A beer with Matt Sterne
“I thought: ‘it’s about fucking time to do something for myself’”
After the last Q&A with Nathan Lennon of Hawke’s Brewing., I received plenty of tipoffs about other ad folk who have made the leap from ad land to startup land.
So enjoy an interview, with Matt Sterne, co-founder of Crushfame, an online-learning platform for social influencers. They launched their first course with the Instafamous Gabby Epstein in May 2018.
Influencer marketing is a space that didn’t exist 4 years ago, so for Matt and his partner Jarrad to identify and execute quickly is pretty special. Take it away, Matt …
So tell me about your partnership with Jarrad. Did you meet at an agency then go freelance?
Jarrad and I met in 2008 when I hired him into my creative team at am indie digital agency called Profero (now Lowe Mullen Profero). We got along immediately and had the same spirited ambitions to produce interesting creative work and push boundaries. Even back then we shared the dream of one day having our own ‘startup’ (a term no-one was using at the time) and waking up to see money had been made online overnight.
Who did the words and who did the pictures? Did you find you shared those roles?
I guess we are lucky in that we are both multi-disciplinary creatives who were forced to learn things and push through lack of resources in our careers. So diving hands on into any number of responsibilities and creative tasks is completely normal to us. We do, however, have strengths and weaknesses, so you could call Jarrad more of a strategic creative while I’m more of a wordsmith.
How long had you been in the industry for, and where?
I’ve been in the industry for about 17 years, starting as a multimedia/web designer back in 1999 before evolving into a conceptual creative and finally creative director. A big breakthrough was 2 years working in London which opened my eyes to bigger brands, budgets and boundaries being pushed in digital creativity. This was also the beginning of an exciting transition for digital agencies — from nerdy afterthought to fully fledged integrated leader in marketing communications. Over the years I’ve worked with agencies like Digitas, Profero, VML, Havas, Edge and R/GA.
When did you have the idea for Crushfame? Do you remember the aha! moment, or was it a slow burn?
I can remember the moment exactly. Jarrad and I had been meeting up in the watering holes of Surry Hills on a weekly basis, discussing startup ideas and ways we might work together in the future. I think it’s extremely important that to be in that entrepreneurial mindset you have to start milling over all sorts of ideas and investigating them further.
One thought we had around influencers was this idea that the most successful of them all knew how to leverage their own brand and transition into ecommerce launches and beyond — so the initial idea was a project called ‘influencer to brand’. One day we were chatting on the phone while I was out getting a coffee and it suddenly struck us… Holy shit. If you think about it, no-one has created the ‘how-to’ or ’the bible’ of becoming a successful influencer. It’s all really nerdy stuff put out there by brands and advertisers from a corporate voice. It was this moment we knew we were onto something exciting and this was the driving idea that lead to Crushfame.
And how long has it taken to bring it to life from idea to launch?
About 18 months from the initial idea to launch. The entire platform has been 100% bootstrapped and produced with a shitload of hands on work in our spare time, while juggling our own creative consultancy.
Did you know much about the world of Instagram influencers?
Absolutely. Being creative directors at digital agencies we were right in the thick of it with various campaigns, content and assorted initiatives that involved Instagram influencers. I guess it was this growing conversation and lens on influencer marketing that drew our focus as an area for an original startup idea.
How did you first get the ball rolling?
First and foremost, as creatives we leaned on our experience and documented and wrote up a tonne of rationales, ideas, thoughts, lines, visions and so on around the whole idea to make sense of it and share with each other. The what, why, who and so on. Next we tested the concept using multiple split testing creative messaging on Facebook which lead to squeeze pages with signup functionality. Our initial investment on these tests returned a hypothetical ROI of more than 300% so we knew we were on the money.
The marketing model for Crushfame seems amazing, since influencers are likely to plug their own courses. Was this an intentional benefit?
Absolutely. This was a fundamental driver for success that we identified from the start — the biggest influencers are essentially media channels in their own right with hundreds of thousands and even millions of highly engaged fans.
Any more Crushfame courses in the works, after Gabby?
We are currently in pre-production planning around various influencer ‘niches’ such as travel and health/fitness. The goal is to keep expanding and bring on a wealth of guidance from different angles — content creators, bloggers, vloggers — you name it.
Back to advertising, what do you miss about working in agencies?
Not much to be honest. The social side is great but we are surrounded by like minded creatives and entrepreneur types on a regular basis.
What don’t you miss about agencies?
Err without going into an essay…(insert crying emoji here) [ed:😭], the never ending meetings, layers of hierarchy, silly processes and fixed/conservative ways of thinking, the old fashioned hours, the late nights and weekend work and the fake enthusiasm that people get swept up in.
How would you compare startup life to agency life? Do you think more creatives should make the leap?
I guess we are still straddling the 2 worlds somewhat but at the end of the day, the excitement you get from producing something that is truly yours is so much more meaningful and fulfilling compared to the latest fast food campaign no-one really cares about outside of your agency. More creatives should make the leap and the only thing that stops them is getting caught up in the grind and not knowing another way out.
One of the biggest realisations for me that I needed a change was finding an old ideas book when I was moving house. As I turned the pages, I came across all these old business and tech ideas that had now been successfully done. Apps, platforms, communities and so on. In that moment I thought ‘it’s about fucking time to do something for myself’.
What skills are you thankful for, now that you’ve started Crushfame?
Absolutely everything to be honest. All the way from hands on design skills, to presentations, video production, brand building, content marketing and so on. There’s not a task that we have done that hasn’t drawn on our experience over the years. All-round creatives are as suited to success in the startup world as anyone else.
Any books or podcasts you’ve found useful since leaving the day-to-day?
It would be a cliche but the 4-Hour Workweek was a big one for me. I still revisit segments of the audio book occasionally at the gym or in the car as an inspirational boost. Other materials I like are: The Tim Ferriss Show, Foundr, Hack the Entrepreneur and other assorted podcasts as well as a wealth of other influential mentors like Gary V. There is a limit, though, on the amount of time-wasting you can put into other people’s advice and actioning your own dreams, so it’s a balance.
Finally, where do you see the Advertising industry in 5 years? Does it exist?
Yeah, I think it still lives on and finds a way to evolve and the key to this is tech being at the core of everything. As for content production, this will continue to fragment to the smaller operators who can do the same work faster, cheaper and easier than the big agencies.
“As I turned the pages, I came across all these old business and tech ideas that had now been successfully done. Apps, platforms, communities and so on. In that moment I thought ‘it’s about fucking time to do something for myself’.” — the words from Matt that struck me. I think most of us would have ideas in the bottom drawer that fit the bill. It’s easy having ideas, the hard bit is having the guts to have a go.
Be sure to follow Crushfame on Facebook.