As founder of River West Brands, Paul Earle revived dead or dying products like Eagle Snacks and Underalls and created new ones. Now, as executive director of Farmhouse, the innovation and new venture center of advertising giant Leo Burnett, he uses that experience to help clients create products and services. He shares innovation lessons from beyond the brink.
Q: What does Farmhouse do for clients? PE: We’re creating new brands and businesses from scratch. We’re looking at brand equities we think are licensable, partnering strategies with other famous brands, and we’re looking at a couple of verticals like health and wellness and toys and games. Over time I see Farmhouse as a portfolio where we’ll have a number of client engagements and a number of our own products.
Q: You talk about telling brand stories in a new way. What does that mean? PE: We’re infusing the story and emotional piece into the product process right from the beginning. We think the future for how big ideas will be created and developed will require a multidisciplinary approach that brings together story design, experience design and product design. Those three things comprise the relationship between a person and a brand, and you have to develop all of them if you’re going to create innovation that is meaningful and lasting.
Q: What do you consider to be the biggest barrier to innovation? PE: Execution. An idea never implemented is almost worthless. The key to innovation is finding ways, come hell or high water, to get ideas produced, sold and made.
Q: Is there a common theme between being a founder and resuscitating brands? PE: I talk a lot of this notion of a leap of faith, moving forward despite rational objective data that says you probably shouldn’t. There has to be the right balance between vision and optimism and this irrational belief in what’s possible on one hand, and on the other a highly pragmatic approach to transfer that ambition to reality.
Looking back at River West Brands, we probably did fail about five times in the early days. I remember one call with an investor where we literally had $14 left in our checking account. That was a bad call. Through the combination of youthful exuberance, naïveté, hindsight and unrelenting belief in our ability to succeed, we made it. We survived all the near-death moments that early-stage enterprises encounter.
Q: What near-death moment did you learn the most from? PE: About two to three years into River West, we made an all-in bet to get this one retailer to partner with us to source and distribute products to go with a bunch of our trademarks. This was a make-or-break meeting. We presented 30 ideas to this retailer and they rejected all of them. I remember thinking, "My company just died."
The following day, I reconvened with my partners and realized that it wasn’t the ideas or us that were rejected. It was the method in which we presented them. So we recalibrated and tried a completely different approachand it worked. We ended up having some real success over the years. You just try something else. You keep trying until it works. If you don’t have a near-death experience, you’re not trying hard enough.