As marketers, we’re constantly being inundated with the next big marketing tactic. We’re lured in by the promise of reach, potential, relevance and the ever-elusive “cool factor” to capture the slippery attention of our evolving audience. We are duped into believing that without the latest technology or platform, our products will lack impact and lose importance. Our entire careers are now determined by our ability to leverage bleeding edge tactics (and often times, gimmicks) so that we can sell our brands, and keep our jobs. Of course, none of this is mandated.
Marketing Tactics That Work
I hear my dad, Michael Loeb, say all the time that the same marketing tactics that worked in the Mad Men era still work today, it’s just the format that marketers need to adjust to. Meaning, the conversations, the segmentation, the communication has not changed, and never will. What will change is where those conversations take place, how we segment users, how the communication looks. The advent of data and technology has spurred this pivot, but any good marketer will be experienced enough not to panic in the face of these changes – rather, keen to learn how they could benefit from them.
This is a fine line that only few can tread. Marketers are destined to the overwhelming fate of sifting through too-many flashy options and having others tell them what is right for their own brands, making it impossible to distinguish the real from the fluff. Which is why Loeb NYC paired up with our partner and friend Bonin Bough to offer a course-correction opportunity through our event series, The Or Not Experience.
The Or Not Experience
The series is designed to focus on the trendiest marketing tactics, the ones shrouded in pomp and frill, in order to demystify them for brand marketers, creating a safe space where they can ask the questions they may have been too intimidated to ask in a formal setting. This year’s subject: Blockchain. The title? Block Or Not.
The audience was split between Brand Marketers and crypto pioneers – two groups who have rarely ever overlapped, now together bonding under one roof. The idea was to bring together these two dichotomous camps to have conversations about how one can benefit from the other and more importantly introduce themselves and their missions in a setting where they can let down their guard. We expected a few connections to be made. We thought a couple of follow up meetings would be scheduled. But in reality, we were stunned by the results. We saw meaningful relationships form and deals born. I’ve even watched partnerships germinate between entities in our own portfolio and some of the blockchain networks we met. Collaborations and new career paths were forged that day – all out of the simple necessity for honest and accurate information.
For that reason, The Or Not Experience is becoming a staple event marketing brand between Loeb NYC and Bonin ventures. Each year, we plan to host dinners and activations at major conferences like SXSW and CES, and of course, our curate our own flagship event in Southampton, NY. And while each year the theme will change, the requirement for empowerment via information will never change. As we’ve already seen, the juice is worth the squeeze.
“Blockchain is going to be a truly transformative technology. In fact, our CEO [Ginni Rometty] said that blockchain will do for transactions what the internet did for communications. Think about how big of a statement that is.”
“I’ve been surprised by the utopianism” around blockchain technology. They’re taking a technology that very much was broken in a different industry and pretending it can fix the things that are broken in their industry, just because they’re looking for an opportunity to change.”
“My main message is the blockchain a lot of them are wishing on, it’s not only that it’s a pyramid scheme that is going to crash for 99% of the people who are involved in it, it’s not just that. I would say 0.1% of the applications that people are envisioning for blockchain could actually work.”
“My objective was to have them specifically understand that blockchain can be a tool for marketers to use. But more importantly, how do you use blockchain technology to enhance your brand?”
“With a trusted transaction system, I can create a value exchange with a customer in ways I’ve never been able to do before. I can get it down to their mobile devices, I can have it that one to one exchange which we all have been dreaming about.”
On May 30, 2018, Damian Woetzel attended Loeb NYC’s Manhattan offices as the guest speaker for Loeb NYC’s recurring Speaker Series. Woetzel is a world-renowned ballet danseur and recently appointed Juilliard School President.
Ed McCabe, Executive Director at Loeb NYC, moderated a verbal “Pas De Deux” which led us through engaging topics such as; the effect of tech on the arts and arts accessibility, how to maximize creativity and ingenuity, and why New York City is especially fertile ground both for the arts, and for unique companies (like Loeb NYC) which operate in its midst.
This is a blog post about Damian Woetzel’s fascinating life and career, and how what he has learned as a dancer and proponent for arts education, applies to entrepreneurship and startup culture.
Damian Woetzel at Loeb NYC
Damian Woetzel grew up in Newton, MA. His father, Robert Kurt Woetzel, a professor of political science and international law, was born in China to German parents. At the conclusion of World War II, Robert Woetzel migrated to the United States. His experiences spurred an idealism that ensured that his sons, Jonathan and Damian, received a broad and deep cultural education. He wanted his sons to live “big lives”.
Woetzel’s mother, Sheila, brought Damian to an international and humanitarian perspective, building off of her life at UNICEF as a program officer based in four continents over the course of her career.
As young children, Damian Woetzel and his older brother took lessons in flute, guitar, martial arts, Chinese, athletics, and ballet (Woetzel started ballet lessons at 4 years old).
This is not the narrative where an infantile wunderkind is introduced to an art-form and is instantaneously revealed to be a prodigy. Woetzel acknowledges he did not love ballet “right off the bat”, but does remember certain pivotal points that kept him on the path, for example, an enjoyment of music and his performance in a production of The Nutcracker as a 6-year-old in Boston, running around backstage and knowing every “nook and cranny like it was home”.
Woetzel’s focus on ballet first “widened and then narrowed”. Initially, Woetzel learned and absorbed all he could about ballet: history, theory, and practice. Access to information was restricted to books that could be found on the subject, as well as the occasional film. Woetzel thirstily absorbed as much information as he could. The narrowing of focus, to a particular style and genre of dance, came later in New York City.
Big Leaps in the Big Apple
The site of Woetzel’s New York debut was the Joyce Theater, at age 18. He fondly describes the Joyce as “a revolutionary startup at work”. In Chelsea, 1985, the theater’s immediate surroundings were relatively barren, culturally speaking. The success of the Joyce’s creative engine attracted public grant investment and a rejuvenation of restaurants, community, and vibrancy to the area.
Woetzel’s performance reviews were good enough for Damian’s parents to approve his pursuit of ballet as a career path. As Woetzel puts it, this was a “time of in-betweenness”, both personally and for performing arts in America. Institutional titans like Carnegie hall had reached a zenith and were moving into a new phase. Icons like Bernstein and Balanchine passed away. A new type of performance was experiencing its adolescence. Jerome Robbins, one of the creative geniuses behind West Side Story, sponsored Woetzel’s career and created roles for him to perform at the New York City Ballet.
New York City is culturally speaking “the room where it happens” as Lin Manuel Miranda might agree. It has, Woetzel says, “a special foothold and a gravity that matters. So and so did that on this stage. It’s important”. Artists and giants leave their footprints here and their legacies echo through streets and stages. (See: “Loeb NYC Plants its Flag at SXSW” to find Michael Loeb’s perspective on “legacy”.) The “NYC” part of “Loeb NYC”, was selected because businesses can thrive in this dynamic and vivacious environment. Art dances with technology, technology elevates art.
As contemporary American ballet grew, so did Woetzel’s prowess and profile. Woetzel joined the NYCB in 1985. A principal dancer in his early 20s, a top-tier principal in his mid 20’s and an in-demand entity in his mid-to-late 20’s, he was invited to speak at conferences and attend forums.
One such forum was a young leadership conference in China. Woetzel remembers sitting next to another young leader, Gabrielle Giffords, who was then a State Senator (the youngest elected to the Arizona Senate). At the age of 33, Woetzel was considering retirement from ballet and his next step (so to speak). Giffords suggested the Kennedy School Masters program at Harvard. Woetzel followed this lead. Woetzel has subsequently lectured at Harvard Law School, he says if he hadn’t been a danseur he might have been a lawyer.
In late 2016, Woetzel received a call asking if he was interested in applying to become the 7th president of Juilliard. In May 2017, the application process culminated in Woetzel being offered the role. Woetzel anticipates that he will be able to combine the threads of his passions and experiences from “arts education to education writ large, the future of arts and arts and humanities”. Woetzel will still be involved with the Vail Festival, and will bring Juilliard there – the two will “feed each other”. Woetzel officially takes the helm in July 2018, and has spent the past year shadowing his admired predecessor, Joseph W. Polisi, who Woetzel describes as a “role model”.
Woetzel’s goal is for Juilliard to be an engine for innovative work (not dissimilar to his description of his early years at The Joyce Theater), for Juilliard to produce students who edge and push each other and for it to be an avant-garde incubator that upholds and advances its global reputation. This (realistic) idealism and expectation for Juilliard’s students echoes Woetzel’s own “live big lives” philosophy.
Loeb NYC CEO and founder, Michael Loeb, is a member of the Juilliard Board and supports Woetzel’s goals and ambitions for that institution. Loeb also believes in ‘giving back’ and actively contributing to NYC’s community and culture. For example, every Halloween, Michael Loeb opens his “haunted house” to the public. Thousands of guests attend at no charge. He was also honored by Build.NYC for his contributions to that organization. Loeb extols the virtuosity and talent of Juilliard students and recognizes the extremely high standard of work that the students perform at.
The “Edge Effect” and Advice for Young Entrepreneurs
Loeb NYC is home to many trailblazers and those with great aspirations. Woetzel is a person of diverse interests and curiosities. He mentions the “Edge Effect”, a concept he learned about from Yo-Yo Ma; “When two ecosystems meet, at the edge where they meet, you have the most diversity, and new life forms”. Incidentally, the floor where Loeb NYC resides was designed by Michael Loeb and Rich Vogel with a “rainforest” theme, because a rainforest represents the highest rate of growth and a diversity of species. The Edge Effect, Woetzel explains, is “where the spring meets the valley.” Where sections overlap and diverse elements are unified, that is where the richest invention is found. New York is one of those “edge” places: The home of hundreds of cultures and a city of contradictions.
In this fascinating video, Yo-Yo Ma explains the Edge Effect and gives the example of the Napa Valley.
Within Loeb NYC the “Edge” exists in many forms, for example, it is evident in the types of companies we are investing in and the industries in which they operate, from beauty to transport and health to the beverage industry, surprising symbiotic relationships and connections are revealed daily. Our staff has a wide range of backgrounds, talents, interests, and training. One thing they have in common is the “Entrepreneurs’ Gene.”
Woetzel’s advice to his students could equally apply to our young entrepreneurs: “Don’t separate the things that interest you” the overlapping of interest is a wellspring of invention. Take risks: “Be thoughtful about the level of risk you want to take… but I’m glad I took risks as a dancer” (Woetzel says he is lucky not to have suffered any major injuries through his career).
Tech and the City
The impact of the internet and technological developments on the arts has been, like on anything else, both positive and negative. Woetzel is interested in the “democratization of education and advancing opportunities for access to culture…to see Baryshnikov when he was young took effort.” Now access to information and digital content means that the gap has narrowed. Despite the screens we surround ourselves with, Woetzel also reminds us of an “appetite for experience” that transcends our virtual culture. In this vein, Vail performances are intentionally new and context specific. You can’t experience them anywhere else.
Before the internet age, one could only learn ballet “in the room” from a teacher, in a sort of oral tradition. Today, technical aids make the art-form more accessible, both to practitioners and to audiences. Woetzel observes technological advancements have “democratized choice on what is considered good”. But the shortening attention spans of the modern audience is an issue. “Taste is a valuable commodity and arbiters of taste are missing.” The glut of available opinions makes it harder to navigate between artistic trash and treasure.
Dance is a beautiful form of communication and expression. Having the ability to be expressive and convey emotion wordlessly takes practice and dedication to achieve. This is a concept Loeb NYC’s marketing teams likely relate to, as we strive to seek ever-more effective methods of communicating messages and connecting with people.
The Loeb NYC Speaker Series has a few quirks and rituals, one of which is that our guests literally leave their mark by writing a message on one of the walls. Woetzel’s message to us is similar to what his parents’ might be… but with a sunny addition: “Happy big lives”.
I was sitting on the stairs of a packed house in the middle of downtown Austin. The room filled with people, many of them the brightest minds at South by Southwest (SXSW). Brand marketers and influencers mingled with investors, founders, artists and everyone in between. Yet everyone’s attention was fixed on the front of the room, where entrepreneur and a good friend to Loeb NYC, Bonin Boughwas moderating a fireside chat, between Gary Vaynerchuk (of Vayner Media) and my boss, Michael Loeb.
The discourse ricocheted between topics like the state of entrepreneurship, the blessing of “micro failures”, parenting techniques, and tombstone carvings. Prominently marked on banners throughout the room was the unmistakable logo of “Loeb NYC”, proudly displayed our brand to the world. Michael was captivating the audience,
“I want to prove Keats wrong. Keats said, our ‘names are writ on water’…The legacy I want to have is going to be enduring. I want somebody to point to me and say I learned something from that guy, or he built something for me, or he changed something, or he made things better.”
Select founders and operators of Loeb NYC investment portfolio companies were dotted throughout the room, as were members of the Loeb NYC team itself. Given the size of the crowd, the room was remarkably silent. There was a palpable, powerful energy and excitement that manifested in an unmistakable buzz. It was at this very moment—when the nucleus of SXSW seemed to have converged within the “Loeb House”—that I realized I was witnessing a defining moment in the life-cycle of Loeb NYC. At this moment it became undeniably clear that we, Loeb NYC, had planted a flag and boldly announced to the world, “We are here. We’re here to play. And we’re here to stay.”
Loeb Enterprises has been operating for roughly ten years, and in that span has produced results many accelerators and incubators only dream of. Three companies, most notably, sit perched within the “trophy case”: Synapse Group, Priceline, and Script Relief, each of which have achieved storied status within its industry. Additionally, as of today, upwards of 15 companies operate within the greater Loeb NYC portfolio. So why did SXSW feel like a watershed moment for Loeb NYC? What had changed? Why did this moment, in the illustrious history of the company, feel different?
To answer those questions, let’s consider that simply put, the dynamics of media and consumer attention are going through tectonic shifts in style and technique. Past operating styles and methodologies will not cut it for firms that want to survive and thrive in 2018 and beyond. Those who want to be in the game and, more importantly, win are required to take a new tack, ifprominenceand reputation are at all important to them. For Loeb NYC, these things matter, not only for legacy, but for efficacy.
We believe that what we do day in and day out is special. There’s a magic inside the walls of Loeb HQ that allows us to view the world with optimism and the future with possibility. In the words of Katie Loeb, Director of Innovation at Loeb NYC and the mastermind behind our Austin event, our program at SXSW was an activation, a deliberate statement to the world of our presence and vision.
The better one gets to know the man in charge, Michael Loeb, the clearer it is that his vision and ambition for Loeb NYC is massive. In the words of Mr. Loeb himself, the vision for Loeb NYC is “What my partner, Rich Vogel, and I envisioned a decade ago when we concluded that for us Synapse was not the last chapter, but the opportunity for a bold new one.”
This vision is clear and enticing. A company factory: vertically integrated company-building from an idea, to execution, to exit. The nomenclature is simple, it more or less describes the lifecycle of almost any successful startup investment. But in the case of Loeb NYC company-building, both the theory and practice are very different. Traditional venture capital firms and accelerators generally think of themselves as hotbeds for successful market disruptors and innovations. As places where exciting early-stage ventures blossom into unicorn companies with regularity. The reality is that it’s difficult to build a company – read Michael Loeb’s post, “The Entrepreneurs’ Gene” to see the proof from a man who has done it many times over. Most early-stage companies will fail, plain and simple.
So, how does one create a closed-ecosystem with better odds and better pathways to success for early-stage companies, at scale? From my perspective, the model at Loeb NYC achieves this by removing the constraint of constant-capital raising from founders and CEOs, so they can focus on running their companies. Providing back-office support and advice to the early-stage companies so that the headaches of administrative work are largely mitigated. We challenge the odds by offering portfolio companies access to expert teams of marketers so that they can quickly augment a small marketing with a larger, advisory one. A real sense of community means that companies can leverage each other’s networks and speedily earn credibility and connections with customers. Place this in a beautiful working space that can compete to attract talent with the best of ‘em. Add outstanding talent, commitment, and creativity to that mix and you have something special. We have this. We have it now. And at SXSW, we told the world.
Loeb NYC is a place where true talent can thrive and where meritocracy is honored and respected. Above all else, it is a place deeply passionate and committed to building successful enterprises across multiple industries. That is our foundation and inspiration. Walk around our offices at 712 Fifth Avenue and a clear sensation is realized of the kinetic energy and momentum present in this environment. Startups pack the floor, each targeting a different industry with intensity and drive. One common thread emerges; an undying commitment to results and growth.The aforementioned confluence of success-factors cannot be created overnight. It is possible through years of focus, merged with a willingness to test, experiment and iterate. You can feel it the moment you step off the elevator.
Mike Provance, the CEO of 3×3 Insights describes his company’s relationship with Loeb NYC in terms of a streamlined symbiosis:
“Our company is housed inside Loeb NYC, and we can’t go a day without spending time talking to Michael about what we’re doing. He’s very hands-on in the way that he engages with his portfolio companies and is constantly thinking of ideas that help us better execute on what we are trying to do, whether it’s sending emails any time of the day, or wandering through the Loeb NYC incubator, Michael is always available to us, as are his team of experts in various areas of marketing, of product development, direct mail, about anything you can think of he’s got some sort of experts who can support the efforts you’re trying to do.”
Personally, I have been in the Loeb orbit for the past three years or so. In that time I’ve seen expansion into two new floors in our midtown Manhattan headquarters, and a threefold growth in the size of our portfolio. Sitting on the stairs in that Austin house at SXSW, it’s apparent that the last ten years of innovation, company-building, and pure hard work have been leading up to this moment: a powerful declaration of our identity and intentions.
Our efforts at SXSW excited and encouraged me about what’s still to come. As the team returned home and settled back into our rhythm of operating and building, one resounding statement from our time at SXSW remained fixed at the front of my mind: We are just getting started.
One of the best things about starting your own business is that you get to (try to) build whatever type of company you want — including the culture. Everybody has been in organizations where the overall culture and values, or at least certain management styles, were toxic. Or maybe a lack of leadership undermined employee morale and performance. So why would you want that to happen in your own business?
The case for actively creating a culture
Surprisingly, startups and closely-held businesses often fail to instill values and foster a culture conducive to a positive and productive working environment. I’ve seen many small businesses where the organization’s culture was defined by the dynamic and dysfunction of its founders. In startups, where long hours, tight deadlines and high stress is the norm — and where high-performance and passion are critical to success — low morale and high turnover can be a recipe for disaster.
Taking the time to define, communicate and instill your startup’s cultural principles may seem like a luxury compared to launching, marketing and selling your products and services. However, if you don’t take the time to do it up front, you may not get a second chance.
How do I start(up)?
In a startup, it’s easy to place the focus on whatever the shortest path is to get things done and meet critical deadlines, launches, and milestones. But if you’re not careful, you can end up with an organization that lacks a clear set of cultural values or leadership practices, and a staff that’s not motivated or empowered to do their best work. Here are some ways to prevent this:
Write it down
Think about what kind of culture you want for your organization, and write down a set of cultural principles and company values you want to aspire to for your employees, customers, and partners.
Include the team
Communicate your cultural principles and company values to your employees, and take steps to get feedback and buy-in from them.
Show you’re invested
Commit to actions the company will take to instill and uphold cultural principles and values.
Empower your employees
Allow them the freedom to perform in the roles they were hired for, and give them room to make mistakes and learn from them.
Establish standards of trust and independence among employees, and strive to weed out those who consistently fail to live up to it.
When hiring for key roles, especially those in management positions, make sure have you a clear understanding of a candidate’s leadership style and skills, and that they align with your desired values.
Walk the walk
Strive to embody the values you want to instill in your organization in your daily actions and communications.
Take the time to recognize great work and contributions.
Using the above techniques can set your startup on the right track for success, productivity, and low employee turnover. At Loeb NYC, I have observed a large emphasis placed on establishing a culture of fun, employee satisfaction, and fulfillment, and continued learning. This is done through events like “Speakers Series” and weekly staff meet-ups (celebrating birthdays and milestones). It helps make people happy to come to work on a Monday.
Part of our company culture: Loeb NYC has started a monthly book club (and sponsors the books for whoever wants to join in). Each month, a new “Loebster” moderates the meeting, leads a discussion on the book of the month and votes on the set text for the following month. The books selected relate to improving business, productivity, creativity, innovation, and inspiration. Loeb NYC’s book for April 2018, was “Creativity, Inc.” by Pixar’s founder, Ed Catmull. Catmull, after the release and success of Pixar’s first movie (and the first ever computer-animated feature, “Toy Story”) was faced with the challenge of breathing inspiration into a burnt-out, uncommitted staff. Catmull describes how he made actively, continually improving company culture his personal mission, as a crucial ingredient to the creative process and Pixar’s success.
Chris Dowling VP of Product, DgDean
DgDean develops the technology necessary to fuel businesses – whether for startups or established companies. DGDean eliminates the burden of tech with a unique, proven approach and guiding principles. They enable your digital structure to evolve with your customers’ needs. This includes data collection, analytics, coding, design and more.