It’s finally the new year, and we’re excited to kick 2021 off with another exciting episode of Earned. For our 18th episode, Conor sits down with entrepreneur and brand builder Kevin Gould—a man who wears many hats, to say the least. Kevin is the founder of talent management firm and digital consulting agency Kombo Ventures, as well as the co-founder of three digitally native powerhouse brands: wigs and extensions brand Insert Name Here, magnetic lash brand Glamnetic, and Wakeheart, a body and home fragrance brand co-created with Gen Z YouTube sensations The Dolan Twins. In the last year, Kevin’s brands have skyrocketed from $4 million in combined revenue to $75 million.
Conor and Kevin start the episode by discussing the future of the “middle tier” of influencers, in an industry where a small percent of influencers at the top make the lion’s share of earnings in the space. They then dive into Kevin’s background, and he shares why he believes college may not be necessary for some careers in today’s internet-driven world, before detailing how he worked his way up at WME (William Morris Endeavor), one of the largest talent agencies in the entertainment industry.
We then hear why Kevin decided to start Kombo Ventures in 2012, and how the business has evolved since then, before Kevin divulges what made him want to start building his own consumer brands. We learn how Kevin, who currently heads four different companies, manages to stay focused (hint: with the help of great co-founders and teams), and he shares key strategies for building and scaling digital-first brands—and doing so profitably. Conor and Kevin also discuss the importance of community building, and we learn Kevin’s outlook on working with creators, and common mistakes he sees brands make in the influencer space. To close the show, Kevin describes the pivots his teams have made in response to COVID-19, and discusses how he is already planning for a future of live commerce.
We’ve included a couple discussion highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, listen to the podcast below, or tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts!
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“You have to be good at everything today to scale a brand”: The keys to Insert Name Here’s, Glamnetic’s, and Wakeheart’s Rapid Revenue Growth
Conor: So going from $4 million in combined revenue [across three brands] to $75 [million] in basically a year just doesn't happen very often. What would you attribute that success to? What would you say has driven you guys to have that kind of dramatic growth in such a short period of time?
Kevin: I think there were a couple key things. We already talked about how I had great co-founders, so I won't go into that. I think the other thing is that I have a really great right-hand guy on the [business operations] side. We set the operations up the right way to be able to allow us to scale, because a lot of companies get really stuck trying to scale from an operational standpoint. And then I think the third thing is that to build digital-first brands, there are a few elements to that that I think Sharon [Pak], Jordynn [Wynn], Ann [McFerran], and the [Dolan Twins] are all particularly good at, which are community building and brand building.
You have to be good at everything today to scale a brand and have high growth and do it profitably, right? So it's like this flywheel. You want to lead with a great quality product. You have to have that or you're not going anywhere, and after you have a quality product, you have to be really strong at creative, content, social, influencer marketing, paid acquisition, [and have] a really strong retention strategy. And if one of those pieces isn't working, you're going to get stuck and you're not going to scale. So that part is the hardest part to do, which is having all of those things run smoothly at the same time. And I think for us, that's what really allowed us to scale pretty quickly.
“You've got people talking to you, you have to talk back to them”: Why Kevin Prioritizes Building an Engaged Digital Community
Conor: I want to dive into that community-building concept, right? I think in an interview I listened to of yours, you might've mentioned it 17 times, this idea of community and community building. So clearly it's really important. [You said] you would reach out to individual followers on Instagram and say, “Hey, how can we be helpful?,” and I think you said that you personally enjoy community building, right? It's your own personal contribution to the company. So talk to me a little bit about the philosophies that you guys have there when it comes to community building, and some of the tactics that you've used that have worked really well.
Kevin: For me, this is the most fun part about building a brand, because if you really think about what a brand is, you know, let’s cut back to two years ago when Insert Name Here started, I'll use that as an example. One day, there was nothing. It didn't exist. The next day, there's an Instagram account, there's zero followers, right? There's a website up and we're like, hello world, we're Insert Name Here! We're a hair brand, we're live. And we literally had to take that account from zero followers into what it is today, in an environment where it's really hard to grow on social.
And so in order to do that in the beginning, no matter how much money you raise or whatever, there's no way to avoid the initial hard work that goes into the community-building, brand-building side of just building a brand. And so examples of that were, we were literally DM-ing every single person that followed our brand early on. A lot of them came from [co-founders Sharon Pak and Jordynn Wynn] early on, they sort of have their own influence, and we would DM every single one of them say, “Hey, thanks so much for the support. Let us know if you have any questions, we really appreciate it. We're here for you.” And we did that for like the first 5-10,000 followers. So right from the beginning, we built a really, really strong base early on. And we actually turned DM into a sales funnel where we used DM as like a prospecting channel when we first started.
The second thing you gotta have is the cool factor, right? So we were good at content and creative, and that goes back to that flywheel. You’ve got to set it up the right way. And then there's the sort of influencer element that comes into play and the validation factor that comes from relationships with influencers. So luckily again, I think another competitive advantage for how quickly we scaled was we all had really solid influencer relationships. And that was definitely really helpful and a huge competitive advantage. And we really nurtured those relationships. Some of the influencers we worked with early on, they weren't necessarily huge. They had 25,000, 50,000 followers. We really spent a lot of time with them, built great relationships with them, and they became amazing advocates for the brand.
And then what's interesting as the brand-building process goes along and is really cool to see is, in the beginning, you get a couple people that tag you on social, right? And when they do that little tap tag, it’s like @glamnetic or @insertnamehere, and you start seeing the tags and you’re like, oh, this is really interesting. But then there's like this compounding effect that happens, where there's more influencers talking about [your brand] because you're running the influencer strategy. You're building the community. You're starting to develop a voice as a brand, and you have a distinct point of view, and then you get the word-of-mouth effect that's kind of coming into play at the same time. And all of a sudden it becomes cool to tag your brand on social. And then you've avoided being a commoditized business, because in the end, they're buying your product for the community, for the brand. And how you compete against the Amazons of the world that can dupe any product is, no one's going on Instagram and tagging Amazon for where they got their products. So when you start to see thousands of consumers tag your product, you built this community that is really sticking, that just comes into that flywheel we talked about.
Conor: Yeah, it has to be super cool to look at all of this just happening. And now so much of it is happening without you having to do anything. You just go on Instagram and it’s just thousands of people tagging you. That has to be super cool.
Kevin: But there, it's a two-way street. So thousands of people will start to tag you as it builds up, but you have to then, if anything, triple down on your communication with them, right? Because now you've got a community. Now you've got people talking to you, you have to talk back to them. You have to engage. You have to make sure that they know that their opinion is super valued, which it is, right? We take crazy amounts of insights from our consumer base. We now have really engaged Facebook groups that are really valuable. And so if anything, once that happens, you can't let up. You have to triple down on that community aspect.
“It’s just one piece to the puzzle”: Why Brands Need to Incorporate Influencer Marketing Into Their Overall Marketing Strategy
Conor: As a brand owner in the lifestyle space, what are some of the philosophies that you have about working with creators and working with influencers as well as, you know, what do you think are some of the mistakes that either you made or that others make in the space?
Kevin: So I think every brand would probably tell you this, but you generally want to partner with influencers and creators that align with the values of the audience that you're going after, and the brand. That's number one. And then I think number two is, as you build out a robust influencer program, you kind of need to have different tiers as you go, right? So we have a really large gifting team that specifically focuses on gifting up-and-coming creators, where there's not necessarily compensation, we're just gifting them. And then we've got our bucket of larger influencers that we work with that are paid partnerships.
And this is where it gets tricky for the brands. A lot of them either get discouraged or they have a lot of trouble here, on the paid side of things. They'll say, “I put $100,000 in and I got $20,000 out,” and they're not necessarily measuring all of the different effects that working with those influencers have. There's some that are not measurable, like the indirect community building, kind of cool-cred factor. There's some that are measurable, like if you give them a discount code, what's the direct sales that they're getting through their code or their link? But I think the other issue is that these brands don't really understand how the influencer component plays into the entire flywheel.
And if they look at it as a singular thing and expect a direct ROI, they're probably never going to be able to get there. You have to plug it in to the overall system. And it's just one piece to the puzzle. Like great email and SMS strategy drives the influencer strategy, which drives this, and it's just like this flywheel, right? And how paid media and influencers run together to amplify the influencer’s message is also really important. And I talk about this with bigger brands all the time, and they still can't figure it out. It's just really hard to do. Marketing is so interconnected now that everyone has to be working really, really cohesively.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts to catch up on our other 17 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like ColourPop, INH Hair, Tula, Sweaty Betty, and Huda Beauty.