84 - James Nord, Fohr

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This is a podcast episode titled, 84 - James Nord, Fohr. The summary for this episode is: <p>In Ep. 84 of Earned, we chat with James Nord, former Tumblr star, podcast host, and founder and CEO of ambassador marketing company Fohr. We start by learning the origin story behind Fohr’s most well-known program, developed in partnership with Sephora: the Sephora Squad. James explains why the program was built on creators’ genuine passion for beauty over follower size, and shares the company’s motto: “don’t spend good money on fake love.” Next, we dive into the evolution of the influencer marketing industry over the last decade, and James reveals why he believes that creator content will be the future of brand communications. Conor and James discuss the thrill of pioneering a new industry, before talking about their leadership philosophies during times of growth and uncertainty. We then pivot to discuss James’ past as a successful Tumblr influencer, and hear how the challenge of connecting with brands inspired the concept behind Fohr.</p><p><br></p><p>In this episode, you will learn:</p><ol><li>The origin story behind the Sephora Squad</li><li>Why creator content is the future of brand communications</li><li>How leadership style evolves with company growth</li></ol><p><br></p><p><strong>Resources:</strong></p><ul><li><a href="https://www.fohr.co" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Fohr</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with the Guest(s):</strong></p><ul><li><a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesnord/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">James Nord’s LinkedIn</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with Conor Begley &amp; CreatorIQ:</strong></p><ul><li>Conor’s LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/conormbegley/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @conormbegley</a></li><li>CreatorIQ LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/company/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Follow us on social:</strong></p><ul><li>CreatorIQ YouTube -<a href="https://www.youtube.com/@TribeDynamics" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @TribeDynamics</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Instagram -<a href="https://www.instagram.com/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ TikTok -<a href="https://www.tiktok.com/@creator.iq" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creator.iq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Twitter -<a href="https://twitter.com/CreatorIQ" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @CreatorIQ</a></li></ul><p><br></p>
How Sephora Squad opens doors for all influencers and enables the company to find the best creators for the brand
04:44 MIN
Fohr’s ambitions and the future of brand communications
03:05 MIN
How leadership style and mindset shifts with company growth
03:06 MIN

James Nord: Don't spend good money on fake love. Why are we paying people to pretend to like our products when we could go out and find people that are deeply passionate about this? If you can have that real authentic love and you can connect that influencer's story to that product, then why wouldn't you want it?

Speaker 2: Explore the minds and marketing strategies behind today's winning brands and businesses. Tap into the power of the creator economy with Earned by CreatorIQ. Here's Conor Begley.

Conor Begley: It's fun when you get to interview somebody that you've known for close to 10 years. James started as a Tumblr star and one of the top 10 most followed people in the world and now has killed it with Fohr, where he's running one of the best influencer programs in the world as well, the Sephora Squad. You'll enjoy today's show. Remember, be a friend, tell a friend. Thanks, guys. Hi, everyone. Welcome to Earned. I've got James Nord here today, the co- founder and CEO of Fohr, F- O- H- R. Welcome to the show, James.

James Nord: Thank you for having me, sir. And I don't know. People listening can't see this, but love a jaunty shirt moment, so I appreciate you dressing for early summer.

Conor Begley: We actually do a YouTube video as well as the podcast-

James Nord: Great.

Conor Begley: ...so they can see it.

James Nord: If you're listening and you're not on YouTube, go to YouTube and check it out, because this shirt deserves more eyeballs.

Conor Begley: Well, I'll tell you what happened there, was the very first episode, I wore a Hawaiian shirt just for fun, and then the next episode I didn't. My wife's like, " Well, where'd the Hawaiian shirt go?" And I'm like, " Well, I'm not going to wear a Hawaiian shirt to every one of these. It was just for fun, to be silly." And so then I was like, " Well, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to lean all in." So I wore a different Hawaiian shirt to every episode for the first-

James Nord: Now this is your personality.

Conor Begley: ...like 60 episodes. Now I do some repeating because our CFO would kill me.

James Nord: That's good.

Conor Begley: Okay. Well, let's brag about you for a second. So James, along with Tribe, both started back in 2012, so started a while ago, been in the space for a long time, and they're an ambassador marketing agency and platform. They've got close to 200, 000 influencers that use the platform to show off their portfolio, find brand deals, et cetera, particularly prominent within beauty and fashion. And they've worked with some of the best brands in the world, so Best Buy, Marriott, Tory Burch, and I think what they're best known for is Sephora and the Sephora Squad, which just recently announced its finalists. It's in the process there. That's going to be one of the first things I want to dive into. And then James, as a younger man, was a Tumblr star, and he also has a prominent podcast, Negronis with Nord, that you should check out. But yeah, congrats on all the success, James.

James Nord: Thanks, man.

Conor Begley: It's cool to see where we've all gotten since the early days.

James Nord: I mean, yeah, we were just little babies when we started. It's been fun to watch your journey, and yeah, it's just nice to have... I think there's a decent amount of people that were around in 2012, 2013 that are still in this space. I think that speaks to just the passion, especially those early OGs that got into this before there was any money. We probably shouldn't have started it as early as we did. But I think that speaks to, there is so much passion in this space, I think from the people certainly who are creators, but also from people like you and I back behind the scenes, punching keyboards and trying to pull strings.

Conor Begley: So let's talk about one of the things that I think you guys have become best known for, and only because it's such a hot and current topic right now, is the Sephora Squad. So within our data, Sephora gets 2X the EMV of Ulta, vastly more than Macy's, Nordstrom, or some of the other brands in the space. And I think that the Sephora Squad, it's been at the center of a lot of that. I think if we look at it philosophically, the way that you guys approached it, it's really the way that we recommend running these kinds of programs. So tell me about, how long ago did that start? What has it been like to see that program scale up over time? What are some of the ambitions of Sephora? I'd imagine they're leaning into it now, seeing the impact of it. Talk to me about that.

James Nord: Absolutely. Yeah, so Sophora Squad is probably our best- known program, the thing that we are super proud of. And when we pitched that business five years ago, our kind of differentiator was pretty simple. I thought that this was the first time Sephora was running a large- scale influencer ambassador program. I felt like, this is the premiere beauty retailer in the world. Let's make people apply for it. The way influencer contracts are handed out is kind of wild. There's not many jobs in the world that it's basically impossible to apply for them, but for most influencer programs, you can't apply for them. What ends up happening is not only are you not getting the best influencers that you could, it's not really fair. And it goes back to part of the central reason I started this business. I'm from Georgia. As you said, I had a brief stint of Tumblr fame, and I wanted to shoot fashion photography for a kind of well- known fashion brand. And I didn't know anyone. I didn't know how that world worked. I'm from Georgia. I don't have connections. And I saw all these people getting jobs and working with these brands that did. They all went to Montauk together. They had these connections. And I felt this is a really dumb way to organize an industry, and there should be something that puts people at more of a level playing field and allows people that don't have those connections to gain access to opportunity. And so we pitched Sephora on this idea of, let's run it as an application. Let's not go out and just hand out 50 contracts, but let's ask people to apply. And that first year we had 20, 000 people apply for 50 spots. And we had built this technology that once you applied, you get a customized Instagram story asset that says, " I applied for Sephora Squad," puts your name and your photo in there, and you get testimonials. And then when people leave testimonials, they get stories with the testimonial. They can post it. And so this ends up being an incredible driver of those applications. Most years, we have between three and 400,000 testimonials left for influencers, probably 50 to 100, 000 Insta Stories. And there's currently, I think, 90, 000 in- feed posts on Instagram# SephoraSquad. Most of that is around the application moments. And what we found when we picked that first Sephora Squad group five years ago, I remember being in Los Angeles for the launch event and saying, " We would not have found a single one of these people if we had done it the traditional way." And ultimately, that application process also allowed us to find the people who are really passionate about it. Our kind of North Star here, what we say to our clients is, " Don't spend good money on fake love. Why are we paying people to pretend to like our products when we could go out and find people that are deeply passionate about this?" And so like you said, we just announced finalists. In a month or so, we will announce the final squad. But the people who got picked as finalists, they're on TikTok and Instagram weeping, being like, " Oh my God, this is so incredible. This is such a moment. Please leave me more testimonials." And we end up finding these influencers who are... Of course the money is part of it, and of course being compensated fairly and all of that is a big part of the desire to be in this program. But I think it's the passion for it. And it's that simple thing of making people apply that a lot of macro influencers, bigger ones are like, " Well, that's beneath me. I'm not going to apply for it." And so we're like, " Well, okay, so you're not going to work with Sephora. Sorry." Because the President of the United States has to apply for that job. Every other job you have to apply for. And I think influencers, I don't think it's unrealistic to think that you should have to apply and say why you want to do this. So that's been Sephora Squad. We then take that group of 50 or so influencers and we use them across hundreds of campaigns with Sephora throughout the year. It's been such a great partnership, and they're so supportive and it's been incredible.

Conor Begley: I love that on so many levels. I think the application process being a really special moment is fascinating, that that's actually one of the biggest points of content generation. I'd be interested to look at the data at that. I imagine there's a big spike for Sephora during that time.

James Nord: Quite large. Yeah.

Conor Begley: The other thing, I think, to your kind of ethos is something that we've observed for a long time, I think people in the industry have observed for a long time, and I think finally people are coming around to it, which is that that deep brand connection is significantly more important when it comes to working with someone rather than how many people like their photos. It's so much deeper. And I think you can measure this, actually, in a variety of ways. You start thinking about lifetime value. You start thinking about these second order effects. You invest in the people that are supporting you. That makes more people want to support you because they know that you'll return that love, et cetera. But at its core, I think it's really about authenticity, an overused term, but that's the reality of it. Just love it on so many levels.

James Nord: And break down authenticity. What is that? That's honesty, it's not lying, and trust. And I'll go back to a conversation we had in San Francisco in your offices, I don't know, six or seven years ago, and I remember asking you, " What percentage of the sales are you responsible for are you doing?" And you were like, "70, 80%." And why were you in those rooms? It's because passion sells. That's what sells, right? And really believing it. And I think in your core, believing what you are saying, and I think when at its worst, influencer marketing doesn't have that, that somebody is delivering a message that they don't believe, they're phoning it in, they're copy and pasting off a brief, and it's clear. You look at it and you say, " Oh. You've never used that product. You have no idea." But then you will see the people that it's clear they love it, they use it, and we can have that. And if you can have that, if you can have that real authentic love and you can connect that influencer's story to that product, then why wouldn't you want it? And again, there's new products. Of course, every time we can't find people that are a lifelong fan of the brand. We're going into new markets. We're trying to work with new people. For us, when we think about ambassadors, it's a mindset. By the time they hit publish, they better believe it, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

James Nord: So it's about, if it's skincare, giving them a month to use that product before they hit publish, right? Because I need the actual stories. I need to have them take those personal experiences if they haven't been a customer of the brand and connect them to what the brand is trying to say. And ultimately, that's what influencers want too. They don't want to put up these prescriptive briefs that say, " Here are the five key product messages that we have to hit." Nobody needs five product features and benefits in one post. For me, it's been about getting back to what makes this space great. And you and I started at a time when nobody made money on this stuff. Maybe 50 people in the world, bloggers, were making money off of this, but most people weren't. And so you were sharing products that you loved with a community of people that were interested in what you had to say about them. And that magic is what then created this multi, what, $ 20 billion industry. And we have to hold onto that magic and make sure we don't lose it as we chase scale and as we chase efficiency or engagement rates and blindly look at data without understanding, does this person actually have influence over these people, or are they just watching? Do they have an audience, or do they have influence over that audience? That's a pretty core question for us.

Conor Begley: In the early days, we got a lot of attention for our metrics, and then people would chase it in all the wrong directions. And so we had to spend a lot of time thinking about, " How do we measure this in a way that pushes them in the directions we're seeing as the right directions?" And it's a nontrivial problem. I think to your point about passion, it's funny. When we sold the company, what I would hear from people... You get these feedback loops that are consistent, just like, " I always knew you were going to make it." I'm like, " Why? What made you think that?" The recurring message was passion. Like, " You're just so passionate about it. I knew you were going to make it happen. I knew inaudible figure it out," which I think is probably like you. I mean, you're 11 years in now. We both started in 2012, got deeper background than that with Tumblr. I'd be curious where you guys are at as a company now. What's your strategy? Obviously, you're still passionate about it, you're still creating content, you're still into it. What are the ambitions of Fohr? What do you guys want to become when you grow up?

James Nord: Yeah. I mean, I think it's natural. Around 10 years, a lot of founders start saying, " Maybe I want to do something else. This has been a long time. All of my net worth is tied up in this company, and it's hard to extract it. I'd rather be picking out cabinets in The Hamptons." Yeah, I don't even like The Hamptons. So we spent this first decade trying to prove that we deserved a seat at the table. And now as I look at the next 10 years, we just had to redo our vision statement, and for us, that vision is that 10 years from now, this is going to be the dominant form of brand communications. It is going to be the place brands spend the most money, the most time, the most effort, that ultimately, consumers today are finding out about new products, brands, restaurants, whatever, everything, from other people. Right?

Conor Begley: Yes.

James Nord: So brand storytelling is dead. I was at an advertising conference last week, and it felt like a group of dinosaurs and the asteroid is entering the atmosphere, and they're talking about where they should go on vacation next summer. And I'm like, " Y'all, this is over. It's done." Viewership is collapsing. The brand's ability to tell a scaled story using their advertisements is collapsing. In 10 years, it's going to be essentially non- existent. And this is the future. And so as I look at those next 10 years, I think, " Wow, yeah." I'm really excited for what happens as we exit that place of like, " Hey, this is legitimate. It's not a fad," to like, " Oh, actually, this is the dominant thing that we are doing." And so I get really, really excited about that. I think that on the technology side, there's still so much work to be done. There's so much innovation to be had. So I continue to be really, really excited about just building interesting, innovative products. And from a core business side, I'm kind of interested in how big it can get. Can I get this to 500 million in revenue in the next five years? What's getting it to a billion look like? I think you, having started this at the beginning as well, I feel like it is unlikely that I will ever again be so deeply entrenched in a movement that is going to have such an impact on the world so early. To be in that world in 2012 and know that this is where things are going would be like starting an AI company in 2016 or something. And so that probably will never happen again, ultimately, because as you get older and more successful and you've got money, you're spending time with your family or spending time spending your money. You're not entrenching yourself into these weird niche communities that end up driving culture. And so I think I have this real opportunity to do something really special, and I'm interested in seeing how far we can take it.

Conor Begley: I feel like you're reading my brain. I've described it almost the exact same way, which is to say, you just don't get on the front of the wave very often, possibly not ever in my life again. And to be 10 years in and say, " Oh shit, the next 10 years are actually going to be the crazy ones. That's when things are going to get really weird." We've changed some of our positioning to be what is referred to as creator- led marketing, which really is putting it at the center of the marketing mix, where it's like, okay, not only are you using creators to generate exposure, but you're using their assets on your website, in your emails, in your ads, and it's the best performing asset in all of your other marketing for all of your other portions of your marketing funnel. And so for these brands, it's going to be the most important part of the business in a lot of ways.

James Nord: Absolutely. To your point, it used to be brand set a strategy, this influencer has to support it, right?

Conor Begley: Yes.

James Nord: And now, yeah. We had this really surreal one. Recently we did some work for Dove, and we called the campaign Big Pit Energy. And it was women that weren't shaving their armpits, and we were celebrating that and couching it in this Big Pit Energy phrase. And some employees were at a Harry Styles concert, and they come out and there's all these Dove trucks that say" Big Pit Energy" on the side, driving around, handing out deodorant. And we were like, " Hey, that's our strategy. We came up with that." And it's gone from an influencer campaign that did really well to now being used in other places. And so we're seeing that. I'm sure y'all are feeling this and seeing it as well, of brands that would first give us a strategy for influencer or take this strategy and see how it works there are like, " What should we do generally?" Because to your point, creator- led means we have to start with creators, and then we can figure out how TV and paid social and these other things can support it, not the other way around. That's a really interesting shift.

Conor Begley: I love that. It's like, how do these support creators rather than how does creator support these other channels? I love that. The business has grown a lot. You're well over 100 employees now. Obviously, the challenges of today are different than the challenges when you were a smaller business. I think we were talking before we started recording about, today, I'm just running the business. I'm not in the weeds as much as I used to be. I'd be curious how... I know for me, my leadership style has changed a lot. We started these companies when we were quite young, and I have to imagine yours has changed too. So how has your leadership style changed as the business has grown and et cetera?

James Nord: Look, as a founder, I think you have to realize it's a privilege to continue to be able to run your business, but it's a privilege, not a human right. And if you've taken money, if you have a board of directors, you can be fired. There is accountability. And so for me, it's a constant focus to make sure I'm good enough to keep running this business. And because you were the right person to do it at 10 people absolutely does not mean, and often means you are not the right person to do at 100 people. It's such a different job, as you very well know. And that means you may not have the skills or aptitude for it, but also, you may not enjoy it. And so I do spend a lot of time trying to make sure that I am changing in the right ways at the right times for the organization and doing that intentionally so I'm not just like, " Oh." We have 100 people now, and so my calendar fills up every week and I get to leave feeling like, " Ooh, that was a busy week. I had a lot of meetings. But did I have any impact?" And so for me, I think management style, I probably am not the best to encapsulate exactly what that is. I think as I think about the time that I spend, I try and make sure I'm being impactful, and I'm focused on things that maybe other people in the organization can't focus on because they don't have the bandwidth or the power internally to make those changes, or they're really hard decisions that shouldn't be on anyone else's plate. And I think if I can leave every week feeling like I've had some impact, I've steered this ship in the right way, I feel satisfied. And as you know, some weeks are better than others.

Conor Begley: I've only had good weeks.

James Nord: But someone told me once, they said, " If you came and looked at my business every week, you'd think we were shitting the bed and we weren't doing anything. But if you checked in every three months, you'd be blown away." I try and remember that and look back over three months and say, " Wow, we're getting a lot done." Because I always want faster, better, more. And I think most entrepreneurs generally agree, Friday is my least favorite day of the week. It's like, " Damn. Week's over. We didn't get as much done as we wanted." But I think one of the nice things about a bigger team is you're very blessed to have 100 people out here trying to make my vision a reality. That's rare. Most people get one or two people in their life that help them achieve their goals and fulfill some sort of vision or legacy. To have 100, to have 10 people doing that is something I think too many leaders take for granted, but shouldn't be. It's a rare thing.

Conor Begley: Totally. It's funny. I just did that kind of look back. Somebody put it on Twitter. It was like, " Look back five years ago and see where you were, how much you've accomplished, or a decade ago." So I looked back five years ago, and five years ago this month was a bonding moment for the two of us. That was-

James Nord: Oh, gosh. Was it Cambridge Analytica?

Conor Begley: Yeah. That was when the Instagram API shut off. I found an email to one of our largest clients telling them, " Hey, I think it's going to be okay." It wasn't okay. And for those that don't know, Facebook has an API. People access that data. Some people are using it for nefarious purposes, and so they decided to turn it off. They were transitioning to a new one, but it wasn't ready yet. So in the meantime, everybody that was in our business was up shit creek, so I remember sharing a panicked call with you around that time.

James Nord: Well, I think I was in San Francisco to pitch someone, and it was the day before and I was like, " Everything we're pitching is broken. Every product is not working." Because the Instagram API used to be... You could do a lot more with it. It was way too open. If you connected your account to Fohr, I could go get a huge amount of information on all of your followers. That is not how it was intended to work. So yeah, a lot of the more powerful tools that we had built didn't work anymore. Now luckily, we have always focused on OAuth connections. Every single influencer on Fohr has signed up. They have connected their accounts. And so they never turned that one off, so we always got content. We always got engagement data and things like that. But they did turn that business API off for a while, which was painful for a year or so.

Conor Begley: What have you learned from those periods? Because it's not the only time, I would imagine, that you guys have faced what feels like near death as a company. What have you learned from those experiences?

James Nord: So a few things. I think coming out of that, it was, you can't have a single point of failure. And this is, I think, for creators, an important lesson as well. I saw it with Tumblr. I had 120,000 followers on Tumblr, and I didn't move them over to Instagram, and then the community died and it's gone. Instagram was our business. All of our tools were built on Instagram. That API got pulled back, and there wasn't many other options that we had. And so I think it's scary when you have that single point of failure. I think that most entrepreneurs that are going to make it, they look at that hardship and if it gives you confidence in your ability to survive, I think tenacity ultimately is a much bigger indicator of success than intelligence or positioning or even funding. It's just like, do you have what it takes to just keep going and to tell yourself... Even in those moments when we were landing and I got a text from my co- founder saying that Instagram pulled back the API and had that moment where every pore in your body sweats at the same time. It's like that reptilian fight or flight thing. And then you have your pity party for an hour or so, and you have to deal with it. And COVID. I mean, there were so many of these. And start a business. If you like dealing with crises, just start a business and they will create existential crises for you all of the time. And then you get through them and you think, " Oh, okay." The next one that comes up, you say, " We're going to get through this." And that's ultimately, in a crisis, what people want out of their leaders, I think, is one, that confidence. I always say to people, " I am confident that we're going to get there. I am unsure how." And so I can be confident that we will reach the finish line without knowing exactly how we are going to get there. And I think honestly being able to say, " We're going to get through this" is a superpower as an entrepreneur, because you believe it and then your team believes it, and then they do get through it. Because no company just floats to success without any issues. That's just not part of anyone's story.

Conor Begley: Yeah. I mean, look at Meta, how many times it had to overcome issues, and it's one of the most successful companies in the world, as well as all the other top companies there.

James Nord: I think so much of it is, again, Mark... It's just grit. He's just still in there. He does not have to do that anymore. But he steps up and is like, " Okay, this is on me. Let's do it. We're going to keep going, keep pushing." I love that. I think it's so inspiring.

Conor Begley: Yeah. If you look at the data, it was interesting. I was just looking at one of Goldman Sachs' reports. I put up some stats online about it, but it's like, over the last six to nine months, usage on YouTube and Instagram is up pretty dramatically. It's up like 25, 30% on both. And it's being driven almost exclusively by short form video, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels. Well, TikTok has actually been in decline for the last 15, 16 months on a per user basis. And so it's cool to see people adapt. And I think to your point, I definitely remember the early days just feeling like I was in a panic when these situations happen, and it takes like a decade of doing it to be like, " It's going to be okay. We'll figure it out."

James Nord: We'll get through it.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

James Nord: I don't know if you ever read The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Ben Horowitz was saying, " People ask,'What's the single characteristic that connects the founders that have been really successful? Is it where they went to school, what they studied? What is it?'" And that was it. He was just like, " It's just grit." That's all it is. Most people quit, because this is not a lifestyle. We just had our 10- year anniversary, 10 years from launching, so I guess 11 years of building it. And I was like, " I have worked six days a week for probably 10 hours a day for 10 years." Who would do that? I'm much less rich and much less famous than I expected to be when I started this. I was 27 years old. It's really hard, and I think that it takes a certain amount of delusional focus and passion to keep doing it, and most people just don't. They're just like, " This is too hard." And I think it keeps whittling down until you're just still there doing it.

Conor Begley: I have a bit of an off- the- wall question. So you used to be an influencer yourself. What made you decide that wasn't your 10- year journey? What was it about that?

James Nord: So one, there was no money when I started, when I was doing that. I was making money as a photographer, so people were finding my photography on Tumblr and hiring me as a photographer. For me, it was just not intellectually stimulating. I felt like, again, the influencer space, 2009, 2010 when I had that following, was really popping off. I was top 10 most followed person in the world. I felt like I I did it. And I thought to myself as a photographer... For me, I was like, " Do I think I can be one of the best photographers in the world?" No. I'm not an artist.

Conor Begley: Interesting.

James Nord: I do not have an artist's mindset. It was something I was good at, but I felt I could not be one of the best people in the world at it. And I got excited about trying to start a business and to help more people. For me, the internet changed my life. My first job was on Wall Street. I made 225 phone calls a day. I hated it. I had a series of jobs that were just not very stimulating or interesting, and I was miserable. I was 26 living in New York, thinking, " What happened?" My dad came downstairs every morning when we were having breakfast and said, " How are the future leaders of America?" That was the expectation. And I was 26, 27, and I was not a leader of America. I was not going to become one. And the internet changed my life, and I felt like it would be pretty cool to spend my life making that happen for more people, to build products, to build a company that can help more people who are working jobs they don't like do something that they love, who can make money off of their creativity and off of things that they're passionate about. And so that was a big impetus for doing it. I think that having a job that you love is one of the greatest gifts in the world, and what a cool thing to be able to give that gift to more people.

Conor Begley: Yeah. And I think to your point earlier about giving power to people that are in Georgia that don't know people in LA and New York and want to enter into these industries is something that's just really cool. And I think that this space that we're in... I like to think about it. For some reason, I go back to the concept of a physical textbook. But if you were to have a chapter on this period of time, this would be a big portion of it. A big portion of it, if not the largest portion of it, would be this democratization of publishing, the ability for individuals to become publishers, social media in general, mobile phones. It's going to be at the center of this time period that we live in today. And it's cool to be in the middle of that.

James Nord: And look, it's something we've seen over and over in other industries, that power is moving away from these centralized corporate entities into these much broader groups of people. I mean, we could have a whole other 45- minute conversation about the fact that the monoculture is dead. And again, 20 years ago, record labels, TV studios, publishers, I mean, they controlled everything. They created the stars. They told us what to listen to. And the internet has been breaking that down for three decades now. And they did it with music and they've done it with movies and they did it with books. And advertising has taken longer, but that is what's happening, is that we are taking money out of Fox's pocket and we're putting it into a single mom of three who's now putting a down payment on a house because she's got 300,000 followers on Instagram and talks about parenting, and now she's building real wealth for her family. Sick. I'd take that money out of Fox's pocket all day long and put it into the pocket of someone really interesting. We're supporting this whole new group of entrepreneurs, and yeah, it's very fulfilling.

Conor Begley: Yeah. It's wild if you look at the data on basically what the ambitions of young people are, where either their number one what they want to be is a creator, or alternatively, that's their backup plan, like, " Oh, if this doesn't work out, that's what I'll do." It's fascinating. So I want to get one fun end- of- show question that we'll get into. Before we do that, I know that when you originally started Fohr, you started with Rich, so you started with a co- founder, which is what I did and I think what is the prevailing wisdom within the software space. But Rich did leave in 2019, so left three or four years ago. And I've heard that one of the hardest things about, because you're now in this solo founder role, is it just can be lonely. What has that experience been like now that you've had a significant chunk of time as a solo entrepreneur and a significant chunk of time as a co- founder? How are those experiences different?

James Nord: So when Rich and I started the business, one, we said, " This will probably end our friendship. It's unlikely our friendship will survive this business." But I respected the hell out of him. He respected me, I think and hope. And we said, " It's worth it. It's worth the idea, the scale of the idea. It's worth rolling the dice on that." And it did end up ending our friendship, but I couldn't have started that business without him, not just because he was technical and he understood the space more, but also because you're doing something completely irrational. Yeah, I mean, we were working 18 hours a day. I mean, we spent every second together. When we stopped working, we went out drinking and we hung out all weekend. And for years, there isn't a person in the world I spent more time with than him, and that was so important. And then the business grows and somebody has to be the boss. Someone has to make the final decision. And from the beginning, Rich was like, " I think that should be you. You should be CEO." And again, it was so collaborative, and we were together on so many decisions until we weren't. And that transition was really hard, to where he felt like feeling more like an employee, which in some ways, you're running this company. You're responsible for it. You do have to say, " Well, end of the day, I respect that opinion, but I'm making this decision." And so that transition was hard for us. And so I think when he left, there was honestly some relief. Some things got a lot easier because it was really just me. I'm really lucky to have three people on the executive team who have been here for a long time. So two have been here for nine years, and one's been for seven. That really helps. A really supportive board helps. But again, let's not be naive. This is a lonely job. It is lonely. It really impacts your mental health. It is hard. And you try not to put too much on your partners, or even for the rest of my executive team. You're still playing a role to those people. It doesn't help to go into an executive meeting facing down a recession, being like, " Oh my gosh. I don't know. I feel like this could all go to shit." You know?

Conor Begley: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

James Nord: You can't say that, right? And I don't believe that, but there's still those things you can't tell anyone. I work with a executive coach, which is a incredibly expensive therapist, and that's helped to be able to just have a place where you can be totally, totally honest, but it's lonely. Yeah. I think if you're someone that would really struggle with that, this would be a hard job for you to do.

Conor Begley: Yeah, totally. If you were to start another company after Fohr, would you do it with a co- founder or solo?

James Nord: I'd probably do it solo. I think the first one, it makes a lot of sense, but I think if I were going to do it again, I'd be better capitalized. I have all this scar tissue. I mean, maybe I would find somebody. I think for me with Rich, it was like I was in love with him. I mean, I had never met anyone like this, and I was like, " I just want to build something with you." I think if I had that where I met someone who had this set of skills that were wildly divergent from mine that I just had a intellectual crush on, then maybe you would. But also, I like being the boss. I'm going to be totally honest here. I do like being the boss. I do enjoy it. It's unlikely that I would sign up to share that title if I didn't have to.

Conor Begley: There you go. Well, let's do one fun end- of- show question. So I'm curious, number one, why have I never been invited to the Fohr bar? What's going on there? I mean, we've known each other for a while now. No invites.

James Nord: I know.

Conor Begley: And then two-

James Nord: That's a complete unjustifiable oversight, mostly due to the fact that I never know where you are. You're bouncing around the world.

Conor Begley: For sure. And then second is, I know you've got your podcast, Negronis with Nord, which is killing it. Data I found was that top 2% of all podcasts in the world, so congrats on that.

James Nord: Thank you.

Conor Begley: Are Negronis your actual favorite cocktail, or is that more just-

James Nord: Yes.

Conor Begley: ...it goes well with your last name? How does that work?

James Nord: That is my favorite cocktail. I'll give a two- minute story on why Fohr is called Fohr, because booze has always been part of the brand. So when we were starting the business, we would drink in the Gramercy Park Hotel, the bar there that closed. I'm humiliated I can't remember what it's called, but we would drink Manhattans. That was what I was drinking at the time. And I knew I wanted the business to be called something Card, and I wasn't going to call it Blogger Card or something lame like that. And so I was doing research on the Manhattan, and I found this island called Fohr off the coast of Germany. And after World War II, group of young men left the island. There's no jobs in Germany after the war. They come to New York. They become fishermen. They spend five years or so in New York. They go back to Fohr island. They bring the Manhattan with them. It didn't exist on the island before that. It becomes a phenomenon. People on this island go fucking crazy for Manhattans. To this day, if you go to Fohr island and order a drink, they will give you a Manhattan if you're just like, " Give me a drink." So I was drinking Manhattans when I started the business. I have seen the light now, and I've transferred to the Negroni, which I think is the world's most perfect cocktail. And the show used to be called Drink with James, and then somebody hit me with a cease and desist saying they had a copyright for Drink with Blank. And my lawyers were like-

Conor Begley: How can you own that?

James Nord: I don't know how you can own it. US copyright law, I guess. And so lawyers were like, " Just change the name of your show. It's a podcast, bro. It's not worth going to court for." So I was like, "Okay. Negronis with Nord it is."

Conor Begley: I actually think it's a better name.

James Nord: Thank you.

Conor Begley: I like it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

James Nord: Thank you. Well, we will have a Negroni at the Fohr bar next time you're in New York.

Conor Begley: Awesome. I really appreciate you taking out the time. I had a lot of fun today. Congrats on all the success.

James Nord: Thanks, man. You too.

Conor Begley: Going to continue to watch each other, I'm sure. And I'll see you in New York.

James Nord: Cheers.

Conor Begley: All right. Bye, James.

James Nord: Bye.

Speaker 2: Be a friend, tell a friend, and subscribe. Earned by CreatorIQ. CreatorIQ is your all- in- one solution to grow, manage, scale, and measure your influencer marketing program. Ready to unlock the power of the creator economy? Get started with a demo today at creatoriq. com.


In Ep. 84 of Earned, we chat with James Nord, former Tumblr star, podcast host, and founder and CEO of ambassador marketing company Fohr. We start by learning the origin story behind Fohr’s most well-known program, developed in partnership with Sephora: the Sephora Squad. James explains why the program was built on creators’ genuine passion for beauty over follower size, and shares the company’s motto: “don’t spend good money on fake love.” Next, we dive into the evolution of the influencer marketing industry over the last decade, and James reveals why he believes that creator content will be the future of brand communications. Conor and James discuss the thrill of pioneering a new industry, before talking about their leadership philosophies during times of growth and uncertainty. We then pivot to discuss James’ past as a successful Tumblr influencer, and hear how the challenge of connecting with brands inspired the concept behind Fohr.

In this episode, you will learn:

  1. The origin story behind the Sephora Squad
  2. Why creator content is the future of brand communications
  3. How leadership style evolves with company growth


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