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Courier Weekly Friday 18 September 2020

Courier Weekly Friday 18 September 2020

The founder of Ace & Tate talks about innovations in the eyewear industry. Sam Valenti from record label Ghostly International explains how musicians are adapting to the new economy and whether New York has a creative future, and Courier columnist Fleur Emery shares details of her new business, Real Work. 

DANNY GIACOPELLI: Welcome back to the Courier Weekly. I'm Danny Giacopelli, Courier's Editorial Director. This week we're with Sam Valenti from the New York based record label Ghostly International, to talk about how musicians are adapting to the crazy new times, and whether or not New York has a creative future. A decade ago, the eyewear industry got a big shock when new brands launched that let you order frames online and get them delivered straight to your door to try on, cutting out the middleman. But it seems like it's been a really long time since there has been another big innovation. I caught up with the founder of eyewear brand, Ace & Tate to find out if that's true. First, you guys all know Courier columnist, Fleur Emery. She's founded two companies in the food and drink space, she's been a coach for new founders and now she's launched a new company called Real Work. It's what Fleur is calling an online co-working space for women. I caught up with her to find out more.

FLEUR EMERY: I pivoted my career last year, although pivoted is a bit of a glorified version of what it was. I quit starting food companies and was in an exploratory period. I was doing loads of speaking gigs. I really liked it. I was doing business events at The Wing, it was so swish. Everyone kept taking my photograph and the money was decent. It was great. Then, COVID hit and everything got cancelled. What I saw with a lot of other entrepreneur friends, freelancers and small business owners, was that there was no cancellation fee. At the beginning, people were behaving that in a few weeks, it would all be back up and running. Most were postponing, and of course those businesses have since either gone bust or made other plans. With none of that work, you can really chase the money. I had a few grand’s worth of work booked that just went to nothing, and I had a four year old at home. I was in the hole, that's for sure.

DANNY: You did some pretty emotional, honest  Instagram posts saying that you just didn't know what to do anymore.  

FLEUR: I had one day where I put together a webinar on how to consolidate your business in a crisis. I sold a heap of tickets to people I didn't know on Eventbrite. I had maybe  80 signups, people paying £50 each. There was this bank of faces, mostly men, looking out at me, and my kid caught sight of it, and she just literally stood up, pointed at it, made intense eye contact and said, turn that off. I realised that having a load of people I didn't know staring into the house and me teaching them a very dry, serious subject wasn't going to work and it wasn't going to fly. So, it was pivot central. 

I went on Instagram, and just said, look I have no idea what I'm gonna do, I have no potential source of income, if you're there too, put your hand up. A lot of people put their hand up, particularly solo parents like me. I had a couple of hours a day where she could watch Scooby Doo, she could concentrate for about an hour and a half on a film, that was how much time I had to work, and then a couple of hours after she was asleep. I started trying a few different things, and made some online courses, sold a few of them. But selling online courses in itself requires quite a lot of intense punchy Instagram selling, which wasn't really in my bag.

DANNY: You noted that it's more about marketing than the content of the courses. 

FLEUR: Some people can find a way that that works. It wasn't easy, but I made enough to keep the lights on kind of thing, and the content was good. I was getting great feedback for the courses. Then, I was thinking about The Wing, the women's member's club that I was part of. Because of some problems that were happening in America separate to the pandemic, some cultural problems with their working culture, the business over here was closed. 

I started thinking about that and about memberships. I've actually had a long history with members clubs. From an early age, I was quite curious about any place that said that I wasn't allowed in. There's a lot of stuff at the moment about the men’s Garrick club. There's a woman taking them to court saying that women should be allowed in it because all the men in there are making decisions that affect all of us, yet we’re being excluded. I've definitely been fascinated with the idea of being kept out and as soon as I was old enough to come to London, I sought out a lot of those kinds of places.  I'd heard about places like the Colony Rooms in Soho full of loads of crazy artists, The Groucho. In the early days of Shoreditch House, I used to work out of there. I've really enjoyed them over the years, I've loved the exclusivity. Then suddenly, exclusivity is something which is considered bad, and I kind of agree with that. 

I've been thinking about other people's memberships and how it applied to the work I did. On a random Saturday night, I thought, well, why not have some kind of a membership whereby I can work with people in a group, for a lower fee than my one-to- one. Let's be honest, all my one to one work has disappeared as well, because it's non essential for people. For a time, food businesses, which I coach, and food development was at a standstill, while everyone was concentrating on the everyday kind of offer. I asked a  question on Instagram, proposed a membership idea to my audience, and suggested co-creating a space together. It would have my online courses, which would be available to watch for free, there's about £1000 worth of online courses I've got on there now. It would involve a bit of Zoom teaching, there'd be a Slack channel. Basically, they could have me in their pocket and I'd answer any of their questions. I put a button up requiring them to commit for a three month term for £295 and I made just shy of £15k in 24 hours. 

DANNY: That's a lot of money. 

FLEUR: I've never earned that much in that amount of time.

DANNY: But then you had to actually follow up and do what he said you're gonna do. 

FLEUR: That was the funny thing because the money was in, and the euphoria of selling was just fantastic. I thought I'd struck gold, it was madness. But yes, it was a huge responsibility. To be honest, Danny, there's quite a few things that I did right in this situation, some of them accidentally and some just because I've been around the block, and I've been in the game a long time. One of them was that the offer I made them wasn't all slick and polished. I presented them something as a pilot, sort of in beta. It was unbranded, it didn't have a name. I said to them on day one, don't come in, look, and then after two months go on Twitter and say 'I joined Fleur Emrys membership, it was shit'. I'm responding. I'm listening, tell me what you want. My job is to make that happen, to work together and help you set and meet your goals. I'm about action. This is about action. There's no means, there's no unicorns, there's no mottos. It's about not solving problems, and helping businesses make money.

DANNY: The real use cases are where somebody logs on to this community platform with a question they want answered, and somebody else who's a member will pipe up and say, 'I can help answer that'. Or somebody you've paid as an expert could help? 

FLEUR: That's what's really interesting to me, because I also underestimated the opportunity, my own opportunity. I got 45 people signed up in the room, and I assumed that my energy expenditure would be quite high, because it would be the equivalent of me teaching 45 people. Actually, as it's quite expensive to join, the calibre of the people who are in the room and the fact that they've paid quite a bit of money to be there, meant that they really showed up. There's a lot of memberships where people come in, but they don't log on, but here everyone showed up. Everyone started sharing their experience and helping each other. I'm one voice in that, but there's people in the room who are more experienced in certain areas, so it's not like me being the guru. If anything, I'm the energy guru, because of my positivity, my optimism and my funny stories. I'm the buoyancy aid for all of these people, but a lot of the technical advice is cross-sharing, and I'm learning and I'm very happy to step out of the way and also be the recipient of that information. That's when I suddenly thought, that jewels moment, we're going to need a bigger boat. This is really scaling and it's really exciting.

DANNY: Courier readers who have followed you as a columnist for a few years now, would have known Fleur Emery as the food and drink entrepreneur. The Fleur Emery at the in-between phase where you did coaching and one-to-ones. This is a completely new business that you've just launched. Do you see this as the winning one? Or do you not even need a winning one, is it just something you might do for a few years?

FLEUR: Part of me thinks that the flow of this project, the ease with which it's come into being, that's the definition of a great opportunity, isn't it? It really plays to my strengths. I really enjoy it. I really enjoy showing up for these people, I communicate at the speed of light, I know loads of people that I can bring to it. It feels like not working. It feels like I can't believe I'm getting away with it. I feel like the luckiest person in the world. However, life is about timing. How would I have attempted to deliver a project like this fifteen/twenty years ago, when I had no experience, and no one would have signed up. So they're signing up to the fact that I've just got reams and reams and gallons of stories in the bag of what I did, what happened, this is what happened to me, I didn't do it, I'm going to bring this person in who did do it right. Those fifteen years when I was out in the industry, starting businesses, succeeding/failing, succeeding/failing, that feeds into this. It hasn't come out of nowhere, because at first I did feel like, oh man, what I've been doing all this time? What a donkey I was to be working so hard for no money, but all of that stuff is what I can bring to the situation. 

DANNY: That was Fleur Emery on her new project, Real Work. As promised earlier on, I've been thinking a lot about the eyewear space recently, probably because I'm on the hunt for some new frames. I was thinking of when Warby Parker launched, and how it changed the game, and what's been going on in the sector since then in terms of innovation. Mark de Lange is the founder and CEO of Ace & Tate, a Dutch eyewear brand with dozens of brick and mortar stores across Europe. I caught up with him a bit earlier, to find out what eyewear has been up to lately. 

You guys launched in 2013. I remember back in 2010ish when Warby Parker launched, eyewear was a hot industry to be in. The model was changing, the middlemen were being cut out, you could try on things at home. You guys launched with a similar model, minusing the middleman. Here we are, a  decade later, what are the big innovations in the eyewear industry? Is it the same direct to consumer trying on at-home style or are there other simmering trends happening in the background that most people aren't aware of?

MARK DE LANGE: Something that we've been working on behind the scenes for a long time is trying to minimise our footprint of the company, as every company is doing these days. It's something you don't see a lot in the eyewear industry, which has always surprised me.

DANNY: What do you mean when you say reduce your footprint?

MARK: It could be on the product side of things, looking into new materials, looking at new production methods. For us, we've also been looking at how to minimise our retail footprint. It’s one of the projects we've been spending a lot of time on during lockdown. We always had this idea that we should and would approach our stores differently. 

I've been working on a more responsible retail concept that is more modular, that's made for more standardised materials, that tries to limit working on the building as much as possible and really work with what you have. In general, one of the big innovations in the eyewear industry is customer focus. The experience of buying eyewear from where I'm sitting, still sucks the majority of the time. It's about as fun as going to the dentist. The thinking from the customer's perspective is something, which I believe is missing in our industry. Thinking from the customer's perspective is not saying you get three pairs for the price of one, but to make sure that their journey: presale during the sale, and after the sale is as frictionless and as fun as possible.

DANNY: That's interesting. So the big innovations are improving what's already there and making the experience a bit better. When you and a few of your competitors launched a decade ago that was a holy shit, sea of change moment in the eyewear industry. It went from Luxottica owning everything, and where you were being forced to buy £400 eyewear to sending options to customers' houses to try and send back. Do you see another big innovation like that heading our way? AR/VR, something like that, where you think it'll actually stick and change the game?

MARK: I would say that there are two things happening that are making it easier and easier to sell eyewear without the need for the customer to be at a physical location. One is the innovations or the progress in doing eye tests online, which is still very early days, but I believe that that will happen eventually. Big steps are being made and we're testing this as well. So yes, that will happen and that is very eyewear industry specific. 

The other element to this is with trying things on. Now with AR, you're able to make pretty specific measurements of someone's face. You can virtually scale a pair of glasses to a customer's face so they could very easily see how it actually looks in real life. That is obviously something that helps purchasing eyewear without needing to be in a store. But is that eyewear industry specific? Not really. Will it change our industry over time? Yes, definitely.

DANNY: What I always found funny is that all of these direct to consumer brands launched with the promise that they wouldn't have a physical retail presence. In the past five years, everybody from Away suitcases to you guys, to your competitors have progressively been opening up stores. Mattress companies now have stores, DTC furniture brands now have stores. How do you judge getting that mix right between online/offline? Is offline just a browsing vehicle for people to try something on and then they end up going back to their laptop and ordering it from there?

MARK: For us, DTC and retail have never been mutually exclusive. For me, it's always been that I, as a business, want to be in charge of the full experience that the customer has. That can be online, offline or a mix between the two. It's about cutting out that middleman, our stores are fully owned by us. We're still able to be DTC but with an offline footprint. Very early on, we realised that a pair of glasses is something where ideally, at some point in the customer journey, you will have a physical touch point. That is probably the eye test, but it could also be adjusting your eyewear. I don't really care to be honest where someone transacts, I just want our customer to have the best experience they can possibly have so they come back and tell their friends.

DANNY: Is there anything in your industry that's been completely screwed fundamentally by COVID? Supply chains, for instance. Do you get your acetate from some factory in Italy that's gone under or something like that?

MARK: This was one of the main concerns when we started to become real. I think that's been one of the main concerns keeping us up at night, but it hasn't been that bad to be honest. I would have expected way worse because everything has slowed down. We have had deliveries coming in late, that kind of stuff happening. I wouldn't say it has been catastrophic for us so far, knock on wood. 

DANNY: Finally today, the pandemic's been destructive to pretty much every industry, but as any listener to the show knows, it's also uncovered tons of opportunities. So what's going on in the music industry? How are musicians and music businesses adapting? Earlier today, I heard from a good friend of mine, Sam Valenti, who runs the independent record label Ghostly International. Sam founded the company way back in 1999, and it's still very much going strong. I wanted to hear what it's been like running Ghostly when music tours are cancelled and musician revenues are in the crossfire. Here's Sam.

SAM VALENTI: For everybody it hits in different ways. It's probably personality based to some degree beyond just facts and figures. It's about how you process bad information. I think I'm okay at dealing with a big scary monster in the closet and can switch my brain to fight mode to stop loss, or tourniquet fear. We jumped quickly into action, understanding that you can't really control the future. For music, like a lot of industries, music works on a year away/six months away/ nine months away basis. You're always planning the next thing it has to be with the lens of what are we gonna be doing in January? Can we tour then? The challenge, especially for artists right now, is how do you plan your life ? How do you promote your usual promotion cycle of a record, where you put it out, do a three month lead campaign into that with some singles and interviews and stuff and then tour it? Artists that we work with got their tours clipped in half while they were on the road, and then some who had records coming out who would have loved to tour were told that they weren't going to be able to do that, or at least for the foreseeable future. 

Instead of saying, okay, let's delay it to March of 2021, our advice to artists and managers was to keep the music coming out. Obviously it's their choice, we never demand a release date, but our thinking was rooted in the social good of music. It's good for fans to have things to look forward to and enjoy. Music is a pretty lightweight, relatively inexpensive thing compared to other homemade luxuries. Listening to a song on YouTube, buying a vinyl or an LP from Bandcamp is still a very affordable thing. So we were thinking about the fans but then also of course, the artists. Yes, there's writer's block and trying to tell artists to make music during quarantine, we encouraged it, but we didn't make it a thing because we wanted artists to express what they were feeling or weren’t feeling. As far as what was already in the pipeline, we wanted to get stuff out and not let it blow away to the winds, because we don't know what's going to happen. 

We've just tried to keep our promise to the artists and our promise to the fans of these artists, that they're able to work, earn money and do performances. That's our North Star. How to help artists make more money and make their fans happy.

DANNY: On this show we've talked to founders and small business owners about just how their industries will be impacted in the long term by COVID. We've oddly missed out on the on the music industry. As an outsider, I imagine the vast majority of the income for a musician comes from touring, right?

SAM: It depends on the artist. Some artists have more of a studio mindset, or they work on licencing, or composition for films or games. There's all sorts of artists that we work with, but some are the classic get in the car and drive. That's awesome, not just for financial gain, but also for the cultural relationship to their fans, and for fans appreciating or discovering them. It's a huge loss. As much as I love live streaming, the fun of being able to pop into a show without leaving the couch, a lot of the intimacy is lost. I don't think you can ever really replicate that financially or otherwise. We try to matchmake too, getting artists to talk to other artists. Everybody's home, no one has the excuse of being on the road touring, so we were able to get artists co-writing virtually, sharing songs or re-mixing.

DANNY: I saw you posted on the Ghostly Instagram about Ghostly 'Knowledge Share', is that what you're talking about? 

That's one aspect of it. Ghostly 'Knowledge Share' was an IRL activity that we just took online. We were trying to think about what our cultural value is because we're not a huge company that can underwrite performances all the time or events. Our biggest cultural value as a company, we think, is that we work with really motivated, intelligent artists, and a lot of them want to share their knowledge and they want to share their experience and give previous younger versions of themselves a leg up. We were doing that. We've done four of them in New York, LA, Detroit, Ann Arbor. We realised it could work as a live stream, so we've done two so far. One is coming up and the response has been great. It's been one of the most socially enjoyable things that we've been involved in, certainly that I've been personally involved with, since this year unfolded.  

DANNY: When you're looking at the music industry through the lens of COVID, how are musicians and businesses adapting? If you look at the restaurant industry, for instance, and we've talked to a lot of chefs and restaurant owners,  they're providing meals at-home, recipe kits, or they've turned themselves into a temporary grocery store for the last half year. Are musicians making any similar pivots that might actually last a long time, and might even be a net positive ten years from now?

SAM: It's a great question. I think the intimacy and personality that has come through from certain artists, and people becoming more comfortable with using video conferencing, some artists have enjoyed it. I don't think you're ever going to be able to replicate live, but the exposition of process, artists making music on Twitch and inviting their audience to come and watch, or playing  video games where fans can hang out is new or more common. Those types of virtual hang through sites like Turntable FM, which really get it right in the sense of music being this communal thing. For both fans and artists, the need for virtual hangs has been shown, whether it's educational or just watching a DJ play songs, or in the case of Ghostly 'Knowledge Share,' to have our professionals share their work with up and coming artists. The desire to connect alone or together is not going anywhere. 

Art tends to evolve faster under constraints, be they financial or otherwise. We've watched a lot of artists we work with make leaps. Maybe they would have never done a live stream before but their version of it is to set up a camera in their backyard and  play tracks and just let people comment and hang out. That's something that without this constraint, would likely never have come up. It's not going to look like a seismic leap, but it's going to be a lot of small things that add up. The comfort for a lot of artists with the technology and not looking at it as a form of self promotion or of being shameless, but using it as a tool to connect is a positive. There's less of a fear around going live, but ultimately artists want to portray themselves or connect in a way that's meaningful. There's going to be some really cool stories that come out of this era.

DANNY:  You're in New York. You're still downtown, right?

SAM: I currently live in Uptown. The office, which I go to a few times a week, is still Downtown.

DANNY: There are so many think pieces out there on the death of New York. Everybody's fleeing for the Catskills, going to the Hamptons or going back home to their parents house in Wisconsin. There's so many eulogies of New York City right now. What's your take on all of that? A lot of people say it's complete nonsense, that New York is as it always is.

SAM: I'm not a big fortune teller. I don't know what's going to happen. I think it's a personal thing, right? If you have a family, and you were planning to move, and this was the kick in the butt that did it, good for you. More importantly to me, the barrier to entry to New York has gotten higher and higher to live here. 

I was talking to a friend about the idea of who's coming next to the city. According to his research, he says that rents have fallen, especially in Manhattan where it's been prohibitive for a long time. New York thrives on youth, it thrives on their hunger and passion. Whether or not the fifty- something VC or professional is leaving is not really what New York is about. Rather, who's the teen or twenty-something person coming with stars in their eyes and big hopes. That's going to drive it. If you're thinking with that hat on, New York will at some point have another creative surge. I don't know what that means for all the empty high rises, but if you judge New York in cultural capital, which I tend to, you'll see another spike in due time.

DANNY: Do you think it still deserves its place on the pedestal? As a 21 year old graduating University in Minnesota, they go to New York and the cliches are: concrete jungle, big dreams. Is that New York now? Or is it LA? Detroit? Or is it, Berlin?

SAM: What's cool is that I think the answer is all of the above. I like the fact that video conferencing has made the cities less crucial to building a network or to be able to work. That's a good thing. Anytime you can eliminate barriers to entry, it's positive. For raw magnetism, all the cities that you mentioned, New York, Detroit, LA, London, where have you, have an energy that is hard to define. The people who go there pick up on that. What type of lifestyle you want, what kind of level of affordability you need, it's  cool that more cities have that and it's not so coastal anymore. 

New York will always have its charm, but it may be plus or minus that 10% or 20% to certain individuals, and that's okay, too. It's supposed to be an evolving city, all of the city should be evolving. If it's not, I don't think we'd be happy. I don't think anybody who lived in New York twelve months ago would say that the city is perfect, or would want to freeze it in time. Between political changes and bike lanes, affordability and whatnot, there's a lot of issues that New York had to come to grips with, as well as in LA and other big cities. I'm not a civic planner type person, but if you think about it culturally, you're going to find another wave of talent that emerges from all of these places.

DANNY: Everybody always thinks that the previous generation had it best and those were the golden years. But if you ask the people at the time, they would say it was the thirty years before them, right?

SAM: New York is a victim of its own nostalgia. It's wrapped up in all sorts of eras and styles, so it would be cool to welcome in a new one for people to go, 'wow, remember the crazy 20s when things got really interesting'. As much as I fetishize the 80s and 90s and all the good stuff that came with it, if we don't have some new stories, then it's not going to be terribly interesting.

DANNY: And that's it this week. As always, if you've got any questions or comments, you can reach me at daniel@couriermedia.co. The Courier Weekly is back again next Friday. Thanks for tuning in.