Narrative: This is the most important part. Consumers buy a story, not the product.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack Finucane.
Jack Finucane is the founder of the Boston Sax Shop, a boutique saxophone accessories shop that caters to the embolden saxophonist. The Boston Sax Shop represents the fastest growing company both in regards to acclaim and gross income in its industry, and their products are sold by boutiques in a dozen countries.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
For sure! My name is Jack Finucane and I own the Boston Sax Shop, which started as a one man repair atelier after I graduated college in 2013, and has morphed in the past 2 years into an industry disrupting brand which now has over 30 of the world’s leading players endorsing the product line, and an international retail presence.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
For better or for worse it was the pandemic. Starting in 2020 my brick and mortar store business was cut off, and I had to refocus on my small brand of products which had previously been a fun side project. I realized that no-one else in my industry was effectively utilizing a direct sales or affiliate marketing strategy and saw a huge gap (and opportunity) open up. I plunged right in!
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Absolutely, my mentor in business was named Armando Conti and he taught me that to design a great product that would have staying power, it needed to solve a problem. It’s a very simple idiom but it has shaped my entire business.
Armando’s business was to create world-class, one of a kind audio systems. When we first met I had no idea what his business was, but whenever he would come into the shop to have his horn worked on, he would ask my opinion on the mechanics of how I fixed saxophones. Even though he was a celebrated mechanical engineer, and I was just this guy fixing saxophones, he genuinely took an interest in my opinion and experience. That always stuck with me, because he treated me like an equal, and I admired his curiosity for his business despite being in it so long. That really inspired me to always see the value in other’s thoughts and to continually follow my own curiosity to improve my products and business.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes it stand out is the story itself. I think that having great products or even great marketing is easier than ever before, but what makes a company truly thrive is the narrative behind it.
My story is that I make the products that I always wanted as a musician (but prior to creating them, could never find.) I truly am just like my customers, and I involve them in my design process on Instagram Live, I ask for their feedback and really try to bring them into the fold. I make it feel like we are all a part of this together, because we are. Like Armando always did with me, I treat my customers as equals — and that’s something the bigger companies can’t and won’t do. I think it’s a huge advantage in my business, and I also think it’s a more humane and cohesive way to exist.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
This has been one of the most rewarding parts of my business, is sharing my profits with my endorsing artists. The age old model for endorsements in my industry rarely offers residuals or commissions. The big companies don’t have the margin to do this because they sell through a supply chain with multiple middle men before it hits the shelves. Because of my direct sales model, I have the room to share with the musicians that support me, and it feels just. I hope it will help shift the entire industry away from abusing the relationships with their artists. That’s something that’s really important to me, and I hope we can make a real difference in the lives of artists, and the industry as a whole.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Articulation/public speaking: I have been hosting a weekly live stream every week for over a year now. Honestly, I remember being so nervous the first few times I did it! But keeping at it and being consistent allowed me to really get comfortable in public speaking, and now I really look forward to it. Being able to speak concisely and with authority has become an intrinsic skill that cannot be overlooked. It’s helped me infuse my own personality into my brand and better connect with my customers.
Design ethos: Having clarity in what your design language is, is a huge one for my brand. I wanted to make products that people would look at as functional art and lean on the clean style of Bauhaus. Even functional objects can be beautiful. I wanted them to pass the test that if you saw one of my products on a coffee table, that you’d be moved subconsciously to pick it up and examine it, even if you didn’t know what it was. In addition, I have gone to great lengths to ensure homogeneity in all my products so that they look like they all belong together.
Empathy: Empathy is a powerful business tool (not to mention a powerful trait as a human being) that often gets overlooked. I utilize it to really put myself in the shoes of my customers. As a designer it’s very easy to only think from one perspective, and without empathy you can become blinded to the market screaming at you for what it really wants. You have to be willing to look at both sides all the time or you can get lost.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
A member of my family always hounds me about pricing. ‘Raise your prices!’ was all I’d hear at family events. Of course, when there is demand the price should reflect that, but that relationship is not so simple. The moment you pick is critical and I made the mistake once of blindly doing so and it did lose me market share.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
My business first started as a partnership, which quickly became an abusive relationship where I was constantly put down and made to feel incomentant by my much older co-founder. It took 3 years to find a way to break off that connection and find the courage to believe in myself. It made me stronger, but It also took a long time for me to find my personal footing after such a tumultuous start.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
My love for my craft and the community of people that were built around that. I learned very quickly that business is relationship driven and my customers became a part of my life and my motivation. As a result I planted firm roots in my local community which grew outward. In the best times and the toughest times, my community is who I think of, and they are what keep me going. Even simple things like hopping on an Instagram Live to chat with them, putting up a poll in Stories, hopping in the DMs to answer a few questions, or reading positive reviews can be helpful in remembering why I do this, and who it’s for.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
You have to indulge in your hobbies. For many years I would bring those ‘hobbies’ to my place of work. My vintage guitars, my espresso machine, my LP player etc. When I got frazzled I could go and take a break without completely disconnecting from work. It also allowed me to share my other interests with my customers which led to much more personal relationships being built.
I’m pretty risk averse, and always get anxious with a new product release. I’m prone to second guessing myself, and one thing that’s helped tremendously during those moments is to embrace my community. I know I sound like a broken record here, but community really has been crucial to my success.
For instance, I’ll do polls on IG stories, private message people that I trust and respect and ask for their opinions, and re-examine the facts, rather than get lost in my feelings. While I think it’s important to always rely on your own experience and gut feelings around your own business, I can’t underestimate how much having that community to lean on — both peers and customers — has kept me grounded, confident, and excited.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
I believe in bootstrapping. I’ve built a million dollar business basically debt free, I’ve never taken a loan personal or private. To me, the business funds the business and if that model isn’t working something is wrong. I admit to being risk averse, but growing things slowly and reinvesting allows you to grow as a founder and make mistakes without cutting your legs off before you stand.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1. Narrative: This is the most important part. Consumers buy a story, not the product.
So for instance, my story is that I started off as a single musician trying to develop a business based around what other musicians wanted. I didn’t come from a corporate background, I came from the people I was designing for. This meant I could create from a player’s perspective, and as the company has grown I’ve maintained that image and it’s helped me to stay connected to my community and continually earn their respect, while creating products and services they actually want and love. I’m also young at 32, and that helps me to not only stay current with things like social media trends but relatable to my audience.
2. Community: Involve your customers, bring them into the fold. When they feel like they’ve had input into what you’ve made, they also want to own it
During the pandemic I took the opportunity to start doing a completely open Q&A session once a week for one hour with my customers Over the course of a year it grew from 10–15 audience members to nearly 100 repeat viewers. Their questions, feedback about the products, and suggestions have all played a significant role in everything from design language, to release order, to the creation of entirely new products. Their involvement has been paramount to my success.
3. Affiliates: It’s ok to ask for help. Reach out to people with larger audiences than you and offer them partnerships. Collaborate, co-brand etc. It’s hard to be a game changing brand when you’re doing everything on your own, especially when you’re just starting out.
Affiliate marketing is something no one in the industry was doing — and I saw an opportunity to not only stand out from the crowd, but further support the music community. I recognized right away that the old business model of just giving your artists free products in exchange for owning their content, was not working. After all, those artists play a huge part in the sales of the product, so why shouldn’t they get a cut for their selling power? By using affiliate marketing, it allowed me to create longer lasting and more symbiotic relationships with my artists, while moving the industry in a more harmonious , fair direction.
Moral of the story: don’t try to do it all on your own. You’d be surprised how willing people are to collaborate with you, and how much faster both your brands will grow because of it.
4. Social Media quality: It’s so easy to create quality content these days, you don’t need a photo studio to make things look professional any more. The level of quality in how you present your brand online is a direct reflection of the monetary value a customer will view it as. If you skimp out on presentation you’ll never hit the numbers you want. Your social media content is the new packaging. It’s all about the experience you’re creating for your customers, and social media plays a huge role in that.
A couple ways to do this:
-Be very aware of what your brand is, and what it represents, and show that off constantly. I incorporate my personality into every single post I do. For instance, I might take a picture of one of my watches with one of my products. The watch might be on a completely different price level than the product, but it puts them (even subconsciously) on the same level for the consumer.
-You can do a lot with the backgrounds and props you already have. Use the environment around you. Invest in a $20 flatlay board, Look around your room and see what you can add into photos to compliment the product and elevate it in the eyes of your consumer.
-Share customer created content. This has been huge for me. While my social media feed is carefully curated to reflect my products and the brand ambassadors that use them, my stories are almost entirely filled with re-shares of my customers using my products and singing their praises. If you encourage your customers to tag you, and you involve them in the process, they’ll be more likely to share, and you then have direct social proof to pass along to your audience.
5. Identity: You need to have an angle of originality for your brand. I’m not saying it’s easy but there has to be at least ONE thing that will set you apart from the pack.
I learned this from Warren Buffett (you need to have a moat!) and it always stuck with me. For me, this is my branding and the fact I’ve set myself up to be the underdog, the anti-corporate company, the people’s brand. But the real difference that sets me apart is my brand ambassadors. As long as they’re endorsing my products, it doesn’t matter who else comes out with a similar product, because the ambassadors are the ultimate social proof.
If you’re struggling to find your one thing, try this. Think about why you started your brand — that’s your one thing. If you started your business, it means you looked around and saw a gap somewhere. You saw something that needed fixing and you wanted to be the person who did that. So what was that one thing you wanted to do differently from anyone else?
If that still doesn’t work, look at the competition and see what they’re missing. What are the hot button issues that surround that industry? And how can YOU be the go-to person for fixing that?
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Too fast too soon. You aren’t going to find the silver bullet on the first go round and need to grow listening to the community.
Take your time. Business success is rarely fast, and if you’re trying to build a brand, a culture around your business, you have to think more macro and move slower. See how the market responds to your product or service, really spend time perfecting that and proving that it’s something the market wants before instantly moving on to the next thing.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I used to work 80 hour weeks. I used to sleep at my shop because it was too late to go home. I think every truly great founder goes through a period like this, not that I’d encourage it. It’s had lasting effects on my mental health and my relationships. The dangers of owning your own business is no one tells you to stop. There’s no off switch. You’re the only one in charge of that and you need to be aware of the damage it’s doing and know how to set those boundaries.
The turning point for me was when it became so damaging to my relationships that I started to look around and wonder what I was building all of this for if I was too burnt out and removed from my life to enjoy it.
A few small ways I’ve done this, that I would encourage anyone struggling to try:
-Simply make the decision. I’m not saying it’s easy, but getting into the mindset of setting boundaries and adhering to set hours was a game changer for me.
-Take breaks throughout the day. Even setting aside 15 minutes to eat lunch was huge for me. You need that time to reset, refuel, and not let yourself just get swept up in the day.
-Timeblocking has also helped. For instance, only checking emails once in the morning and once in the evening. Only doing certain tasks on certain days. And of course, hiring help.
All of those things have made a huge difference, but ultimately, the biggest difference is in simply making the decision that you’re sick of being burnt out, and you’re ready for a change. Because until you decide you’re ready, you’ll always find excuses not to.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 want to lift the curtain between the music industry and the musician. To make this more of the community it used to be, and less of a competitive, cut-throat space. For too long it’s felt like this tug of war between the artists and the corporate companies — sometimes even between the artists themselves — and I want to be able to bring back that feeling of community, because at its core, that’s what makes this all work.
One way I’ve done this is by connecting beginner artists to world-class artists through masterclasses and workshops (previously in person, now online) where they can learn, ask questions one on one, and lift the curtain between the artist and the community. But I’d love to do even more. I have dreams of hosting in person events where we can all come together and hang out, share stories, jam together, just have fun. Maybe even a conference one day!
We are blessed that some very prominent 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.
Jony Ive, product designer for Apple. Also Jeff Goldblum — he’s been in his industry for so long and yet he’s filled with such curiosity and excitement even after all this time. I really admire that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Bostonsaxshop.com or @bostonsax
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!