I recently interviewed Kate Bradley Chernis, CEO of social media platform Lately, on The Experience Maker live show. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
Dan Gingiss: Welcome to the show, Kately from Lately. I’ve been looking forward to having you on the program because every time you and I talk, I have a great time and learn something. And you inspire me in some way. So I expect that to happen again. No pressure.
So tell us about yourself because I know you have a really interesting background, that started in the music industry. And then how did you get to Lately?
Kate Bradley Chernis: Yes, it’s true, I was in the music industry, and my last gig was in radio. I was a radio rock ‘n’ roll DJ for a dozen years or so. And the last time I did that was for XM Satellite Radio. So I was broadcasting to 20 million listeners a day. But amazingly, actually, my career in radio does translate to my career in marketing, which I’ll get back to in a second.
So here I was at XM and I was feeling kind of squashed, like my ideas weren’t getting listened to. But really more frustrating for me was this idea of being not validated or not given the credit for the work I was doing. And I just couldn’t stand it. And so my body started reacting; you know how for some people, their stress manifests physically. And that was the case for me. And I wasn’t listening. And so it got worse.
And finally, I did listen, and I moved to another company, another boys’ club. Same stuff was happening. And I was just crying all the time. And I was really miserable, and my dad had enough of it. So one day he shook me by the shoulders very lovingly and said, “You can’t work for other people. And there’s no shame in that.”
And that was a big aha for me, actually. I don’t know if there are other people around that feel like, ‘oh, I can do this myself.’ You had that?
Dan Gingiss: You know, I joke that “I like working for The Dan better than I liked working for The Man.” I feel you on that one!
Kate Bradley Chernis: It’s so true because you start to think, it does take a special kind of person, and I mean a crazy person. I totally must be crazy because this is a rollercoaster. I love the ride. And the lows are low, but the highs are so high. So there’s this manic kind of personality you have to have.
But it’s the idea of knowing for yourself, “What matters more to me? Is it knowing where my next paycheck is coming from or working for an a-hole?” For me, the worry of the first one is way less than the worry of the second one. And that’s saying something because for a lot of people not knowing for sure where your next paycheck is coming from can be debilitating.
So once I understood that this was a path I could take, my husband gave me Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start. You know, that bible everybody has. And I started to read it. And somewhere in the first chapter it says, “Don’t make a plan, just get started.”
Dan Gingiss: Right, but it did its job. You bought it. You read it. Enough of it inspired you, and you were on your way.
Kate Bradley Chernis: That’s the thing. It was enough. Now I know this: being a startup owner and just being a business person, there is no math when you’re doing it yourself. There’s lots of advice, and it’s all 30,000-foot advice. And that’s what I saw then, too. I could see, like, this is good and inspiring, but it’s not going to apply to my situation right here. I just got to get rolling.
And so the next day, actually, I met my first investors, who gave me $50,000 to start my first company, which was super nice and a surprise.
So then that’s when I had this first company, and it was fine. Everything was good. We were doing a music case, making a widget online where we would recommend a new song and an old song together. And as I was marketing that, someone else came along and said, “Hey, you’re really good at marketing. We’d like to pay you a lot of money to consult us.” And they put me on the Walmart project.
Dan Gingiss: I’ve heard of that company somewhere!
Kate Bradley Chernis: Yeah. That was pretty crazy. And that’s where the Lately story starts. You know, Dan, I love it when your life is cyclical, and it may just be hindsight putting the pieces together in a way that connects. But here I was, someone who didn’t come from marketing. I came from a fiction-writing background. But I understood the ideas of stringing a thread together and callbacks, the ideas of referencing in that way.
Because I worked for IBM and XM, I also understood this idea of hundreds of thousands of people needing to collaborate in some kind of online system. I knew how to organize content in a way that others could use it and talk about it. So I made Walmart one hell of a spreadsheet that was designed to do this for tens of thousands of people, all united for this particular campaign. And my spreadsheet system got us 130% ROI year after year for three years.
Dan Gingiss: Sweet.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Yeah. And that brought us here. My friend Steve Blood is a serial entrepreneur and an investor. He was kind of harassing me about my spreadsheets for a couple of years. And eventually he was like, “You just need $25,000. We’re going to automate your spreadsheets and create some wire frames.”
And I was like, “Dude, first of all, don’t touch my spreadsheets.”
Dan Gingiss: Hands off the spreadsheets.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Steve ended up bringing on Jason, who’s now one of my other co-founders, and taking the money out of his own pocket to build the wire frames that are now the backbone for Lately as you know it. So our idea was to give you, individuals and businesses, the power to do what I did for Walmart just by clicking a button.
Dan Gingiss: Well, that’s awesome. One of the last things that I know you guys just added, which is amazing, is the ability to actually parse videos as well. So tell us about that.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Yeah. We were thinking about podcasts, and how we could do a better job of using this content. Because again, it’s lying right there in front of us. I was asking interns to transcribe the text manually, then run it through the auto-generator, get the quotes that the AI found, and then manually clip the videos to match up with that. And so my tech team was like, hey, we can automate this too. So now you’re able to push a button, and then, exactly that happens.
One nice thing that happened was that last summer, Gary Vaynerchuk posted on LinkedIn talking about his pillar method. And he was like, you know, someday AI is gonna be able to take the long-form content and then instantly turn it into 30 or 40 social posts. And Katie Jordan, who works on my social team, saw that and was like, hey, Team Lately, look at this. So we made Gary our customer. Now you can see on his Twitter what this technology looks like in the wild. It’s populated by all Lately’s content, both text and video that was instantly created.
Dan Gingiss: So just to clarify, what’s happening here is, Lately is pulling a quote from the video. It’s giving us the quote, and then it’s showing just the snippet of Gary actually saying that quote, which is so cool because it lines up the audio and the video and the text together. And then, of course, you could still add the hashtags and the handles, etc.
Kate Bradley Chernis: And the reason we did this was because I hate the idea of spending a lot of time on something and not getting a lot out of it. It’s like, why chop the garlic if you’re just gonna burn half of it or not put it all in the pan? All those little morsels!
And so the other thing I was thinking about was the idea that marketing in the moment is very antiquated.
So live TV, for example, or live radio. It’s not happening. People are binge-watching stuff after the fact, creating the phenomenon of after-the-fact marketing. So you would take a webinar like this, for example, run it through the generator, get 100 trailers designed to get people interested in the long-form content, and then use that to hook them over time.
Dan Gingiss: I love it. There’s nobody else doing this, which is so cool. The thing that is so great about Lately is the generating of the content. So if I come up with a new blog post, I can go on to a typical social media scheduler and have it auto-schedule. But I still have to write every post myself, and when I come to Lately, I can have it create 22 posts, and off we go. And I’ve been doing that for this show and all of my podcasts because we have the transcription.
The video clipping also works with audio. So, if you think about it, a half-hour podcast is almost unlimited content. You could have hundreds and hundreds of posts from that. Obviously I would never advise to people that you send out hundreds of posts over hours or days, but over weeks and months, it’s fantastic. As long as it’s evergreen content, it’s a great way to get people back to check it out.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Yeah, it’s like you’re making your own long tail. And you’re looking, in this case, less for clicks but more for shares. And it’s really good for that because people share quotes. That’s what they pin to the top of their Twitter channel.
Dan Gingiss: Absolutely. So, Kate, how have things changed with the pandemic and staying at home? How has it changed from a business owner’s perspective and how you run your business? What are you hearing from clients about how they’re responding to the pandemic?
Kate Bradley Chernis: Lately has actually been a dispersed team right from the beginning. We’ve had a faux office in New York that nobody really goes to, for economic reasons and for some other functional reasons. And it just works well for us. So we’ve always been that way. Plus, my team is mostly made up of individuals who’ve had their own companies before or been in startups. So we’re really autonomous. We’re also a fairly flat organization. That’s just how we work. So all of these qualities have set us up for this time.
The other thing is, a year and a half ago, I didn’t raise a round of 2.5 million dollars. I had 2 million circled. I couldn’t find a lead. I got really frustrated by it. That was around the time an article came out that said that female entrepreneurs only get 2% of all venture funding. So I have to work 98% harder than my male counterparts. I had some of my investors telling me that I should have a male do the fundraising for me. And I said no.
Dan Gingiss: They clearly don’t know you, since you’re the hardest-working woman in show business that I’ve ever met. I’ve gotten texts and emails from Kate at all hours of the day, like you somehow never sleep and are always going. It’s one of the things I like about you.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Thanks. I’m addicted to it. I mean, I want it to work. And so here I was, pretty broken at that time. I also had a car accident at the same time and someone else injured me terribly. I had all these things happening, so I didn’t race around. Instead we went into cockroach mode as a team. We dropped our burn from $100,000 to $10,000 and didn’t lose any team members except one to grad school. Testament to my team. They’re really amazing, but also testament to me. We work hard on making that kind of culture here.
So our burn is low. People aren’t getting paid. We’re doubling our sales, we’re landing Gary V, AB InBev, SAP, all these things. And then we got into the summer, and I thought I was already running on empty.
But here came this opportunity to go to launch with Jason Calacanis, who’s one of the most famous investors in Silicon Valley. And we got in, which is huge, because they have like a 1% acceptance rate, I think.
And so I say, “Okay, I’m going to go to California once a week for the next four months, I’m going to pitch.” It’s a demo day every week, so you have to have a new pitch. This is huge work, right? And I wasn’t doing all my other jobs as the CEO or my job as a wife. All those other things had to go away, and I was already running on empty. So I still put the gas up to 100 and did this thing.
And here we are, end of January, we graduate top of the class. COVID is breathing down our necks, but we don’t really know it yet. I’ve got 4 million dollars circled, and I’m ready to close my round of 2.5 million dollars. I’m oversubscribed. I’ve got a term sheet. I’ve got others coming. Life is looking so good.
Boom. The world explodes. And that’s when I spoke to you, actually. We were scheduled to do this before and I melted. I thought I found the end of my rope last year. Apparently, I had not.
Dan Gingiss: You were still being tested, apparently, by the universe.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Yeah. I didn’t realize how painful it still is for me. In my mind, my perception is that not only did I fail once, but I failed twice.
Dan Gingiss: I don’t think you failed. I think it’s like when you break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s not anybody’s fault necessarily. Sometimes the stars don’t align and it doesn’t work out. I know it’s cliché, but I do think things happen for a reason. And generally you end up on the better side of it, even if you don’t quite know what that looks like or when it’s going to happen.
And we’re all being tested right now in a moment where all of our businesses, no matter what business we’re in, whether we’re entrepreneurs or big companies, we’re being tested in a way that nobody could have planned for.
I remember when I was in corporate America, and I had to sit through business continuity planning meetings, and I remember people were like, “Come on, a pandemic, really? That’s never gonna happen. A terrorist attack? No, it couldn’t happen here. Riots in the street? No, not in the United States.”
And so the BCP process was just sort of this “check the box” thing. Now, companies realized in the second week of March 2020 that their business continuity plan and their PR crisis plan were terrible, not usable. And they had to start over. What a challenge that’s been.
Compliance people were the most sought-after employees after the last recession in 2008, especially in the banking and insurance industries. There were companies that had by far more compliance employees than marketing employees. I think when this is all over, that’s going to be true of business continuity planning, that if you are a BCP person right now, you should be asking for a doubling of your salary.
Here’s what I know about you, Kate. You are an absolute all-star entrepreneur. One of the most inspiring I’ve ever met. And you have a kick-ass product. You can’t have customer experience until you have a product or service that people actually want. And so you’ve done the hard part in that. You have this amazing product.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Dan, thank you so much. It’s so validating to hear that. The reason I want to share that with you and everyone else is because by the time COVID hit, and everyone was freaking out about money, my team had already been there before. They hadn’t been paid already for a year and a half. They were like, well, same [stuff], different day!
That was kind of lucky for us, honestly. And then to your other point, two other things are happening. Everyone’s trying to reinvent themselves. Everyone’s a startup suddenly remarketing themselves, looking for organic marketing because they can’t afford paid. And then also, everyone’s hair is on fire. Who has time to really think about it? So that’s what’s helping us. The dynamics of COVID-19 have been in our favor.
You’ve just talked about customer experience. You know, one thing that we’ve always prioritized at Lately is to treat our customers the way we treat ourselves, which is very up-front, very human. I’m proud to say we walk the talk and we talk the walk.
I do it with my team themselves. I work really hard to talk to them individually, send them surprise gifts. They all receive things from me, certainly in the last four months. And I know all about them. I follow all of them on social. So whenever we have our meetings, it’s like we’re friends. These people come to my house, as you know, and all sleep in the living room together once a year. We make a meal, and we do something wild and fun together.
And that’s just about caring. I care what they think. It teaches us to do the same on the outside, to care what you, our customer, thinks. And so if you care what your customer thinks, marketing to them in a pandemic is no different.
Dan Gingiss: Absolutely. And I would add to that what I said before about what Lately allows me to do is spend time engaging. And right now, that’s what customers want. They want engagement. They want human interaction. Consumers today are looking for calm and confidence, and they’re not getting it from the media. They’re not getting it from the government. They’re not even getting it from their family necessarily, because they’re either living with them and can’t stand them anymore, or are not living with them and just miss them.
So where do we look for this calm and confidence? I think if the companies that we do business with look stable and confident, then we feel better about that. And one of the things I love about your company is the language that you use for your customers. Even some of the UX on the actual site, like the log-in page, is very friendly and not corporate speak, which I really like.
Kate Bradley Chernis: Well, I wanted to say one last thing, which is about the calm and the confidence. When this happened, I posted in our Slack channel that Lately would be a place for calm and for safety. I didn’t want to hear alarmist stuff, and I asked that of my team as well: “Let’s make this a place of calm. If you want to freak out, you can freak out to me. But together here, I want to see solid news stories. I just don’t want any wackiness. I want you to feel like you can escape from it all here at work.” And they’ve been great at doing it. That’s hard to do.
Dan Gingiss: That’s awesome. Well, Katie from Lately, I could sit and talk to you for hours more because you are so much fun. I’ll end where I started, which is, I so admire you and what you’re doing as an entrepreneur and a business leader.
If you are somebody that is either posting a lot in social media already or wants to get better at that, grow your following and grow your influence, this is a product that you absolutely want to try. And I use it myself. Katie is not paying me to say this! So definitely check it out. Katie, we thank you for taking the time out of your day to talk with me today.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the entire video interview on YouTube.