Chris Pavlica of FTI Brands: “Flexibility”

Flexibility: At all times, be ready to adjust. Like the point above, when you come to failure or find mistakes in your strategies, be open and flexible. You’ll constantly have to pivot. I can’t think of any aspect of our business that hasn’t morphed in some way over the years. Branding, of course, and the […]

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Flexibility: At all times, be ready to adjust. Like the point above, when you come to failure or find mistakes in your strategies, be open and flexible. You’ll constantly have to pivot. I can’t think of any aspect of our business that hasn’t morphed in some way over the years. Branding, of course, and the way we pitch our products to buyers are constantly being tweaked. We realize we’ll never reach perfection, especially since the world will never stop changing. The best we can do is change with it.

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 Chris Pavlica, Co-Founder and CEO of FTI Brands — creators of innovative cleaning products. Chris and co-founder Kevin Consolo met in college and formed the company more than a decade later. Within two years of launching, their flagship products SneakERASERS, GolfERASERS and AutoERASERS were on retail shelves in over 35,000 retail locations in North America.

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 grew up in a lower-middle-class family in the small town of Elmore, Ohio (population 1,400). My dad worked for Ohio Bell (AT&T) and my mom worked for the high school. Both were 9-t0–5ers but I had something else brewing in me. I learned long after my Grandpa passed that he was a serial entrepreneur who even owned a drive-in movie theater at one time. I suppose that’s where my desire to become a filmmaker and an entrepreneur developed. That coupled with my desire to be as successful as my three older brothers.

I was an “oops,” as my mom likes to say, and my brothers were all much older than me. The closest in age was ten years older than me, and the other two were 18 and 19 years old when I was born. I became an uncle when I was 7, making me closer in age to my nephew than my brothers! My brothers all excelled in sports, school, and LOVED television and movies. I wanted to be like them, which cultivated a burning desperation for me to be successful. I learned quickly that being successful in anything meant never giving up and never being deterred by failure… and failure happened often. It still does!

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I met my business partner Kevin in college, and we had a lot in common. We couldn’t help but stay up late in the dorm room trying to come up with the next “milli0n dollar idea.” It never happened. After school, Kevin went east, and I went west. I wanted to become a film director, and there was nothing I would let stop me. I learned quickly that EVERYONE in the film business wants to be a director, so I had my work cut out. After all, every Brad Pitt, Will Smith, etc., movie is filled with leading stars, supporting characters, and tons of extras… yet there’s only ONE director, so competition is extra fierce.

I like to think I created most of my own good fortune, but luck certainly played a role in my career. I began as an editor of commercials, tv shows, and movies within the first couple of years of being in LA. Not long after, I convinced producers to allow me to begin directing. I’m not directing big movies (yet). Still, I have created many cinematic, immersive experiences, ride films, and interactives playing in custom theaters around the world for brands such as Heineken, Coca-Cola, Ford, NASA, and many more.

A big part of directing is pitching ideas. As a director, my appearance plays a key role. I don’t dress like a producer who may wear a suit with leather shoes… Instead, I have a beard, longer hair, and dress more “artsy” with designer clothes and nice sneakers. Since I’m more dressed-down than my colleagues, I need to look very put-together with a well-thought-out outfit.

While traveling to Atlanta for an important pitch meeting, I pulled a special pair of shoes out of my luggage that was the highlight of my outfit. These were Nikes with pristine white soles… or, at least, the soles WERE pristine prior to packing them in my bag. I swear white soles get scuff marks just by looking at them wrong! So, there I was, 20 minutes before the meeting, with scuffed up shoes and the paranoia of looking like a careless fool in front of high-powered clients. I frantically searched online “how to clean white soles” and only found home remedies like bathroom cleaner and a toothbrush or hand sanitizer and a paper towel. I spent the next 20 minutes ripping through the hotel room’s tissues and dumping my bottle of hand sanitizer on my soles. It was just enough to get by and confidently stroll into the meeting. However, there had to be a better way!

That’s when I called Kevin with that “million-dollar idea” that finally came years after our late nights in the dorm room.

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?

It certainly wasn’t comedic at the time, but we can look back and laugh now. When we started out, we believed our product was strictly for sneakerheads. Sneakerhead culture not only thrives on premium, trendy footwear but also fun, creative branding and products. We thought a clever brand name and packaging would connect and fit in with the culture. Unfortunately, our idea of clever and fun missed the mark. Before SneakERASERS, our brand name was Sole Rubbers. We put slang terms that no one uses, like “our product will take your shoes from “Filthy to illthy.” It just caused confusion. Maybe an existing, well-known brand can do stuff like that but not a newcomer that no one knows.

After a year of disappointment, we finally realized we needed to make a change. A year is a long time, and we should have made the change sooner… lesson learned! Perhaps the most important lesson was that we needed to be more aware of when a problem was occurring and fix it as soon as possible.

Even after overhauling the brand to SneakERASERS, we didn’t know if that would fix our problems and give us success. So, we asked ourselves a simple question: If we close up shop and label this business a failure right now… what would we regret tomorrow? This was a powerful thing to do. It forced us to jump forward into the future and look at ourselves as outsiders.

Our answers were: We have to give this business its rightful, fair shot, which started with one of us quitting our day job and working the business full-time. (At that time, we both were working full-time jobs outside the business.) We needed to attend a trade show. And lastly, we needed to give brick-and-mortar retail a serious try instead of solely focusing on e-commerce.

A year later, we were in over 30,000 locations across some of the biggest retailers in the United States.

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?

NPR’s podcast “How I Built This with Guy Raz” is a fantastic confidence booster. Hearing how entrepreneurs started their businesses and the pitfalls they endured is very inspiring, especially in times of strife.

I must mention the film War Dogs with Miles Teller and Jonah Hill. That movie features a business much more serious and dangerous than ours… but the idea that two nobodies can find a way to make things work is something Kevin and I reference often. In the beginning, we felt like imposters who didn’t belong in meetings with gigantic stores like Walmart, but we fooled ourselves into believing we knew what we were doing. It wouldn’t have worked any other way.

That said, the biggest impact for me came from the book “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. I remember seeing ads within my old inbox on Yahoo Mail with the author promoting seminars across the country. I always expected it to be some sham and get rich quick scheme, so I ignored it. Later, a trusted friend informed me that I was way off. I read the book, and it changed the way I look at the world and the education system. It’s a super easy, quick read. Anyone who has any interest in business needs to read it, especially for kids. It has guided me through many decisions within FTI Brands. The principles seem like common sense — and they should be — if only we were taught them at a young age.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I know my friend didn’t come up with this, but he loves to say, “Don’t talk about it, be about it!” This has become a mantra for me. If you think about ten of your friends, how many of them throw around ideas? Now, how many of them ever pursue any of those ideas? Of that group, I’d bet it’s usually all ten who never actually act on an idea. It’s very rare to find someone who actually pursues it.

That’s actually the good news; most people don’t act on it… so you have the opportunity to rise above the rest. You just NEED to take action. Take that first step. Don’t just talk about it… actually DO IT! There will be hurdles, and there will be failures. After all, the easy money-makers are gone. They’re no longer there for the rest of us, so it’s going to be tricky. It’s going to be hard. You have to be open to learning every step of the way. We change course constantly. We pivot. We adjust. That’s the journey, and we’ve grown to embrace it and even love it.

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?

Our definition of a lifestyle brand has transformed since we started our company. In the beginning, we focused on being niche because, to us, being a lifestyle brand meant targeting a specific culture. The sneakerhead culture. Although that certainly works for brands like Jason Markk and others, it wasn’t right for us.

Being niche isn’t the only path to being a successful lifestyle brand. It certainly helps to gain a following within a niche, but there are other opportunities. Take Nike, for instance. It’s easy to say that, as a lifestyle brand, they focus on athletes, but their customers aren’t limited. They have millions of loyalists across every demographic.

In late 2018, The Zoe Report listed us as a product on Amazon “that will make you look 10 times more put-together.” This article changed everything for us. Overnight it exposed our brand to a new, HUGE, female-based demographic we hadn’t considered. Our mission of creating a niche-based lifestyle brand evaporated instantly. Immediately we realized our potential customers fit the Nike demographic — the masses. We no longer focused on sneakerheads; we focused on everyone who wore white soles… male, female, young professionals, athletes, moms with babies/toddlers/teens, and everything in between. Although it presented many new obstacles, especially with marketing and advertising, it also opened the door to mass retailers. This was when our company took off.

What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?

With any company, fighting to be successful means being dedicated to learning every step of the way. It can be a headache because learning can be labeled a speed bump that slows down progress, but when you choose to be a student of business, the benefits pour in. Being open to learning allows you to avoid future failures and forces you to keep your eyes open to trends. And, with a lifestyle brand, trends are often number one. It’s helped us focus on what’s important to our customers and develop products specifically for them. When we lock in on a trend, we’re able to narrow down what the customer actually wants and eliminate guesswork.

Another huge benefit is that we were already immersed in the lifestyle of specialty sneakers. We love the business we do because we live that lifestyle anyway. It’s easy for us to get excited and inspired. A prime example is GolfERASERS. Kevin and I love golf. The sport used to be a hobby, but now the success of that product line relies on our dedication to understanding golf culture through and through. Now an essential part of our job is playing golf, talking to golfers, and spending time at the course. It may sound like common sense, but so many people don’t realize that combining something you love with business is a dream come true. Maybe that’s the true definition of the American Dream?

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?

I’ll go in an obscure direction here… I’m going to call attention to 3 Floyds Brewing out of Munster, Indiana. Technically, they’re a brewery (and distillery now as well), but they’ve created a lifestyle brand unlike any I’ve ever seen. First, they’ve brew fantastic beers and were at the forefront of the craft beer revolution. But they didn’t stop there. They have the perfect mix of quality, allure, exclusivity, attitude, and a vast following. Their quality of product is second to none. They’ve created allure by limiting the amount of beer and their distribution — so it can be VERY hard to come by — especially for their elusive, sold-one-day-each-year Dark Lord imperial stout. Then the attitude… they’ve embraced this heavy metal, gothic, graphic novel-like persona. It’s all over their labels and consequently all over their clothing and merch. All things combined; they’ve created a following that stretches across the world.

Somehow this brewery has created a lifestyle. I’m huge into craft beer, have known about 3 Floyds for many years, and witness their rise has been fascinating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very niche, but they’ve created a culture that many recognize. Even in Los Angeles, I’ll spot someone wearing a graphic tee featuring a skull with bat wings, and instantly I’ve made a friend. All of a sudden, I found a member of my tribe a couple thousand miles away from that small brewery’s headquarters. I’m so impressed that a brewery can create this level of allure in a seemingly unending sea of craft breweries. And with relatively no advertising, it took on a life of its own.

Reaching the level of a beloved company like 3 Floyds is mystifying to me. At first, it feels like a company that simply got lucky. Of course, this is not the case. I can’t help but allow myself to be in awe and wonder how it could ever be replicated. The fact is, they LOVE what they do, and they just go for it without apologizing. Skull with bat wings? Do it. Beer so big and full of flavor that would knock someone on their ass? Yes. Heavy metal blasting in the brew pub? Of course! (Sadly, the pandemic has killed their brew pub, but the rest of the business still flourishes). Sometimes you plan and plan and plan, and you’ll never reach this level. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. There’s nothing worse than trying to create a formulaic strategy from the outset and hoping that cloning another business will work. Instead, you have to be new and fresh. You have to do something no one else is doing. It might be the product itself. It might be branding. It might be marketing. In the end, you have to do what you love to the best of your ability to create your own luck. And, of course… don’t talk about it. Be about it!

Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

There are two things that stick out to me when it comes to successful lifestyle brands. Doing things differently by combining two ideas and human connection.

Just like I mentioned, you have to love it. You have to be crazy about it. If we didn’t love golf and golf culture, we would never have created GolfERASERS. Just like Hollywood scriptwriters… they write stories about what they know. If you’re immersed in a culture, you know what those people love and what they’re crazy about. Then, you have to do it differently than anyone else.

One of my good friends talks about how the most successful people and businesses merge two things they’re great at. And those two things have to come from completely different worlds/ skill sets. When those two things join, companies skyrocket. In our case, it was joining golf with incredibly powerful cleaning products never before used in the sport. We didn’t just try to create a new golf towel. Golf already has towels. That’s a never-ending battle with an existing commodity.

Simultaneously, it’s about connections. Like I said before, seeing someone in Los Angeles with a 3 Floyds t-shirt instantly created a connection. We were both part of a little-known tribe, and it made us proud.

Even when the world comes out of the pandemic, our level of connectivity will be far different from before 2020. Zoom calls will continue to be very normal. A large percentage of us will continue working from home. Virtual reality headsets will become very prevalent for tasks outside of just simple games. Technology is a God-send and a curse at the same time. We will yearn for human connectivity nearly as much as we do during the pandemic. Imagine that feeling you’ll get when you can finally hug someone after this pandemic. It will continue to exist in the future even after the pandemic because many of us will have far fewer in-person human interactions due to this new way of life. And what we’ll long for will be experiences and in-person connection.

When a brand connects us, that’s when it thrives. When you’re proud to wear an Ohio State shirt from Ryan Vesler’s lifestyle clothing company Homage, you can’t wait to show it off and find someone who also speaks the Homage language. In the beginning, Ryan put together two ideas: Retro Ohio sports and T-shirts. People thought he was crazy. Certainly, even Ryan couldn’t have imagined the success that followed.

Don’t think you have to be the next Nike to be successful. Homage clothing is aimed at a niche demographic, and it thrives.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?

A common mistake I’ve seen is when new brands simply try to copy others. Sure, many small towns have multiple successful pizza restaurants, but it doesn’t work that way for lifestyle brands. You have to set yourself apart. Just because someone else is thriving with what they do doesn’t mean it’s easy. It also doesn’t mean you can swoop in and do the same.

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?

I think about Daymond John and the stories he told on his NPR episode of “How I Built This.” He started small. He focused on what he knew and the people and culture around him in his neighborhood of New York. FUBU didn’t become massive overnight. Nothing does. Slowly but surely, it took off. The point is, you have to know your audience, and you have to give them something that speaks to them in a way no other company is doing. Learn to crawl, then walk, then run. It’s a simple concept, and that’s what most important in the beginning. Keep it simple! Have very limited amounts of SKUs. We started with one! Only scale when you prove to yourself, you’re on a successful path.

Start small. Figure out what works and then grow. If it’s not working, then that likely means you just haven’t found the right way to connect with your customer.

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 five things you need to know to create a very successful lifestyle brand are: Branding. Human Connection. Seeking out Failure. Flexibility. Quality.

Branding: You have no chance of survival if the customer doesn’t know who you are. And since you likely don’t have millions of dollars in advertising money, you’ll have to educate your customer through branding. This is the main source of your communication. This tells the customer what your product is and who it’s for. As stated earlier, we made a major branding mistake early on. Our original branding was aimed at a small, niche market, and even worse, we did it poorly. Being a new brand that no one had ever heard of, we decided to transform our branding from a tongue-in-cheek joke to education for the customer. SneakERASERS says almost literally what the product is and does.

We now have three keys to our branding that we follow every time we create a product: The actual brand name. What it is. What it does. Then we decide the hierarchy of their importance. Typically, the brand name is least important. What it is, is number one. When we create packaging — which is typically our main source of advertising — we refer to those three keys and decide which priority to put them in. When I say “priority,” I mean prominence and organization of display… ordering graphics/text from top-to-bottom on the packaging and their sizing.

Near the top of our packaging for SneakERASERS, it says “INSTANT SNEAKER CLEANER” in all caps, against an orange background. It’s the most important thing for a new customer to see. Now they know what this product is. Next is our before/after graphic image for “how it works.” This is one of the key points that makes us different from other sneaker cleaners. We use a special pre-moistened sponge that we’re currently in the process of patenting. Now the customer knows what it does and also how it works. Lastly, our brand name takes a back seat. We don’t have a household name (yet); therefore, it’s least important for a new, potential customer. However, our brand name still falls in line with customer education.

Human Connection: Our company is more about maintaining your look as opposed to most lifestyle companies who target the creation of a look. That said, our strategy toward human connection is different than most. Our typical mission is to connect with the customer through feeling as premium as the shoes on their feet. Our packaging is matte black with precisely placed glossy graphics. This matches what customers are used to when it comes to the way their favorite shoes are packaged.

For typical lifestyle companies, human connection is the most important puzzle they must solve. Your brand, your products, and your attitude have to align with the customer and connect with them emotionally. I love wearing my 3 Floyds shirt because when I run into a like-minded individual, that human connection is what I live for. It’s what I remember. It’s the basis of the stories I share with my friends.

Seek out Failure: I almost used the word persistence here, but that’s so obvious. Without persistence, you’ll just give up like most people you know. Part of your persistence lives in seeking out failure. We’re constantly scouring through our work and all data we can get our hands on to find failure. The sooner we find what isn’t working, the sooner we can make an adjustment and be one step closer to success.

I’ve heard so many people throw an idea out within a group. The majority of the group does what is easiest… they poke holes in the idea and proclaim why it won’t work. This is such a cop-out. Why has negativity and closed-mindedness become human nature? Don’t succumb to this! If everyone were open-minded and had the drive to succeed, your competition would be even tougher. S0 maybe this is a blessing in disguise.

Once you accept that failure is not only part of the process but the most important aspect of what you do, the closer you’ll be to success. Consider failure as a GPS. Can you imagine driving across the country without directions? Let failure be your GPS. Let the mistakes and hard lessons steer you back onto a path to success. Otherwise, you’ll quit or possibly even worse… you’ll dig a deeper hole.

Flexibility: At all times, be ready to adjust. Like the point above, when you come to failure or find mistakes in your strategies, be open and flexible. You’ll constantly have to pivot. I can’t think of any aspect of our business that hasn’t morphed in some way over the years. Branding, of course, and the way we pitch our products to buyers are constantly being tweaked. We realize we’ll never reach perfection, especially since the world will never stop changing. The best we can do is change with it.

Quality: As important as the rest, you need to create a quality product. You may have scored a hat trick in branding, human connection, and solving your failures, but if the shirt isn’t comfortable, your customer won’t wear it. Same for SneakERASERS, if the product doesn’t clean their shoe, why would they buy more? Why would they become an ambassador of our brand?

There are so many aspects we need to be mindful of, and none can be ignored. It’s hard work through and through, and you need to be a perfectionist at times… and let things go in other instances. It’s a delicate balance that we constantly deal with every day. Sometimes perfectionism will get in your way and stall your progress. When those things happen with us, we invoke our 80/20 rule. Most of our important tasks take quite a bit of time, and we need to know when to say, “it’s good enough, pencils down!” In simple math, if a task takes an hour to complete, most times, we get to 80% completion in the first 30 minutes. The remaining 30 minutes is polishing and perfecting. Most times, 80% is all we need and good enough… why waste the other half-hour if we have a mountain of other tasks waiting in the wings? As I said, this is a very delicate balance.

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 suppose this is a little different direction than expected… but with all the stress that comes with a business, I’ve become a big believer in mental self-care. As I’ve opened up to more people about my struggle with anxiety, I’ve realized that I’m far from alone. In fact, at least half the people I know struggle with it too. I’ve begun to think there’s a strong connection between creative people and anxiety. I think our imaginations and our drive to become successful gets the best of us.

Running a business is hard work at its core, and it’s compounded when you don’t take care of your own mental health. I certainly struggle with this every day, and that’s the movement I’d like to see. Those with anxiety are not alone, and you can do something about it. There’s nothing wrong with seeking help. Most health insurance plans cover mental health, and people are there to help you. Get started on the path to self-healing before it gets worse. That said, it’s never too late!

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.

I’m inspired by so many… from famous game-changers like Elon Musk to creative legends like Steven Spielberg. However, my honest choice is less conventional: Hockey legend Steve Yzerman.

I’ve always been a sports nut, and I’ve been enamored with the magical sport of hockey since I watched my first game. Growing up, Steve Yzerman was my idol. I was born during his rookie year. I wanted to be just like him — but it wasn’t about fame; it was about work ethic and character. Even during my youth, I was aware of what he went through. From a myriad of injuries that would’ve ended most players’ careers to the weight of a city on his shoulders when the Red Wings couldn’t win a Stanley Cup, to the barrage of trade rumors that must have rocked his family life. It’s all so similar to the tumultuous struggles of being an entrepreneur (without the devastating knee injuries, of course).

All the while, Yzerman is the most humble human being. To be clear, I’ve never met him; I’ve only seen him on TV or from a far away seat inside an arena. I just knew I needed those qualities, and I’d spend my life striving to embody those characteristics. I wanted moments of greatness to await me in my future, and I wanted to conquer them the same way he did. It didn’t matter how big or how small. Hell, even at the dinner table when my mom said, “Chris, eat your peas,” and I relented, all she had to say was, “y’know, Stevie Y eats his peas,” and soon enough, my plate was clean.

Steve Yzerman is more than an athlete. When he retired, he stayed in sports, but he moved to the front office. Now he’s the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, and the business of hockey is his new puzzle to solve. After modeling my attitude and my work ethic on his persona, a breakfast with him would certainly start with reminiscing about the past but would quickly transform to me learning how my idol has become a success in business.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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