. Do you leave Universal to start your own thing?
Bryan Elliott: Yeah.
James McKinney: What year was this and what was that venture?
Bryan Elliott: That year, my boss left Universal as well and went to Disney. He asked me to come with him for a year and help build out that department. In those days it was called Disney Interactive. This was right around 2004, 2005. Right about that time, too, a little website called YouTube launches. This gave me a-
James McKinney: I wonder what happened to that site. Huh, interesting.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. It got kind of popular. But what it did for me was really a signal that the playing field had been leveled. Because up to that time, I wasn’t sure how I was going to go about what I was going to do. I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do, that I had gotten some skills. I felt confident enough to do it. I didn’t really have an action plan or any business. It was really terrible planning to think about it. The one thing that I did feel good was up until that point, I felt like okay, I have to be sort of like JJ Abrams. I’ve got to have a rep, and I’ve got to have a big studio. I’ve got to do this. It’s going to cost that. I’ve got to have this much investment. Then when YouTube launched, all that went away. The barriers to entry went down. Everything came down with it. Prices of cameras came down and everything, all the barriers to entry sort of diminished. I got really even more excited at the possibilities.
The money was great at Disney, and I was technically there as a consultant. I stayed for two years because the money was so good. In between that, I had other little side hustles and side gigs. Like a little known fact is that in my college days I was fascinated with Asia and I actually did a study abroad, and I was in Japan. I fell in love with Japan. I still speak a little bit of Japanese to this day.
So one of my side hustles I did between was I opened a little language school, and I really built it around the ex-pat business, so ex patriots who are here from other countries, specifically Japan. I setup shop like in the Torrance area. At the time, there was Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. There was a ton of Japanese ex-pats there. So I had contracts with all the car companies and we did a great little business helping with culture and language. That afforded me to travel back to Japan and meet some of the executives there. Then we got some other video business through that. We did a lot of focus group stuff. That really helped get the ball rolling for other kind of business opportunities as well.
James McKinney: So when you’re consulting with Disney, at the same time you’re growing this media company. It’s Goodbrain media, correct?
Bryan Elliott: Yes. It’s called the Goodbrain Digital Studios.
James McKinney: Goodbrain Digital Studios. So you’re growing Goodbrain Digital Studios at this time while you’re with Disney and you’re starting off with the focus groups, the brand side of things. What did you want to be?
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. I was growing it into a production company that made commercials. I had a ton of experience in big budget, brand marketing and strategy. At Universal, I’d worked with cross promotional partners like Toyota or Marriott, or all the CPG style… because we were packaged goods folks. We did a ton of business with them. I knew everything about TV, media, radio, outdoor. I made, well I didn’t do it but our division did all kinds, every bit of advertising that you can think of.
I sort of felt like I had all this experience and now that I had lights, camera, action, I wanted to do commercials. I wasn’t thinking that I would do a Super Bowl commercial right out of the gate, so we started small. We would do things for big and small brands, and try to build a reputation, and trying to figure out our path. During those years of digital, and the internet became more and more popular, and eventually it evolved into digital plus social. We just saw a bigger opportunity.
As I saw what was happening in the town that I left, which was Burbank basically, which is a studio town, everyone was either a writer, director, producer, or actor, or they worked for the labor union building sets or something. I was like, “You know what? That is a tough game because everyone’s shooting. They’ve got to get their scripts sold, they’ve got to make a movie, and that’s big budget.” The reason I moved my production company from Burbank down back to Orange County was because I wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I saw lots of opportunity. Orange County, and southern California in general, there’s so much opportunity. So many great companies between Los Angeles and San Diego, and everywhere in between. We’ve got to be able to build this business on the brands that are down here. There’s tons of milk and cookies to be had. So that was the plan.
James McKinney: So ‘05 is probably when you started on your own completely, correct? No longer consulting with Disney?
Bryan Elliott: No, I would say ‘07. I was really un tethered by ‘07. So my master plan was to go 100% into this venture, even kind of tapering off the side gigs and side hustles. I sold the language school business and completely focused my attention on building the production company. This was ramping up into September, October, November of 2007, so I don’t know where you were in 2008.
James McKinney: I lost everything in ‘08, which is where I was leading to about you starting a business in 2007. So let’s talk about that.
Bryan Elliott: Well, I love… I’m very visual, and The Perfect Storm came out during the time I was in the movie business. That was me, I was that little boat, up that wave. It was the perfect storm. Everything crashed on me. All the plans that I had made, all the plans I had made basically went away. All the offers I had, all the deals we had in place. Everyone had to pull back because budgets were getting slashed. People were losing their jobs like crazy.
I was really scared, but on the one hand I was also really grateful because I left a really good job on my terms. Then out of that 250 people, I mean I don’t want to say 200 but close to it probably lost their jobs unwillingly, got the rug pulled out from under them. So I was happy that I made the choice by accident to leave when I did. But it was really scary.
As I was having my scary moment-
James McKinney: Let’s pause for a second there, because for a lot of listeners, they remember that time period. Again, for myself, I lost everything. My business shut down and I’ll share more in my story in episode 10. But what was that for you? That was the storm, you’re on this boat, facing… climbing uphill on this wave. It’s scary. What was it for you?
Bryan Elliott: It’s the people that relied on me. So I’m married. At the time, we had four children. We still have four children, but we had three and we just had a fourth that year. We had a house and all the things that come with it. I wasn’t really strapped. I didn’t overbuy and I didn’t have a lot of debt, but still it was scary. It was like okay. I honestly can’t tell you how I’m going to make the mortgage next month. I don’t know how it’s going to happen.
Me, going back to even my earliest days where I went through all that divorce and that was really traumatic for me, at the very least I pride myself on being super resilient. I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult. I’m not saying it hasn’t affected me, but I’ve always been able to bounce back. I think it’s a Babe Ruth, he said, “You can’t beat someone who never gives up.” So I don’t give up. I may get knocked down, I may get bloodied, but I’m always going to come back. At least that’s my intention.
So the scary part actually wasn’t for me, it was for everyone who was looking at me like, “What do we do? How do we buy groceries? How do we make the mortgage?” My wife is, I would say, definitely my better half, but she’s a realist. I’m an optimist and she’s a realist. I don’t mind uncertainty because I’ve lived with it my whole life. Hey, your dad and I are splitting up. Oh hey, you’re moving to live with your grandparents. Oh, splitting up again. You’re changing schools. We’re moving again 12 more times. I got used to uncertainty and things changing. Contrast that with my wife. She lived in the same house that her dad was born in and his dad bought the four corner houses in Huntington Beach, where her dad’s brothers and sister lived. Basically so they didn’t move.
James McKinney: It was very stable.
Bryan Elliott: Stable, deep roots, yeah. So when all this turmoil came along, it was difficult I think for everyone else, and difficult for me because I felt responsible for putting them on this hellish rollercoaster that we were all on now together.
James McKinney: This is one of the things I love about The Startup Story, is there’s so much that we, until we stop to reflect on our early days, there’s so many patterns that we can see that are really just, while they might have sucked in the early days, they set us up for certain things in the future. Like the ability to adapt in the midst of just chaos and uncertainty, and the resiliency that helped develop in you for this. So how did you respond in those years of financial crisis of ‘07, ‘08 when everything was crumbling around everywhere? How did you weather that storm, because now Goodbrain Digital Studios is a successful company. How did you weather those years?
Bryan Elliott: I put my head down, rolled my sleeves up, and I just went to work. I literally grinded it out, gutted it out, and I did whatever I could. I want to share… You know I have a show, and the show I do-
James McKinney: That show is Behind the Brand.
Bryan Elliott: It’s called Beyond the Brand.
James McKinney: And we’ll have a link for it in the show notes, because it’s an incredible show.
Bryan Elliott: Well thanks. One of the amazing privileges of doing that show is getting to rub elbows with people who are way smarter than me. That’s sort of my intent. I want a little bit of their fairy dust to rub off on me. It’s very common for me to recall things that I’ve learned from each person over the years, as we’re even talking because I think they deserve credit. I’ve definitely stood on the shoulders of others to get to where I am. Tony Robbins comes to mind when you talk about adversity. Something he told me that really stuck was yes, adversity can shape you and help prepare you for things to come, or it can crush you if you let it. It’s usually binary like that. Either you sink or you swim.
So in my case, fortunately I wasn’t willing to sink. All I could do was swim. That was my only option forever, mainly because I had these three, four little kiddos, a new baby at the time, who were depending on me. My wife wasn’t working at the time. In fact, she hasn’t worked officially for someone else since we got married. Childcare is expensive so we decided to go that route. She’s very smart and she’s now got a little business I can talk about later. But yeah, so how did I get through it? I gutted it out.
We actually benefited from the recession. I remember I hated that word, the recession, and I also hated in this economy, that phrase which I heard a lot. “Well, in this economy we just don’t have, we just can’t do it.” That actually helped us out because a lot of the other production companies in my space, whether it was LA or Orange county, wherever, they had a lot of overhead. They did invest in the studio and they could r y only afford to do big budgets. Where I could easily whittle my team down to me if I had to. I had contractors, but everything was made to order. Do I need two guys on this or do I need five or 12? It was project by project.
Because I was so nimble and so flexible, and willing to literally do any kind of video project that you wanted me to do, as long as it was in line with my values, I would do it. Ii just socked money away. So doing all that and being so flexible and scrappy really helped us garner a reputation, gain reputation, and get the… I think we in turn helped out a lot of other people who didn’t have any budget. We could do a lot with a little. After doing that for 2008, ‘09, ‘10, even into ‘11, those people, those clients came back and back. Kept coming back to us and rewarding us with more work. I think probably I could credit the bad economy to helping us float to the top, when a lot of others lost their shirts and went out of business.
James McKinney: Yeah. It was definitely an ugly time for sure. But man, what an encouragement to all those listening, just that was such a bad time, and to hear yourself growing a digital studio in the midst of all that. It is absolutely possible with resilience to get through that storm, storms like that, to fall and get back up. Even with the responsibility of a mortgage and kids, and everything else. Just to keep grinding through. What an incredible journey you just took us through in those years.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. There’s two other lessons, two other takeaways for me personally and that is market conditions, although you should pay attention to them, really don’t matter. A lot of people have made their fortunes, if you look back through history, when the economy is at its worst. A lot of these iconic Rockefeller’s and all these guys. They saw when there was an opportunity and they doubled down on it. Now, I didn’t have the means to double down on it, but in a way I did double down on what I could, which was my time, and my IP. I definitely doubled down on that and I over delivered, so that I could have a payday three, four, five years from now. But I don’t believe that market conditions affect your outcome. I think you can do the best with what you’ve got, and you can succeed. At least that’s how I feel. Having gone through that perfect storm, and it was arguably about as bad as it can get, if I can do that through that, it’s given me the confidence to do anything at all.
The other thing is you mentioned this group linked to Orange County that I built. I built a couple different communities at the time. I built one called the Action Sports Network.
James McKinney: I remember that one as well.
Bryan Elliott: Which was made of action sports people, and then brands and influencers. And then I built Linked Orange County, which was for everyone else but was hyper focused on geography if you lived in Orange County. But the reason I did that was because I was trying to, again, solve my own problems, scratch my own itch. I felt incredibly disconnected from everything that I had at the studio. At the studio, I had someone picking up my dry cleaning. I had a car allowance. I could fly to New York and the travel company booked it. I had everything. I had a PR. I had all this.
Then I jumped to the dark side and I had none of it, and I just felt disconnected from people, resources, information, assets, everything. So I thought okay, well I need people and I want to surround myself with great people. So that was me reaching out to my small little network and saying, “I’m going to build this little group. I don’t know what the purpose of it is yet. I don’t want to monetize it like it’s not going to be my business. I’m certainly not an event producer or in the event business.” And yet despite saying that, I started organizing these events every single month.
James McKinney: Yep. I remember those.
Bryan Elliott: And we would bring in, I thought well gosh, South by Southwest wasn’t really a thing at the time. It wasn’t really on people’s radar, but going to these big conferences was, and I thought I don’t have the budget for that. I can’t take off a week or two weeks to schlep out somewhere in New York or wherever. What if we had some of these awesome people come to us? So I started reaching out and bringing people like Gary Vaynerchuck or Simon Sinek, whoever was coming to town, and we’d host these events. They were amazing and people would get inspired.
Then really awesome things would happen just these happy accidents. It was electrifying. It lit me up for sure. I love being in front of an audience. I loved connecting people. I loved seeing other people benefit from what I was doing, with no agenda. Just put good people in a room and see what happens. That’s how that kind of got started.
James McKinney: that helped carry you through that period or season of life as well, right?
Bryan Elliott: Well, to be honest, no.
James McKinney: Oh, okay.
Bryan Elliott: Running those communities was not profitable, but that was my, I call this my choice. I really just tried to break even if we had any expenses. Or roll whatever surplus there was into producing the next event. To me, that was a little bit like the early Zuckerberg model, which was don’t worry about how to make money. Just get people’s attention first. Get people together first and then the attention becomes the asset. So that was how I designed the community site. Let’s get people together, let’s get people online and offline, in real life. Put them in a room together. Have people coming to speak, and let’s see what happens.
I think if I were to have done it with more of a business goal in mind, it could have been very profitable, especially at the time because no one else was really doing events, especially to the degree and quality of speakers, for example, that I was doing them. But it was not my intention. I did not want to be in the event business. I didn’t enjoy the process of putting it together. I liked being there. Everything else was terrible though.
James McKinney: When did Behind the Brand become… from the outside, it looks like it’s a very significant brand to you, to the Goodbrain Digital Studios. Is it as significant to you as a brand as it is for the viewer?
Bryan Elliott: For sure. I think that was a happy accident too. About that same time around 2009, I was at the time just focused on where I lived in southern California. Then it occurred to me that the people that I was bringing in had a national fame. People like Seth Godin and others. I was like, “Hey, this is interesting. I should maybe think bigger than just where I’m at, and maybe think about expanding it into a show since I’ve got the ability to do so.” Again, it was all about solving my own problem, which was how do I become successful immediately? Because I really need to pay my mortgage next month, and I really wanted to know. So I produced the show, very selfishly. I asked all the questions that I wanted to know so that I could figure things out.
James McKinney: That’s extremely intelligent of you.
Bryan Elliott: Well, and it’s lucky that everyone who was watching sort of seemed to want to know the same thing. So that show started to get some traction and as the wheels turned and sort of expanded, I expanded the brand into include people, influencers. So we have several different, it’s very eclectic. Authors and athletes, musicians and entrepreneurs. But it’s still undefined. Seth would argue with me that I’m not a brand, I’m a human being, but your brand is your brand. It’s what you promise and the things that you do that define you.
So yeah, the show has just grown slowly, running the tortoises race over I guess the last nine years now, and now we have syndication and partnerships with big publishers and we’re trying to find new distribution all the time. But yeah, I love doing it. We do it all editorial, so we never do pay to play, for example. A lot of people have offered us lots of money to tell their story and we have tried to keep it 100% on the other side of the wall, for lots of different reasons. As soon as you start getting paid to do editorial, then basically you’re in the business of publishing people’s press releases. That doesn’t sound very fun to me.
Back to being a writer and storyteller, I want to tell the stories that I want to tell, and I want to pick the people that I’m interested in who I also think my audience is interested in so that we can provide value to these struggling entrepreneurs and small business owners like I am. I also think the show is sort of unique. Back when I started in like 2009, 2008, there weren’t a lot of players in the space. Guy Raz didn’t exist. He wasn’t doing what I was doing. Neither was Tim Ferriss or half dozen other people who are doing it now, who do it really well.
I still think the difference between me and some of those other folks is most of those other people are millionaires who have built other businesses and either gotten bored, or they have some extra free time and they’re like, “You know what? I’m going to do a podcast.” Like Reed Hoffman or something. Or I’m going to create a show. I think what makes what I do uniquely different is that I’m literally in the trenches with my audience. The struggle is real every day. I’m still trying to figure out how to pay my mortgage next month, and I still don’t have it figured out. But I think that makes me uniquely qualified to ask the kinds of questions that my audience wants to know, because I still feel the pain.
Then having one foot in journalism as the editor and the journalist, I also have a foot in the other country because I have real life business experience. I’ve done startups, I’ve worked for a company, I’ve been employed, collected a salary. I know how to speak brand because I was a brand guy. I know how to speak agency because I worked a little bit with agencies, I work in agencies. So I think I have a very kind of unique, interesting background that is different from all the other people who are doing the same kind of thing in my space if that makes sense.
James McKinney: If Behind the Brand, it absolutely makes 100% sense and I can probably add to that list many different points what makes that your show different than other things out there, obviously because you are someone who is still in the grind like we all are. I think that is definitely some connection there with the audience. But you started it in a period where cash was tight, yet you leveraged freelancers for production, correct?
Bryan Elliott: yeah.
James McKinney. Okay. So it was not a pay to play, so that is a decision most people probably wouldn’t make in the midst of some very cash tight situations. Why did you decide, you know what, we don’t have a massive pipeline of paid gigs, we’re going to start Behind the Brand. What was it about that and why did you make that decision? Because I think it’s bold, I think it’s brilliant, but at the same time it’s not one I think a lot of people would have made in ‘08, ‘09.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah. I credit Seth Godin again. Seth wrote this book called Tribes right around that time, and it was about the opportunity to lead. Whether that’s lead in your social group at your church or synagogue, or in your business group or you’re playing golf or whatever. Or if you happen to have an email list of 50,000 people like I do, or I did when I was running Linked Orange County and all that. People paid attention. The attention is the asset. He also told me, “Be careful not to get in a race to the bottom, because you just might win.”
I really took that to heart. I saw pandering for stories, getting paid, as a race to the bottom. Pretty soon, this is going to be a commodity thing and I’m going to be working for them. That’s BS. I don’t want to be in that game. I want to maintain creative control. If I think a story is good, no matter who it is, big or small, whatever, I want to do it. So I resisted what’s that marshmallow test that’s famous in psychology? You give the four year old a choice. They give them a marshmallow and they say, “You can have this right now if you eat it, or if you wait 15 minutes I’ll give you a second one.” I’m very much someone who would wait for that second marshmallow. I don’t need instant gratification.
Again, going back to my gritty days of survival, I feel like I’m a survivor anyways. I’m willing to gut it out and sacrifice. I don’t mind a little pain. I don’t mind getting beat up a little bit waiting for the payoff. So that was my mindset. Okay, eventually when I get the attention, that’s going to be the asset. Then I can monetize it. It’s taken years to do that, but now we have sponsors, you know this episode brought to you buy Varidesk. Jason’s one of our sponsors.
James McKinney: Oh, excellent.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah, he’s terrific. We have many others who help support the show in that way. So we’re able to do the editorial with one company and then find a sponsorship who wants to pay and reach our audience who is a completely separate, different company. We never cross the streams, as they say.
James McKinney: That’s awesome. What else is Goodbrain studios doing in addition to Behind the Brand?
Bryan Elliott: I think of it in four buckets. So bucket number one is film and commercial works. I’m a very active director. We’re producing our own commercial stuff for other brands, but I also will go and I’ll get called onto someone else’s set and I’ll direct a commercial or something.
The second bucket is original content. We’re developing original stuff for social or we’re developing a web series for someone, or we’re doing a campaign. The sky’s the limit when it comes to videos. It’s 365 video mixed in with strategy and all that.
The other part that we’re doing is we’re doing a lot of channel management, so we’re taking other people’s YouTube channels for example, or managing it and optimizing it for search. In some cases, we’re doing everything where we’re creating the content, we’re uploading, we’re publishing, we’re setting a content calendar for them. And other times we’re just manning the dials. That’s an area where it’s become very interesting in the last three or four years where we are on the constant lookout for new talent, whether they are someone like Caesar Milan who is the dog whisperer. We’ve worked with Caesar and we’ve worked with Jillian Michaels, who is a famous person. So we’re always looking for great talent who’ve got the right IP, some sort of deep domain knowledge in something, whether that’s fitness or health or dog training, whatever your deep domain knowledge is. Then we can help build content around that IP and then find a place for it to live, and we host it and do all that.
The fourth piece is full length documentary films.
James McKinney: That’s right. You had a Kickstarter recently.
Bryan Elliott: Yeah we did something with Indiegogo. I’m actually working on two active, full length documentary films. One is a client project that’s based in Portland, and then the other one is my own passion project. So I’ve committed to do one full length feature documentary film every year. We’re always looking for new projects and trying to vet good stuff from bad stuff, figure out what to do next year and all that.
James McKinney: What do you see for yourself in the next three years?
Bryan Elliott: I would love to do more of the same. Behind the Brand has become a great way for us to meet great people. It’s been an amazing opportunity to get face time with just some incredible minds, and learn a ton. But it’s also opened a ton of doors which have lead to other like film and commercial work. Someone saw one of my shows and we ended up doing a c commercial for Microsoft Office. That was a big budget and we did that, and that was great. But they found me because they saw one of my episodes. Or we’re finding more and more of these folks that want to develop their own content, want to do their own channel. So we’re helping them white label that and be the production company behind that. Then we’re doing a lot of collaborating with the films, too.
I love what I do. I’m trying to widen my lane but also stay in my lane, so it’s all about brand marketing and strategy, and video production, and trying to really focus on what I do best which is stay creative. I’m very much an idea guy so I like to always have my hands in the things and contributing to that.
James McKinney: You know what’s interesting in our time together, it is very apparent how intentional you are about the things that you do. The idea of staying in your lane and knowing your four buckets. The why would you build Behind the Brand during a really rough economic season. And all of it is about knowing what it is you want, being patient in that time because you said you don’t need to play for instant gratification which is extremely uncommon. And I think all of those things have lead to the success that you’ve attained so far in your career, and obviously is going to bode well for you in the years to come as you keep pushing. It is incredibly impressive to see the level of intention that you have with everything that you do.
Bryan Elliott: Well thanks. I still, it’s limited success. I feel like I’m this work in progress, but you’re right. I am very intentional and I do feel very strategic about most things, although I still am flexible enough to try things that might not work as Seth would say, as long as the risk measures up to the reward. That’s sort of how I measure everything. It’s funny, because I had a conversation with my daughter about this and she thought that I loved to take risk. “You’ve done all these entrepreneurial ventures and you’re this entrepreneur.” I said, “Well, actually I don’t like to take risk.” I can’t speak for everyone but it seems this way with everyone, and that is as an entrepreneur what you’re trying to do is mitigate risk. There’s a chasm and you’re trying to close the chasm so that this great leap of faith that you may die doing, it’s more like a little hop. So you’re trying to be strategic or make intelligent decisions as much as possible, to make good choices. Again, if you fail you can come back and fight another day.
James McKinney: To add to that picture, I think what makes entrepreneurs unique is just the willingness to take risks with uncertainty. You might mitigate it, you might try to reduce as much risk as possible, but you’re still willing to. You’re still willing to take a risk at some point versus the stable job or employment. With would you say, you’ve definitely as we’re talking I can see many different stages of your journey. To our listeners that may be pondering entrepreneurship for themselves because they just have this itch or this desire to do something more, or the entrepreneurs that have tried before and failed numerous times and fallen, or the entrepreneur that just doesn’t have the success they had hoped for. What do you say to those people, as now we spent an hour or so reflecting on your journey? What do you say to those people?
Bryan Elliott: We could spend another few hours talking about that. To give you the short version, there’s a term starving artist. You’re a starving artist for the reason. It’s because, possibly two problems. One or two, and that is you’re making art for the wrong people. Maybe your art is amazing, but you’re making it for the wrong people and they don’t appreciate you. Or your art is not as good as you think it is. So therefore, you’re a starving artist.
My advice is if you’re going to try something new, unconventional or entrepreneurial, whatever you want to call it, is that you really focus on the intersection of what you love to do and what you’re great at. The intersection of what you love to do and what you’re great at. Because when you do that, you will find your audience eventually. If you’re really good at something, that art is eventually going to make its way into someone’s house and you’re going to get paid for it. If you love doing it, you’ll never quit because everyday just is amazing.
When the opposite, like you’re really great at accounting but you hate accounting. That’s not going to scale. That’s not going to last very long. Bad things are going to happen.
James McKinney: I love how when everyone wants to describe the thing that people hate to do, it’s the accounting is by default the position. As we wrap, as we close this conversation out, I’m so thankful again for the time that you’ve afforded me and my listeners to hear your journey and all the things that we can learn from it. In addition to that gratitude, I’m a firm believer that if we forget the shoulders that we’ve stood upon or the people that have contributed to our success or our journey, if we forget them and lost that bit of gratitude, it’s going to lead to our failure at some point in time.
When you look back at your journey and all the way from the beginning until now, who do you look back as just key contributors to your success, that you just are forever grateful for either that small thing they said or that big thing they’ve done. Whatever it is that they have contributed to your success, who are those people?
Bryan Elliott: Too many to count. It’s funny, I’m smirking as you say that because I’m thinking of Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dogg just got his star on the Hollywood walk of fame and he gave a speech that just cracked me up, which I feel a little bit in my heart but I’ll qualify it. He said, “I want to thank me for all the hard work I do, and I want to thank me for never giving up on me. And I want to thank me for believing in me when no one else did.” Sometimes… not sometimes, I feel like that all the time. I really feel like I did this. I made it happen, because no one else was up late thinking about me when I was screwed. I kind of screwed myself, right, but sometimes you are the victim of circumstance.
The most important thing you can do is what you do after that. So that said, if I’ve had 400 people, 500 people on my show, I’d like to thank each one of those 500 guests from Tony Robbins, to Seth Godin, to Gary Vaynerchuk, to Laird Hamilton, to Tony Hawk. Not just the famous people, not just namedropping, but there’s all the 500 people in between too who are running businesses, big and small, who I’ve had the privilege to talk to and learn from. I’ve learned something from every single person, and I try to take what I think I can implement into my life. If that saying, is it Jim Roan that gets credited for, “You are the sum total of the people you hang around,” if that’s true, at some point I’m going to be pretty amazing because I’ve talked to some amazing, and hung out with some amazing people, if only for a couple of hours.
James McKinney: What impresses me most about Bryan’s story is his refusal to accept market conditions as a barrier to his success. Even more so, I love that he took risks during such an economically challenging time. While most people were not willing to take on any work that did not have an invoice attached to it, he decided to build a major video series that now has distribution through some of the largest entrepreneurial channels available, like Ink Magazine and Fast Company.
Behind the Brand is now watched by millions of people, and it all started as a risk that he took. I have so much respect for Bryan because he did not allow the surrounding circumstances or the critics and naysayers to have a voice in his dreams of pursuit. You see, the people that are critical of you are people that are not willing to take risks themselves, right? You get what I’m saying here? Think about that. Those of us that have taken chances and risk to accomplish something big are not going to tear down someone else who thinks big like we do. We want to offer advice and wisdom to help them avoid some of the pitfalls that we ran into. Those that have never risked anything are the ones that will be the first to be critical of you. So now, let me ask you this. If you believe what I’m saying to be true, then why would you give those critics, those non risk takers, those naysayers, those that play it safe, why would you give them any type of say in your effort to build your dreams?
I heard this quote once, and I believe it’s from Dave Hollis, that said, “Why give the people in the cheap seats a front row ticket to your dreams?” I hope that shifts your perspective a bit. So what narrative do you have in your mind right now that is stopping you from starting your story? DM me on Instagram and let me know. Let’s get real with each other. DM me on Instagram @TheStartupStory.co. Let’s keep this dialogue moving a bit.
Now, if you’ve been around The Startup Story for a few episodes, then you know that I believe entrepreneurs help other entrepreneurs. With that in mind, go to Bryan’s channel on YouTube. It’s YouTube.com/BehindtheBrand and subscribe to Bryan’s channel. Again, YouTube.com/BehindtheBrand. I mean it, go subscribe right now. It costs you nothing but maybe 30 seconds of your time to support a fellow entrepreneur. In fact, if you just go to our show notes you’ll see a link in the channel for easy access. It’s so simple to support those that think like us, those that pursue big dreams like us, and those that provide real value to us. So please, YouTube.com/BehindtheBrand. Subscribe right now.
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