Empowering Social Influencers: A Case Study
Brian Nickerson is co-founder and CEO of MagicLinks, which empowers YouTube influencers with tools for authentic social commerce and is used by thousands of globally recognized influencers and brands. Brian also founded Chippmunk, a coupon search engine, and built the Shopping Division of Internet Brands from 0 to 100 employees and $175M in value in 3 years. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a bachelor's degree in Engineering and Economics from Dartmouth College, and played third base in the minor leagues for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Nickerson talked with DBR about his company’s rapid rise in the social commerce industry as part of the Trends in Entrepreneurship Series, a DBR initiative to share entrepreneurial advice with industry leaders worldwide.
DBR: Why MagicLinks?
NICKERSON: Before starting MagicLinks, I was working closely with a number of YouTube influencers and really trying to understand what they do on a day-to-day basis as they create content. What I realized was that a lot of individuals were putting content out into the world and they didn’t have a business model that was supportive. When influencers on YouTube create a video they have a creative process and then they get all the items for the video, they film the video, they cut the video and then they publish it. The creative process spans tasks that would normally be broken up into 7-10 specialized jobs. In this case, however, it’s all one person. On top of that, you have this new marketplace where there’s no way to price or value what they are doing, and in order to do it professionally, they need a way to make money. So really, it’s understanding that pain and really serving that need.
What MagicLinks does fundamentally is help people get their ideas out into the world and that’s really exciting thing to be a part of.
Who is your average user?
A typical user is probably 25-28 and is a fashion or a beauty blogger. As she is sharing her life, fashion is a key component, beauty is a key component. That can show up as, “What are five outfits that I can wear to work?” “What are a series of three outfits that I might wear for date nights in the fall?” “What’s a makeup routine that looks good given where I live and the weather that’s here and the event that I’m going to.” So, someone whose really entrepreneurial, creative, engaged in social media and who likes getting themselves out there, but also likes the back and forth dialogue that happens with their community and fans. Fundamentally, these are very creative entrepreneurs who have built a following, which is not easy to do on social platforms, and then are sharing their ideas out into the world and are doing so very bravely.
We’ve had influencers on MagicLinks who have literally gone through the process of a sex change, going from a man to a woman, and sharing that experience. We’ve had another influencer who is a plus size blogger, and in spite of her body type not being what traditional media would say is a form of feminine beauty, she puts herself out there and literally inspires hundreds of thousands of people. I’ve seen the messages that she gets. People come to tears because they see how she feels comfortable going to the beach in a swimsuit and doesn’t feel shame for herself and won’t let others put shame on her, and that inspires people in her community who maybe have never gone to the beach before to go to the beach for the first time. When you see stories like that, you can’t help but think, “How do we support these people? How do we provide them with tools, resources and education to do more of that?” Because I think fundamentally the world needs to be hearing more messages like this to inspire people to be their full, unique expression.
What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur?
Every day is a new challenge. Personally, it’s about embracing that challenge and just knowing that there’s always going to be shifts and turns and movements and knowing that those shifts are the journey and being totally inspired by that and not getting too down on days that are hard, but just knowing that’s the path.
One of the big challenges that we faced early on in the lifespan of our company was that we were partnered with Amazon and then Amazon decided that they wanted to get into our business and they cancelled a contract with us.
They had decided that they weren’t going to pay us money that they owed us. “Do you fight it?” You know, as a small company it’s pretty hard to go up against a big company like that, but we decided to move on and continue working on our vision. Instead of getting worked up about it, we realized we can provide a service for everyone BUT Amazon, and that all these other brands that are competing with Amazon need ways to get people to their website, and that we can actually provide that service to thousands of companies out there instead of just one. So that’s just one example of a challenge that we faced earlier.
Anytime there is a breakdown in a relationship, that is the point where you can choose grow to a much deeper and better place. It takes both sides willing to do that. It means being brutally honest with one another and realizing when things aren’t working. “Can we change it? What does it look like if we change it, does it change?” Those challenges often come up in customer service. If someone is using your platform and they are really unhappy with something, that’s a learning experience to create a solution to the problem, which means that they go from hating you to being like, “Oh my God, I got heard and they did something about it! I love these guys, I want to tell all my friends all about them because of that.” Those types of opportunities literally come up all the time and it’s something that I’ve learned to do and also instill in my team. If we receive a high level of frustration, it means that someone really cares. So, let’s go take care of that and then use that as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship.
How do you build a great team?
I look for two things: Passion and grit. Passion is you know this is hard work. Being in a startup is not easy. It’s not for everyone and it means you’re living at the top of the spear, so things may get uncomfortable. We will make mistakes, we should make mistakes. If we’re not making enough mistakes, that’s a problem and to have the resilience to walk through those challenges takes a lot of passion for what you’re doing.
So, I look for that. I look for demonstrated passion. It doesn’t even have to be in the industry. It can be as simple as someone is a professional opera singer and they’ve got passion for that, and they have experienced waking up early in the morning, you don’t want to practice, your voice is sore, your teacher is not doing it right, like something is always going on, but you’re still driving and moving towards being a better singer.
For me that was always sports. Baseball was a place where I could demonstrate that and live that way. So, I look for that in the people who join our team. In some area of their life they must demonstrate passion and be willing to translate it into our team.
Grit is also super important. The way I look at grit is: “When things go wrong, do you throw your toys away and go home or do you figure out how to grow out of that?” Things are going to go wrong, and you’ve got to work through them, you’ve got to have that dedication and patience (or impatience sometimes) to really fight and crawl and scratch at times to make it through those obstacles and to do it with a smiling face.
So, those are really the two things I look for in my team. And what I’ve noticed is that as my team has started to grow, that is the culture now. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s really easy to hire people now because the whole team is looking around and they go like, “We don’t see enough of this, it’s not a fit.” Or they say, “Hey! It looks like this person is showing passion and grit and could be a great addition to the team.”
Now, there might be some other things that we need to look at to make sure that everything’s going to lineup, but when you start getting that culture going, I think that it can be a real competitive advantage, too. And I see some of our competitors who don’t have that. As a result of this, we can do more with fewer people and compete against companies that are ten times the size of ours.
Any truth to Jeff Bezos’s two pizza rule?
That right, Amazon really drives a lot of innovation and I think that’s a way to do that. Two pizzas means everyone is in the room and can make decisions.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
The first step is always the hardest step, and that’s really about conquering your own fears. Knowing that entrepreneurship is fundamentally about conquering your own fear and doing something that the world might not think is possible, but you know it’s possible, and that’s really a self-exploration journey.
One way to master conquering your own fears is to go to places where you can exercise that. That might not necessarily mean starting a company. I talk to a lot of people who have a good job, they’re working, but what they really want to do is start this new company, so I talk to them about how to transition from where they’re at to where they aspire to be.
Going and doing something in some other way, that’s stepping into a big fear and can help break down some of those mental barriers. If you’re someone who’s afraid of water, go jump in the Pacific Ocean. If you’re afraid of talking to a potential partner or someone at a bar, force yourself to go up and open a conversation and do it like four or five times, and fail at it, and have people laugh at you! If you are afraid of dancing, go take a dance class and learn how to dance, and doing those things in other areas actually builds up a related strength, which is how you find fear and go step into it and do something about it, instead of letting it dictate the course of your life.