Hitting The Mark
Conversations with founders and investors about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success
with your host, brand strategist and author Fabian Geyrhalter
Ep001 – Raaja Nemani, Co-Founder, Rogue Brands
Fabian Geyrhalter talks to Raaja Nemani on this inaugural episode of Hitting The Mark.
Raaja is the Co-Founder of Rogue Trading Company (the parent company to Rogue Advising, MarketerHire, and Rogue Brands).
Previously, he was the Co-Founder and CEO of Bucketfeet (a D2C, artist-designed footwear brand). Bucketfeet was acquired in 2017 by Threadless.
We dive into his factory-direct platform and how brand strategy has affected his recent company launches as well as his time launching and scaling the successful footwear marketplace Bucketfeet.
Branding went far beyond the image and was tremendously important to Bucketfeets’ positioning, sales as well as company culture.
Select companies Raaja co-founded that are being discussed in this episode:
You can connect with Raaja via LinkedIn.
F Geyrhalter: Welcome to the inaugural episode of the inaugural season of Hitting the Mark. Thank you so much for following me and being intrigued enough to listen in. How did we get here as a brand strategists, working on brand launches, the types of investors and founders who realized the value of gaining brand clarity, focus, and subsequently winning the hearts of the audience is my sweet spot and I’m glad to have a new outlet to talk with these types of big thinkers and doers. I will not have them tell us their life stories as exciting as they usually are, but instead I will have each guest focus on only one brand that they either invested in or founded. I believe in a hope that a lot of listeners and may it be entrepreneurs, investors, creatives, and academics can gain valuable insights from these quick conversations. When I say quick, I want them to be commuter friendly episodes of around 20 to 25 minutes each. Okay, so let’s dive right in. My first victim or guest is Raaja Nemani. Raaja is the co founder of Rogue Trading Company, the parent company to Rogue Advising, MarketerHire, and Rogue Brands. Previously, he was the co founder and CEO of Bucketfeet, a D2C artist designed footwear brand. Bucketfeet was acquired in 2017 by Threadless, which I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with. Without further ado, welcome Raaja.
Raaja Nemani: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be a part of this.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. Thanks for being here. We talked about this briefly, but I so badly wanted us to chat about Bucketfeet as I wrote about the brand in my latest book. I know just a little bit of content about Bucketfeet as it related to the brand trade of individuality. But I see that you’re moving at lightning speed and I founded multiple brands in the meantime, so giving myself and flick the time limit for this podcast. I think we’ll mainly focus on one of your new adventures. Today, I think it’s Rogue Brands that you want to dive in a little bit, correct?
Raaja Nemani: Yeah, sure. I think I’ll have some stories to share some advice from both. Bucketfeet was a D2C brand, which I’m sure is very interesting to the listeners, but I’ll pepper in a little bit about Rogue Brands as well.
F Geyrhalter: That’s fantastic. Let’s start with Rogue Brands. What have you been up to? What is the brand about? What do you do?
Raaja Nemani: Yeah, Rogue Brand is something I’m really excited about. More than anything, it’s a platform. If eCommerce was about cutting out the middleman and going direct to consumer, we think the natural next evolution of that is what we call factory direct commerce. Factories selling their own products, building their own brands and going direct to consumer. No longer relying necessarily on “brands” as a sort of another middleman in the journey, but it also worked the other way. So Harry’s is a great example. Harry’s was a brand that is now completely vertically integrated, buying their razor factory to be able to react faster to consumer preferences, to meet consumer demand. I think it’s a really, really exciting time for consumers and for brands and sort of the intersection of the two.
F Geyrhalter: Well, it’s fascinating because so much is going to change so quickly and it seems like with Rogue Brands you are going to be on the very top of that. I think it’s kind of hilarious that my first guest on a brand podcast is the one that is aiming to cut out brands in the future. That is really what you’re doing.
Raaja Nemani: Not cutting them out per se. I think they’ll be built differently. I think given what’s happening in technology and with consumer preferences, but you can also look at it that way.
F Geyrhalter: You re imagined it. Absolutely. Tell us a little bit about one of those client journeys. How does it really work? Do you actually go visit the factories and do you figure out their entire experience journey of how it goes right now and how it can actually build a brand around it? How does it work? Don’t give away everything but as much as you can.
Raaja Nemani: Sure, sure, yeah, it happens in a couple of different ways. A company that a lot of people may have heard of a based here in LA is a company called Wish. It’s an APP that has grown to a huge valuation in a very short amount of time because their address for market is really in the trillions of dollars. They’re enabling any factory to sell anything direct to consumer. We’re going about it in a very different way and what we believe is a more capital efficient way. They had to raise a ton of money to be able to do this, drive a ton of traffic to their new platform that hopefully people would see this and buy it. We’re going straight to the factory. We’re saying, “Hey, factories, you already make stuff for the best brands in the world, right?” All the D2C brands we know and love in this country, they’re sourcing from a factory, whether that’s factory is in China or Southeast Asia or Europe or in the US. We’re going directly to these great factories and saying, “Look, with technology, Shopify is out there, with digital marketing, using Facebook or Instagram, etc.” What it takes to actually build that brand and get to your consumer is very different today than it was 20 years ago. Quite frankly, it’s easier. Many of those things that used to be the hard differentiating part of building a brand have almost become the commodity and we really believe a lot of the power rests in the hands of manufacturers because as consumer preferences change so rapidly due to things like social media, manufacturers are in the best position to react. I would say the biggest hurdle is that this is new, it’s scary. Just like for wholesalers it was scary what was happening with online and do we go this direction, do we not? It’s scary for factory owners to say that we need to evolve our business, but whether it’s with tariffs that are happening or different big retail customers of theirs going out of business. This is really the way for manufacturers to take control of their own destiny. Both the combination of opportunistic relationships we already have as well as strategic where we think it’s a great category, there’s a great opportunity for disruption and we’ll grow straight to the source and help them build again their own branded products to sell the consumer. It’s just that the brand and the manufacturer I think are going to sort of merge into one.
F Geyrhalter: Talking about that brand and direction. So, so far those factories that you work with or we’ll work with in the future. Do you have relationships with brands? I’m pretty sure. That’s most probably the toughest part of how do they tell that story to the current clients.
Raaja Nemani: Absolutely. It’s hard and it’s something that I learned that the hard way with the Bucketfeet, what it meant to me and how to do that. But that’s new to them, and that is absolutely a skill set. It is arguably the most critical thing you can do because it defines everything else and so that is a hurdle of course.
F Geyrhalter: But besides that, it’s a pretty low barrier of entry. I mean, for them, like you said, it’s so easy to build a brand these days as far as getting the word out and actually, crafting the entire story around it that if someone like you comes in and helps do that specifically for those type of companies, it’s pretty low risk for them.
Raaja Nemani: Yeah. You don’t need big stores anymore. You don’t need 30 years of relationships in the industry, you don’t need a ton of capital even, you need an idea, you need a product, you need a Shopify page and you need some Facebook ads and you’re off to the races and its brand which is a very big part of product market fit. You’d be amazed at how far true product market fit can take you from a scaling perspective. We work with lots of companies, lots of brands with our other companies and it’s really exciting to see when somebody gets that right. What’s possible.
F Geyrhalter: Talking about that, I mean, you’re such an interesting intersection of brand thinking and brand strategy and brand disruption in a way. What does branding mean to you? I mean, with your background, doing D2C and now doing factory direct, what does it mean? The word, it’s such a weird word, right? Then it’s been butchered so often. I just love to hear it from different people.
Raaja Nemani: People get it wrong all the time and I think people use things like marketing or branding as the same thing. So yeah, it sort of … I think it’s so hard because it’s this hard to sometimes quantify thing. It’s not something you can really hold onto very easily. It means different things to different people I think. To me, I think more technically branding is sort of your differentiator and value prop but really more than that, I think it’s your why, it’s your reason for being. Great branding I think is sort of about building a consistent and I think that word is important emotional connection to anyone that might interact with your company or yourself because you can have a personal brand as well. One thIng that sort of helps me think about it is I think of actually branding and culture as a sort of … they’re sort of mirror images of one another or two sides of the same coin. People talk about living the culture and how you create a great culture and having the team embody these things. I think branding is the exact same thing. It’s just external. It’s outward to your customer.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. You said it so well, and it’s … the idea of culture is so important. Then I think that a lot of people used to think that branding is more about the how, and the what than the why, and I mean it really is solely about the why and talking about this, I am so intrigued with your … particularly with Rogue Brands because it is such a different type of brand and interactions that you have with your clients. If you would describe Rogue Brands in one word, like an emotion. Because you still, even though you work very much B2B if you still have to kind of evoke some sort of emotional may it be trust, may it be, whatever it is. I always love to define a brand, I know I put you on the spot here, but I would love to define a brand in one word. I know that Coca Cola is happiness and Everlane is transparency and Zappos is customer service and every brand kind of has this word. Some of them actually spell it out and some of them don’t even realize that that’s what it is, but it’s like that underlying why. With Rogue Brands do you have? Can you think about one word that describes your brand?
Raaja Nemani: Yeah. It’s so new. So it is something that we think about a lot. I think if I was to … if I’m put on the spot and if I have one word because it’s a platform that’s really enabling these others. I think it’s efficiency. For me, if what we’re doing is really about cutting out all inefficiency in the process of people make stuff and eventually people buy that stuff and there’s all these things that happen in between and there was a reason for that 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, etc. But there’s becoming less and less of a reason for that today. It’s just because it has been that way. If anything, I think efficiency is big. If there was a secondary one, you actually made me think of something. I think it would be something like, trust, because really that is what is allowing us to build this business so quickly is having these big, big companies that have done things for so long in such a different way, trust to try something new which can be scary for a lot of people.
F Geyrhalter: Oh, for sure. No, those are great, those are great. Very honorable words in your sector as well. Now, how does Rogue Brands, and I’m talking about literally the name Rogue Brands, so how does that name go together with trust and I know there’s a pun in it but rogue can have a very negative meaning as well. Tell us a little bit about that…
Raaja Nemani: The holding company. So Chris and I have created a unique model where we’ve created this holding company. I don’t think venture studio really does it justice because those are run a little differently. We’re launching these different businesses where we really have advantages in some way, whether it’s through experience, through relationships or otherwise. Rogue as a parent company name was really inspired by the East India trading company. If you think about that, that became one of the largest businesses ever, and it was really about finding people or things or stuff and some part of the world and taking it somewhere else and connecting the dots. If you look at all of our new businesses, it’s really connecting A to B. They’re really all platforms, sort of marketplace businesses or agency etc. Rogue as the parent company was really just … it was sort of a word that came mind when we thought about the East India trading company more than anything else. We typically for our very white glove companies, we like to keep that Rogue Brand, whatever it is for something called factory direct, the reason we called Rogue Brands is because there’s a negative connotation that comes with, “Oh, factories are just going to sell these crappy products to people.” That’s not really the case. They’re making the best products and the best product for the best brands that you already know. We really wanted to give off the connotation that it’s still a brand that you’re getting. It just so happens we’re truly cutting out more of the fat in the middle where you’re now going to get an even better price as the end consumer.
F Geyrhalter: It’s a good story. It’s not about brands going rogue after all. That’s good. Even though it’s kind of is in a way because you’re sagging when everyone’s sags. With this particular factory direct platform, you really don’t invest too much time in branding. Because you don’t really need to. I mean, it’s more important how you bring … the voice is most probably more important than your script than how you actually talk about the value prop than it was with Bucketfeet I’m sure.
Raaja Nemani: Yeah, sure. I think you bring up a really good point, brand becomes this scary thing and it’s a very hard thing and it’s one thing to sort of determine your why and what you stand for. It’s a much different thing in a much longer process as I’m sure you know through a lot of your work to then make that come to life. It’s a never ending thing. For us it’s just really about, I think that the simplest advice I can sort of give to people and not to sort of use that word again, is this idea of simplifying. People, over complicate what it is they do, what they stand for. They try to be too many things to too many people, and it gets really confusing. We made those mistakes all the time at Bucketfeet where we’re trying to avoid that today where say what you mean and mean what you say and really try to boil down your value prop to the simplest version of it because people are going to have a second if that to first interact with you. And that first impression means everything as you know, every opportunity. So while yes, it’s different for sure. It’s a different sort of … it sort of personifies itself in different ways through business but it really still comes back to, for me, what is it we do say that clearly, why are we doing it and everything else that you do as a company should follow that.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. No, that’s a wise thing to say and that that works for any company, B2B, D2C, like any venture at all. And I mean, going back to-
Raaja Nemani: It’s hard to edit yourself, I’m sure you know, like people think it’s harder to be super verbose about these things, but it’s actually hard to edit. It’s hard to edit yourself and really boil things down to the simplest. I know some of the work you do and I think that’s why it’s so helpful because really, really smart people have. It’s hard to do that work to edit yourself and that’s a big part of it. I think.
F Geyrhalter: I appreciate it. I mean that’s why we just recently edited our own reason for being in our own value prop to basically be about brand clarity. Like that idea that it’s all about a very clear positioning, a very clear definition of this is what our culture should be. And so often, again, like branding effects company culture, and I’m sure I’m back into in the Bucketfeet days when you guys were changing your brand thinking and when you looked at customer behaviors and when you kind of redefined the why over time and as you went through branding exercises, which I’m sure you did at the time. I’m sure that all of that kind of like changes the way that people interact with each other even internally.
Raaja Nemani: I literally could not agree more. Everything improved from culture to excitement about coming into work to sales growth, to profitability. Literally everything improved when we got clarity. I think that’s a really great pivot or shift or evolution for you however you’re thinking about that because it determines everything. Everything is always much more clear in our own heads than others. Like what you’re dealing with? A spouse or a friend or a family member, a company or a coworker, it’s always clear to yourself. The ability to get more clarity and everything you’re doing. Why are we doing this? What are we doing next? What are our priorities, etc. Makes everything so much easier and yeah, absolutely. I think I learned that the hard way
F Geyrhalter: With branding, it’s really is like that. You always have to look for an outsider to look inwards. Even with my statement of brand clarity, I actually interviewed a lot of different clients of mine from like 10 years ago to like a year ago, large companies, small companies, and I ask them how would they describe us, so it’s really ridiculous because I’m the one describing them and creating their why. And I reached out. Someone said it’s like putting glasses on for the first time and you see everything much, much more clear. And I’m like, “Wow! That is really poetic and it’s really great. Let me adopt that.” I’d like to take credit, but that’s how it usually goes with branding, you need to-
Raaja Nemani: Absolutely. It’s an evolution. It doesn’t stop. It’s not a, “Oh, we’re done now.” Your North Star hopefully is consistent. That why. But everything else is going to change as the world changes.
F Geyrhalter: As we get more philosophical and as this also slowly comes towards an end. What’s a piece of brand advice for founders specifically that you think would be a good takeaway from your history of working with all of … with founding all of these different brands. Is there one piece of advice that you can just spit out at us that sticks.
Raaja Nemani: Yeah, and I’ll try to be concise taking my own advice here. I think it’s simplified. Spend a lot of time and think very hard about your company’s reason for being and then be absolutely maniacal about bringing that to life and that’s it, and that will take you very, very far away.
F Geyrhalter: Beautiful. Beautiful. Listeners who fell in love with your multiple brands, especially Rogue, what would you like for them to be doing right this minute to support, to benefit from it? Or just to learn more about you and your ventures.
Raaja Nemani: Yeah, no, I really appreciate that. We still make great shoes at Bucketfeet, so check that out if you’re in the market for new shoes, I’m no longer very involved there, but I’m a very big fan still. Then my three new companies, Rogue Advising, MarketerHire and Rogue Brands were sort of helping build and enable the brands of the future. We work with really small startups, early stage all the way up to billion dollar companies. If you think we can help please reach out. I’m on Linkedin, please message me. This is stuff I love to do and I love to think about and I love to talk about.
F Geyrhalter: That’s fantastic. Well thank you so much. We were really fortunate to have you, especially as my first guest here today.
Raaja Nemani: Thank you. Thank you.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. I want to also offer a big thank you to Melinda Livsey and Macy Seraphi who gave me the idea of having a podcast over an informal coffee chat a few weeks back and here we are. Episode one is a wrap. Thank you also to Freedom Scott for technical assistance getting us here today and last but not least, thank you everyone for listening, and if you do like what you have heard, there is much more to come, so please hit that subscribe button and give the show a quick rating where ever you listen to podcasts. It sure is much appreciated. If you want to turn your venture into an admired brand, keep listening to this podcast definitely, but I also created a special podcast offer where you can get my new book and exactly that subject for six bucks @tinyurl.com/fabiansbook. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and performed by Happiness One, and I will see you next time when we, once again, we’ll be Hitting the Mark.