Most of us have experienced the tingling of anticipation that comes with the approach of a new year. A fresh start feels attainable when the calendar gets ready to roll into new digits. We welcome it with the best of intentions, heralding how this year is going to be better, that we’re going to achieve more. That longing for personal growth inevitably leads many of us to make a tenuous bargain with the gods of productivity, a bargain going by the name “New Year’s resolutions.”
But they are often abandoned within just a few short weeks, because if we knew how to accomplish those goals, we probably would have done it already. Simply declaring intentions for improvement without having a plan and a toolbox for putting those ideas into action doesn’t maximize chances for success.
BestSelf Co. set out to solve this, and many other common problems faced by people who attempt to improve themselves, and I was eager to learn how they did so. While I always enjoy conducting the interviews for these stories—I get to meet interesting people while learning new things—this time I was even more excited than usual, because I’ve always been enthusiastic about improving myself and my work.
I called up Jess Chan, Chief Marketing Officer for BestSelf Co., to find out more about their products, how they work, and what marketing tips she has for Shopify stores.
Jess and I hit it off immediately as we rattled off the names of authors we both enjoy reading–namely Seth Godin–because of his unique insights into self-help and business development. It was a similar obsession for improvement that inspired BestSelf Co. founders Cathryn Lavery and Allen Brouwer to start their company in the first place.
“They were both entrepreneurs and they both had their own businesses,” Jess explained to me. “They were attending conferences and reading all these productivity books. They had both crafted their own version of a DIY journal, a blank journal, to encompass all these different properties that they had seen in successful people, whether it was gratitude, planning their day, setting their targets, and reflecting at the end of the day. And then they were sitting down at coffee one day and looking at each other’s journals, and realized they were doing the exact same thing in each of their personal journals.”
Realizing the product-development opportunity before them, Cathryn and Allen were so enamored with their idea that they began developing a prototype and wanted to jump into production right away with a small print run. They initially planned to print about 50 journals, but quickly found out that, with such small numbers, production would be too expensive to make the venture practical. So naturally, they turned to the micro-entrepreneur’s version of an angel investor: Kickstarter crowdfunding.
According to the campaign page, the entrepreneurs began prototyping the journals in December 2014. By the summer of 2015, they launched their campaign. Here’s an excerpt from their pitch: “After a while it felt like we were on a treadmill, working every day but not getting anywhere. We’d feel busy but not productive. We’d get to the end of the day, and feel unclear on what we accomplished that really mattered.”
In the process of designing their products and researching productivity as viewed by some of the most successful people in the world, they came to the conclusion that, “what differentiates outstanding performers from the average is an ability to plan, effectively execute and track progress.”
If their Kickstarter campaign was any indication, Cathryn and Allen certainly learned how to successfully execute a plan. It was a resounding success, raising more than $322,695 from 6,531 backers. That was a phenomenal response considering their stated goal was only $15,000. I’ve seen Kickstarter campaigns barely get out of the gate, and yet this one pulled in more than 20 times its asking amount.
The premise behind the journals is to provide freedom within a framework, as well as help people find both productivity and purpose. The products go by names such as:
The journals are made with high-quality materials including thick paper pages that withstand even felt markers from bleeding through. They allow space for goal setting, performance tracking, daily timelines, targets, habit tracking, reflection, wins, and gratitude. Despite covering all these areas, the books aren’t overly structured—the pages aren’t dated, and there are blank spaces for free-form thought that doesn’t fit into any particular category.
Jess first learned about BestSelf when she was in university and unsure of her career path.
“I was bouncing around between marketing and UI and UX,” Jess explains, “testing out different ideas. I was at a hack-a-thon when I saw the Self Journal in a Facebook ad. Great targeting on their part! I thought it was the coolest journal ever, and I thought it was exactly what I needed. I had a vision for what I wanted my life to be like, but I was all over the place and working on a bunch of different things. It helped me figure out what that next step should be.”
As it turned out, she’d take her next step with BestSelf Co. When the company posted a job opportunity, Jess jumped at the chance to work for them.
One of the first things Jess told the founders was that, although she had been drawn to the journal while she was going to school, “it didn’t really work, because students don’t have goals—the only goal we have is to pass the class.” Inspired by her feedback, the company created SELF Scholar specifically with students in mind. Adaptations include adding a class schedule component, while still allowing space for students to curate their busy social calendars too.
“The company is always brainstorming about how to spin out more products to suit more lifestyles,” Jess says. Another notable example of this approach to product development is the development of their newest products–the Wordsmith, Edison, and Decision Decks. They were designed to unleash their customers’ creative best selves for writers, artists, or anyone looking to tap into their inner creativity.
At that point, I wondered what it was like to market and sell a pen-and-paper solution in a digital task-managing world. Jess thinks there’s a craving for non-digital solutions, and that one doesn’t necessarily replace the other.
“There’s a tactile realness to it when it’s on paper,” Jess says. “There’s a realness with the task and the sense of completion that really doesn’t get across through digital tools.” She adds that the journal isn’t intended to replace or reject digital, but to augment it. As a remote team, BestSelf Co. fully understands the need to integrate digital tools alongside the journals.
Although the journal has its limitations, digital has its own drawbacks too, Jess says.
“The journal is your external brain for the day. The digital never really works as an external brain, because there’s so much going on that it ends up creating more information for your actual brain to process. The physical lets people boil it down a little more. And it forces you to be clear about what you’re trying to get at. Set your intention, set your focus, and then use the digital to keep those tasks top of mind.”
Best Self Co. builds loyalty among customers with an ambassador program, now 2500+ members strong. Customers who do brand building using their social media accounts are awarded points to be redeemed against BestSelf products. “We leverage their audiences for product launches, and incorporate them into building the brand and being our voice outside of our own company for ads and messaging,” Jess says.
Another way BestSelf involves their customers in their success is by welcoming their input with the help of product reviews. Jess says that Judge.Me serves as a productivity tool of sorts, both for the potential customers reading the reviews, and for her company.
“At the end of the day, we can’t make decisions and do the research into every single product before we buy. It’s been proven over and over again that reviews make such a big difference in buyer behavior. We use reviews in a lot of our marketing, whether it’s ads, or directly on our product page. Judge.me has been a great seamless app for us to populate those reviews on our site. It’s making it super easy for us. It allows us to free up our brain from thinking about reviews in any way because it just sort of happens.”
Their reviews reveal how the products are being received once they get into the hands of BestSelf Co.’s customers.
“This is not a SELF Journal but a magical journal that if used can catapult you closer to your goals,” one customer writes.
Another reports that, “it’s quickly building my confidence in my ability to do big things. I’m finding joy in discipline and looking forward to seeing what I can achieve.”
The streamlined design of the journal also hit the mark with reviewers. “I’ve had a few journals in the past, all of which seem to complicate and overwhelm me. I love the layout of the Best Self Journal, it’s simple and to the point, it helps me to take all the to-do’s and goals I have in my head and put pen to paper, reverse engineer and focus on the small daily actions that’ll help to get me there.”
Since Jess is in the business of helping people achieve their goals, I asked her if she has any last words of advice for entrepreneurs just starting out. She paused to think about that for a few moments, noting that, “the best pieces of advice are so ingrained in us that we don’t realize they are knowledge anymore.”
But after pondering the question, she had one of the most profound pieces of marketing advice I’ve ever heard.
“At the end of the day, marketing is just about relationships at scale,” Jess said, “and relationships come down to empathy. When it comes to really good marketing, it’s not about the packaging. It’s about putting the thought into it. You can have the best packaging and something beautiful, but at the end of the day it comes down to whether or not you really step into their shoes. Can you embody them, and the way they think? You really have to know them, to understand them and the way they live their life.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.