Become an incredible storyteller- When you are just starting out as a founder, you don’t have much other than a vision and a voice. By becoming an awesome story teller, you can motivate people to take a chance on you, which ultimately moves the needle for you and your business.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Folmer.
He is the founder of FirstLook, a subscription box full of emerging consumer brands for early-stage investors. Before FirstLook his career includes time in corporate retail, two startup accelerators, and a previous startup he founded. He’s currently based in NYC but plans to eventually return to his hometown, Cleveland, to help continue building the startup ecosystem there.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My backstory story starts with my first job out of college at a technology startup accelerator in Cleveland. Within the first week, I knew this world was exactly where I belonged. Working hand-in-hand with all these founders, and investors, and everyone in between was eye opening. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was hooked.
While there I submitted a startup I’d been working on for the program. After an intense interview process, they offered me a spot in the next cohort. I took it, and for the next year I worked on my first startup until our runway ran out. Despite contributing to the ‘9/10 startups fail statistic’, the experience was life changing.
The next 5 years I’d work in corporate retail at Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret. This got me to NYC where I jumped back into the startup world by joining XRC Labs, a retail tech and consumer brands startup accelerator. I was back in my element, and learning as much as I could. I was really fortunate enough to sit in on a lot of high-level meetings which made a huge difference. (Thanks, Pano!)
While there I realized there was a lot of friction between founders and investors, and serious investment conversations rarely began until an investor experienced a startup’s product first. We’ve all seen Shark Tank. If a Shark has a poor product experience, “I’m out” usually follows next. While bike riding one sunny afternoon, the concept of FirstLook hit me. A few months later, I went full time on it.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The disruptive part of FirstLook is the model in which we connect founders and investors. We’re the first subscription box that puts products from emerging, high-growth consumer brands into investor hands. Some people describe us as “Shark Tank in a box.”
Traditionally it’s been a very time consuming and cost-prohibitive for founders to connect with investors. “Fundraising was quick and easy,” said no founder ever. Getting your product in their hands can take weeks, and only then do serious conversations begin.
FirstLook solves this in an efficient and practical way, which is what I think makes us both so disruptive and so valuable to the startup community.
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?
I paid $75 to the State of Delaware to reserve a corporation name. To think I was that nervous that someone was randomly going to take the name first before I could file is ridiculous. The funniest part is that I didn’t even end up going with that name. The experience however brought awareness that I needed to find balance between my emotions and reality when making business decisions.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
An important mentor to me has been Ryan Woltz, Founder and CEO of ēdn smart gardens. Among all the help he’s provided, the two things he really opened my eyes to were optics, and storytelling. He made me see how important and prevalent these both are no matter where you at. The way talk about your company, or how you position your momentum, can create game-changing moments for a founder early on. In short, how can you set yourself up to catch more “big-breaks” than the other guys.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
It’s tough to find an example of disruption that is good for everyone across the board. I think disruption is overall good when it raises an experience standard, but not in a grossly disproportionally way.
For example, Republic.co put crowd investing on the map. Both elite and novice investors now have access to amazing startups, and startups have a better opportunity to raise than before. Everyone wins.
Questionable disruption would be when state laws legalizing marijuana come with regulations that discourage small operation growers from entering the market. It feels great at first because everyone can now legally cannabis. Behind the scenes though, small growers miss out on all the economic upside, and consumers lose overall through a lack of innovation and competition in the space going forward.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Become an incredible storyteller- When you are just starting out as a founder, you don’t have much other than a vision and a voice. By becoming an awesome story teller, you can motivate people to take a chance on you, which ultimately moves the needle for you and your business.
- Build an awesome financial model- A financial model is a blueprint for how a startup will operate and grow. Building it helps founders think critically through all parts of their business. When you have a strong understanding of all the moving parts of your business, you’re able to work more effectively and have others believe in you.
- Put yourself out there, take chances- I have caught so many “lucky” breaks from simply putting myself out there. I met my now close friend and mentor, Aidan, at an event I was invited to by a person I randomly met in my WeWork two weeks prior. Meeting Aidan has had a huge impact. Had I never put myself out there weeks earlier, I’m not sure FirstLook would be on the same trajectory it is today.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
I follow the same advice I share with founders- build something so amazing people can’t help but talk about you. Customers organically sharing a brand is the greatest badge of approval, and is especially useful now where fake reviews are rampant and everyone’s bullshit meter is at an all-time high.
People aren’t sharing your brand enough? Try asking them. Some people are lazy, while others simply forget. They still love your product though, so ask or give them the opportunity to share. Adding a short one-liner at the end of an email can trigger them to forward it to a friend.
An overall effective strategy for generating qualified leads is to give, give, give. When you help others, the world has a funny way of returning the favor. Sometimes a single introduction can change the course of your business, and that intro came from someone you helped months back out of the kindness of your heart. Give, give, give.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
There are so many ways to shake things up with FirstLook, but there are two ways I’m particularly excited about.
The first includes a special female-founders-only box through a partnership with organizations dedicated to helping female founders. In talks now, hope to have something in the coming months. I’m excited to help continue the push for more opportunities that support female founders. I feel women are more creative than men, and with branding being so important these days, now is a really great time for them to shine.
The second includes bringing on more athlete and celebrity investors as subscribers. We have one NBA star subscribed, and are in talks with a few others. The extra firepower celebrity angels bring adds an extra layer of value to the startups. We want to be as helpful to them as well. We know their busy, but still have a desire to invest, so this is a nice way for them to get experience and connect with some of the most promising consumer startups out there.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I started listening to The Consumer VC podcast right around the time I started FirstLook. This podcast has been a massive blessing. The host, Mike Gelb, is one hell of an interviewer who’s managed to get some of the brightest minds to talk about all things consumer. His shows feels like I’m sitting in on an MBA class at Wharton or HBS.
A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to connect with Mike and get to know him better. We’re both at similar spots in our journeys so there’s a lot to connect over. He’s has since got me hooked on a new podcast I’ve been loving, The Game Plan, with Jay Kapoor and Tim Katt.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
During my mid 20’s I read an article about how our minds rationalize failure, and what that means on our mental health. The takeaway: the human mind can always rationalize failure, which allows us to move on. What we cannot rationalize and move on from is never trying. It puts the mind in an endless loop of wondering “what if?”
This “what if” turns intro regret, which ends up mentally killing us many years before we physically die. Ever since then, I’ve always put myself out, taken chances, and have lived a life with no regrets.
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. 🙂
Eliminate illiteracy worldwide. The power of reading gives a person the ability to elevate their life, and the lives of those around them. We are all life-long students, and it is our responsibility to become our own champions of learning. When we’re able to read, we’re better able to pursue our highest calling. And when we pursue our highest callings, we bring in a tide that raises all boats.
How can our readers follow you online?
Personal Twitter/Instagram — @homerfolmer
FirstLook Twitter/Instagram- @firstlookvc
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!