Branded Traveling at the speed of life A life and a book by David Hale Sylvester firstname.lastname@example.org
“Stop right there.” My friend Tom stopped me in the middle of a story. I shut my mouth, letting the weight of his interruption slow my trajectory, and realized that this was one of those dramatic pauses that signaled the beginning of something big. Dramatic pauses are great in real life because they are usually timely and portentous. Tom’s interruption was both, because it came at a time when I was beginning to realize the true depth and power of something that I had successfully ignored: Marketing and branding. Let there be no doubt that while what I am doing is altruistic and lifeaffirming, it is also a business; it is my life business. More than another essay in this book, this chapter may be of interest for anyone who desires to make a living by following their passion. This section is important because wisdom is learning from other’s mistakes, and I know that if you are reading this book, you have to be wise. ;) Much of the events that have occurred in this chapter have been expanded upon in other essays, but this is just on marketing. Nine months before being told to ‘stop right there’ by Tom, he and his wife, Michelle, had invited me to become their personal training coach. Tom and Michele owned Price Communications, a brand development firm in Philadelphia., Because we had only recently met, they were unaware of my travels. One pre-dawn morning, in their apartment, between a set of pushups, I casually mentioned them that I was going cycling in Africa for a few months. I explained that I was riding to respond to a personal call-to-action after the death of my friend, Kevin, and the tragedy of 9/11. My initial response was to ride across the U.S., raising money for a scholarship fund for Philadelphia’s underprivileged students. My plan was to do the ride and then return to Philadelphia and to life as usual. I went on to tell Tom and Michele that I didn’t account for how the creative legwork would stimulate a desire to do more. Both of them listened attentively, smiling and affirming that they got it. When finished with my story they asked, “What do you plan on doing marketing-wise for this next trip?” I actually didn’t have an answer but tried to BS my way through by saying that the urge to do the trip to Africa sort of snuck up on me and that the preparation left me with little time to prepare a marketing strategy other than sending out a press release. “..And…?” they asked.
I had done nothing else, so I smiled at them and said, “Life provides.” Let This Be a Lesson: Hope is Not a Strategy. They both gave me a ‘poor foolish David’ side-ways glance, and effectively ended the exercise session when they began vigorously dismantling my ‘life will provide’ marketing plan. I’m not sure if it was pity or sufferance that drove them, but they gave me three things: 1. A text book on strategic marketing. 2. Four days to read it. 3. An invitation to discuss the book over dinner that weekend. The text book was very helpful in laying out how a marketing strategy and branding were so much more nuanced than a tag line or a ten second jingle. The book explained that, no matter how subtle or overt, there is a bit of branding in everything from jeans to Jesus, from candy to candidates. A company's brand is a compass needle pointing north; once a company locates north it would find it hard to get lost and could negotiate anywhere it wanted to go. In addition, the book explained that a company’s brand is their promise, not only to their clients, but to themselves, to do their utmost to succeed—to live up to the promise of their brand. The book’s basic concept of branding was fairly easy for me to understand, but when I tried to apply those same concepts to myself, as an individual following a passion, I had difficulties. Promises are held in high regard by most people. People will forgive you if you fall short on your intentions but will not quickly forget and may actually never trust you again if you flat out break a promise. I know that before we promise anything that we better be very clear on what others are expecting us to deliver. At that time I was confused about what I wanted, and didn’t have a vision of where I could go. All I knew was that my mission to ride a bike across North America to honor a friend made me feel more alive than ever. I knew that I was interested in spreading that feeling around. And I knew that the only thing that I could clearly promise was that I had more in me and that I was prepared to continue on. I arrived for dinner at Tom and Michelle's on Sunday evening, and before my last morsel was chewed, Tom started asking me a lot questions. One
question that he kept asking over and over again was, “What do you want people to do after they hear about you? “ “Something” I said. “You don't care, right? You are a competitive guy and you want to challenge, people right?” He said. “Yeah” “To do what??” “Anything” “Are you sure? You don’t care? You are saying that, now, all of this is more than a simple scholarship. You don’t care if people are trying to make the world better for cancer, or kids, or kids with cancer, or 9/11, or the environment, or whatever—just do something, right?’ It really felt like an interrogation. I sat still at the dining room table as Tom played ‘bad cop’, walking around me, drilling me with question after question. Just as my eyes would focus on his movements, “good cop” Michele, who was staring at me from across the table, would say something about a company having to define itself in order to not disappoint its support base. This ambush was difficult, but they emphasized that I had to have a clear vision so that a brand, a promise, could be developed, delivered, and upheld. I blurted out that I didn’t care to tell people exactly what to do because, at the end of the day, all I really am is just a dude on a bike. “So, you only want to say that ‘I am not sitting around,’ and that ‘this is what I am doing from the seat of a bike: giving hugs, making people smile, and being Big Dave?’ You want to engage people just enough to challenge them, and then ask ‘what are you doing to contribute?’ You want to create an atmosphere where people can read about what you’re doing to contribute to the world, and then talk about what they are doing to contribute, right? Whatever you do, just contribute to something?” He said the word “contribute” a few more times and that was it. It hit me. ”Contribute” was all of what I wanted to say but had not been able to express. “Contribute” was the defining action of what I was doing and
wanted to do. “Contribute” was what I wanted people to feel that they could do after hearing about my experiences. “Contribute to society” was the promise that I knew I would always deliver upon, and the promise that I would never break. ”Contribute” was my brand. I started a website, Contribute2.org, soon after that meeting. I wasn’t yet an official organization. I hadn’t collected any money and no one had offered me any. The site was a place where I could tell my stories and post pictures from my travels on the seat of a bike. If your particular brand is a one word promise, then your mission statement is one sentence stating how you plan to go about keeping that promise. Contribute2’s original mission statement was purposely broad because my mind was preoccupied with preparing for the trip to Africa, but it was good enough to get my business compass heading north. I was soon flying to Cairo, and bicycling through ten African nations, chronicling on the Contribute2 website, all the way to Cape Town. The African experience was magnificent and left me beautifully on edge. I was dead-tired on the flight home from South Africa, but I couldn't even nap. I just sat in my seat with the in-flight magazine in my lap, opened to a map of the world. I was thinking of the possibilities that the world was now offering. By the time I de-planed in Philadelphia, all I wanted to do was bike the rest of the world, hug as many people as I encountered, and share as many smiles as I humanly could. Africa made me physically ready, and inspired me so much that I knew I was ready to go to the next level. Within a month of landing, I gathered a group of friends together to discuss how to conquer the world with my “contribute2” vision. At the meeting, it was clear that my friends were excited about my vision, but they collectively had a vision of their own and their vision made mine look like a bicycle trip around the park. My friends began talking about the magazine articles and books that I could write. They proposed that I run my own globe-trotting cycling treks, and that I become a one-man enterprise who would become irresistible, even to Oprah—and that was just for starters. They were proposing a complicated and difficult path that I couldn’t begin embarking upon; one that would require me to devote too much time to the business side of Contribute2. At best, I saw their vision as encroaching on my creative freedom; at worst, I saw it killing my original vision. What they thought that David Sylvester, the man, andContribue2 , the brand, could accomplish flattered, confused, and intimidated me. While I was just thinking of riding my bike around the world
they were laying out an intimidating proposition that was ultimately asking me to part with my freedom. I sat in the meeting listening and not saying much of anything. I knew I was passionate, and that my brand had given me direction and was a promise that I could keep, but I operated in a one-man gang, comfort zone and could only attack things in the order that I could comfortably handle them. Let That Be A Lesson: Sometimes the most awesome thing that a person can envision is the potential of the being that lives inside their own skin. Don’t be afraid.
One reason that I wasn’t ready to take the necessary steps to be an enterprise was because I naively fell into a trap listening to the wrong voices. People from around the world followed my journey through Africa on Contribute2.com. They loved my underdeveloped brand because they thought that my story was great. Many of them assured me that all I had to do was ‘just wait,’ because Oprah was going to call me. Their messages were kind and good-intentioned and fed my ego. Their enthusiasm was easy to listen to, and the more I fell under the sway of their assurances, the more intent I became on getting in contact with Oprah. I became lazy and stopped developing my own brand and brand strategy. Instead of examining what Oprah did to become successful, I concentrated more on having her make me successful; I focused on the trappings of her success. What was I thinking? What did I think was going to happen? Even though it would have been a great personal achievement if I did get on Oprah’s stage, without a clear understanding of my brand or a business strategy, I would have been ill prepared to acquire any knowledge or to leverage and profit from it professionally. I would simply have been a big guy up on Oprah’s stage telling stories, waiting for someone else to do what I should have done to take me to the next level. Fortunately, Oprah never did respond to my calls and I soon got busy finding creative ways to tell my story. Let That Be a Lesson: Oprah Winfrey is not superwoman, or even superman. She is very successful because she put in the work. She can’t do your work for you.
After realizing that I had to make fame and fortune by climbing up on my own shoulders instead of Oprah’s, I wrote an article about a store called ”Niggers”. I found the store in Malawi, during my trip there. The article was published in Essence magazine- April ‘06 The story garnered a lot of attention, but because I had been soaking up the honor of becoming published for the first time, I ignored the inherent possibilities. I was a lazy businessman, and had no idea of how to capitalize on the interest that I was capturing. After the story had been out for a few months, a former college classmate and successful businessman, Rod, called me to see how I was doing. His mind was always on business and mining for business potential. He asked me about my strategy and future plans. He knew me well and immediately picked up that I had become caught up in the honor and that I was kicking myself for letting my laziness and shortsightedness foil any momentum my two seconds of fame might have earned. Rod told me not to be so hard on myself because he had a similar experience; people said the same thing to him when he made the cover of the Wall Street Journal. Then he said something very important— that he got infinitely more from life hustling than he ever did from the limelight. “But,” he said “you are going to have to hustle even harder than the rest of us to go beyond where you are because you don’t have a tangible product line.” He explained that the story of my own hustle for my own dream was my product, and that I had to figure out how to turn this into a business, not just a good story. “Otherwise,” he said, “you ain’t got nothing.” Let This Be a Lesson: Abraham Lincoln once said that “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” . I don’t think I can improve upon Abraham Lincoln. Just as I started to focus on the business side of Contribute2, a documentary that I made started gaining popularity on the film festival circuit. Contribute2: The Experience was a film about my North American and African bicycling experiences. A woman in charge of a Los Angeles film festival called to tell me that I needed to come the west coast a week or two prior to the screening to promote my film. Film festivals, film making, and film promotion were all very new to me, and her excitement, exuberance, and thick British accent were overwhelming, especially at six o’clock in the morning. When she detected a less than urgent attitude on my part, she asked, “What do you want to do?”
I didn’t really know what she was asking or how to answer her, so I blurted out, “I just want to ride my bike.” “What??” “I just want to ride my bike and make the world a better place.” “He just wants to ride his bike. He just wants to ride his bike. He just wants to ride his bike!” She was incredulous, and by the rising pitch in her voice I could tell she was also exasperated. When I didn’t respond, she lowered her voice and quietly said, “Love, if that is all that you wanted to do, then why the hell did you make the film?” This was a damn good question and she wasn't the first person to ask me. I fell into my old operational mode, and didn’t listen to the British woman. I didn’t go California to learn how to promote my film. Instead, I arrived to the festival the day of the screening and learned first-hand everything that she and others had been telling me. Their advice started to seep into my thick head almost immediately. Contribute2 the Experience was my first film. I was humbled by the thought that people would want to see the story of how I was honoring Kevin’s life and our friendship. And I was excited by the thought of seeing my film on a big screen. When I arrived at the venue, I could see that the film festival lobby was abuzz with filmmakers and theater goers. Before going to the filmmaker registration area, I grabbed a film festival program to look for my name and the name of my film. As soon as I found them, I bounded up the steps to registration with a big smile on my face. The people at registration assigned me a filmmaker badge, a table and two chairs. I asked, “What are the table and chairs for?” They explained that they were for my promotions, to which I responded, “I don’t have any.” Just like Tom and Michele several years earlier, the people at the registration gave me the “poor dumb David” look. Realizing that I had once again not listened to the experts and let my laziness get in the way, I walked back down the steps and through the lobby. I was deflated and embarrassed. My promotion space was next to a filmmaker who had a table filled with posters, DVD trailers, a scrap book, his resume, and even a few copies of his script. There was so much stuff on his table that it attracted a lot of movie-goers. There were so many
people milling about that he barely had time to speak when I introduced myself as a fellow filmmaker. The guy didn't have time to speak to me but flashed me a look of disdain when I sat at my bare table with just a backpack. The only good thing about the bare table was that it provided me with a perfect perch from which to observe everyone else. Since no one was coming up to talk to me or rummage my empty table, I had lots of time to comprehend just what it was that everyone had been trying to tell me about planning, preparing, and promoting my business. I was actually content to take this life lesson sitting down until the filmmaker next to me took one of my chairs. Then something really big clicked on inside. He took the chair without asking me or even acknowledging me; he took my chair as if I didn’t exist. He took my chair as his own table was surrounded by people whose interest he had attracted. In doing this, he drove home the point that every person who walked by me to get to his table could have been a potential sponsor for my next ride, or a potential rider, or a potential contact, film promoter, mentor or friend. I was invisible because I had made myself invisible by doing nothing. Even worse, I wasn’t even worth looking at and I, being naturally competitive, couldn’t have that. I am a person who learns the most from doing something, and who often learns best by getting his ass kicked. The act of taking my chair was the ass kicking that I needed. I thought of everything that people had told me: that I had to find a way to make my intangible passion tangible, and that if I didn’t, as Rod said “you aint got nothing.” I quickly assessed what I had, which wasn't much, but more than enough to prove that I had something. I had a table, a backpack with my laptop, a good story, an audience of potentials, and one chair. I pulled out my laptop and quickly made a file of my most compelling photographs. I set them up so that they randomly displayed across the computer screen. Then I stood on my one chair and loudly asked, “Who wants to know what it’s like to bike North America and Africa?” A few people turned my way and crossed the room to my table. I told them my entire story in short bursts so that even if someone was passing by they would get the gist.. Soon there were people milling around my bare table listening to my intangible story, exchanging business cards with me and walking away with tangible smiles. I finished that film festival
experience feeling strong. I even got a chance to even the score with the dismissive filmmaker: when I had sorted through all of the potential contacts and felt I had sufficiently promoted the film, I offered the remaining chair to him, making sure to point out that, unlike him, I wouldn’t be needing it. I flew home from the film festival thinking of the possibilities, just like I did when returning from Africa, but this time was different. This time I was also thinking of lost opportunities. This time, I was finally ready and focused and when this happened, things started moving quickly. Shortly after, an associate of Tom and Michelle’s saw my film and was inspired to design a great looking logo for my Contribute2 brand. She came up with the brilliant idea of shaping he letter “C”, into the form of a bicycle wheel. She also transformed the number “2” into a heart, because, she said as she handed me the logo, “Dave, you’re all heart.” The logo was long overdue, but was a great start on the road to moving my compass needle closer to north. It was now 2005. and in the short time since September 10, 2001 I had gone from being a personal trainer with a small Philadelphia clientele to a man bicycling across North America in the summer of 2002, across Africa in 2004, becoming a published writer and filmmaker in 2005, and now, before the year ended, trying to figure out how to market himself as a philanthropic enterprise. Much of what I did since September 11, 2001 was unplanned, so I never stepped back to get the full scope of everything that had happened since that day. When I finally did, I saw a man with a potentially inspiring story and a unique way of looking at the world, but who still had a vague sense of purpose and an intangible message—in other words, I saw a man with a brand that was not yet pointing north. There’s a saying: “The smartest man in the room is the man who knows what he doesn’t know.” I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room; I still had a long way to go to learn what I didn’t know. Still, I knew that I wasn’t smart enough, so I decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business Management. Okay, so I didn't actually enroll in school, but I did email my story to one of their professors, Nelson Gayton. Professor Gayton and I met at a coffee shop and before he took one sip of his coffee, he pointed at me and said,
“Dave you are a business.” For well over an hour we talked and he told me that as soon as I got on a bike outside of Philadelphia and the United Sates with the purpose of engaging people to inspire them that I had become a “global business”. Since I was a global business, I needed to think globally. Professor Gayton, an animated and engaging man, said that my fault of thinking too small was common among many businesses and that looking at things with a narrow scope hinders , and was possibly fatal, to a business’s success. “Business can always scale things back,” he said, “but they can rarely ever ramp things up enough to catch the wave. You have to think big to get it all right.” Our conversation was more than a discussion of a specific strategy for Contribute2; the professor drilled it into my head that what I was doing was a business and he told me what I had to do to make that business successful. As he was leaving the coffee shop he pointed at me and said, “Dave, you are a business and please don’t waste one iota of brainpower on dreaming small.” Let That Be a Lesson: DO NOT WASTE TIME DREAMING SMALL. Once I started dreaming bigger it was obvious I first had had to get out of my own way. Getting out of my own way was tough because it called for me to pay attention to all of my faults. I had already taken the first step, which was to surround myself with supportive people who believed in me and who were strong where I was weak. I wasn’t good with organization, details, and planning, so I now had to trust and listen to those who were. Up to this point I hadn't listened to them or absorbed much of what they said because I had always been one to launch out on my own, careless of the details and heedless of the business aspect of my endeavors. Let That Be A Lesson: Surround yourself with intelligent people who are strong where you are weak and don’t let your business take on all of the bad habits of your personality. When I finally did get out of my own way I objectively started looking at philanthropic organizations and the individuals who ran them. I saw connective lines between their brand, their passion, their mission statements, the way they approached funding and how they summoned and controlled action. Everyone admires a person with passion and the
heart to actually do something, but people will only fund those with passion, heart, and a definitive plan. Look at it this way: if you have a car that is out of gas and you are pushing it to a gas station, at some point someone is likely to give you a ride to the gas station, give you a dollar for some gas, or even help you push this car up the road. But if your car has no wheels or no engine, then no one is going to help you go anywhere. Let That Be a Lesson: Wealthy people respect passion but will only fund passion that is grounded by a defined plan and a clear vision. Up to that point in time, I had worked hard at completing a lot of clearly definable acts but had not defined a plan or a tangible business identity. This lack of definition left everything that I had done open to interpretation by others. Which meant that, while I had generated a lot of enthusiasm for riding across the United States and Africa and for making a film, I didn’t have a clear consensus that defined Contribute2; even I wasn’t sure. Let That be a Lesson: Your brand strategy shouldn't be a series of random and unrelated events. Branding is dynamic and should be the connective thread that you purposefully weave through everything you do. I wrote a grant proposal in ? that was rejected. Now that I thought I clearly understood how to market Contribute2, I approached a person who had been on the grant review panel. I asked him why I had been rejected and what I needed to do to gain approval. This time I really listened when he said that he remembered my proposal. He said it was all passion, all heart and, consequently, all over the place. I took his assessment, dreamt bigger, got out of my own way, clearly defined myself, clearly defined my mission and wrote a grant proposal that I presented to a different organization. This time I received money that I wanted to fund a bicycling trip through South America. Let That be a Lesson: Even if you decide that failure is not an option, that doesn't mean that you will always win. It means that you either win, or you get a chance to learn a lesson. Whether you learn it or not is up to you. My knowledge of branding and marketing was, and still remains, very limited. Since 2001 I have done as much incorrectly as I have done correctly. I wasted a lot of time not trusting that the details would take me
from idea to product. I wasted other people’s time by not listening to their advice. When I did begin trusting in the details and trusting that I could take care of the details, I began listening more; I culled through advice and found the words that pointed my compass north. I started developing a personal and professional brand that made it hard to get lost; one that allowed me to negotiate anywhere I wanted to go. As I became a better listener, I also became a better communicator. I wrote this chapter with as much honesty as I could muster with the hope that you are listening, and that in reading about my mistakes I will have saved you some precious time and removed several roadblocks to your success. My name is David Hale Sylvester . I am a writer, filmmaker, philanthropist, entrepreneur, businessman and so much more. My personal brand is to contribute to society. In order to keep that promise I have to learn from my mistakes, be humble enough to listen, and be committed enough to evolve. That is the price that I gladly pay to promote my brand. That is my passion and my promise. That is only way to get to north. Oh, wait. There is one more story that I need to finish. When I returned from Africa, I went to see Tom at his office. I was telling him about a hot, tough riding day in Tanzania. I described that day to him: it was hellish, made so because of the lack of shade or a cool breeze and because my water was warm and awful tasting. “But,” I said “one thing ahead in the distance made me pedal harder. Shit, I knew that Coca Cola red from kilometers away and I pedaled my ass off to get a cool drink. Shit, I didn’t even care if it was cold. I just knew that there was soda there and that I was going to sit right down and…” Tom once again interrupted me in the middle of a story. I shut my mouth and let the weight of his interruption signal the beginning of something big. “Stop right there,” Tom said. “That’s branding.” This chapter is dedicated to my good friend Tom, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and without whom I would not be able to Contribute2. God Bless You.