We recently had a chance to sit down at a local coffee shop with Joe Delbridge, the CEO of GeekSmash during his trip to Tokyo! We got to hear all about his company and what it does for the geek community and learned a lot about marketing in today’s world. Joe told us the story of how GeekSmash got started and how it grew into the successful marketing agency that it is today.
Since it began, GeekSmash has grown into an international agency representing companies and people from all around the world. They operate behind-the-scenes to help popularise some of the names that we love in anime, manga, and manhwa...as well as other companies in the geek space, both big and small.
Without any further ado, let’s move onto our interview with Joe. We hope you enjoy learning more about the marketing side of the geek community with us.
Interview with Joe Delbridge from GeekSmash
Where did you get your idea to start GeekSmash?
So GeekSmash started because of my passion for the industry. After my last job, I had some time on my hands and I thought, “What industry do I want to work in? What do I really want to do?” Before I had always done things for money, but now I was thinking I want to do something because I enjoy it. It’s a difficult industry to just submit my resume and get a job, especially for any kind of senior level position, so there weren’t any open doors. So I decided to make my own. I started the blog, and used it as a kind of practise ground for writing and Internet marketing, and we went from there.
Did you always know that you wanted to start a business like this, or did you originally have a different idea?
I had several jobs in my lifetime, but I was in the financial industry before. So no, I never knew that I wanted this. I always wanted to work for myself, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Why did you want to start GeekSmash in the first place?
It was really two parts. One was I really wanted to work in the industry. I had been going to con(vention)s since I was a kid. I loved them, I loved the whole industry, and I loved the people. There are just so many people that are just passionate about what they do. Most of the exhibitors are there because they love doing stuff. They’re not always the most interested in running the business from an operational or a marketing standpoint, but they know they have a passion for something, or they’re really good at something, and they start doing it and hope that all the pieces will fall into place. I wanted to help those people.
What challenges did you face when you were first trying to set up the company?
It would help if I spoke about GeekSmash in two phases. So the first phase was the blog, and it was very different from what it is today. As a blog, it was just me and my business partner, though I don’t have one now. We did everything ourselves, we were writing the articles, editing, doing what we could to grow it. It was really like, I was learning everything as I went along. I came from a completely different industry, and I did take on a mentor, which was good. He wasn’t in the industry but he knew how to run an Internet-based business. At the time, Internet marketing was really my weakness. I was good at running a business from other ends, but I wanted to be good at Internet marketing. So I asked my friend to take me under his wing and he did.
Beyond that though, one of the biggest challenges is I am at a point where I feel like I want to share some accurate information with people. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and one of the biggest challenges I had, in the beginning, was finding good info. There are a lot of self-proclaimed gurus and a lot of people who claim they know what they’re doing, and they’re just regurgitating information they heard from somewhere else. If you have enough people regurgitating information, eventually the purpose behind it gets lost, and the meaning gets lost. So I am reading what everyone else is reading and saying, I don’t know if this is going to work! You see a lot of stuff on how to make the search engines find you better, or SEO, and sorting through the good stuff and the bad was one of the biggest challenges at the beginning.
Do you face any unique challenges today?
There’s one that’s kind of a double-edged sword. I think a lot of the clients who I really love to work with are the small clients that don’t have a lot of experience with marketing and they need the most help. I am really passionate about helping small business owners. It’s always fun to have the big clients so I can name drop that I have worked with Company X and Y, but my passion is really with the family-run businesses or the people that have this as a passion.
The reason this is a double-edged sword is because those same people often don’t really understand why they should do this, and why they need to use the Internet to market. Sometimes they’re a little old-fashioned. Sometimes they have tried it before with a company that didn’t know what they were doing, or they outsourced it to a company overseas that didn’t really understand the market. It’s different running a local business like a local restaurant or a local service-based business versus running a national or international e-commerce business out of your garage. How you market that is very, very different. So if they had a bad experience with another company, when I meet them, they may not be big believers. It takes longer to make them a believer in it, because it takes time to get them up there if they’re on a lower budget.
What niche do you feel your company is filling in the marketing industry today?
I went back to school a few years ago when GeekSmash was still a blog and got my bachelor’s degree in Internet Marketing. One of our assignments was to think of a niche business and then build a business model around it. And so I just choose my geek blog and converted it into an agency on paper to see what it would look like. So I put together the whole slideshow and I did the research in the industry, and I searched geek marketing and all it was was people that liked computers. There was no one really doing the pop culture side of the geek industry or specialising in that for marketing. And I thought, this could be an interesting thing. At that point, within just three months of me doing that assignment, I turned it into an agency. Researching it just got my wheels really turning. When I was doing it at a blog, my purpose wasn’t to make any money off of it. I was just using it as something for me to do on the side. To be able to make money with it was a new concept.
What have you learned through working to expand the otaku world overseas?
Every project we take on involves a lot of research, and involves a lot of making sure we use the right terminology. So there have definitely been some terminology variances, especially with different languages because I work with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese companies in introducing them to the English-speaking market. As long as the language is in English, we can market it, whether in Europe or Australia, or the US and Canada, and Malta. The biggest challenge though is once again on the client side. I haven’t always come into the situation from a position of trust or a position of severe expertise. A couple of years ago I was taking on clients and we were relatively unproven. So getting them to trust me was harder. I wasn’t able to name drop companies they were familiar with, and everyone I had worked with they had never heard of. My portfolio on my website was a bunch of companies that were very small, and it was like someone in Hollywood name dropping extras. In the beginning, it was just getting the companies to trust that you need an American to market to Americans.
I assure you, even with truly understanding marketing, I would never try to market to a Japanese audience without really understanding the culture, understanding the language, and having a native person writing the content. They would send stuff to us and we would edit it, and disagree a lot…it’s always that any time you have any kind of relationship that has conflict, there’s going to be challenges, especially with different cultures. Now I have worked with some of the top companies, and they are usually referring me to other top companies, so when I come in now it’s like, you were referred by whomever, so we trust you.
Have you noticed any differences between small businesses focusing on Japanese pop culture versus Western pop culture?
There are a lot of similarities, though the audience is very different. So the platforms that we use to reach them are different. For example, Instagram is really big in the US and it’s not as big in Asia. It’s growing and getting more and more popular, but Twitter is super popular in Asia. You can say more with fewer characters in Asian languages.
Which of your services has been the most popular so far?
I think the one that has grown the most is the influencer market. People are starting to realise the power that influencers have. And when I say influencers, well, that is a term that is thrown around very loosely to the point now where everyone thinks they are an influencer. And I guess all of us are, really, if you want to get technical about it. We all have someone that looks up to us, that admires us, and values our opinion on things. But from a business standpoint, a company is looking for someone that has a large scale, or at least a medium scale impact. So the influencer and ambassador marketing is the fastest growing.
When we first started, SEO was the big thing. Everyone was saying, ‘Do you do SEO? We want our SEO to be strong.’ So I focused a lot on that, and then it didn’t get results right away, or even after several months. I think especially to niche businesses, it really isn’t what they need, so I don’t even focus on SEO now. On the flip, over the last two years, I keep hearing more about influencer marketing. ‘Can you help me connect with influencers?’ or ‘I’ve tried to contact this person but they aren’t answering any of my e-mails.’ Or even ‘I’ve tried influencer marketing and it didn’t work out, but I hear everyone still talking about it. What did we do wrong?’ So I dove into influencer marketing, and said if I am going to do this, I need to be the best at it. When I say the best, I don’t mean the best of other people; I mean, the best I can be. I am going to give it everything I can.
So I went into it, learned a lot about it, and made a lot of connections, tried some things, failed, tried again, and succeeded. I realised that the industry is like the wild west a little bit right now, and has been for the last several years. There’s not really a normal formula that people use to say this is how much they should charge as an influencer, or this is how much they should pay as a marketing manager. We attempted to do that. We went in and figured out a good formula that is going to give a great value to the company, but also is really fair to the influencer. It could be a cosplayer, Instagrammer, Youtuber, whatever. And this led to us managing a bunch of cosplayers, and having a soft spot for independent creators, I said I want to help them. I was seeing a lot of companies that want to give them a free product in exchange for a post, and having worked on the other side for manufacturing, I know that the amount that they pay for that product. And they have a cosplayer that has twenty or thirty thousand followers, so they are going to sell a reasonable number of contact lenses or whatever for that company. The company is out 3 bucks. They just got a steal! But they never tell the cosplayer how much they sold, and the cosplayer has no idea how well the post was received. I wanted to teach them their value, so to this day every company that I work with, I get sales data. I share the sales data with the influencer so that way they understand their value. It's good for them because they know what they’re worth and what they can charge because it's proof.
What do you think is the future of otaku culture overseas?
Only on my second trip to Tokyo, it looks like its growing to me! What I think is so cool…is that the video game sector is growing very quickly. I am seeing a lot of companies coming out of China now, very high-level video game producers. And they’re starting to have millions of downloads before they even start thinking about a Western audience; they’re crushing it in China. But then they release it in the US and sometimes it is met with a lot of difficulties, which is why they would contact a company like mine asking how they can make this appealing to a Western audience. But I think for the otaku side there are so many people in the US or abroad that really love and really embrace Asian culture. So I don’t think it needs to change much usually, its just fine-tuning and tweaking a lot. I think it is just going to get to higher and higher levels as technology keeps improving…and I see technology playing a larger role in a lot of things, not just gaming getting better, but I think the content is going to become more immersive. As people start improving on digital content, it will become more immersive and more engaging than it is currently. It kind of has to. That’s what people want right now.
Finally, a personal question; what is your favourite series or story? How about a favourite character?
You know, on the sci-fi side, I still really love Firefly. I still think it’s really great. As far as a character, it’s tough. But I have always loved Superman, and I think it’s just because of being a child and seeing Christopher Reeve as Superman, flying on the big screen. And it just touches you as a kid, and you’re just like, so amazed by this. So it’s always had this subliminal effect, and I love the character. I was sad when Smallville went off the air! I thought that show was amazing on so many levels!
Living the dream in Tokyo, where you can find me working at a theme café catered towards women. When I’m not writing for Honey’s, I’m working on original dystopian science fiction or blogging about Tokyo’s trendy coffee scene. I spend my free time in Harajuku and Shibuya wearing alternative Japanese street fashion. I love video games, J-rock, tattoos, and Star Wars.
Top 5 Anime by Jet Nebula