Phat Chiem has always been in the business of telling stories. The journalist-turned-MBA wrote for the Chicago Tribune and spent seven years editing the homepage of Yahoo! before making the leap to launch his own business, StoryCraft, which has become the go-to brand storytelling agency for Silicon Beach.
In this installment of GOBankingRates’ “Best in Business” series, which sets out to discover what makes the people behind top innovative companies tick, Chiem revealed why he thinks making mistakes is par for the course for entrepreneurs, the importance of setting boundaries with clients — and ways that you can find (or build) your own dream job.
When did you know you had to start this company?
StoryCraft is the perfect amalgamation of everything I’ve done so far. I started my career as a journalist writing for the Chicago Tribune. I loved being a reporter in Chicago. There’s plenty of crime, corruption and crappy weather — all the elements of great journalism. More importantly, it’s where I learned how to write a compelling story and to weave an irresistible narrative.
After the Trib, I moved to Los Angeles and made the jump online, eventually leading a team of editors curating Yahoo!’s powerful homepage. After seven years at Yahoo, I entered an MBA program. In that time, I met my (now former) co-founder, Rochelle Bailis, a brilliant content strategist. We saw an opportunity to help startups create content that connects them to their customers. It’s an especially important need as more and more brands go directly to the consumer. At StoryCraft, we help brands and organizations to tell their best stories.
What were your biggest fears about launching your own business?
We were experts at content strategy, but neither of us had ever created a company. Entrepreneurship was a new muscle that we had to cultivate — fast. Our biggest fear wasn’t whether we could find clients. We knew the demand was there. The biggest challenges were around actually running the business. For example, we didn’t have any idea how to price our services at first. We bought expensive software we didn’t need. We made a lot of mistakes in the early days, but I think it’s a rite of passage that every entrepreneur just has to go through.
What was the most surprising thing about the process?
I’m still surprised by people and brands that don’t understand the importance of content. Every single company needs to produce content in some shape or form, whether you’re a mom-and-pop or a Fortune 500 behemoth. Content is how you reach consumers to tell them about what you do, why you do it and how you’re better than the competition. But some clients want you to show a very direct line between producing content and generating revenue. It’s not always that clear. Content is a long-term investment, but it’s one that every modern brand needs to make to be sustainable.
What was the hardest part?
Going from managing a staff of editors to managing clients was definitely a new skill that I needed to learn. In a service business like ours, client relationships are everything. You start to understand how to pick the good clients from bad clients.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for new entrepreneurs: The ones that pay you the least are inevitably the most demanding. It never fails. Learn how to find clients that will appreciate your work and can pay accordingly. And it’s ok to fire a bad client.
Did any previous jobs inspire you to run StoryCraft the way you do?
StoryCraft combines everything I know about creating a compelling narrative, with an understanding of business strategy and marketing. I used to write stories for newspapers. Now I create stories for companies and nonprofits. It’s the same skill set, just in a different context.
At Yahoo!, it was very much a corporate structure with many, many layers of bosses between me and the CEO. What I appreciate about being an entrepreneur is the freedom to be creative without the constraints of going through tons of approvals. I can come up with an idea and implement it immediately.
Who are the people you lean on most?
Credit has to go to Rochelle for helping me to think through the business in the beginning. She’s since moved on, but I have new partners that come with a wealth of editorial experience. I learned a lot about leadership from my various bosses at Yahoo! — all women, in fact. I also loved the academic rigor of being in business school at Pepperdine University. Lastly, I have a pretty awesome mastermind group right now. Every entrepreneur should look for a mastermind to join. (Google it if you don’t know what this means!)
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?
I firmly believe that people who are the most brilliant creators — the artists, writers, inventors and entrepreneurs among us — are just really good at paying attention. They live thoughtful lives. They pay attention to what people are talking about, what they’re reading, how they dress, what they complain about, what they can’t stop gushing about, what they had for breakfast, etc. In those stories, you’re going to find some amazing business opportunities. Also, it’s ok to start small. You’ll never create the next Facebook if you go out and set your sights on being the next Facebook.
When did you realize StoryCraft was going to make it?
It’s so hard to think of ourselves as a success because there’s still so much we want to do. We have some pretty big plans. But we’re becoming known as the brand storytelling agency for Silicon Beach. I’ve started teaching storytelling workshops at General Assembly. If you’re a digitally native or direct-to-consumer brand that needs excellent content, we’re your go-to agency.
How do you define success?
That’s pretty simple: It’s when you’re doing something that you love, and it also happens to help people in a big way. So, the more successful you become, the bigger impact you can have on the world.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.