The experience is everything. That is your mission. You have to be a missionary. You are not in the product or platform business. You are in the experience business. That means you have to take responsibility for delivering your lifestyle promise at every single touch point which includes all your advertising and marketing, all your point-of sale, all your customer service, and of course and most especially, the product. You can’t let your brand principles falter at any single touchpoint. When we launched HAVLY we described our brand as “Delightfully Good Towels”. The keyword here is “Delightfully”. It’s not enough that the product itself is “Delightful” — which it is. We strive daily to make sure every piece of content we create — from our dancing towels on TikTok to our Meme’s on Instagram — how we name and describe our products on our website, how we aim to answer every customer query, is a delightful experience for our customers.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raman Kia. He is a marketer, musician, entrepreneur, and a special needs advocate.
He began his career in the music industry in the UK. Working his way up the ranks of the recording industry he started as a tea boy in a recording studio before becoming an engineer, a published songwriter, and finally an artist signed by the legendary Jimmy Iovine to Interscope Records.
When his music career ended and after a brief stint as a commodities trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange, Raman dove back into the creative world as a marketer. Over the last 20 years, he and his wife Jessica have been behind the digital marketing of many of the world’s best known brands in fashion, beauty, and home such as Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Net-a-porter & Mr Porter, Neiman Marcus, kate spade new york, Donna Karen, Lancome, Bergdorf Goodman, Mother Denim, and Colgate-Palmolive to name a few. Raman has also served in the esteemed role of Executive Director of Digital & Integrated Marketing at Conde Nast. Today, he continues to make waves in the marketing space with RJK Project, his most recent firm that he co-founded with his equally talented wife Jessica.
Raman’s experience as a special needs parent has also inspired him to spearhead a program of special needs training for first responders in New Jersey which he intends to expend nationally over the coming years.
Raman’s most recent endeavor is the creation of HAVLY, once again with his wife and co-partner Jessica. “This towel will change your entire routine — it’s the perfect size (just between a bath towel and a body sheet), has one soft and plush section for respectively drying your face and hands, and another for your body, and with our D-Loop, you can rest assured it will never fall off from its hook. Simply put, it’s the best towel we could dream up.” Raman adds, “Our towels and packaging are fully manufactured in Turkey in environmentally friendly facilities,and made in safe and socially responsible workplaces.” For every towel sold, HAVLY will donate 1 dollar to DonorsChoose.org to fund Autism related Projects.
Raman is the CEO & Co-founder of RJK Project, and the CEO & Co-founder of HAVLY, Inc.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was Born in 1974in Tehran, Iran. My parents divorced when I was very young, I think I was 3. I lived with father through the 1979 Iranian Revolution and, incidentally, witnessed my first death — a soldier shot in the eye whilst in my bedroom — on the first day of the revolution. I lived through much of Iran Iraq war which included shortages of everything whilst being bombed daily or nightly by Saddam Hussein. My very early years were mostly a continuous flow of death and destruction; but that is what revolution and war look like.
I left Iran at age 8 for England where my mom was but really spent ages 8–18 in a Roman Catholic Military Boarding School in the beautiful Berkshire countryside. I learned to sing in the choir. I fell in love with outdoor adventure because of my time training as a cadet in the commandos running around the obstacle courses of Royal Parachute regiment. The outdoors still invigorates me.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
My story has 3 chapters: music, marketing, and now being a brand owner. I started as “Tea Boy” in a recording studio, fell in love with the studio environment and worked my way up to becoming a studio engineer. I used any studio downtime to work on writing and recording my own music and soon signed a music publishing deal with Rondor Music as a songwriter. It was a small development deal but it soon led me to signing a recording deal with Jimmy Iovine at Interscope records. I had a brief but super fun music career. I recorded 2 albums and even toured the US extensively. Playing shows and festivals like Bonnaroo and getting to meet with and in some cases even record with many of my musical heroes was really quite incredible.
But, the music industry was diminishing under the weight of the digital revolution and I was spending more and more time marketing my band Buddahead through digital channels — back then it was myspace and AOL chatrooms than actually making music so it was just natural to pivot into marketing which for me was just an alternative creative space.
At that time I also met my wife Jessica and together we have spent most of the last twenty years either building marketing agencies or working in-house (I was for a period of time running Digital and Integrated marketing at Conde Nast).
It has been an amazing experience working with so many brands and so many talented individuals. Our marketing efforts have been a critically important part of the digital growth of category leading companies such as Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, LVMH, Net-a-porter, Kate spade, Ralph Lauren to name just a handful.
But during this time we also helped launch a ton of brands, from very tiny brands who had barely raised seed capital or launching brands under the umbrellas of enormous conglomerates. Throughout, we always wanted to launch our own brand — to do for ourselves what we had achieved for others,
And so, one night in 2017, after I tried to dry myself with a towel that was awful, I realized that my future was staring me right in the face. Towels have one job — why are they so bad at it? They don’t dry well, wash well or hang right. Why is it so hard to get a solid towel that looks good and works well too? Enough was enough. We set out to make a perfect bath towel and HAVLY was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was in the process of being courted by record companies, one day I had been invited to play for LA Reid, one of the most famous music producers and at the time the head of Arista records. He and I both turned up and met in one of their incredibly large conference rooms. I was told that used to be Clive Davis’ conference room. Side note, Clive is also one of the most successful record industry men of all time but he had been pushed out of Arista and had at the launched his new recording label J records. When I met LA Reid in that awkward giant conference room I just stood up on the conference table and used it as a stage to play on. It went well but here is where things get funny. A few days later I met with the folks over at J records and they said, “we heard you stood on Clive’s conference room and it was quite a show. Don’t we get a show like that?”. So, I looked around and the only table in the room was a tiny high-top table — the kind you get at a bar room, so I stood on it and played my heart out. I really thought it was going to break under my weight. After all that, both labels offered me deals but here is the thing — until that moment I had been rejected by every label. I was probably the most rejected “wanna be” artist of all time. No one cared until one person cared. For me the lesson which I have carried with me through every endeavor is a simple one: You are not over when you fail or when you are defeated. You are over when you quit. Don’t quit.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There are so many. I am an avid consumer of content. I read three to five books at any given point and listen to podcasts all the time. However, when I was maybe 12 years old, my Dad took me to a bookstore and bought me a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people”. Even before I had read the first page, I understood what my Dad was trying to tell me: winning friends and influencing people is going to vastly important.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
This quote just about sums it up perfectly. What Maya Angelou is talking about is emotional memory. We are often so focused on the task at hand that we don’t see the human in front of us. The burden of bad emotional memories can be devastating. Too many of them and a person will believe he or she is nothing more than the sum of their deficits. Is that the impact we would want to leave on others? Succeeding in life has a lot to do with our ability to connect feelings with needs. Unless feelings and needs can be fused, progress cannot be made. Identifying needs is decoding reality.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?
I don’t think there is such a thing as a “normal” or “typical brand” but a “Lifestyle” brand in my opinion exists to simplify and elevate the everyday life of its customers.
What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?
The amazing BJ Fogg says that all “Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt”. He calls this the Fogg formula. Creating a lifestyle brand is about this also. Something “prompts” us to solve a problem. We then have to extend our “ability” to turn this seed of an idea into a product, platform, or purpose reality which takes a lot of “motivation”. But, the end result can quite literally change the “behavior” of others in such a way that is simplifies and elevates their everyday life. In some ways creating a lifestyle brand means you understand that you sometimes can change people’s lives.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
Apple. No questions about it. Especially Steve Jobs era Apple. How many other brands can we name with a field of vision far beyond almost everyone else’s understanding and acceptance of the limits. Before Apple computers did not blend together intellectual, emotional, and physical experiences.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Like I said, in my opinion, it is all about feelings. The most important question for any brand, regardless of the product or service, is to ask: How will this make the user feel? Your customer is a person. See them and understand their needs. When you decode their reality by understanding their needs you give them a brand to be crazy about.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The biggest mistake, again in my opinion, is building a business model which is too reliant on outside investment. Every brand will need investment, don’t get me wrong, but if you don’t have a simple and short-term path by which your brand can sustain itself independently of outside investment things may get very bleak for you very quickly.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The first few steps should all be research. Your biggest failures always happen in the gap between what you know and what you think you know. Learn the industry you want to succeed in inside and out. What is the market size opportunity? Who are the players? What are the levers? What is your path to scale? You must truly understand the opportunity viability. And, above all else realize the possible short-comings of your own vision. In the words of Arthur Schopenhuaer, “Every Man takes on the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
The 5 things you need to know to create a very successful lifestyle brand are the same, in my opinion, as the 5 things you need to know before you can create a successful anything.
- What is your vision? Launching is not the finish line, it is just the start. Many founders are so focused on simply launching that they have not taken the time to truly develop the vision of what they are trying to achieve once they have launched and why. I was just having a conversation with the founder of a great new company in the garden products space. The product they have come up with is truly magnificent. But, it is one product. Marketing a product is a very different endeavor to establishing the foundation of what may become a multi-product line lifestyle brand. This goes beyond marketing. It is almost impossible to build a skyscraper on the foundations of a bungalow. You have to start with the right foundation which means you have to build a foundation which can support the vision. Is your initial idea the crescent or the whole of the moon?
- A year after launch the perfect headline is written about your brand. What is the headline and who publishes the article? If you can’t answer this question you are not ready. This is vital because it establishes what you would regret not achieving more than anything else. It also gives your brand context. A few years ago we helped launch a cashmere brand which has now grown into a very successful business. When we first started working with the founders the advice they had been given was to position themselves as a luxury fashion brand. The headline they were after was to be, “The best luxury cashmere brand” and the publisher they were hoping for would have been Vogue magazine. Yet, that was totally the wrong positioning. It was the wrong headline in the wrong place. After some deliberation they realized that they wanted to be “The brand that disrupted the cashmere cartel” and the publisher needed to be Bloomberg. That is how they positioned the brand — that was in fact the most authentic version of who they were and what they were doing. Not only they achieved that headline they have since had a ton of success with it — and they have stood out from the noise of other brands in the space.
- The experience is everything. That is your mission. You have to be a missionary. You are not in the product or platform business. You are in the experience business. That means you have to take responsibility for delivering your lifestyle promise at every single touch point which includes all your advertising and marketing, all your point-of sale, all your customer service, and of course and most especially, the product. You can’t let your brand principles falter at any single touchpoint. When we launched HAVLY we described our brand as “Delightfully Good Towels”. The keyword here is “Delightfully”. It’s not enough that the product itself is “Delightful” — which it is. We strive daily to make sure every piece of content we create — from our dancing towels on TikTok to our Meme’s on Instaram — how we name and describe our products on our website, how we aim to answer every customer query, is a delightful experience for our customers.
- Be terrified of your customers. Jeff Bezos I think once said that customers are, “Beautifully, wonderfully, dissatisfied”. Listen to your customers. Listen with the intent to hear them not just to reply to them. Obsess over pleasing them. Once you have launched you can learn a lot about how to navigate your brand by simply paying attention to what your customers want and eliminating what they dislike. Don’t ask yourself, “What am I good at?” and then focus on doing that more. If what your customers need is not your skill set you have to adapt or bring in experts. This is not just a business philosophy or a guiding principle. This is a marketing tactic. The longer you retain your customers the your brand will have to spend on the acquisition of new customers. From a business point of view it is better to increase revenue from existing customers first before ploughing dollars into trying to find new customers.
- Be cash careful. Raising money is hard and if your existence is dependent on venture capital, bank loans, and lines of credit you may be building a growth-ready company but you are not building an economically strong foundation for it. You may get some investment in the short-term but you need to be thinking about the longer-term and asking yourself if you are building a strong investment over time. That means building a company with a very disciplined operating cash flow, a tight cash conversion cycle, and a cash generative operating cycle.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think we already have. With Havly we launched #HavlyHelps. For every towel we sell we donate 1 dollar (plus the customers match amount) to special needs classrooms in low income districts around the country. In our first year we have fulfilled 16 projects and supported the needs of close to 500 students.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are many but I would choose Barack Obama. I wish I had written these words by Nancy Gibb, former managing editor of Time magazine, which are simple but poignant and carry all the truth there is in the separation between the Power and Influence: “While power is certain, influence is subtle. Power is a tool, influence is a skill; one is a fist, the other a fingertip.” I truly admire and respect how President Obama exercised his power and authority with control. He recognized in a way that many others have not that influence cannot be claimed. It has to be earned and granted. He is someone I would enjoy learning from.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.