“Yes Theory” Promotes A New Kind of Business
Before continuing: if you aren’t familiar with “Yes Theory”, you might know them as the guys who challenged Will Smith to heli-bungee on his 50th birthday. [Still not familiar? I suggest watching this 7-minute video before moving on. It’ll give you an idea of what these guys are about.]
A few weeks ago I had this crazy idea (it’s actually not that crazy). I decided to shift away from freelance writing to running a creative agency that employs and scales what I’ve learned as a freelancer.
But I’m a high-powered, calculated analytic. So I wanted to spend a little time planning, strategizing, and studying before launch time.
This led me into straight down the YouTube rabbit hole, which I must admit was less productive than I’d hoped. I’ve embraced it though and learned a lot along the way.
My goal? Understand the mechanics behind successful modern businesses. Identify some gaps in the content marketing space. Formulate a brand that speaks to the freelance work I’ve been doing.
I studied media companies like Bustle, digital agencies like Vayner, and inspiring little up-start missions like “Yes Theory.”
Which leads me to the point of this article.
Before jumping into the YouTube rabbit hole, I audited what I spend my time and money on. Whose articles, videos, and social posts do I like? What movements do I follow? Who inspires me? What companies and brands do I interact with regularly? And, most importantly, why?
The reason for asking these questions is simple. I wanted to reflect on what was working for me as a consumer, not just a writer and marketer.
And I realized something eye-opening about the future of marketing.
As many thought leaders have noted:
We are living through an interesting time in which people care just as much about what you’ve created, as they do about the people, purpose, and process behind it.
This is Gary Vaynerchuk’s whole “document don’t create” advice.
What I didn’t realize (though I should have — it’s been right in front of me) is that there are businesses popping up all over the freaking place that started with media first, not a product or service.
In a time when marketers are running up and down the streets championing “authenticity” and “transparency” as the latest trends, there’s a reason this model is working.
So, let’s talk shop.
The Marketing 101 Model
In any intro to business or marketing class, you’ll likely study the strategic advantage of the big dogs like Apple and Nike. The questions students are posed with asking is: what has contributed to their worldwide recognition and ongoing success?
With Apple and Nike, it’s clear that they each have two important things:
(1) great products, and
(2) great marketing.
This is why these two companies are always used as examples in intro marketing classes. It’s easy to peel back the layers of success.
Both brands have leveraged their products and marketing to create what economists call an “ecosystem.” As a byproduct, these brand ecosystems created positive signaling effects in some communities and cultures.
You can wear Nike sneakers, sports-bras, hats, t-shirts, and shorts. You can use the Nike Training Club app or attend one of their events in Los Angeles. You can buy an iPhone, iPad, Mac, MacBook, and Apple Watch. Plus, you can subscribe to Apple Music and use Final Cut Pro X and other such Apple-only software integrations. [Bonus if you buy a pair of Beats headphones.]
There is an incentive to buy multiple products because they work together seamlessly. Nike’s clothes match. Apple’s devices sync.
Plus, in most circles, Nike and Apple products are also unknowingly linked to status and respect. This is key. In sneaker gangs and creative cultures, they are THE products to own.
They tell everyone around you that:
That’s the transitive property at work between you, the brand, and their inspiring advertisements. You don’t realize it (nor did you realize high school Geometry would help you understand this article).
You are signaling something about yourself by buying Apple and Nike, not just getting a “good” product (“good” is in quotations because it is, of course, subjective).
The “Yes Theory” Model
Ultimately, what the four guys that founded “Yes Theory” (plus their new biz dev + production team) have done is build a community and ecosystem first.
They didn’t start with the idea for a new type of personal computer or running spike. They started with an idea, a small project to help them say:
To overcoming fears. To love. To exploration. To the subtle voice inside. To life.
A non-political, highly-human movement and ideology was built around that one word.
While they said “no” to a traditional production deal, they kept saying “yes” to their creative vision. They structured a deal with a Snapchat channel that let them keep complete creative control, which gave them the budget to take on bigger projects and do crazier things.
It gave them some breathing room to execute.
How the heck is this all possible? It seems ridiculous. They’re just creating YouTube videos, aren’t they?
The business model is pretty simple really. All they’ve done is:
CREATE + CONNECT (ON REPEAT)
They create content that people like and connect with the community that’s forming around it. It’s really just that simple.
They build tools and platforms for people to engage with them — such as their 70K+ private Facebook group, which promotes people from all over the world to engage and meet up with each other. [Their message — at scale — has lowered the bar for people to do what would otherwise be terrifying: reaching out to total strangers.]
They now have a subsidiary clothing line called “Seek Discomfort.” They sell products (“merch”) — t-shirts, shorts, hats, etc. — on a limited basis (enforced scarcity).
It seems like they’re also running some sort of incubator with other creatives in Venice, CA, helping them build their businesses and explore their creative capacities. It’s created a sort of reinforcing community and ecosystem on the production side as well.
I have no idea if this was their strategy to begin with, but my guess is that — after the initial success of their first “30 Day Challenge” — the door was open to these possibilities.
They knew they were on to something — fun and profitable.
The Major Difference & Why It Matters
Whereas many of our ancestors worshiped spiritual-types, the Millennial Generation is the most secular generation to date. We seek aspirational identities, not in deities as much, as we seek them in real people.
Celebrities. Authors. Entrepreneurs. Athletes. Do-Gooders. Instagram Influencers. You name it.
As David Foster Wallace might say:
“…In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship…”
The thing that brands have been trying to do for generations is to create these aspirational identities through advertisements. They’ve been, in essence, trying to create “brand worship.”
With the emergence of social media and ready-made tools to create content (I still feel we are in 1.0 on this), as Gary Vaynerchuk might say, “everyone can and should be a media company now.”
Every person. Every company. Every movement.
The critical difference is that “Yes Theory” is selling an idea primarily, not a physical product.
They are selling a lifestyle, not through traditional advertising, but through documenting the way they are choosing to live their lives.
This is key.
The kind of business model they employ is nothing new. Companies diversify their revenue streams and build ways for customers to interact with them all the time. Apple and Nike included.
The difference is that it feels personal. It feels real. It feels like a movement you want to be a part of.
Any kind of community that is born of Nike and Apple today starts in a boardroom with a bunch of people in suits (or Jordans) trying to determine how to tell an authentic, transparent, and aspirational story about a brand.
They are brainstorming hashtags and ways to spend their multi-million dollar budgets.
The rest of us, without these privileges and profits, can all can learn from a company like “Yes Theory.”
They didn’t start with a product.
They started with an idea, created consistent free content around that idea, built a community around that idea, and then, and only then — after the concept was proven and the community was growing organically —did they begin selling products to “signal” a fan’s involvement.
Whereas Nike started with a pair of running shoes, “Yes Theory” started with a 30-day video series of four friends doing wild stuff on camera.
This doesn’t mean people will stop building big, traditional companies — like Nike and Apple. They still will.
It just means that there’s also another way.
An Ode To Raving Fans
Silicon Valley Oracle, and founder of Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly, wrote an article called “1,000 True Fans” that was popularized by the likes of Tim Ferriss and others. The core idea is that — to be a successful creative — all you need is 1,000 true fans.
True fans are defined as the type of people that are willing to buy ANYTHING you sell. They are “raving” about you, telling all their friends.
“Yes Theory” is just one example of this idea at play.
There are tons of examples of this. Companies that started with media first, tested their ideas, built community, and then deployed products and services.
Take Bulletproof for example. A nutrition and supplement company that started as a blog. It is now is a full-fledged butter coffee and ketogenic evangelist with locations in Los Angeles and a whole slew of products that I buy on a weekly basis.
Telling authentic, honest, and aspirational stories is the future of marketing effectively.
But here’s the kicker: To feel authentic it has to be authentic.
This is the code that vloggers and digital creators (like “Yes Theory”) have cracked that brands and marketers all over the world are trying to figure out.
If you are starting a company or working on a small-budget marketing campaign, I suggest turning away from Marketing 101 and taking a nod from the little, but extremely promising companies like “Yes Theory.”
We are in a new age of business where more is possible.
That is… if you can be a damn human being.
I’m confident that only the principled, authentic, transparent, and real will survive.
Only those willing to create and connect will win.
And as “Yes Theory” is showing signs of already, those that do may win BIG TIME.