Stay open to feedback, as it allows you to be ahead of the curve.

 

Brian Freeman is the CEO and founder of Heartbeat, a marketplace that features 250,000 brand ambassadors and connects brands with real consumers to run influencer-style campaigns at scale on Instagram.

Where did the idea for Heartbeat come from?

Heartbeat evolved out of my first company Wyldfire, which was the original dating app targeted at making dating a safer environment for women. We were growing the company through college rollouts, which centered around sororities participating in a competition for growing the user base on their campus. We found that these young women gravitated to social media, particularly Instagram, to promote the competition and generate downloads. Eventually, that program became so successful that other startups started asking if they could utilize the “ambassadors” for their brands and emulate the content creation part of the competition to promote their products. The market opportunity for a company that helped regular people act as influencers for brands was so great that we decided to pivot the company.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

As CEO, I work primarily with our management team to help them reach their goals. This could be sitting with our head of product to refine our next big product rollout strategy, or working with our general manager on hiring and resource allocation on a monthly or quarterly basis, or working with our VP of sales to identify and onboard new clients or business development partners. A typical day starts around 7 a.m. with a Turkish coffee, some bacon and eggs from Whole Foods, and a podcast on my way into the office.

How do you bring ideas to life?

If I have an idea, it usually hits me when I least expect it. From there, I turn to my trusted contacts to gather feedback and see if I’m on the right track. Feedback for any concept is key, and you have to be willing to hear that the idea has something that could kill it. Also, saying no to a potential business or product opportunity is equally as valuable as saying yes, so getting feedback is a critical step in the process.

What’s one trend that excites you?

TikTok, hands down. We have not seen a potential competitor to Instagram since Snapchat introduced stories. TikTok is different enough from Instagram that it will be difficult for Facebook to copy it and disrupt its momentum. We’re seeing new creators emerge and become superbrands in a matter of months versus the years it takes to stand out on Instagram. Also, new viral content is increasingly emerging from TikTok versus Instagram or Twitter, which signals a major shift in where viral content will originate in the future. Lastly, TikTok makes it easier than any other platform to go viral and gain a new following, then pass that following on to other social media platforms where you have a presence. Whether it’s Instagram, Twitch, Twitter, or YouTube, you can go viral on TikTok and gain thousands of new followers on a second platform at the same time.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I enjoy teaching myself about topics I do not know. I use a product called Flipboard to browse hundreds of potential topics a day across a wide range of subject matter; e.g., science, gaming, fintech, and internet marketing. I believe staying in a mindset of learning helps you question your own beliefs and generate new ideas more easily.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Start sooner! My journey involved a couple of detours from the world of entrepreneurship. From signing a contract with the Marines (and not being accepted) to a four-year stint in finance, I deviated from my roots building computers and coding and designing websites for extra spending money as a high schooler. If I could go back in time, I’d remind myself about the things I was doing on the side for fun, and that there are plenty of opportunities pursuing those talents as an entrepreneur. Hindsight is always 20/20 though, and I’m grateful for the people I have in my life now who I’ve met along the way. It is so difficult to imagine my life without meeting my amazing wife or the awesome people I get to work with at Heartbeat every day.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Something true for first-time entrepreneurs is that prior experience or education (even a high-end MBA) only covers a small amount of the job you’re going to be doing. The entrepreneurial journey is filled with so many new experiences there is no good way to be prepared for them without just going through it. For example, imagine feeling like it’s your first day on the job for five years in a row. That’s what it is like starting a company and growing it.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Stay open to feedback. I’m in feedback mode as close to 100% of the time as I can be. Whether you’re out with friends, talking to an investor, or talking to someone on your team, keeping your eyes and ears open to conscious or unconscious feedback you’re receiving from the other person can help you stay ahead in a negotiation or pick up on if someone in your company is going through a hard time. It could also save you from pursuing a concept that is going to cost you time and money or miss out on a massive opportunity. The world is giving you feedback during every waking hour of the day; reminding yourself to be open to it helps you stay ahead of the curve.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Being open to partnerships. We’ve found some amazing people in Los Angeles and beyond who share our values and a passion for the work that we do. We’ve been able to piggyback on their existing relationships to generate new customers and new ways to think about selling our product.

These partnerships have historically made up 50%+ of our annual revenue and have generated our deepest and most reliable customer relationships. If you want to move quickly in your company, don’t try to generate everything from scratch. Find a way to stand on the shoulders of giants!

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I got so caught up in the day-to-day, in-the-weeds part of my business I failed to recognize a major issue that was brewing with some core members of my team, which ended up in us losing some great employees. To overcome this, I got very serious about building myself into a better manager and leader. I joined a well-known CEO advisory and peer group and got a paid coach/mentor. I cannot recommend these types of groups (e.g., Vistage, YPO) highly enough.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Someone is going to figure out how to make home electronics like routers and cable modems less hideous. I’ll be the first customer!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A MasterClass annual subscription for $187.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I use Superhuman, the email product. It makes everything about email a more pleasant experience than Outlook or Gmail. If you’re using email, and it’s a big part of your day, you should seriously consider this product.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

“The Ride of a Lifetime” by Robert Iger. This is just a great book full of business lessons. I have a bunch of others: “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” “Leadership and Self Deception,” and “Never Split the Difference” are all fantastic reads as well.

What is your favorite quote?

“The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood …”

Whenever I’m feeling like I can’t get through something, or I’m up against a wall, this helps me remember that the character of a person is defined by these moments and that people have figured out equally difficult problems in the past.

Key Learnings:

  • Stay open to feedback, as it allows you to be ahead of the curve.
  • Read “The Ride of a Lifetime” by Robert Iger.
  • Learning topics outside of your industry will help you become more creative.
  • Business partnerships can help get you started and keep you going.
  • It’s OK to take time to focus on yourself as a leader to help improve your business.