Empathy/Compassion: This is something I try to practice not only with my coworkers but also with myself. Yes, we’re employees, but we’re also humans trying to tackle this thing called life. Everyone has off days. The more we can allow for rest and recuperation both mentally and physically, the better we can bounce back.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amanda Byrd, CMO of Philter Labs, Inc., a technology company pioneering a new type of microfiltration process meant for secondhand vapor or smoke. Users inhale from their favorite smoking accessory and rather than exhale into the ambient air, exhale that smoke into their personal, handheld filters for reduced emissions and cleaner air. Amanda Byrd has spent the last seventeen years taking controversial content and packaging it for mainstream consumption. A creative thinker and strategist, Byrd has facilitated unique expansion efforts for both legacy brands and technology startups. Her career began with the infamous HUSTLER® brand, where Amanda led many of the brand’s most recognized transitions into retail and licensing. As the company’s top Merchandiser and Buyer, Byrd played a lead role in the domestic and international role out of the HUSTLER® Hollywood stores and transitioning HUSTLER® into a robust licensing program that continues to this day. Amanda went on to act as Director of Global Licensing at PENTHOUSE® in 2006. Byrd revitalized the brand’s relevancy in the market through strategic implementations that grabbed the attention of Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana and spurred collaborations with TapouT and luxury German designer, Philip Plein. As a result of her efforts, PENTHOUSE® signed on international agents as well as nearly 50 licensees in just over two years. In 2015, Byrd took her talents to one of the world’s leading online adult streaming entertainment websites. Amanda headed a strategy aimed at helping the average consumer find the idea of a brand built around a cam site appealing. Her strategy included a fine art exhibition — Meeting JASMIN — that re-framed how mainstream consumers portrayed cam models and went on to be accepted as part of the X Contemporary Fair, solidifying the power of strategic storytelling. With vast experience in controversial industries as well as leading technology platforms, Byrd has once again applied her unique storytelling skills to PHILTER. Her innovative strategy for this brand highlights the game-changing impact personal filters can have on preserving personal rights, protecting mother earth and encouraging new, universally acceptable social behaviors when it comes to secondhand smoke.
Thank you so much for joining us Amanda. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
This career path is something I really just stumbled into. In my early 20s, I moved to San Diego for school and needed a flexible job. I ended up applying for a retail position at the new Hustler Hollywood store in San Diego — I had worked in retail since I was 16, and anyways, who wouldn’t want to work at a Hustler store? The store hours were 10 am to 2 am so there were random shifts that could accommodate my class schedule, so I really had the best of both worlds (sleep is for the weak when you’re in your 20s, right?).
When I started working at Hustler Hollywood, the brand was just beginning to form their expansion strategy. This gave me the incredible opportunity to get my foot in the door in this industry and allowed my career to flourish along with the company’s retail footprint. After my time at Hustler, I stayed in the industry by spending nine years at PENTHOUSE followed by a short-term project with one of the largest cam sites in the world. All of these experiences enabled me to hone a unique craft — packaging what many consider controversial content into merchandise programs that were palatable for mainstream.
Moving into the smoke accessory business seemed like a natural evolution, as vaping and cannabis are still fighting their own battles when it comes to mainstream stigma. I felt Philter Labs was a perfect opportunity to utilize my unique storytelling skills to once again help bridge a gap between those on opposing sides of the issue.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Hearing the personal stories of potential PHILTER customers and how our products could impact their lives has been a very eye-opening experience. While I don’t personally vape, I’m a big believer in the protection and respect of personal rights. That’s why I latched onto these products — they offer a solution to protect personal rights without requiring users to sacrifice their lifestyle. But, with limited personal vaping experience myself, I came to the table with a somewhat limited scope of user case scenarios.
One of our very first brand videos I initiated highlighted the intimately personal reasons why users vape and why they might need to eliminate their secondhand smoke to make their experiences more comfortable and dignified. Billions of dollars have been spent to highlight the negative effects of secondhand smoke, so the stigma is still very prevalent. Yet, there are still very private and necessary reasons for many to engage in vaping.
I personally conducted the interviews and was deeply inspired by their stories. My hope is that anyone who is facing similar situations when it comes to their right to vape can turn to PHILTER products for a solution.
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?
Does wearing comfortable shoes to tradeshows and how to pack light count?? Anyone who knew me in my early career days knew that I never dressed for comfort, always style. Which meant a jumbo suitcase for any travel occasion and highly impractical shoes. I’m not sure it’s necessarily funny although I do look back and laugh at my thought process behind 5” heels at a tradeshow. Thank goodness, I’ve discovered you can be stylish and authoritative in flats and re-purpose a great blazer and pair of jeans and still have a highly successful business trip.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of the primary areas I focused on when building the PHILTER brand was tone of voice. It was extremely important to me that PHILTER represented a neutral space for those who choose to vape. There can sometimes be feelings of shame, or at least an uncomfortable awareness, of how their secondhand smoke could affect those around them. These feelings are often fueled by negative reactions from friends, family or society in general.
So, it was important to me that when vapers engaged with PHILTER, they knew that these were products they could use and feel good about, or at least better about, their choice. Our copy and conversation with customers is positive and empowering. We offer them an option to make an intentional choice to own their exhale and, by doing so, make a statement. Our products are not about discretion, per se; they are about making a choice to become socially conscious smokers and, in turn, social heroes and clean-air champions.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am currently in the process of wrapping up the foundation and infrastructure for The PHILTER Project, a social responsibility and advocacy division of Philter Labs. The focus of The PHILTER Project will be to launch initiatives and align with partners who support our bigger mission of eliminating secondhand smoke. Our brand pillars of personal rights, clean air and a polite society are leading our outreach to respective partners and activations.
Our goal with this project is to start a larger conversation amongst peers and potential customers regarding how this groundbreaking technology could revolutionize the ubiquitous issue of secondhand smoke, which hasn’t been thoroughly addressed since the invention of the cigarette. And, by eliminating that tell-tale smoke plume, finally allow for a happy, healthy coexistence amongst users and non-users.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be prepared. While your team wants to deliver the best results they can, they will look to you to guide those expectations and prioritize tasks. I believe the best thing you can do for your team is to be prepared — have a list of what needs to be accomplished with milestones and due dates. Front load them with as many details as possible so they can work smarter, not harder. Make them feel empowered to tackle their duties knowing they have the information they need to be successful.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Transparency has become a major cornerstone when it comes to guiding my teams. Pivots and adjustments are all part of the game, especially in a startup. But, when drastic changes are made without information, then speculation can take over. I think giving a clear explanation about the motives behind a specific change of course helps your team feel connected and avoids confusion. Transparency in manufacturing channels, product reviews, and even on the executive teams behind brands has become expected from consumers. By initiating transparency internally from the beginning, it easily builds this culture from the ground up.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate to work for and with so many inspiring female leaders in my career. I’d have to start with Theresa Flynt, the founder of the Hustler Hollywood stores, and whom I owe so much to. She really took me under her wing when I first started with HH at the tender age of 22. She taught me all of the critically important social factors that go into building successful partner relationships — how to break the ice during client dinners, bond with brand partners so they want to do good by the deal, lead an effective team by setting an example of being professional yet still being able to have fun…the list goes on. These are the sort of unspoken responsibilities of leaders and, thanks to her guidance, I felt comfortable taking on those roles when I became a newfound leader. Most importantly, she empowered me to make big decisions. Without her generosity and vote of confidence early on in my career, I never would have felt as emboldened moving forward into more visible and demanding positions.
I’m also grateful for my girlfriend Stacey Blume, who was the first true entrepreneur I knew and gave me the entrepreneurial bug. Her namesake fashion brand had caught the attention of celebrities and garnered tremendous press. By day she took meetings at the Soho House NY and by night, was at all the best parties and events! It absolutely inspired me to pursue a similar path.
My girlfriend Nora Wong, who is a successful licensing executive, mom and amazing go-getter, is also a source of constant inspiration in my life. She generously offers her advice and is actually the person who recommended me to the CEO of Philter Labs. I am forever thankful to Nora and her friendship.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My success is minimal compared to many other c-suite executives, but I’ve had the good fortune to have consistent, steady and exciting opportunities in my career. I’m always trying to pay it forward, especially when it comes to bringing along former co-workers or partners I’ve had the opportunity to work with into new jobs I secure. If an independent contractor or agency has really proven themselves through hard work and creative results, I always do my best to continue to offer them new opportunities that allow them to experience growth and visibility in their respective disciplines.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why?(Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Flexibility: My mom has always said, “It’s not the job that’s hard, it’s the people.” I always try to remember that everyone has their own agenda in working relationships, so remaining flexible is key to finding solutions that both parties can agree on.
2. Communication: That age old saying…there’s no I in team. All of those silly clichés come back to haunt you as a leader and it’s so true, you need a team to execute your vision and they can’t do that without you communicating what that vision looks like. When it comes to most of the creative, I’m guilty of drawing out everything. Just horrible sketches with the most awful freehand, stick figures as models…but it helps! It gives the guidance and the direction my Creative Directors need so they can get as close to my vision the first time. Plus, it’s always fun to look at the horrendous sketch that turned into an amazing advertisement or marketing collateral and marvel at how far it came!
3. Empowerment: I’ve always performed at my best when I felt empowered by my boss, so I try to give this same sense of trust in my team. Particularly when it comes to creative expression. Nothing kills the flow faster than micromanagement. I like to front load with lots of information, the expected aesthetic and then instill them with the confidence to come back with their best work.
4. Intent: Work can get intense, especially with everyone’s different opinions and ideas floating around. There’s nothing more draining than fire drills without a full evaluation of the situation. I try to make sure that I thoroughly and subjectively assess a new project and execute with intent rather than from an emotional reaction.
5. Empathy/Compassion: This is something I try to practice not only with my coworkers but also with myself. Yes, we’re employees, but we’re also humans trying to tackle this thing called life. Everyone has off days. The more we can allow for rest and recuperation both mentally and physically, the better we can bounce back.
You are a person of great influence. 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 feel very honored that I’m currently inspiring a movement by working on the Philter Labs mission of eliminating secondhand smoke while protecting personal rights. This is an incredibly complex topic and a challenging one to tackle. It takes hundreds of thousands of smokers/vapers/JUULers, however you identify, to stake a claim in protecting the health of those around them by owning their exhale and using PHILTER products to eliminate their secondhand smoke. This intentional act has the capacity to impact millions of our friends, family members, and loyal pets as well as the environment. Our team and I are very passionate about this purpose, and I believe the PHILTER brand can be the catalyst for this necessary social and environmental crusade.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was starting my career with the Hustler Hollywood retail stores, I often met with Mr. Larry Flynt to discuss the merchandise mix and how best to engage with our target customer demographic. During these meetings, he often had a myriad of colorful sayings that simultaneously had me laughing and thinking about their meaning. I eventually created a series of collectable coffee mugs that included the best of his quotes and we sold them at the HH stores as souvenir items. They were always a big hit and sold out quickly! One quote in particular has stuck with me… “Opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one.” I don’t know that Mr. Flynt was the originator of that quote (laughing) but he used it frequently to shrug off any negative outside commentary and subsequently, instilled in me the importance of developing thick skin as my career has grown. Especially when you’re in marketing. Successful marketing is so subjective. In many ways, it’s skewed by personal beliefs or perceptions. The influx of data now available has helped curb some of that and allows marketing leaders to show proof, but there are always naysayers who will rain on your parade. So, I remind myself of these words every once in a while, smile, and remember that it’s just an opinion, and well…everyone has one!
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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I have real love for Gwyneth Paltrow! Speaking of opinions, Gwyneth has been subjected to her fair share of negative opinions, criticism of her privileged upbringing and doubt in her creation of GOOP. But, I sincerely admire her. I attended the keynote she gave at the Licensing Expo a few years ago and she was very endearing. Witty and self-deprecating, I appreciated her candor as she discussed being an entrepreneur and pursuing topics she was passionate about — fitness, health and fashion. She stayed true to building a brand based on her beliefs in what she felt women were interested in and wanted to learn about, even when others called it outrageous or ridiculous. Bee sting facial, anyone? And yet, GOOP has become wildly successful. Plus, Gwyneth has been a true pioneer. GOOP was one of the first premium lifestyle brands to talk about real sex topics consistently rather than just during the default Valentine’s Day holiday, and they backed that up by selling sexual wellness products. In addition, GOOP was also one of the first companies to actively promote cannabis and endorse products the editors believed in. While this is now status quo for mainstream lifestyle sites, in my opinion, Gwyneth and GOOP helped pave the way and made these important conversations more acceptable.