Jason Halstead – Founder of Gist Brands

[quote style=”boxed”]In fact, in my job it’s hugely more important to ask the right questions rather than have all the right answers. I’m an innately curious person. I’ve always asked, “Why?” I think every entrepreneur should back up the bus and look at the real reasons and roots behind the current change, need, idea, or initiative.[/quote]

Jason Halstead is a creative strategist and “brand therapist” who helps successful businesses that have outgrown their brands get unstuck and evolve to the next level. He guides leaders and teams to take stock, find their niche, articulate and express themselves, and reinvigorate both their image and their passion.

Prior to launching Gist Brands in 2013, he founded and served as President and Creative Director of an award-winning graphic design and marketing communications firm for almost 20 years. In addition to in-depth rebranding engagements for various types of businesses and organizations, he has taught brand strategy at the master’s degree level for the University of Oregon and developed a proprietary brand coaching process and tools that are currently being evaluated for application to a brand coaching program, book, or online offering.

Reinventing “legacy” organizations is his forte, and his secret sauce is helping clients find or rediscover their own. In his free time he is passionate about reading, cocktail craft, and global travel.

Where did the idea for Gist Brands come from?

Frankly, it came from forcing myself to take my own damn medicine. After almost 20 years of heading a successful graphic design and marketing communications firm, I had one of those “what now?” life moments which prompted a move, a sabbatical, and a lot of soul-searching. Ultimately, I made myself go through the same business/brand assessment and self-examination process I’d been taking my clients through for years. That’s how I became the “brand therapist.”

What does your typical day look like?

Right now, my typical day is…a little messed up. We have a six-month-old French bulldog pup that is changing both home and office life. A good day used to start with a leisurely coffee over the AP news wire, and a good workout. Now it starts with potty training and positive reinforcement. And that’s a good thing!

My days are rarely the same, which is one of the reasons I love this work. I might be interviewing the stakeholders in a rebrand via phone or Skype; looking at their competitors and market in an online scan; leading a workgroup through an interactive creative session; or be knee-deep in the creative process of a naming, tagline, or logo design project. I also really love developing pragmatic content for the blog that helps the average business owner better understand what branding really is (hint: it’s not your logo) and how it can help their business. I love talking about ideas, debunking or simplifying things, and giving opinionated, but practical, pointers. I have less time to write as the business ramps, and I truly miss that.

How do you bring ideas to life?

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to immerse myself in a bunch of information, do a really deep dive with lots of varying and seemingly unconnected inputs, and then walk away. It’s important to have the time and space to put things on the back burner for a period of time and let them percolate, because that’s the way things distill and how the best ideas bubble to the surface.

Breakthroughs most frequently happen when driving in the car, on a long walk, in the shower, or when I’m falling asleep. The idea just gels and my subconscious suddenly serves it up pretty well formed as if it’s been working the Rubik’s Cube in the background all that time. On one hand it seems deceptively easy, and on the other it seems as painful as giving birth.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m excited by the emergence of smaller businesses valuing and wanting to invest in brand and creative strategy, not just brand and creative stuff. The economic downturn made people wake up and realize success is more about your value proposition than just marketing tactics. Add to that the rise of social media and content marketing—both of which are powered more by needs, words, and ideas, than logos, fonts, and color schemes—and all of a sudden businesses are waking up and realizing that they need to not just articulate, but own, their brand internally; it’s not something to outsource to an agency. It’s thrilling when people want to push for more than the “creative wallpaper” they’ve been sold for years or when they realize that their tactics could have even stronger results with a strong, articulated brand behind them.

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

Probably my most productive bias or pattern is the habit of continually thinking like a customer. Even when I don’t know a lot about a new client’s business category, I’m immediately trying to get inside their customer’s head and think from that context. One of my biggest values is being an objective lens through which my clients see themselves, and much of that is trying to make them see through their customer’s eyes and experiences. It’s amazing how many of us don’t really know our customers or their needs.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

In high school, I spent a summer changing irrigation pipes on a farm. That means manually unlinking, moving, and relinking long stretches of metal pipe and irrigation sprinklers. When I kicked out the end cap to drain the pipe, there were frequently frogs that had been sucked from the river, through the pump, and then shot through hundreds of feet of pipe at high pressure to splat against the end cap. It wasn’t pretty. I knew I wanted to be a “knowledge worker” then, even though the term hadn’t been coined.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would trust my instincts and intuition more. I’ve learned that intuition does not mean “uninformed,” it’s just a different kind of data and a different way of knowing.

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

I’m addicted to asking questions. In fact, in my job it’s hugely more important to ask the right questions rather than have all the right answers. I’m an innately curious person. I’ve always asked, “Why?” I think every entrepreneur should back up the bus and look at the real reasons and roots behind the current change, need, idea, or initiative.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Narrowing my focus has not just helped grow my business as a strategy; it is my business. Finding that sweet spot is what I preach to clients and helping them find that secret sauce is what I do. Too many entrepreneurs try to be everything to everybody, but brands become stronger the more you narrow the focus. If you’re not seen as solving a specific problem, then no one thinks of you as the solution, or has the fuel to remember you for anything in particular.

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

In my former agency life, I tried to push to create a two-office satellite model right before the downturn. It wasn’t that I truly wanted that growth and complexity, as much as that I personally wanted to move to Portland and felt responsibility to my employees and past clients, plus didn’t want anyone to potentially see the closing of the Eugene office as some kind of business failure.

I was making a lot of decisions based on what others needed or what someone else would think. As with most entrepreneurs, ultimately it came down to a very personal vision; it wasn’t just based on a P&L. And it was a singular—you could almost say lonely—decision. That’s frequently the path of the entrepreneur. As I told someone once who wanted me to mentor them, “Be prepared. You get the glory. And the gory.”

Oddly, the downturn ended up being a bit of a blessing in disguise. It was a forcing function for me to make more macro decisions and evaluate my priorities. And ultimately, that re-examination birthed a whole new business model that I think provides more—and more unique—value than what I was doing before.

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

I swear I’d kiss the feet of the inventor of a single smart card that could securely encrypt all of my business and personal credit cards, store cards, and loyalty programs and serve them up seamlessly at point of purchase. (And I do mean all.) It wouldn’t even have to be a smart-phone app! I’d be perfectly fine with a single old plastic card and biometrics. I would do dances in the street daily.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

Woody Harrelson almost ran me over while learning to windsurf. He cussed me out for snorkeling and being in his way. Somehow it was my fault that he couldn’t steer.

What software and web services do you use?

I use a good portion of the Adobe Creative Suite when developing clients’ brands. I also use more and more virtual and SAAS tools like Quickbooks Online, Dropbox, Basecamp, and Skype. I’m also a word geek, so love resources like Thesaurus.com.

What do you love about them?

I absolutely love not having to deal with upgrades and traditional software licenses and being able to move device-to-device. My new model is very team- and hand-off based, since I am hyper-focused on the front-end brand reinvention, but referring and partnering out to solve client needs for campaigns and implementation. That means that anything inexpensive and accessible, that supports collaboration and seamless integration, is golden.

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

My “bible” for entrepreneurs tackling any brand issue is “The Brand Gap” by Marty Neumeier. It’s not a new resource, but in my opinion it’s the simplest, and also the most comprehensive and authentic, introduction to what brand truly is and how it can be influenced. The whiteboard approach is accessible to everyone and the revised edition includes a glossary of branding terms that’s invaluable. There’s very little standardization, even among branding professionals, around brand terminology. After reading countless books on branding, I think Marty nails it best. And briefest.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I don’t really follow anyone religiously. I’m constantly pulling random reference and inspiration from various sources, some of them well outside of my field. Cross-pollination is what it’s all about. However, I love accessible authors and thought leaders that can relate simply and conversationally, but tweak our thinking to take us into new paradigms. Among those, I’d list not just @MartyNeumeier, but also @DanielPink, and Seth Godin. Historically, I’ve been very influenced by people that have lived very holistic, creative lives that cut across boundaries and disciplines and who equally tapped the right and left brain; people like daVinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, Einstein, and Charles and Ray Eames.


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