Mashing New York and Austin #SXSW: Jessica Alba, Nate Silver and the Value of Personal Brand Business Models


ImageTwo things on my mind here at SXSW: my recent participation in an NBCUniversal event in New York where Jessica Alba talked about her business, and listening to Nate Silver, whose new online magazine, FiveThirtyEight, launches next Monday, March 17, speak on the subject of personal brand journalism.  It’s got me thinking about how social allows a new take on celebrity endorsement.

Erica Hill of the Today Show interviewed Alba at an NBCUniversal event last week called “The Power of the Purse,” a great program in which I participated, hosted by Linda Yaccarino. To my considerable delight, Yaccarino started out the event by talking about the power of social to truly engage the women who are touched by NBC (and who represent, according to Yaccarino, 95% of the women in the entire country.)  Alba, the thirty-two-year-old star of the upcoming Sin City and mother of two, talked about how she came to launch The Honest Company because of a passion to develop products she herself would trust.  

Here at SXSWInteractive, Silver was on a panel with Bill Simmons, publisher of Grantland, which, along with Silver’s new magazine is owned by ESPN, discussed what his vision for the next magazine will be: politics, yes, but with tech and data thrown in, and how he is launching a magazine with a total of, yes, 20 employees, most of whom also seem to be star journalists from traditionally-branded media companies (The Guardian, others).   Alba talked about the ability to start selling her product without traditional distribution and directly through e-commerce built entirely through social marketing.  For years, she says, she had no marketing budget at all.   She spent her money, and time, building a company that had authentic roots and clear purpose: baby and now other personal products produced and packaged entirely without harmful chemicals.

On the publishing front, personal brand publishing is not new: remember Martha Stewart Living?  But what do both Silver and Alba tell us about where we are with business models?

One: the battle for product launch is no longer about capital or distribution, it’s entirely about the network.  Look no further than Whatsapp or even Facebook for that matter.  Half the time VCs can’t give enough money away to the right business models.  Celebrities get on twitter and within days have hundreds of thousands of followers.  Having to raise money is so last century.  And product production is following suit: our Social Media Today Adviser and SXSW cub reporter Simon Pearce just interviewed Mark Hatch, CEO of Techshop, today at SXSW who talked about manufacturing companies being created with capital in the thousands.  “Even if it fails, how can it be considered a failure if it only cost $ 2000?  That’s not failure, that’s a learning experience.”  (You’ll be able to see the full interview when we can get enough bandwidth to upload all the incredible stuff we’re getting here.)

Two:  Celebrities themselves have changed.  Rare are the celebrities of the past who, like Robert Redford, saw being a box-office star as a nice mid-career opportunity.  Alba was offered all kinds of deals to promote a fragrance, but instead she chose to actually build a company.  As Silver said, “I could have gone the way of a Tom Friedman,” but instead has created an online media business.  Alba spoke about in-store sales like a business pro; Silver talked about advertising partnerships on his launch (March 17).   These are the kind of young, and yes, millennially raised entrepreneurs who see running a business as something fun and maybe even glamorous.  This is definitely a new thing. 

Is this the new celebrity narcissism?  Perhaps, but it’s not a bad thing for the world of business that really smart and really good-looking people are coming into our worlds.  It will make it more fun for the rest of us.

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